Thursday, February 27, 2014

Culhwch and Olwen

Culhwch and Olwen, trans. Patrick K. Ford

This is one of the very early Arthurian tales, and of course it is Welsh.  It dates from something like the 11th century.

The story has Culhwch, a king's son, put under a curse by his stepmother that he will never marry anyone but Olwen Giants-daughter.  Culhwch promptly becomes enamored of the girl he has never seen, but the task of winning Olwen is impossible; her father will never give permission for her marriage, as he is fated to die as soon as it happens.  Culhwch asks his cousin Arthur for help in the name of every single one of his warriors, which takes pages, but is very fun to read because they come with amazing descriptions.  (Sometimes you might see a familiar name some later author has lifted--there is for example a Fflewdwr Fflam.)  Arthur gladly agrees to help Culhwch, and together with the best men of the court, they set out.

Culhwch asks the giant for Olwen, and is given forty impossible tasks to do.  This takes the form of one of those very Welsh lists you see, so it is fun to read.  On Olwen's advice, Culhwch agrees to everything, but it's really Arthur and his men who go off to accomplish the tasks.  It takes quite a long time--they have to hunt down the oldest and wisest creatures, and sail to Ireland, and battle monsters and dogs and enemies.  At last Culhwch is able to present the giant with all the completed tasks, take Olwen for his own, and chop off his father-in-law's head.

While the later Arthurian tales leave Arthur in the background and focus on the knights' deeds, here Arthur is the main actor and Cwlhwch is the one who fades away for the adventure.  Arthur's trusty warriors include his two oldest companions, Cei (Kay) and Bedwyr (Bedivere).  In these Welsh tales, Cei is a supernaturally strong warrior, and has a hot temper, but he doesn't have the famous surly disposition.  Cei and Bedwyr both have talents, but Cei is always over the top:
Cei had these gifts: he could hold his breath under water for nine nights and nine days; a wound inflicted by Cei no doctor could heal; victorious was Cei; he could be as tall as the tallest tree in the forest when it pleased him.  He had another peculiarity: when it would be raining hardest, whatever he held in his hand would be dry for a fist-length all around because of the greatness of his passion; and when his companions were coldest he would be fuel to kindle their fire.

There was this about [Bedwyr]: none was so fair as he in this island except Arthur and Drych son of Cibddar.  And this too: though he were one-handed, three armed men in the same field as he would not draw blood before him.  Another gift of his was that his spear held one wound and nine counter-thrusts.
Cei and Bedwyr ride the Salmon of Llyn Llyw

I always like reading these medieval Welsh stories, with their strange and wonderful literary conventions and lists of wonders.  They are just so much fun.

I'm not sure what I'll read next; I've got the German Parzival by Wolfram Eschenbach on the way, but I think I might read Beroul's Romance of Tristan first, because it's an older text, from the early 12th century.  It's one of the earliest Tristan tales we have.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

What the Bee Knows

What the Bee Knows: Reflections on Myth, Symbol and Story, by P. L. Travers

This is a collection of about 50 articles and essays published over about a 20-year period, mostly in the 1970s and mostly in Parabola, the magazine of the Society for the Study of Myth and Tradition.  Each issue has a focus theme, and evidently Travers would take the theme and write on it in whatever way suited her fancy.

The result is pretty nice, but it would have been better for me to get it in another way.  I got the book on an ILL so I had to read it in a big gulp, and it would be much more enjoyable to read one or three selections every once in a while.  All at once, it's overwhelming and you get tired of meditations and speculations on myth.  Sometimes when you read a collection of articles that one person wrote over many years, there is too much on a few favorite themes to really be able to handle all at once; it gets repetitive.  That happened to me. 

Travers had a wide-ranging and speculative mind.  She is all over the place with these essays, on the power of myth and the importance of story.  Many of them are very enjoyable.  She says some great things about how children experience the world and how important folktales and myths are for children to help them make sense of themselves and the world.  This is a view I strongly agree with, so it was fun to read about.  She also gets sort of off into woo-woo land every so often, but hey, it was the 70s.

If you're into folklore and myth, you'll enjoy this collection.  Otherwise, not.

