03 August 2015

Medieval Monday: Peace-Weavers and Mischief-Makers Intro

For my final research paper in Graduate Studies in Medieval Literature, I analyzed the role of women in medieval literature, and I determined that women are basically divided into two categories: peace-weavers and mischief-makers, a predecessor to the virgin-whore dichotomy that comes in later literature. Over the next few weeks, I will share my insights with you in my Medieval Monday posts. First, an overview:

In the Middle Ages, the role of a queen was quite simple: “A queen should weave peace” (Beowulf 1942). Her function was to ensure peace between nations and people and this expectation carries over to all females within medieval literature; however, the reality is that not every female character fulfills this more positive role; some take a darker route. Women, in texts such as Beowulf, The Lay of Lanval, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, seem to fulfill one of two roles: the peace-weaver or the mischief-maker, meaning the female characters are either trying to foster peace or they are trying to stir up trouble.

What is truly interesting is that, regardless of which role they are fulfilling, the women are active Lanval definitely had their work cut out for them as well. Some recent criticism has suggested that women such as Wealhtheow and other peace-weavers are “fundamentally passive figure[s] in [their] story” (Welsh 12); however the ability to maintain peace may require more effort than these critics realize. After all, “the strenuous and delicate balance of behavior which [these female peace-weavers] must daily execute seems to be more difficult to achieve than the warrior’s bold plunge into destruction” (Welsh 13). While brandishing a sword appears more active and maybe even more effective on the surface, the artful and delicate manipulation required to assert control over a situation in which these women are culturally subordinate is admirable.
participants, suggesting a level of engagement generally denied them in popular conceptions regarding medieval gender roles. The mischief-makers such as Grendel’s mother, Morgan Le Fey, and Lady Bertilak may seem like more active participants, but peace-weavers like Wealhtheow and the Faerie Queen from

Still the sword-brandishers and deceivers deserve their just due as well. Instead of weaving peace, they foster discontent. Instead of calming men down, they rile them up. They are the mischief-makers, the tricksters and evil manipulators, of medieval literature. Whether mischief-maker or peace-weaver, the female characters discussed in this paper played active and integral roles in their stories, suggesting a level of engagement and control often denied them. Contemporary, popular opinion seems to perceive medieval women as oppressed, passive damsels in distress who languish helplessly behind castle walls while big, brawny men run about conquering, rescuing, and pillaging. According to Scott Farrell, this perception is in part due to 19th century authors and painters who “melded the stories and images of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table with a Victorian sense of gallantry, which delineated a passive role for women.” Despite the contrary portrayal in medieval texts, this image of medieval women as inactive persists. Farrell argues that “this role would have been quite alien to the audiences of the Middle Ages." Why, oh why, does the misconception still exist?

For more information on this topic, check out my next few Medieval Monday posts as I will be putting pretty much my entire paper up here. :)

30 July 2015

Book Review: Tales of Innocence and Experience

Tales of Innocence and Experience by Eva Figes first came to my attention on things mean a lot when Ana wrote a wonderful review that stuck in my mind.

The main thematic focus of the book is the loss of childhood innocence we all suffer and the varied forms that loss can take. For our narrator, a grandmother, the loss was sudden, inexplicable, and difficult. The story is told through fairy tales, how they help us make meaning, how they connect adult to child, how they teach children fear, darkness, and survival.

One of my favorite sections in the book is a collection of three consecutive chapters that reveal Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty in the after, the demons and nightmares and challenges that face them once their tale is over. Figes's predictions of these heroes' lives feel authentic and are certainly evocative and melancholy.

I don't think I've ever read a book and marked so many passages. These pages are full of beauty, in thought and word. A few gems:

"Absolute innocence is absolute trust, which is so horrifying."

"The forest, I think but do not say, represents darkness, that which cannot be civilized, or brought under control. Cut down the trees, tame the landscape, but its shadow will always lurk on the edge of human consciousness...the heart of darkness still beats in its modern guise.

For obvious reasons, this quote truly speaks to me: "For days my daughter looks bruised and battered by the experience...She knows what she did not know before, that she is merely a link in the chain, to be used and discarded. Women lose their innocence, not with the loss of virginity, but with childbirth...our eyes meet in a new understanding...Now the shock of the oldest law, spoken by God to the first woman, is in her eyes...the purpose of birth is also the purpose of death".  There is nothing quite like children to remind you of your inescapable death.

