Friday, May 22, 2015

Beowulf Readalong, Week III

A set of cool new covers!
This week's reading has a bunch of different stuff going on. 

Heorot celebrates, but too soon, as Grendel's mother shows up to take her revenge.  Beowulf has bunked down elsewhere, so he doesn't learn about it until the next day, but he goes straight off to take care of things.  Grendel's mother lives under a deep lake, behind a waterfall, and her cave is filled with treasures taken from her victims.  Beowulf's borrowed sword (from Unferth) breaks, but he grabs a seriously gigantic sword from the wall and swops off her head and Grendel's too, whereupon their poisonous blood melts the sword like it was ice-cream.  Everyone has given Beowulf up for dead, but he shows up with a head or so for a trophy, and everyone celebrates again.  Beowulf goes home to his king and relates his adventures, which impress everyone; oddly, no one seems to have thought much of him before. 

I've been trying to figure out what Grendel and his mother are supposed to look like.  They are pretty humanoid in shape--observers could tell that they were male and female from far away--but they're huge.  At one point, it's implied that a person could be stuffed into Grendel's bag.  And he has scary giant spikes for fingernails.

I've been reading the Tolkien prose and a poetic translation as well.  While Tolkien's notes are hugely helpful, I'm honestly finding the poetry easier to follow!  I suppose Tolkien's interest in getting the exact sense of every word makes for a difficult text if you're not an 11th century Anglo-Saxon.  (I also looked around a bit to find out just where the Beowulf poet would have lived.  The poem is written in the West Saxon dialect of Old English, which puts him in Wessex, possibly even in the court at Winchester). 


Just as Beowulf is about to tell his story, he goes off on a tangent about Hrothgar's daughter.  Beowulf prophesies about her marriage and a battle that will result.  Tolkien explains that this would have been well-known history/legend to the audience, and that Beowulf's understanding of politics and human nature may have been proofs of his ability to lead.

Tolkien is talking about Heorot like it was a real place, which I hadn't really thought about much.  I'd assumed it was more legendary than real, but I poked around a bit and evidently Heorot was indeed a real place.  The Skj√∂ldung clan lived at Lejre, not too far from Roskilde on the island of Sealand in Denmark.  (I've been to Roskilde; the former arch-cathedral of the Danish church is located there, there's a big music festival, and it has a lot of history).  The remnants of old halls have been found at Lejre, dating back to the days of Beowulf.  Heorot, that wonderful mead-hall, would have looked a lot like this (reconstruction).  It must have felt cozy and safe once it was filled with carousing warriors.

"Fyrkat hus stor". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.





Thursday, May 21, 2015

Work

Work: a Story of Experience, by Louisa May Alcott

I was kind of lost for a Transcendentalist pick for the literary movement challenge.  I've read the most famous works and I'm not that big a fan.  (While I'm all for simplicity and self-reliance and all, I just don't like the song and dance they make about it.)  So I was looking at my bookshelf, rather hopelessly, when I noticed Louisa May Alcott's Work, a novel I never got around to reading.  It turned out to be a perfect choice, which is not to say that I enjoyed it much as a novel, but it's a perfect specimen of Transcendentalist feminism, a meditation on the very Victorian question "what can a woman do?"

(I actually own a book titled What Can a Woman Do? or, Her Position in the Business and Literary World, by one Mrs. M. L. Rayne, from 1893.  Mrs. Rayne writes about professional women in every branch of business, including law, and also gives a selection of morally uplifting poetry and prose that encourages women to achieve self-sufficiency however they can, from taking in boarders to keeping bees to becoming a doctor.  It belonged to my great-grandmother, for whom it was a pressing question at times.)


Alcott addresses her question with her heroine, Christie, a young New England woman of no special talent or education who wishes to make her own way in the world.  Christie moves through several different kinds of work--service, theater, dressmaking, and so on.  She helps people and learns much, but eventually falls into a lonely depression and illness, leading to the next phase of her life living with other women.  Christie meets a minister (surely modeled on Alcott's father) who puts her in touch with virtuous people.

