CalShakes’ Othello

I got to see Othello for the first time at the CalShakes outdoor theater in Orinda. My third time out there–I saw Romeo and Juliet a few years back and King Lear last year (my first time for that play too–I know, I don’t keep up with the classics so well, but what can I say, my PhD is in Icelandic lit from 800+ years ago–no time for the newbies…). The aesthetic of the CalShakes productions seems to be a sort of deconstructed, industrial feel–or maybe that’s just what they do whenever they hear I’m coming I don’t know. In any case, I’ve enjoyed it a lot.


Did a pretty hasty sketch of Othello in a hoodie–alas, too hasty to end up being a reasonable likeness of Aldo Billingslea (who has a longer face and somewhat different hair), so, um, we’ll just say I’m illustrating the concept…

Their treatment of Othello was especially minimalist–everyone sat in a circle, and those not in the scene stayed seated, while those speaking would at times look at, or circle those they spoke of. I thought it was a neat way to visualize the network of relationships as they shifted with the progressing plot. Dress was contemporary, and Aldo Billingslea (professor at Santa Clara University), who played Othello, wore a hoodie–whether this had been done yet I don’t know, but it was only a matter of time, and I thought it fit well with CalShakes’ usual way of doing things. Some of the additional bits may grate some listeners–several spoken bits added (like wikipedia-style info re: one of the sites, other random bits), occasional use of live video projected above the stage, and, right at the climatic, final moment, they broke for audience discussion. The latter is the only bit that I was bothered by, but not because it was necessarily a bad idea, and it certainly fit with what they were trying to do with the play–I just hate giving random adults a chance to talk. Which sounds bad I guess, but, well, the teacher in me just prefers working with folks who understand themselves as students and don’t have an inflated sense of their own contribution… ah, well, more likely I think it’s just that I hate being in a classroom that I’m not running, haha.

In any case–I recommend this production, at least if you are someone who can handle stripped-down Shakespeare. The play itself is already so appropriate for the #BLM lens they were going for that some might feel some of the additions edged towards preachy, but I think they come off as valid dressing.

And it is such a beautiful theater–come early for the food and booze, both of which I recommend, and picnic underneath the eucalyptus before the play starts. And they often have talks beforehand as well, though I’ve never been to those. Probably great though, I’m sure.

Hm, it occurs to me I sometimes suggest parallels in Old Norse literature when I review books, movies, etc–like my discussion of valkyries and their lovers after watching Kubo. Shakespeare isn’t as far off from my field as one might think–Hamlet is after all based in part on Amleth in Saxo Grammaticus’ History of the Danes. The tragic love story of Othello, where (spoiler alert) the general is convinced that his wife has been cheating on him with, um, well, tragic results, could I guess be compared to Ermanaric’s execution of his son, and later his young wife Svanhildr, daughter of the famed Sigurðr of the Völsung cycle (Prose Edda has a version of this), after they were falsely accused of having an affair. Of course the romance in Othello seems legit, while Ermanaric is pretty much a dirty old man who screws everything up (OK, maybe I’m projecting modern sensibilities on the text a bit…), so I don’t recommend anyone push the parallel too far…

I’ve had a science fiction idea for a novella or novel bumping around the back of my brain for about a decade now. It’s evolved a lot over the years, and about the time I started this blog and had a brief run of poem publications I started layering some inspirations from my academic life in Old Norse literature and Scandinavian Folklore into things. I’d been figuring I’d write it up eventually after finding some time to research the science-stuff (fantasy has always been more natural for me to write as a mythologist/folklorist, even if I love sci-fi). Never actually got around to developing it beyond some conceptual brainstorming, but about a couple weeks ago it suddenly occurred to me that this could be a decent webcomic–and doing it as a webcomic would take some pressure off as far as getting all the science “right”, since the fictionality and spectacle of it all is given more reign in visual media. Since I’m behind on posting this month (I’ve got things I want to post about, just no time before leaving on a trip this weekend), I thought I’d put up the visual brainstorming I’ve been doing so far, then after that some other sketches from the last 5 years that I think fall into the genealogy of this project when it comes to my own work. I hope you enjoy!


