Three Books

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Grendel by John Gardner. First edition hardback by Knopf (Borzoi imprint), 1971. No designer credited, but the jacket illustration is almost certainly by Emil Antonucci, whose line drawings head each chapter. The blurb on the back, by the way, is from a William H. Gass review of Gardner’s second novel The Wreckage of Agathon, which I have not read.

I usually only do scans of the fronts of books in these Three Books posts, but the clothbound book under the jacket of this edition of Grendel is too lovely not to share (it could also have fit into my three purple books post a while back):

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Mules & Men by Zora Neale Hurston. 1978 trade paperback by Indiana University Press. No designer credited, but the cover illustration is almost certainly by Miguel Covarrubias, whose illustrations accompany the text. Mules & Men is not stuffy catalog of folklore, but rather Hurston’s own synthesis of the tales she collected (and improved upon, if not outright invented in some cases) primarily in Florida in the early 1930s. A sample tale: How the snake got poison:

Well, when God made de snake he put him in de bushes to ornament de ground. But things didn’t suit de snake so one day he got on de ladder and went up to see God. “Good mawnin’, God.” “How do you do, Snake?” “Ah ain’t so many, God, you put me down there on my belly in de dust and everything trods upon me and kills off my generations. Ah ain’t got no kind of protection at all.”

God looked off towards immensity and thought about de subject for awhile, then he said, “Ah didn’t mean for nothin’ to be stompin’ you snakes lak dat. You got to have some kind of a protection. Here, take dis poison and put it in yo’ mouf and when they tromps on you, protect yo’ self. “

So de snake took de poison in his mouf and went on back.

So after awhile all de other varmints went up to God.

“Good evenin’, God.”

“How you makin’ it, varmints?”

“God, please do somethin’ ’bout dat snake. He’ layin’ in de bushes there wid poison in his mouf and he’s strikin’ everything dat shakes de bush. He’s killin’ up our generations. Wese skeered to walk de earth.”

So God sent for de snake and tole him:

“Snake, when Ah give you dat poison, Ah didn’t mean for you to be hittin’ and killin’ everything dat shake de bush. I give you dat poison and tole you to protect yo’self when they tromples on you. But you killin’ everything dat moves. Ah didn’t mean for you to do dat.”

De snake say, “Lawd, you know Ah’m down here in de dust. Ah ain’t got no claws to fight wid, and Ah ain’t got no feets to git me out de way. All Ah kin see is feets comin’ to tromple me. Ah can’t tell who my enemy is and who is my friend. You gimme dis protection in my mouf and Ah uses it.”

God thought it over for a while then he says:

“Well, snake, I don’t want yo’ generations all stomped out and I don’t want you killin’ everything else dat moves. Here take dis bell and tie it to yo’ tail. When you hear feets comin’ you ring yo’ bell and if it’s yo’ friend, he’ll be keerful. If it’s yo’ enemy, it’s you and him.”

So dat’s how de snake got his poison and dat’s how come he got rattles.

Biddy, biddy, bend my story is end.

Turn loose de rooster and hold de hen.

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By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño. English translation by Chris Andrews. Trade paperback by New Directions, 2003. Cover design by Semadar Megged, who adapted a photograph by Kurt Beals. The orange in the cover doesn’t seem so vibrant in the scan I did. It’s as orange as the other two books. Oh well. The prose is vibrant, electric orange.

I wrote about By Night in Chile here.

Five Favorite Fictional Mothers

Happy Mother’s Day! Sure, it’s a marketing scam, but we all love moms, right?

Fascinating moms populate literary fiction, and there’s no shortage of great baddies, evil stepmothers, and distant headcases in our favorite literature—but we thought we’d focus instead on some of the moms that seem to be, you know, really great moms.

(See also: Five Favorite Fictional Fathers, Five Favorite Fictional Sons (the daughters list is surely round the bend)).

