Utopia – 3/5 Stars
Have you read Utopia? I hadn’t before this. I decided to read it because it’s one of those books that has always been in the periphery of my life and life’s reading because of how much I’ve read dystopian literature. But I avoided it.
It reads a lot like Plato’s Republic and makes references to it, and it’s presented like a would be travelogue. Sort of like later books like Thoma Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia or Jan Morris’s Last Letters from Hav. What’s interesting to me about the book is that it’s contemporary with Shakespeare, specifically the end of Shakespeare’s life. It’s written in Latin and there’s various translations of it out there. The book begins with a several back and forth fabricated letters between Thomas More and friends talking about the book and talking about the publishing of the book. There’s that same kind of insecure feeling about the creation of fiction that a lot of early “novels” take on, where the fact of fabrication is such anxiety inducing that there have to be repeated caveats and structures that allow us to maybe kind of sort of see it as nonfiction.
The rest involves a conversation between More and a person from Utopia first where they discuss various aspects of each of their respective worlds. Then there’s a catalogue of laws, philosophies, and approaches to society. The interesting elements to me include a kind of struggle between what I see as some extremes: moral Puritanism on one and pluralism on the other. Utopia is in a kind of tension of “good” and “clean” living and there’s a tension between free will and morality.
Shakespeare’s Sonnets – 5/5
I’ve read the Sonnets many times before and return to them time and again. Especially, I like to teach sonnets in English classes because sometimes students like some rules, and well, there’s rules here in sonnets. I was surprised this time through how many of the sonnets contain variations on themes, so that some that are close in number refer back to recent images.
I also notice the changing point of view from poem to poem. Some are written to a reader in a kind of second person voice, while others are written to listeners. So taking two of his most famous we can see this: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” and “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” My students like to point out the possibility of these being about the same woman, but told to different audiences. In the first, he’s talking to his woman — reassuring her of his love for her and using the beautiful and syrupy language to do so. Then! Maybe he’s out drinking with his friends and using the backhanded negging to say the same basic things, but he can’t be too sweet and vulnerable with the group of likely men.
The last point for this collection is that this was an audiobook. It’s interesting to hear them back to back to back in ways that normally wouldn’t happen. It makes them feel less like individual poems (it’s a curious and limited experience this way) and more like individual sections of a long epic poem.
Heloise and Abelard – 5/5
I was recently in France and we went to Pere Lechaise, the huge Parisian cemetary where you can find the graves of Jim Morrison, Marcel Proust, Frederic Chopin, Balzac, and so on and so forth. It’s an amazing cemetary for a lot of reasons, but one of the most interesting parts is the graves of Abelard and Heloise. Apparently the cemetary was built as a money-making venture and well, it was originally not very successful, so they found, moved, and created this installation as a way to gin up some interest in being buried here. And I guess it worked. There’s some amazingly elaborate graves of long-forgotten French generals, politicians, and nobles, but it’s the celebrity graves like this one that are actually interesting.
Abelard and Heloise were a sensation. First published in the 1600s in France and 1700s in England, these series of letters between the star-crossed and religiously faithful lovers who were banned from each other, took to the church, and sent pained letters back and forth trying to weigh their choices, sins, faith, and love.
Grimm’s Fairy Tales – 5/5
I love these and I always have. I have probably read versions of these dozens of times. I also have students read them and like to find the various translations and editions and have them pay a lot of attention to some of the specific changes different versions make.
When I was a kind I would check out a copy of these fairy tales and feel quite accomplished making my way through them. They’re not challenging, but reading the whole collection can be a bit of a slog for two reasons: it’s really long and some of them are kind of bad and nonsensical. As a later English major this made more sense — writing down an oral tale loses something, plus there’s the variations that happen over time and from telling to telling. In addition, there’s lots of contradictions and conflicting versions of the tales.
I also ended up reading these in German classes in high school where my teacher made us translate the tales word for word on our own, a project we hated because it was hard, but loved because it was rewarding. Anyway, I am not sure what to say about this updated reading of them. They persist in our cultural memory, and I also remember growing up watching Grimm’s Fairy Tale Classics on Nickelodeon, the dubbed Americanization of Anime versions of the tales:
Perrault’s Fairy Tales – 3/5
These are actually quite rough. Charles Perrault predates the Grimms by about 150 years. His tales tend to be a little more chaste and bloodless, they’re longer winded than the Grimms and worst off, there’s almost nonsensical morals at the end of each. They do have some amazing illustrations that go with them, but the individual tales are quite confusing at times. So for example, Sleeping Beauty happens pretty much the same way as we know it. But then, there’s so much more story to it involving an ogre and well it goes on and on.
The morals are where he loses me. Here’s some examples:
Many a girl has waited long
For a husband brave or strong;
But I’m sure I never met
Any sort of woman yet
Who could wait a hundred years,
Free from fretting, free from fears.
Now, our story seems to show
That a century or so,
Late or early, matters not;
True love comes by fairy-lot.
Some old folk will even say
It grows better by delay.
Yet this good advice, I fear,
Helps us neither there nor here.
Though philosophers may prate
How much wiser ’tis to wait,
Maids will be a-sighing still —
Young blood must when young blood will!
Curiosity, in spite of its appeal, often leads to deep regret. To the displeasure of many a maiden, its enjoyment is short lived. Once satisfied, it ceases to exist, and always costs dearly.
Apply logic to this grim story, and you will ascertain that it took place many years ago. No husband of our age would be so terrible as to demand the impossible of his wife, nor would he be such a jealous malcontent. For, whatever the color of her husband’s beard, the wife of today will let him know who the master is.
Little Red Riding Hood:
Moral: Children, especially attractive, well bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf. I say “wolf,” but there are various kinds of wolves. There are also those who are charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the streets. And unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all.