The one quote that truly sums up this book: "How old is old enough for a child to know the world for what it is?" A question I struggle with almost daily.

Even after revising this review, I'm just not pleased. I can't seem to find the right words to convey how powerful I found this book. Apparently this will be one of those books that I just can't talk about properly. I guess I'll just leave you with: I heartily recommend reading this one. It's beautiful in form and content.

28 July 2015

Top 10: Book Nerds in Stories

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. To learn more about Top Ten Tuesday or see the list of future topics click here.

Ten Characters Who Are Fellow Book Nerds

Hermione Granger in Harry Potter

Helene Hanff in 84 Charing Cross Road

Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird

Aibileen in The Help

Mary Katherine Blackwood in We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Catherine Morland from Northanger Abbey

Liesel from The Book Thief

Charlie from The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Tyrion Lannister from Song of Fire and Ice

Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice


Belle from Beauty and the Beast

27 July 2015

Medieval Monday: Description of the Wife of Bath

Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales is one of the most studied books of all time in my experience. I seriously have looked at bits and pieces of this text over and over again throughout my education and my career. This time I read it in very time bites and analyzed it piecemeal.

First up, the description of the Wife of Bath in the General Prologue. I really enjoyed this description. A deaf, gap-toothed, red-stocking-wearing woman, the Wife of Bath sews like a pro, rides well, talks easily, and travels widely. Most importantly, she is well known for her love of men. She has been married five times, and that’s not including the men she’d gone with when she was younger. These experiences made her quite knowledgeable about “remedies of love” (477).

The whole description of the Wife suggests sex. The red stockings and red face, the many men she married or kept company with, even her gap-toothed grin. Apparently, this physicality was “thought to be a sign of amorousness” (Greenblatt 254).  Hilariously – and horrifyingly – “a gap-toothed devout virgin had to fill the space cosmetically, or refrain from smiling” (Cosman 476). That. Is. Hilarious.

Even the juxtaposition of certain phrases were designed to indicate a sensual nature and a wealth of experience. Take the following two lines for example: “She coude muchel of wandring by the waye: / Gat-toothed was she, soothly for to saye” (469-470). On initial reading, the first line seems to simple say that the Wife was a skilled traveler; but coupling it with the following line which is suggestive of sensuality, the line could be reinterpreted. Perhaps the Wife was skilled at wandering from man to man or was adventurous romantically or sexually.  This subtle suggestion is reinforced when the speaker says “she coude of that art the olde daunce” (478), again indicating the Wife is highly experienced in the ways of the flesh. Phrases like this today would have a “hint, hint” or a “wink, wink” to go along with them. Or maybe a more amusing ‘that’s what she said’.

This focus on sexuality carries over into the very naming of the Wife. While the other pilgrims are named by profession – Miller, Franklin, Cook, etc. – the Wife is not called Seamstress. Barbara Daniels argues that this change in the naming system “makes her more personalized”, but I argue that this also highlights the importance of sexuality to the character. Even though her trade is in sewing, her true profession is Wife.

I remember the first time I read this back in high school. I was surprised by how bawdy it all was, and I wasn’t even catching half of the suggestions or double entendres. Was/Is anyone else surprised by this? Do you see any other indications of sexuality in this passage? What do you think Chaucer meant, specifically, by the phrase “remedies of love” (477)?

Side Note: Do you know how many sexy women of today have a freaking gap between their teeth?!?!? Check it out.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Canterbury Tales: The General Prologue”. Trans. Simon Armitage.  The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Gen. ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. A. New York: Norton, 2012. 243-263. Print.

Cosman, Madeleine Pelner, and Linda Gale Jones. Handbook to Life in the Middle Ages. Infobase Publishing, 2009. Google Books. Web. 17 June 2015.

Daniels, Barbara. “The Wife of Bath: Her Description from the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.” Classics of English Literature. Web. 17 June 2015.

Greenblatt, Stephen, gen. ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. Vol. A. New York: Norton, 2012. Print.

23 July 2015

Book Review: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian found its way into the hands and hearts of many a book blogger years ago. At the time, I kept meaning to read it, but as often happens, I never got around to it. Now years later, and I do mean yeeaarrss, I read the sucker. And it was awesome.