A potential visualization of my key characters–just playing around though. Could be completely different. I do love drawing long black hair with my brush and calligraphy pens though, so I wouldn’t be surprised if that stayed…


First attempt visualizing the spaceship–same design, for the most part, as what I draw in the first test page below. I think this design will change a lot. The ship is supposed to be traveling at relativistic speeds, so I’m obviously imagining some super-duper energy source and engines, but am otherwise trying to have a bit of a nod to realism, with a shield to protect from interstellar dust (which from what I understand would essentially be cosmic rays at this speed…), and am showing the ship entering a star system (or here a system of planet and moons) backwards as it decelerates. If you’ve been following my art, you know I have a thing for space scenes in my moleskines sketches–this is the first time I’ve tried to include secondary reflections (like “earth-shine” on the moon) in my art. Didn’t turn out quite as I’d like, but I’m still kinda proud.🙂


Then I started sketching out some test pages–hadn’t really developed the story too far yet, but enjoyed myself so much that I went and inked the pages. General story line is about what I have planned, but details are mostly just spontaneous ideas and I don’t know whether they’ll survive. The full awkwardness of my current ship design shows here, I’m afraid–will definitely need to work on that. The whole thing is pretty rough, and if I ever get a chance to actually develop this it final drafts will be done digitally and will be more more detailed and cleaner.

Those are the project-sketches I have so far. Following are some other bits of art that in some way precede this:


When I first starting doing digital art on my iPad back in 2010 as a new PhD who felt like he’d been putting off his creative work for too long, I ended up with a few sketches (I believe the top one, the first, I did while watching Mulan) that I had a webcomic idea for–never ended up developing that, but I think it’s basically gotten folded into my current idea.


Like I say above, drawing long dark hair is such a pleasure with a pen brush or equivalent–though these sketches only apply to the current design of my heroine, and I can’t promise she’ll look the same in the end…


Speaking of adventuresome heroines with long dark hair…


Some of my Goblin Week sketches (started and run by Evan Dahm on tumblr) kinda fit the spirit of othwerworldly adventure that I’m going for here.



And then of course my valkyrie pics seem very relevant now, both for visual development and for thematic parallels. Not that my story is a “Valkyrie story”, but there are bits and pieces feeding my thoughts here…


So there we go! After doing my three test pages I have to say that this project is feeling very doable–not sure yet whether I’ll actually be able to fit it in, but it’s fun to think about! And if you think it looks interesting you should definitely speak up so I know there would be an audience! The closest I’ve gotten to a serial comic is my Grim Bunny series, but this project would be a thoroughly developed, “traditional” webcomic. Hope I will get to do this eventually!

September- 2 months to go!

More on Dayanna’s coloring book project!!!

Viking Specialist at Large

Two months before the completed Viking Coloring Book heads to the printing facilities at ACMRS. Less than two months. Its going well- more than 200 motifs illustrating artifacts, landscapes, the flora and the fauna relating to the Viking world have been inked and scanned. More than 50 of the planned pages are plotted of the intended 75 and that is a pretty cool feeling.

GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERA Some of the coloring book motifs on the desk.

I’ve been arranging event appearances for myself recently. Here’s the current schedule:

9/24/2016 Viking Snack Fest hosted by Sons of Norway at Salida Public Library. I’ll have a table of books and art for this event.
10/1/2016 Viking Nations signing at Barnes and Noble Weberstown in Stockton.
11/5/2016 Speaking during a poster session at the California Librarian’s Association conference in Sacramento where I’ll talk about being a specialist doing public events at libraries.
5/2017 Member of a…

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Kubo and the Two Strings

Kubo Sketch

A quick sketch of the protagonist–did this while too tired, I think, may redo eventually… But no he doesn’t have a short left arm, it’s just reaching forward, k? Also, I think I got the costume wrong…

I got to watch Kubo and the Two Strings a week or so ago (didn’t review it sooner due to some unexpected medical issues–all better now, far as I can tell), and really enjoyed it–and was super bummed that there were only three of us watching (and in a fairly large theater). OK, it was a matinee, but still, it’s odd how poorly the movie has been doing despite the very positive reviews. I won’t say there weren’t bits that felt off at times, and the ending could be taken as too stereotypical a “love conquers all” message, but really, that’s no worse than every other movie of this sort (and it was really more of a redemptive ending rather than a Care-Bear-Stare ending), and Kubo manages to get some really great twists in there–definitely some character revelations that I was not prepared for (though I caught on a bit in the build-up), and the “conquer through love!” ending (spoiler alert I guess, but really it’s a lot more complex than that…) involved enough tragedy mixed with closure that I really can’t fault it–in fact, reminds me a bit of Astrid Lindgren’s Brothers Lionheart, taken as an fantasy aimed at prolonging the work of mourning sufficiently to find that needed closure. Hm, this is all pretty obscure I guess, since I don’t want to give any especially concrete spoilers (and since I expect there aren’t many who’ve read Brothers Lionheart).

