I’m struggling with what the write about Beowulf, as I usually do with anything that’s considered a classic. Like, it’s been around for a million and a half years! There are people who study it for a living! I’ve never even read another translation of it, let alone know very much about it.
So here’s what I can tell you about my reaction to it and why this version of Beowulf instead of a different one. In no particular order:
The long introduction by the translator, Maria Dahvana Headly, was super helpful to me as a total newbie. She’s coming to Beowulf as a feminist, and Beowulf is very definitely an epic poem about what it means to be a good man. She talks at length about Grendel and Grendel’s mother, and possible not-toxic-masculine interpretations of those characters. But also, just in a grounding of the poem and what it was about? I really appreciated it.
And I appreciated the lens of healthy masculinity that the translator brought to it. It’s very much in the same vein as Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey, using words that are more modern and attempt to convey relationships and status in a more modern way.
Speaking of Grendel and his mother… they’re in it a lot less than I thought. I came to the epic assuming that it was one hero’s journey type of a story, like The Odyssey. But it’s really three smaller adventures tied into one big story. Grendel is the villain of the first one, his mother is the antagonist in the second, and there’s a dragon hoarding gold in the third.
Apropos of the dragon in the poem, here’s a bit of history. The Romans left Britain in roughly 410, and there’s very little to no written history of what happened in Britain from that point until the Venerable Bede writes in the 700s. But people keep finding stashes of Roman Gold hidden away on the island, dating from those uncharted years. The latest hoard was found in 2012. So, hidden stashes of gold weren’t uncommon on the island, though dragons are unlikely to have been involved.
I do love that the poem starts out “Bro!” Like the person telling it is your drunk brother.
I can’t tell you if this translation is better than others or deep meanings about Beowulf. But I enjoyed it.
A book I would like to rename “Becky with the Good Hair.”
Rebecca is a quasi-classic. I read it for book club and several of the other members had read it when they were in school. I had not. Because I knew it was suspenseful, I went ahead and read the wikipedia plot summary ahead of time. I am a person who doesn’t mind spoilers or knowing how things turn out, obviously. (Yes, I sometimes flip ahead to read the last few pages of a book too.) It helps me concentrate on things other than the plot, like the crafting of the story and the characters and the mood.
Rebecca, the book, made me SO ANGRY. First, it’s three separate types of book: the romance at the top, the psychological thriller in the middle, and then a more straightforward mystery at the end. PICK ONE. Second, the unnamed narrator is very ill-treated by ever single other character in the book – I mean, the author doesn’t even give her a name, which is to illustrate how mousy she is, but then why does anyone take any interest in her at all? But it totally undermines the romance at the beginning when her husband, Maxim, seems to love her, knows she’s out of her depth coming to Manderley, and then gives her absolutely no support? And because Daphne Du Maurier wants to drive home what a mousey non-entity she is, the narrator never takes the initiative on anything, preferring to let the staff do what they want or doing things the way Rebecca, Maxim’s dead first wife, did them. By the end of the book, I just didn’t care.
But we had interesting discussions at book club, talking about whenever Maxim really loves her, how the house represents Rebecca and her influence over the story, and how effectively creepy Mrs Danvers is despite not actually being in the book that much. So while I didn’t like Rebecca, I do appreciate the discussion it spawned and I’m glad I read it in a way that I got to talk about it with other smart people afterwards.
The Awakening is heralded as an early feminist book, as it shows a woman who is clearly in a not-great marriage decide to just be herself. She realizes that she’s a pretty good artist, and so she paints, eventually earning enough money to live on. She has some flings. Her husband goes on a long trip and her mother-in-law takes the kids so they can spend some time in the country. She moves out of their house. She keeps her own friends, not just the business contacts of her husband. Her husband, of course, has no idea what to do about any of this.
But I think it’s also a book about mental illness. Was she driven to mental illness by the repressive structure of her life? Her mood swings are written about in the book in such a way that you realize: oh this is a depressive mood, and here is when she’s manic. And like I said: an overly repressive life can destroy your mental health. When her husband is scheduled to come back, when the ordinary structure is going to overwhelm her again, well, she doesn’t handle it well.
