Week 31 (Sam): Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney

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Reader: Sam

Topic #23: Read a collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love.

Book: Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney (Author Unknown)

Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (2000)


“Choose, dear Beowulf, the better part,/ eternal rewards. Do not give way to pride./ For a brief while your strength is in bloom/ but it fades quickly…Your piercing eye/ will dim and darken; and death will arrive,/ dear warrior, to sweep you away.”


Long ago, when dying paganism was still fresh in the hearts of those who dwelled in the cold lands northeast of Britannia, a small ship bearing fifteen Geatish warriors disembarked on Danish shores. There had been plenty of bad blood between the Geats and the Danes, enough reason for war in that era of violence, but these Geatish warriors had no plans to revive hostilities. Quite the opposite; their leader, Beowulf, had heard stories of the monster, Grendel, and the Danish corpses he had left behind him and he was spurred to come to their aid. Brave as he is strong, strong as he is proud, Beowulf means to win not just the favor of King Hrothgar, but lasting glory as a warrior by the only means he can: the risking of his own life.

As one of the oldest surviving texts in Anglo-Saxon literature, Beowulf’s archaic English is unintelligible to readers of modern-day English, other than the occasional familiar word. Like any other foreign language text, a modern reader must depend on a translation, and it is this translation that largely dictates the quality of a reader’s experience. Seamus Heaney is mostly successful in turning the original Old English into something easy to read while respecting the line order; he breaks the action down into quick, simple clauses, often chaining many of these clauses together to convey more complicated ideas, but rarely allowing any part to break the rhythm that he undoubtedly heard in the original language.

This edition has everything a passionate reader might want in a translation. With the original text and the translation printed on opposite pages, scholars or students of Old English can check between the two instantaneously. There is also an excellent foreword, which provides much-needed  background on the era and allowed me to follow the story pretty well from the start. I was especially pleased with the miniature summaries sprinkled through the book, which quickly explain the meaning of each passage. At times, when the narrative dipped into one of its many nested stories and it became unclear which character was being described, a quick check in the margins was often enough to reorient me.

As a tale of monster-slaying and adventure, Beowulf is frankly, a bit lackluster. Beowulf combats three foes in over three thousands lines of the poem, but of the three, only the third and final reads as anything more than a summary of the most important points. Great care is spent in establishing each of Beowulf’s opponents as a dangerous threat, and after he defeats them, many lines are spent extolling his greatness in slaying them, but again, only in the last case does the battle prove to be more than a trivial concern. Beowulf’s seeming invincibility carries some interesting thematic resonance, but whatever the poem might be trying to say with these dull battle scenes, they also rob the poem of virtually any sense of excitement

Rather than an adventure narrative, the poem is much more successful as a reflection of a way of life entirely foreign to any modern reader. The Scandinavian kingdoms of Beowulf may be in frequent conflict with each other, but culturally, they are indistinguishable. Beowulf’s quest to win glory in battle is simply one example of an obsession that animates so many other stories in the poem: the hunger to prove oneself to subordinates, to superiors, to comrades, even to enemies and to oneself, but always through battle. In a world nearly empty of joy other than the meager distraction of drinking and stories, the only real value a person can obtain is obtained through the sword. But when the specter of death hangs over everything, are even the greatest deeds capable of bringing a life lasting meaning? It is when Beowulf considers this question that it achieves its most beautiful stanzas and ideas.

Final Grade: C+

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Week 30 (Blaga): Trust the Focus (Focus#1), by Megan Erickson

22663603Reader: Blaga

Topic #20: Read an LGBTQ+ Romance novel

Book: Trust the Focus, by Megan Erickson

Publisher: Intermix (2015)

After graduating college, Justin Akron and his best friend Landry climb into Justin’s RV and take off on a cross-country trip. Justin’s father, a renowned freelance photographer, has just passed away, and their goal is to visit the places he most loved in life and spread his ashes, all the while blogging about the journey. Along the way, what was simply meant as a tribute to the dead brings long-suppressed tensions and truths rising to the surface. If they are willing to face them, Justin and Landry’s lives and relationship might change forever.

Trust the Focus benefits from a strong and believable premise that makes the central conflict easy to relate to.  Justin has been suppressing his sexual orientation for years, adopting the image of “masculinity” as much as possible – playing baseball, joining a fraternity in college, etc. – while simultaneously behaving as his conservative politician mother’s perfect son, majoring in political science and preparing to become her campaign manager, despite really wanting to become a photographer like his father. Landry, his best friend since childhood, seems every bit as  free as Justin is constrained: he is openly gay in a happy relationship and he studied whatever he wanted in college. Place those two opposites in a small, isolated space for several weeks, and two perfectly-crafted facades begin to crack. The consequences of this simple and believable premise felt just as real and meaningful as the set-up, the struggle their relationship becomes carrying real pathos.

