Thoughts and Reflections

Christmastime and Books

Reflection

I think I’m a bit young to count any book as “tradition for Christmas” but there are two books and two short stories that I’ve made sure to read as often as I could around the Christmas period. My #1 rule is that the “Holiday Season” doesn’t begin until after Dec 10. Decorating the day right after Halloween is a little unsettling.

Making Christmas all about buying things in high consumerism anxiety, followed by Black Friday videos trending, and making this madness last from November 1 is something that takes away so much magic from Christmas for me. I was recently sent a mini list by Julie Morris, who wrote on the importance of being reflective on the presents you buy for yourself and others around the Christmas period, and the value of reflecting on how those gifts will improve our lives and those of the people around us. Here are some of the recommendations for more thoughtful gifts, if you are looking for ideas. I personally found it to be useful. That is, other than books of course. Feel free to email me or comment if you are looking for book recommendations for someone (perhaps with a brief summary of what they’ve liked in the past). I would love to help!

Books

My #1 Novel for Christmas and favourite depiction of Santa Claus was written by Frank L. Baum: The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus.  This book is amazing. I love the mythological layers added to Santa. In this version he was raised by woodland creatures and fairies. It’s almost a bildungsroman where we get to see how Santa becomes who he is, and how he became immortal. The movie is an excellent adaptation as well.

 

 

Then there are these two stories by Hans Christian Andersen

So far I think I’ve read “The Little Match Girl” every year since I was six years old. It’s one of my absolute favourite stories of all time. I love this story so much I started illustrating it:

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Then, there’s  Dickens’s novella A Christmas Carol. Yes, everyone reads it, but it’s pretty darn good. Also, it kind of makes you reflect on the year and the resolutions for the new one. I am the proud owner of many Charles Dickens Christmas stories

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Lastly, there are works that are not necessarily Christmas related, but they are personal associations with Christmas. For many, it’s a tradition to watch Harry Potter, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Home Alone, or Elf. Some associate Apple Cider, or Egg Nog with Christmas; particular tastes, and particular smells.

For me personally, Christmas means:

Smells: pine, and oranges

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The smells of Christmas

Food: Salata de Beouf (Romanian Dish for Christmas)

Books (non-related to the ones mentioned above): The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Movies I really enjoyed around the Christmas period: How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Peter Pan (2003), Little Women, Meet Me in St. Louis  and (recently added) Frozen. I also watch adaptations of the three main books/stories mentioned above, or Winnie the Pooh Christmas movies.

Lastly, I absolutely HATE every Christmas song, carol, and/or melody. I think they are so depressing (I’m sorry). I have seen wonderful performers, and family members sing them beautifully, but the melodies themselves put me in such a sad state of mind, I can’ t do it. (Let’s call it a quirk?)

To me, Christmas means the mythology of Santa, the coziness of winter, where the snow is a blanket over dormant parts of nature, and there’s good food, loving family, and a fire place. I want to feel cozy, comfortable, and safe, but I don’t want to experience the layer of sadness that also descends upon Christmas, which comes from the grayness in the atmosphere and from the Christmas songs (for me personally). I know that this is different for everyone and each individual experiences Christmas differently but every year I can’t ignore that there is a general sadness around this time. This feeling turns into optimism and excitement for the new year with plans, hopes, and new dreams. Life is about balance so I guess we need both feelings to get by. I hope that you will have a lovely Christmas time this year and no matter what happens, you get to enjoy at least a great short story!

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Beowulf: Grendel’s Mother

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Incipit page for Beowulf section in MS Cotton Vitellius A XV

After watching a few adaptations of Beowulf, I couldn’t help but wonder if it made sense for Angelina Jolie to play Grendel’s mother in the latest interpretation. It didn’t seem right. I went back to the Old English text to see if it makes any sense. Turns out I was wrong.

Beowulf has been fully translated by sixty-five (and counting) translators, has been adapted into four films (including an animated and a post-apocalyptic version), two shorter animated films, a rock-opera with music by Dave Malloy, it has been incorporated in various comic books and graphic novels and has made its way into smaller independent short clips on YouTube (and children’s shows) in addition to being referenced and parodied within contemporary comedy. With all the representations and adaptations, despite some characters being omitted (such as Wiglaf in Gunnarsson’s 2005 film) Beowulf has remained portrayed as a strong, muscular male, Grendel as a hideous monster and King Hrothgar and his wife as a middle aged couple worn by time and troubles. Grendel’s mother however, differs from the rest due to her shape-shifting portrayal throughout the adaptations. Her monstrosity and destructive powers are bent; yet from a demonic beast, to an Amazon-like figure, to a sexually appealing seductress, Grendel’s mother remains successful in destroying Hrothgar’s peace and bringing Beowulf to her cave. In the original text we are told that:

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Grendel’s mother in online depiction

“widcuþ werum   þætte wreccend þa gyt

Lifde æfter laþum       lange þrage

Æfter guðceare    Grendles modor

Ides aglaecwif   yrmþe gemunde

se þe wæteregesan   wunian scolde”

[widely known by men / that an avenger still / lived after the misfortunes, for a long time / after the hostile one, Grendel’s mother / lad troll-wife, remembered misery / she who had to inhabit the dreadful water] (Beowulf, 1253-1261a)

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Second online depiction

The word “wrecend” resonates as a masculine quality, one highly valued by the Anglo-Saxons, yet pertaining to male warriors thus making Grendel’s mother an Amazon-like figure. The idea of avenging the murder of a dead one is a recurrent theme in Anglo-Saxon literature, but the poet of Beowulf adds a few lines emphasizing the “troll’s” motherly role:

“…ond his modor þa gyt

Gifre ond galgmond   gegan wolde

Sorhfulne sið      sunnu deað wrecan”

[and his mother even now / greedy and gloomy-hearted / wished to go forth / on a sorrowful journey to avenge her son’s death] (Beowulf 1276-8)

Burton Raffel adds more sensitivity in his translation of this passage translating it as “His mother’s sad heart, and her greed, drove her from her den on the dangerous pathway of revenge” creating a dynamic to this character. A monster who first appears repulsive and masculine in her heroic return to avenge her son (the act of avenge as one commendable by Anglo-Saxon standards) is now presented to us in feminine form, as a mother. This alone makes her action of kidnapping and killing Hrothgar’s kinsman Æschere completely justified. Though as readers we may not be on her side, we understand her actions.

