Updated: Oct 5, 2020

Likes, and author Sarah Shun-lien Bynum.

Folktales are said to help us deal with the most terrible of human fears, that of the unknown, in ways that make the unknown bearable. What if your mother dies and your father marries a woman who hates you? What if your parents can’t bear the cost of feeding the family and just decide to abandon you? But childhood is not where fears and insecurities end in human life, and author Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s recently released book of short stories, titled Likes, addresses the phantoms that range the adult imagination. These stories are frequently about young parents and spouses and the ways that we deal with what is just beyond the horizon of our knowledge. They probe our anxieties about our marriages and children, of our youthful friendships strained by our having grown up. Bynum explores the many ways we may wonder whether we are keeping up. And she does it so well.

I do not know if all of the stories in Bynum’s new collection are based on fairy tales and it would be a bad deed to tell you which ones I've identified because part of my fun in reading them was that moment of discovery. These stories are of modern life, of characters and concerns so detailed and recognizable that I bet you will stop looking for the folk allusions, and then they will sneak up and catch you off guard. One of my favorite stories was “Many a Little Makes,” about three preteen girls discovering themselves and their friendship as it slips from early middle school to high school. Yes, there is a heart-pounding moment when a tampon flies out of a bag and across a seventh grade classroom floor, and an episode where eyebrow plucking goes adorably wrong, but the girls are just as much defined by their changing interests which are not necessarily gendered at all. If you are a Gen-Xer like me, you will adore a scene that takes place in a video store where Better Off Dead competes with The Blues Brothers and Psycho, or when the main character Mari discovers The Smiths and becomes obsessed with Northern England. Mari’s friendship with Bree and Imogen is of the sort that lives in the golden country of our memories, when friends didn’t need invitations to get together. It was simply expected. And if there is not an allusion to a particular fairy tale, there is a sort of fairytale aspect to it, as when the pantry of one friend is always “magically full” or when Mari describes the tall, sleek Imogen as “a wood elf among dwarves or a human escorting hobbits.” The girls do face a trial, which the adult Mari will almost rediscover and reassess through the fog of adulthood.

These tales are frequently of and about women, and women of some means: the associate professor, processing her recent miscarriage while trying to write a chapter about Henry James; the television writer finding herself a stay-at-home, would-be mom, while her more successful partner creates children’s television; the mother wondering whether she royally screwed up in not getting her kindergarten-age daughter into the Waldorf School. As a middle-aged man reading the stories, I noticed early in the collection the number of times Bynum’s characters struggled with, and sometimes seemed weighed down by, things they perceived as unknowable. A husband’s, a friend’s, a child’s, even a dog’s innermost thoughts and feelings are scrutinized by these women who seem worried that they may not measure up. At times, I saw my wife in these portraits, and wondered if the traditionally-gendered role she plays in our household is part of what would make a woman so focused on certain things that I don’t find myself worrying about. She worries about whether I am content with meals, but then she does the shopping and the cooking. The collection's title comes from a tale about a father struggling with his ability to understand and connect with his sixth grade daughter, but even this narrator is crucially a stay-at-home dad, or a dad who at least handles all pickups and drop-offs and waits outside during his daughter's physical therapy. It made me wonder if full-time parenting, which seems to turn caregivers into the chauffeurs and attendants of their children, gives parents too much time to obsess with matters clearly beyond their control.

Bynum’s definite strength is her ability to pull you into the narrative. This said, her stories do not generally follow an obvious narrative arc. More than once I found myself surprised that a story was over and forced to reassess my understanding. I don’t think the stories are left unresolved. More so, I think that Bynum has (impressively) managed to shift the focus away from an obvious resolution and back to the conflicts that the stories present. This allows the stories the leeway to go to unexpected places that lie between the dramas of tales planned to climax in a certain number of pages. A story about a woman who recalls her husband’s long-ago infidelity while he is in the act of telling their child a bedtime story is not a searing tale of anger, regret or sadness that builds to a confrontation, or to the avoidance of one. The incongruity of the moment does not burn with ironic rage. It is rather left for the reader to struggle with after Bynum’s powerful narrative spell is broken. Like many of the tales, it is a story of remembering, and for adults of even a certain age, memories long enough in the past have grown hazy and uncertain in detail. Perhaps that calls for a different kind of fairy tale for adults, one more like life, that doesn’t suggest that the stories have either happy or sad endings--or that they ever truly end. If so, that's just what Bynum has given us: fascinating moments in time that are more real because they are not weighed down by traditional narrative constraints.