While this book tells a great love story (of the friends-to-lovers variety, which I find particularly strong), it is just as effective as a coming-out story. Justin’s decision as to how honest he will be to his real wishes is not something that he can rush into comfortably. Yet he chooses to admit the truth because of love. This smart pairing of two types of story gets a lot out of its protagonist and makes him feel more developed than most.  Their evolving relationship reveals vulnerabilities in Landry as well, and his clashes with Justin showcase the human imperfections that make him a more balanced and nuanced character.

While Erickson develops Justin and Landry well, this cannot be said about the other characters in her novel. The character who presents the most notable problem is Justin’s mother. As a politician running for office with a conservative platform, she is portrayed as the largest obstacle to Justin coming out freely and publicly. Their estranged relationship, along with the fact that the story is written from Justin’s first person perspective, means we never get a clear view of her as a human being until, with one small exception, the very end. The problem with her portrayal is not so much her being the barrier Justin needs to overcome; it is her main motivation, as stated: the future of her career. Her personal perspective is not revealed until the end, when we get to see her as a single mother who has fought to raise her child and make a life, and a person with flaws and feelings of her own as opposed to a personification of Justin’s insecurity who only interjects to limit his possibilities or spur him to action. In fact, most of the secondary characters in the novel are there solely for the convenience of the story or to artificially hasten the conflict. Of course, a premise where two people are on a cross-country trip makes it convenient for side characters to leave minimal impressions on the reader, but I found the hasty introduction and subsequent irrelevance of these characters to render them largely pointless.

Despite a strong start and central conflict, the denouement left a lot to be desired. In the immediate aftermath of the climax, the way the plot ties together—and especially, the way two main sources of conflict are addressed—is needlessly melodramatic. It shifts the tone of the story from a realistic, believable one into one more appropriate to fairytales. Erickson would have done a better job if she’d been careful to make the conclusion of her story as grounded and plausible as the rest was. Ultimately, despite its flaws, Trust the Focus is an intelligently crafted, fast-paced and enjoyable read. It tells a rather sweet (and quite steamy) friends-to-lovers story and does tap into realistic and important questions. A good book for a rainy day inside.

Week 29 (Blaga): Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

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Reader: Blaga

Topic #13: Read a non-fiction book about technology

Book: Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly

Narrator: Robin Miles

Published by: HarperAudio (2016)

Print Copy Published by: William Morrow (2016)

 

Dorothy Vaughan. Mary Jackson. Katherine Johnson. Christine Darden: these are just four women of color from over forty who worked at NASA as human computers between the 1940s and 1980s, contributing to scientific achievements and social developments. Blending history and biography, Margot Lee Shetterly masterfully recounts these sweeping changes while paying homage to the work and lives of the women who played a part in them.

When the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which would later be dissolved and replaced by the National Air and Space Agency (NASA)*, hired women for the first time in the 1930s, their male colleagues were scandalized; it was not until 1943 that they began to hire black women as computers. It was wartime though, and with President Roosevelt’s executive order prohibiting racial discrimination in the national defense industry, anyone who was qualified could be hired. Whether anyone intended for it to be so initially, these female human computers remained at work even after the war – one of the first barriers on the path of overcoming was broken. Dorothy Vaughan was one of the first to be hired. Mary Jackson became an aerospace engineer. Katherine Johnson, among other things, calculated the rocket trajectories for John Glenn’s 1962 flight orbiting the Earth, the Mercury and Apollo missions. Christine Darden, the youngest of these four women, was hired directly out of graduate school; she became an engineer at NASA eventually working on sonic booms. These four and their colleagues were college or graduate school educated. They were hard workers, brilliant minds and patriots serving their country through a World War and into a Cold War. So, why has the wider public mostly not heard about them until recently?

Shetterly’s advantage in authoring this book is that she grew up in Hampton, VA – the town where the black computers lived during their decades with NASA; she knows many of them personally, and demonstrates a comfortable understanding of their work. The book is part biography – it tells the stories of these four women, relating their early lives, including their educational backgrounds and what ultimately brought them to Hampton, and tracing their achievements at NASA. It is part history of science – Shetterly does not shy away from science and mathematics, and proves willing to engage with complex vocabulary and concepts. It is also part socio-political history, detailing the sexually and racially discriminatory practices of the WWII and Cold War eras. Together, these three aspects form a holistic image of the world the black computers lived in, and how they lived in it.