Grendel’s mother is perhaps one of the first females in Anglo-Saxon literature with feminist qualities. She is not only like an Amazon in her warrior nature, but also like the Greek Goddess Athena, seeker of justice (in her quest to settle an equal ransom for her son’s death by taking only one victim) and strong in battle searing for equality based on merit in a man-dominated society. The poet writes:

“                            waes se gryre laessaraffel

Efne swa micle      swa bið mæg þa cræft

Wiggryre wifes      bewaepned men

Þonne heoru bunden    hamere geþuren

Sweord swate fah   swin over helme

Ecgum dyhttig      andweard scireð”

[The horror was less / by even so much as is maid’s strength / the war-violence of woman from an armed man / when adorned blade by hammer forged / sword stained with blood the boar-crest / by edges firm the opposing is sheared] (Beowulf, 1282-5)

Interestingly enough, in Seamus Heaney’s translation of this same passage he writes “her onslaught was less only by as much as an Amazon warrior’s strength.” The key word being “Amazon” since it is absent in the Old English text, yet Heaney too detects that Grendel’s mother’s characteristics resonate with previously encountered female warriors in Greek epic poetry.

What sets Grendel’s mother apart from an Amazon-figure in a somewhat strange way is the fact that she has a son. Between lines 1354 and 1356 Hrothgar says “if he [Grendel] had a father no one knew him” suggesting Grendel’s mother could have been sexually involved with a man, since Grendel resembles men in his physical characteristics (only with more strength). This raises the question of Grendel’s mother’s appearance and it is with this detail that her portrayal becomes diverse as one may wonder if a man was attracted to this woman or if she truly is an anthropomorphic beast. When it comes to description this monster is left to the mercy of the translators and adapters.51cofDOKunL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

For instance, when describing her kidnapping to Æschere in line 1295 which in Old English appears to be “fæste befangen,” Burton Raffel uses words like “dripping claws” where Heaney simply writes “tight hold” with no mention of “claw.” “Claw” implies a hideous beast with animal features whereas “tight hold” simply emphasizes strength.

Even upon explaining the mother and son Raffel only says that “one of the devils was a female creature…they named the huge one Grendel: if he had a father no one knew him” whereas Heaney writes “one…looks like a woman; the other…an unnatural birth called Grendel…they are fatherless creatures…and their whole ancestry is hidden in a past of demons and ghosts.” The difference between the two is huge as one implies Grendel was from his mother’s womb and may have had a father, whereas the other implies they are demonic, fatherless creatures.

In his book Beowulf and Grendel, John Grigsby writes:

“since the poet makes it clear that Grendel and his mother are amongst such fiends [descendants of Cain] it can be deduced that this pair of monsters were originally divinities too—namely the fertility God and his lover/mother of ancient Denmark. She’s referred to as ‘cursed spirits,’ ‘demons,’ ‘monster of the deep,’ and ‘water-witch.’”

Simply by working with text and translation, Grendel’s mother obtains a dynamic through her actions as feminist, warrior, avenger, and mother. In description we do not know if she is as hideous as Grendel or not. Stepping aside from the text for a moment we can observe how modern artists have envisioned Grendel’s mother.

In Graham Baker’s post-apocalyptic film in 1999, various comic books, and Gareth Hinds’s graphic novel, she takes the form of an alien-like figure. Face and body, she does not resemble humans in any characteristics and her role is miniscule, having no impact on the rest of the plot. Her interference is minor as the main focus is on the Dragon and Grendel, thus diminishing the female warrior presence.

51TCWCPKJFL._SY445_       In Sturla Gunnarsson’s 2005 film, some choices were made in this regard, though not plot-altering. We first see Grendel’s mother as an arm grabbing for the warriors on a boat from beneath the waters, where she becomes a mysterious faceless figure, until she finally has her revenge where she has a human body (though bluish in colour) and a beast-like face with sharp teeth. What makes this portrayal interesting is that, at the beginning of the film the audience sees Grendel’s “father” who we do not encounter in the original text. Though in the fil he appears a strong, tall man, he is a man nonetheless and Grendel then becomes a product of the copulation between the tall nameless man and the monstrous nameless woman. In this movie, Grendel himself is avenging his father’s death (which as the director interprets he was killed by Hrothgar) giving him the role his mother has in the text (that of the avenger).

Lastly, and perhaps the boldest interpretation of Grendel’s mother was carried out by Robert Zemeckis in 2007 (written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery). Using the motion-capture process, Zemeckis models Grendel’s mother after Angelina Jolie, famous for her beauty (the simulation replicating the actress’s looks onto the animation panel). This adaptation makes Grendel’s mother a main character and Grendel a mere pawn in her larger game. Her power is not warrior-like; rather she use her sexuality as a weapon—a female weapon. The movie implies that Grendel’s mother seduced Hrothgar years before, and Grendel was not only his son, but the curse she set upon Hrothgar for being weak and giving in to her seductive powers. This, putting a strain on Hrothgar’s marriage, made him want to rid of Grendel and ultimately Grendel’s mother. She is in fact portrayed as Hrothgar’s burden. When Beowulf descends to her lair, Zemeckis’s film implies that Beowulf too gives in to the siren’s seductive powers and the moment he does so, the burden is no longer on Hrothgar but it is transferred to Beowulf. Hrothgar’s ‘freedom’ is portrayed by him committing suicide and Beowulf replacing him on the throne.p-beowulf-grendels-mother

What is interesting of this sexual siren representation of Grendel’s mother, is that the original text allows it to exist. Her description in the text, as previously examined, allows for her looks to be charming and only her character to be beastly and vengeful, as Zemeckis showed her in his film. Interestingly enough, after Beowulf’s burial, the ending of the film is Grendel’s mother waking up from the waters looking in the eyes of her next victim. Although in the original text Beowulf successfully kills her, this film makes Grendel’s mother appear immortal. Her cyclical seducing, torturous and murderous activity can perhaps symbolize the way Beowulf as a text has charmed audiences in Anglo-Saxon England and continues to do so each generation, making us all its slaves, unable to resist the charm that lies in the Old English poetry.