The interesting bit is that Alcott clearly felt it necessary to put in a love interest--David, modeled on Henry David Thoreau--but works strenuously to make it as friendshippy as possible.  Christie and David live in the same house, as friends, for a year.  There is a break of a few months before she moves back in--now engaged--for another whole year, and still she puts off the wedding, which only occurs when David has been called up to the Civil War.  I mean, he's on his way out the door, and so is she since she has signed up to work as a nurse.  They spend the war as a married couple happily living apart, until David dies while heroically saving some women escaping slavery.  Only then does Christie go home to have a baby and live in her proper sphere--a community of women who live and work together in harmony, achieving both public good and domestic happiness on a farm and florist business. 

The function of the plot is to get Christie into this, her ideal place.  Meanwhile, the tone of the story is exactly like Little Women, only addressed to adults (and thus more forthcoming about the evils of slavery, and the inclusion of a fallen woman in the plot), and with about 50% more preachiness.  We often think of Little Women as preachy, but LMA really lets herself go here, and we get full blasts of her ideas about social justice and how to live.  Even if you agree with all of it (and much of it is just fine), it's exhausting.  This is a full-on Transcendentalist and feminist tract, featuring the major personalities of the movement--and I suspect that the farm they end up on is a depiction of how Fruitlands was supposed to be going to work.

To finish, here is a description of Mr. Powers, the minister who inspires Christie:
Mr. Power's heart was truly an orphan asylum, and every lonely creature found a welcome there. He could rebuke sin sternly, yet comfort and uplift the sinner with fatherly compassion; righteous wrath would flash from his eyes at injustice, and contempt sharpen his voice as he denounced hypocrisy: yet the eyes that lightened would dim with pity for a woman's wrong, a child's small sorrow; and the voice that thundered would whisper consolation like a mother, or give counsel with a wisdom books cannot teach.
He was a Moses in his day and generation, born to lead his people out of the bondage of dead superstitions, and go before them through a Red Sea of persecution into the larger liberty and love all souls hunger for, and many are just beginning to find as they come doubting, yet desiring, into the goodly land such pioneers as he have planted in the wilderness.
He was like a tonic to weak natures and wavering wills; and Christie felt a general revival going on within herself as her knowledge, honor, and affection for him grew. His strength seemed to uphold her; his integrity to rebuke all unworthiness in her own life; and the magic of his generous, genial spirit to make the hard places smooth, the bitter things sweet, and the world seem a happier, honester place than she had ever thought it since her father died.


Friday, May 15, 2015

TBR Tag

I saw this game/list on Lory's blog, the Emerald City Book Review, and I thought it would be fun:

1. How do you keep track of your TBR pile?
A lot of it is on my nightstand or on the floor next to my bed, neatly stacked.  I have a lot of library books, and those have a special shelf on the bookshelf in my living room (right now that pile has spilled over into my bedroom, as I'm checking a lot of books out from work for summer reading).  My virtual TBR pile is on Amazon wishlists.

2. Is your TR mostly print or e-book?
Good question.  I do prefer print, and I read a lot more in print.  But I often download older books to read and then forget about them.  I've got quite a few on my tablet by now, and I really do want to read them...but it's hard to remember they are there.  I don't buy many ebooks, unless they are really inexpensive and I can't get them in print.

3. How do you determine which book from your TBR to read?
Usually it's whichever title fits my mood.  Possibly it's what is due back at the library really soon, and sometimes it's what I need to read for a challenge.

4. A book that’s been on your TBR the longest? 
I've conquered the super-old ones, but there are still quite a few.  How about Marco Polo's Travels, we'll pick that one.  I don't even know when it arrived.

5. A book you recently added to your TBR? 
The Old Straight Track by Albert Watkins.  It was reprinted and I'm excited, I've wanted to read it for years.  Oddball theories about ancient British landmarks?  Yes please.

6. A TBR on your list strictly because of its beautiful cover?
ONLY because of its cover?  I'm not sure I have any of those. 


7. A book on your TBR that you never plan on reading? 
Some of the books on my Amazon wishlist will probably never actually show up.  I have put some pretty random stuff on there. For example, it looks like The First Book of Calamity Leek didn't even get published in the US, but I'd sure love to read that.  Still, you never know--a month ago I would have said I would never get to see The Old Straight Track!

