Sunday, November 21, 2021

Beowulf and The Mere Wife

Maria Dahvana Headley wrote a book called The Mere Wife in 2018, and then a rather famous translation of Beowulf in 2020.  The translation from Old English made a big splash when it came out last year for being a “feminist” version and one of the few translations by a woman.  Headley’s translation is gloriously readable, as she has updated the language - famously translating the tricky first word “Hwæt”  - often translated as “listen”, “ho”, “behold” and so on to “Bro”.  Makes perfect sense - how else do men get each other’s attention these days?  Check this out:

Old English, anonymous, 8th or 11th c.

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,

þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,

hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.

Seamus Heaney, 1999:

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by And the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness. We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.

Maria Dahvana Headley, 2020

Bro! Tell me we still know how to

talk about kings! In the old days,

everyone knew what men were:

brave, bold, glory-bound.

If you haven’t read Beowulf recently, it’s 3182 lines of Old English alliterative poetry (meaning the first sounds often start with the same letter).  The first manuscript was created between 975 and 1025 but the story takes place in 6th century Scandanavia.  The story is pretty simple:  This king’s castle is being raided every night by Grendel who kills and eats some people and fucks off before anyone can even injure him.  So Beowulf, a nearby dude, takes a boat over to this castle, tells everyone he’s going to kill Grendel, so they throw a big party, and that night, Grendel shows up, immediately eats a someone, and then Beowulf cuts his arm off and Grendel runs off.  Another big party.  The next night, Grendel’s mother shows up, eats a guy and fucks off to her cave.  Beowulf follows her, dives into a deep lake (a mere) to reach her, has a big fight and eventually kills her.  Cut to: 50 years later, a dragon is harassing a village.  Beowulf fights it, manages to kill it but is mortally wounded and dies. The end.  

Toxic masculinity, amirite?  Well, yeah. And what I love about Headley’s translation, aside from the exuberance in the language, is it emphasizes the Hoo-Rah exaltation of male violence and, in doing so, allows the reader to see more clearly who is being subjected in this narrative. In her forward, she writes that Beowulf is “a poem about willfully blinkered privilege, about the shock and horror of experiencing discomfort when one feels entitled to luxury.”  Instead of Beowulf emerging as the iconic hero and Grendel as the disgusting invading monster, it’s like, hold it, what if Grendel is defending his native lands and folks in the castle are the invading party?  Headley also makes the most of the few lines that are devoted to the female characters in the story to show just how much they are turned into absolute outsiders - whether she is the privileged queen of the castle or the mother of Grendel (without so much as a name of her own), the marginalization of their very existence is made clear.

The Mere Wife is a modern interpretation of Beowulf and I know you’re thinking… how do you even DO that???  It’s damn remarkable, and Headly makes it work beautifully. To briefly summarize, Dana is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan - she returns from war with a baby, Gren. Fiercely protective of her son, and suffering from traumatic stress, she hides her small family in a cave on the edge of an affluent suburb.  Her son, desperate to live in the world, sneaks into town and, following a misunderstanding, they become hunted.  I won’t spoil it anymore.  

I love how in both stories, she flips the narrative and turns the most identifiable characters into the perpetrators, causing the reader to question the so-called heroic actions of the strongest and wealthiest people. Taken from that angle, it looks much less like manifest destiny and more like aggressively murderous conquest and needless destruction.  In both stories, the characters we readers are most likely to identify with - the ones that live in homes, not caves, and enjoy wealth and comfort and physical beauty are NOT the heroes of the story.  So, it really made me think, why do I continually want to turn the colonizers in the story into the heroes? 

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

Best of 2020

2020 was a sort of terrible year for reading because I had a terrible time concentrating on books and, in general, what I was looking for in a book completely changed. Intellectual stimulation and gorgeous literary prose? Hard pass. I just didn't have the extra brain power for it. The bad news was, in advance of the pandemic I had lined up some reviews for Newcity that just happened to be about... global pandemics! Why Oh Why?!? Anway, I struggled through those, read some graphic novels, and managed to sort of return to being able to read a book without tearing my hair out around September.

