In Honor of St. V.’s Day: The Futility of Love

Work has been keeping me very busy! I didn’t even notice how quickly Valentine’s Day came upon us. No worries–I don’t celebrate the Hallmark holiday. I do profit on it though, at least I hope to tonight when I work at the restaurant. I don’t have time for a full post, so here’s an essay I wrote in school that fits the occasion of the Day of Love.

Some might know that the connection of St. Valentine’s Day with affairs of the heart is credited to Geoffrey Chaucer (author of the Canterbury Tales) from his poem “A Parliament of Fowls” (link leads to a modern translation). In school, we were asked to read an essay from A.C. Spearing from his book on the Medieval dream poem and discuss both in an essay. At the time, I was feeling a bit exasperated with my live-in boyfriend and our inability to move to the next step of our relationship (that semester I wrote a poem about my failed attempts to domesticate him). My angst came through in the following essay. Enjoy it with your futile holiday.

The Futility of Love as Proved by a Parliament of Fowls on St. Valentine’s Day

A.C. Spearing clearly knows The Parliament of Fowls very well, yet his essay does not discuss clearly what the poem is actually about. Spearing does not get around to telling us what the narrator takes away from his dream. He fails to explain the transition from the encounter with Africanus to the gathering of birds. It would be beneficial to the reader to discover what the connection is. A.C. Spearing states that the “real subject of the poem” occurs when the birds gather to choose their mates (Spearing, 328). He believes “what the narrator is seeking is presumably the meaning of that love which is the major subject of medieval courtly poetry” (Spearing, 326). Chaucer’s true intention, however, was to make the poem have a moral: to tell the reader not to waste time with love, because securing a spot in heaven is the only thing that matters, as was dictated in Scipio’s dream.

Chaucer seems to imply that he thinks looking for love is a waste of time. One hint is when the narrator, ignorant of love, is vaulted into paradise when Africanus pushes him through the gates. His innocence allows him to hear the birds singing “with vois of aungel in hir armonye” (191). Perhaps this is the same “armonye” of heaven earlier described to Scipio (61). Later, the temple of Venus is “decorated with paintings of famous figures from myth and legend who died for love” (Spearing, 330), displaying the mortality of the concept of love. Africanus asks Scipio, “how insignificant will it be that human glory which can scarcely endure for a fraction of a year” (Cicero, 263)? Since love is a human concept, like the glory Scipio is to pursue, Chaucer is pointing out that love’s benefits do not last and can not be carried into the next life.

The proceedings and outcome of the parliament of fowls as they choose their mates on St. Valentine’s Day is also an example of Chaucer’s intent to show that love can be absurd. At this point, “the Dreamer drops almost completely out of sight, as if the birds had squeezed him out of the poem; and so does Africanus, his guide” (Spearing, 330).This disappearance of our guide is elicited by the emergence of the squabbling mates. Our guide retreats to a plane of higher moral values, showing us that love makes us act falsely, not for the common good. At the event, the debate about which tercel is to win the formel is not even resolved, revealing the futility of chasing love.

Africanus insists that the only way to gain access to heaven is by working for the common good of mankind. Africanus tells Scipio, “he ne shulde him in the world delyte” (66). The argument is that if a man spends his life working for the greater good, rather than working for earthly delights, he will go to heaven. Africanus says, “all those who have saved, aided, or enlarged the commonwealth have a definite place marked off in the heavens where they may enjoy a blessed existence forever” (Cicero, 260). Chaucer paraphrases this by saying, “What man, lered other lewed/That loveth comun profit, wel y-thewed,/He shal unto a blissful place wende,/Ther as joye is that last withouten ende” (46-49).  By reiterating, Chaucer urges the reader to follow this advice and be selfless rather than focus on selfish ideas like love.