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I still have to read Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf — recently published by his son, and I’m a bit hesitant because Tolkien himself didn’t release it in his lifetime which makes me believe it wasn’t a finished product, or something he was comfortable publishing. We do owe Tolkien a lot for bringing Beowulf out of the darkness. Perhaps I will write a post sometime soon on the history of the Beowulf portion of the MS Cotton Vitellius A XV, and how its popularity increased after Tolkien’s 1936 lecture “Beowulf the Monsters and the Critics” which I highly recommend if you haven’t read it yet.

Deserted (“Desert”) Island Books

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Short answer: if you want to know people’s favourite books DON’T ask “what would you take on an island” because you’ll get survival answers, raft answers, long books one would like to read but hasn’t, and nostalgia for physical editions which have a sentimental value attached to them.

Long answer and personal choices:

I’ve always had issues with the question of “desert island” books (which should be deserted but let’s let that slide). Sometimes people rephrase it as “if there was a fire, which books would you save?” which is an entirely different question. What people want to know when they ask it is: what are your favourite books? Sometimes one is forced to narrow it down to five. I think, this question should be rephrased to “list your five favourite books up to this point in your life based on content and nostalgia.” There will be some books that you genuinely thought were brilliant as an adult and enjoyed the experience of reading them, and some have amazing memories attached to them like: “when mom read ‘x’ to me on our vacation in ‘y.’” The ‘up to this point’ part leaves room for you to know that the list could change and grow as you change and grow. So let’s break it down.

Now, the ISLAND question. First of all, ‘characters isolated on an island’ is my favourite theme, so if I would answer honestly, people would think I just got ‘inspired’ by the question. If you check out my favourites page you’ll many isolated characters on an island. The island implies a few things and depending on how you see it, it influences your answer. The three things implied are:

  1. You have all the time in the world to yourself
  2. You are completely alone and socially isolated
  3. You might need to survive and/or escape

These are three separate questions which are added to the ‘deserted island question.’ Some people give the smartass answer: “I’d bring How to Build a Raft.” Really? You have no idea how far away you are from any land, you hardly have access to drinkable water (no way you can carry enough with you) and if you don’t know how to build a raft, how do you expect to navigate? Seriously, everyone should know how to build a raft by now, it’s 2017. So the ‘Fire’ and ‘Island’ questions are actually four separate questions. Here’s how I would answer them:

Which books would you save from the fire?

This question is actually more about the physical book because you’re not saving the story. In a case of actual fire, if you had to save five books, most people would save:

  • Rare editions
  • Books with sentimental value (book you have from childhood, book grandma gave you with her inscription on it, book signed by your favourite author)

What you actually save from the fire, isn’t the STORY or plot line, you are saving the physical object and the additional attachments, which sometimes, may have nothing to do with the story. So please don’t ask the fire question unless you want to know what rare editions and special physical books someone has in their home.

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My Answer for This Question:

  • My 1777, 3rd English translation of Plutarch’s Lives, translated by Thomas North. I found it at a flea market in Oxford when studying there. I have fond memories of the time I found it, it was only £10 and it’s a beautiful copy of a wonderful text. Just think that the first edition (1579) of this book was the source and foundation for Shakespeare when writing his classical-based plays.
  • My Annotated Brothers Grimm with an inscription on the cover from Maria Tatar (the annotator). She is one of my favourite academics and I had the chance to meet her once and have lunch with her. She sent me this book as a gift a month later. The inscription says “here’s to magic.”
  • My 1910 copy of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. This book was hard to find, and I love it so much, and it’s a rare edition.
  • My Romanian edition of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales. When I was seven years old, St. Nicholas (on Dec 6 he leaves presents in your shoes) gave me that book and I cherished it for many years. It’s the only book I brought with me when I moved to Canada.
  • Lord of the Rings (Deluxe Editions). One of my favourite teachers from high school gave me this book. It’s so beautiful, irreplaceable, and from someone I really respected.

The THREE Island Sub-Questions

FOR SURVIVAL

579309Here I would ideally have books like: which plants are poisonous, herb books, natural remedies, how to navigate in nature, which fruits/vegetables are edible, how to preserve foods for long periods of time. I would also be more concerned with building a tree house, rather than trying to get away.8152608

Also…Island-Specific Mental Survival! I would take with me The Ultimate Lost and Philosophy. It would give me a guideline, and a higher purpose/hope whilst being there, and it would remind me of one of my favourite shows. It would strengthen my relationship with the island.

ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD

This aspect of the Island question which some people answer with, implies that you FINALLY have time to read books that you didn’t get a chance to yet, but definitely want to read. Given all the time and freedom, you’ll finally do it. Here’s the problem: HOW do you know you will like them? What if you bring with you Infinite Jest, Middlemarch, and War and Peace….and then find out that you don’t like any of them all that much, and realize: they’re now going to be with you on the island forever and you don’t even like them! Also, even if you were to ‘study’ it for a purpose like writing a great academic paper, or showing off to your friends—well, there’s no chance you can get OFF the island ever. So you have to choose the ones that you love alone, so you must be honest with yourself. Here are some books that are really long and it’s something I wanted to get to but I’m scared of starting because they are way too long of a commitment:

  • In Search of Lost Time – Marcel Proust
  • The Wheel of Time Omnibus – Robert Jordan (and Brandon Sanderson). I am not sure if an omnibus exists yet, I’m just trying to incorporate a series into one.
  • The Gormenghast Trilogy – Mervyn Peake
  • The Complete Arabian Nights (I’ve read individual stories but never the complete)
  • A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

Again, there is no guarantee I would absolutely love any of these, but they are long works I would get to if I was focused, alone, and had a lot of time.

FAVOURITE NOVELS (Good Company)

The bottom line, the question based on content, and story, with a mix of nostalgia. What would I bring? Most fairy tales and children’s lit, as well as Lord of the Rings, are so deeply ingrained in my mind that I don’t think it would need to be ‘read’ or ‘reread’ on the island alone. I could probably write them from memory. But here is my squad:

  • The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi) by Hermann Hesse
  • The Complete Works of William Shakespeare
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
  • Necronomicon by H.P. Lovecraft
  • The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

This is the company I’d like to keep, I mean, obviously it doesn’t cover poetry, and all the others, but if I really had to narrow it down to five people’s works that I absolutely love, and would enjoy reading and rereading on an island alone…I think these would be the ones. Again, it’s subject to change as I go on.

Ultimately my point is, that asking someone “What books would you take on a ‘desert’ island” or “which books you’d save from the fire” have different implications, and different answers.  So if you want to know people’s favourite questions DON’T ask that because you’ll get survival answers, raft answers, long books I’d like to read answers, and nostalgia for physical editions which have a sentimental value attached to them.

Rabbit Hole | Reading Reflection

“Rabbit Hole is not a tidy play. Resist smoothing out its edges” – David Lindsay-Abaire

38700I’m not really sure where to begin with Rabbit Hole. I loved it so much. This play was written by David Lindsay-Abaire, published in 2007, and yes, that makes it 10 years old right now. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2007 and in 2010 was turned into a film featuring Nicole Kidman in the leading role. I really want to discuss the details of this play, and figure out what it is that I love about it—in doing so, I will most likely spoil the play for you, so if you want to read it without spoilers, I suggest you don’t read ahead on this blog post. Consider yourself warned.

Rabbit Hole is told simply, but contains a complex narrative with complicated relationship dynamics. Beeca and Howie are two young parents who have just lost their 4 year old son Danny. Danny chased the dog into the road and got hit by a teenage driver. This play is a glimpse into their daily life several months after the tragedy and the ways in which they cope with it. Howie likes to constantly celebrate Danny’s life and look at home-made videos of him, and he needs to talk about it so he goes to support groups. Becca on the other hand can’t stand the constant reminders of Danny in the house. She wants his fingerprints gone from the windows, his drawings off the fridge, the dog away from the house, and eventually to move out. Howie on the other hand loves all those things in the house. Above all, Becca refuses to talk about it with anyone. The subtle ways these things come up are shown in the little interactions Becca and Howie have with extended family, neighbours, and friends. While others tiptoe around them and either avoid them completely or try to be extra sensitive and offer advice, Howie and Becca feel awkward around them. Advice is transparent, and ‘relatability’ goes right through them because no one grieves the same way. The worst is when people try to draw comparisons between what happened to them personally when they encountered death, and what is happening to Becca and Howie now. On the other hand, Becca gets irritated by little things, like seeing a mother ignore her child at the grocery store when he asked for candy (a fruit roll-up). The lady’s parenting style got to Becca. She wanted to grab her and tell her to appreciate her child while he is there, not take him for granted, and explain why he can’t have the candy, rather than ignoring him. Becca sees Danny everywhere in the details of her home and wishes she could just ignore the details and the memories, but this woman is purposely ignoring her living, breathing child.

The play takes a turn when the character of Jason is introduced. Jason is seventeen years old and was the driver who ran over Danny. He wants to talk to Becca and Howie. He tries to reach out several times. The first time is by means of a letter and in it he encloses a science fiction story he wrote about parallel universes, which he dedicates to Danny. The story is called Rabbit Hole. The first time we see Becca truly discuss her grief and have a good cry about it is in the presence of Jason. Jason is intriguing to her, because he seems equally broken. There are a few parallels between Jason and Danny, and (in my opinion) Becca looks at Jason as what Danny might have become if he was given the chance to grow up. For one, Jason draws a few parallels between him and Danny in the letter by referencing robots and how he too liked them as a child. Danny’s favourite book was The Runaway Rabbit, whereas Jason writes Rabbit Hole. It was so strange to me the first time I read this, and even when watching the movie, that Becca loses her temper with everyone else except the person who actually killed her son. We get only glimpses into Jason’s life but we know that he is broken by what happened, that he’s trying to be normal and can’t and has a desperate desire to have a different life. He contemplates parallel universes, because he likes to think that there is a world where he didn’t kill Danny. One can also look at Rabbit Hole as a direct reference to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, as it being a portal into madness for everyone involved.

There are two other characters constantly present. The first is Izzy, Becca’s irresponsible sister who gets to be pregnant and one can sense that Becca feels like Izzy doesn’t deserve to be a mother—Izzy feels that judgement herself. The second character is Nat, Becca’s mother. She too had lost a son, Becca’s brother, who killed himself at the age of 39. He was a cocaine addict. Whenever she tries to compare the loss of her son, with the loss of Danny, Becca shuts her up right way. She can’t stand comparison. Most importantly, she can’t stand the thought that a 39 year old man who self-harmed and lived a “sinful life” can be compared to, or be the same as an innocent four-year-old.

