The Canterbury Tales: 82%

I’m on track to finish Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales via my Serial Reader app in just about a week’s time, so this is likely my last post regarding the collection of 14th century stories.

It’s been a slog, I have to admit. Serial Reader contains all the tales, including several that were omitted from the paperback version Tim and I have been sharing. I can understand the choice to omit. One tale in particular, “The Tale of Melibeus,” felt particularly long and boring. The teller of this tale is the narrator himself, named, coincidentally (or not), Chaucer. The whole thing is a drawn-out dialogue between Melibeus and his wife, Prudence, as she tries to convince him to take her advice regarding a matter of revenge against his rivals. I swear, she has to mention Solomon at least a hundred times. Yes, the Solomon from the bible, the guy who advised splitting a baby in two.

The tales all seem filled with biblical and medieval religious references. Two particular ones were recently familiar to me, meaning, I’ve encountered them in the past year or so (and not during my own ancient school days). They are both from “The Monk’s Tale,” another story that’s not in our paperback. It’s basically a laundry list of mighty folks through the ages who have fallen when fortune takes a turn against them.

  1. In recounting how Belshazzar of Babylon met his fate, “mene, mene, tekel” popped up. I wrote about this in a post last year: The Writing on the Wall. A quick recap of that post — it’s about this phrase’s original meaning, how Belshazzar had been weighed and measured by God, found wanting, and his kingdom would be divided. And how the phrase is referenced in Moby Dick, The Count of Monte Cristo, and, perhaps not surprisingly, in the movie A Knight’s Tale.
  2. There’s a bit about Ugolino, Count of Pisa, and how he and his children starved to death while imprisoned. But it gets more gruesome when Dante’s Inferno is referenced. Dante’s fiction puts Ugolino in the second circle of hell with his betrayer, Archbishop Ruggieri, the one who supposedly caused his starvation in real life. In Inferno, Ugolino gnaws on Ruggieri’s skull for all eternity. I remember this reference in The Count of Monte Cristo, it comes up when Edmond Dantes is held at Chateau d’If, before he meets Abbe Faria.

So, bottom line, I feel like I’m getting a better understanding of a lot of ancient stories and their contexts. And that feels worthwhile. But I’ll also be happy to take a break from all this heaviness soon.

Maybe it’s time to watch A Knight’s Tale again.

The Canterbury Tales: 50%

So, I’m about halfway through Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales on my Serial Reader app. And this time, Tim is reading along, not on Serial Reader, but via the tome featured in the picture above. Kind of a summer reading project for us both. A few observations thus far:

  • The hard copy book features both the original Middle English text and the translation to Modern English. The Middle English is pretty cool to look at, and it’s also pretty cool that The Canterbury Tales is considered one of the first works of prose to be composed in English. (Or maybe not prose, but poetry. In any event, I think Chaucer was among the first to take the type of stuff written in French and Latin at the time, and write it in English.)
  • The Canterbury Tales was unfinished when Chaucer died. (And, interesting fact, he died 40 years before the printing press was invented.) There’s no way to determine how he meant the finished work to appear. I’ve discovered that the order and inclusion of the individual tales varies, depending on the version you’re reading.
  • So far, I’m not loving the subject matter. Murderous in-laws cast a poor woman out to sea (“The Man of Law’s Tale”), there’s unthinkable spousal emotional abuse (“The Clerk’s Tale”), and, spoiler alert, “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” ends with a rapist living happily ever after. I realize times were different 600 years ago, but that doesn’t make the cruelty any more palatable. In fact, it offers some unsettling insight into our human history.
  • All this leads me to prefer to think of Chaucer more like Paul Bettany’s portrayal of him in the 2001 movie A Knight’s Tale. It’s wildly anachronistic, but the character’s eloquence, motivations, and overall humanity are worthy of 21st century admiration.

Macbeth: 100%

So, Macbeth had been on my TBR list for awhile. After plowing through Serial Reader’s 235 issues of War and Peace, I thought 10 issues of Macbeth would be a walk in the park. It was, mostly, thanks to a generous helping of internet assistance with the Elizabethan English. (The “litcharts” website was particularly helpful!)