Selflessness is not exhibited by the tercels as they state their worthiness for the formel. The argument of the first three eagles lasts all day, prohibiting all the potential mates in all of birdkind from choosing their partners. Scipio was told, “cherish justice and your obligations to duty” (Cicero, 261) if he wanted access to heaven. Yet here the tercels pay no heed to their own obligations to commence the proceedings of the day.

Spearing recognized the implications of the influence of the story of Scipio’s dream on the narrator of Chaucer’s poem, but he failed in his analysis. Courtly love, exhibited by the squawking of a bunch of birds that come to no conclusion, is not the subject of the poem. The subject of The Parliament of Fowls is to heed Africanus’s advice to Scipio if you wish to make it to the heavens. Don’t waste your time on courtly love, and don’t waste the time of others when you should be helping them instead. To prove this idea, Chaucer closes his poem by having the tercels go away with the same resolve that Scipio has after his dream: to “strive much more zealously, with the promise of such a reward before me” (Cicero, 263). The tercels in this case are going to continue being good with the reward of the formel. The narrator may wake up and continue his search to find a book that will teach him about love, but he has already read and learned something far more valuable.

Weekly Link 1/24/12 Laying the tiles of literary love

I recently got a new job as a part-time bookkeeping assistant at a local grocery/cafe/deli.

After graduating summa cum laude with a degree in English, interning as a grant writer/social media manager for 9 months, and interning again as a copyeditor/social media manager for 8 months, this kind of felt like a step in the wrong (backward) direction for me. But then I thought about the writer I know who is a content monkey, the musician I know who works for a biotech company, and the artist I know who is an animal adoption counselor at a local rescue center. All are incredibly talented artists in their respective trades, but must work  to pay their bills. The perseverance of my friends inspires me, and I don’t feel so bad about my new job after all.

In fact, I think I’m going to be very happy there because it is a wonderful business that I’ve visited regularly for years. It will be a steady and reliable source of income, which will make my life happier and healthier. And this is what will enable me to be a better writer. So long as I remember where my passion lies, I can always nurture it.

Knowing where my passion lies means thinking about where it began. My love for literature comes from a love for words that was given to me by my mother. She always read out loud to us and encouraged us to engage with the classics. I remember road trips when we were young always included a book on cassette from the library. Our favorite was To Kill a Mockingbird, and we named all of our pet finches after the characters in the story. I was convinced Boo Radley lived in every abandoned summer cottage in our woodsy neighborhood.

Mom often had us pair audio books with physical texts, whether it was the Berenstain Bears or the scary shorts by local writer Jay O’Callahan. Seeing the physical words while hearing the passion in real voices helped bring the story to new levels for me. Writing physical words in the game of Scrabble brought my understanding of etymology to a new level. There is something intriguing in my mind about how a word composition and choice that can make or break a story. My nephew, for example, refers to that big orb in the Star Wars movies as the “Jet Star,” which means he is missing an integral point in the story.

Scrabble was, and still is, Mom’s and my favorite game to play together. We keep records of how many points and who had the best word. We can look back at old records and remember specific games and circumstances that surround them, like my last game with Grammy, or the first game we played after Auntie Kate died.

This week’s link recommends changing the letter value of Scrabble tiles. The logic behind the recommendation makes perfect sense: the original values were based on the occurrence of letters in newspapers in the 1930s, but the occurrences have changed quite a bit since then.  Seeing as I largely owe my biggest passion to my love of this game, you’d think I’m a Scrabble purist against the idea. However, it is because I love the game that I am in favor of the changes. A true editor at heart, I recognize that necessary change can only make the word game better, just like my necessary job will only make my writing better.


Weekly Link 1/15/13 — Building a Better Reading List

This week’s link is a list of the top 100 books of all time, as defined by Guardian Books in the UK. It’s not by any means the official list, but I thought it would be a good place to analyze my reading list. I was shocked at how few of the books I’ve read (though I am familiar with many of those I haven’t read, and I’ve read many other titles by many of the authors).

