Review of My Antonia

What was it about?

After losing both his parents, ten year old James (Jim) Burden relocates to Black Hawk, Nebraska to live with his grandparents. There, he meets families from Eastern Europe and Scandinavia who have come to the American frontiers in search of a future. The Shimerdas are one such family. They are Bohemian immigrants who try to eke out a living in the harsh and unforgiving Nebraska Prairie. My Antonia by Willa Cather is the coming-of-age story of Antonia Shimerda. Her friendship as well as her personal trials and triumphs put Jim’s life into perspective.

What did I think of it?

It is difficult to give an introduction to My Antonia because the book is basically a series of anecdotes from Jim and Antonia’s lives. It is lyrically beautiful but brutally realistic about the immigrant experience on the American frontier. Cather’s work reminds me of the 1857 oil painting by Jean Francois Millet called The Gleaners. The harshness of peasant life takes center stage in an otherwise picturesque landscape. But unlike the peasants in The Gleaners painting, Antonia, her family, and friends are not static, archetypal figures. They all start in the same place, but they do not all end up occupying the same positions in life. Chance and perseverance shape the sort of people that they become. Jim learns to see the frontier through the eyes of an immigrant. As in all of Willa Cather’s novels, the characters are fully fleshed-out people; not one is a throwaway. If you have never read anything by Cather, I definitely suggest you start with My Antonia (or Death Comes for the Archbishop, which I reviewed last year).

Favorite Quote

[At the grave of Mr. Shimerda (Antonia’s father who committed suicide)]:

“Years afterward, when the open-grazing days were over, and the red grass had been ploughed under and under until it had almost disappeared from the prairie; when all the fields were under fence, and the roads no longer ran about like wild things, but followed the surveyed section-lines, Mr. Shimerda’s grave was still there, with a sagging wire fence around it, and an unpainted wooden cross. As grandfather had predicted, Mrs. Shimerda never saw the roads going over his head. The road from the north curved a little to the east just there, and the road from the west swung out a little to the south; so that the grave, with its tall red grass that was never mowed, was like a little island; and at twilight, under a new moon or the clear evening star, the dusty roads used to look like soft gray rivers flowing past it. I never came upon the place without emotion, and in all that country it was the spot most dear to me. I loved the dim superstition, the propitiatory intent, that had put the grave there; and still more I loved the spirit that could not carry out the sentence—the error from the surveyed lines, the clemency of the soft earth roads along which the home-coming wagons rattled after sunset. Never a tired driver passed the wooden cross, I am sure, without wishing well to the sleeper.”

Review of The Epic of Gilgamesh (Spoilers Included)

What was it about?

The Epic of Gilgamesh is a Mesopotamian epic poem written around 2500-2800 B.C. about the demigod Gilgamesh – the ruler of the Sumerian city Uruk. The people, tired of having Gilgamesh as their leader, ask the gods to fashion them a warrior who can defeat Gilgamesh and liberate the Sumerians. The gods oblige and create Enkidu. But by a series of events, Gilgamesh and Enkidu become the best of friends. Enkidu’s friendship and eventual death causes Gilgamesh to ask questions about the world and eternal life that only the great Utnapishtim can answer.

What did I think of it?

It is now common knowledge that the creation accounts in Genesis were inspired by the Gilgamesh legends. This is probably one of the major reasons for its fame today. The flood in the Epic of Gilgamesh was created by the gods to destroy all of creation. Utnapishtim created an ark and thwarted their plans. As a reward for his efforts, the gods deified Utnapishtim, making him the keeper of the secret of eternal life.

In general, I enjoyed the beauty and the action of the epic. My version was translated by Danny P. Jackson, and I recommend it to anyone looking for an easy-to-read, lyrical translation. Gilgamesh is a warrior as compelling as Beowulf and Roland but has a more complex personality than the other two. He can not only be fierce and tyrannical but also sensitive and loving. For an ancient story, The Epic of Gilgamesh is quite exciting.

Favorite Quote

“Then Gilgamesh spoke [to Enkidu]: ‘Brother,
as a man in tears would,
you transcend all the rest who’ve gathered,
for you can cry and kill
with equal force.
Hold my hand in yours,
and we will not fear what hands like ours can do.
Scream in unison, we will ascend
to death or love, to say in song what we shall do.
Our cry will shoot afar so
this new weakness, awful doubt,
will pass through you.
Stay, brother, let us ascend as one.’ “

Liebster Award

Loulou at louloureads nominated me for the Liebster Award. I certainly feel honored, so thank you Loulou. I will answer the 11 questions she posted first and then I will post 11 new questions. I am not going to tag anyone, but if you want to do it, do it. Put a link to your post in the comments and I will go and check it out.

1. If you could have a dinner party with any five celebrities who would they be and why?

I don’t think I even know 5 celebrities…so I’m going to go with 5 authors instead…except they’re all dead. So, I’m just going to tell you which 5 deceased authors I’d like to have resurrected so that I could have a dinner party with them.

