This was a pretty laid-back week. Except for an attempted tornado on Tuesday night, when thunderstorms came through the area and there was some rain-wrapped cloud rotation happening above my neighborhood, but it never touched the ground so we didn’t actually have a tornado. Huzzah. There was a bit of hail and rain along with plenty of thunder and lightning, so all in all, it was a nice little storm in the midst of a nice little week.
Obligatory Mina Photo:
I had to have a bit of maintenance work done in my apartment. The maintenance guy came by on Monday, fixed the things that morning, and then left. Mina must have thought that he would reappear at any minute because when I got home she was still hanging out in the closet and only came out when I shook the jar of her treats. She got over her nervousness fairly quickly on Monday evening and was back to her usual self by bedtime.
She likes to pretend she’s the fiercest cat in the world, but when someone else comes into my apartment she’s the fiercest cat in the closet.
What I Finished Reading Last Week:
- Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Anonymous, translated from the Middle English by Simon Armitage, audiobook narrated by Bill Wallis
- Cabo de Gata by Eugen Ruge, translated from the German by Anthea Bell
- What the Ermine Saw: The Extraordinary Journey of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Most Mysterious Portrait by Eden Collinsworth, ARC provided by NetGalley
Simon Armitage’s translation of the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight keeps to the alliterative verse the original was written in, and so I think listening to it (as it was probably originally meant to be when it was first written around the year 1400) is the better option, as it’s easier to get the flow of the rhythm and the alliteration when it’s read aloud, rather than when you’re reading it silently to yourself. What is the poem about? It’s about the journey of the young knight, Sir Gawain, who is the nephew of King Arthur. One winter’s knight, when everyone is celebrating, a giant green tree man shows up in the banqueting hall and challenges one of them to a deadly game. Arthur tries to volunteer, but no one will let him. So Gawain volunteers. He takes the green knight’s ax and chops the knight’s head off. Surprisingly, the green knight gets back up, picks up his head, and declares that he’ll see Gawain in a year, at the Green Chapel, where he will cut off Gawain’s head in kind. As people are mortal (where green knights aren’t), this is a death sentence for the young knight. But when the year ends, he dutifully heads out in search of the Green Chapel. The majority of the story deals with his encounters with Lord and Lady Bertilak, and the strange games they have in store for Gawain. This is a weird story that has a lot of drama, humor, magic, and a (perhaps not so) surprising amount of sex and queerness, which really shouldn’t be surprising as people in the medieval ages enjoyed sex as much as people in the twenty-first century do, and queer stories have been around as long as queer people have, which is to say, queer stories have been around as long as people have been telling stories. I have two more versions of this story on tap, and I’m looking forward to seeing how they stack up to each other.
Cabo de Gata is a book that I have read. That is the nicest thing I have to say about it. Well, maybe not. The cover art is lovely. That’s really the best thing I have to say about this book. The rest of it is boring. It goes like this: a middle-aged German man is bored with his life and its routines in Germany, so he decides to move away. He randomly moves to a little fishing village in Spain. He thinks it will be a warm utopia, but it’s not. It’s cold, and no one there likes him. He develops new routines. They’re boring, too. He tries to write, but doesn’t accomplish much. He develops a bond with a feral cat, and the cat ends up leaving. He goes for a walk. The End. There. You’ve gotten about as much out of this book as I did. Need more proof as to the boring nature of it? My copy was 107 pages, and it still took me four days to finish it because I couldn’t stay awake while reading it. I spent money on this. Why did I spend money on this?
What the Ermine Saw details the history of one of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpieces, ‘Lady with an Ermine’, which is a portrait of the beautiful and intelligent Italian courtesan, Cecilia Gallerani. Collinsworth delves into the lives of Gallerani, her lover Ludovico Sforza who commissioned the painting, da Vinci himself, and the people in the little circle surrounding the painting after it was completed. Within fifty years, it vanished from the historical record until about 1801, when a Polish diplomat working for the Russian government purchased it for his mother’s art collection in Poland. For the next 140 years, it was moved and admired and nearly destroyed, but ultimately kept safe by the same family- until it was stolen by Nazi officials, who craved having Renaissance masterpieces for themselves and pillaged the art of the Jews they murdered, and anyone else’s art they could get their hands on. Thanks to the courage and efforts of art historians like Rose Valland, many great masterpieces were not lost or destroyed by the Nazis, and while too many works have not been returned to their rightful owners (or their descendants), many, many priceless objects have been saved and preserved. This wonderful little book sheds light on moments of history that I had never read about before, and it was amazing to learn about them. I definitely recommend it to anyone with an interest in the works of Leonardo da Vinci, art history, and history in general. I’ll be writing a more in-depth review later on.
What I’m Currently Reading:
- Learwife by J.R. Thorp, audiobook narrated by Juliet Stevenson (35%)
- The Grace of Kings (The Dandelion Dynasty #1) by Ken Liu (61/640)
I started listening to Learwife last Monday or so, and was blown away by it within the first 5%. I don’t think I’ve come across such amazing writing since I read Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet last year, or Dame Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall a few years ago. It is brilliant and powerful and all the amazing words that go along with the very best writing. It’s the story of King Lear’s queen, a woman virtually erased from the Shakespearean play, though she must have existed else Lear would not have had daughters. In her debut novel, Thorp imagines a woman to match Lear– vain, power-hungry, self-absorbed, and unable to see her own flaws. Fifteen years before the events of King Lear, she was disgraced and exiled to a nunnery where she lived as an anchoress. Now, with the deaths of her husband and daughters, she wants to leave her prison to attend to her family’s graves– out of grief-stricken piety, she thinks, but there is more vanity to the notion than she imagines. But she is kept from leaving by a young abbess who the queen believes she has been managing all this time. This is more self-delusion, though, as the abbess has power in her own right and uses it to quietly manage the nuns of the abbey. I’m only a third of the way through this remarkable book because I don’t want to just play it at any old time. I want to be able to give it all of my attention.
The Grace of Kings is something I’ve been meaning to read for quite some time. It’s the first volume of Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty series, which he describes as ‘silk punk’. It’s a fantasy series based primarily upon Chinese lore and historical culture, and the fourth and final book is set to be released in June. I’m only about sixty pages in, and so far Liu has set the basic stage and introduced the main characters and their backstories. It’s an engrossing book so far, and the characters are so carefully drawn and realistic in their flaws, strengths, and mannerisms. I think I’m going to have a wonderful time with this series.
Did Not Finish:
- Fairies: A Dangerous History by Richard Sugg
The synopsis of this book promised an examination of fairy stories throughout history, and how they went from being terrifying creatures you didn’t want to encounter in the wild to silly little winged princesses with tiaras and flippy magic wands. And it sort of does this, but most of what I read was dedicated to providing reports of fairy encounters from about 1600 and onward, which was not what I was interested in reading. I wanted a discussion of fairy tales and their origins, not Jeanette’s story of how she’s quite sure that when she was a child she saw a band of fairies gallivanting about in the back forty. Sugg was also determined to show only the Christian origins of fairies, which is interesting, but I’m less interested in the blending of old pagan and Christian stories than in what the remnants of the pagan stories tell us about the pre-Christian history of Europe. So I will keep looking for books that deal with this odd and very specific course of study.
What I Plan to Start Reading This Week:
This is a fairly short history book dealing with crime in late Victorian London. Its opening chapter is, of course, about Jack the Ripper. I haven’t seen what any of the other chapters are devoted to, so I’m hoping that Gray delves into other aspects of the dark side of Victorian London, and doesn’t sensationalize whatever stories he deals with.