8. An unpublished book on your TBR that you’re excited about?
X, which will be Susan Grafton's new mystery.  Eeek!

9. A book on your TBR that basically everyone has read but you? 
Er.  I don't see one that is THAT popular.  Most of mine are weird and old.


10. A book on your TBR list that everyone recommends to you?
...I don't seem to have any books like that on my list...

11. A book on your TBR that you’re dying to read? 
Today I'll say The Patchworks of Lucy Boston, which is one that I will probably never get to read, but I sure would love to.  Recently I got quite lucky and found a quilt book with instructions for just one of the most famous patchworks, so I'm quite thrilled about that!

12. How many books are on your TBR shelf at Goodreads?
Like 35, not that many, because I started using Amazon years ago, before I ever joined GR.  There are about 200 on the Amazon list.

Do you want to play TBR Tag? Please join in and link your post in the comments!

Thursday, May 14, 2015

My Uncle Napoleon

Fabulous cover!
My Uncle Napoleon, by Iraj Pezeshkzad

A large Iranian family lives in a compound of houses surrounding a garden, and they're ruled over by the patriarch, Dear Uncle.  He has so much admiration for Napoleon, and so much conviction that his own life mirrors that of the French general, that the kids call him Dear Uncle Napoleon.  In fact he is narrow, paranoid, and blustering; he's convinced himself that he was a great warrior against the English in his youth, and the whole family revolves around his tyrannical bad temper.

And the narrator, a young boy who is never named, falls in love with Dear Uncle's daughter Layli.

Unfortunately, the boy's father has a bit of a feud going with Dear Uncle, and spends most of the novel encouraging his paranoia about the English.  Boy's only confidant is his Uncle Asadollah, who is sympathetic, but also has a one-track mind.  His solution is always the same--"a little trip to San Francisco," which is his favorite euphemism and only topic of conversation.

With all the crazy relatives around, it's constant mayhem in the compound.  Most of the novel is farcical comedy and convoluted situations that remind me of old Three's Company episodes.  But at the heart is a core of sadness and tragedy--a protest at how narrow-minded curmudgeons arrange the lives of the younger generation without ever considering their feelings.

Pezeshkzad published his novel in 1973, and it was an instant hit in Iran.  It's one of the most popular modern novels of Iran, and of course it's banned now, but once there was a prominent TV series made, and it's a cultural touchstone.  "Uncle Napoleon" is frequently invoked, or so Azar Nafisi says in an introduction.  So if you're interested in the Middle East, or in world literature generally, it's a must-read.  Plus it's really funny.  And sad.

Beowulf Readalong, Week II

I didn't get to focus on Beowulf as much as I would have liked to this week, but I just finished the section.  It covers the celebrations after Beowulf's defeat of Grendel.

These celebrations are highly ceremonious, with rich gifts and fancy speeches (Hrothgar: "Thank heaven for our deliverance!" Beowulf: "Yep, I won.  I sure wish I'd done it better, though; I wanted to give you Grendel's whole body." Queen Wealhtheow: "Here are some gifts!").  Everybody has a feast in a freshly cleaned and decorated hall. 

But the most space is taken up with Hrothgar's bard, who tells two tales suited to the occasion: that of Sigemund and Fitela, and that of Hengest and the sons of Finn.  Each of these tales is only partial, being extremely well-known to the whole audience, so the Beowulf poet only puts in the bits that he wants to.  The Sigemund story appears to be an earlier version than any that has survived to the modern day; Tolkien points out that Sigemund is cast as the dragon-slayer rather than his son.  (This story is found in The Song of the Volsungs, and I have a lovely new copy ready to read when I finish Beowulf.)  I found the Hengest story quite hard to follow, since it assumes that I know a lot about it already.

Anyway, everybody is about feasted out and they all go to sleep...as an even worse danger lurks.  Uh-oh.