Candide Readalong

When I put Candide on my Spin list, Fariba at Exploring Classics let me know about her planned March readalong.  Perfect timing!  Candide is on my official TBR must-read list for this year, so it will be nice to share a readalong.

Fariba says:
I will be reading the work in the original language, but all posts will be in English. Here is the posting schedule:
Monday, March 10 : chapters 1-8
Monday, March 17: chapters 9-16
Monday, March 24: chapters 17-24
Monday, March 31: chapters 25-30 (last post)
After I post about a series of chapters, you have a whole week to comment on those chapters.
I'm pretty nervous about it now that I've read up a bit on it.  I'm not sure it sounds very pleasant.  So we shall see.  But happily several of my bloggy friends have joined up too!

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Conjure-Man Dies

The Conjure-Man Dies, by Rudolph Fisher 

The Classics Club theme for February just happens to be the Harlem Renaissance (plus more), which gave me a good chance to start working on the challenge I signed up for too.  I decided to start with The Conjure-Man Dies, which is a mystery set in early 1930s Harlem.

Dr. John Archer has his medical office across the street from an undertaker and a "psychist" who claims to be able to read faces so well that he can tell you all about yourself and your future.  When the conjure-man is murdered in the middle of a reading, Dr. Archer and the NYPD detective assigned to the case, Perry Dart, team up to solve the mystery.  Then the corpse disappears from a guarded room and walks in, claiming to have revived himself with his special powers--so the two men will need all their expertise to figure out the puzzle.

I enjoyed this mystery so much!  I love a good mystery.  Here we have a seriously excellent puzzle and a cast of great characters.  Everyone has so much personality; you can practically see and hear them.  (Since I sometimes get frustrated by flat, hard-to-differentiate characters in mysteries, I appreciated that.)  There is some very fun stuff along with the serious questions; Fisher is playing around a lot.

If you're a mystery person, The Conjure-Man Dies should go on your list to read.

I've also started reading Langston Hughes' Not Without Laughter, which is very good so far, but there is no way I will finish it by the end of the month.

DWJ March!!

Everybody!  It's that time of year!  When we read Diana Wynne Jones and talk about her a lot!  Oh, I just love DWJ March.  As always, Kristen at We Be Reading is hosting, and she has scheduled out something for every single day.  Plus she is good at Twitter, so there is a hashtag #dwjmarch and has made something called a Tagboard that I cannot quite figure out how to use properly but it is neat.

New button!

There will be two readalongs, one of Enchanted Glass and one for the happy people who have been able to get their hands on The Islands of Chaldea, DWJ's final novel which has been released in the UK, but not anywhere else yet.  I won't be able to get it until late April, but we might do another one then....

Kristen says:

Here is the prompt/feature schedule by day:
  1. Show Us Your Collection
  2. Series Highlight: The Chronicles of Chrestomanci
  3. Favorite Main Character
  4. Book Highlight: Eight Days of Luke
  5. Favorite Book Cover
  6. Book Highlight: The Power of Three
  7. Fan Art Friday
  8. Book Highlight: The Time of the Ghost
  9. Series Highlight: Howl's Moving Castle
  10. Book Highlight: The Ogre Downstairs
  11. Favorite Supporting Character
  12. Book Highlight: Dogsbody
  13. Book Highlight: A Tale of Time City
  14. Fan Art Friday
  15. Read-Along Discussion: Enchanted Glass
  16. Series Highlight: Derk
  17. Favorite World
  18. Book Highlight: Archer's Goon
  20. Book Highlight: Fire and Hemlock
  21. Fan Art Friday
  22. Favorite Villain
  23. Series Highlight: The Dalemark Quartet
  24. Book Highlight: The Homeward Bounders
  25. Early Reader Discussion: The Islands of Chaldea
  26. Book Highlight: Black Maria (Aunt Maria)
  27. Favorite Book/Series
  28. Fan Art Friday
  29. Book Highlight: The Game
  30. Series Highlight: Deep Secret/The Merlin Conspiracy
  31. Event Wrap-Up
I'll be posting on lots of these, so be prepared.  

