Saturday, June 21, 2014

Summer Reading Update: The Platypus Reads Part CCLXVIII

This is the first summer in three years where I'm not live-blogging a read through one or more of the Shannara books.  Nonetheless, I am disposed to be communicative, but without a ready-made excuse for a post what shall I say?  Let's start with where the Summer Reading has gone thus far.

I've handily dispatched Paul Cartledge's two popular-level books on Sparta's role in the Persian Wars, Thermopylae and After Thermopylae.  Cartledge comes out swinging for his side here and no mistake.  When push comes to shove, he thinks that the Spartans decisively won the Persian Wars and that the Athenians stole the glory.  That's controversial, to say the least.  The Athenian victory at Salamis cut the Persians' supply lines and also kept them from using the fleet to raid the Spartan coast or lend superior maneuver to the Persian army.  I also have to wonder, given what Herodotus account, if the Spartans could have won at Plataea without the support of the battle-hardened Athenian army.  That said, I'm currently taking a break from Ancient Greece and tending to a long-neglected interest with Fairbank and Goldman's China: A New History.

The Calvin and Hobbes reading continues with The Days are Just Packed.  Here, Watterson has fully come in to his own daring layout, dynamic drawing, and stories that revel in exploring a rich and delicate world that was several years in the making.  This is Calvin and Hobbes as it lives in the minds of those who grew up with it.

As in any summer reading program, there are always the curve balls.  This summer's current curve ball is The Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier.  I'm not through with it yet, so I can't render any final verdict.  Did anyone else read this one?  If so, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Polish all this off with occasional dips into an Oxford anthology of English ghost stories and you've got the last few weeks.  At any rate, July is coming and I may mix things up a bit.  There are no rules to summer reading, and that's the fun of it.    

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Overheard, Two Skulls Talking: Creative Platypus

Two skulls sat in the earth,
each with a hole (quite prominent)
in back,
and gossiped (as only skulls can)
for only the Earth hears them:

Have you heard my lady, the Princess Dai,
stayed so well in her twenty shrouds
that she would not rot until they dug her up?
Now scholars write learned disquisitions
upon the worms that ate her gut
and in life made her the terror of the palace.
They’ve even put her on display,
-like a breakfast table-
with a cover for her modesty,
which is fitting; though
there was never much to show.
Just the sort of fuss she wanted.

And the Earth ate these words
(as it eats all things):
in season, with a little indigestion
now and then –except those bits
it spits
back up
to grace the breakfast tables
of men (and women) of

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Sledding and Snow Goons: The Platypus Reads Part CCLXVII

My reading of Calvin and Hobbes has progressed to Attack of the Deranged, Mutant, Killer, Monster Snow Goons.  Watterson reached a new level of art and story-telling in this volume, and it's been one of my favorites since childhood.  There's a sharp and cynical Yankee wit that pervades the pages culminating in Calvin's calling upon "the mighty and awful Snow Demons" to animate a frosty homunculus.  Of course, he gets his faustian, yet comical, comeuppance for his meteorological-theological blasphemy.  This sort of warped humor makes sense to kids who spent most sixth-grade lunch periods discussing the finer points of world domination and arguing over who would rule which subject populations when we inevitably succeeded.

While we're on a trip down memory lane, I'd also like to give a nod to the sledding scenes.  Watterson writes sledding in the way I experienced it as a kid (particularly the big blizzard of '96).  We had those awful little sleds that you couldn't steer and we'd start at the top of the hill and coast down, trying to avoid the boulder, and then have to bail out before going over the cliff into the woods.  There were plenty of wipe-outs including taking out one of Mom's holly bushes and not a few trips over the cliff into the woods with accompanied flying and sprawling.  We narrated these exploits with all the over-blown "mount-maim" rhetoric Calvin employs in the strip.

Which brings me to my final point: how much did Watterson shape the world of the kids who read his comics when they ran daily in the papers?  Did we like Calvin and Hobbes' sledding adventures because they mirrored our reality, or did we interpret our reality through the looking glass of Watterson's story?      