Would I recommend The Awakening? Sure, to someone who’s interested in feminism or early feminist texts. It’s like The Yellow Wallpaper in that way. They’re both, incidentally, very short, novellas really. They would make a good one-two punch.
The Bell Jar is a classic, and classics… well, lots and lots and lots has already been said about them. I find it difficult to write about them.
There are two things that I found striking about this book. First, the visceral-ness of Esther’s (the main character’s) depression. She is depressed and Plath, who committed suicide, communicates that very effectively. Second, and in marked contrast to the downer of the depression is the absurdity of so much of the actual plot of the book: food poisoning an entire room, at least one failed deflowering of the main character, and the ridiculousness of Esther’s quasi-fiancé Buddy
In fact, these two things play off each other very well. Esther’s depression highlights the surrealism of the plot and the surrealism of the actions throws into relief just how far gone Esther is. She should be having very emotional reactions to everything that’s happening. But all the action is presented very flatly. It’s very effective.
I would recommend The Bell Jar very much. It’s short but effective.
I always feel uncertain writing about classics like Voltaire’s Candide. I mean, this was a book that was cited during the French Revolution in the 1790’s, and its influence is vast. Lots of thought has gone into Candide and its philosophy.
But chances are good you probably haven’t read it. So a quick summary: this is a short adventure novel with a lot of action and a basic debate between optimism and pessimism. Should Candide be an optimist or a pessimist? But that makes it sound boring and it’s not. Like I said, there’s a lot of adventure and hi-jinks and you can read it as a straight adventure story that’s only about 100 pages long. You can choose to engage in it at your preferred level. And I liked that.
I read it mostly as an adventure story – Candide does travel all over the world after all – but with some light philosophizing. Is it better to be a pessimist and never be let down? Or does optimism drive you to be better and do more? It’s not proscriptive; you get to decide for yourself.
Recommended, because there’s not enough thinking about optimism in culture today.
I don’t quite understand a fiction book whose point is that people who read fiction books are messed up because they read fiction books. Are you full of self-loathing? Do you think your fiction book is somehow better than other fiction books? “No, no,” you say, “my fiction book is different because it exposes those other fiction books as unreal and changing people’s expectations of the world from something reasonable to something over the top.” Um, ok. Whatever.
Clearly, I didn’t get into Madame Bovary – which is about a woman whose reading screws with her expectations of what her life will really be like. Your milage may vary – it is a classic after all.
Why should you read it?
I loved it for a few reasons.
I have a not-so-secret fondness for Ancient Rome. Mary Beard has a great skeptical eye through which to take a second look at some books I’ve read.
Not to mention suggestions for all kinds of new books to read. Seriously, this one made my to-read list grow.
She asks the serious question: why is Asterix so funny? Why do so many people (including me) love Asterix?
I like her approach to book reviewing – asking why a particular book matters to someone who isn’t a classicist allows her to explore all kinds of questions. What was the woman’s voice in Ancient Greece (about Sappho)? What did the ancients find funny? Why do we still find most of those jokes funny?
So much of what we know about the ancient world is because of what’s been written down. That’s biased in certain ways, with certain people wanting to influence how someone else was perceived. (e.g. Augustus burning anything about Cleopatra that didn’t fit how he wanted Roman society to see her). She takes a critical eye that reminded me a lot of modern media studies – there’s a thread in common with, say, Anne Helen Petersen.
What’s it about? The Gods of Olympus shows how the ancient Greek Olympians are portrayed throughout Western history, from archaic Greece (~800 bce) to the Renaissance (1500 ce), with many stops in between. It talks about historical realities (Augustus was portrayed as Apollo, Antony was Bacchus, to his detriment as the two were warring for control of the Roman Empire), and how the Olympians as characters changed and stayed the same.
Why should you read it? It turns out that the history of the Olympians is a useful proxy for a history of Western civilization. As different cultures become ascendent, they tend to adopt the gods and portray them as their own. The Romans’ gods transformed from civic deities into cults of personality after they conquered the Greeks. The gods became personifications of nature during the Renaissance. I’ve never read another book quite like this one – there are plenty of stories about the Olympians, but not another book that traces their characters through history and reflecting that back on the culture. It was interesting.