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Sound of the Mountain

The Sound of the Mountain, by Yasunari Kawabata

Kawabata first became famous in the West for his short stories and two short novels.  He won the 1968 Nobel Prize for literature.  This novel was published in 1949, but not in English until after the Nobel Prize.  My book blurb lauds it as "one of his most important works--both longer and more complex" than his other novels.  The Sound of the Mountain describes the inner life of an elderly businessman named Shingo, who observes his dysfunctional family and his own old age.  His childrens' marriages are foundering, he is more fond of his daughter-in-law than of his own daughter, he is distant from his wife, and his most intense feelings seem to be reserved for flowers and art.

I honestly did not care about this book, or the people in it, or anything much.  I planned to like it.  I expected to like it.  At the beginning I was rather tickled to see that Shingo lives in Kamakura, where my mom lived for several years just after this story was published in Japan.  But I was underwhelmed, which made it difficult to want to read.  Brona took up this dare at the same time, and she also didn't really care for it, so at least I'm not the only one and I don't have to worry that I'm a total philistine.
They made a movie!  1954.

This was the first Classics Club Dare book, and reading it gives me the right to give you a literary dare.  Should you choose to accept it, I challenge you to read Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh.  I have never read it myself, nor any other Waugh, but I would like to read it this year.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Playing With Fire

Playing With Fire: Feminist Thought and Activism Through Seven Lives in India, by the Sangtin Writers and Richa Nagar

Uttar Pradesh is one of the most poverty-stricken areas of India, and there are many NGOs there trying to make a difference.  Some focus on people of the lowest castes.  One such NGO encouraged these women to form their own small group, which they called Sangtin.  As they met over years and told their stories to each other, they decided to write down their experiences and publish a book, and here it is.  It was originally published in Hindi and garnered a very strong reaction; in fact officers of the NGO concerned took great offense and there was something of a kerfuffle.  The book is here translated into English, bookended with explanatory chapters at either end.

The introductory chapter is really quite academic in tone and even rather off-putting with its jargon, but it boils down to explaining that these seven women tried very hard for complete honesty with each other as they worked together.  Since they are of different backgrounds, castes, and life circumstances, and all of them have had very difficult lives, this could be extremely painful, but they put it all into writing and published it.

The book itself is gripping.  Each woman remembers her childhood, home, her marriage and the birth of children, all the events of her life.  Some are Dalits, one is a Muslim, all are varying levels of really poor.  I think only one got a say in who she married.  One had a child taken away.  Each also talks about how she became a field worker for the NGO, and the effect that has had on her life and her family--especially the difficulties, in a highly stratified society, of learning to work with and love people from other faiths or castes.  All of them were strictly taught never to eat food from another, contaminated household, and even after years, not all of them can do it.  They also critique NGOs and Western research into their society.

One thing that was wonderful about the writing was that it was clearly translated directly from Hindi.  It is very, very Indian in tone, which really brings the reader in to their world.  This was easily my favorite thing about the book.

The final chapter explains the uproar that ensued after the Hindi book was published in 2004.  It was kind of ugly.  Again, this chapter is pretty academic and laden with jargon.  The 'bookend' chapters are written in English by the professor who met with the group, instead of by the seven women who wrote their personal experiences in Hindi, so that is why there is such a difference.  I much preferred the meat of the book, but the explanations are important to understand what it is.

A great book to read if you are interested in life in India and how it is changing (or not, or changing very slowly).


Lancelot, or the Knight of the Cart, by Chretien de Troyes

Oh, my poor little neglected book blog!  I have missed you.  So many books to write about, so little time.

Lancelot is a pivotal kind of text in the Arthurian tradition.  It's Lancelot's first appearance!  It introduces the love affair between Lancelot and Guinevere!  Chretien builds these new pieces of the Arthur story on an older foundation, though; Guinevere's abduction was already a popular theme.

