I have a confession: I never read Beowulf in high school. Or college. I read Canterbury Tales more times than I can count (yet only remember a handful of the stories). I read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight ad nauseum – and I like that story. But no Beowulf. How did I miss it?
I’ll tell you how, we tried to cram so much into such a short amount of time. We spent hours and hours in school, but spent very little time actually studying. Somewhere along the way, Beowulf was lost to me. I’m not sure if I was ever really exposed to it or not. It might have been something I breezed through in a Norton Anthology and regurgitated the next day for a pop quiz, only to be quickly forgotten. I couldn’t tell you. I only know that I had a vague idea that it was an epic poem involving something named Grendel when I began working at a bookstore as an adult. Even then, I couldn’t tell you if Grendel was the monster or the man.
As we began our Middle Ages/ Early Ren. (450 AD to 1600 AD) year while classically homeschooling, it dawned on me that this was the year for Beowulf. I had already read the picture book by Eric A. Kimmel to kiddo when she was a wee one, but I’m sure she was so tiny she had fallen asleep; now was the time to embrace the story.
And we did. I read her the picture book shortly before my trip to Atlanta. It fit right in with all the Celtic and Norse mythology we’ve been reading to bridge the gap between the ancient times and our exciting year ahead. “What a guy! He tore off the monster’s arm! I can’t even do that,” she exclaimed. She was very pleased that this particular picture book could give the story in “one-sitting, all today” as opposed to the stories of Odysseus and Troy which all took weeks of chapter by chapter to finish. I foresee reading this again and again over the coming months, she loved the story so much; I have to admit, I did too.
I liked it even more when I discovered there was a cartoon made in 1998 starring Joseph Fiennes as the voice of Beowulf – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QKjcoFZmKuA. We got to watch that and call it school. It was a lot of fun. (There’s one for Don Quixote we’ll be watching next year when we make it into the 1700s.)
Naturally, I was curious as to the accuracy of these versions. I won’t ever truly know, because everything is a translation, but I thought I’d give an adult version a go. There’s so many versions out there, I think I’ll just try a different one every Middle Ages cycle. So I took the Constance B. Hieatt version with me to Atlanta and enjoyed it immensely, especially the little extras at the end.
The kiddo, of course, keeps asking me why we are using “fake stories as lesson books, they aren’t real stories mother!” I keep telling her, very ineloquently, that these stories help us understand the people who told them. Read them to her as bedtime stories and naturally she’s thrilled at the excitement of them.
We’ll collect more versions over the years and by the time she is grown she will know the story well – and remember it. Next go around we’ll even tackle it in poem form, and eventually we’ll read Gardner’s Grendel.
Do you have any favorite versions of Beowulf? Or, more importantly, do you know any great stories of the time period that should not be missed?
Author: Peter Devine
My first Peter Devine book was True to the Code, a series of short stories that were as much historically educational as philosophically motivating. As much as I enjoyed my first taste of Devine’s prose, Havana Treatment was infinitely more riveting.
Peter Devine has an uncanny ability to put you in the middle of a character’s big moment only to take you right back out again. Each short story in Havana Treatment introduces you to a whole person in a just a few moments or hours, leaving you with a solid understanding of who they are, but wanting more of the story. Described as an exploration of the shelf life of a romance, Havana Treatment doesn’t disappoint, and each story is as compelling and oxymoronically uniquely typical as the next.
The human race is completely infatuated with the idea of love, and after spending time with Devine’s characters, it is easy to see why. A moment with someone can become a lifetime of dedication. A person’s soul can be boiled down to one momentous story that could have seemed so unimportant at the time, but because the encounter was so genuine it shapes someone forever.
Devine has such a strong grasp on these realities. His experience and all the people he has met in his life shape the wisdom in his tales; but in all his travels and worldliness, Devine still captures Americana and our ideas of romance like no other.
I have a cousin I’ve never met. She married my actual cousin that I grew up playing with on a good chunk of our weekends when we were kids – and special holidays – so she’s not really MY cousin, but I have a habit of adopting people that way. My family is weird, he’s the great grandson of my Grandfather’s sister, but I spent more time with their family than a lot of people spend with first cousins. Unfortunately, he flitted away out of state and I haven’t had a chance to spend time with his lovely bride.
