Sunday, December 29, 2013

Five Favorites from 2013

There have been so, so many wonderful books I've had the chance to read over the course of the last year. In fact, not only have I gotten to read novels but poems, plays, history and critique, too. It was hard to select my five favorites, and I tried to have my list represent various of these genres as well as a range in historical and geographic contexts. It was difficult to chose only five, but I liked the alliteration of "Five Favorite" too much to turn back, so here we have it...

5. El libro de buen amor by Juan Ruiz, Arcipreste de Hita
This gem comes from the clever quill of a medieval priest of the Iberian peninsula. Juan Ruiz, the priest of Hita, was known as a cheeky but good-natured rogue, writing theological teachings in what would appear to be a guide to sensual delights.

You may remember I mentioned him a while ago, quoting a particularly brassy passage that taught readers not to be given the the sin of sloth because their sex lives would surly suffer.

"The Book of Good Love," as it is translated into English, is a romp through anthropomorphic tales of hapless lions, allegorical battles between Lady Lent and Master Meat, and a small peek into the life of "Trotaconventos" ("convent trotter"), a go-between nun. All of this is masterfully woven into rhyme, with heavenly lessons seemingly taught through earthly adventures. I loved this book and inadvertently dreamed in rhyme for at least a week after I finished reading it.

4. Fuenteovejuna by Lope de Vega 
Image source
Based on an historical event from medieval Spain, this play takes the name of a town, Fuenteovejuna, that allegedly banded together to overthrow--by pain of death--the malicious lord of their region.

Written around one hundred years after the event, this play was penned by the most prolific writer of the Spanish Baroque, Lope de Vega. In this play, Lope imagines the desperation and grief of the townspeople and their rally to rebellion.

On the wedding day of the central characters, Laurencia and Frondoso, the evildoing Comendador rides through the party and snatched up the two newlyweds, placing Frondoso in the dungeon of his castle and abusing Laurencia. When she makes her escape, she runs back to the town and, with blood on her face and her clothes torn, she shames all the gathered men of the town for cowering in fear rather than coming to her rescue.

As I read that monologue, tears streamed down my face. The the depth of her sense of betrayal, the intensity of her wrath and desire for revenge blaze like a hateful fire in the mouth of a once-delicate young woman. The town becomes changed into a bloodthirsty hoard that marches to the Comendador's castle, cuts him down, and celebrates with his head on a pike. Afterwards, Inquisitors are sent to the town with torture devices to try and discover who murdered the region's lord. But when asked who was responsible, even under the duress of torture, men, women and children of the town answer only: "¡Fuenteovejuna!"

Someday I would love to see this play in person. I have read some critiques of the play that claim Lope de Vega wrote it to show how terrifying the ignorant masses would be, if ever they learned of their power, and that power should always remain in the hands of discerning monarchs. But I'm not convinced of that cynical take on Lope's intension with the play. Rather, I think he chose to gaze unwaveringly at the terrifying capacity of the human spirit to be moved by its own righteousness.

Here is a clip showing Laurencia's famous speech-- it is in Spanish and there are no subtitles, but it will nonetheless convey to the fiery intensity I described even if you don't understand the words:

3. Auto da compadecida by Ariano Suassuna 
I loved this play so much that I dedicated an entire post to it, right after I finished reading it. A Brazilian comedy set in the northeastern backlands, the play pits the violent severity of a bandit against the wits of a poor trickster and a a cast of hapless characters caught in the middle--including the lusty unfaithful wife and her witless husband, a greedy sacristan, and an old dog wed to a money-shitting cat.

The humor of this play seems to be of the very same ilk I appreciated so much in the medieval text of the Arcipreste de Hita. Suassuna brilliantly weaves together the timelessly hilarious with the unmistakably Brazilian. This is another one I'd like to see performed live-- in addition to some of his other plays, namely A mulher vestida de sol (a Romeo and Juliet-like tragedy, whose title translates as The Woman Dressed in the Sun).  

2. Dom Casmurro by Machado de Assis
I read this book for a seminar this past semester and was delighted to have the chance to revisit the storytelling prowess of 19th century Brazilian author: Machado de Assis.

About a year ago, I had my first encounter with him, reading As memórias pósthumas de Brás Cubas (The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas), narrated by a "deceased-author" from beyond the grave. In it, the narrator turns an ironic gaze on the attendees at his funeral and on the memory of those who survived him as he recalls the events of his life.

In Dom Casmurro, the narrator is a cantankerous older man, barley able to hide his general displeasure and unease with the memories he recounts of the people and events that made up his youth and middle age. The narrator's sense of humor is so biting and his critical eye so piercing that the reader finds himself laughing while at the same time shaking his head, in one of those almost melancholic "funny-cuz-its-true" moments.

