Sunday Sum-Up: May 7, 2023

Another halfway decent week around here. We finally got a bit of rain, which we’ve desperately needed, since we’re going into the second or third year of drought. It was nice to have a couple of misty, rainy days that ended with a bit of sun. Hopefully, we’ll get more rainy days next week. They’re in the forecast, but that’s always up in the air until the day actually comes around.

I really hope we don’t quite get the summery temperatures they’re predicting because I am not ready for summer yet. Just keep giving me spring-like days and misty days, and I’ll be fine, thanks.

Obligatory Mina Photo:

Like most cats, Mina has her favorite toy. It’s her GoCat wand toy that has a small cluster of feathers at the end of a string. She loves to chase it around the living room and perform parkour-style jumps off the couch and chair, or hide behind something and leap out to pounce on the feathers before I can move them out of her line of sight. But this week, she has fallen in love with a little toy mouse she’s had for a long time but hadn’t bothered to play with before. Now she pounces on it, bats it around, tosses it across the carpet, and happily chomps on it.

She’ll probably have it torn apart in the next week or so, and then I’ll have to pull another one out of her toybox and hope she’s content with something slightly different. Like any cat, she is particular about the things she chooses to use. She has turned her nose up at treats and toys she previously loved before, so who knows what she’ll do once she demolishes this particular toy.

What I Finished Reading Last Week:

  • War and Peace by Lev Tolstoy, translated from the Russian by Anthony Briggs
  • Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant by Tracy Borman
  • The Death of King Arthur by Unknown, translated from the Middle English by Simon Armitage, audiobook narrated by Bill Wallis
  • Beowulf by Unknown, translated from the Anglo-Saxon by Seamus Heaney, audiobook narrated by Seamus Heaney

I know I’ve said next to nothing about the fact that I spent the first four months of 2023 reading War and Peace, but I didn’t want to recap a handful of chapters every week, because I would have constantly been saying things like, “Pierre, that was a horrible decision. Why did you do that?” or “Andrei, why are you determined to make yourself so unhappy?” Or else I’d be complaining about Tolstoy’s endless desire to state (at length) his view of how historians should look at historical events (he was not a fan of the Great Man notion of history which is very modern of him, but I didn’t need his thesis at length). So the overall question: did I enjoy War and Peace? For the most part, yes. I got attached to the characters- especially Andrei, Natasha, and Princess Marya. Did I mind the “chapters and chapters of battle scenes” that people complain about? Well, since the chapters are about 2-5 pages long, no, I didn’t mind them, as there were some amazing things Tolstoy did with the characters and their views on life, war, and love when they were plunged into the chaos of battle. The parts I liked best were, of course, those bits of human drama that come about when people are just living their lives. I cringed when Natasha made a certain poor choice, and felt so sorry for Princess Marya every time her father said or did something horrible to her. There were points when I couldn’t stop reading because I had to know what happened next, and there were parts where I laughed at the snarky observations by characters like Anna Pavlovna.

So the next question, I guess, is this: Do I think that War and Peace is the greatest novel ever written? No. Personally, I prefer Anna Karenina, if only because Tolstoy didn’t write a 100-page epilogue in which he laid out (again) his theories of historical studies and spelled out (at length) how most historians of his time got it wrong when they looked back at Napoleon’s campaigns and declared, “Well, Napoleon was in charge, so everything that happened to the French army and whatnot comes about because of his decisions, and his alone because he was a Great Man”. And I get it. The course of history doesn’t turn solely based on the decisions of a handful of men. It changes based on thousands and thousands of decisions made by people at every level of society. I understand this! Tolstoy did not need to beat the point into the ground!

Please note that I’m sour about the 100-page epilogue that ended up with everyone being very happy in their strict gender roles and involvement in farming for the ten or fifteen pages that Tolstoy gave over to resolving his characters’ stories. The other 85 or so pages were given over to Tolstoy philosophizing about history. He had all this wonderful momentum and amazing characters wrapping up their storylines and maybe finding happiness by the end of everything, and then he wrapped it all up with a cursory nod to a few of the characters we’ve been following for 1250 pages and then drove the remainder of the book straight into a brick wall with all the philosophizing. Yes. I know. I’m criticizing “the world’s greatest novel”. I don’t care. I spent four months and 1250 pages on this book, and then I almost didn’t make it to the end because Tolstoy kept ranting at me about historiography.

So would I recommend that you tackle this book if you’re so inclined? Yes. By all means, go for it. Read it slowly, over the course of months. And then, maybe just skip the epilogue.

I said what I said.