She’s been a published author for quite awhile now, longer than I’ve been running this blog, but I had conveniently lodged that information into some lost corner of my brain – until recently, as he and I played Scrabble over Facebook.
Anjali Banerjee is the lovely woman my awesome cousin chose to spend the rest of his life with and I’m so pleased to finally read one of her books. While reading Haunting Jasmine, I felt like perhaps we were kindred spirits, as we have both written about bookstores, and clearly have a mutual passion for the written word.
She’s just way better at using those words than I am!
Author: Anjali Banerjee
Genre: Women’s Fiction
If you’re in the mood for a haunted bookshop, a fabulous Indian aunt, a god hanging out with Dr. Seuss, Jane Austen, Beatrix Potter, and a number of other ghosts – then you might need to find yourself a copy of Haunting Jasmine. Set in the north west, there’s a nice bit of ocean, some chilly weather, rain, hot tea, and a divorcee you might want to spend a day with in Seattle.
The writing is easy to get into, and she made lucky choice to use the word wafted – we all know how much I love that word, I think.
There’s a bit of a romance, but nothing too over the top to actually place it in the romance genre – it’s more about Jasmine and her journey to understanding herself and the nature of her aunt’s shop.
It’s definitely worth a bubble bath or day off, and I’m not just saying that because I’m biased. 🙂
“It’s one of the uncanniest things I know to watch a real book on its career – it follows you and follows you and drives you into a corner and makes you read it. […] Words can’t describe the cunning of some books. You’ll think you’ve shaken them off your trail, and then one day some innocent-looking customer will pop in and begin to talk, and you’ll now he’s an unconscious agent of book-destiny.” – pg. 121, The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley
Title: The Haunted Bookshop
Author: Christopher Morley
Length: 265 pages
I am constantly haunted by books. As a reviewer your TBR pile grows and grows, but there are books that you want to read that no one is asking you to that sit and lurk until finally they demand that you pick them up.
I purchased The Haunted Bookshop years ago; it was the same time I bought Parnassus on Wheels. Nearly two years after finally reading my first encounter with Morley, I’ve finally been hunted down and captured by his wonderful sequel.
“There’s only one way to lay the ghost of a book, and that is to read it.”
Now that I’ve revisited Roger and Helen Mifflin, however, I just want more. I want to know what happens after this glorious book fetish mystery. After Parnassus on Wheels, it was exciting to see Mr. and Mrs. Mifflin after they settled down. But now I want to know: how does all the inadvertent advertising change the face of Mr. Mifflin’s business. I want to hang out with these fine people until we experience their inevitable deaths. Favorite characters deserve that much, for their fans to sob at their memorials.
Mostly, I adore Mr. Mifflin’s constant book recommendations. As long as people love books there will be books about bookstores, I am convinced, because the truly bookish seek out recommendations from their favorite characters, always. That was the romance, for me, in writing The Bookshop Hotel. I hope in time that fans will see more similarities in my work to Christopher Morley than to Debbie Macomber (of whom my writing has been compared) and the like. Ultimately, however, I’m happy with however I am categorized as long as people are enjoying them.
This is fast becoming a yearly ritual.
Using only books you have read this year (2014), answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title.
Describe yourself: A Reliable Wife
How do you feel: Not Even Wrong
Describe where you currently live: Follies Past
If you could go anywhere, where would you go: The Lacuna
Your favorite form of transportation: Resolute
Your best friend is: The Book of Secrets
You and your friends are: Committed
What is the best advice you have to give: Life is Hard But God is Good
What’s the weather like: Shades of Earl Grey
You fear: The Beginner’s Goodbye
Thought for the day: Get Me Out of Here
How I would like to die: in A Circle of Quiet
My soul’s present condition: Alone
Author: Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Genre: Fiction/ Literature
Length: 458 pages
When I was a kid I had a poster of a chimpanzee on my wall. Underneath in a font that was surely intended to motivate a young mind it said: “When I Work, I Work Hard. When I Play, I Play Hard. But When I Think, I Fall Asleep.” The monkey had his chin resting in his human-like hand, eyes drooped down.