Lancelot riding in the cart

The story is too long and complex to summarize well here, but the high points are that Guinevere is abducted--along with many other people from Arthur's lands--by Meleagant, the wicked son of King Bademagu.  Lancelot sets out to seek her, and promptly runs into a dwarf driving a particular kind of cart reserved only for condemned criminals, which he must ride on in order to find out where the Queen is.  Other knights have refused to sacrifice their honor, and Lancelot hesitates for a second but then jumps right up. After some adventures, he crosses a sword bridge into Bademagu's lands and finds the Queen's prison.  By doing this he has freed all of Arthur's captive subjects.  Guinevere, however, is angry with him and won't tell him why (she saw him hesitate before getting into the cart).  A little more adventuring, and the two are united again.  Lancelot sneaks into Guinevere's bed, but bleeds on her sheets, so that Meleagant accuses her of adultery with the injured Sir Kay.  Lancelot defends her honor in combat, but Bademagu, a nice but ineffectual king who utterly fails to do anything about his son's evil deeds, stops Meleagant from getting killed.  Meleagant then imprisons Lancelot, and it's a very long time before rescue arrives, but of course it does at the crucial moment and Lancelot kills Meleagant in battle.

Chretien actually did not finish this story himself; he gave permission for someone else to do that job.  No one is sure why he was reluctant to finish his own story.

Lancelot uses the conventions of courtly love--the sort of game of adultery played in the French court.  Or it might be better to say that Lancelot defines the conventions of courtly love; it was that influential.  At the same time, there are some really strange elements to the story.  Considering that Chretien is supposed to be writing an entertaining romance that is supposed to glorify the affair, he sure has a funny way of doing it.  He drops hints of disapproval all the time.

When Lancelot rides on the cart, he is worried about his reputation but willing to sacrifice it for the Queen.  He is also a real criminal, a secret betrayer of the king.  A criminal's cart is pretty appropriate.  Lancelot goes into single combat to defend Guinevere's honor, which she has already lost; he gets away with it by swearing that she didn't sleep with Sir Kay, which is true enough, but he also doesn't get to finish the combat.  He has to spend over a year in prison before he gets his chance, and this final combat leaves out the question of Guinevere's honor.

One very striking passage is when Lancelot sneaks into Guinevere's bed.  He adores her and kneels before her, venerating her as if she were a saint--while she is being the opposite.  When he leaves, he suffers a "martyr's agony" and acts as though the prison were a shrine.  Chretien implies that the lovers worship each other rather than God.  They have forgotten their duty to their king, which is a sacred one.

If you're going to read only one Chretien story, this is the one to read.  It's one of the most important Arthurian stories ever written because of its popularity and influence, but it's also wonderful to read because Chretien says he's doing one thing, but he keeps doing the opposite.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes

Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders To Better Understand the Gospel, by  E. Randolph Richards and Brandon O'Brien

 I first heard of this book last year and it has been on my wishlist ever since.  Richards and O'Brien talk about the pitfalls of reading the Bible--a collection of books written anciently by people from a culture very different from our own-- from the point of view of a modern American (or Westerner generally).  They are specifically tackling the troubles a modern American might have, and suggest that others write books about different cultural blinders too, since of course we all have them.  Nobody is going to be able to read the Bible from the point of view of, say, a first-century Christian.  (In fact no one who has ever lived would be able to read the entire Bible from a 'native' viewpoint.)

This is a concept that became very familiar to me in high school, when I spent a year as a foreign exchange student.  The materials from my exchange organization used the same metaphor that the cover of this book invokes, and over and over they exhorted us to remember that we had grown up with 'blue sunglasses' and that now we were living in a 'yellow sunglasses' culture, and we would have to learn to change the color of our sunglasses.  Once you've lived in another culture and, especially, learned another language, you know how this works; learning another language involves learning to think differently too.

Richards and O'Brien try to explain where and how ancient Hebrew/Jewish/Greek/early Christian culture differs from ours, and how it can often be easy to miss vital clues about how to understand an event or story because we are not thinking in the same way.  They are really pretty good at it.  I found their explanations to be fascinating and very helpful, and I read with great interest. 

Many things are just simple explanations of cultural facts that we may or may not know, such as all the geographical markers that are used.  Further in, the authors try to dig deeply into serious cultural differences, and then use those to point out where Westerners may overlook important things about how to live as a Christian.

An excellent book!

I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Eugene Onegin Readalong, 7 & 8

Eugene Onegin Readalong, 7 & 8

Darn it, I finished Eugene Onegin days ago, but procrastinated my post too long.  I feel out of the loop now! Tanglewood is a little late too.