Of those on the list, I’ve read:

  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • (Excerpts of) The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
  • (Many of) The Complete Tales by Edgar Allen Poe (I don’t think it’s fair to include complete works on this list!)
  • The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories (but not the other stories) by Leo Tolstoy
  • Diary of a Madman and Other Stories (but not the other stories) by Lu Xun
  • Gilgamesh from Mesopotamia
  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  • (Most of) Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  • Hamlet by William Shakespeare
  • King Lear by William Shakespeare
  • Medea by Euripides
  • Middlemarch by George Eliot
  • The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
  • Othello by William Shakespeare
  • Ulysses by James Joyce

So, after checking in with that list, I’m feeling a little low. I do have good intentions though. In my house or on my kindle right now are:

  • (The rest of) The Complete Tales by Edgar Allan Poe
  • Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
  • (The rest of) Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  • Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
  • Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
  • The Odyssey by Homer
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  • Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust (and I’ve already written about my intentions to read this before)

In recent memory, I’ve also obtained and let go of at least 3 copies of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. I’m not being a defeatist, I just have to be honest with myself. That’s one of those books like Ulysses. I’ll never read it unless I’m taking a class and have a well-versed professor holding my hand. I’ll be more than happy to read Tolstoy’s shorter works, and Dostoyevsky’s, too. If you can convince me otherwise, please say why in the comments box below.

That said, I am going to leave this blog post and go directly to the kindle store to find the following works:

  • Absalom, Absalom! and The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner (I fell in love with Faulkner in 2011 after reading A Light in August. In fact, his short story “Barn Burning” helped me realize my love for literature very early in my life. I recently got a copy of his biography and will be reading that after I finish my current book.)
  • (The rest of) Canterbury Tales by Chaucer — I’m sure they’re in the public domain, so I might as well tackle them by piece-meal in between reads, just to to have them for reference in my mind.
  • The Castle and The Complete Stories by Franz Kafka
  • Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges
  • Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison — although there is a production of this story running in Boston right now that I should probably try to see instead.
  • Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

There are many titles on this list that I won’t bother with because I’m already familiar with the story, or there are plenty of good movie options. I don’t feel like I’m cheating myself by not tackling those titles because sometimes knowing the story is enough. There are so many good books in the world, I wouldn’t want to divert time away from other options (unless, of course, I needed the text for a specific reason like a class). If anyone can convince me otherwise, particularly with the Russians, Flaubert, or anything written before 1700, please do so in the comments below.

P.S. I can’t believe I wasted 4 FREAKIN’ MONTHS on The Count of Monte Cristo and Dumas didn’t even make the list.

Weekly Link 1/9/13 — Analyzing genres

The link of the week is  a very timely link about exercise, and, obviously, literature. Exercise blogs run rampant on the internet just after New Year’s Day, and “reading more” often tops the list of personal resolutions. The Romance Novel Reader Workout successfully makes a joke out of both.

One often sees drinking games created for TV shows and even presidential debates. The Romance Novel Reader Workout follows a similar model, but instead of drinking, you exercise, and instead of a TV show, your exercise is based on the actions that occur in a romance novel.

I chose the as this week’s link because, silly as it is, it reveals a study in understanding genres and devices within genres. Just as a romance novel will undoubtedly describe characters looking in a novel or displaying emotion through their eyes, a fantasy novel will have lineage described in depth in an attempt to create an intricate other world, a memoir will use first person present tense point of view, and monster story will have characters crossing thresholds and experience sublime natural settings. As a student of literature, it was my job for several years to recognize these things and analyze them to gain a deeper understanding of the works I read. As a hopeful writer now, it is my job to learn these tools and potentially use them in my own work.

As I mentioned in my New Year’s Resolution post, one of my resolutions is to re-work my old Scrod Blog into a memoir.  One of the first tips for writers is to read good writing. Some of the memoirs I’ve been reading lately include Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day, and Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes.

One thing I’ve learned so far is that the first person present is almost inevitable in writing about the service industry. When I decided to try to do something with my Scrod blog, I felt guilty–predictable and unimaginative, even–about having used this device. Were there a workout chart for this type of writing, I’d probably have glutes as hard as rock by now.