Although I’ve read more books that my norm this year, I’ve just *mostly* finished my 93rd title, it’s been a lot of fluff. It’s been a lot of things that digest easily and go down like lemonade on a hot summer day, or cooled hot cocoa in winter. The heavier stuff that I tend to enjoy has bored me. I’m too tired for all this thinking. My energies are spent writing. I want to just download books into my head, Matrix style, when I sit down to read.
One Hundred Years of Solitude has been sitting on my shelf radiating all this promise for years. I’ve put it off because it was going to blow my mind. It was going to be too wonderful for words. Then, when the words came, it was supposed to be the most intelligent thing that had ever come from my mouth – or been typed by my fingers. Because it’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Because Garcia is wonderful. Because this is his magnum opus.
I was bored.
There’s a lot to take in. There’s a lot to quote. I could never write anything so wonderful in all my life.
But around page 300 out of the 458 pages, I caught myself skimming. The drama was annoying me. The people were unfriendly. I couldn’t relate to anyone, nor did I want to. This probably says more about my mood than anything else, but I started flicking through the pages speed reading to a level that even I know I’m not really reading anymore.
“Not finishing a book that doesn’t move you is a sign of reading maturity,” I just told a co-worker at the bookstore tonight. “It’s knowing that there are so many wonderful things out there that you shouldn’t waste your time with things that aren’t wonderful.” I waste my time with things that aren’t wonderful all the time. Even more so, I waste my time with things that are wonderful even if I’m not feeling wonder at them at all, I’m just reading it because I’m supposed to feel awed.
Around page 370 or so, I took a deep breath, skipped to the last chapter and read it. Yes, I skipped pages. Lots of them. And just read the end. I still started nodding off. I’m not even that tired (ok, I am that tired, but good books are supposed to keep you awake!), just that unmoved by this family and their crap. Sadly, I didn’t feel like I missed anything at all. I was just relieved that it was over, that I was going to mark this one off my list. Then, I felt the annoyance of the knowledge that I was not going to write my one solid literary essay of the year, at least not on this book. (Once a year or so, I write an essay. A proper one, as though I’m still in school. It’s lame. And nerdy. But I feel like I have to do this to stay in practice. You know, in case I ever go back. They get worse every year. I’ve stopped sharing them. Now, it looks like I’ve even stopped writing them.)
I’m further annoyed that this is a favorite book of my best friend. I hate that I can’t share that with her.
Maybe I’ll read those pages I skipped one day. Maybe. For now, I’ll admit defeat and enjoy my sleep.
Title: City of Lost Souls
Author: Cassandra Clare
Genre: Young Adult/ Fantasy
Length: 534 pages
For me, what makes the writings of Cassandra Clare so captivating isn’t the fairy tale romance, the paranormal elements, or the bad ass fight sequences… at the heart of it all, it’s the way Clare manages to make a young adult fantasy saga an sequence of unexpected odes to her favorite pieces of literature.
“No man chooses evil because it is evil. He only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.” – Mary Wollstonecraft
“Love is familiar. Love is a devil. There is no evil angel but Love.” – William Shakespeare, Love’s Labour’s Lost
“I love you as one loves certain dark things.” – Pablo Neruda, “Sonnet XVII”
“All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.” – William Butler Yeats, “Easter, 1916”
If you recall my review of The Book of Secrets you should be well aware of how much I cherish this particular aspect of storytelling. I love peeping into the mind of the author and what they’ve read before – what work we may have both cherished. I love to see how others acknowledge how literature builds a soul. Even if that soul is an imagined character in another book.
A reviewer on Goodreads mentioned they thought it was silly that all these Shadowhunter kids were completely oblivious of what went on in the mundane world half the time – Jace completely misses references to Madonna or Dungeons & Dragons games – but are well versed in William Shakespeare and Dante.
As a classical book geek it makes perfect sense to me. I was raised on Charles Dickens and the Brontes, not the latest boy band or pop culture trends. Poetry is timeless. New Kids on the Block obviously not so much.
One doesn’t expect these odes and references in a paranormal teen romance. I suppose that’s what makes them so stunningly lovely.