I know a lot of people had a similar problem. It was awful, wasn't it? On top of everything, we readers couldn't engage in one of our favorite activities.

Magically, I did manage to read 41 books somehow - here are my favorites:

Olive, Again by 
Elizabeth Strout. (Audio) Really enjoyed getting in Olive's head again.
Small Days and Nights by Tishani Doshi (Audio) - Lovely story that mostly takes place in a seaside  town in India. Trigger warning: many dogs die.  Off-page, as it were, but still.

The Darkest Evening by Ann Cleeves. Vera Stanhope mystery - just as good (better?) as watching Vera on TV!

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes - the aftermath of the Trojan War told from the perspective of women. Fantastic addition to the genre! (See also: The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker and The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood).

Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore. I would absolutely not recommend reading this until after the pandemic/you're in an emotionally stable place (who is, amirite?) but this book is amazing and beautiful and deeply devastating.

Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy - this was one of those book I reviewed for Newcity that was just really NOT what I wanted to read during global pandemic because it is a very bleak look at what awaits the planet due to climate change, however, even through the miasma of actual and fictional horror, Migrations was deeply moving, and more than that, provided a needed escape from my house, which I had, at that point, barely left for 7 months, and ventured on an ocean voyage in my imagination, thanks to McConaghy's incredible descriptions of the ship and sea.

Spoiler Alert by Olivia Dade - now THIS is just what the Pandemic Doctor ordered! A fun romance about a gal who happens into a date with the dashing handsome lead actor in a GOT-type show and guess what? They fall in love. Compllcations, naturally. No apocalypse story-lines.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Migrations/The Glass Hotel

I just finished a few books that I sort of read simultaneously. I'm finding it very hard to read during Covid so I'm just doing what I can, trying not to be hard on myself. For some dumb-ass reason I offered to review all these climate disaster novels for Newcity and it has been awful. I mean, great books, but really the last thing I want to read right now. 


Migrations, by Charlotte McConaghy is one of those books that really takes you to another place, which
was a real pleasure as I am currently Sheltering In Place with beloved husband. Who is great but for some reason just won't or can't fill the dishwasher per my specifications? Franny, in Migrations, doesn't stew over tedious and unimportant things like whether it's important for bowls to be placed a certain way on the bottom shelf, although it is, it is important, no! She's hitching a ride on a fishing vessel chasing the last of the worlds terns on their back and forth journey from North pole to South and back again.  "There's a compus in my heart that leads me not to true north but to true sea." Ugh. Could you die?  What kind of romantic-ass notion is that? Fucking romantic, that's what it is. Devastating, exhilarating, thoughtful and heartbreaking, Migrations is beautiful.  "Mam always said it was only a fool who didn't fear the sea, and I've tried to live by that. But there's no way to conjure fear if it doesn't exist. And here is the undeniable truth: I have never feared the sea. I have loved it with every breath of me, every beat of me."

MEANWHILE, what else comes out during this shit-show of a year but another book by Emily St. John Mandel - The Glass Hotel. Maybe it's because I read them on top of each other, but these books felt like sisters to me. Mandel, with her always perfect, exquisite words were a finely matched by McConaghy's prose - the main characters were two independent women that easily travelled the world and were drawn to dangerous ships. Based loosely on Bernie Madoff and his infamous Ponzi Scheme,  The Glass Hotel is not precisely uplifting material for this lowly time either, but it could be worse than getting lost in Mandel's world.