  1.  Roald Dahl – because he was my childhood idol
  2. Hans Christian Andersen – because I need to know where he gets his beautiful but disturbingly dark stories from
  3. Jonathan Swift – because his Gulliver’s Travels remains the greatest satirical work I’ve ever read. Deeply intelligent satire is a rare thing.
  4. Eva Ibbotson – along with Dahl, Ibbotson was my favorite fantasy author as a child
  5. Herman Melville – Melville unfortunately died in obscurity and needs recognition for his beautiful and powerful Moby-Dick. Also, I want to learn about his friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne and about his time in Nantucket.

3. Where is your favourite place to go on holiday, and why would you recommend it to others?

I went to Arizona a few summers ago. The mountains and deserts left a great impression on me. Who knew that wood could become petrified?! If you ever go to Arizona, be sure to check out Petrified Forest National Park.

4. What do you think makes a great blogger?

A great blogger is someone who blogs consistently (unlike me) and is not afraid of doing something new in the blogosphere even if he/she initially gets 2 followers because of it. Those 2 followers have friends.

5. Starter or dessert?

I don’t know what a starter is (I’m an ignorant American), so I will go with the dessert. My favorite dessert is mint chocolate chip ice cream

6. Which book character would you like to meet in real life?

I can’t decide between Ishmael from Moby-Dick or Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables.

7. If you had to go to a fancy dress party, who would you go as?

I would go as the Spanish Inquisitor from the Monty-Python sketch (a hilarious sketch you should watch A.S.A.P.)

8. If you could time travel, would you go to the future or the past?

The past. 14th century medieval France. First I would attend a mystery play (which I suspect would be far from tame…or lady-like) and then buy bread from a bakery because for some reason I have an obsession with the concept of a medieval bakery.

9. What is your favourite board game?

Chutes and Ladders.

10. If you were on a desert island and could only ring one person to save you, who would it be?

A search and rescue team member

11. Who is your favourite animated character?

SpongeBob SquarePants

My Questions

  1.  If you could monitor a debate on any topic of your choice with any 5 historical figures of your choice, what topic and which historical figures would you choose?
  2. Favorite quote?
  3. A book you want to reread and a book you wish you could unread.
  4. What is your definition of a good blogger?
  5. What is your favorite historical time period and why?
  6. If you could do anything you wanted to improve high school literature courses in your home country, what would you do?
  7. Favorite film adaptation of a book?
  8. If you could write anything (maybe you are a writer) what type of literature would you write?
  9. Favorite and least favorite literary character
  10. What does being “well-read” mean to you?
  11. What is you ideal vacation spot?

Review of The Fifteen Joys of Marriage

What was it about?

The Fifteen Joys of Marriage (Les Quinze joies de mariage) is a 15th century satirical work on the joys of married life. The 15 “joys” are, in truth, miseries that men willingly accept out of love for their wives. Women are constantly demanding the impossible from their husbands and can’t keep their hands off other men, but the husbands ultimately convince themselves that marriage is a joyous establishment. The misogyny is blatant like most satirical works of the Middle Ages, but the anonymous author acknowledges at the end of the book that his work is very one-sided and that some men can commit even greater evils than women.

What did I think of it?

I usually read most French works written after 1350 either in the original dialect or in modern French, but I was lazy this time and decided to read Les Quinze joies de mariage in English (translated by Elisabeth Abbott). I found the book at my university’s research library and basically read it in one sitting. This edition contained cartoonish illustrations that complemented the subject matter. However, I would not want to own that edition because some of the illustrations were quite crude and explicit. I find Medieval literature fascinating because the humor and assumptions of 14th/15th century Europeans was so different from what we are used to. The Fifteen Joys of Marriage is written in the tradition of the fabliaux, so the humor is sexual, scatological (not so much in this book), and sexist. I call them the three Ss.
In the book, when a man wants sex, it’s the wife’s fault if she doesn’t cooperate. But when the woman wants sex, she is depicted as an animal with an insatiable lust. Women are blamed for their pregnancies, and the man is always the one with the heaviest burden. Husbands beating their wives is commonplace and evidently acceptable. But the conclusion of the book suggests that the author realizes how misogynistic his work is, and that this may be a part of the satire. The author writes from the perspective of a priest who only knows marriage secondhand. He may be ridiculing the one-sided criticisms he often gets from men. The husband in the 15 chapters is referred to as the “goodman”, while the woman is a “wench” and her friends “gossips”. Elsewhere, the author writes: “And know that men do the contrary to what is said here: for whatsoever women they have, they generally think them better than all other women. Now and then the rule fails, but that is in the case of desperate and beastly knaves who lack understanding. Thus one gladly sees many husbands praise their wives, recounting their good virtues; and in their opinion there are none to equal them nor any where they could find such virtues, such delights or such good appetite.” I sense a good bit of sarcasm in this passage because all the criticisms in the book come from a man’s perspective. We never get the woman’s perspective on the affair. There aren’t many reasonably-priced editions available online, but if you have access to a research library you may want to check it out.

