(I took the header picture of a Common Loon resting on a pond in Utah on its way north in June of 2015. It was in transition from winter to summer plumage.)

Translate - I dare you. Then make a comment on the funny errors the translator made.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Thoughts from reading the Song of Roland

Well I read it.  Or most of it.  I read the Norton Anthology condensed version through at least, and I'll have to beg Suzannah's indulgence for this.  Her review is much more detailed than mine (partly since she read the whole thing), but I want to share some of my impressions here.

Having already read the "fanfic" that came from this work, what struck me first and foremost when I read The Song of Roland was its ancient tone.  I know I was reading in translation, but I felt through the translation the same tone that I have discerned in Francis Magoun's translation of the Kalevala - or in the Heaney and Chickering translations of Beowulf.  Or the various translations of Homer that I've read.

I also had a Mormon moment while reading it: at the end, when Charlemagne laments how hard his life is, I thought of Mosiah 29:33:

And many more things did king Mosiah write unto them, unfolding unto them all the trials and troubles of a righteous king, yea, all the travails of soul for their people, and also all the murmurings of the people to their king; and he explained it all unto them.

I really like Umberto Eco's essay "Dreaming of the Middle Ages" (in Travels in Hyperreality - affiliate link, you can get it pretty cheap), where he breaks down "Ten Little Middle Ages" of modernity, mentioning Torquato Tasso and Ludovico Ariosto as examples.  I definitely felt the difference between Ariosto's "Spaghetti Western" epic and the original chanson de geste.  Even through translation, Roland felt more barbaric - and Germanic.  I thought more than once of Beowulf (and the Sagas): noble swords with their names and lineages, loving descriptions of fancy armor, long-winded boasts and harangues, even the bit about Roland having plenty of work to do when surrounded by the enemy - that was classic Saga wryness.  It was interesting to see so much of that still manifesting in an 11th century work (though I remind myself that the Sagas themselves were being written down at the same time).

And the other thing: no sex.  Orlando Furioso and The Faerie Queene, with all their sex, remind me of fantasy scenes by Frank Frazetta (also mentioned in Eco's essay), as well as Larry Elmore and Boris Vallejo and Julie Bell (not so different from Ingres' famous scene of Ruggiero and Angelica, really).  The Song of Roland to me is . . . more like a Bolt Thrower album cover, maybe?  At least in the battle scenes.

Maybe that's not quite fair.  But so much violence!  Njal's Saga has that famous scene where Skarp-Hedin splits Thrain's skull as he skates by, so that teeth clatter onto the ice - I thought of that as I read Roland, which in parts was like that scene amplified and repeated at Peter Jackson levels of absurdity.  Eyes flying out of their sockets, brains coming out of ears, blood pouring down over armor . . . I won't lie, it all made me a bit sick.

Some years ago I read Millennium; A History of the Last Thousand Years by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto (which you can get used for quite cheap on Amazon - another affiliate link) and was struck by his mention of "aristocratic thuggery" and "noble hoodlums" in early medieval Europe.  I reflected on this as I read the story's depictions of gruesome slaughter and callous hatred (though tempered by tears and grief beyond what modern sensibilities would expect or even accept).  As a 16-year-old, when I was supposed to be reading this for my high school Humanities class, I probably would have thought the battle scenes were just awesome: I loved medieval and fantasy violence so much at that age.

I still enjoyed reading it now, and wish that I had read it at age 16.  Reading Suzannah's comments on it have helped me to appreciate it more finely.  So thanks, Suzannah, for the challenge!  The Sayers translation of Roland is firmly on my wish list, and I look forward to next year's epic.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Quillcast: Pinecones

I wrote this about four years ago, along with music.  One of my goals is to get an ensemble together to record it.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Introducing the Chocolate Project

Some of you may remember my post of a few years ago where I wrote, in bad Early Modern English and worse Caroline minuscule, a recipe for the drinking chocolate that I like to make.  Ever since before that time - ever since reading The True History of Chocolate by Sophie and Michael Coe (affiliate link) - I've dreamed of starting a Chocolate House like they used to have in 16th and 17th century Europe.  Last summer I even went to some business planning workshops and tried to draw up a business plan for the idea.