Wednesday, March 04, 2020

Small Days and Nights by Tishani Doshi

At the beginning of Small Days and Nights by Tishani Doshi, Grazia, an Indian-Italian woman returns to India after her mother dies. She uncovers a shocking family secret - she has a sister, who has been living in a group home in Pondicherry. Grazia is furious and confused by the decision her parents made to hide a sister from her, remembering how lonely she was a child, how she would have loved to have a sibling.  She removes her sister from the group home and moves to a small house on the sea (another secret her mother kept from her) and begins a new life as a caregiver for her disabled sister.  In some ways their life is idyllic - her sister loves sitting in the waves, they have wonderful dogs, she’s able to get away on the weekends, but, belied by that simple title and that charming cover art, their lives are difficult.  Her sister’s former school director alternately doesn’t trust Grazia and also requests money for improvements at the school, there’s unrest in the area due to wealth inequality, they are vulnerable as women living alone.  Doshi never romanticizes the setting or casts Gratzia as a saintly figure for caring for her disabled sister, she's a complex character full of doubts and occasional rage and her fair share of regrets.  Here's a bit that I loved:
I don't know what it is, about seeing groups of men together, but it unsettles me. The way they hold their bodies, the ownership of space. Nothing they offer, by way of their togetherness, engenders a sense of safety. It is all gnarl and hair and ballsack and matted heel. The world needs softness, not this.
Content warning: More than one dog dies in this book. 

Monday, February 17, 2020

A Discovery of Witches

I got a new job with a much longer commute, so naturally the first thing I did was get an Audible account.  First I listed to Olive Again, by Elizabeth Strout (12 hrs) - wonderful.  I love Olive dearly.  Then I listened to A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness (24 hrs).  I thought longer would be better but... it's not.  I was not crazy about A Discovery due to it having a VERY post-Twilight feeling in that there's a lot of gross smelling and explaining of smells going on (He smelled like cloves and summer nights sort of thing) and a weird old thousand-year-old vampire in no hurry to have sex.  But, at least, unlike Bella, Diana actually has a real personality and some skills and knowledge that make her attractive/interesting to the broody vampire/reader.  I kept thinking it would probably make a better movie than a book and, indeed, my colorist told me the tv series is really good.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Women Talking

I've been listening to a lot of books lately, but I read Women Talking with my eyes, and was an absolutely absorbing book that I practically finished in one sitting.  Although, at the beginning, I had to walk away from it several times, being quite overwhelmed with rage.  It's based on the true story of a Mennonite community where a number of the men were drugging and raping women and girls and blaming the attacks on the Devil and the women's wild imaginations.  In Toew's book, the men are in the far-away city bailing or being bailed out of jail.  The women remain at the remote community, trying to decide whether to do nothing, leave, or stay and fight.  They are heartbreakingly pragmatic about their situation, and behaving with what you might consider strange behavior for a group of women who have been systematically raped and then gaslighted UNLESS you knew that, HEY, everyone behaves differently after such a traumatic experience (also, watch Unbelievable).  Slowly, Toews releases details that will make you want to throw the book across the room, and yet it's an extremely tender book and even occasionally funny.

I was having trouble keeping track of the characters, although Toews helpfully defines their relationships at the beginning.  I scribbled down a family tree, as I often do.  What became startlingly clear with my little trees was that all the husbands and brothers were unnamed and unaccounted for - not just missing from the narrative, but blank spaces where they should be.  It also became fairly obvious that the harder and more cynical Loewen women have suffered generations of abuse at the hands of their husbands and fathers while the more optimistic Friesen are a bit more carefree and have the freedom to relax into female friendships and maternal care. 

What really struck me was how, despite having absolutely NO education, these women were bright, poetic, and thoughtful.  I can only assume that Toews, who herself lived in a Mennonite community, saw women such as these - resourceful, fierce, protective, and very bright.  There's a wonderful interview with her on NPR.