Title:The Book of Secrets
Author:Elizabeth Joy Arnold
Publisher: Bantam Books
Genre: Fiction/ Literature/ Books About Books
Length: 450 pages
I checked this book out from the library, but this is not a library book. This is a book you need three copies of – a hardback first edition signed by the author, a copy for reading and scribbling notes in the margins, and a copy to loan to your friends. I’m devastated that I’ll be shoving it through a book drop later this afternoon, it will leave my hands and slide down a shoot to be re-cataloged and re-shelved. When all I really want to do is sleep with it under my pillow.
I was up all night reading. Not all night, but well passed my thirty year old motherhood appropriate bedtime.
Part One was titled Chronicles of Narnia, Part Two: Where the Wild Things Are, and so on – each section of the book titled and designed to reflect story that tied ever so gracefully into a famous book title. The whole book is not just a riveting story, it is a love letter to literature.
If you are a Kate Morton fan, the architecture of this book will be right up your alley. It’s beautifully done, marvelously written, and simultaneously raw and eloquent. It may even be better than anything Kate Morton wrote, and saying that feels like blasphemy because I adore her and own all her books.
There were so many gorgeous quotes I wanted to underline, and now I don’t know where they were in the book, because it was a library copy so I couldn’t. I should have jotted them down, but I was too eager to read what would come next. The whole reading experience was captivating and surreal.
“I thought it was a dream,” Thomas said. We were sitting in the library…
“Then it came to me: Zola had said: ‘To have a child, to plant a tree, to write a book.’ That, he said, was a full life!” – Betty Smith
What I love about being a book reviewer is the constant discovery of new things. Picking up books I may have never had the opportunity to read, and learning from those books – not how to write better necessarily, but – what kind of writer I want to be.
Book reviewing has also required me to read things more closely, not just the way I would for school, but in a more personal way as well. It’s not just about finding the literary value, it’s not just about liking or not liking, it becomes more and more important to be able to people and my readers why I loved a book. What moved me to passion? What is so relevant about this story to my own life? In doing that, it makes me dig deeper into myself, deeper into my library, and deeper into the art of research.
I’ve slacked off the last few weeks about publishing a literary journal post, but I haven’t stopped reading the literary journals. I meant to write this yesterday, it’s been dancing around in my head the last few weeks as I’ve alternated between picking my way through McSweeney’s issue 18 and researching to see if anything was written about Betty Smith. I’ve been scouring the internet for evidence of things written about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, or perhaps a long buried article or story she may have had published before infamy. I didn’t know a lot about her, so it’s been an educational endeavor.
I started with what was available in the back of the Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition that I read the book from. The little extras this edition provides are wonderful, including the first piece Smith ever published: a bit of prose called “Winter” when she was 8 years old and still in grade school, under the name Elizabeth Wehner.
I enjoyed reading the article from This Week that she wrote called “Fall in Love With Life.” It’s a beautiful glimpse into her mind and life and what led her to know that she had had a full and marvelous life. It was refreshing to read, after feeling like a failure on most days, knowing I’ve had a child, planted a tree, and written book, changed my outlook on my life at 30.
Of course, the research continued and in my searching I found this: http://web.njit.edu/~cjohnson/tree/context/context.htm
I also found this and am pretty disappointed that I can’t find a copy of “On Discovering Thomas Hardy” anywhere: http://www2.lib.unc.edu/mss/inv/s/Smith,Betty.html
If anyone knows of any publications or articles written on or by Betty Smith, please share. I’d like to discover them too.
Last year I stumbled across a fun little activity on Becky’s Book Reviews blog. I’m in the mood to do it again today… My 2012 Life in Literature Meme.
Using only books you have read this year (2013), answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title.
Describe yourself: The Year of Magical Thinking – Didion
How do you feel: If These Walls Had Ears – Morgan
Describe where you currently live: Eden’s Outcasts – John Matteson
If you could go anywhere, where would you go: Over Sea, Under Stone – Cooper
Your favorite form of transportation: Born to Run – McDougall
Your best friend is: The Wild Girls – Murphy
You and your friends are: The Immortal Class – Culley
What is the best advice you have to give: Love is a Choice – Minirth
What’s the weather like: Going Native
You fear: The Distant Hours – Morton
Thought for the day: Don’t Die By Your Own Hands – Holmes
How I would like to die: Surprised by Joy – Lewis
My soul’s present condition: The Evolution of Jane – Cathleen Schine