“Hester Prynne & Pearl before the stocks”, an illustration by Mary Hallock Foote from an 1878 edition of The Scarlet Letter

1. Hester Prynne, The Scarlet Letter (Nathaniel Hawthorne)

Hester Prynne is a bundle of contradictions—sin and salvation, radical freedom and reactionary repression, hope and despair—all bound to a deeply patriarchal society that had to control women’s bodies at all turns. Fortunately, there’s no analog for the Puritans’ judgmental, shame-based behavior in our own society (har har). Hester and her daughter Pearl, living in a cottage outside of Boston, are outside the dominant social order. It’s a form of punishment that paradoxically frees the pair, allowing Pearl to grow into a kind of nature spirit—impish and willful, to be sure, but also artistic and able to express herself. Although Pearl is the human doubling of Hester’s titular letter, she’s ultimately no badge of shame, but rather a treasure in her mother’s eyes.

2. Penelope, The Odyssey (Homer et al.)

Patient Penelope weaving and unweaving her husband’s shroud—is she the faithful wife, waiting for Odysseus who’s having adventures asea? Or is she cunningly keeping her son safely alive from the predatory suitors who would certainly want to get him out of the way ASAP. Penelope is an extraordinary and ambiguous figure, but one thing is clear: she loves her son Telemachus.

3. Molly Bloom, Ulysses (James Joyce)

Speaking of Penelope . . . Molly might not be the most faithful wife, but damn if she isn’t a hot mama.

4. Ma Joad, The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck)

Ma Joad never gets a first name in Grapes—she’s an elemental matriarchal force that keeps the family together against every kind of pain. The final scene of this novel is utterly amazing. When Rose of Sharon’s daughter dies in childbirth, Ma Joad directs the mother to nurse a man dying from hunger. All the while, a flood of epic proportions looms. Ma Joad’s determination to live transcends Darwinian impulses here; against the backdrop of infanticide, economic and social genocide, and natural disaster, she still directs her family to a loving, Emersonian course of action.

5. Grendel’s mother, Grendel (John Gardner)

In John Gardner’s fabulous retelling of the Beowulf saga from Grendel’s POV, we find a deeply alienated young man who, try as he might, cannot communicate with the plants and animals around him. Grendel should be a thing of nature, but he is a thinking thing, a thing with a conscience, a soul. He can understand men but they cannot understand him. In one of the book’s saddest conceits, Grendel cannot communicate through speech with his mother, who in many senses seems a creature apart from him. Gardner here dramatizes the radical alienation that all children must feel at some point for their mothers, an alterity grounded in the paradox that, hey, your mom gave birth to you—you came out of her, metaphorically, sure, but also, like, really. Even though Mama Grendel can’t speak to her son, she protects and lovingly cares for him, splitting a few skulls here and there in the process. Motherhood is tough.

Five Favorite Fictional Mothers

Happy Mother’s Day! Sure, it’s a marketing scam, but we all love moms, right?

Fascinating moms populate literary fiction, and there’s no shortage of great baddies, evil stepmothers, and distant headcases in our favorite literature—but we thought we’d focus instead on some of the moms that seem to be, you know, really great moms.

(See also: Five Favorite Fictional Fathers, Five Favorite Fictional Sons (the daughters list is surely round the bend)).

"Hester Prynne & Pearl before the stocks", an illustration by Mary Hallock Foote from an 1878 edition of The Scarlet Letter

1. Hester Prynne, The Scarlet Letter (Nathaniel Hawthorne)

Hester Prynne is a bundle of contradictions—sin and salvation, radical freedom and reactionary repression, hope and despair—all bound to a deeply patriarchal society that had to control women’s bodies at all turns. Fortunately, there’s no analog for the Puritans’ judgmental, shame-based behavior in our own society (har har). Hester and her daughter Pearl, living in a cottage outside of Boston, are outside the dominant social order. It’s a form of punishment that paradoxically frees the pair, allowing Pearl to grow into a kind of nature spirit—impish and willful, to be sure, but also artistic and able to express herself. Although Pearl is the human doubling of Hester’s titular letter, she’s ultimately no badge of shame, but rather a treasure in her mother’s eyes.