Monday, June 16, 2014

Making Bread as a Window in History: The Platypus Reads Part CCLXVI

I don't think historians are at their best when they limit themselves to abstract thinking.  There's something sensible and salubrious when Jim Lacey takes a look at the Battle of Marathon from a quartermaster's perspective (The First Clash) and asks where the Persians put their toilets (the next question is given the sub-prime location for said outhouses, how long could they have stayed on the beaches before having to decamp in the face of the enemy).  Some things only become clear by doing.  I have a great respect for interpreters, the docents at living museums like Plymouth Plantation, Old Sturbridge Village, and Colonial Williamsburg.  By re-creating the old ways of doing things they preserve (and sometimes recover!) knowledge of the past that can't be communicated by mere letters on a page.

Lacking an organic farm or a stone oven limits my undertakings, but I am determined to make some things with my own two hands this summer.  To that end, I have some helpful little friends.  The first is Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day.  By the power of refrigeration, I now have tasty, tasty loaves on the table everyday via a process that's virtually idiot-proof.  I've enjoyed seeing how much can be done with very little (salt, water, and flour), especially the different forms that bread can take from region to region (the picture above and the two below are Couronnes, a type of loaf my book informs me is native to Lyon).

  Moving back into the past, my next little helper is a collection of antique New England recipes collected in the late 1930s, The New England Yankee Cookbook by Imogene Walcott.  We've tried recipes from this treasure trove in the past with great success (Deerfoot chowder and Indian pudding).  Adapting another recipe led to the creation of this Whole-wheat-maple-honey-walnut loaf.
I've made one foray into the world of cheese already with a simple queso blanco under the tutiledge of making Cheese, Butter and Yogurt by Ricki Carroll.  Cheese-making is a much more involved process and I'm not sure how further efforts will go.  Nonetheless, I am determined to make them and I'll be sure to report any striking successes.

So what am I hoping to learn from all this?  I'm not sure yet.  Whatever happens, I'm certainly not going "Wendell Berry" any time soon (poor health).  I suppose looking at historical recipes and techniques and then comparing them with contemporary methods gives a real idea of how much labor labor-saving devices actually save.  It's also impressed upon me the need for absolute faithfulness to routine and organization in sustaining traditional cooking methods.  I still have a lot to think about and experiment with, but I'll let you know if I come to any firm conclusions.  In the meantime, I have a honey-wheat loaf to enjoy!   

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Aging With Calvin and Hobbes: The Platypus Reads CCLXV

Doing the math the other night, I realized that I am older than Calvin's parents as they appear in the strip.  That's odd: realizing that I have an edge on the immutable authorities of Calvin and Hobbes' world.  It's not that I haven't realized I'm aging or anything.  In grad school I noticed that I was starting to look quite a bit like Calvin's father.  Now I'm older.  I have a beard and all my hair is gone.  That's the thing about art: we age but it remains the same.  Achilles will always be young and powerful, but we won't, and therein lies an opportunity.  Art freezes time so that we who are moving in time can continue to look at the frozen moment.  The art doesn't change, but each change in us offers the opportunity to reengage with the work and draw fresh insights from it.

Bill Watterson said that the world of a comic like Calvin and Hobbes is very fragile.  I think I'm beginning to see what he meant.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Tolkien's Beowulf and Trends in Scholarship: The Platypus Reads Part CCLXIV

Christopher Tolkien says that in compiling the commentary to accompany his father's translation of Beowulf he intended to paint a portrait of his father's thought.  That portrait, as it emerges in the commentary, is very much of its place and time.  One observes all the tools and habits of fin de siecle philology: questions of multiple traditions being stitched together, inquires into lost Teutonic mythology, careful reconstructions of corrupted portions of the text.  On the other hand, we can also see in Tolkien's treatment of Beowulf the unitary impulse (that is the desire to view texts as the work of one mind organizing traditional material to serve its purposes rather than viewing texts as accretions that evolved under the hands of innumerable redactors with conflicting agendas) that was simultaneously arising in Homeric scholarship in the 1930s and 40s (see Milman Perry and A.B. Lord).  The unique factor that J.R.R. Tolkien contributes is to blend these two approaches with a maverick willingness to use his imagination in seeking answers to scholarly questions.  In painting this portrait, then, Christopher Tolkien is not only raising a memorial to his father, he is also bringing important information to light for those interested in the intellectual history of the 20th century.