Check out the trailer here. Mild spoilers below.

The cultural setting is Japanese, though I don’t believe actual Japanese locations are used. I don’t know whether the mythological material referenced really corresponds to actual Japanese mythology/folklore since I just have not studied that (would like to check it out though), but it is central to the story, and seems well done. We learn early on that Kubo has to beware of the moon–as we go on, we realize that if he is out at night the moon, who is (dun dun) his grandfather will steal his other eye (Kubo is missing an eye, btw, his patch hidden behind his hair). Kubo’s mother and her sisters had been working with their father, but she fell in love with Kubo’s father, whom she was sent to kill, and so betrayed her family. Soon after Kubo is born the moon and his daughters attack and Kubo’s mother takes him and flees. Years later Kubo has a reputation for playing his shamisen while telling stories and bringing origami figures to life (this is his particular magical power, inherited from his mother). He stays out too long one night, attempting to perform a ritual to commemorate his father (in this world, the dead respond–his dad doesn’t…). This lets his creepy warrior aunts fly in to find him, and his mother gives her life (well, it’s complicated…) to protect him, and he runs off–now with a monkey companion (originally a protective talisman given to him by his mother) and a bug soldier they find on their way. The quest he embarks on now is to find the armor and weapons his father had been seeking before–it was because these had so much potential to make him powerful that the moon decided to have him killed in the first place. And there is so much more going on there, but oh, I don’t want to spoil it too bad…

be_my_valkyrie_valentine_by_callego-d74zj5pThe further I got into the movie the more I became convinced I was watching something from Norse mythology or the sagas. No joke, everything connects to Scandinavian studies in the end–and you can trust me, because I’m a Scandinavianist, see? Anyway, the moon with his warlike and supernatural daughters is very reminiscent of Odin with his valkyries (and now I think of it, Kubo’s one-eyedness, and the idea that losing the other would bring him to a higher plane–spoiler again, that’s why the moon wants his eyes, so his grandson can join him–is rather Odinic in itself). Love affairs between human warriors and valkyries seem to have been a popular subject, as we have many showing up in the mythology and the sagas. The motif of a valkyrie falling for the man she was sent to kill (or to give defeat in battle, so same thing) and so rebelling against the Allfather is also prominent. Hm, is Kubo just a retelling of the Völsung material? Nah… but then again, I would not be surprised to find out the creators were influenced to some degree by Wagner’s Ring Cycle operas, which include a retelling of this very story. Is Kubo a piece of a pseudo-Japanese Ring Cycle, just with a milder, gentler Götterdämmerung ? I would buy that, actually…


My imagining of one of the Valkyrie romances from the mythology–though the Lay of Volund admittedly breaks the mould in certain ways…

Another element the movie shares with certain Norse stories is the quest to recover arms belonging to one’s father. Well, I can’t think at the moment of a quest involving multiple pieces of armor acquired in stages, but certainly with the Völsung material Sigurd’s reforging of his father’s sword is quite prominent, and in one of the legendary sagas we have the warrior maiden Hervör visiting her father’s revenant in order to acquire his mighty sword. A key difference though–while Kubo is seeking some mystical special armor and weapon otherwise unassociated with his father apart from his father’s own incomplete quest, the Norse material is more focused on powerful heirlooms (well, though they may have a supernatural origin as well, I suppose)–and of course, given the unpredictable quality of steel used at the time, it is not surprising that we would find old weapons typically coded as good, or even special weapons–it’s not a matter just of the latest and greatest, you see, but of whether or not the metal has been proven. Old swords are necessarily good swords, and so all the more important as heirlooms (and I owe this point to John Lindow).

OK, Old Norse parallels aside (after all, these aren’t exactly surprising parallels to find between narrative traditions), I have one last point about the movie–specifically the credits. Where are the Asian people in the credits?? OK, there are a few, but I was rather surprised not to see more Japanese Americans involved. There were some Japanese American associations that had given their stamp of approval, sure, and I would not at all want to say that white folks (like myself) shouldn’t work with POC characters, but representation in the industry matters as much as representation on the screen. This isn’t something I’ve looked into much, so I won’t push it any more here, but I note that it was pointed out before the movie came out as well.

