Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Top Ten Tuesday: A Beach Bag Full of Books on Greece

Once again it's Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week's theme is "Top 10 books I have in my beach bag this summer." First I was going to skip because I am not a beach bag person (I am not even a beach person, thanks to my pasty luminescent complexion), but this is my third week in TTT and I am thoroughly hooked... Also, I do have some travel-related reading to do this summer.
In July I will be flying to Greece to join dozens of other storytellers at the annual FEST (Federation for European Storytelling) conference on Kea Island. This will be my very first trip to Greece, which is shameful, given the fact that I have an MA in Archaeology... But better late than never. As a storyteller I like to prepare for my trips by... reading. A lot. Of stories.
So, without further ado, here is the reading list I plan to complete by July:

Pausanias: Guide to Greece
The classic of classics; if I left it at home I would probably go straight to Classics Hell for it. When I was in college the Hungarian translation was almost impossible to find - when I came across a hidden copy at the bookstore, I spent my entire semester's textbook aid on it. It is a 2nd century AD description of Hellas, in great detail and a lot of intriguing stories.

Ancient Athens on 5 Drachmas a Day
Okay, so this is a fun read, not necessarily a scientific one. It got mixed reviews, and I wouldn't rely on it in serious research... But it sounds entertaining anyway!

John Tomkinson: Travels in Athens
I love reading travel journals, and I was having trouble locating some about Athens. Luckily, I came across this gem of a collection that did all the work for me! Tomkinson compiles excerpts from travel journals and diaries from the 17th century all the way to the 20th from famous travelers, explorers, poets, etc. It is an entire series of books, so wherever you go in Greece, there will be a book for it filled with the adventures of travelers that have gone before you!

John Tomkinson: Travels in the Northern and Western Cyclades
Since my travels will take me to Kea as well as Athens, I also bought the corresponding volume from the series.

Lucian's Dialogues
As my favorite Greek... er, Syrian... er, Hellenistic author, Lucian is definitely taking the trip with me. His Dialogues are some of the most hilarious satire pieces I have read, and they have held up over the past 18 centuries quite well. The volume includes the Dialogues of the Gods (whining about their everyday life and heartbreaks), the Dialogues of the Dead (similarly poignant), and the Dialogues of the Courtesans, painting a vivid picture of the life of women of pleasure in Athens...

On top of these 5, I also have 2 Hungarian books on my list:

1. The travel journal of the Hungarian poet who translated the Iliad, the Odyssey, and a huge chunk of other Greek literature to Hungarian in the first half of the 20th century. He was not only a Classicist and a poetic genius, but also a gentle soul with a great sense of humor. He first visited Greece 25 years after he did all the translation work, and the journal is a touching ode to him finally seeing all the places he spent his life writing about.
(Devecseri Gábor: Epidauroszi tücskök, szóljatok...)
I am taking with me a collection of his poems he wrote on the same trip.

2. The travel journal of one of my favorite Hungarian authors, Magda Szabó, who was also trained in Classics, and on top of writing amazing historical fiction, she also wrote a diary that is both clever and hilarious. Even decades after her trip, I could still use it in Rome to find some hidden gems. I expect the same from her Greek memories... (Szabó Magda: Zeusz küszöbén)

There is no better way to travel than to travel with stories, and with people who have gone before you. Do you have favorite travel literature?

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Story Saturday: The princess becomes a prince

This is me, musing out loud about representation.

I am preparing for a performance for Archaeology Day: I'm going to be telling Ossetian Nart sagas at a museum with a great Sarmatian collection (Sarmatians were nomadic people of Iranian origins who lived across the border from the Roman empire, and Ossetians are also people of Iranian origins who live in the Caucasus, hence the connection). I have a dress made and everything!
One of the stories I am working on falls into the tale type called the Shift of Sex (ATU 514), something intriguing I mentioned before when I talked about diversity in storytelling and also about LGBT+ related traditional stories. Now that I am actually working on my own version of telling it, I am doing some serious thinking about how to frame the story.