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Back From Outer Space: The Platypus Reads Part CCLXIII

So it looks like my recent spate of Calvin and Hobbes nostalgia is fortuitous.  Bill Watterson is back from outer space with a series of guest strips for Pearls Before Swine.  The intervention (if you haven't seen it already) begins here.  The back story can be found here.  What we're all wondering is "does this signal Watterson's return to comics"?  It's a magical world after all.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Sellic Spell (Tolkien's Beowulf): The Platypus Reads Part CCLXII

As and addendum to my post on Tolkien's translation of Beowulf, I'll add a note about his Sellic Spell.  A "sellic spell" as defined by Tolkien is a "wonder tale" or "fairy tale" and appears to have constituted a genre of Anglo-Saxon oral tales of which we have no attested examples.  The word "syllic/sellic spell" comes from a description of the various entertainments in Hrothgar's hall in Beowulf.  Tolkien theorized that a lost "sellic spell" might account for some of the "fairy-tale" elements in Beowulf (ie his great strength, comparisons with a bear, his odd follower Handshoe and opponents sea monsters, Unpeace and the ogre).  Tolkien worked out this theory in the way you'd expect: he wrote his own version of the lost "sellic spell" about Bee-Wulf the bearish hero, his three friends, and the Ogre -in Old English.  Both the Old English version of this fairy story and its Modern English translation are included in Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary.  My wife has yet to set to work on the Old English version, but we read the Modern English version together and found it highly enjoyable.

Aside from its enjoyment value, Sellic Spell is also a valuable insight into Tolkien's scholarly mind.  Much of the source material of Tolkien's area of study, much more so than in the cases of Greece and Rome, was lost to the ravages of time.  As he says of the origins of the dragon's horde in Beowulf, it is beyond the reach of song -but not of imagination.  Taking this as his rallying cry, Tolkien was willing to use imagination where source material failed.  Indeed, much of his legendarium was an attempt to recover the lost mythologies and cultures of the ancient Northern peoples through imaginative reconstruction.  If that idea interests you, I'd recommend taking a look at Tom Shippey's excellent study The Road to Middle Earth.  If you want to see a great example of Tolkien welding together scholarship and imagination, I'd recommend that you pick up Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary and read Sellic Spell.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Locating Calvin and Hobbes in Time and Space: The Platypus Reads Part CCLXI

There's something I noticed while working my way through the first two Calvin and Hobbes collections: the regular appearance of certain trees, streams, and logs in the background.  There's the big tree that Calvin and Hobbes spend time sitting under.  There's the big tree with a smaller fork that they pass on their way into the woods.  Finally, there's the stream with the log bridge that Calvin and Hobbes spend so much time crossing with their arms spread wide for balance.  The repetition of these items began to frustrate me this time through: too many repeated scenes.  At first, I began to think that they might have metaphorical meaning -and that may be true- but then a simpler answer hit me: Watterson is drawing a real place.  I knew that the comic is set in Ohio and often has Easter eggs from the town where Watterson grew up.  The connection I'd failed to make is that Watterson isn't pulling random images to create backdrops for jokes, but (I think) has carefully selected images from his Ohio home and reworked them into a coherent and consistent area for his creations to inhabit.  Calvin and Hobbes always pass certain trees and streams because that's what happens when you use the same path to walk through the woods.  Why this didn't strike me earlier is a little baffling.  Maybe since I grew up reading the comics I've taken the actual level of Watterson's artistry for granted.  Maybe I still have some hang-ups about the level of craft I expect in a comic book.  Whatever the case may be, I'm glad to see that the imagined world of Calvin and Hobbes continues to have depths left to fathom; here, now, and in Ohio...

*Picture taken by author of this post and shows Indian Wells State Park in Shelton CT.  Growing up in places like this formed one of the author's chief points of connection with Watterson's comic.