However, I’m not going to let it discourage me. Maybe it’s inevitable to use such a device, but the challenge will be keeping the material fresh anyway. If I could do that in writing a comparison of Milton’s Paradise Lost and the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, I can do it in a waitressing memoir. I think I have a good concept, now the problem is sticking with the resolution for more than a week! Stop by for next week’s link to see if I’m sticking to my guns.

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

I’m back from vacation and hitting the ground running in the new year. My nine month internship in copy editing and social media management has come to an end, but I will not be actively pursuing new work in the forthcoming months due to personal obligations that will keep me busy through September.

Instead, I plan on continuing to enhance my eligibility for work in the publishing world. I am signed up for classes in Adobe InDesign, and have found a copy editing certificate program through Emerson College. Most importantly, for the readers of this blog, I am renewing a commitment to my own writing.

While my main goal for the new year is to re-work my old waitressing blog, Slinging Scrods, into a recession memoir, I have other projects in the bucket as well. These include several half-written short stories and some new writing exercises to work with. In the new year, you can expect to see on this blog: reinstatement of the Weekly Link, continued posts on classic literature I’ve read, reviews of book readings in the Boston area, and updates on current material I’m reading for research.

So there are my literary goals for the new year! I’m hoping that having only a few will make it achievable. Wish me luck! Please share any literary goals you have for this year in the comments below.

J[F]R Cloud Atlas

Just finished reading Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I read it as part of a “book club” with my friends (we never actually held a discussion group, we only yammered about it while half drunk, and most of us skipped out on the movie).

I would not have continued to read the book if not for the fact that other people were expecting me to. But I’m so glad I did.

The first chapter is incredibly difficult to get into. At least one of my book clubbers felt the same way and put down the book after her first attempt. It reads like Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels–a travel log written in a colonial tongue that discusses foreign entities I knew nothing about. (In fact, in my draft blog post on the text, I wrote that the Maoris and Morioris in Cloud Atlas sounded so exotic, they could have been Swift’s Lilliputians or Houyhnhnms. Thanks god for Wikipedia educating me.) The language is so annoyingly authentic, and the narrator so naively Christian and pure, that it conjures up the original tone of mockery that was so prevalent in Gulliver’s Travels. To make it worse, there are weird textual anomalies that make no sense, such as an asterisked footnote that has no relative context,  and the abrupt end of the chapter in mid-sentence.

The sharp difference in tone, time, and subject matter in the following chapter(s) provides a much needed reprieve that seems to come just in time, when the reader is most in need of a break. This is one of the beauties of Cloud Atlas for me. I love all different varieties of literature, and Mitchell dabbles in many different kinds in this set of interwoven stories. The over-arching story moves from classic-style travel log, to romantic pre-WWII adventure, to retro spy-novel, to modern-day commentary, to futuristic dystopia, to borderline fantasy.  The set  of stories is so unexpected and seemingly unconnected, the reader gets a sense of being whipped through a revolving door and spit out to random outputs. With each new story, common themes, motifs, and conflicts begin to appear, pulling the work together. Just as this occurs, the stories progress in converse order, bringing the reader back out to the beginning, and ending at the start.

Cloud Atlas is the most successful display of meta I have ever read. The most effective tool Mitchell used in accomplishing this success was structuring the story to pull the reader in with the progression of stories, then move back out. It is a classic technique, and when the confluence of events concludes–in the middle of the book, after effects of all of the previous stories have made their effect on the present setting–the reader develops an insatiable desire to know how all of the previous stories, which were interrupted just at the right time in earlier chapters, conclude. If that explanation was hard to understand, just imagine comprehending the book!