But what do you think? Do adults need fairy tales that address our worries and perspectives? Are you interested or excited to read this book? Were you already a fan of Bynum? What drew you to her style of writing? If you’ve already read Likes, or do as a result of this review, let me know what you think. Tell me if I’ve missed the mark or led you astray. And please critique my male perspective of these tales, which are mostly about women.

Updated: Sep 25, 2020

The Eisenhower Memorial in Washington D.C. Photos from

Adding to the Greco-Roman temples and Egyptian obelisk in Washington D.C. dedicated to former presidents is a memorial with a distinctly medieval twist. The Frank Gehry-designed Eisenhower Memorial makes use of an enormous tapestry made of steel wires. The 450-foot-long stainless steel tapestry depicts the coast of Normandy, which was the site of the American invasion of Europe in World War II. Dwight D. Eisenhower, then a general and Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, led the Allied campaign, including the invasion of Europe that is the focus of the memorial.

I have long been interested in the mythology of the American Republic and the public pieces of art we use to continue to tell its story, particularly when they reach into the remote past for inspiration. The first post I wrote for this blog was on the Lincoln Memorial, embroiled in political protests earlier in the summer. With the Eisenhower Memorial, I am particularly interested in the ancient technology the memorial pays homage to. It is nothing unusual for marble columns, pediments, domes to feature in American memorials, but a reference to a tapestry, I've never seen.

Weavers and weaving play a significant role in the stories of various mythologies. Penelope used her weaving of Odysseus's death shroud as a device to hold off her unwelcome suitors. Arachne boasted that she could weave better than Athena and was turned into a spider for it. The Scandinavian Valkyrie are grisly weavers, using the entrails of men. German folk tales are full of references to spinners. Not only can tapestries tell stories, but the very creation of textiles has become synonymous with tale telling. The English word text is borrowed from the Old French word, texo, for "I weave" and we see it in the word textile. When we tell stories, we "spin yarns;" we weave words and spells. However ubiquitous tapestries are in history though, using one to memorialize an American hero of the 20th Century is unique.

An Architect Known for Unusual Structures

Frank Gehry's buildings are recognizable for their unusual structures. The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, an art museum in Spain, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, CA, were both designed by Gehry. Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia.

Frank Gehry, 91, is an architect known for some famous buildings and his style is typified by the unusual motif of undulating walls and structures. The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, an art museum in Spain, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, CA are considered famous examples of Gehry's work. Gehry's challenge was to bring this ancient technology into a modern design, to make it long lasting in an in an existing public space surrounded by office buildings. The tapestry had to be semi transparent, so as not to block the windows of an entire office building. In an interview with WBUR’s Here and Now, Gehry said: “The tapestry did that. Most tapestries are solid. They’re woven with materials and they’re solid. You can’t see through them. Here we needed to devise a way to make a tapestry that was semi-transparent, that did not block the light, that was like a veil.” The Washington Post’s architecture critic Philip Kennicott described the effect of the tapestry catching the light at night to be “magical.” The memorial also includes bronze statues and engraved walls. The overall effect feels theatrical, with scenes of statues and the Pointe du Hoc tapestry as a backdrop.

Gehry's Pointe du Hoc Line Drawing

Frank Gehry's line drawing on the tapestry, of the headland of Pointe du Hoc on the coast of Normandy, perhaps from the perspective of the shorebound soldiers of the 2nd Ranger Battalion, which would scale the cliff with ladders and grappling hooks.