Poor Lensky is gone, and Olga recovers quickly, marrying another young man.  Onegin has fled and is traveling to escape his guilt.  Tatiana is left on her own to brood, and winds up in Onegin's library, reading his books and realizing how little she knows this man.  (Small note: Onegin's favorite book is Melmoth, a fact I did not notice the first time around.  Now that I know what it is I see it everywhere.  I might need to read it for Gothic October...)  Is there even a real Onegin, or is he just a collection of literary tropes? Tatiana's parents decide that it is high time she stopped mooning about, and so they take her to Moscow in hopes of marrying her off.

Several years later, Onegin returns to Russia and goes to St. Petersburg.  He is ready to be bored stiff by the same old round of parties, but a young woman, graceful and serious, the perfect hostess, catches his eye.  It is Tatiana, now married to an older general.  Now Onegin realizes her worth and falls for her; he writes endless letters and follows her around, but she ignores him completely.  Finally he visits her and declares his feelings in person.  Tatiana confesses that she still loves him, but also points out that he may only like her now because of her social success.  She will remain true to her husband.

Tatiana now understands Onegin; she knows that he's not worthy of her.  She loves him anyway, but acts according to her own ideas of what is right.  Although it is not said, I'm sure she is also thinking about how Lensky died and is wisely avoiding such a scenario for herself (it just kills me that this is exactly how Pushkin died himself--in a duel over his wife's alleged affair).  But duel or not, she acts like the virtuous heroine of a novel.

I really enjoyed reading this poem/story again, and I think I got a lot more out of it this time.  Thanks, Tanglewood, for hosting!

Friday, February 14, 2014

Classics Club: February Meme

This month's Classics Club meme is:
“Dead white guys” are all too often the focus when it comes to discussions of the Western Canon. We’d love to see members highlight classic works or authors that are overlooked in the canon that deserve recognition. Pick one/or more and tell us how their work resonates for our century and/or for you. As always, you determine what is a “classic” in your point of view, including works from 2000+, and works from anywhere in the world. // Or, if you have trouble thinking of an author/work to highlight, you could simply discuss the topic itself: What is “The Western Canon” — have you thought about who/what determines which works are recognized from human history?
Ah, the canon.  Good old canon.  Having been a literature major at Berkeley in the 1990s, I got more than my fill of discussion about what the canon is, who has gotten to decide what's in it, the fact that there is no One True List, and that our ideas about the canon change all the time.  I come over all nostalgic whenever the word is mentioned. :)

I do have what I consider to be an ideal title to highlight, though, and it's even been a couple of years since I talked about it.  In 2012 I was lucky enough to discover Christine de Pizan's Book of the City of Ladies.  Though I was no expert, I had the opportunity to host a discussion on it at the Year of Feminist Classics blog.  Here are a bunch of posts:

 Background and introduction
Personal post on Howling Frog about the greatness of the City of Ladies
Jean tries to discuss this book critically but mostly just burbles
Wrapup post  

I find Christine's and her book fascinating partly because she is a perfect example of someone who fell out of the canon for no other reason than that she was a woman writer.  Even the most casual student of medieval literature has heard of The Romance of the Rose (though actually reading it is another story), and it engendered a long literary discussion, in which Christine played a major part.  The Book of the City of Ladies is both a rebuttal to the Romance and a defense of women generally, and it's fantastic.  It's a beautiful allegory and argument in the medieval style.  In fact it's just about ideal for what it is: art, literature, and logic all in one, with plenty of great stories to illustrate points.  

This is a book that ought to have been in the Western canon all along, but because Christine was a woman who said a lot of things that men of the day disagreed with, she was virtually forgotten for hundreds of years, known only to the most dedicated scholars of medieval literature.  She was only translated into English in the mid-twentieth century, which seems unbelievable to me.  City of Ladies is at least as well-written and pivotal as many a medieval text that has come down to us as required reading, but even today it isn't very well-known.