2. Penelope, The Odyssey (Homer et al.)

Patient Penelope weaving and unweaving her husband’s shroud—is she the faithful wife, waiting for Odysseus who’s having adventures asea? Or is she cunningly keeping her son safely alive from the predatory suitors who would certainly want to get him out of the way ASAP. Penelope is an extraordinary and ambiguous figure, but one thing is clear: she loves her son Telemachus.

3. Molly Bloom, Ulysses (James Joyce)

Speaking of Penelope . . . Molly might not be the most faithful wife, but damn if she isn’t a hot mama.

4. Ma Joad, The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck)

Ma Joad never gets a first name in Grapes—she’s an elemental matriarchal force that keeps the family together against every kind of pain. The final scene of this novel is utterly amazing. When Rose of Sharon’s daughter dies in childbirth, Ma Joad directs the mother to nurse a man dying from hunger. All the while, a flood of epic proportions looms. Ma Joad’s determination to live transcends Darwinian impulses here; against the backdrop of infanticide, economic and social genocide, and natural disaster, she still directs her family to a loving, Emersonian course of action.

5. Grendel’s mother, Grendel (John Gardner)

In John Gardner’s fabulous retelling of the Beowulf saga from Grendel’s POV, we find a deeply alienated young man who, try as he might, cannot communicate with the plants and animals around him. Grendel should be a thing of nature, but he is a thinking thing, a thing with a conscience, a soul. He can understand men but they cannot understand him. In one of the book’s saddest conceits, Grendel cannot communicate through speech with his mother, who in many senses seems a creature apart from him. Gardner here dramatizes the radical alienation that all children must feel at some point for their mothers, an alterity grounded in the paradox that, hey, your mom gave birth to you—you came out of her, metaphorically, sure, but also, like, really. Even though Mama Grendel can’t speak to her son, she protects and lovingly cares for him, splitting a few skulls here and there in the process. Motherhood is tough.

Wealtheow — Ashley Crownover

In her novel Wealtheow, author Ashley Crownover retells Beowulf from Queen Wealtheow’s point of view. In the original epic poem, Wealtheow doesn’t have much of a voice. Her marriage to King Hrothgar is more a matter of politics than love, and her role in the poem is largely limited to an episode where she speaks up to secure her own genealogical futurity. Adopting a first-person voice, Crownover portrays Wealtheow as a young, somewhat naive bride thrown into a political marriage arranged to prevent war between the Danes and the Helmings. Wealtheow tries to fit into her new role as wife and queen, as well as her new culture, and strives to produce an heir for Hrothgar, suffering miscarriages and other adversities. Crownover parallels Wealthow’s plighted road to motherhood in the tale of Grendel and his mother (called Ginnar here). When Grendel is born deformed, his father rejects him and he is bound for infanticide–only Ginnar’s motherly instinct resists custom, and the pair become fugitives. Crownover’s technique here builds sympathy for Ginnar in echoing the narrative proper of Wealtheow. Ginnar in many ways is a far more sympathetic (and interesting) character than Wealtheow, and the counter-plot of her and her monster-spawn/beloved boy Grendel is the highlight of the book.

Inevitably, Wealtheow must invite comparison to John Gardner’s masterpiece Grendel, the 1971 cult novel that retells the story from the monster’s point of view. Unlike that work, which is densely poetic, ambiguous, and often lyrically experimental, Crownover relates Wealtheow in a simple, straightforward style. The writing is thrifty and competent, and propels the narrative forward with ease. It’s tempting to pigeonhole Crownover’s effort as a feminist revision of an overtly-masculine text, and there’s of course merit in such a description–she does, after all, take a woman’s viewpoint here (or, arguably, the viewpoints of two women). But Crownover’s depiction of Wealtheow–and the men in the narrative–never unravels into gender politics (or, worse, tempting revisionist caricatures). Instead, she keeps the narrative upfront. It’s not as subtle (or ironic) as The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood’s marvelous retelling of The Odyssey from Penelope’s perspective, but it does adhere to the same complex view of male-female relations. Fans of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Avalon series and Beowulf enthusiasts in general will want to check this out.

Wealtheow is available now from Iroquois Press.