The summary
In most versions of this folktale I have encountered, the basic story is the same: Family's without a male heir, so their daughter goes out into the world dressed as a boy, and does many heroic deeds. Eventually she rises so high in the favor of the king/community that she is given a leading position/becomes heir. In order to fulfill her role, she is offered a wife, which throws a wrench in the plan, since her secret identity would be outed on the wedding night. Eventually, through blessing or curse, the girl turns into a man, marries the princess, and lives happily ever after.

The question
These folktales were told and recorded decades, often hundreds of years ago. How do I tell the story to make it ring true to people of trans/queer identities today?

The problem
In its current format the folktale suggests that the protagonist can only be accepted and happy if she physically transforms into a male body. Also, because of the different time these stories were born in, the physical transformation is necessary for the marriage to happen. In all versions the intended wife is kept in the dark, and is only presented with the resulting male body, without knowing about the transformation, or having an opinion about it.

The options
1. Build up to the sex change, suggesting it was the girl's own identity/wish/hope/goal all along. Make the male identity (and expression) a personal choice rather than a disguise out of necessity. This is not unprecedented in the tales: At least one version quotes the princess saying "men's clothes have always fit me better anyway." In this case, probably call the protagonist a boy after initially stating that they were born female.

2. Leave out the sex change / male identity and tell the tale as a lesbian love story. This would need more fiddling since the story is still set in a time and place (the Ossetian version anyway) where the protagonist couldn't come out as a girl AND marry another girl at the same time... probably. Female warriors do exist in Ossetian tradition, though.

3. Tell the tale as in option 1, but leave out the actual physical sex change. Have the protagonist come out to the chosen wife and be accepted (and loved). As far as everyone else is concerned, there is no change from what they know.

4. There are probably other options as well. I would love to hear comments and opinions on this.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Historical Fiction Authors

It's Top Ten Tuesday again, hosted over at The Broke and the Bookish! Go check out the blog hop, and join the fun!

Historical fiction seems somehow underrepresented these days. Or is it just me? A lot of what I see being talked about falls into the following categories:

1. Historical Romance
2. Historical YA lit
3. Historical fiction of specific popular eras - 20th century, mostly

While there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of these, I do have a lot of classic favorites that don't fall into any of the three. So, since this week's Top Ten Tuesday is YOUR PICK, I decided to make a list of my favorite historical fiction authors, the masters of the genre.
Here we go!

Mika Waltari
An undisputed god of historical fiction. I read Sinuhe on the beach when I was in middle school, and it left a print on my rib cage as I propped it up, but I could not put it down. Some parts of it gave me nightmares, and those were not even the parts about mummification. I also loved Turms the Immortal, and the Mikael and Mikael Hakim series.

Maurice Druon
His Accursed Kings series is insanely well researched. He knew all the details that were to know, down to what tapestry hung in what castle hall. He's been to the depths of archives and came out with an amazing series, likable characters, and even more likable villains. (His mythic fiction Zeus' Diary is also pretty fun)

Gene Wolfe
He is on this list for his Soldier in the Mist series. It is the most challenging historical fiction I have ever read, and I enjoyed the heck out of it. The narrator of the story has amnesia, 50 First Dates style: he forgets every night everything about himself. Hence, he writes a journal to remind himself what happened so far - and that's the journal we are reading. The book, accordingly, is inconsistent, often confusing, but full of genius "aha!" moments - and also Greek place names that have been translated to English, as an extra puzzle to Classics enthusiasts. It was a challenge to read and I loved it.

Henryk Sienkiewicz
Polish author of Quo Vadis (of old Hollywood fame) and other historical classics such as With Fire and Sword and Teutonic Knights. He wrote characters who well not without fault, but especially likable because of that, and great, big epic historical stories worth following through.

Graham Shelby
Remember that Kingdom of Heaven movie where Orlando Bloom pretended to be a blacksmith and Eva Green pretended to be slightly less terrifying than usual? Well, it was supposed to be based on Shelby's Knights of Dark Renown series, telling the story of the Crusades. Except the books are infinitely better, full of adventure and awkward love, and great storytelling.

Edward Rutherfurd
Unlike the others on the list, Rutherfurd is here for one book only: London. He wrote an awesome epic telling of the history of one city through dozens of generations of a handful of intertwined families - and then he tried to do it again and again and again, and repeated the success, but never the quality. I tried some of the other books, and gave up pretty fast. London is a masterpiece, though.