I came away from it rather discouraged: even in Utah, where a Mormon-friendly alternative to coffeehouses would theoretically have the highest chance of success, I came to believe that the culture that would be needed to support the kind of establishment I have in mind simply does not exist.  Building a culture is no small matter.  If my novel, when it gets published, gains any appreciable popularity, then that might do it.

Meanwhile, I thought: what if I developed a product to sell?  Gourmet hot chocolate and drinking chocolate has been rising in the collective conscious like an underground lava dome, and I still see plenty of inexcusable ineptitude: people selling cocoa powder concoctions as if they were "drinking chocolate" or passing off coarsely-ground beans as gourmet because all that grit must mean it's legit . . .

Not that I have anything against cocoa, mind you, as long as it's done honestly.  Cocoa/hot cocoa and hot chocolate/drinking chocolate are two distinct things, and I'm on a mission to educate people about this.

So here's my latest project: the Chocolate Project.  I'm going to make a scientific, or at least a systematic, series of experiments in chocolate beverage-making, to work toward my product development goals.  Along the way I'll share my recipes for kitchen tinkerers and fellow chocolate lovers to share in my discoveries.  And I'll blog about it on this site, as well as post about it on social media.

I'm also dragging my family along on this.  They don't seem to mind being subjected to regular fancy chocolate, for some weird reason.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Can I make a fortune as a writer? A rant.

I regularly get messages in my inbox from people offering to sell me the secrets of success.  Today one of them offered access to a free training session on how to become a published author in ninety days.

I see this kind of thing and I think: how strange it is that in a cultural environment resting on the foundations of Gutenberg and grammarians, we should see a situation prevail which reminds me of antiquity: in order to publish a book, why, all you have to do is hack out your ideas and release them to the world!  - Except now we don't have an environment of scarcity: modern societies aspire to universal literacy and publishing doesn't require a staff of slave scribes or even a contract with a printing press.

Let me tell you why I'm skeptical.  As someone who has been writing for 20 years, I know how much work it takes to write well.  I estimate that I'm about three-quarters of the way to the million words that it takes to gain mastery of the craft - and I have deliberately underestimated.  People tell me I write well.  Sometimes I let myself believe it.  Sometimes I say so myself on a cover letter, because I have to admit that compared with many other people, I do.

But that's because I have worked at it so much.  And I know that good writing entails rewriting.  This is especially true for creative writing, but anything that seeks to be of real use is going to have to go through a critical eye and get rearranged.  I've written my share of relatively dry and utilitarian stuff but even for that I didn't publish first drafts.

Thousands of people write 50,000 words in 30 days every November.  But that doesn't mean their drafts are ready to be published.  Reputable advice about NaNoWriMo will reassure you that when you're "finished," your book will suck.  And that's ok, because now you can take the time to edit, revise and rewrite, to get it ready to publish.  Some NaNo-ers like to try to get this done within the year following the completion of their first draft.  To do that in two months?

When I was a faculty member at a certain university, I took part in a semester-long writing workshop.  Right off the bat I was disappointed by the message that the presenter gave: don't worry about trying to say something original, she said, just join the conversation.  I thought: well, isn't that what the Internet is for - for people to just sound off and repeat the same conversations over and over until at some point hopefully they get off and graduate?

I've since come around to her way of thinking to a point: "ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering" and all that.  But here's the thing: even operating on such a premise, the article that I wrote - and published - through that program went through peer reviews.  It got rejected twice before I got it into shape fit for publishing.

I look at these people who say they've gotten rich publishing ebooks that they wrote in no time and I think, what on earth can they be writing?  If it's fiction or poetry or even personal essay I would rest easier: creative writing thrives on the endless permutation of themes, characters and questions.  For current events there's journalism.

But from what I see, I strongly suspect that what many of these people are writing is "content" that you could have from other books already published, if you simply took some time and care at the library.  That would mean that the fortunes of these few depend on the hurried laziness of the many who would rather pay a few bucks for convenience than do any serious investigation.

