Reading Obscure Books

We readers know all too well the gnawing desire to talk about a favorite work with others. That’s one of the reasons we create and follow blogs. But I have a huge interest in medieval epics, and these works are often only available in research libraries.

In the past few months, I’ve been reading Gerbert, a 13th century epic in the Lorrains Epic Cycle. The work has been translated into modern French by Bernard Guidot. It is quite the page-turner! The plot is outrageously funny, and King Pepin’s wife is kick-ass. A couple days ago I found the first book in the cycle: Garin le Lorrain. My last institution’s research library didn’t have a copy of the first book, so I was excited to find a copy. Gerbert will certainly be one of my favorite reads of 2017.

Guidot’s translation of Gerbert was a labor of love. Only medieval scholars will read his translation. I can’t recommend this book to anyone I know because even if my friends know French they most likely won’t be able to purchase a reasonably-priced copy of this work. There are hundreds of medieval stories in vernacular French and English at the research library, but only the Arthurian ones are known by the general public.

Don’t get me wrong. I know why these works aren’t mass produced. For one thing, they are quite problematic. The representation of women and non-Christian religions in these stories is terrible. Still, I find it a bit upsetting that there are thousands of stories published every year that most book reviewers will never get to read and review. They don’t even know these books exist. Guidot has translated a handful of epics into modern French, but none of them are available for the general French public. It’s a truism that scholars publish books that no one reads, but it must be frustrating for a translator to publish a translation of an interesting story that only a few scholars (and the occasional medieval nerd) will ever read. It is not enough for an ancient text to be discovered. It must be translated into a modern language and then publicized. Gerbert has been translated, but it has not been publicized.

In the next few months, I hope to read as many stories in the 13th century William of Orange Cycle as I can find. Because I am interested in the chanson de geste tradition, I will post a brief summary of each of the works I read. I will also write brief reflections about the experience of reading medieval epics. It warms the cockles of my heart that so many book bloggers have read and enjoyed the Arthurian poems of Chrétien de Troyes. Even if medieval stories tend to have problematic representation, outrageous plots, and flat characters, they allow the modern reader to encounter the medieval imagination and a culture very different from their own. And above all, they’re fun!

Adventure, Jensen, Carsten

Review of We, The Drowned

Image result for we, the drownedWhat was it about?

We, The Drowned by Carsten Jensen (tran. Charlotte Barslund and Emma Ryder) is basically two stories in one. The first half follows Albert Madsen through the turn of the twentieth century. The second half follows Knud Erik during World War II. At the start of the novel, Marstal, Denmark is one of the most successful ports in the world. Men are trained from a very young age for the violent life that is sailing. Albert’s schoolteacher is abusive; he flogs the students on a daily basis for anything and everything. When the boys are of age and begin to work as cooks on Marstaler ships, however, they realize that their teacher was only preparing them for the sea. Albert’s father Laurids was the sole survivor of the Christian the Eighth in the Danish-German war of 1848. He lives in Germany for a short time as a prisoner of war, but when Laurids returns to Denmark he can’t resume his former life. So he boards another ship, abandoning his wife and young children. When Albert turns fifteen, he decides to search for his father whom he still believes is living. Along the way, he meets a man who kills indigenous people and keeps a shrunken head on him at all times. He also falls in love with a widow.

Knud Erik also goes to sea at the age of fifteen, but the early twentieth century is nothing like the nineteenth. The shipping industry has undergone a transformation. Some of the most successful men in the business have never stepped foot on a ship. But although his father died at sea, Knud Erik wants to experience all of the things Albert experienced as a young man.

We, The Drowned not only tells the history of the shipping industry in Denmark through the eyes of two men, it also gives us a glimpse into the lives of the women the sailors leave behind.

What did I think of it?

We, The Drowned is written in the tradition of Moby-Dick and the Odyssey. It is more than a story about a handful of sailors. It is the story of a people. The sailors exhibit the most extreme form of masculinity in their society. They do not know how to love. The sea brings out their animalistic side. Survival is the only thing that matters in this society, and most sailors die in unmarked graves. Jensen could have written 700 pages of pure violence, but he doesn’t. There are beautiful moments in Albert’s life. Just when the reader feels that she can’t take any more of the violence or the romance, the story switches course. It’s neither sensationally violent nor sentimentally romantic. It is gripping without straining belief. The unpredictability of the sea is felt throughout the novel.