In the end, I’d say Cloud Atlas is a lit-lover’s book. It seems as if every time Mitchell discusses art or music, he is truthfully addressing the art of writing. The mix of genres and use of classic literary techniques (the final chapter is vocally modeled on the story of Eden) accomplished with ease. This is what will enable Cloud Atlas to stand the test of time and be studied in literature classes. Though the story itself borders on parable,  the true lessons to be learned are in comprehending the art of the text itself.

The Wizard of Oz: On Appreciating Simple Classics

I recently had a work-related meltdown that brought me 40 miles south of the city to my parents’ house in the woods for a weekend-long retreat.

When I arrived, I took a minute to gaze out the window and let out a deep sigh of relief. As I did this, I heard the pitter-patter of little feet scuttling behind me. (My nephews, ages 7, 4, and 11 mos., live across the street.) I said, “Did i just hear a pitter-patter?”

My nephew Jacob, the 4-year-old, poked out his tiny little pumpkin head out from under the kitchen table and said, “Hi Bon Bon. Wanna come see The Wizard of Oz?”

I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my morning.

Apparently Jacob had only seen this American classic for the first time the night before. He grabbed my hand and walked me out to the TV room and told me some amazing plot facts. “Bon Bon,” he said, “there’s two bad witches and one good witch. One of the bad witches is DEAD.” He stopped and said this with wide eyes. I feigned surprise and intrigue as we settled under a blanket to watch the movie I’ve seen at least a thousand times before.

Witch of the East

He held my hands during the scariest parts (when the witch throws a fireball at Scarecrow, and when the flying monkeys steal Dorothy from the Haunted Woods) and didn’t yell at me like his older brother does when I sang all the songs (or all the wrong words to the songs). He got so excited when Dorothy and her entourage entered Oz for the first time, (“Bon Bon! Look at this horse. LOOK! It changes colors. It’s so cool. LOOK, SEE!”), but didn’t think their spa treatment was sufficient (“The Lion’s not pretty, Bon Bon. Not even with those curls”).

Watching this movie for the thousand-and-first time with someone who was new to the story was a refreshing experience. Sometimes with classics, you get so familiar with the work, or the work has been so over-analyzed, that you forget why it inspired awe in the first place. My nephew, who is growing up in the age of CGI, robotics, and 3-D,  was still in awe of Glinda’s arrival to Munchkin land via bubble teleportation. Was it the setting of the opening scenes–which pulls the viewer back to the post-WWII American heartland–that made Oz so brilliant by contrast? Was it the fact that even with new technologies, bubble teleportation is still a novelty? Or was it simply Glinda’s beauty and saccharine sweet accent that astounded my little Jakey? My money is on the latter, he loves the ladies.

Whatever the reason The Wizard of Oz was able to make such a strong impression on this young boy that he had to watch it as soon as he woke up, after just seeing it for the first time the night prior, I was happy to experience it with him. His genuine interest in and absorption of the movie forced me to hold back my laughter at the most ridiculous parts (have you noticed how much the doorkeeper cries when he says he had an Aunt Em of his own one time?) and take the story for what it is. Sometimes as I read the classics in literature, I have to do the same thing. (Like in The Count of Monte Cristo, when “new” technologies like the telegraph were written about with scorn and skepticism, or in Our Mutual Friend, when it is revealed who the mutual friend is.) But that doesn’t diminish the experience of indulging in a work for the first time. In fact, sometimes the simplicity of enjoying a classic is the only thing that can stop a complete mental breakdown.

Currently Reading: Cloud Atlas

I’m currently reading Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I can’t post any interesting articles or pictures on it, because I don’t want to stumble across any spoilers. I had never heard of the book until a friend proposed it as a book club read three weeks ago. We’re all going to read it and see the new movie adaptation starring Tom Hanks and Halle Berry. I’m trying to get to the end of the book without any outside influence on how I should be receiving or understanding the story. I’m 80% through and will be able to make a real post by the end of the week.

I know Cloud Atlas is a slightly different style book than what I normally post about on Bonnie Books, but I needed a change of pace. The Count of Monte Cristo took so long, and when I go to the end, nobody wanted to talk about it! Not even on Reddit! Book club is just what I needed. Check back soon and join the discussion by leaving a comment below.