And now for something completely different: Thomas Cromwell, a biography by Tracy Borman, who is one of my favorite popular historians thanks to her lucid and fascinating biographies of historical men and women. Her research is impeccable, and she never seems to fall into the trap of making historical figures into heroes or villains. They’re always just people, with all their strengths and flaws, who made the most of their lives in extraordinary circumstances. In this biography of Thomas Cromwell, she shows how shrewd and how charismatic Cromwell had to be to get as far as he did in Henry VIII’s court. He was incredibly intelligent, but he was also keenly aware of how precarious his position was, as he was a common-born man in an era when common-born people simply did not rise in the ranks. Basically, the only external advantage he had was that Henry VIII had a bit of a fondness for smart commoners who made the most of their positions– as long as they remembered their place at the end of the day. Cromwell’s mistake is that he got a little too comfortable at the top and pressed his advantages just a little farther than he should have when his opponents were so many and so powerful. It’s hard to pic a favorite between Diarmaid MacCulloch’s biography of Cromwell, though I’m inclined toward MacCulloch’s just because it has more detail. But its organizational structure is far different from Borman’s. Where Borman’s biography is a chronological account, MacCulloch’s is set up to be more topical, and so it jumps around in time. This can be confusing to someone who isn’t very familiar with Henry VIII’s court and its history, so if you’re curious and want to find out more about Thomas Cromwell, I’d recommend Borman’s version.

The Death of King Arthur is a version of the King Arthur story dating to around the year 1380. It’s set in alliterative verse, which had been out of style in England for quite some time after the more fashionable French rhyming verse had taken over after the Norman Conquest of 1066. But the poet who wrote this thankfully decided to go back to the older tradition and developed a work that helped give a bit of form to the Arthurian legends that had been floating around England and France for the previous few hundred years. And when I saw ‘a bit of form’, that’s what I mean. Arthurian lore has never had a specific ‘canon’. It’s always been an array of tales, poems, and stories that have different characters, events, meanings, and morals based on the time and place these stories are told in. The Death of King Arthur opens during a feast, where Arthur and his knights are enjoying some downtime when an ambassador from Rome demands that Arthur go there and declare his obedience to the Pope. Arthur gets angry at this and raises an army to attack Rome. He battles his way across Europe, but before he reaches Rome, he gets word that things are falling apart back home. So he and his army ride back, engaging in more battles on the way home. When they finally get back to England, Arthur’s army is outnumbered by that of the treacherous Mordred, and Arthur is ultimately killed by Mordred (not a spoiler, y’all, it’s literally the title of the book). I enjoyed this story, too, though I didn’t realize going in that it was quite as bloody as it was. Still, it was fascinating to listen to, as Bill Wallis does an excellent job with historical work. This book also provides the Middle English version, and it was so interesting to hear how different the language was from that of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which was also presented in its original Middle English. I had little trouble understanding The Death of King Arthur while Wallis was reading it, but with Sir Gawain, there were passages I couldn’t really follow thanks to the differences in words and syntax. The two works weren’t even written very far apart in time, but I guess even a little difference in location and time can make for big changes in language.

I’ve read Beowulf before. Several times, with several different translators, and I’ve even read parts of it in the original Anglo-Saxon. But I’d never read Seamus Heaney’s translation before, so I was happy to find that my library had the audiobook of that one narrated by Heaney himself. I can see why so many people have praised this version, as it’s beautifully done, and retains the character and tension (and kennings!) of the original without sounding like it’s trying to be oh-so historical, or sounding so modern that it will probably lose its relevance within the fifteen years or so, like Maria Dahvana Headley’s version from 2021. I think I’d put this translation of Beowulf up against Tolkien’s as a recommendation if you’re curious about the story, but have never read it before.

What I’m Currently Reading:

  • Femina: A New History of the Middle Ages by Janina Ramirez, audiobook narrated by the author
  • The Farthest Shore (The Books of Earthsea #3) by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • The Nature of Middle-earth by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Carl F. Hofstetter

I saw Femina: A New History of the Middle Ages at the bookstore a week or two ago, and because I’d never heard of Janina Ramirez, I was hesitant to spend $30 on the hardback version. Fortunately, my library had the audiobook, so I downloaded it this week to give it a shot. So far, so good, though I have a nitpick regarding the title: it should be ‘Northern Middle Ages’, as Ramirez focuses on medieval women and cultures from England and Scandinavia. At least, she has in the first 40% I’ve listened to. That may change later on. We’ll see. But so far, she has discussed such women as the Loftus Princess, whose exquisite grave goods say quite a lot about the culture of England during a time of religious change (from pagan to Christian), Æthelflæd, Lady of Mercia, who defended her kingdom against Danish incursions after the death of her father King Alfred, and the warrior woman of Birka in Sweden, who was buried with two horses and numerous weapons. She was believed to have been a man (because who else would be buried with two horses and numerous weapons?) for more than a century until a team of researchers analyzed dental DNA in 2017 and discovered that the bones actually belonged to a woman (people have been angry about their findings ever since). Ramirez uses grave goods, historical records, and contemporary stories to show how women were far more active in medieval society than later historians gave them credit for. She wants to open up new dialogues regarding the true roles of women in history, rather than letting old assumptions of strict gender roles continue to shape our view of history, which affects how we view our current times. Misunderstanding history leads to dark places, so it’s important that we shine as much light on our ancestors and all their strengths and flaws as we can, so we don’t duplicate their mistakes. I’m looking forward to getting back to this one, as I left off in the midst of Ramirez’s discussion of how Norse gender roles were not always so strict, and that gender fluidity may have played an important role in certain stories and histories.