Told from the first-person perspective of Junior, cartoonist/Indian/traitor, the book is hilarious, poignant, and creative. It follows Junior as he leaves the reservation in hopes of a better education in a nearby community. Some days he walks miles and miles to and from school, a hardship only emphasized by those on the reservation seeing Junior as a traitor to his people and those in his new school seeing him as nothing more than a scrawny, loser Indian from the rez.

A remarkably emotional book, the story reveals the sad truths of many Native Americans still living on the reservations without being overly sensational or preachy. Never did I feel like an event or description was included merely to shock or evoke emotion. Everything, even the worst bits, felt very real.

My favorite part of the book is the illustrations by Ellen Forney. The drawings are Junior's cartoons which perfectly illustrate the concepts he discusses. One of my favorite images shows the distinctions Junior is making between the white kids in his new school and his Indian friends back on the rez:

This image struck me as being particularly powerful and a wonderful illustration of the book's form: it is simple, stark and notably complex and thought-provoking.

Like the artwork, the language is very straightforward, no flowery pontifications here, just simple truths. Junior's thoughts on poverty really struck me: “Poverty doesn’t give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor.” The book is full of quotes like this, simple and important.

If you haven't read this yet - and I'm sure you have - do so as soon as possible. It is quick, powerful, fun, and maddening.

21 July 2015

Top 10: Celebrating Diversity

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. To learn more about Top Ten Tuesday or see the list of future topics click here.

Ten Books That Celebrate Diversity/Diverse Characters 
(example: features minority/religious minority, socioeconomic diversity, disabled MC, neurotypical character, LGBTQ etc etc.)

  1. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
  2. will grayson, will grayson by David Levithan and John Green
  3. American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
  4. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
  5. Women by Annie Leibowitz
  6. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
  7. The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff
  8. The Duke Who Outlawed Jelly Beans and Other Stories by Johnny Valentine
  9. Divergent by Veronica Roth
  10. Freak Show by Robert Bogdan

20 July 2015

Medieval Monday: Margery Kempe Chapter 1

In The Book of Margery Kempe, the first chapter, "The Birth of Her First Child and Her First Vision," functions as the exposition and inciting incident of the tale. The chapter begins by setting the stage, letting readers know how about Kempe’s marriage at 20, her quick conception, and her illness while pregnant. She writes that she was plagued by devils and that she never fully confessed her sins to her priest, and while this troubled her, she was as afraid of “his sharp reproving” as of damnation (Kempe 426). The demons continue to appear to her, and her demeanor was sharply affected as she “slandered…she spoke many a reproving word…knew no virtue or goodness…desired all wickedness” exactly as the demons wanted (Kempe 426). Relief came only when Jesus appeared to her. His appeal to her is the inciting incident, the moment Margery’s struggle to pure faith begins.

This is also the point the first chapter ends. As I said, this chapter sets the reader up for what is to come next. We have been provided with the background information necessary to understand what dire straits Margery was in and we have seen the moment in time her transformation begins.

In my opinion, the most interesting point this episode relates is Margery’s fear of confession. Judgement is just as scary as damnation to Margery, and this fear keeps her from confessing some grievous past sin to her priest. She calls him to her, fully intending to confess, but he was “too hasty and began sharply to reprove her…so she would no more say for aught he might do” (Kempe 426).

Researching confession in the Middle Ages, I find that Kempe certainly had a right to be nervous about what her priest would say. According to Andrew Reeves, there were texts confessional priests used in order to assign punishment for sins which “were often extreme (to the point that the administrator of the penance would often remit it to a fine or lighter penalty) (374). For a townsperson like Kempe, large monetary penalties would certainly be worrisome. Combine that with the fact that “the penitentials placed little emphasis on the internal state of the penitent, whether he or she was actually contrite” (Reeves 374) and Margery is certainly not in a position to be inclined towards confession. She is clearly looking for contrition rather than penance, and it seems like she wasn’t going to get it through normal avenues.

Confession for Catholics is a recitation of specific sins to a priest. This recitation is required as the priest functions as the intermediary between God and the person. Obviously, here that function is not fulfilled. Later in The Book of Margery Kempe, the concept of a priest as go-between is again subverted when Christ appears directly to Margery; actually she speaks directly to him on multiple occassions. It is possible the book is challenging this particular doctrine; however, if the text is challenging religious practices, how do we justify that with the fact that a cleric wrote this? While the words are supposedly Margery Kempe’s, it was written by a priest-scribe and more than likely revised over the years. So why keep the challenges to the Church? How did this radical document survive when it challenges so much?

