Tuesday, January 2, 2018

News of the World: Armadillos and more

from armadillo-online.org
Exotic as an eight-banded armadillo. Did you know that armadillos generally give birth to identical quadruplets? They do. While I don't think I've ever seen an armadillo other than in a zoo (if even there), I've had a fondness for them as a symbol for many years. Just look at their adorable snoutlet and perky ears, their attractive bands, and who could resist their ability to curl up like a pillbug to resist harm? There is a Jan Brett book for children called Armadillo Rodeo about a spunky lil 'diller from the Texas hill country who tries to befriend a fancy cowboy boot. I actually have a collection of armadillos: armadillo pins, stuffed armadillos, an armadillo planter, an armadillo mug. And yet I don't recall ever having met an armadillo. Why do I like these critters so much? They are cute, tough, resourceful, self-protecting. That they are symbols of Texas has always been incidental, and yet they indubitably are.

A New Yorker trashing Texas should probably to be expected, since (real) NewYorkers generally trash everyone. Meaning, everyone is fair game to a New Yorker. Texas isn't as desirable a target as say, California (bunch of fruits and nuts who are going to fall into the Pacific any day now), but the stereotype of gun-toting, big-haired Dallas oil magnates and tumbleweeds brushing against pick-up trucks crashing into drive-through liquor barns - well, it's there.

I've never been a fan of the western genre, neither in movies nor books, but I did read some examples over the past several years. Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men and The Road made it pretty clear that Texans are some gritty-ass people. After reading those I wouldn't mess with Texas either.

The most recent book I read about Texas was much more benign.  It was News of the World by Paulette Jiles. It tells the story of a elderly itinerant newspaper reader in Texas who has to deal with informing a highly polarized post-Civil War society that the 15th Amendment to the Constitution has passed (outlawing slavery). While doing this he agrees to take a 10 year old blonde girl who was taken captive when she was 6, back to her German parents near San Antonio. Drama ensues. It's actually very beautifully written, with beautiful, poetic descriptions of nature, and simple, straightforward explication of the characters. I'm too tired to write more about it now, and I've promised myself to write something every day, so I'll sign off here. I am writing again so that I can look back in the future and see what I was thinking now, much as I am able to do with my old diaries from ages 8 to 25 or so. Good night.

Monday, January 1, 2018

In the Ring: Dostoevsky vs. Tolstoy

When it comes to fans of the Russian classics, they say you are either a Dostoevsky person or a Tolstoy person. It's not clear why this dichotomy has been bandied about; my guess is that those are the big two and, people like to see a fight, and so you're encouraged to pick sides. You can check out a piece on this from The Millions called, "Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? 8 Experts on Who’s Greater."
There's more than one such book.
Going with the flow of this idiocy, I always considered myself a Dostoevskian. My friends and I in college got a big kick out of reading Dostoevsky, acting out the characters in our Slavic Club, and even considered putting together a musical based on Crime and Punishment (still a good idea, I think). We had a band called "Slavic Kenotic", inspired by the Dostoevskian focus on purification through suffering. The themes of the band were often more ribald than kenotic, but I think we claimed to be channeling Marmeladov and Svedrigailov as an excuse for that focus.

Tolstoy was clearly the less popular in our crowd. He seemed naive and preachy, hung up on adulteresses and dying old men. The story of an aristocratic morphing into a highly spiritual mendicant didn't appeal to us. We were all so over Hesse's Siddhartha, and Leo just seemed like such a self-indulgent trust fund case. I am sure we weren't fair to him.

Now I'm an older lady and the time has come to do what I hadn't dared to do earlier: read War and Peace. In the introduction I learned that Leo wasn't really such a ridiculous fuddy-duddy. He took it upon himself to educate the local serf children, and seems to have been genuine in his intention to improve the world. I'll learn more, I'm sure.

Regarding translations, there are quite a few choices, and apparently not one canonical original. In any case, I'm using this version in Russian, and a number of translations into English. The latest one is by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, and it seeks to remain as faithful to the original as possible, with the obvious drawback/advantage of including the original French as well as all manner of stilted speech and rarified vocabulary. An earlier (off copyright) translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude is available for free via Kindle and on Project Gutenberg here. It translates most of the French and is more colloquial, and much more accessible. My plan to is go back and forth between the original and the P&V, periodically checking in or Maude, and a Penguin paperback I have, translated by Rosemary Edmonds.

Getting back into the swing of social reading, I've revved up my Goodreads account, joined a group dedicated to reading War and Peace (admittedly the catalyst to this decision), and delved in headfirst, splashing around joyfully in all the history and culture of the thing. The characters? The plot? The atmosphere? I'll save that for tomorrow.