Blogging is to blame for this in great degree, I'm sure.  I might also be inclined to point a finger at NaNoWriMo, but I think it's more than bias born of affection that gives me pause there.  For although I have read the success stories about the people whose NaNo novels get published - and read - the emphasis I see in NaNoWriMo's promotions is far more weighted on the personal fulfillment of accomplishing the writing for yourself, and honoring your creativity.  I don't see the same mentality of "look how easy it is to make loads of money!"  Because - well, imagine this! - people who have a story to tell aren't always in it for the money.  And maybe the people who care about quality of prose and rigor of thought aren't out to get rich either.

Much of the blame for this I would also lay at the feet of the Prussian-derived public school systems, but I think that might be another story.  And I'm sure someone could lead an informative discussion about the nature of newspaper journalism in relation to all this.

I don't know if I should be disturbed at this or not: I'm charitable enough, I suppose, that I look at these cheerleaders for the drop-out-and-travel-the-world-by-publishing-ebooks (or an affiliate marketing blog) lifestyle and I think: is there a possibility this might not be just another variant of the Get Rich Quick Scheme?  To their credit, I do read from affiliate marketers who say that it took months to see results from their efforts.  There are even some like this guy who project a gruff persona to try to drive away the lazy people who just want to plug into the system and get paid without making an effort.

Again and again I find myself reflecting on the curious case of Nehor, as recorded in the Book of Alma: a guru of positive thinking and a gospel of prosperity, he got so angry when an old man argued against his ideas that he killed him.  And his followers perpetrated some of the most ruthless atrocities of their time.

So I see these smiling guys who can't seem to put together a sentence without using the word "awesome" or "amazing" and I think, what would they be like when cornered?  What claws and fangs would come out if they found that someone was putting their ebooks to their natural use and copying them for free?

There's more that I can and want to write about this, but it might take several more posts and/or a dissertation.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Nearly nine years

This blog has been around for nearly nine years under its current name.  Before March 2007 if I recall aright, it was mostly a political blog, emanating fervent heat from the idealism that my experiences of recent years have managed to temper and disappoint, but not to purge.

I'm glad I made the change to the name and focus almost nine years ago.  I might put up some of the earlier stuff I posted again, on a separate page, as part of the remodeling I'm doing in this new year.

In looking through some old posts I found this one written when I was still living two days' journey away from the Wasatch Front.  It helps me to reflect on how grateful I am to be living back in my homeland again, even though there are many people and things I miss about New Mexico.

As this year progresses, I'll continue to change and grow this blog.  A while ago I noticed that somehow the old blogroll I used to have on the sideline is no longer there, and I want to work to build that back up.  Also, long-time readers will notice that I've started adding affiliate links.  This is an experiment and I'm interested to see what happens with it.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Read old books! - The Song of Roland

It's no secret to any regular reader of this blog that I like old books, along with old music.  Nearly five years ago (about the time I started to listen seriously to Bach church cantatas) I posted about reading the Italian Renaissance classic Orlando Furioso (the Waldman prose translation).  In the years since I've also worked my way through two and a half books of The Faerie Queene.  (Those are affiliate links, by the way, and there's another to come.)

One of these years I really have been meaning to write a paper to present at Life, the Universe and Everything about how these poems (especially OF and its predecessor) are essentially works of Renaissance fanfic based on the Song of Roland.  My problem is that my perfectionism holds me back: "nothing I say will be original," I tell myself, forgetting that 75% of what is said in any panel discussion isn't original either (drawing not only on my LTUE experience but also on the professional archivists' conferences I used to attend).

Well, I'm getting closer to that, because Suzannah over at Vintage Novels has put out a challenge for a read-along of the Song of Roland.  It amazes me that I have come this far without reading it (along with the The Poem of the Cid, which I have in paperback, for heaven's sake), but better late than never!  And having failed so miserably at NaNoWriMo this year, I figure maybe this is a way for me to redeem myself.

Currently I'm going between the Frederick Goldin translation in my Norton Anthology and the C.K. Moncrieff at Project Gutenberg.  Since I prefer prose translations I'm spending most of my time with the Goldin.  Right off the bat I noticed the familiar medieval caricature of Islam: pagans who worship not only "Mahumet" but the Greek god Apollo too.  Not sure how that was supposed to work, but it's serving to me as a reminder of the unreliable narrator principle, along with the truth that artistic merit (and documentary value) is separate from factuality or social virtue.