At times, the book’s preoccupation with conveying the precise details of rocket science became somewhat overbearing. While a certain degree of this is appreciated, parts of Hidden Figures were challenging to get through. The detail Shetterly gives the historical background is similarly exhaustive, but much more consequential. It is important not to look at the events at NASA through the perspective of 21st century people, but within their historical context. Here, Shetterly’s accessible narrative style was of large help in getting through these fact-heavy portions of the book.

While Hidden Figures is not really a light read, it is very much worthy of attention. Shetterly pays respects, very much overdue, to a group of incredible women who contributed a great deal to America’s space program, highlighting how impressive their achievements are given the difficulties women and people of color faced in that era. An excellent book.

 

*Note: for the sake of simplicity, I will use only the acronym “NASA”  for the remainder of the review, even though NACA was technically (at least on paper) a different agency.

Week 28 (Sam): The Captive Prince, by C.S. Pacat

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Reader: Sam

Topic #20: Read an LGBTQ+ Romance novel

Book: The Captive Prince, by C.S. Pacat

Publisher: Berkley Books, 2013

 

CW: Rape, Slavery


“The blindfold was tied around his eyes, tight. A moment later, Damen felt ringed fingers on his jawline, lifting it, as though Radel wished simply to admire the picture he made, blindfolded, arms lashed behind his back.”


Prince Damen of Akielos has spent his life enjoying the service of slaves: they cleaned him, dressed him, fed him, and, of course, serviced him sexually; he never paid them much attention. After a palace coup, however, he finds himself in chains, declared dead and shipped off in secret to Akielos’ worst enemy, the country of Vere, to serve as a “pleasure slave.” Damen is proud and prone to explosions of anger, but he must learn to control his emotions in order to survive the machinations of the Veretian royal court or the cruelty of his master, Laurent, the Prince of Vere. The palace hallways swarm with schemers and manipulators, and the key to Damen’s continued survival is to keep any of them from discovering his true identity.

Before you go any further, a warning is necessary: in The Captive Prince, C.S. Pacat explores a world of inequality and the dehumanization of slavery. The newly-enslaved Damen is subjected to constant physical and emotional abuse, every little act of rebellion punished in the hopes of “taming” him. More than that, his very role as a harem slave means that he has no sexual autonomy and his masters can choose to rape him whenever they like. While the abuses of slavery are most obvious to Damen, who is accustomed to unconditional respect, other slaves in the palace are also suffering under the yoke, no matter how much they’ve been trained to accept their positions. Ultimately, I’m not sure the book has anything profound to say about sexual abuse or slavery in general, but I can at least promise that it is respectful enough of the material to never gloss over the suffering of victims. 

Despite the word “Romance” written on the back cover, The Captive Prince doesn’t seem like a romance story at all. Presumably, the romance the book promises is the slowly-thawing relationship between Damen and his master, Prince Laurent. From the start, Laurent and Damen resent each other, but by the end, they grow to respect each other, at least a little bit. There are even hints of genuine sexual chemistry between them, and yet, to call their uneasy near-friendship a romance just isn’t accurate. The grotesque power dynamic between them is far more a prominent part of their relationship than anything more specific to the two of them. Presumably, their relationship will develop further in the two sequels, but as a reader expecting something more substantial, it was a bit of an anticlimax.

Denied the most basic autonomy and at the mercy of others, Damen makes for an unconventional protagonist. He has a few goals—survival, avoiding rape, escaping, protecting other slaves from Akielos from abuses—but he has almost no power to pursue any of them. His intelligence and his physical prowess as a fighter mean almost nothing when he spends his days chained alone in a room or at court gatherings surrounded by armed guards. His diplomatic and martial skills rendered useless, the skills that help him now are his ability to control his temper and understand the intentions of the schemers around him, seeking leverage in the complex social web of the palace. In contrast to most stories, what makes this one most interesting is not what the protagonist can do, but what he can’t do.

C.S. Pacat’s prose is simple and effective, describing the endless passage of days in the palace with an easy, almost lazy, grace. She conveys the limitless luxury of the Veretian court not with extensive descriptions, but through a few simple images: golden chains, painted faces, huge baths and flowery perfumes. The sex scenes are related with similar ease, evoked simply and quickly, even when they are describing assaults. The terror of rape is an essential part of the core of this story, but Pacat is tasteful enough to understand that rape doesn’t need to be established as terrible through lurid descriptions and traumatic images, but is already self-evidently terrible.

Ultimately, despite some good prose and character writing, not all that much actually happens in The Captive Prince. Mostly, Damen waits for things to happen to him, and they only happen occasionally. His lack of agency is a part of the unique appeal of the book, but it left me wishing for something more exciting instead. Maybe reading the other two books in the series and treating the trilogy as one text would address some of my reservations, but that’s not how it was published and not how I will evaluate it.

Final Grade: C