Everybody's favorite ronin
One of Tolkien's big notes for this section focuses on the word wrecca and its double meaning. In time, wrecca turned into wretch in English and Rocke (valiant knight, hero) in German.  In Old English, JRRT says, both meanings were used.  A wrecca was a man without household, an exile, someone who had left home for some reason.  That might be because of a crime or some other bad circumstance, or because he was looking for new opportunities.  Beowulf is a wrecca, but he's a hero; you could, at the same time, call an unfortunate drifter a wrecca.  There was a romanticized version and an unhappy version, and it seems to me we have similar ideas today.  Think of how we see a "drifter" in a movie; he might well come in to a terrible situation and save the day.  We love to tell stories about the heroic lone wanderer.  At the same time, most real drifters we meet make us nervous and may be perceived as a threat.  And think of our romanticized ideas about wandering samurai, the ronin, versus how actual ronin usually lived.                  





Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Provincial Lady in Wartime

The Provincial Lady in Wartime, by E. M. Delafield

I just adore the Provincial Lady, don't you?  If you haven't tried her books, do so--they are very funny.  The P. L. does not have a name, since she is writing in her diary, and she has a casual style with most of the articles and personal pronouns left out.  I think it's supposed to be partly word economy and partly a lady's training to never say I (one says one, so as not to sound egotistical; of course, to modern ears saying one sounds incredibly snobbish!).  Fun fact: the first P. L. book I read was the 5th, The Provincial Lady Goes to Russia, so that was kind of an odd introduction.  I still haven't read the America book.

The war has just broken out, and the Lady is swamped with gasmasks, evacuees that never arrive or that arrive in the middle of the night, and an elderly (but sensible and affectionate) aunt.  Like everyone else in the country, she is desperate to get war work, so off she goes to London to get a job writing for the Government (she'll commute!  From Devon!).  But this is the "Phoney War" period--nothing is really happening yet and the enormous war machine of WWII is not yet in operation.  Everyone wants a job; there are no jobs.  The Lady feels herself very fortunate to find unpaid volunteer work at an ARP canteen, taking all the worst shifts.

The canteen is filled with young drivers and workers either rushing about or doing nothing while they wait for a war to happen, plus a cast of odd characters.  Nothing much actually happens, but it's very funny to read.  I love the P. L.'s wit, and I giggled a lot while reading this book, probably annoying everyone around me.

Since the war hasn't really gotten going yet, rationing is not yet in force.  I'm used to reading books set during the rationing period, and everyone seemed to be eating like kings here!  They had lovely sausages, and eggs, and gingerbread and all sorts of delightful yummies that they are about to lose. Now I want to bake some gingerbread.

This is officially my first book on my lovely new tablet!  It's easier to read on, very nice.

The Provincial Lady lives in Devon, when she's not camping in London.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Falling in Love

Falling in Love: Stories from Ming China, trans. by Patrick Hanan

Chinese society during the Ming era was highly restrictive when it came to marriage.  Girls were kept secluded, away from possible temptation, and marriages were arranged between families.  Naturally therefore, romantic stories were hugely popular (much like Bollywood movies in India, but more so!).  In most of these stories, the characters fall in love by seeing each other--after all, there was no chance that anyone would be talking and getting to know one another.  They then find some kind of strategem for meeting and quickly get to the physical stuff; there is no time for lots of dialogue or anything like that.

The seven stories in this collection show a wide variety of plots and moral approaches to the material.  The writers' sympathies are with the lovers, but only some really approve of the action.  Others enjoy the story but warn readers that this kind of stuff can only end in tragedy.  Some of the stories have happy endings and others...really don't.  One story kills off everyone in a massive bloodbath!  Another describes two male students who have an affair.

My favorite story was a long, elaborate melodrama in which a poor man wins the love of a sophisticated and wealthy courtesan, because he is kind and thoughtful--such a rare trait that the story says it's guaranteed good stuff, better than looks or money.




I'm putting this on my Classics Club list as a substitute for an antique Chinese novel that I can't get without spending a lot of money.  These stories are about 100 years older, but both are about romance.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Angle of Repose

Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner

I should have had this novel on my TBR list, because I've been meaning to read it for years.  I've had it checked out of the library for months.  Then I thought I would just return it without reading it, but maybe I'd see how the first few pages were...and then I needed to read the whole thing.  Fair warning, though, it's really long.  My edition is over 600 very dense pages, which doesn't sound like that much, but it was.