The Perfect Summer

The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm, by Juliet Nicolson

This year I'm trying out a new thing for me--a sort of book club on Goodreads that reads a bunch of books centered around a theme and then discusses them.  It will just happen twice in a year.  Our first batch of books are all about World War I, which is of course very appropriate for the 100th anniversary this year.  The Perfect Summer is the only non-fiction title on the list, and it's really more of a look at the English society that is about to disappear forever.

The summer of 1911 was unusually warm and sunny, and before too long it turned frighteningly hot and dry.  In this heat wave, George V was crowned King (and Queen Mary felt trapped).  Wealthy socialites attended endless parties, trying to stave off ennui with the help of drink and adultery.  Poor workers, fed up with horrific conditions, staged strikes and shut down London. The Russian ballet electrified everyone who saw it, poets lounged in country gardens to write, and Diana Manners was the golden girl of the season.

It's an excellent piece of social history, painting a portrait of English society at one particular point in time--a period of just four months.  There are some really interesting personalities, and quite a few who make you wonder what anyone saw in them.  You will read of some of the most infuriatingly useless people who ever lived, and of people whose whole lives consisted of dangerous work for little pay.  (It's no wonder communism got to be so popular.)

I enjoyed Nicolson's history very much, and thought it a great way to start the reading about World War I that I have planned for this year.  Besides the novels that are assigned for the book group, I'm planning to re-read Barbara Tuchman's classic history The Guns of August and possibly Solzhenitsyn's novel August 1914, and I'm very tempted to read a book I just found at the library, The War That Ended Peace.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Classics Club Spin: The Number!

Our Spin number this time around is 20.  To my surprise, I somehow put 21 titles on my list, and I'm kind of tempted to go with poor #21 that never had a chance (it's Chekhov's Uncle Vanya) but I'd feel like I was cheating, so I am going to read #20-- Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya.

I've been reading but not posting, and so I have a pile of books to tell you about.  Still, it feels like I have a lot of large books going on and am not making much headway!

Friday, February 7, 2014

Unaccompanied Minor

Unaccompanied Minor, by Hollis Gillespie

April is 14 (almost 15!) and living on the run--in airplanes, using her mother's flight attendant credentials to catch flights around the country.  She can often choose flights that her friend Flo is working on, and sometimes she can fly with her buddy Malcolm and his emotional support dog, Captain Beefheart.  April wants to live with her very nice mother, but for some reason the family courts awarded full custody to her horrible jerk of a stepfather, who leaves her on her own most of the time.  He hasn't actually noticed yet that April is gone.  Today's flight is looking good, with both Flo and Malcolm on board...until the body shows up.  The plane is being hijacked.

Although this feels more like a thriller than a traditional mystery story, a lot of it is unraveling a mystery--a really complicated one.  There is lots of action and it's all very exciting and fun, plus I learned a whole lot about airplanes.  I gave it to my 13-year-old daughter to read and she loved it (and promptly started looking up all the tips and tricks to see if they are real).

Tuesday, February 4, 2014


Cligès, by Chretien de Troyes

Here we have Chretien's second Arthurian tale, and once again I could see that many common tropes (habits?) of the Arthurian tradition have not yet quite gelled.  There is a town or two and the traditional storyline is not there yet.  This all makes it really interesting to read, since Chretien is creating much of the tradition as he writes.
Cligès proves himself at a tournament (in disguise, of course)

Cligès does not show up until at least halfway through the story.  It starts with his parents!  Alexander is the crown prince of Constantinople (which seems to be the capital city of Greece; we never hear of an empire, but Alexander and all his knights are called Greeks), and as a young man he sets off for Britain, for he knows that all the best knights are there and he is determined to be knighted by none other than Arthur himself.  Alexander joins Arthur's court and falls in love with one of the queen's maidens, and there is a very long description of both of their longings for each other.  At last they marry and have a son: Cligès.  They go back to Alexander's home, but his younger brother, thinking him dead, is now king.  He agrees to let Alexander rule in all but name, and to make Cligès his heir.