Weekly Link 10/16/12 Political party reading preferences

This week’s link is in honor of tonight’s presidential debate. Goodreads took a survey of their users’ political preferences, then analyzed the results against respondents’ reading preferences and star ratings on Pretty clever infographic! But unfortunately I don’t think either candidate is going to do much to help make good literature more accessible to more people. I think I’m going to skip the debate entirely and get back toreading Cloud Atlas.

Quotes from The Count of Monte Cristo

I finally finished reading The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. It took me exactly three months. Though it was a practice in tedium, it was well worth it! The story has zero plot holes–a true feat for such an amazingly weaved web–and gives the reader complete closure in all of its elaborate threads.

These qualities might be considered true to a fault. Part of the reason the book is so long is because every single detail is explained to a T. The translator of the text, Robin Buss, warns of this in the book’s foreword, writing that this was necessary for the masses of uneducated readers (or listeners) at the time of publication who might not have understood simple plot devices or character traits. The final scene of the lengthy novel is a perfect example. As the story closes and the Count sails off into the sunrise, the two characters he leaves behind read a letter he wrote to them explaining the last few open-ended questions of the story. After those explanations, he writes,

“So, do live and be happy, children dear to my heart, and never forget that, until the day when God deigns to unveil the future to mankind, all human wisdom is contained in these two words: ‘wait’ and ‘hope’!” – Alexander Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo

Such beautiful writing! Such inspiring words to end a story, especially one that is so dark and laden with the theme of vengeance. It was the perfect ending to Dumas’s masterpiece–but then he kept writing. Because of the need to explain every single detail, he had to elaborate on how the two remaining characters received this letter. It was kind of deflating to have to read two more pages of garble after I already got the closure I needed.

While the book is filled with a lot of explanation and plot building, there is also plenty of beautiful writing. I would love to hear some of the following quotes in the original French words the novel was written in! Until then, here are some of my favorite quotes from the The Count of Monte Cristo.

The Count on the sea:

“‘I told you: where the air is pure, noise sleeps, and however proud one may be, one feels humble and small. It pleases me to be humbled in that way, since like Augustus they call me master of the universe… To the sea, Viscount, to the sea. You must understand I’m a sailor. As a child I was rocked in the arms of the old ocean and on the breast of beautiful Amphitrite. I played with the green robe of the first and the azure robe of the second. I love the sea as one may love a mistress, and when I have not seen her for a long time I pine for her.’

‘Let’s go, Count, let’s go!'”

The Count on life:

“…in the shipwreck of life–for life is an eternal shipwreck of our hopes–I throw all my useless baggage in the sea, that’s all, and remain with my will”

The Count on 1830s Paris:

“They were at the top of the Montee de Villejuif, on the plateau from which Paris is a dark sea shimmering with millions of lights like phosphorescent waves; and waves they are, more thunderous, more passionate, more shifting, more furious and more greedy than those of the stormy ocean, waves which never experience the tranquility of a vast sea, but constantly pound together, ever foaming and engulfing everything!”

The Count on vengeance:

“‘He has taken an entire life, a life that had the right to expect from God the share of happiness that He promises to every human being in creating us, and turned it into a mere existence of pain, misery and infamy; and you consider yourself revenged because you have run this man through with your sword or put a bullet in his head, after he has turned your mind to delirium and your heart to despair? Come, come! Even without considering that he is often the one who comes out of this contest on top, purged in the eyes of the world and in some respect pardoned by God… No, no,’ the count went on, ‘if I ever had to take my revenge, that is not how I should do it.'”

And some random ones I loved:

“But, as often happens in great sorrow as in great storms, the abyss lies between the crests of two waves.”

“I have only two enemies: I shall not say conquerers because with persistence I can make them bow to my will: they are distance and time.”

“When one lives among madmen, one should train as a maniac.”