Lastly, I was taken aback by the author’s note at the end of the play. He is very direct about his instructions to future actors, but in it he reveals just a little more about Jason’s character. He writes:

“It’s a sad play. Don’t make it any sadder than it needs to be…if the stage directions don’t mention tears, please resist adding them…I KNOW Jason shouldn’t cry, ever. (Yes, he’s haunted by the death of Danny, but his emotions aren’t especially accessible to him…please, no choked-up kids openly racked with guilt. That’s not who he is. Restraint, please.)”

I am completely astounded at how David Lindsay-Abaire managed to pack so much depth, detail, and complexity while using such simple dialogue. No one talks too much—the longest being maybe two sentences at a time. The interactions are brief and subtle, but carry with them a back story. It’s rivaling Hemingway’s style (particularly in his short stories), and dare-I-say, I think I enjoy Rabbit Hole more. There is so much to discuss. I wish I could go into the details of parallel universes and their significance, the backstory we can piece together for Jason, the potential affair Howie had, the differences in the ways all these characters grieve, attempts at healing, and the ending of the play slipping into normality. There is so much to discuss, and I think this play is so important. If they ever stop teaching A Streetcar Named Desire in schools, they should replace it with this one. This was a perfect 5-star play for me.

 

Author Spotlight: Caitlin Doughty

 “The Order is about making death a part of your life. That means committing to staring down your death fears- whether it be your own death, the death of those you love, the pain of dying, the afterlife (or lack thereof), grief, corpses, bodily decomposition, or all of the above. Accepting that death itself is natural, but the death anxiety and terror of modern culture are not.” – The Order of the Good Death

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“The Funeral of Shelley” by Louis Édouard Fournier

Caitlin Doughty is one of the most wonderful women I stumbled upon on YouTube, and I am so glad I did. Since I was five years old, I’ve had many encounters with death. Born and raised in Romania, open casket funerals and three-day wakes in the home are followed by so many practices that I can say I was very much involved with the handling of many human corpses from death to burial. Washing the corpse, preparing food and serving it to more than half the town, kissing the corpse’s forehead, guarding it night and day for three days, and covering all the mirrors in the house in a black shroud for the whole time the corpse is in the house were all perfectly normal requests in rural Romania. Most importantly, death was (and is) very much a part of daily conversation. In the West however, bodies are hidden and even worse: death is hardly discussed. I constantly feel like a morbid weirdo (in Canada) talking about something that had been a huge part of my childhood and the many ways in which it confronted me to question my life, and prepare for my inevitable death. When I encountered Caitlin Doughty on YouTube it was like meeting a long-lost friend.

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Caitlin Doughty

Doughty was born and raised in Hawaii and after witnessing a death at the age of eight she became fascinated with the topic. She studied the medieval period at University, and after attending mortuary school, apprenticed at a crematory in Los Angeles. Becoming more and more familiar with the practices of embalming, cremation, and funeral practices in America, Doughty began to notice some red flags regarding the funeral industry. Funeral home directors taking advantage of mourning family members by pushing upon them caskets worth thousands of dollars (all to make money of course, and so the people cutting the grass don’t have to go over uneven ground), pushing embalming practices, as well as presenting these topics in a light that make the remaining family members believe it is legally enforced. Imbuing bodies with toxic chemicals, and incorporating them in non-biodegradable caskets have damaging consequences for the environment. In addition, taking bodies away and hiding them from the moment of death hardly allows the family to process the death of a loved one. Lastly, people disengaged from discussion about and around death live in a constant dread. Thinking of human remains boxed in a rigid casket six feet under as a possibility (at least for me) is really quite frightening.

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Doughty’s first book

When I heard that one could be buried in a pod in fetal position organically decomposing beneath a tree–it was the first time I got excited about my death (weird to say out loud). Just the thought that with my body I could nourish the Earth, and live in a different form in a ‘Sacred Forest’ makes me happy. But not just me, ‘many’ according to Caitlin want to become trees and have an organic death in different forms. She gave two TED Talks focusing on The Corpses that Changed My Life (which in text format–with far more details–became Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory) and most recently: A Burial Practice that Nourishes the Planet which is a summary of what she now encourages: a natural burial. Caitlin herself repeats that what she is suggesting is not ‘her idea,’ ‘new,’ or ‘an invention’ because it’s a practice that has been done in different forms all over the world, and in history. She now works on advocating for an environmentally friendly burial, a burial practice that respects the wishes of the dead person, and most importantly on educating the public about their options, their rights, and the opportunities available. Doughty became the founder of The Order of the Good Death.  If you click on the title you can find more about it from the website itself, run by a large team advocating for educating the public on ‘the good death.’ There are links there that can lead you to other books written on topics like ‘death,’ or ‘ghosts’ which are academic in nature. Caitlin’s YouTube channel “Ask a Mortician” is absolute gold! In videos ranging from 4-10 minutes Doughty tackles topics like “What happened to the dead bodies on Everest?” “How is Vladimir Lenin’s Body Preserved?” or “What’s the deal with La Pascualita?” — seriously I binge-watched 5 years of YouTube in a week.

511i6HQoG+L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_The support from viewers of her work for The Order of the Good Death on Patreon, and encouragement from a large number of people reading her first book, motivated Doughty to travel to several countries, and some American States to learn about their burial practices–Indonesia, Bolivia, and California among them. On October 3rd of 2017 her book From Here to Eternity was published by W. W. Norton & Company. In this book, Doughty dedicates a chapter to a different location and examines how the role of death fits into the larger conversation, how burial practices are carried through, and how/what we can learn from them.

The book is accompanied by wonderful illustrations executed to perfection by Landis Blair. His artwork is dark and highly atmospheric. Blair himself is a member of The Order of the Good Death. 