I was entirely immersed into the lives of Albert and Knud Erik. I cared deeply about their stories. To be honest, I preferred Albert’s life to Knud Erik’s. This may be because we follow Albert to old age, while Knud Erik remains a young man throughout the second half of the novel. Knud Erik is also somewhat of an unlikable character. While there were a few events at the end of the novel that felt a bit too coincidental, We, The Drowned is definitely one of the five greatest books I’ve read this year. Jensen knows how to write beautiful prose, but the prose doesn’t bring attention to itself. Except for a few places at the very end, I felt that the pacing was perfect and the characters were fully fleshed out. If you like seafaring novels, you will love what I now consider to be a Danish modern classic. The sea is the perfect environment I think to explore the complexities of human nature. This novel does it very well. It also has a beautiful cover.

Favorite Quote

“But that’s how it is on a sailing ship, and in this respect its journey parallels that of life: simply knowing where you want to go isn’t enough, because life is a windblown voyage, consisting mainly of the detours imposed by alternating calm and storm.”

Plays, Shakespeare, William, Taming of the Shrew

The Taming of the Shrew: Some Thoughts

Image result for taming of the shrewOn BookTube (the book section of YouTube), a group of us are participating in a read-along of all of Shakespeare’s plays. We will be reading one play a week. This week’s play is The Taming of the Shrew. I didn’t enjoy Shakespeare when I studied his major plays in high school, but after watching a Masterpiece Theater adaptation of Richard III, I’ve decided to give Shakespeare another go. I’m excited to participate in this read-along, but it’s easier for me to organize my thoughts in a blog post than in a video. So here are some of my thoughts about The Taming of the Shrew. There will be spoilers, but I don’t think this should really matter since Shakespeare’s audience already knew the stories.

Thoughts about The Taming of the Shrew

The great Shakespeare scholar Marjorie Garber has published a massive commentary of all of the Bard’s plays called Shakespeare After All. I have been reading the appropriate sections of Garber’s book to gain a better understanding of each of the plays. Garber’s commentary on The Taming of the Shrew focuses on the role of disguise in the play. Highborn people disguise themselves as lowborn people, and men disguise themselves as women (both the actors and the characters).

Christopher Sly is a drunk tinker whose made to believe that he is a lord. Lucentio and his servant Tranio exchange places so that Lucentio can woo Bianca, the modest daughter of a wealthy gentleman. A pedant pretends to be pseudo-Tranio’s father Vincentio. Although Petruchio never physically disguises himself, he disguises his true intention in marrying Katherina. He claims to love Katherina, but he’s only interested in proving to his friends that he can tame the shrew. Garber shows the parallel between Sly and Katherina. Both are the butt of a joke, and both are told to believe the opposite of what they believe to be true. However, Garber insists that unlike Sly, Katherina changes into a different person by the end of the play. We never learn about Sly’s fate. Kate, on the other hand, becomes the submissive wife that Petruchio wanted all along.

Garber’s commentary not only highlights the major theme of disguise in The Taming of the Shrew, it also argues rightly that disguise was a device employed in many medieval plays. It was also common for a play to feature another play as a subplot. The Kate story is a performance put on by Sly’s captors.

However, I think that Sly and Kate are even more similar than Garber allows. True, there’s no evidence of sarcasm in Kate’s final speech to Petruchio and his friends. She has sincerely come to believe that women are the weaker sex and should therefore be submissive to their husbands. But Kate’s relationship to Petruchio is far from ideal. Petruchio is not a good husband. He is abusive. He starves his wife and psychologically manipulates her. Kate ultimately falls in love with her abuser, but she isn’t ever free to say no. Like Sly, Kate is the slave of another. While I agree with Garber that Kate is sincere in her speech, the final scene is highly ironic. I think that even Shakespeare’s misogynistic audience would consider the relationship problematic. Petruchio is not the model husband.

Garber writes:

Her final performance is for him [Petruchio], and seems to represent not an abandonment of her earlier independence, but a revised understanding of what freedom means, in sexuality and in marriage.