Favorite Quote

“Nonetheless, the lady has not such travail as the goodman, who has labored to keep her at ease and in the estate which she has ever had fair and with great possessions.”

 

Review of The Battle of the Books

What was it about?

Parnassus has two hills. The tallest is occupied by the Ancients and the shortest is occupied by the Moderns. The latter constantly feel threatened and offended by the height of the Ancients’ hill with respect to their own. The Moderns therefore propose a solution; they offer to use their own shovels and lower the hill of the Ancients so that the two hills can be of equal size. The Ancients do not accept the offer, responding instead that the Moderns should be grateful that the Ancients have allowed them to exist peacefully as a colony. The bickering between the two hills eventually grows into a full-fledged battle. But the battle of the Ancients and the Moderns is not a battle between individuals but between books housed in King’s Library. The Battle of the Books by Jonathan Swift is a satirical look at the tension between ancient and 17th century ideologies. Do the moderns stand on the shoulders of giants or are the ancients irrelevant for the enlightened world?

What did I think of it?

Jonathan Swift is a brilliant satirist. Whereas most satire today is straightforward and obvious, Swift’s satirical works contain layers of meaning. The reader is also expected to have a fair bit of knowledge about philosophy, history, politics, and religion. The Battle of the Books was harder for me to understand than Gulliver’s Travels because I am not well-versed in ancient or 17th century philosophy. As a result, there were many parts that I did not understand. What I did take from the book, though, is Swift’s insight that the Moderns are dreamers and think that they are self-creating but they are, in truth, constantly indebted to the philosophers who preceded them. Still, Swift doesn’t let the Ancients off the hook either. The allegory of the bee and the spider was my favorite part of the tale because it outlined the different ways in which the ancient and 17th century philosophers approached the acquisition of knowledge. I was a bit disappointed that the story ended so abruptly, but there were many parts that gave me food for thought. Overall, I enjoyed the short tale and hope to read more of Swift’s works in the near future.

Favorite Quote

“Then Aristotle, observing Bacon advance with a furious mien, drew his bow to the head, and let fly his arrow, which missed the valiant modern and went whizzing over his head; but Des Cartes it hit; the steel point quickly found a defect in his headpiece; it pierced the leather and the pasteboard, and went in at his right eye.”

Review of The Crowning of Louis

What was it about?

The Crowning of Louis: A New Translation of the Old French Verse Epic is an epic poem of the William of Orange Cycle, translated from the Old French by the independent researcher Nirmal Dass.Written around 1130, Le Couronnement de Louis recounts Count William Shortnose’s many battles in defense of Pope Hadrian I and King Louis the Pious. Count William, like Roland of The Song of Roland, is a great warrior who protects the young king-elect Louis from traitors who wish to take the throne. At the same time, the Saracens seek to overthrow the papacy and win Rome. This epic poem is chock full of insults and bloody battles fought int the name of God and King.

What did I think of it?

The Crowning of Louis is an obscure epic poem that I borrowed from my university’s research library. While there is nothing outstanding about the story itself, I definitely enjoyed the poem. I started reading it at a coffee shop, but I had to leave after reading the first few pages because I couldn’t stop laughing. So many scenes read like something from the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In one battle scene, King William lops off his opponent’s limbs, but, out of mercy, doesn’t kill him. Instead, William and the king embrace each other and depart in peace only to meet again later on horseback! Clearly, the poet had amnesia. The pope’s first challenger, King Galafrez, refers to the Bishop of Rome as the “great lord of the large hat” (vs. 475). King Galafrez promises him, “I shall roast you over coals in a hearth/ Till your liver falls on the heap of coals” (vs. 542-543). The humor is sky high. If you like Medieval battles, you will enjoy The Crowning of Louis. Unfortunately, there are no new copies available online. However, there are some cheap, used copies available on Amazon. It’s amazing what the characters are willing to do in the name of God.

Favorite Quote

All of Rome then cried out in one loud voice,
Along with the Pope, who shook with great dread:
“Saint Peter, lord, protect now your champion.
If he dies, you will be badly reproached.
In your church, where I now presently live,
I shall not sing Mass or read the lessons.” (vs. 1060-1065)

 

Who Am I? – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was executed 70 years ago today for his involvement in the Abwehr conspiracy against Hitler. He was a German Lutheran pastor, theologian, ecumenist, and member of the Confessing Church. His Letters and Papers from Prison and Ethics have been some of the most influential books in my life.

While in prison, Bonhoeffer wrote a poem called Who Am I? Here it is:

Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a Squire from his country house.

Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As thought it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
Equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
Tossing in expectations of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.

Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!