Robert Merle
I grew up reading his Fortunes of France series in Hungarian, and was excited to find out that they just started publishing them in English. Fortunes of France is a swashbuckling adventure through religious wars, court intrigue, and a great exciting time of French history, peppered with a cheeky roguish hero and a lot of gratuitous sex.

Mary Renault
I already mentioned her on my list last week: The lady took Greek historical fiction to a whole new level. In addition, she also wrote the most adorable, touching same-sex romance about Alexander the Great in The Persian Boy. My favorite of hers is The King Must Die in which she brought Minoan Crete to colorful and breathtaking life.

Robert Graves
I love Graves for so many reasons. While his work with mythology is criticized a lot in Classics, he knew how to lift mythology into historical fiction. My favorite book of his is probably The Golden Fleece, but he became most famous with I, Claudius (a book largely responsible for me ending up with a degree in Roman archaeology).

Bernard Cornwell
Also mentioned last week: He is a recent new favorite of mine for his Saxon Stories series. An extremely prolific author with a good sense of historical realities, and very likable, human characters. Also, the best battle descriptions I have read in a long time.

There you have my list. Do you have favorite historical fiction?

Monday, May 18, 2015

Blood, Boobs and Carnage Blogfest: Hungarian folktale edition

Today I'm participating in the Blood, Boobs and Carnage Blogfest! It is a blog hop hosted by Ninja Captain Alex J. Cavanaugh and Heather M. Gardner. Participating blogs are supposed to post today about books, movies, shows etc. within the topic of... well, Blood, Boobs, and Carnage (or any combination of the three).
If you want to visit the other participants, you can find the Linky list HERE.

Since my other blog, the MopDog, is covering the Blood and Carnage parts through a selection of Hungarian children's songs, I decided to focus on the Boobs on this one.
WARNING: Nudity. Duh.

There is a folktale type numbered ATU 875, called "The clever peasant girl solves the king's riddles." It exists in many shapes and forms in world folklore. Most often it includes a final scene where the famously smart girl is ordered by the king/prince to appear before him, and he sets some criteria: She has to be dressed but not dressed, bring a present but not bring a present, arrive mounted but walking, etc. I am particularly interested in the "dressed but not dressed" part, since it is solved in various ways in different tellings - and each one says a lot about the particular culture's (and storyteller's) ideas of decency.
For example, in one variation of the folktale, the girl undresses and then lets down her hair that covers her from head to toe, Lady Godiva style, protecting her decency. In another, she puts on a fishing net as a dress, which probably doesn't leave a lot to the imagination (and hence invents a whole new kink).

And then there is the Hungarian version.

In the video below (NSFW) you can see a children's cartoon (!) version of the folktale, titled "The Judge's Clever Daughter." In this version, after solving several long-distance puzzles and annoying the king, the girl is invited with the usual criteria. She shows up with one leg on a goat (mounted but walking), carrying a pigeon that flies away (gift but no gift), and wearing nothing but a bra and an angelic smile. When the king asks her why she decided to cover her boobs but not her "shame," this is the explanation she gives:

"That was given to me by God, hence it is nothing to be ashamed of. These I grew myself."

You really can't argue with that.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Story Saturday: Coffee in Machu Picchu, or, This is what you buy when you pay a storyteller

Here is a little "behind the scenes" bit about how storytellers work.