Lyman Ward, historian and old guy, is living on his own in the house where he grew up--his grandparents' house--and he's working on chronicling his grandmother's life.  She was a prominent Western writer and artist in the late 19th century.  Most of the novel is Susan Ward's story, told from her point of view--except that it's really Lyman doing the writing and he frequently breaks the narrative to put in his opinions and tell his own story.  His version of Susan's life is influenced by his own experiences, and eventually he gives up trying to write Susan's life he is unable to explain what happened.

There are a lot of themes here, but the one I focused on was the story of the marriage.  I have a lot of thoughts about that.  Susan is a cultured Eastern woman, and she marries a mining engineer, somehow thinking that after a few years they'll return East.  Oliver Ward is a good, honest, loyal man and an excellent engineer, but he's terrible at protecting himself from sharps.  They are both stubborn and apt to be too proud.  We never hear Oliver's point of view; only Susan's, and Susan is hugely invested in her self-image as a cultivated Eastern lady.  She's really kind of a snob, though a lovely one.  Her best friend is even more so, and Susan is constantly looking at her husband and her life with what she imagines to be her friend's perspective--and then she feels embarrassed.  This slight disloyalty ends up being the little rift in the lute, so to speak.  But on the other hand, I really felt like Susan got a lot of blame and Oliver maybe could have done better too.  Stegner doesn't make him perfect or anything, but...hrm.

I enjoyed, for once, the Western setting of the novel.  The Wards move around a lot, but the novel begins and ends in Grass Valley, just up the road from me.  My step-great-grandfather was a mining engineer and my great-grandmother spent a lot of time in mining camps, just like Susan did.

But.  The last two hundred pages of Angle of Repose are unremittingly tragic and heart-breaking.  There is no happy ending.  It stuck with me longer than a happy ending would, but I also felt sandbagged.  So be warned.  Now I need a happier story.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The End of College

The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere, by Kevin Carey

Kevin Carey firmly believes that the future of higher education is largely (or at least a lot) online.  MOOCs are getting better all the time, and so are the verification systems that make it difficult to cheat.  Here comes the future!  He's pretty convincing about a lot of it, and I do think this will happen.  I want it to happen; kids in Uzbekistan and Iowa and Chad deserve access to the educational opportunities available mostly to the relative few fortunate enough to go to an excellent college.  But I have a lot of questions!

Carey starts off by taking a course himself: MIT's basic biology course that all students must take.    (You can take it too, for free; just follow the link.)  He gets video lectures, problem sets, interactive protein-folding games--everything that MIT students get, except he can press 'pause' to take better notes.  He then visits MIT and attends a live lecture, pronouncing it a bit more difficult (no pause, he's sitting in the back, and other students are sometimes distracting).  Personally I tend to find video lectures harder to follow than live ones, but it might help if I wasn't sitting at a messy computer desk.

He then backtracks to narrate an overview of the history of the university.  This was pretty interesting, because he describes the modern university as having three separate and competing missions: research, job training, and liberal arts education meant to broaden the mind rather than result in a job.  I have often pontificated on this myself (except I forget the research part), so I felt pretty smug.  Anyway, according to Carey, the American university model has a lot of problems, including fantastic cost, dubious quality control, and almost completely arbitrary rules.  Surely we could educate more people without requiring this rigamarole?

Well, we're getting there.  Carey imagines a world where anyone with some motivation and an internet connection can take courses given by the best instructors.  Instead of making a very few people move to, say, Cambridge, why not set up community centers all over the place, where groups of students could study together for a low cost?  Outsource all the expensive gyms, dining services, and so on.  Forget the libraries, nobody needs books anyway (I would like to have a little chat with Carey about just what librarians do).  Give real credit for coursework with online portfolios, badge systems, and the like.  Much of this is on the way already, and there are all sorts of innovative things popping up.  (Carey also spends a lot of time admiring Silicon Valley methods of breaking up a market.)

Most of this sounds great.  I truly hope it works.  Right now, millions of smart kids with no access miss out on education, and access often costs a stupendous, mind-blowing amount of money.  (The tuition at my own alma mater is about to go up to about $20,000 per year.  That's insane, but they're just charging what the market will bear.)  I would like to see all this happen.

