"The word is the making of the world." - Wallace Stevens

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Monkey: A Journey to the West

The version of this story that I just finished is retold by David Kherdian. My philosopher brother loaned me this book a couple months ago, and it seemed especially fitting considering the past few months of my life. The original work is a hundred chapters and is thought to have been written by Wu Ch'eng-en in the sixteenth century. This version was in 23 parts, in 209 pages. Full of themes, symbolism, and social satire, it's a historical epic, a folk novel, and a fun adventure/journey story. The story is full of characters that each embody qualities of human nature, some are obvious and some are more subtle. Honestly, I wasn't sure what Sandy was supposed to represent, I had to read some reviews to get some ideas. Monkey's behavior lands him in some tight spots, (and there were times Monkey's incorrigible antics reminded me of certain men I've dated) but he eventually learns the self discipline he needs to obtain enlightenment. The woodblock illustrations in this version were taken from an 1833 Japanese retelling. Whether or not you're a history buff, philosopher, or love adventure stories, you should check this out. Thanks for the loan, bro!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Medieval People- Eileen Power

Read this for A Tournament of Reading. A very scholarly read that I really enjoyed; I was entertained as well as informed while I read this book. The author sets out to illustrate life in the Middle Ages and she draws on diaries, wills, letters, account books, and other records. In doing so, she provides insight into the lives of six individuals who lived during this time, and also draws on her own fascination and grasp of economic and social history. The edition I have also includes a previously unpublished essay by the author, "The Precursors", that describes the lives of three men living during the barbarian conquest of Rome. In this essay, she demonstrates that "they were not only the epigones of Rome but the true precursors of the Middle Ages" and that many aspects of their social lives survived to reemerge in the Middle Ages.

She starts out with describing a day in the life of Peasant Bodo, who lived during Charlemagne's reign. In this chapter, you catch a glimpse of life working a manse, the hardships and the pleasant times. I especially liked the description of Bodo, his wife Ermentrude, and their three children going to spend the day at the St. Denys fair, which went on for a whole month outside of Paris. They worked hard and they played hard!

Next, she describes the life of Marco Polo, drawing on his diaries and writings of his travels. In 1269 in Venice, Marco is a young, restless daydreamer who is given the chance to travel with his father Nicolo and his uncle Maffeo. He observes, asks qustions, and learns many things through many experiences, among which he becomes proficient in the Tartar language, meets the great Khan Kublai and becomes his attendant for many years. Ms. Power is careful to point out at the end of this chapter that Columbus not only read Polo's writing in the Latin versions and took extensive notes on them, they were the reason he decided to sail west and have adventures himself!

The third character we meet is Madame Eglentyne. When I read "For a long time historians foolishly imagined that kings and wars and parliaments and the jury system alone were history" on pages 74 and 75, I had flashbacks to college classes when I would be thinking the same thing. Any classes I took that focused on non-male (or non-white for that matter!) historical figures had to be separate. Anyway, in this chapter the author does a fantastic job of describing the huge amount of information historians found on social and ecclesiastical life when they began to look in other places outside of war and glory. By studying registers of medieval bishops who visited the nunneries, our author is able to describe details of monastic life that otherwise would probably have remained a mystery. Madame Eglentyne liked entertaining, dressing prettily, and having rooms to herself as the prioress. And you also learn that, to get around the rule of silence, the nuns had their own version of sign language. In some cases of extremely relaxed priories, the Prioress and her sister nuns had...*GASP*...pet animals! Here is where I'd like to get on my soapbox and say a few words about my favorite patron saint, St. Francis of Assisi!

In the fourth character study, Ms. Power draws on a book of deportment, written by the Menagier de Paris (Goodman of Paris) for his young wife between 1392 and 1394. She describes this book as one of particular interest "because of the robust good sense of its writer and the intimate and lively picture which it gives of a bourgeois home." (Yeah, but I still say the old fart was a bit of a pig!) In it, the Goodman describes everything from his wife's religious and moral duties, to household management, to how she should spend her free time! It also contains details on medieval cooking, "beginning with a list of specimen menus for dinner and suppers, hot or cold, fast or feast, summer or winter, giving hints on the choice of meat, poultry, and spices, and ending with a long series of recipes for all manner of soups, stews, sauces, and other viands, with an excursus on invalid's cookery!" (That sounds interesting to me.) It also described how she should dress and carry herself, but as Power writes, "The greater part of the Menagier's book is concerned, however, not with the theoretical niceties of wifely submission, but with his creature comforts." So, it's very informative on the life of a particular Parisian housewife of the time, but I honestly got impatient with the old goat husband very quickly when Power referred to him, and felt sorry for his wife. Bourgeois snob.

Chapters six and seven focus on two Thomases; Thomas Betson, a Merchant of the Staple in the fifteenth century, and Thomas Paycocke of Coggeshall, an Essex clothier in the days of Henry VII. The author's knowledge in the medieval economic system helps to bring both merchants to life through a compilation of letters. She is a genius at keeping things real; real people and what we can glean from actual physical documents. I really enjoyed this book and highly suggest it to anyone interested in medieval life.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Year of the Flood, Anne of Green Gables

GOOD GRIEF! It’s been a while! What a crazy few months it’s been. Before we left Ohio, in between packing and saying goodbye to friends and family, I did manage to purchase and read The Year of the Flood cover to cover and I've been meaning to share it for ages. I’m so in awe of Margaret Atwood. It was worth the wait.

This novel takes place in the world of Oryx and Crake, giving you the story from the point of view of the God’s Gardeners, a quasi-religious, vegetarian eco cult who have been banned and are being persecuted and murdered. But the few survivors are still celebrating their ideas, their Saints’ Days to Dian Fossey, Farley Mowat, Mahatma Gandhi. As in Oryx and Crake, none of the characters can truly love. There is some link that is missing in all of them, that is not supplied by the culture running their lives. Jimmy, Lucerne; their emotions and understanding of reality are completely warped and stunted. Pollution is so thick, you need a mask to walk around the inner cities. Corporations own and run all of civilization's systems, there is no justice; prostitution companies recruit at schools; natural healthy food is practically unattainable. At one point in the story, when two of the characters are reunited, one warns the other after they hug that they must be more careful, that they look suspicious (pg. 299). Natural emotional attachments and reactions are dangerous to express. Every decent aspect of nature and humanity is being exterminated. Gene splicing is condoned on a huge scale, with religious fanatics creating half lion, half lamb creatures for no better reason than because they can. The only animals left are genetically altered human creations, like rakunks and pigoons with human brain cells. Lumiroses are still blooming and glowing in the dark on the lawns of people long dead from a human created bio-virus. It's a horrific, man-made world of survivors surviving the death of civilization. Coincidentally, Shaun and I watched The Road earlier tonight and it definitely stirred up the same emotions; the idea of "keeping the fire burning" despite all the horrible things happening around you. (I was furious with the Mother figure for bailing on her family like she did!) Alas, I have not read the Cormac McCarthy novel yet. Bad, I know! But it is officially on my reading list to be finished sometime this summer hopefully!

Since the move, I've also reread the Anne of Green Gables trilogy. Passing by my living room shelves a couple of weeks ago, I was feeling restless and the green photo cover appealed to me. There is no green here! Lots of blues and grays though, but I'm missing my cool, green woods of northeast Ohio. Somehow, reading about Anne's Lover's Lane, Lake of Shining Waters, and White Way of Delight cheered up my homesickness. Thanks Anne!