But even if Kate has come to believe that she is independent, anyone can see that she isn’t. Kate has no choice but to obey her husband. If she disobeys Petruchio, she is abused. Therefore, Kate’s final speech, while sincere, is also a testament of what an abuser can do to his victim. An abuser can convince his victim that his oppression is true freedom. Sly too comes to believe that he is a lord, but his freedom is an illusion. He has come to believe that he’s an actual lord, but the people who are fooling Sly are truly the ones in power. At the end of the play, Petruchio wins his bet. He was never concerned about Kate’s well-being or his marriage. It was all a game. Even if Kate’s final speech is supposed to be marriage wisdom, on the lips of Kate, the speech is ridiculous. Kate has been brain-washed into believing that she should be obedient to her husband. This is not wisdom that she freely came to. How long will this last? The dialogue between Hortensio and Lucentio at the end of the play suggest that Kate’s taming may not be complete:

HORTENSIO: Now, go thy ways; thou hast tamed a curst shrew.
LUCENTIO: ‘Tis a wonder, by your leave, she will be tamed so.

But Garber rightly points out that the ambiguous ending lends itself to numerous, even contradictory interpretations. Indeed, modern productions of the play try to downplay the apparent sexism in the final speech by having Kate wink at the audience. Garber argues (and I agree) that the speech is supposed to be taken seriously, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there is only one way to read the play or that a modern production shouldn’t re-interpret the ending. We will never know Shakespeare’s true intentions.

Indeed, it is one of Shakespeare’s brilliant gifts as a dramatist to provide, in almost every case, a credible contrary argument, onstage, to what might seem to be a prevailing viewpoint. The “philosophy” of Shakespeare’s plays is offered, always, contrapuntally, with opposing ideas placed in explicit juxtaposition.

It’s possible that I disagree somewhat with Garber’s assessment of Kate’s speech because I want The Taming of the Shrew to be more than a comedy praising misogyny. I want Shakespeare to at least acknowledge that the relationship is abusive. Kate claims that “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,/ Thy head, thy sovereign; one that/cares for thee” but where do we see Petruchio caring for Kate?

If you have read the play, let me know what you think. How do you interpret the end of the play?

Top Ten Tuesday

Ten Travel Books (Fiction and Nonfiction)

I’m currently reading We, The Drowned by Carsten Jensen. I absolutely love books set at sea. This is one of the best nautical books. But today, I want to share with you ten books that deal with any form of travel (air, sea, or rail). The top three books on this list are my three favorite books of all time – in order! The rest of the books are in no particular order. This could count for this week’s Top Ten Tuesday.

  1. Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Image result for the little prince book

I’ve read this book so many times since starting this blog, but for some reason I haven’t written a review of it yet. The Little Prince is a reminder that great children’s literature isn’t just appropriate for children. In fact, it is best appreciated by an adult.

2. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

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The cetology chapters are the best! Starbuck is the most righteous character in all of literature.

3. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

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I read it nearly every year. Swift’s novel is fun but also a profound commentary on imperialism, human nature, and injustice.

4. The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle by Hugh Lofting

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I definitely preferred the movie to the book, but Doctor Dolittle goes on a voyage. He also talks to animals. It won the Newbery Medal in 1923.

5. Terre des Hommes (Wind, Sand, and Stars) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

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All of the stories are about flight, but the most moving one is autobiographical. Saint-Exupéry crashed in the Sahara Desert and almost died of thirst. Flight was so dangerous in the early 20th century. Even mail carriers risked their lives transporting mail. Despite all of the hardships he faced, Saint-Exupéry remained optimistic. He believed in the goodness of humanity. Unfortunately, he disappeared in 1944 while on a reconnaissance mission.

6. Le Tour du Monde en 80 Jours (Around the World in 80 Days) by Jules Verne

Image result for around the world in 80 days book

Again, the film is better than the book, but the book is pretty fun as well. The cover of this book is misleading. Phineas Fogg and Passepartout (name means master key) do not travel by balloon. They mostly travel by sea.

7. The Odyssey by Homer

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8. Locomotive by Brian Floca

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A beautiful picture book about the history of the locomotive in the United States. It won the Caldecott in 2014.

9. In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick

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There be cannibals.

10. Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

Image result for lord jim joseph conradHow does a man who is supposed to exhibit the most exaggerated form of masculinity on the face of this planet deal with cowardice and guilt? Joseph Conrad basically writes prose poetry.