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Illustration by Landis Blair

If you are fortunate enough to live in the United States, Doughty will be going on a book tour very soon, and the dates have been listed HERE. If you are near one of them I highly encourage you to go. I must emphasize that no one asked me to review this book or promote Doughty, this is what I would genuinely recommend, and what I genuinely enjoy/believe in. I am grateful that people like Doughty exist. I highly recommend her books, her YouTube channel, and her message.

I will close off as Doughty always does on her channel:

“and remember: you WILL die.” 

 

 

Plath and Hughes | Opinion

“The scholars want the anatomy of the birth of the poetry; and the vast potential audience want her blood, hair, touch, smell, and a front seat in the kitchen where she died…neither audience makes me feel she owes them anything.”

–Ted Hughes, The Observer, November 21, 1971

“It’s hard to read the original manuscript without trying to understand what Hughes was thinking when he left out certain poems and included others. She loved him. He hurt her. All of us who love her work are caught like children in that crossfire forever.” 

-Los Angeles Times

Last Tuesday, April 11 The Guardian posted one article around 4:00 p.m. written from an objective standpoint by Danuta Kean titled “Unseen Sylvia Plath letters claim domestic abuse by Ted Huges” showing how some letters to Plath’s therapist (Barnhouse) from Plath herself suggest that Hughes was physically abusive just before her miscarriage. Shortly after, The Guardian followed up with an opinion piece, only four hours later, by Sarah Churchwell titled: “Sylvia Plath, a voice that can’t be silenced” where Churchwell dives a little deeper in the dynamics of the marriage and draws on her own research. On Wednesday, The Guardian published a third paper that was more from a gender studies point of view by Rafia Zakaria titled: “Sylvia Plath’s letters probably won’t harm Ted Hughes’s reputation” where the article criticizes some of Plath’s biographers for placing much blame on Plath in the deteriorating of the marriage, and society in general. All three articles are linked if you are interested in following.

I read all the comments under the three articles with a lot of interest. I wanted to know what do readers who are part of the ‘Hughes’ or ‘Plath’ fandoms think about the three articles, and the dynamics of this relationship as it fits with the poets’ artwork. I extracted from it three dominant comments which I find crucial to discuss. To sum up, these were the dominant three reactions:

  1. Seriously, who cares?
  2. Plath killed herself because of Hughes, as did his mistress, and son.
  3. Hughes is a monster, not even surprised.

Before I try to address the three questions I would fist like to tell you where I stand. First, I love the poetry of Plath. You may have noticed in my “favourites” list that she is the first person that came to my mind. Of Hughes’s work I have read Crow, The Birthday Letters, and The Iron Man, whereas I have read Plath’s entire corpus (including letters/diary entries) so I cannot pretend to be an expert on Hughes. I have glanced at some of his other works but did not finish them. Her use of language stuck with me since six years ago when I discovered her and through most of my undergrad and grad school I have written most of my essays on her poetry, her print culture (comparing various editions of her work), and even on her tombstone which is often chipped away at by fans. Hughes to me, doesn’t quite cut it. I tried reading his works and they did not have an impact. I found that fans are often divided in the two teams, whether it’s Plath vs. Hughes, British vs. American, Women vs. Men, with the occasional: I like neither, or I like both but don’t care about their life.

Secondly I would like to present the disclaimer that I cannot discuss mental illness or pretend that I’m an expert on it, or apply what happened to Plath to all depressed/suicide cases. I do not romanticize suicide. I will only discuss the relationship and biography of the two poets AS POETS and why it matters (or doesn’t) when discussing their poetry as literature, in an academic setting.

That said, I would like to address the three points above:

  1. Who cares?

At first it seems like we all just thrive on drama and that’s what’s interesting. I certainly thought so for a while, until I realized that the ‘who cares’ question is part of the division I mentioned earlier. The truth is, Plath and Hughes were working on different kinds of poetry. Hughes was working on classical/mythological re-workings like those of Ovid; he was writing rhythmically, and building on a larger British Tradition of what was expected of a poet laureate. So if you like Hughes and his work then frankly, you shouldn’t care because Tales from Ovid, The Iron Man, Lupercal, Cave Birds…among others, exist within a contained context of what is on the page and in response to a larger Western Tradition—he was highly influenced by the Romans and his poetry resembles that of Keats, Shelley, or the more recent Seamus Heaney (to me). Unless you’re reading The Birthday Letters, it really doesn’t matter—as our teachers/professors tell us time and time again: biography of the author/poet shouldn’t affect our reading of their art. True. Yes. EXCEPT in one case. This case includes poets: Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell (Plath’s prof), Allen Ginsberg, John Berryman, W.D. Snodgrass, and Sylvia Plath. They were working on a different kind of poetry known as “Confessional Poetry.” This movement was mostly composed of American Poets in the 1950s and ‘60s who wrote ‘poetry of the personal.’ This personal poetry often didn’t rhyme and dealt with topics like: depression, sexuality, abuse, suicide attempts/thoughts, trauma, and things that were highly private and linked uniquely to one’s biography. Unlike poets like Hughes, these poets were drawing solely from personal experience without necessarily responding to a larger tradition. Confessional Poetry is the only time where the poet invites you to learn about their life and invites you to tie it into their artwork. So to answer the question ‘who cares?’ the answer is: people studying confessional poetry. They care about biography, because it’s important, because it’s connected, and because it sheds light and meaning on the artwork. I need to know that Plath was hospitalized in a white room where someone brought her these red tulips that stuck out like an eyesore, for me to understand “the tulips are excitable” in her poem “The Tulips” or that her father was German and a beekeeper which fuels her Holocaust references in “Daddy,” or the ways he was referenced in The Bee Poems. And perhaps understanding that the two poets (Plath and Hughes) were working on something different makes sense of why Plath fans are very interested in biography, while Hughes fans might not be.