That said, the movie is definitely worth seeing, so get out there before it goes away! Sadly, probably won’t be in theaters long.😦

Gosh, it’s been way way too long since I’ve actually written about Norse mythology here, hasn’t it? Well, why not take on one of my favorites: Óðinn’s acquisition of the Mead of Poetry. Loosely based on a version of a talk I prepared but never gave relating to my recent research on the figure of the home and interior in the sagas (I’ve spoken twice, not including academic conferences, on the subject since, but this portion got edited out both times). Watch out, this turned into a super long post.


The abduction, as I illustrated it for the contest at the Norse Mythology blog.

In our approach to this particular narrative, I think it is helpful to point out the obvious comparison to (and contrast with) the story of the abduction of Iðunn, which I have previously illustrated and discussed. Both stories, after all, involve a Viking raid of sorts, the penetration of a rival community to acquire or reacquire a resource, sexual access to a woman of the rival group, shapeshifting into eagle form (among others), and a dramatic chase scene through the air back to the home of the gods–and both show up in approximately the same section of Prose Edda. Both poems are also set in the so-called “mythic present”, as opposed to the “mythic past” (the prehistory, creation, and ordering of the world) and the “mythic future” (the fall of the gods, disintegration of the world, and the coming of a new world). The mythic present is primarily about the gods attempting to maintain the status quo, meaning, doing their best to assert and maintain their superiority over the giants. Margaret Clunies Ross (whose book Prolonged Echoes informs a lot of this post and my other posts) has called this situation “negative reciprocity”, in that, rather than a reciprocal relationship between gods and giants (ie, fair exchange of goods, marriage alliances, etc, or on the other hand hostilities, whether theft, sexual access to women, or killing, like in a feud or war), the situation is instead one-sided, with the gods, by and large in the mythic present, having their way with the giants while rebuffing the giants’ attempts in the other direction (for example, giants die right and left throughout the mythic present, but the gods are mostly untouched–until Baldr’s death). We might think of it as an attempt to project and enforce a vertical relationship, such as you would have in the hierarchical relationships within the space of the Icelandic farmstead (from the landed family down to the lowest slave), onto the level of horizontal relationships between different groups–but again (or even in parallel with this), it also works well enough to read these as, say, “viking raids”, or as a mythic prototype for the relationship to the Saami, from whom the Germanic Scandinavians extracted tribute–certainly the myths serve to set up a properly demonic straw-man, justifying the aggression of the POV of the mythology.


Thor’s mother is the giantess “Earth”. There are several giantesses in the matrilines of the gods, even going back to Odin (who essentially creates the world by murdering his maternal great-grandfather). We may take the entry of several giantesses into the community of the gods as either wives or mistresses as a reinforcement of negative reciprocity in the myths, which tends to involve denying the giants sexual access to goddesses while the gods have their way with the giantesses. More on that another time, probably… And incidentally, my comic here is not intended as an accurate portrayal of the giantess Earth–when giantesses play the role of object of desire in the myths, they tend to look the part as well.

From the perspective of the gods (and the aristocratic Icelanders whose interests they may be taken to represent in the Eddas) the proper direction for action is outward from Ásgarðr (“Asgard”, “farm/enclosure of the gods”) towards the land of the giants–as with what we call “acquisition narratives”, such as the origin of the mead of poetry, in which the gods go to the giants and come back with something that is, in the mythic ideology of medieval Iceland, associated with the gods as representatives of Culture, with humanity, etc. When the opposite is the case–the action is directed against the gods, with the giants threatening either their women or their stuff (or just their assumption of superiority, as I can think of at least two instances where giantesses attempt to insist on a more reciprocal standing–more on that another time)–it is a crisis, the natural order of things is inverted (represented in one myth by Þórr getting dressed up as a bride) and (again, in the myths of the mythic present) the myth ends with the restoration of the status quo. The abduction of Iðunn is this latter sort of myth, while the story of the Mead of Poetry is of the former type–one of the most prototypical of the acquisition narratives to my mind.