What’s New

I started my blog 4 years ago. At the time, I almost exclusively read Victorian literature. Exploring Classics was an appropriate name for my blog because I hardly ever tried a modern book. A lot has changed since 2013. I’m no longer a teenager. My blog name, url, and design need to reflect my current reading tastes. Because I read more modern fiction than I did when I started blogging, I have chosen a new name for my blog. Of course, I will continue to review mostly English and French classics (it is my comfort zone after all), but I will also review other great works. My old Modern Corner section was growing at an exponential rate. Exploring Literature is a more appropriate name for my blog. The new url is https://litexplore.wordpress.com/. If you are already following my blog, you don’t need to do anything. You should continue to receive new posts.

Finally, I am on YouTube as well. I post different content on my booktube channel (The Medieval Reader) than I do on this blog. There are things I can talk about more easily on YouTube than on WordPress, and vice versa. I’ve discovered in recent weeks that I enjoy writing discussion and reflection posts. So in addition to reviewing fiction, I will continue to make these more personal posts. Surprisingly, being on YouTube has encouraged me to make more (not less) blog posts. I appreciate the blogosphere even more than ever. You are some of the most thoughtful people on the web. I enjoy the conversations we have here. 🙂

Thank you to everyone who follows and comments!


Learning French – My Journey

Image result for frenchWhen people ask me at what age I started learning French I tell them that I started when I was six. That’s somewhat true. I was in first grade when I started learning a few French words. In second grade, I learned how to identify different classroom objects. “Pen” is “un stylo”, “pencil” is “un crayon”, etc. But I only started learning French grammar in seventh grade. Then in eighth grade I decided I was too cool for school so that I had the privilege of retaking French 2 during my freshman year of high school.

Enter Madame Andre. I first met her while taking my language entrance exam. After a curt “Bonjour” she pulled out her red pen and marked up my exam while I was taking it! Mme Andre returned a half hour later to correct the rest of my exam. She told me in her thick Parisian accent that I belonged in first year French, but if I promised to work hard she would allow me to retake French 2. “How kind”, I thought.

But I was a competitive figure skater throughout high school, so I missed first period nearly everyday of the week. I missed over 70% of my French classes that year. But I did fine. I turned in all of my assignments and did pretty well on all of my exams. Still, Mme Andre insisted on meeting with me during my lunch breaks. We soon became friends. It is largely because of Mme Andre and another French teacher at my high school that I fell in love with French.

Mme Andre never spoke English in class. Immersion learning is quite fashionable today, but I am sure Mme Andre was one of the few high school language teachers in the country who taught beginning French courses entirely in the target language. My first French 2 class I did not understand a word of what she was saying.

We had a grammar book, but I learned most of my French through reading books. In French 2, we were assigned some stories in René Goscinny’s Le Petit Nicolas a des ennuis. One of the first French words I learned was “langoustine” (jumbo shrimp). The little Nicolas had a thing for them. At first, I looked up nearly every word in the dictionary. It took me a week to read a ten page story. There was no way for me to cheat. I couldn’t find an English translation of Goscinny’s work. But the stories were so funny, that I wanted to read all of them. With my trusty Larousse dictionary, I spent what little spare time I had reading Le Petit Nicolas.

After finishing that book, I asked my mom to buy me the only French work at the now-closed Borders: Le gentil petit diable by Pierre Gripari. The title story was about a devil who wanted to be good and enter Heaven. If I remember correctly, one of the stories in the collection was about a man who marries a potato!

One of the skills a language student learns is how to use context to understand a sentence with an unknown word. I kept a notebook for all of the new words I was encountering. Every week, I went through the notebook and checked off the words I had properly learned.

At the end of French 3, I decided that I wanted to try reading a novel. My high school library had a very good French collection. The first novel I read from cover to cover was La tristesse du cerf-volant by Françoise Mallet-Joris. This was no grocery store book. This was literary fiction by an award-winning Belgian writer! The first time I read the novel, I’m pretty sure I understood only about 20%. It took me about a month to finish, but I found the story captivating. It is a family saga centered around a controversial surrealist fresco. Mallet-Joris is known for writing LGBT fiction. In La tristesse du cerf-volantan art director named Georges Doutrement falls in love with Christophe (the artist of the fresco) but Christophe’s sister Clara has a quasi-incestuous love for her brother. This was definitely not the kind of fiction I was normally into, but I couldn’t put it down.

A year later, I reread the novel and understood around 60%. I read many other novels as well, but none were as complicated as La tristesse du cerf-volant. Today, I not only understand the plot, but I enjoy analyzing its many themes. I’m pretty sure La tristesse du cerf-volant is the most obscure of Mallet-Joris’ novels, but it is one of my all-time favorite French works because it was the first French novel I ever read.