I always enjoy discovering the context of famous quotes. For example, there’s the line that begins “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day…” and ends “…full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” (I can easily picture and hear my Mom reciting this, especially the first part, even though she’s been gone over 5 years.) Well, this is Macbeth’s speech when he finds out his wife is dead. He pretty much says, “she was going to die sooner or later,” and then launches into that speech.

Kinda harsh. But this also comes in the last act of the play, when both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth were pretty far down the road to hell, anyway.

But one of the most interesting connections I made from reading Macbeth was one I wasn’t expecting. Very early on, in Scene 2 of Act 1, I encountered this quote:

“The multiplying villanies of nature / Do swarm upon him”

I immediately recognized it as something V says when he saves Evey in the beginning of V for Vendetta.

For the uninitiated, V for Vendetta (one of my favorite movies) is about a vigilante named “V” in a not-too-distant-future England, who dons a Guy Fawkes mask. Guy Fawkes is the best-remembered member of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, when Catholic separatists attempted to assassinate King James and blow up Parliament. V in the movie, like a post-modern Guy Fawkes, attempts to overthrow the seriously oppressive government of this not-too-distant-future England.

So here’s what I wasn’t expecting: there’s possibly a much stronger connection between Macbeth and V for Vendetta than just the use of some quotes.

Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in 1606, and some believe he wrote it to remove any suspicion of connection between himself and the people behind the Gunpowder Plot. Shakespeare’s mother was Catholic, and his father might have been a covert Catholic. His father was also friends with the father of one of the main conspirators, Robert Catesby. And, Shakespeare frequented the Mermaid Tavern, where the plotters met (to plot, apparently).

There’s a lot of stuff in Macbeth that would have appealed to King James. Take the noble character Banquo, whom the witches say will never be king, but will beget kings. Banquo is supposed to represent King James’s ancestor Banquho, Thane of Lochquhaber. And then the witches themselves — King James wrote a book about witchcraft, so he was obviously pretty interested in the subject.

Now, just how much “c.y.a.” was involved in Shakespeare’s motivation for writing Macbeth, we’ll never know. But it’s got me examining my own motives for writing a little more closely.

War and Peace: 100%

I really wanted to add an exclamation point to the title of this post. But with the percent sign, it may look like I’m cursing (War and Peace: 100%! — though it probably needs a hashtag and an at symbol, too, to really look like I’m cursing…War and Peace: 100%@#!)

Anyway, I don’t want to curse, I just want to shout from the rooftops: I’ve finished War and Peace!!!

It was definitely a challenge, probably the most challenging thing I’ve read via Serial Reader. (Moby Dick was tough, too, but only about 1/3 as long. Rousseau’s The Social Contract was no picnic, either, but it was mercifully short — I was done within two weeks.)

War and Peace was challenging, but ultimately worth it. It wasn’t so much the language or story that was challenging; it was processing all the human experience that is packed into that book.

When I started out, I wasn’t sure how much I would like it. In my first post about War and Peace (War and Peace: 19%), I complained about not liking the characters and not caring about the translation.

Fast forward to now. I wound up buying a hard copy, (pictured at the top of this post), mainly because I wanted to be able to reference chapters I’d already read more handily than the Serial Reader interface allows. But it’s also a more recent translation (by Anthony Briggs), and when Tolstoy gets into really deep and heavy stuff, I found this version helpful.

And speaking of deep and heavy stuff, I can no longer say that I don’t like the characters. But that doesn’t mean I necessarily like them now, either. What I can say is that I feel like I know the characters, inside and out, especially Pierre, Andrey, and Natasha. I’m having a hard time thinking of another book I’ve read where the interior life of multiple characters was so expertly portrayed.

On balance, it feels like the past four months was a very good time for me to read War and Peace. Even though the story takes place at a time 200 years in the past, it was so immersive, so much still rings true, and there’s so much that’s transcendent; that it offered a welcome, alternative, perspective on the current state of things. An escape, if you will.