I would say “welcome to the militant world of Viking mythology”, but keep in mind that the versions of the myths that we have were written down by Christian Icelanders two hundred years after the conversion. In fact, a possible interpretation of the significance of the myths in an Iceland that was Christian but still managed conflicts via bloodfeud (as well as more mundane settlements) is that they functioned as fantasies in which one’s rivals could be completely dominated and demonized–more on that another time, probably, esp. given that the situation isn’t too different in so many of our own stories…

Throughout the myths we find a prominent anxiety over the vulnerable interior at two symbolically conflated levels–that of the community (the home of the gods is marked out by a great wall, whose origin story is itself pretty interesting) and that of the body. One could in fact read the arc of the mythology as a whole (as preserved in the medieval Eddas) in terms of the anxiety of the gods over the threat of penetration, bodily, sexually (generally manifested either as threats to the women of a community or as threats to the virility/masculinity of a man), strategically, etc (all the while, of course, they constantly penetrate away when it comes to the land of the giants). Relevant here are several seminal studies on insults and gender in Old Norse lit (not too far off from us when we flip the bird or say “screw you”, or less bowdlerized forms, but you could be outlawed for such things in Medieval Iceland), but I think I’ll have to save that for another time.


Possibly Odin in eagle form, on Gotlandic picture stone Stora Hammars III. My own photo, so alas not adjusted to let the image show up more clearly…

The conflation of home/community and body with each other is not unique to the sagas and myths, of course, in particular in terms of the permeability of the body. It is an understandable and, I imagine, universal tendency to think of the home as what keeps the outside out and the inside in, and this concern over boundaries of course maps onto our concerns over our bodies as well, which we also think of in terms of inside/outside, and the integrity of which is often dependent on the integrity of our various shelters. This inside/outside symbolism is of course useful when constructing communal identity (“insiders” vs “outsiders”, to be “in” on something, etc), the perceived unity of the human body being rhetorically mobilized in the articulation of a cooperative unity of many bodies. We find this at play in the larger story of the mead of poetry.

The story begins with one version of the war between the Aesir and the Vanir (we might tentatively locate this at the end of the mythic past, but generally let’s think of the larger myth as representative of the mythic present). In their truce, they exchange hostages—not “hostages” like we are used to thinking, but representative members of one community go to live with the other community—since members of each community now live in the same spaces, they now constitute one community (at some level of signification anyway–arguably the Vanir members are still treated differently, as represented in the Eddas). In addition, and more pertinent to my point here, both sides spit in a big puddle. Wouldn’t it be great if we settled conflicts this way now…. The idea being, their bodily fluids—their insides—are now mixed, and so they are one. Óðinn doesn’t stop there, of course, and he turns this puddle of spit into a person, because mythology. The metaphor of shared bodies equating to communal unity is made concrete as the bodily fluids of both communities are now contained within one literal body.

The person created from the spit is called Kvasir. He turns out to be the wisest being in the world, and he goes around telling folks wise stuff. But then he runs into some dwarves who think he is a smartass, and they kill him (they excuse themselves, saying, essentially, that he choked on his own wisdom)—and of course, they take his blood and mix it with honey to make mead, an alcoholic beverage associated with the aristocratic male community in ancient Scandinavia, because mythology, again, though we will probably get tired of this explanation. These dwarves get into a feud with a giant, who takes the mead in compensation for their killing of his parents, and this giant, Suttungr, hides it in the middle of a mountain, guarded by his daughter Gunnlöð, because duh, that’s what you do when you have magical mead made from the blood of the wisest person in the universe, and before that from the spit of the gods (I know “Drunk History” is a thing–“Drunk Mythology” would be good, but you would have to do this myth in poetic form…).


The origin of the “rhymster’s share” (aka Odin loses his shit). Image from wikicommons.

So Óðinn finds out and he thinks “Well, that’s not a good way to use my spit, we don’t want the giants to have it”, so he disguises himself, which is typical enough for Óðinn, and goes to seduce Gunnlöð—also quite typical for Óðinn. Well, it’s kind of complicated getting there, as he has to trick Suttungr’s brother into helping him, but in the end he drills a hole into the mountain, turns into a snake, and penetrates the chamber where Gunnlöð is guarding the mead—and if that wasn’t Freudian enough for you all, then he sleeps with her for three nights. In return she lets him drink up all the mead, and he turns into an eagle and flies away, because (again) mythology. Well, Suttungr doesn’t like this, so he turns into an eagle as well and chases Óðinn back to Ásgarðr. When Óðinn gets there he pukes the mead into containers, making the mead of poetry, now refined a final time with this return to and from Óðinn’s gut, available for gods and humanity—so this is where poetic skill comes from. But Suttungr was so close behind him that Óðinn peed himself a bit, and that’s where bad pop songs come from. Read the story in full in Prose Edda (for which, as usual, I recommend Faulkes’ translation–I’m a fan of his edition of the book as well).