But.  At no time does Carey address the question of how to reach average or marginal students.  He envisions a world filled with smart, motivated students who "hack their educations" and assemble portfolios to show what they can do, matching themselves to specific criteria for employers' searches.  By the final chapter, light is shining down from the heavens and massed choirs are singing swoopy anthems as we march into a brave new world together...

In my actual life, I see a lot of students who need encouragement and support--in person--to get coherent educations.  I work at a community college, and there is massive support for students; everybody really bends over backwards to help, and the support is needed.  A lot of our students are working to improve their lives despite very difficult circumstances, which is something I admire a lot.  But they usually need a lot of personal support to do it. 

Carey doesn't address any of this at all; the closest he comes is to say: “The message for all students should be: Put down the bong and get to work, because the number of curious, eager-to-learn peers around the world with the means and ambition to get a great college education is about to increase a thousandfold.”  Goodness knows I'd love to see that--I live in a county awash with pot and I'm so tired of it--but that doesn't even begin to address the real issues that a lot of people face, like abysmal K-12 education, terrible family backgrounds, poverty, disabilities, and all that.  Carey just ignores that, so I found it very frustrating.

I think you could probably get 80% or more of this book by reading an article rather than a whole book.  It was an interesting read, though.  And it did make me want to try out some online learning options (which I've often thought of before, but a) I'm in a very busy period of my life and b) I usually prefer books--still, it's tempting...).




Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Makioka Sisters

The Makioka Sisters, by Junichiro Tanizaki

The Classics Spin wouldn't help me out, so I finally got around to reading it on my own.  The back copy says that The Makioka Sisters "is arguably the greatest Japanese novel of the twentieth century," so wow!  I did in fact really enjoy it.

This is a long and deceptively quiet novel.  We have four sisters of a once-prominent Osaka family:

Tsuruko, the oldest, married with several children, she and her husband are the head branch of the family
Sachiko, also married, usually hosts her younger sisters and is the most active in their future plans,
Yukiko, elegant and quiet, "a real old-fashioned Osaka lady," but getting worryingly old for marriage arrangements,
Taeko, lively, modern, and independent, she has her plans already laid out.

In years past, the family has been too picky about marriage proposals for Yukiko and now they are not so frequent.  Getting Yukiko married to a good man is the spine of the story, but meanwhile life goes on, and it's often quite exciting; there's a flood and a typhoon, dance performances, and Taeko's career.  All this soap-opera stuff happens, but the style of writing is always quieter than an American would expect. Even the flood, which nearly kills one sister, is narrated in an understated way, at a volume of 6 instead of 11. 

The portrait of Japan just before World War II is pretty wonderful to read.  The lives of the Japanese upper class are given in great detail.  Everything is done so slowly and deliberately!  No one makes a decision without at least a few days to think it over, preferably weeks.  It takes days to decide to write a letter and hours to actually do it.  Everything is roundabout, subtle, quiet.  The men have work to do (mostly in banks) and the ladies study culture.  They have international friends, and every once in a while they travel (here, Tokyo is practically a foreign country and a visit is a big undertaking).  Traditional visits to natural beauty spots are important events--cherry-blossom viewing, or firefly chasing, or seeing Mt. Fuji--they are nearly rituals to be done in the proper manner and enjoyed to the full.

We start in about 1938, and at this point the war is in the background.  You know perfectly well that Japan has invaded China and Korea, but the only evidence in these lives is an occasional mention of "the current crisis" or, later, the Great Spiritual Crisis.  The novel ends in early 1941, so by then there is more about German victories in a European war.  Still, all the characters seem totally unprepared for the war that is about to change everything they know, and a reader has to wonder how, and if, they will survive.

Oddly, the novel just cuts off at the end.  Story lines are left dangling and it just ends abruptly.  I don't get that.

Altogether a very worthwhile novel.  I enjoyed it very much.


Hey, there's a movie!  From 1983.  I'd quite like to see it, though I think a movie would be awfully short.  You could produce a whole TV series from this book.