I’ve leave you with a recent photo I took that makes me think of the character Andrey. He has several epiphanies in the story — one occurs while he’s laying wounded on the battlefield at Austerlitz, gazing at the sky. And a separate epiphany occurs as he passes an oak tree in a carriage. For an oak tree and sky — things I see and pass, literally, every day — to make me think of a character in a story…it feels notable, certainly. And maybe even a bit transcendent.

 

 

 

War and Peace: 54%

N for Napoleon? Photo by William Krause on Unsplash.

Okay, so, I can say this about Tolstoy’s War and Peace: it’s certainly immersive. And those privileged characters I found unsympathetic when I was roughly 20% through? I have a bit more sympathy for them now.

I feel like that immersion is definitely expanding my knowledge base. Right now in the novel, it’s the summer of 1812, and Napoleon has commenced his invasion of Russia. I don’t remember learning much about this in school, other than it was one of the times Russia employed a scorched-earth policy. When you grow up in New Orleans, and learn about the War of 1812, it’s about the one where the U.S. declared war on Great Britain. And inevitably, how Andrew Jackson won the Battle of New Orleans. Fought after the British has ratified a treaty ending the war. Reading about Napoleon’s campaign against the Russians, I’m getting the sense that things were pretty bad all over in 1812.

About my changing sympathies for the characters…I have to admit, I got caught up in the whole storyline of Natasha getting engaged to Prince Andrew, having to wait a year, getting impatient and almost running off with the louse Anatole. Melodramatic? Absolutely. Really engaging? For me, yes. Tolstoy had a way of capturing the inner life of his characters that is worth some attention.

And don’t get me started on the Freemasons! You’ve got Pierre, the same character who tied a bear to a policeman at the beginning of the story, becoming a Freemason. This might be the most I’ve learned about Freemasonry since the “Stonecutters” episode of The Simpsons. I have more sympathy for Pierre, now, too. The last chapter I read featuring Pierre showed him realizing he’s in love with the aforementioned Natasha (who’s in a love quadrangle?), but nothing’s happened between them yet. I get the feeling that things are going to get real messy when Napoleon starts making his way toward Moscow.

So, yeah, I guess I’m enjoying the reading experience a bit more than when I first began. I still wish War and Peace was a little shorter. 🙂

Horse Soldier, Horse Soldier

Photo by Trevor Kay on Unsplash

Alternate post title: How War and Peace introduced me to Corb Lund.

Corb Lund is a Western and Country singer-songwriter who’s been around awhile, but also someone I’d never heard of until a couple of weeks ago. His song “Horse Soldier, Horse Soldier” is a catchy yarn that encapsulates some epic battles throughout history, specifically ones where soldiers fought on horseback.

Just see the opening lines to the song:

“I’m a hussar, I’m a Hun, I’m a wretched Englishman
Routing Bonaparte at Waterloo
I’m a dragoon on a dun, I’m a Cossack on the run
I’m a horse soldier, timeless, through and through”

And here’s a YouTube link to the whole song, it’s worth a listen: “Horse Soldier, Horse Soldier

So how does this relate to my reading of War and Peace? Keeping in mind that the story is chock full of hussars, Cossacks and Napoleon, there is much to correlate. As it happens, I came across a reference to this song when I was looking up a definition of “uhlan.” (Uhlans were Polish-Lithuanian cavalry armed with lances.) An entry for “uhlan alles uber” caught my eye. I discovered “uhlan alles uber” is from the lyrics of “Horse Soldier, Horse Soldier:”

“With a crack flanking maneuver, I’m an uhlan alles uber
Striking terror into regiment of foot”

That bit of the lyrics also led me to a really great article by Jim Mundorf on Lonesome Lands. (Click this link to check it out.) Mundorf gives the details on all the references in the lyrics, so you don’t have to research them yourself. Thanks! Though I disagree with him on “alles uber” being turned around just to make it sound right. I think the term “uber alles” is just so fraught that maybe Corb Lund turned it around to make it less so.