The anxiety over penetration (again, of various sorts, both metaphorical and less so) in the state of negative reciprocity that I discussed above is hopefully illustrated well enough between the “Mead” and “Abduction” myths (oh, and please don’t assume the “screw you” ideology noted in passing here is all there is to say about gender in the sagas–it’s true that we tend to consider the sagas written by aristocratic men for aristocratic men, but there is a lot more to women in medieval Iceland beyond saga anxiety over their potential for penetration…). Beyond that, there is a lot more to reading this myth in terms of an implicit symbolic conflation of body, hall, and community. The mead of poetry is an origin myth for a specific type of poetry, Skaldic poetry. The form of skaldic is interesting in itself, but that’s a bit of a complex topic to get into here. In practice, skaldic was a commodity of the aristocratic male (again, this is the general, but not universal, picture we get through the sagas). Poems were composed in honor of chieftains, kings, wealthy men, and the prototypical performance would involve poetry performed in honor of the patron in his hall, with all the other retainers there as well. The communal identity of this boys-club of warriors is both symbolically and concretely reinforced by the fact that they are all together in this hall, “their” hall, that they are drinking alcoholic beverages together, a standard warrior-band practice marked by aristocratic exclusivity (a potential reason for the difficulty of the form), and the fact that they are all participants in this oral poetic performance—in fact, ears are referred as mouths in one kenning, showing us that the appropriateness of the conflation of mead and poetry was not lost on them. They all take in the poetic mead together, symbolizing their communal identity, just like the Aesir and the Vanir become one by sharing their own bodily fluids–we emphasize our communal sense of belonging by symbolically constructing shared bodily insides (think of the blood-brother ceremony, for example, which actually shows up in the sagas as well). OK, OK, kinda gross, but you know, at least I’m not telling you the story of Loki and the goat…

This was a bit of a rambly and long commentary on this myth (sorry), but if you made it this far I hope you will check it out yourself–it is early in the Skáldskaparmál section of Prose Edda. We should note that it is contested how much of this myth actually goes back to the Viking age–I expect that at best Snorri (author of Prose Edda, fyi) misunderstood a bit here or there (as has been suggested for the containers involved), while at worst he invented things wholesale based off of obscure references to the poetic mead in early skaldic poetry. That said, that there was some idea of a mead of poetry that came from Óðinn is indeed clear from some of this earliest poetry, as even then the skalds would articulate their own poetic act as a sort of regurgitation of Óðinn’s gift, so I feel like it is fair enough to apply my interpretation from the previous paragraph to the Viking age court. And while we are certainly interested (from an academic perspective) in sorting out how much is “heathen” and how much is Christian reception of the myth, we should also remember that Viking age religion did not involve the sort of aggressive orthodoxy you find in, for example, Christianity–myths were certainly expressions of religious faith, but there was no fixed text to refer back to, and variance would have been the rule, even, potentially, from fjord to fjord and farm to farm.

And last but not least, for a bonus visualization of the myth check out Drachenseele’s illustration here, done for me as my reward for getting second in an art contest on deviantart!😀

13659048_10105479182161833_7042778099053674245_nYikes, this will be the only post I make this month–and I only did one last month too. Plus, I’ve already posted about my translation of Ola Sigurdson’s Heavenly Bodies, though last time it hadn’t actually come out yet (and the release date I shared then ended up getting pushed back by almost a month). Well, it is out now, and you should all GO OUT AND BUY TEN COPIES RIGHT NOW!!!! Well, OK, not so much urgency, I guess, given that I’ve already been paid for my translation services and will not be getting royalties myself (which doesn’t surprise me with an academic translation like this–I believe the case is different with literary translations, which I confess I would like to move into eventually…). The list price of the book is $60 (actually not so bad for a rather erudite, and potentially obscure, book like this, though I hope the price will help it become less obscure), but Amazon has it for about $43. I’m waiting for it to show up at the UC Berkeley and GTU libraries here in Berkeley… may have to nudge someone about that.

The book is, in short, on the theology of the body, beginning with Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity’s scorn for the body, preferring the spiritual over the corporeal, and going on to both affirm this critique and then to place it in its proper historical situation in 19th century Protestantism–given the centrality of the Incarnation in Christianity, we have to suspect that the religion was not always so “body-denying.” The book then proceeds in three parts of several chapters each, covering first the Incarnation (both the development of the doctrine in the early Church and more recent theological contributions), the Gaze (covering philosophies thereof along with the Byzantine Iconoclasm and the particular Gaze embodied by Jesus in the Gospels), and, at most length, Embodiment (ranging from Merleau-Ponty to Foucault and Butler, from the “closed” Classical body to the open “grotesque” body, to torture, to S&M, to the Eucharist…) OK, look, you will just have to read it yourself. Only $43 on Amazon!!

