Monday, August 18, 2008

The List To Date

27. The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio

I've wanted to read this for years, ever since I read about it in a Jane Austen book. It actually fit in very well with the Backgrounds course I took this past semester. Boccaccio was a contemporary of Dante's, and like him, a 13th century Florentine. The language seems rather modern, but I'm sure that's a result of the translation from the Italian. This book is an 80/20 mix of the Canterbury Tales and the Inferno respectively. Six young Florentine noblewomen choose three young Florentine noblemen to accompany them in their flight to the countryside to avoid the raging Plague. Each day, a different member of the company is the "queen" or "king," whose chief duty is to set a story topic for the day, and at the appointed time, everybody relates an appropriate tale. The book is almost entirely composed of these stories, all folk tales that would echo something in the minds of readers even today. Most of the stories take place in Italy and particularly Florence, most mock the clergy and variate on themes of Love, which in these stories may as well be synonymous with adulterous sex.

I find it so interesting that adultery seems to be so accepted in these stories, if conducted discreetly. The obvious reason would be that in that place and time, marriages were arranged by families and/or for money, not love. However, why couldn't it be pointing to the same thing as more current theories of polyamory, for example?

One thing I noticed about Boccaccio, is all his stories, even the tragedies, are so light. The language is ironic and the details are ridiculous. In one, a girl buries her dead lover's head in a potted plant she carries around with her everywhere. He delights in trickery, some of very unsavoury nature (making a woman lie naked in the hot sun with no food or water till her skin peels off) and some more harmless (convincing a man he is pregnant), The tales are all the epitome of earthy, about sex and money and friendship. The characters range from noble to penniless.

What I especially liked is there were so many different pints of view. For every story in favor of adultery, there was one against it. For every story favoring the trickster, there was one where the victim triumphed. There were many more stories about dishonest, lascivious, or bumbling clergy, but there were a few wise, kind ones in the mix.

The very last story is nearly identical to one of the earlier stories in The Canterbury Tales. In fact, I'm almost certain I found a sibling to each Canterbury Tale contained in the Decameron. Chaucer wrote in the fourteenth century, so Boccaccio outdates him, but I doubt either man actually invented the gist of any of the stories, but rather shaped them and used them for their own purposes. The story is about a rich man who decides to marry a poor girl and then "tests" her by taking her children away at birth, pretending to have them killed but really sending them away to be fostered, and finally pretending to have his wife put aside in favor of a younger one, who is really their daughter. Yeah, really messed up right? Except, of course, the wife passes the test and they live happily ever after. But, I thought, why is that the last story? What's the real message? I thought more carefully, and it reminded me somewhat of one of the Biblical prophets, Hosea, I think, whose wife kept running off, but he took her back anyway, and it was supposed to be a parallel with God and Israel. Well, what if this was a twist on that and God was the rich man and humans, or, I suppose, Christians were the woman?

Which brings me to the final point I wanted to discuss, that Boccaccio addresses this book to women and the majority of the characters are women. Boccaccio writes in his prologue about how he seeks to please and entertain women, and in his epilogue that the book is for women, because they have the time to read something of that length (it is over 800 pages in small print), and also that, though the stories are a bit uneven and some are not very good, it will be suitable enough for the less perfect, less intelligent sex. The book as a whole professes to assume that women are inferior, as some of the female characters explicitly state, but the many strong and brilliant female characters would seem to belie that. Then again, there are also plenty of airheaded bimbos within its pages. I am going to decide though, that Boccaccio viewed that as as much of a joke as he seemed to view every other part of the human condition. The Decameron, as a whole, seems to say, there are a lot of different people out there, different ways to conduct yourself, all you can do is make the best of it, for Fortune is your mistress. I said that would be my final issue, but I'll just note that Fortune, as so often, is a huge theme here too.

What is about simple tales that comfort us so much and why are they told and retold again? Certain things, like Love, always seem to be relevant.

Sorry this review is so disjointed, I just have so much to say. This is a book to read over a long period of time, easily put down and picked back up. I really want to read more from this time period.

28. The Ultimate Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

I recently bought the nice gold-edged hardback copy that various students and coworkers have been mistaking for the Bible all week. I always just want to say 'Yes' and leave it at that ;) I read The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy a year or two ago and enjoyed it, though not as much as I expected to. The Hitchhikers' Guide is not philosophically profound or emotionally touching, it is simply amusing. As a comedy, it is some of the best I have encountered. The sequels continue the tradition of the original, the books float on a combination of Adams' irreverence and the scope of his imagined material. His galaxy, or more accurately conglomeration of universes, which he terms the "Whole General Mish Mash" is an exercise in breadth, not depth and works well for his purposes. Various planets, species, and phenomena can be introduced to serve as one liners and then forever dismissed or referred to later in passing. I see why this was so successful as a radio show, it is a succession of never ending adventures with no real purpose but the action itself. That said, it does grate somewhat as a novel, since readers are at least conditioned to expect some sort of resolution or plot organization. Each book ends far too easily, evidence of Adams' lazy style, but fortunately he makes it work. Although many of his outlandish new coined phrases were annoying to me, there were several gems to be found as well. I particularly liked the phrase "the long dark teatime of the soul," which is actually apparently the title of another of his books. The characters are disappointingly flat , especially against the universe's exciting backdrop,and he never takes the opportunity to develop them much. Only the two-headed brilliant and barmy Zaphod Beeblebrox can match the galaxy for flair, and I was sad when he was excluded from the last two books. Of course I also dig the Brit colloquialisms.

This is actually five books in one, and with work, took me nearly two weeks to read, setting me back on my goal. So, therefore, while I am counting this as one book now, I am not above going back and counting it as five if needed.

29. Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World by Verlyn Flieger

The instructor for the Fantasy Lit class I assisted this summer lent me this book. It took me awhile to get into it, due to the complex discussions on, "A Man of Antitheses," "Eucatastrophe," "Dyscatastrophe," essentially meaning Tolkien's theories on the origins of mythology and language (notably that they are inextricably linked), the parallel inextricable link between dark and light that he also believed in, the sources from which he derived those theories, most prominently fellow Inkling Owen Barfield, and the author's proof for all such assertions taken from Tolkien's own dense but fascinating writings. Due to my own personal interest in all these topics; mythology and language, the metaphorical light and dark, and above all The Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion, I did come to greatly appreciate Flieger's analysis. The arguments build on one another and take time to digest, but for the true connossieur, it is worth it. The central argument, which all the other arguments lead to and complement, is that the languages in Tolkien's world begin with words that encapsulate multiple meanings and gradually splinter into more specific terms (as Barfield and Tolkien believed occurred in our world), and that Tolkien's use of light in the book mirrors this splintering and both represent a natural diminishing of all that is good and pure. There is, of course, so much more to that, but I would have to write another book to fully explain my interpretation of hers. The latter half of the book is almost entirely concerned with analyzing the Silmarillion in terms of this theory, although there is one last chapter on how it relates to the Lord of the Rings and especially the character of Frodo. What I most appreciate is that Flieger clearly illustrates why Lord of the Rings, and the whole Silmarillion, is essentially tragic, as I've been trying to explain for years. If you got through all that, you may want to take a shot at the book. If not, don't worry, I won't blame you (just make sure you've read Lord of the Rings, I won't even insist on the Silmarillion).



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