I’ve been meaning to finish reading Le Guin’s Books of Earthsea, especially since I got the beautiful all-in-one edition that has all the books and short stories, as well as a set of illustrations by Charles Vess. Ged and Arren are in the midst of their quest to discover why magic has been dying out in many parts of Earthsea. If they fail, this could lead to disaster, as Earthsea’s magic helps maintain the balance of the world. I have a feeling I know where Arren’s story is going. If I’m right, that’s great. I’ll be perfectly happy with that. If not, I’ll probably still be happy with it, as I’m back in Earthsea and thrilled to be taking in Le Guin’s straightforward yet beautiful prose. Seriously. It feels like there isn’t a word out of place, and she has this amazing ability to build an entire city and its atmosphere in the span of a paragraph or two. Current writers should take note. One does not need 700 pages to develop a world, complex characters, and a satisfying story. It can be done with a few handfuls of words.

I’m only a few pages into The Nature of Middle-earth, so I don’t have a lot of opinions on it yet. It’s another collection of Tolkien’s notes and essays that his son Christopher couldn’t fit into the expansive History of Middle-earth because of space or topical issues. Christopher worked with Carl F. Hofstetter for about a decade to compile and edit this collection, and I’m looking forward to reading about some of the most esoteric topics I’ve ever come across in my Tolkien readings. In the current chapter, I’ve been reading about how quickly (or slowly, if you want to look at it that way) Elves age compared to humans, and in the footnotes about the types of love the Elves have and express for each other, it is noted that the forms of Elven attraction and love do not preclude same-gender pairings. And before you say, “well, that’s just the footnotes”, I’ll point out how many of my professors went out of their way to ingrain in us that ‘the best parts are always in the footnotes’.

What I’ve Been Listening To:

  • The Social Network, original score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

I’ve had a strange experience with Reznor and Ross’s Academy Award-winning score for The Social Network. While it’s fantastic that, in 2010, the Academy finally realized that electronic music can indeed make for compelling film scores, this kind of music- dark, electronic- is the kind I listen to when I want to focus on writing or reading. It’s the kind of music that sets a dark and brooding atmosphere, and helps me focus on whatever I’m doing. So while I thoroughly enjoy this type of music, it’s not the kind of thing I can just sit and listen to for very long simply because I use it to focus on other things. I have sat down with this score four times this week, and every time, I’ll notice it for the first half, and then it fades into the background as I’m doing whatever else I’m doing, and I don’t realize that I’ve stopped paying attention to the music until Spotify starts playing something radically different.

So while I like the score (or what I’ve really heard of it), it doesn’t really stand out in my mind, except as a brooding set of songs I can write to. And really, I prefer Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s scores for the American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl. So I kind of doubt I’ll be listening to The Social Network long after this, because it keeps fading from my consciousness.

But congratulations to Reznor and Ross for making music so compelling that the Academy finally has to take note of a type of music (electronic) that’s been around for decades!

Otherwise, I’ve mostly been listening to a Spotify playlist of various late medieval and Renaissance pieces. So I’ve been hearing a lot of sprightly gaillardes, choral works, and a variety of pieces for lute. It’s been charming, and helping to feed my current fixation on medieval and early modern subjects.

Next week’s Academy Award-winning score will be Ludovic Bource’s score for the 2011 film The Artist.

6 thoughts on “Sunday Sum-Up: May 7, 2023

  1. It’s great to hear about Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. I’d still like to one day try reading all the versions I have to compare them and Heaney’s is one of them, along with Headley and Tolkien and a couple others. One day. 🙂

    One of these days I’ll also reread the first three Earthsea books and some of the later tales I’ve yet to read. I absolutely love that world, the characters and her writing. There’s so much more Le Guin I’ve yet to read.

  2. Reading all the versions of Beowulf is definitely a project! I pulled out my edition of Tolkien’s translation and added it to the stack of stuff on my shelf, but I doubt I’ll get to it anytime soon….

    I finished The Farthest Shore earlier today, and it was amazing! Le Guin’s writing is just remarkable, and she’s so compassionate to people. I’m planning to move along to Tehanu tonight or tomorrow.

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