Felice fakes her death
Cligès, like his father, wishes to earn his knighthood in Britain.  His uncle, meanwhile, decides to break his promise and marry, so they all set out for the Saxons' country.  Uncle Alis' intended bride, Felice, and Cligès promptly fall in love but never admit it.  Felice, however, has no intention of being a second Iseult, and says so often.  She gets her nurse to make her a potion that will ensure that her husband never touches her, and never realizes the fact, so that she can save herself for Cligès.  After Cligès spends years at Arthur's court, they admit their love.  Felice fakes her death and goes to live in a fairy-tale tower, where Cligès can visit her.  They are discovered and fly for Britain, staying there until Alis dies and they can be properly married.

I thought it was interesting how Chretien consciously duplicates the Tristan and Iseult storyline, but makes this second Iseult a different person, which changes the whole thing.  Mind you Felice is still willing to live with Cligès while officially married to Alis, but I gather that since she was made to marry him and he was breaking his vow and she fixed it so he never touched her, it didn't quite count in their opinion. Or something.

I always enjoy how the Arthurian setting allows for a lot of fairy-tale magic.  Alexander and Cligès visit Arthur about 20 years apart, but that doesn't matter a bit; Gawain is as valorous as ever.  There is a tower full of wonderful secret cupboards and gardens that no one knows about in the middle of Constantinople--but of course no one lives in Constantinople except knights anyway.  Sure, Chretien talks about London and real places, but that doesn't matter.

I read Yvain just a couple of years ago, so I'm going to skip that and move on to Lancelot and the story of the cart. 

The Classics Spin #5

It's time for another quartlerly Spin!  Check out the rules if you want to join.  

Pick a number and watch out!
Here is my list, in pretty random order.
  1. The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton
  2. Not Without Laughter, by Langston Hughes
  3. Picnic At Hanging Rock, by Joan Lindsay,
  4. Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
  5. Measure for Measure, by Shakespeare
  6. The Mill on the Floss, by George Eliot
  7. Tristram Shandy, by Lawrence Sterne
  8. Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe
  9. Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev
  10. Go Tell It on the Mountain, by James Baldwin
  11. Cherry Orchard, by Anton Chekhov
  12. Candide, by Voltaire
  13.  Kaffir Boy, by Mark Mathabane
  14. The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams 
  15. The Crucible, by Arthur Miller
  16. The Makioka Sisters, by Junichio Tanizaki
  17. My Antonia, by Willa Cather
  18. Our Town, by Thornton Wilder
  19. Henry V, Shakespeare
  20. Bless Me Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya
  21. Uncle Vanya, by Anton Chekhov 
Scariest book on the list: probably Kaffir Boy, since it's a memoir of life in South Africa under apartheid.  I'm hoping for: one of the books already on my pile for the next month or two!

Monday, February 3, 2014

Eugene Onegin Readalong, 5 & 6

Eugene Onegin Readalong, 5 & 6

Here we are on chapters 5 and 6 of Eugene Onegin, and it's getting really sad.  While Lensky and Olga prepare for their wedding and live in bliss, Tatiana is melancholy and pining away after Onegin, who stays away as much as possible.  Tatiana has a truly bizarre dream that portends future events.  Then, at her name-day festival, Onegin is seated near her because of the local gossip that has paired them up; she is mortified, but he is so kind that she feels somewhat better.  During the dancing, however, Onegin is not so well-behaved.  Seized by a contrary mood, he monopolizes Olga, dancing and flirting with her.  Olga is flattered but doesn't seem to take it seriously.  Lensky becomes very jealous, and challenges Onegin to a duel.  Onegin regrets his actions and wants to make up with Lensky, but honor must be satisfied; the two men duel with pistols and Onegin promptly kills Lensky without ever speaking to him.

Chapters 5 & 6 Questions

- One of my favorite scenes is Tatyana's dream.  How do you interpret it?  Any ideas as to why it is usually omitted from major adaptations (including Tchaikovsky's opera and the 1999 film)?
The dream is really interesting, and would make a fantastic opera scene.  Why would Tchaikovsky leave it out?  I can't really offer a great interpretation, but it seems to me that the monsters and animals that surround Onegin are probably the associates and habits that have rendered him useless and full of ennui at the young age of 26.  Then there is the portent of temper and Lensky's death.