Since I was (thankfully, given how little time I had finishing up) not asked to give any sort of “Translator’s Note” (I did not expect to write one–in fact, not all translators get to show up on the title page, so I’m very happy I made it to so prominent a place with my first such job), I did not have an opportunity to give the usual “Any reason you might find to dislike this book is clearly my (the translator’s) fault, and no one should blame Ola or the editors at all, because really, if there is a jackass here, it is me.” Or some such. Editors and author all seemed happy with the end result, but certainly there are plenty of places where I could wish for just one more pass of revisions, and here and there I see something where I think “I thought I’d changed that…” (and one place so far where the editors changed something without sticking to the phrasing Ola and I had agreed on, but it still works), but so far I haven’t caught any meaning-changing errors (nor, apparently, did Ola or Eerdmans), and I trust that there are not too many places (ideally very few, but it is my first time doing this…) where my clumsy prose gets in the way of Ola’s argumentation. My first drafts certainly had me thinking too much in Swedish while attempting to write in English. My many revisions (later on with Ola’s commentary) were very helpful in working this out and situating the text more firmly in the target language, but I fear there are still spots that held out till the end. I won’t share any thoughts here on particular translation choices (there were some tricky bits), but we’ll see, maybe that will be a post for the future.

13615127_10105479179038093_2631524740532332328_n.jpgThe project itself was a delight, if often challenging (certainly in scope–let me tell you, this book is a brick), and in spite of the additional stress of translating the last third or so while also filling in as a lecturer in the Scandinavian Section at UCLA (also a fun job, just, you know, more work–also more $$ tho, so that was nice). I’ve told friends and family that this project was like being paid to sit in on three or more graduate seminars in very different fields, which I note was part of the attraction for me. While the ultimate point of the book belongs to (Christian) systematic theology (itself of non-professional interest for my very [in this subject] amateur self), Heavenly Bodies also constitutes a very erudite work in both the history of religions and philosophy, in particular the more continental side of philosophy that owes so much to the later reception of phenomenology, and in particular with regard to two subjects I have long been interested in within the humanities: the gaze and embodiment (the former of which figured prominently in my dissertation on ekphrasis in Viking age poetry–but let the uninitiated beware, while treatments of the gaze and embodiment are ubiquitous from the early 20th century on, what is meant by and the significance of each can vary widely depending what school of thought you are looking at). Ola covers a lot of ground, and diligently and clearly (again, fingers crossed that damn translator did his job right) presents the thought of everyone from St Paul to Origen, Schleiermacher to Barth and beyond to various feminist theologians, laying out the relevant arguments in a sympathetic manner even if he will then go on to argue against, or beyond, them. The philosophers and theorists I am more familiar with are all on display here as well, and more, covering both hermeneutic and radical phenomenologies (ie, from Ricoeur and Merleau-Ponty to Derrida and Marion), as well as various “post-phenomenological” thinkers, from Foucault to Butler (and we also find many other disciplines represented, from psychoanalysis to cultural anthropology–but look, my fingers are getting tired so let’s stop there…). I find Ola’s presentations of these various, often very difficult, philosophies to be quite clear and helpful–well, OK, it is still philosophy and theory, and you will struggle to work through a tenth of the book if you don’t even have a reasonable sense of who Heidegger (for example) is, so I can’t recommend it as a gift for your ten year old niece–maybe wait till she’s finished college, though you will have to suggest she take Philosophy, or English, or Communications, Feminist Studies, something along those lines. Even better, I’m still looking for a teaching position for the Fall and would be happy to tutor the whole family. Look, we’ve already got a textbook…

Well, that was a bit of a ramble. I’ll close by thanking Mark Safstrom for sending Eerdmans my name when they were looking for a translator, former editor-in-chief at Eerdmans Jon Pott, who entrusted me with this job, James Ernest who took over for Jon as I was finishing up the translation, and especially Ola, who wrote this fine and fascinating book and who was so essential in his help with my revisions–I was very grateful for his willingness to spend so much time on a project that was otherwise almost a decade in his past, and I dearly hope the final result does some degree of justice to the original.