  1. She killed herself because (or for) Hughes.

Plath at Smith

Claims like these, though kind of directed at ‘shaming’ Hughes, to me come across as demeaning to Plath. First of all, she wasn’t a love-struck Juliet figure who killed herself because a man left her. She was a very intelligent woman, and had a history of mental illness and suicide attempts. Claiming she ‘killed herself for Hughes’ or to prove a point comes from a reductive understanding of Plath, and a reductive understanding of mental illness.

Plath went to Smith College on scholarship for academic excellence (she wrote her paper on Ulysses). She got electric shock therapy (without anesthesia) which right now is illegal. She attempted suicide once when she was much younger. Her second suicide attempt was by overdosing on pills and she hid beneath the house porch. She was gone for three days, and was in the newspapers as ‘missing.’ They gave her electrical shock therapy again. She then went to Cambridge in England on a Fulbright Scholarship (very prestigious) where she met Hughes. Her thesis was on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s figure of The Double demonstrated through Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin’s character in The Double and Ivan Fyodorovitch Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov.  This is an excerpt from her Introduction in her thesis “The Magic Mirror:”

“It is this dangerous embodiment of the Double in two of Dostoyevsky’s novels which is the subject of our paper. The device of the Double, although an omen of doom, is instructive since it often reveals hitherto concealed character traits in a radical manner and thus frequently throws unreconciled inner conflicts into sharper relief. However, the recurrence of the double personality in Dostoevsky’s novels is more than a mere technique for clarifying the psychic oppositions; it is the core of Dostoyevsky’s own polemical philosophy.”

I think sometimes Plath is reduced to this ‘revenge-kick’ stereotype of a dismissed woman looking for attention. Just look at how Norton’s character talks to Darla in Fight Club like yeah, yeah, we’re all dying, Sylvia Plath. As if she was just looking for attention. She’s just as often stereotyped as “teen” literature because of The Bell Jar (which is a memoir reflecting on her teen years). This is a horrible reduction. That’s like judging Jean-Paul Sartre on Le Mots (The Words) only and clumping all of his later work and philosophy in that category.  It’s just not fair. Plath was an adult, Smith/Cambridge-educated woman with a career, she wrote a thesis on Dostoevsky, and was extremely well-versed in American, British, and Russian Literature. To look at her like she’s the teenage girl from Thirteen Reasons Why (which got criticism on its own as well), is just not comparable.

To return to my original point, while Hughes was an important part of her life, he cannot be blamed for her death because she had a history of attempting it, a history of depression, and they had already been separated for five full months.

“I have done it again.

One year in every ten

I manage it—

…I am only thirty.

And like the cat I have nine times to die.

This is Number Three.” – Lady Lazarus

Secondly, to say that she killed herself for a man is something that demeans a woman of Plath’s stature (or any woman) immensely. She was so intelligent and capable, and was part of an emerging new group of poets—which she pretty much dominates now—that to say ‘she killed herself for Hughes/because of Hughes’ would be offensive to Plath herself and her ambitions for herself (based on the biographies I’ve read of her). Suicide is a result of mental illness and Plath wanted us to pay attention to that. Her poetry calls for mental health awareness, and paying attention to one’s life..

Point #3: Ted Hughes is a monster.

Zakaria’s article suggests that his reputation doesn’t get affected by the appearance of the new letters, while some in the comment sections painted Hughes as ‘monster.’ Maybe he was driven to do things like the biographers say, maybe his reputation is ruined or not like Zakaria says. I don’t know so I am not going to pretend I do. I wasn’t there. He gets blamed for burning Plath’s diaries from her last two years, and for many other things including the death of Plath, his mistress Assia Wevill (and her child), and subsequently Nick Hughes (son with Plath).

I myself am thankful for Ted Hughes for one reason and one only: he published Sylvia Plath’s Ariel and Collected Poems, and that is enough for me. He could have easily kept the manuscript to himself, burnt it, or never have worked on it. However, he did no such thing. He decided to publish them and in the end those last two published works made Plath the iconic figure she is today. The Collected Poems got her the Pulitzer Prize (which she got posthumously in 1982). The publication or Ariel coincided with the rise of second wave feminism and that is how the two stories clashed and combined. Fans of Plath rarely let Hughes forget, and if The Birthday Letters isn’t enough proof that he didn’t exactly have a fun time after 1963 then let’s just be thankful that he published Ariel which made Plath an icon and famous, as well as The Collected Poems. In discussing this with a friend I received the retort “so a bad person did a good thing, does that make his behaviour excusable?” Obviously not, if he was abusive then I would not (and currently do not) celebrate him. I don’t hail him as a ‘great man’  and like I mentioned, his poetry isn’t one that sticks with me anyway—but if it’s his poetry you like then his biography shouldn’t affect the Hughes side because his poetry doesn’t demand it like Plath’s does.  This excerpt from Churchwell’s article highlights an important aspect of this dilemma for us readers:

“the facts may alter with new evidence, but mostly it’s our interpretations that have altered. Our ideas — about feminism, marriage, mental illness, suicide and domestic violence — change and with them or attitudes towards Plath and Hughes.”

To remember that this was the ’60s when women weren’t even allowed to run marathons, have a bank account, or attend universities without signatures from spouses, perhaps Hughes can be seen as progressive by supporting his wife’s literary career. I hope I explained in this post the ways in which I think it’s important to examine this relationship, biography in confessional poetry, and for what purpose.

I would love to know what other people think about this. And if you see another comment in those articles that irked you, why did it? Or in this one. Perhaps I have said things that you found to be untrue in your experience of reading the two poets. If yes, how so? These were the three comments that got to me, but I would love to know what you think.

Other Resources on Plath and Hughes:

Interview with Plath and Hughes

Lecture given at the University of Toronto by Professor Nick Mount.