In a little over two weeks, I will be starting my PhD at a prestigious university. I am proud of my accomplishments, but I’m also nervous. Since high school, my teachers have always patted me on the back. But in the past few months, I’ve been taking a more objective look at my language and research skills. I know that my PhD program will be much more intense than my Master’s program was.

My research and interpretation skills have certainly improved, but I’m not sure my written and spoken French skills have. Last week, I reread Courrier Sud by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. It was one of my favorite books of 2014. However, this time around I noticed how many words I didn’t understand. I’m afraid that I have plateaued. Because I don’t need to know every word of what I read, I don’t go out of my way to expand my vocabulary. I’ve rested on my laurels for far too long. I need to recover the same attention to detail that I once had.

I am still learning French. I don’t want to admit that publicly. I don’t even want to admit that to myself. I’d rather see myself as a great language-learner, but I will fail to improve if I keep deceiving myself. We should certainly be proud of our accomplishments, but we also need to acknowledge our limitations.

A PhD program is not just school. It is professional development. I am climbing a steep mountain, and I need all the training I can get. I need even more discipline than before because I’m also learning Latin. The humanities are not doing so hot. There are only a few academic positions open and so many applicants.

Maybe you can relate to my journey. People have always told you that you are good at one particular thing. You are proud of your talent, but you also need a good kick in the pants. Perhaps, it wasn’t necessary for me to make this post. I’m not sure if any of it will help language learners. But I guess sometimes we need to tell our own stories to remind ourselves of what we have done and where we are going. I will always be grateful to Madame Denise Andre for encouraging me to learn French. I haven’t talked to her in a few years. I’m sure she will be proud to know that one of her students is pursuing a PhD in a language she spent over 30 years teaching.

Ishiguro, Kazuo

Review of The Buried Giant

Image result for the buried giantWhat was it about?

Axl and his wife Beatrice live in a medieval village in the aftermath of the Saxon wars. For some mysterious reason, they are not allowed to own a candle. They are also unable to remember past events. Rumor has it that a mist is responsible for this forgetfulness. One day, Axl and Beatrice decide to leave their village to visit their son, whom they haven’t seen in ages. They stop at a monastery because Beatrice has a pain in her side, and she thinks a monk living there can help her identify the source of her pain. A young boy named Edwin and his warrior friend Wistan join the couple because Edwin has been attacked by an ogre. The people living in his village think he’s cursed. The Buried Giant is set in an Arthurian universe in the style of the early Arthurian legends, but it is not an Arthurian retelling. While it is marketed as a fantasy, it is somewhat of a cross between T.H. White’s Once and Future King, and Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose. Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel is at once a fantastical adventure and a meditation on guilt, memory, and the collective stories we tell.

What did I think of it?

For some reason, this book is marketed as a new Game of Thrones. No wonder so many readers have been disappointed by the story! Thankfully, I knew what to expect. After reading a few negative reviews of the book, it occurred to me that Ishiguro was trying to write in the style of the early Arthurian romances. As in those romances, all of the characters in The Buried Giant are one-dimensional, the dialogue is awkward, and the plot is outrageous.

So what’s the point?

It seems to me that Ishiguro was trying to write an Arthurian tale through a postcolonial lens. Despite the medieval feel to the story, there is also something very modern in its approach. Unfortunately, I can’t go into more detail without spoiling the book. I’m a bit worried I’ve already said too much, but too many readers have been mislead by the blurb at the back of the book. I need to set the record straight.

The Buried Giant was so atmospheric despite its outrageous plot and flat characters. I particularly loved the chapters that explored Sir Gawain’s thoughts. I was genuinely interested in each of the characters even though I knew that Ishiguro was giving us an allegory. The most off-putting aspect of the book was Axl’s relationship to Beatrice. He calls her “princess” all the time and often downplays his wife’s concerns. Was this meant to be a parody on the Arthurian romances of the 12th century?

If you like books that explore memory and collective identity, I definitely recommend The Buried Giant. But be warned that this is no Game of Thrones.

Favorite Quote

“But then again I wonder if what we feel in our hearts today isn’t like these raindrops still falling on us from the soaked leaves above, even though the sky itself long stopped raining. I’m wondering if without our memories, there’s nothing for it but for our love to fade and die.”