Machado de Assis' gift to literature was not only his sense of ironic humor; his innovative narrative style tested (and extended) the boundaries literary realism. The narrator of Dom Casmurro often speaks directly to the reader, integrating imagined readers into the narrative. At the time of its publication, the reading public in Brazil was relatively small, so the author simply invented his readers and placed them directly in dialogue with his narrator and characters. The imagine male readers received the literary equivalent of a "wink wink nudge nudge" and female readers, imagined as "proper" and full of false-piety, received equally false apologies that would end with an invitation to put down the book and not go on reading it if they were so easily offended (hmph!). The real reader ends up laughing at the characters, their narrator, and even these implied readers, who may truly have existed, in some form or another...

Unlike his contemporary in Portugal, Eça de Queirós, Machado's droll teasing of his characters ultimately had the aim of laughing with them, rather than at them. He loved his deeply flawed, pompous, silly, arrogant, racist and sexist characters--because if he didn't, who would there be left in the world for him to love? Though realism set out to reveal the naked truth about humans' deplorable qualities, Machado seemed to have decided that, even after careful inspection of these qualities, there still may be something worth adoring in people-- even those that die alone and absorbed in memories and old jealousies. While Eça de Queirós in Portugal and "Clarín" Leopoldo Alas in Spain wrote huge (and yes, enjoyable) novels filled with ridiculing irony that constantly laughed at the characters, especially when they were down, Machado de Assis embraces human imperfections, has a good laugh at them, and goes on loving them.


YOU GUYS. I recently received a long-awaited package in the mail, all the way from Brazil. It was a box FULL of cordel chapbooks. I have begun reading them, and promise to devote future posts to them, as is only proper.

Putting an entire genre of poetry as my number-one-favorite is a total copout, and I know it. And yes, technically this should be in my list of things I'm looking forward to finishing reading in the coming year. But I had to cheat a little bit on this list because the pressure of naming a number one favorite of the year haunted me for days and kept me from writing the dang post at all.

I just couldn't bring myself to select only one book for the top slot in a year in which I also read, for my first timeEl Mio CidLa vida es sueñoLos pasos perdidosRios profundosLa ciudad y los perrosPrimo Basílio, The Hobbit, and others (links are to the English translations). It was a big year of big books. So my number one slot goes fittingly to a big array of big (little) books...

*Extra Credit: The Children of Húrin by J.R.R. Tolkein
Painting for the novel by Alan Lee
And because this is my blog, I can break my own rules and cheat some more and offer an "extra credit" title in my list. This isn't technically part of my "Five Favorites" for this year, but I wanted to include it because it is part of a broader new trend in the things I'm choosing to read for pleasure.

As a child, my mother read to me--and invented for me--a huge variety of folktales about faerie creatures that I believed to be real (or perhaps still do?). I grew up listening for songs in the woods and always watching out for a villain that plagued my nightmares for years, Red Cap.

Red Cap painting by Alan
Lee from his book, Faeries
Although I study literature as a grad student now, there are few if any folkloric tales assigned as required reading. That is not because they don't exist in Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries; I think it may simply owe to the way Academy tends to define "Literature" as a category separate and distant from "Lore."

Recently, I have felt a strong desire to go back to reading these tales in my spare time (and hopefully weaving some into my dissertation!). Specifically, I have a renewed interest in the writing of J.R.R. Tolkien (admittedly rekindled by Peter Jackson's translations of the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit into the medium of film). I recently read The Hobbit for my first time ever in life (how has it taken me so long to read that book?!).

After a flurry of amazon-one-click-shopping, a box of Tolkien books showed up at our apartment door around Christmas time... one of the books I ordered was The Children of Húrin which I began reading yesterday and finished this morning. It was a fierce, serious book, with an entirely different tone from The Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings trilogy. There is none of Tolkein's humor here, nor does the power of good and truth overcome all evil. Rather, in this epic tale told in archaic-sounding language, a hero is born under a curse and in an utterly besieged Middle-earth; he must do whatever he can to survive, including join a band of outlaws and confront a dragon single-handedly.

There are so many old-sounding names--of people and creatures and places and swords--and each begs to be rolled around in the mouth and uttered aloud. The vastness of Tolkien's imagination is at once welcoming and overwhelming. I am inspired to read more of his canon, and most of all, to return to some of the tales that I remember from years and years ago...

What are your favorite books from this past year? What are some of your favorite books of all time?

Until next time-- keep rustling!

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