The scene from Normandy depicted on the tapestry is actually the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc, a headland between Utah and Omaha beaches, which army rangers scaled using the medieval technology of ladders and grappling hooks. Of course, the most famous tapestry celebrating a military victory that I know of is the Bayeux Tapestry, a 240-foot long tapestry depicting the invasion of England by Normans in 1066, which ended the reign of Anglo-Saxon kings and meant that our language would have quite a bit more French in it. I found a comparison to the Bayeux Tapestry mentioned in Fred A. Bernstein's coverage of the memorial in Architect Magazine, but Bernstein said that he was not aware of Gehry speaking on the topic. Again, I don't know of a more famous tapestry celebrating a military invasion so it seems unlikely to me that this wasn't at least a partially intentional allusion. Eisenhower's family had strong feelings about the memorial and forced Gehry to make a number of changes to his design, specifically to bring the focus to his achievements. Reading about their objections makes me think that they would not have appreciated a reference to the Bayeux Tapestry. Perhaps Gehry remained mum for that reason. I have reached out to Gehry's company, Gehry Partners, for comment but haven't heard from him. I will update the post if I learn more.

Bayeux Tapestry

The Bayeux Tapestry, woven in England in 1070, depicts the events leading up to another invasion, that of the Normans to England.

I am no expert on the Bayeux Tapestry, the historical events it recounts, or of the history of the landings at Normandy, but after seeing images of the U.S. Army Rangers' ladders and reading of their use of grappling hooks at Pointe du Hoc, which sits in the center of Gehry's tapestry, I had to check the Bayeux Tapestry for examples of medieval siege technology. I found a few examples, including a fellow on a rope and a number of soldiers beneath a tower with what appear to be torches. My research of the scenes tells me that the images depict a battle between Dukes William and Conan, that preceded William's invasion of England. I don't know what the fellow with the rope is scaling, perhaps a siege tower? However, the main story seems to be Conan's retreat and eventual surrender to William from atop the Castle Dinan.

Sieging Castle Dinan: Details from Bayeux Tapestry

The Latin text above these sections of the Bayeux Tapestry refer to a battle that preceded the invasion of England, of the retreat of Duke Conan to the Castle Dinan and of his surrender to William.

D-Day Invasion

The 2nd Ranger Battalion Scaling the Sheer Cliffs of Pointe du Hoc.

I will be honest and say that one of the lesser known episodes depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry seems a tenuous connection to the invasion of Normandy. My theory is beginning to feel threadbare and about to unravel! Perhaps the Pointe du Hoc provided Gehry with a better image than a line drawn landscape of the better known beach landings.

But what do you think? Is Gehry's tapestry an appropriate element in a memorial for a modern U.S. president? Is it appropriate for this particular president? Am I following the right thread in my thinking that the Bayeux Tapestry was in Gehry's mind when he designed his tapestry? Let me know in the comments below!

General Eisenhower Memorial Statue, Bayeux, France

Whether or not Gehry was thinking of Bayeux in designing his Eisenhower Memorial, the people of Bayeux, France certainly remember Dwight D. Eisenhower, as there is a memorial to the president there with a statue and more traditionally French arch.

Updated: Sep 23, 2020

Statues dedicated to Marjory Wardrop and her brother Oliver in Tbilisi, Georgia in 2015, for the siblings' dedication to the nation and its culture and a photograph of the scholar herself. Tbilisi also boasts a square named for Oliver Wardrop and a room in parliament's national library that bears both of their names.

The very best version of the Cinderella story is that of the female Victorian scholar who starts her studies in secrecy, hiding her work from even from her parents, and ends it with her previously hidden work, her talents and herself celebrated by an entire nation. This is the story of the English scholar Marjory Wardrop, who introduced the English-speaking world to the ancient literature and folktales of Georgia. The conflict Wardrop faced in trying to break out of the domestic sphere assigned to her is palpable in this letter to her brother Oliver:

“I have got to stay at home just doing nothing when I might be living, learning and working. If I had been a man, I should have run away long ago and seen the world. You cannot think how rebellious against my situation I often feel. But there is no help for it: a woman must not have strong feelings, and I must pretend I am delighted with my happy existence. Nobody seems to understand that the soul, or I suppose I must say the heart as I am only a woman, strives and longs for something more than a well-built house and good things to eat, with a certain amount of paternal and maternal affection and a few respectable acquaintances. I don’t think you can feel much more lonely than in the far-away East than I often do at home.” (7)

Wardrop's words en totem echo those of certain revelations from Charlotte Bronte’s heroine Jane Eyre, in a novel Bronte felt she had to publish under a pen name almost fifty years before. Those about the prohibition of women having strong emotions unfortunately reflect complaints I read from women striving for equality in the workplace today. I felt an admiration and kinship with Wardrop before learning more about her personal experience, but learning about her aptitude in learning Old and Modern Georgian before having ever set foot in the country, she has truly become a hero to me. I write this article having just read Nikoloz Aleksidze’s handsome coffee-table book, Georgia; A Cultural Journey through the Wardrop Collection, published this summer by the Bodleian Library, and having long wanted to review Wardrop’s collection of Georgian Folk Tales. I will do both here.

There were two things that I enjoyed most in Aleksidze’s text. The first was learning more about Marjory Wardrop. I must register the complaint that this was not a more Marjory-centered book, but given the text’s focus on the Bodleian’s Wardrop Collection, built by Marjory and her brother Oliver, I am grateful for what I got. Aleksidze recounts the effects of a letter Wardrop wrote to Georgia’s literary luminary of the day, Ilia Chavchavadze, to ask Chavchavadze if he would give her permission to publish her translation of his poem, “The Hermit.” Chavchavadze was so impressed with Wardrop and her grasp of his language that he printed her letter in a newspaper he edited and the letter set off a debate about the state of women’s rights in Georgia. It received a flurry of lively responses in the newspaper, including: “The letter is written in fine Georgian, such fine Georgian that I wish a young Georgian woman had been able to write in it” (22). Ekaterina Gabashvili, a founder of the Georgian feminist movement, wrote: “Today, every young woman, if not entirely devoid of energy, can act freely, can receive higher education, and an educated person will never succumb to anyone these days. A modern woman will never bow in front of a man: please take me as your slave” (22). The irony to these responses is that the woman sparking debate in the state of rights of Georgian women felt compelled to ask her brother Oliver not to reveal to their parents, who disapproved of her interest in learning Georgian, that she was, in fact, compiling a Georgian-English dictionary that would exceed a thousand words!

Public Poets

Image of ashughs, public poets and musicians from Aleksidze’s Georgia, with traditional drums, daf, a large somewhat tambourine-like instrument with jingling internal rings, the plucked tar, and the bowed kamanche.

The second thing I most enjoyed learning about in Aleksidze’s Georgia was just how much the culture values storytelling. From the photograph of the four ashughs, the public poets and musicians who performed in public squares and challenged each other to the equivalents of rap battles, to the number of kings who produced their own poetry, a love of stories is apparent. The ashughs composed and performed in Georgian, Armenian, Azeri, Turkish and Farsi, and Aleksidze writes that Tbilisi’s greatest poet, Sayat-Nova, “exhibited poetic virtuosity in all of these languages” (15). And the works of the poet kings were not just the extravagant hobbies of powerful men with captive audiences, but texts that were popular and handed down. King Teimuraz I produced adapted the Biblical story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, a tale popular throughout the region. Aleksidze writes that his greatest poetic achievement was a poetic adaptation of the martyring of his mother, Queen Ketevan, which he witnessed. Georgia’s location north of Iran and Turkey placed it in the historical reach of competing empires, but also in the midst of different language groups and cultural histories. The English Wardrop also brought her own love of stories to Georgia, first seeing the land through the classical lens of Greek mythology, marveling that she was in the lands of Jason, Medea and the golden fleece, of Prometheus’s chaining. One can hear her poetic heart gush as she brags of meeting Georgians named Jason, Medea, Telemachus, Juno and Venus: “In Imereti we are in the land of romance” (10). These are the sentiments of a romantic finally discovering herself unbound .