Two weeks before flying home to Hungary for the summer I got an email inviting me as a performer to Nespresso's unveiling of a new, Peruvian coffee flavor. Even though the gig was set for the day after I land (with a 6 hour jet lag), it was too intriguing to pass up.
The event took place in the Budapest central library that used to be a palace back in the day, and some of the reading rooms still look like they are out of Harry Potter. I love that building, and used to go to the Griffindor common room Humanities reading room to study before exams:
The theme of the event, obviously, was Peru, and in the vein of "uncovering something new" they asked me to tell a 10 minute historical story about the discovery of Machu Picchu. Since it was a completely new story for me, I headed to the library. I had background in telling Peruvian folktales (my very first paid gig 8 years ago was at a Peruvian exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts), but I was only vaguely familiar with Machu Picchu. First I read a bunch of stuff about the site itself, and then I headed to archive.org to find Hiram Bingham's journals on the discovery.
Plot twist: Bingham was not the first person to find Machu Picchu. Not even the first European. Also, being a white dude at the turn of the last century, his journal was peppered with off-hand comments on the "Indian race," and at one point he called the Conquest of Peru a "charming classic." I really had no love for the guy, but a gig is a gig, and the journal did contain some nuggets that I could work with.
So I did this: I painted the image everyone (including me) usually has in their mind about the discovery of a "lost city" - and then I structured the story around disassembling it. Ad one: Hiram Bingham wasn't the first explorer to find the city. Ad two: He wasn't even looking for Machu Picchu. He was looking for Uiticos, the last capitol of the Incas. (Here I also added a bit about the fall of the Inca empire and the Spanish conquest - another interesting rabbit hole I went down, browsing some of the chronicles that have been published in Spanish and English. It balanced out the eurocentric tone of the journals). Ad three: He didn't exactly cut himself through the jungle to get there. There was a road, and the locals also knew the way to the ruins (they just cared more for the terraces that were still great for cultivation).
Since the story was performed at a coffee event, I kept an eye out for coffee-related bits. I lifted a short anecdote from the same chapter in the journal where Bingham describes how the kerosene in their saddlebags leaked all over the food supply, so they had to start a day's mountain climbing journey with nothing but a mug of coffee in their stomach. Lo and behold, there was a hook for the presentation of Peruvian coffee culture, following my performance.
I rounded off the story with the part of Bingham's journals that I could appreciate: His deep admiration and respect for the beauty of nature. I lifted his description of the first time he saw Machu Picchu, and the way he recognized that the world needs to find out about the place, and learn about the history. The moral of the story was not that the explorer was perfect or heroic; it was that sometimes the right person at the right place is the one that sees beauty in hidden places.
Also, coffee. Definitely coffee.

Piecing this story together was an interesting challenge. I like working with historical stories, and you don't get gigs like this very often: The client knows exactly what they are looking for and gives you clear instructions, but also allows enough flexibility for the story to really take shape, and fit with your own storytelling style. Arrangements like this are ideal for both parties, and if you are as research-inclined as me, they are also tremendously fun.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Top Ten Tuesday: Ten authors I REALLY want to meet

This is my first attempt at participating in Top Ten Tuesday, a blog hop for book and book related blogs. While I am not book related, I do love to read, and I have recently acquired a taste for blog hops.

This week's theme is Top Ten Authors I REALLY want to meet. Because some of my favorites are sadly not with us anymore, I broke my list down into two parts: 7 authors I hope to meet someday, and 3 authors that I hope to meet someday on another plane of existence.
Here we go (in no particular order):

Gerald Morris
The author of the Squire's Tales series, he is one of my favorite people. Not just because of his writing, but also because his stories are so full of empathy, and genuine love for the legends he adapts. I think we would have a lot of Arthurian nerdiness to talk about. I emailed with him briefly on behalf of a book festival a couple of years ago, and he seemed very friendly and fun.

Marissa Meyer
I only recently discovered her Lunar Chronicles series, and it was love at first read. Those books are a storyteller's dream (how many books do Easter eggs for fairy tale fanatics?!). She is very active on social media and seems like a nice person. There is a lot of love for her from the fandom, and she appreciates it.

Neil Gaiman
Yeah, I know, me and another three million people. I actually met him once, and we had lunch together with the Storytelling department at ETSU when he was on the Unchained Tour. He was very friendly and polite, and a great storyteller. I was so incredibly star-struck that I completely forgot to ask him to sign the book that was in my purse the entire time! My dad will never let me live that one down. I'm waiting for a second chance.

Christopher Moore
Lamb is probably one of my top 3 favorite books ever. And that's saying something, if you look at my Goodreads page... I went to his book signing in Ann Arbor last year, and he was both friendly and hilarious. I love that he mixes comedy with some serious research in pretty much all of his books. Also, he does Trickster right.

Bernard Cornwell
Also a recent discovery of mine, and I devoured all of his Saxon Stories series within a month. Since historical fiction is my home turf, I would love to meet with someone who does it so well, and takes it so seriously.