A quick sketch of Miles Vorkosigan, aka Admiral Miles Naismith, the main viewpoint character (but not the only one) throughout the series. Will try to get a better version up eventually…

My current candy-reading (or listening, since I’ve subscribed to Audible) is Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series. I’d run across the series maybe 5 or 6 years earlier, but it had been 4 years since I’d last stalled out reading through the books (in chronological order, as opposed to the order written). These books are addicting–so much so that I’m inclined to call them a “guilty pleasure”, but there is enough nuance in worldview, enough (for a 80s-onward military space opera) expansion of representation, enough of a critical attitude towards cultural militarism in the same breath as a sympathetic rendition of characters who love military culture and action, that I don’t want to give the impression that this is “dumb” reading. It’s good escapism, sure, and tailor-made for that in many ways–but it is also a thoughtful exploration of our humanity and our contemporary cultural issues through the lens of space opera. And yes, this is pretty standard space opera/military sci-fi–or at least, it won’t surprise anyone as far as the setting or tech goes–but the elements are, I think, treated well and creatively, with enough twists that you can’t take this as a clone of any old space opera setting.

You can check out the list of books/stories in the series on Bujold’s website here, though the Wikipedia entry for the Vorkosigan saga also has a good chronological list, including info on the omnibus editions, which is where I first started reading–the omnibus editions are also nice since they include the short stories and novellas, which, as I’ve recently been reminded, are themselves at times very central to the overall arc (the novella “Borders of Infinity” certainly is). Personally, I love the narrator for the audio books, so I’ve recently started working through the series on Audible (alas, until I start a podcast or youtube channel I can’t become an audible affiliate–otherwise you would be able to support this blog by signing up for a free trial membership at Audible. Well, you can still sign up, it just won’t benefit me at all.).

The saga starts with Miles Vorkosigan’s parents, Aral Vorkosigan, from feudal, militaristic Barrayar, and Cordelia Naismith, from advanced, liberal, and progressive Beta Colony. I started the series with the omnibus Cordelia’s Honor, and I do recommend starting there–the two novels are good, if not as riveting (for me anyway) as the first Miles book (The Warrior’s Apprentice, which I’ve read at least 4 times), but all the rest of the series is all the more meaningful when you come to it already caring for the family–the backstory (really stories on their own right, the first of the two published before any of the Miles stories) really does enrich the rest. Miles himself is a great viewpoint character–well, this is not to say everyone will like him, but I’ve found him very engaging, and have found my own particular ways to resonate with his character, even if he is in many ways very different than myself. Additionally, Miles is a disabled character. Whether or not his portrayal successfully evades any degree of “abelism” I can’t speak to–we might extend this to other points where the Vorkosigan books are relatively progressive when in comes to representation, in that I’m reluctant to offer any authoritative judgement re: how well Bujold succeeds (this is of course not meant to diminish Bujold’s writing at all–we’re all caught up in systems of privilege, patriarchy, etc, and we all, whether we are the privileged or the unprivileged, have our path working our way out of that). Tung, one of the main characters, is Asian, and certainly the universe is not wholly white, but my impression is that it is not always a complete rainbow; there are many strong female characters, but the books I’ve read so far, minus the latest and those in Cordelia’s honor, are very thoroughly centered on Miles, and the female characters are viewed through the filter of his particular longings–but to be fair, they disrupt this wishful lens quite often; and homosexuality and bisexuality do come in, though the only book I’ve read here where it is especially prominent is one that comes off a bit awkwardly, with a whole planet of men that women are not allowed to visit. Well, I mention all this because I’ve seen others touting Bujold’s progressive representation, and I do think it’s worth celebrating (and it is an enjoyable part of the series, giving us a more realistically full universe)–it is definitely a selling point, but I don’t know that everyone will be equally impressed.[edit–I’ve read further in the series now, and my impression is that Bujold continues to expand and deepen the representation of queerness and genderqueerness–the whole series is, I think, a neat set of pictures of the potential and boundaries of (relatively) progressive (but still “popular”) sci-fi from the mid-80s till now]

Well, that’s my recommendation for now–I’m just this week further in my reading than in my previous reading, so it’s fun entering into new territory! If you are just trying to decide whether this series would be for you, I suggest checking out The Warrior’s Apprentice–if you like it enough to keep going, check out the Cordelia books (Shards of Honor and Barrayar–collected as Cordelia’s Honor), then move on through the rest in chronological order (or whatever order you want–they are all self-contained, but I find that much of the fun is in the references between books).