Marjory Wardrop's Georgian Folk Tales

For those who love folk literature, but who have not yet read Marjory Wardrop’s Georgian Folk Tales: do. You will not be disappointed. I read these tales in bed and found myself repeatedly laughing out loud and feeling compelled to interrupt my wife’s reading to share details with her that made her laugh out loud as well. There are obvious similarities with Grimms’ tales and other folk tales I've read, but the Georgian tales go to unexpected places, particularly when characters do the wrong thing and are somehow rewarded for it. Some of the tales have motifs so familiar to readers of Grimm that I wonder whether the Grimms scrubbed tales of moral ambivalence to be more socially correct. If so, it is our distinct loss, which you will discover upon reading Wardrop's translations. I delight in their many unexpected moments: I like the mother siding with the troll over her son. I like the women who claim their sister gave birth to a puppy. I like the youngest brother who feels a sense of responsibility to a frog, when his older brothers won high born maidens. These are just fun!

The tale of “The Fox and the King’s Son” is illustrative. It begins, “There was once a king who had a son. Every one treated him badly, and chased him away. Even passers-by looked upon him with disfavour” (106). I expected this prince, who decides to leave to live in the woods, to be a sympathetic character, but he isn’t. The fox who befriends him does so because the prince hunts every day and throws out the majority of his kill, which the fox finds wasteful. In order to economically deal with the prince’s wastefulness, the fox eventually brings in an entire staff of animals who work for the prince even though the prince is uncomfortable and frightened by this menagerie. The animals provide the prince with everything one in his station in life could want, and he just fouls it all up. One of the funniest moments of the tale is when the animals pretend to be a band of roving performers in order to kidnap a princess bride for him. You will have to read it to find out where it goes from there.

The first tale in the collection, “Master and Pupil,” sets the morally ambiguous tone I find so exciting. It is about a poor peasant who apprentices his son to the devil and manages to come out well from it. After swindling the devil, the father and son set out to swindle more people, with his son turning into animals that his father sells at a high price with both fleeing afterwards to repeat the con. Each time the pair dupes someone, my expectations of punishment rose higher. When the father sells his son back to the devil I thought they were done for, but he manages a way out of it that recalls the tale of the Welsh Taliesin. One might feel that the peasant and his son would become annoying or villainous, but the tone of the tale entirely allows them to be sympathetic and in the right, from the moment the peasant’s wife insults and berates him for being so poor and stupid.

Wardrop’s collection of folk tales has become my favorite. They glitter in ways that make their closest literary relatives seem dull in comparison and though there are thirty, I never found myself yearning for one to be finished because it lost my interest. I can’t say the same of any other collection of folk tales. It is the utmost irony that she translated them "as a relaxation from these more arduous studies (of translating Georgia's premier epic poem)," and characteristic that she introduced them with the hope that: "this little book may perhaps claim some attention from the public" (1).

My main takeaway from Aleksidze’s Georgia and Wardrop’s Georgian Folk Tales is that Marjory Wardrop, as revered as she still is in Georgia, lacks the critical attention in the west that she so richly deserves. Wardrop’s translations of the tales and her great work, a translation of Georgia’s shining poetic jewel, Shota Rustaveli’s The Knight in the Panther’s Skin still remain the gold standards for English translations of these works. Georgia in 2015 dedicated statues of Marjory and her brother Oliver, who was England’s ambassador to Georgia, near the Georgian parliament. Oliver’s likeness is animated, but Marjory clutches her book, the literary heritage of Georgia, to her bosom. Her chin is raised in defiance of anyone who would question that this brilliant woman should be a scholar. I long for an annotated version of her tales and for dedicated biographies that a scholar of her importance, and person who would be regarded as a truly inspirational feminist hero, currently lacks. Wardrop deserves our attention.

But what do you think? Are you a fan of Georgian Folk Tales? Do you feel a kinship with Marjory Wardrop, her passion and her struggle? Would you (like me) like to know more about this woman and her editorial and research process? Let me know in the comments below!


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