If you haven't read this book, I highly recommend doing so. I've only spoken about the first chapter, and believe me, what comes after is just as (if not more) interesting. I mean, Margery actually convinces her husband to have a chaste marriage; she goes into fits and hysterics; she speaks directly to Jesus, who I might add is an attractive man. It's a fascinating story - and one of the first autobiographies of the English language.

“The Book of Margery Kempe.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Gen. ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. A. New York: Norton, 2012. Print.

Reeves, Andrew. “The Cure of Souls is the Art of Arts:” Preaching, Confession, and Catechesis in the Middle Ages.” Religion Compass 7.9 (2013): 372–384. Web. 8 June 2015.

16 July 2015

Playing Catch Up: Some Mini-Reviews

I've fallen waaaaayyy behind on reviews (9 books read with no review), so it's time to play a bit of catch up with some mini reviews.

The Supernaturalist by Eoin Colfer
Eoin Colfer's main claim to fame is the Artemis Fowl series, which I must admit I did not make it through. I think I finished book 1, and book 2 was a DNF. This book, however, I read happily and quickly. In the story, a 14 year old orphan named Cosmo Hill finds himself abruptly thrown into a group of people who spend their time killing blue parasites, whom only they can see, that suck the life out of people.

A good, solid story with an interesting plot line, The Supernaturalist's real strength is in the characters. Cosmo is a perfectly wonderful reluctant hero, but the members of his parasite-killing gang are just fascinating. First there's Stefan, leader of the group, who is one of those older-than-he-is, suffering and tragic types. Ditto, the most hilarious of the group, is a 28 year old trapped in a 6 year old's body due to experimentation. Finally, there's Mona, a mechanical whiz who used to run with a street racing gang. Their interactions are the highlight of the book for me.

While there were rumors of a second book, no joy yet, and since it's been so long, I'm thinking this won't be turning into a series. No worries though; it works just fine as a standalone.

Veronica Mars: Mr. Kiss and Tell by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham
I'm a huge fan of Veronica Mars, both the original series, the movie, and the subsequent books. While the books don't get my juices flowing in quite the same way the tv series did, I find them highly enjoyable and they certainly give me the fix I need to suffer through the painful withdrawal. In Mr. Kiss and Tell, Veronica investigates an accusation of rape at the Neptune Grand, a ritzy hotel in town.

Mr. Kiss and Tell feels very 'in the world of' in that many of the characters from the show appear, and much of the tension in the novel revolves around plot lines from the original series. This is a book for fans of the show; possibly not so much for newcomers to the Mars world.

Now then, when does book three come out?

"The Horla" Guy de Maupassant
Fa.Sci.Nating. My first experience with the short stories of Maupassant was "The Necklace", a story M. Night Shyamalan would love due to the Big Twist ending. I went looking for some more Maupassant, and I found "The Horla" which you can read here. At 30+ pages, the story can feel more like a novella than a short story, but to be honest, I have minimal interest in distinctions like that, so...moving on. Written in 1887, "The Horla" is either a horror story with supernatural beings or a psychological thriller about a man going crazy.

I will be pairing this story with Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper," a short story written in 1892 that I am sure you have read. If not, go hear and read now. I'm thinking my students will enjoy these two perspectives on mental hullaballoo, and I'm certain they will enjoy studying mental health thoughts and practices in the late 1800s.

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman
One of my favorite reads of all time, Good Omens is imaginative, irreverent, and flat out awesome. The story features hilarious, complex, creative characters as they fulfill their respective roles in the narrative of the apocalypse, like the religious kind, you know, demons and angels and all out war with lots of dead humans stuck in the middle.

When I found the book on audio for like 5 bucks, I jumped on it; after all I had been enjoying audiobooks immensely, so why not do an audio re-read of one of my favorite books. Bad idea. For some reason, I could not get into the audio version. Maybe I've read the story too many times. Maybe the voices in my head were horrified by the narrator I was listening to. Who knows?

I listened to the whole story, but I will definitely go back to reading the print version next time.

So now I'm down to six reviews remaining. Coming soon.