Bill Willingham
The author of Fables, my favorite comic book series. Another person that understands and appreciates the nature of stories, and adapts folk and fairy tales in all kinds of awesome ways. I really just want to have a conversation with him about stories over a cup of coffee or something.

Cory O'Brien
He just recently published his second book, but I have been following his blog for years now. Cory is the crazy genius behind Better Myths, a blog that re-tells mythology and legends in ways that will make you laugh until you turn purple. He is also the culprit behind the Internet-famous Norse Crisis Flowchart. My goal is to organize a MythOff one day and invite him as a featured teller.

Planned for the Afterlife:

Mark Twain
Since I have read pretty much every word he's ever written, it would only be fair to finally talk to the guy. Also, I would love to hear some of his mantelpiece bedtime stories.

Michael Ende
My first childhood reading love. Both Momo and The Neverending Story are on my top bookshelf with the classics (and yes, I hated The Neverending Story movies with a passion, because I only saw them after reading the book 10+ times) (also, they are horrible).

Mary Renault
Another role model for me. The proof that you can be a female author in historical fiction without having to do "historical romance" all over the place. She deals with some hardcore things in her books, and applies a lot of empathy and subtle humor to Greek history. Her The King Must Die is a masterpiece, and it was hugely responsible for me going into archaeology. Someone should turn it into a movie, like, right about now.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Story Saturday: Diversity in traditional tales

I recently taught a workshop on heroes at the Northlands Storytelling Conference, in preparation to this year's Summer Reading Program. Several people asked me to make some of my handouts available online, so here we go!

Here is the list of hero- and diversity-related websites from my handouts:

Things Matter (LGBT superheroes A to Z)
Miss Representation (empowering girls and boys)
The Mary Sue (pop culture and feminism)
Today’s Heroes (Heroes and why we need them)
The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (Gender and representation in media)
Bunche Center, UCLA (Hollywood Diversity Report)
The My Hero Project (Everyday heroes)

The Multilingual Folk Tale Database (Searchable Aarne-Thompson catalog)

Many storytellers don't think about diversity in oral storytelling and folktales the same way we talk about popular media. And yet, it is an important topic, and can open up connections to traditional tales for all kinds of audiences. I still remember a Romani girl come up to me after a gig with sparkling eyes, telling me she had never heard a fairy tale before where the princess looked like her!
Folktales and fairy tales are a lot more diverse than people usually account for, and they are also not set in stone. It is a storyteller's responsibility to make them relatable for the new generations, to make sure storytelling lives on.

Here are some questions to muse about:

Do you have a story in your repertoire where...

… Multiple heroes team up for a quest?
Extraordinary Helpers / Wonderful Companions (ATU 513)
Adventures in the Classroom (Cs.Z.) (Pg. 118-122)
The Skillful Brothers (Aarne-Thompson Folktale Type 653)
            “Team” legends: King Arthur, Fianna, Water Margin, Argonauts, Dietrich of BernCharlemagne, etc.

… A hero resolves a conflict between two enemies with peace (instead of defeating one)?
            The Lianja Epic

… A hero saves a life without fighting?

… A hero saves an animal, a plant, or a place instead of a person?

… A hero overcomes fear (instead of being fearless to begin with)?
            The Red Lion (The Strand Magazine, Vol. XII – Google Books)

… The hero makes a mistake and then makes up for it?

… A hero disguises his/her identity?

…. A male and a female hero fight shoulder to shoulder?
            Gulaim and the Warrior Maidens 
            Shootingthe Moon

… An LGBT+ hero is featured?
            The Shift of Sex (Aarne-Thompson Folktale Type 514); LGBT folktale possibilities

… A standalone female hero is featured?
            Fearless Girls, Wise Women, and Beloved Daughters (Kathleen Ragan)
            Not One Damsel in Distress (Jane Yolen)

… The hero is a person of color? (Bonus: The hero is a person of color in a Western cultural setting?)

… The hero has a disability (physical or mental) that doesn’t go away at the end of the story?

… The hero’s main ability is wisdom and knowledge instead of strength?
            Queen Anait (Armenian folktale)

… Heroes of different religious (or spiritual) backgrounds are featured together?
            Ogier the Dane

… The hero is not a young person?

… Two or more of the above criteria are combined?