Anyway, so that’s the story of how War and Peace introduced me to Corb Lund and a really cool song.

 

Chewbacchus 2020

Lightsaber Drill

Saturday was the 10th annual roll of the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus! Chewbacchus is a science fiction-themed Mardi Gras parade; this was my 6th year taking part as a Leijorette. (The Leijorettes dress up as Princess Leia from Star Wars and wear boots — originally conceived as Majorette boots — thus, Leia-jorettes.)

Here are some links to Chewbacchus-related posts from prior years, if you’re curious: 2016, 2017, 2019

For the first time since I began marching in this parade, it concluded in the French Quarter, which was pretty awesome. It was a clear, cool, night, and passing by Jackson Square and St. Louis Cathedral was quite an impressive sight. (It happened too quickly for me to get a picture.)

I’ll conclude this post with some pictures I did manage to capture…

 

Themed drinks were prevalent.
An impressive tauntaun costume.
Steampunk Yoda by day…
…and by night (photo courtesy of Niece Nicole)
Niece Nicole participated as a Red Shirt (parade escort) this year!
This year’s crop of parade throws (giveaways) from Sister Elizabeth. The Baby Yodas were all claimed well before parade day.

War and Peace: 19%

Photo by Filip Bunkens on Unsplash

So, I started reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace on January 1, via Serial Reader. My goal is to finish it by the end of April.

And I’ll be honest: so far, I’m not loving it. There are a lot of characters to keep track of, and most of them are pretty unsympathetic. It doesn’t help that a preponderance of them are referred to as princes and princesses. Also, in many instances, facial expressions are described with “as ifs,” something I find highly annoying:

“Prince Vasili’s two valets were busy dressing him, and he looked round with much animation and cheerfully nodded to his son as the latter entered, as if to say: ‘Yes, that’s how I want you to look.'”

I guess the “as ifs” were the simplest way to translate the Russian to English, at the time the version I’m reading was translated. But I really don’t care enough about the story or the characters to get a better understanding. I’m satisfied with just the suspicion that there must be some nuance to the Russian language that is lost to me.

And speaking of unsympathetic characters — one of the main ones, Pierre, ties a policeman to a bear early on in the story. Yes, a bear: the big, shaggy, omnivorous, plantigrade mammal. I’m not even sure how this is done, because it’s only referenced in the past tense, as the event that gets Pierre thrown out of Saint Petersburg. I’m having a hard time getting that vision out of my head.

But, the reading experience is not without some benefits:

  • I’ve been much more engaged and enlightened by the war scenes (over the peace scenes, which mostly take place in society parlors and the like). I’ve learned that a unicorn was a type of Russian cannon from the 18th and 19th centuries.
  • I’m pretty sure I’ve never read any Russian literature before. I’m all for expanding my frame of reference, even if the experience is not 100% pleasurable. There’s some sort of lesson in the discomfort, but I’m not sure what it is yet.
  • The settings are like a fantasy to me. I’ve never been to the parts of the world where the book has taken me (Moscow, Saint Petersburg, parts of Austria), nor have I ever lived in a snowy place. There’s a scene where old man Bolkonsky (Prince Bolkonsky) has snow shoveled back onto the road to discourage the above-referenced Prince Vasili’s visit. It was kind of funny, and it’s what I was thinking about when I chose the image featured above.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say about War and Peace in future posts. That’s it for now!

Great Expectations: 100%

The collapsed Hard Rock hotel in New Orleans, January 11, 2020.

So, I finished Great Expectations at the very end of 2019. And I’m overdue in offering my appraisal of this book. So here goes:

Great Expectations has earned a pretty high spot amongst the ranks of my favorites, especially within the “classics.” Most likely because of Pip. He is such an identifiable character — everything from his fear when he first encounters Abel Magwitch as a child, to his shame and repulsion when he encounters him as a young adult, to his desire to become a gentleman all for the love of the unattainable Estella.