- Chapter 6 finds us in the middle of sudden disputes and high drama.  What might be the characters' motivations for such extreme actions?  Is it substance, or superficiality?  Is anybody right or wrong - and if so, who?
I think Onegin pushes things a bit by flirting with Olga, but it's only a medium-serious incident.  Olga doesn't really care and we know Onegin doesn't.  Poor Lensky's reaction is natural but he only has two options, neither of which are very good.  There isn't a middle way; I so wish those two boys could just talk to each other for a minute.  It would be much better if Lensky could just punch Onegin or something and then they could make up.  Convention and misguided ideas about honor lead them to a fatal duel.  (Maybe Pushkin would see it differently, since he was such an enthusiastic duellist himself, but maybe he's saying that this particular incident is not worth it.)  Onegin can't apologize or talk with his friend, because then everyone will call him a coward--so he kills his friend instead.  A fairly minor incident leads to a tragic death.

Ongoing Questions

- Reactions and/or predictions?

This part is so sad and awful.  I think Onegin's real shallowness of character comes out in how he flirts with Olga without thinking of his friend's feelings. 

- Any quotes or passages that stand out? 

Travels in Siberia

Travels in Siberia, by Ian Frazier

I picked this book off the shelf at work on a whim just before winter vacation; I just happened to see it and thought it might be interesting.  Nope, it was fabulous!  At about 500 very dense pages, it is a slow and detailed read, and I enjoyed every minute. 

Frazier, a well-known non-fiction writer, fell in love with Russia in the early/mid-1990s and visited as often as he could.  His Siberian visits started with a flight from Alaska, and eventually decided that he wanted to drive all the way across Siberia--an idea that daunted most of his Russian friends.  So he hired a guy, who hired another guy, and they got a van and packed it full of stuff, and they started driving.  They mostly camped along the way, washing in rivers, or sometimes visited people.  Then they did it again by train, and then Frazier went back for a mid-winter visit.   He describes all of it in fascinating and humorous detail, and delves into the history of the places he visited.

There is so much material here that it's hard to describe.  The Mongol hordes, Decembrists, Yupiks, prisoners and exiles and more prisoners, the Great Patriotic War, scary taxi drivers and guys who import used cars from Japan, railroads, abandoned's all there.  Not to mention geology and rivers and tundra and a whole lot of mosquitos and ice and snow.  And Cold War missile installations!

I was particularly tickled to read about Frazier's visit to Chernyshevsk, a city named for the writer Chernyshevsky who wrote a tremendously popular, but horribly written, novel that inspired many a reformer and Bolshevist.  I'm planning on participating in Tom the Amateur Reader's readalong of that novel, What Is To Be Done?, in April!  Frazier spends several pages explaining the background and quoting people on my Russian TBR pile for this year, so I was really happy.

This is a fantastic book.  I hope you read it!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders

Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders: A Writer's (& Editor's) Guide to Keeping Historical Fiction Free of Common Anachronisms, Errors, & Myth, by Suzanne Alleyn

I got a huge kick out of this book, despite the fact that I am not in the intended audience at all.  It's a fun book of hints for people who write (or want to write) historical fiction.  I have no desire to write anything much besides blog posts, especially historical fiction, and I don't even enjoy reading historical fiction all that much, but that's often largely because of the mistakes that Alleyn warns against here.

Alleyn is witty and very funny as she warns against common mistakes like feeding your hero food he could not possibly have eaten, making someone pay three gold louis for a minor purchase, wrong usage of aristocratic titles (a minefield, admittedly), or giving your heroine underpants.   My husband was made happy by the existence of an entire chapter devoted to correctly describing guns ("...the words 'pistol' and 'revolver' are NOT synonymous or interchangeable").  There are wonderful chapters that go into detail about issues like how often people used to take baths (as often as they could afford to, usually), why servants were necessary, and how very slow travel used to be.

My favorite part was the chapter warning against "feisty females."  That is, you cannot pop a woman with 21st-century attitudes into a Worth gown and have her run around unchaperoned all the time/save everyone with her superior morals/otherwise act in a way that would have gotten a real woman in huge trouble, and still have a good book.  This is a personal peeve of mine, so it was great.

There is lots of great detailed historical information in here even if you have no interest in writing historical fiction, and it's a fun vindicating read if you are regularly driven mad by anachronisms in books and movies.