Did everyone read that op-ed in the NYT by Brit Marling about women and storytelling?  She nailed it (although I think she left out a major element that, aside from limiting women to either beautifully murdered corpses or "Strong Female Lead", no matter what: that lady better be pregnant).  Marling writes, "the hero’s journey is centuries of narrative precedent written by men to mythologize men. Its pattern is inciting incident, rising tension, explosive climax and denouement...a male orgasm." Hole. Ee. Shit.  I don't know why I'd never thought of that, I mean, it's called a climax, for christ's sake.  So, that's made me more aware of non-linear stories lately, or those that don't follow the classic narrative structure.  (MINI SPOILER AHEAD) Toews certainly steers away from the "hero's journey" in Women Talking in that the climactic moments have all happened before the book begins (the rapes, the discovery, the attempt of some of the women to murder the men for their actions.) Women Talking is just that: women talking.  With the exception, we find out just at the end, of the narrator's distress.  Keeping minutes and recounting the story is the melancholy school teacher.  At the beginning of the book, he tells us that he was asked to keep notes by Ona, who sees him out walking in the fields.  At the very end, he allows that he was out walking with his gun, struggling with suicidal thoughts.  One of the women sees his distress and asks him to keep notes of their meeting, both giving him direction, a sense of belonging, and providing a way to place him under the watchful eye of herself and the women of the community.  "The purpose was for me to take them, the minutes. Life."

I'll leave you with these hilarious pictures of "women talking" I found when I google image searched the cover of the book.  Apparently "women talking" equals coffee cups, upturned hands, and more coffee cups.

Thursday, December 05, 2019

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Wow wow wow.  I keep my ear to the ground for good book recommendations - so when I was reading By the Book with The Phoebe Waller-Bridge and she casually mentioned Ghost Wall (2018) by Sarah Moss, I looked up the description.  "In the north of England, far from the intrusions of cities but not far from civilization, Silvie and her family are living as if they are ancient Britons, surviving by the tools and knowledge of the Iron Age."  That can only mean one thing, people:  Bog Bodies.  

One thing I have become completely obsessed with lately is Bog Bodies.  About a month ago I fell down a slippery rabbit hole of the Bredmose Woman, from 1400 BCE, who was found in Denmark, wonderfully preserved along with a charming cap created with a pre-knitting technique called "sprang".  This lead me to another pre-knitting and crocheting technique called Nålbinding, which I now want to learn how to do.  Nålbinding is made with a bone needle, which of course you can order on Amazon, but just as I was about to order one, I was like, "Am I really going to order a needle off fucking Amazon Prime to recreate an ancient Viking textile?  No. I. Am. Not.  I'm going to make my own damn bone needle."  So, I'm working on that.  Going to try to use the rib bone from our Thanksgiving roast.

I've been trying to get more in touch with my ancestry (mostly British, according to my DNA), and this quote from the blogger who got me excited about sprang and nålbinding really speaks to me.  "...objects are not just passively handed along, they have agency, extending the artist’s (or artisan’s) reach across distance and time.  People take action through the things they create, this way distributing their personhood.(Apparently she's summarizing Alfred Gell's theory of "distributed personhood.")   That also puts me in mind about what Goldie Goldbloom said when I asked her about a chapter in her latest book.  She said that we are the products of our family history and the memories of our ancestors.  This is exactly the sort of thing that's happening in Ghost Wall.  Silvie's father is very interested in the British Iron Age, and drags his wife and daughter around England, walking the entirety of Hadrian's Wall, lecturing about their ancestors.  For him, it's partly based on a racist pursuit of proving his own white ancestry.  "...they had their horses and swords as well, didn't they, put up quite a fight and after all send them packing in the end, there weren't dark faces in these parts for nigh on two millennia after that, were there?"  They've joined a professor and his students who are practicing immersive learning, and living something like Iron Age people for a few weeks - wearing handmade tunics, leather moccasins, foraging and eating over a fire. Silvie's dad's along because he's a talented outdoorsman.  He's also violent and abusive to his wife and daughter.  The other campers notice, but are slow or unable to react.  What's interesting in Ghost Wall is just what that blogger and Goldie Goldbloom said - what characteristics are deep in these people's psyches, tied to their ancestors?  This inheritance of violence and the inheritance of meekness are tragic gifts for Silvie's family.  Like a bog sacrifice, she and her mother bear abuse quietly.  

Ghost Wall is a quick read, excellent prose and truly heart-thumping story.  I'm excited to read more by Sarah Moss.  Thanks, Phoebe!