I figure Dickens was in his late forties when he wrote it, and I’m glad I first read it as a middle-ager. If I had read it as a younger woman, I’m sure I would have still identified with Pip, but I imagine I might have been sorely disappointed (spoiler alert) that Pip doesn’t wind up with Estella. Reading it when I did gave me more opportunity to identify with the storyteller, and the choices he made.

Because, let me tell ya, Dickens is no slouch when it comes to writing. I remember when I was reading Count of Monte Cristo, it gave me a yen to see the south of France. I didn’t get the same feeling with Great Expectations — because I felt like I was there, in the marshes of Kent, and then later in London. Dickens depicted those settings in such a way that I’ll never be able to see in real life, because time and place were so intricately linked in his descriptions. Unless time travel becomes feasible in my lifetime, I’ll never be able to see the Kent and London of the mid-19th century.

I’ll finish this up by tying in my choice to use the Hard Rock hotel as the image for this post. I saw it close-up for the first time this past weekend. There’s the obvious connection of great expectations dashed (and by no means am I trivializing the lives lost in this horrible accident, God rest their souls). But seeing it for the first time in real life, it reminded me of a Dali painting, especially the melty clocks in “The Persistence of Memory.” And with Great Expectations so fresh in my memory, it wasn’t too far a stretch to think of the stopped clocks in Miss Havisham’s house, and the ruined and rotted wedding cake in her dining room. Young Pip summed it up best, as he described Miss Havisham’s house:

“What could I become with these surroundings? How could my character fail to be influenced by them? Is it to be wondered at if my thoughts were dazed, as my eyes were, when I came out into the natural light from the misty yellow rooms?”

That’s it for now.

Hadestown

“A deeply resonant and hopeful theatrical experience.” A Google search of Hadestown provides this description under the “About” tab. To me, it’s very apt.

Musicals don’t typically make my must-see list. I love music, and I enjoy theater, but it has to be something pretty special for me to want to see the two merged together. I’ve seen my share of operas, but I always think of Richard Gere’s quote, as Edward Lewis from Pretty Woman: “People’s reaction to opera the first time they see it is very dramatic. They either love it or hate it. If they love it, they will always love it. If they don’t, they may learn to appreciate it, but it will never become part of their soul.” I definitely fall into the “I’ve learned to appreciate opera” category.

But I digress. This is supposed to be about Broadway musicals, not classic opera. Sometime over the summer, I heard an interview with the composer of Hadestown, Anaïs Mitchell. Several things jumped out at me from the interview:

  1. Hadestown is about Hades and Persephone. (And Orpheus and Eurydice), but, Persephone is, hands-down, my favorite Greek goddess.
  2. It features a bass voice (specifically, Patrick Page as Hades). I love a bass, and when it’s more than just an accent, it can be tremendously powerful.
  3. Anaïs Mitchell has been working on some version of Hadestown for more than a decade, and I can really relate to that kind of commitment to an idea. That’s passion, for sure.

All of this added up to me thinking, “Hadestown sounds like something pretty special. I might need to make a point to see it.” And see it I did, this past weekend during a long weekend in New York.

It did not disappoint.

Patrick Page is absolutely mesmerizing. But the whole cast really shines. Amber Gray is brilliant as Persephone; she plays her as a goddess I wouldn’t mind hanging out with. And André De Shields is a new favorite. He plays Hermes, who is the narrator and guide to Hadestown.

And it was all part of such a lovely weekend. I saw Hadestown with my sister Julie, who traveled to New York from Houston for the weekend. We were both there to see sister Elizabeth play a delightful Mrs. Hudson in “Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the Dying Detective.” It had been many years since either of us had seen Elizabeth in a play. And it was the first time we’d seen Elizabeth’s husband Quint perform. He made up for lost time by playing not one, but three, roles in the show.

All in all, a weekend that did not disappoint, on any front. Full of experiences that have become part of my soul. (Take that, Edward Lewis). 🙂