Sylvia Plath Archives

John Green’s analysis of Plath’s poetry

Discussion of Jonathan Bate’s recent (2015) biography of Hughes: Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life

Plath reading my favourite four: “Lady Lazarus,” “The Applicant,” “Daddy” and “A Birthday Present

Audible: Ted Hughes reading his own Crow, Plath’s Biography pre-Hughes Mad Girl’s Love Song, The Bell Jar (read by Maggie Gyllenhaal), Her Husband, Hughes and Plath, A Marriage

Analysis of ‘The Reader’ | Reflection

***WARNING: This is a reflection/analysis there are many spoilers“***

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the readSince 2009 I have been incapable of answering wholeheartedly, or even understand myself, why my answer for “what’s your favourite movie?” has been: “The Reader.” I had no personal relationship, nor family history with Germany and the Holocaust, nor felt particularly attached to the study of law. Many films (and books) before and after The Reader had interacted with this theme so much that Ricky Gervais jokingly remarked to Winslet in the introduction to the 2009 Golden Globes after she had received nominations for both an Oscar (which she won) and a Golden Globe (also won):

“I told you, do a Holocaust movie the awards come, didn’t I?”

I was partly embarrassed that in order to get to the highly philosophical and literary discussions at the end—should one choose my suggestion and associate me with the film through recommendations—that one would have to sit through 45 minutes filled with somewhat uncomfortable sex scenes between a 36-year-old woman and a 15-year-old boy.

vorlesserHaving re-watched it this past week, re-read the book, and interacted with it through Audible as well, I have finally figured out the film’s appeal: it is a highly biblio-centric puzzle. The Reader is not for a lazy audience. The film purposely leaves many unanswered questions for which the book, written by Bernhard Schlink, is an absolutely crucial companion.

Professor Rohl makes an excellent point in the film as he says:

“the question is not whether it is moral, people often tend to know murder is wrong, the question is: is it legal, and not by our laws, no, but by the laws of the time.”

The law however, can only work with facts, and these facts are rooted in text. The jury mainly worked with the text of the Jewish survivor and the records are the only proof that Hanna Schmitz or any other defendant had participated. Knowing Hanna is illiterate through Michael’s voice we understand as a distant audience why it looks suspicious to others that she should have rejected a secretarial position with Siemens and rather purposely enrolled in the SS as a guard. There’s a beautiful line in the book where Michael says

“with the energy she put into maintaining the lie, she could have learned to read and write long ago.”

Although the novel contains many more clues to Hanna’s illiteracy pre-trial, the movie displays flashes of Hanna’s passive looks at menus looking with envy at young children who have no difficulty ordering what they desire.

There is however a very important detail that the movie has left out and I wouldn’t have been able to find the answer until much later with the help of the book. In the middle of a class discussion one eager students says (about the Holocaust):

“everyone knew, our parents, our teachers, the question isn’t whether everyone knew, the question is how could you have let this happen and why didn’t you kill yourself when you found out?”

Near the end of the novel when Michael has been notified of Hanna’s suicide he explores her cell. He narrates (in the book):

“I went over to the bookshelf. Primo Levi, Ellie Wiesel, Tadeusz Borowski, Jean Amery—the literature of the victims, next to the autobiography of Rudolf Hess, Hanna Arendt’s report on Eichmann in Jerusalem, and scholarly literature at the camp.”

The prison manager tells Micahel:

“several years ago I had to get her [Hanna] a general concentration-camp bibliography and then one or two years ago she asked me to suggest some books on women in the camps, both prisoners and guards…as soon as Frau Schmitz learned to read, she began to read about the concentration camps.”

To me, this is the most important detail. Hanna couldn’t read so she lacked empathy and couldn’t read people either. She says in the film after Michael is so worried and concerned that this whole time she hadn’t learned anything from the trial, nor thought about any of the victims: “well I did learn kid, I learned to read.” Hanna kills herself because as the young student suggested: the only redemption from the knowledge of and participation in the Holocaust is suicide.

It could be argued that the film tries to empathize too much with a Nazi—but this book (and movie) is much more about the inferiority an individual has due to illiteracy. Had Hanna been able to read she might have taken the job at Siemens instead. By asking young Jewish girls to read to her before sending them away perhaps she gave them better last days than other prisoners in similar situations.

The first time I watched the film I interpreted Michael’s silence on the knowledge of Hanna’s illiteracy as revenge and anger. I thought he felt that because she had slept with him, and met him when he too (like the prisoners) was weak/sick, and that she had treated him the same way as she did many other young people that he suddenly wasn’t special in her life—and the audiobooks that followed were his redemption. However, Michael is special because he’s Hanna’s only survivor. He survived her treatment and he knew her secret.

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Hanna’s tombstone

The film is entirely biblio-centric. It interacts with the legal system using text and archives for proof (memoirs included), reading aloud and audiobooks, and the ultimate shame of being illiterate which resulted in crimes beyond the human imagination. What Schlink gets to in the end is that reading teaches one empathy. Only through reading can one truly think about life in another’s shoes and only when Hanna learns to read can she really understand the camps—despite the fact that she was physically there. Michael keeps Hanna’s secret until the end because he knows that to her it is a bigger shame to admit that she is unable to read than to take all the blame for what happened at Auschwitz.  In the end all we see is what is left of Hanna Schmitz as text: two words on a tombstone hidden in a rural cemetery.

Michael shares their story as text. He narrates:

“at first I wanted to write our story in order to be free of it…[then] I wanted to recapture it by writing…and it came back, detail by detail and in such a fully rounded fashion, with its own direction and its own sense of completion, that it no longer makes me sad.”

This is the film and book’s ultimate message (to me at least): stories heal. Michael and the young Jewish woman used their experiences with Hanna Schmitz and healed through text. Writing as therapy, and reading as empathy: that is The Reader, and that is why this will continue to be my favourite film and one of my favourite contemporary books.

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Movie still at the very end where Michael visits her grave