Behind the Scenes – Summer 2022

Wow, wow, wow, I’ve had a lot going on recently, last quarter I was fretting about not having enough reading to make a post, now I have… almost too much. That is because I’ve picked up a number of epistolary substack stories being done like Dracula Daily and I took an online course on Tolkien and the Ancient World! So, for this quarter I’m going to be breaking things up a little differently as well as sticking this under a read more.

A pile of books and papers. The bottom later is the D&D books "Ghosts of Saltmarsh" and "Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft," only the titles can be seen. The middle layer is, from left to right, "A Rainbow Thread," "Jews in Old China" and "Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation" volume 2. The top layer, from left to right is "Tolkien: On Fairy-stories," Deborah Sabo's article on archaeology and history in Tolkien, and "The Fellowship of the Ring."

Book Clubs/Reading Groups:

A Rainbow Thread: An Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts from the First Century to 1969 edited by Noam Sienna – FINISHED 

This is actually a book I started several years ago — I briefly talked about it here — and then returned to more recently as part of a Jewish book club.

The book is great. It’s an exceptional collection of sources and actually spurred me into doing further research in some cases. For example, one source is an excerpt of “Memoirs of a Man’s Maiden Years,” which is a book I read and reviewed as a result of discovering it in the anthology. Each source is followed by a “further reading” section, which is super nice and a great way to kickstart additional research. It’s definitely a must read for anyone interested in queer Jewish history or looking to find their way as a queer Jew, though I do recommend pacing yourself, for as wonderful as the book is, it is a history, and therefore is not all sunshine and roses, but that doesn’t make it any less of an invaluable resource.

Sealed with Honey by the Magpie Artists’ Ensemble – IN PROGRESS

Part of what is so fun about having backed the original Kickstarter for this project is that I am reading it and getting to live react to it in the project Discord server. There has been some yelling and screaming going on recently (for good reasons). There is much hubbub about Simon visiting Gabriel in Paris for the Exposition Universelle of 1855. I was wondering how the actual visit would be handled, since obviously they weren’t going to be writing letters to each other while spending time together, and it was so good. We got telegrams, tickets, and more art! It’s been so thrilling to follow this along, to think we will soon reach the end ToT.

Dracula by Bram Stoker – IN PROGRESS

Dracula Daily, which it seems all of tumblr was reading there for a while (it has cooled down considerably), was a bit slow there for a while, so I compensated for this by signing up for a bunch more texts to be sent to me via email, including “The Silmarillion,” “Moby Dick,” “The Worst Journey in the World” and Robert Falcon Scott’s diary from the Terra Nova expedition, and Cicero’s letters.

By this time, Jonathan has fled Dracula and we are getting increasingly more from the other players of the novel, including Dr. Seward, Renfield, Lucy, Mina and Van Helsing. The hunt for Dracula is on!

The Letters of Cicero: The Whole Extant Correspondence in Chronological Order translated by Evelyn S. Shuckburgh – IN PROGRESS

Presented by e-pilstulae, we start in 45 BCE and going to 43 BCE, which mean’s we’re in for about two years of letters from Cicero, which is plenty of time for you to sign up. I am a touch out of my depth here as this is worlds away from my field, but I’m doing my best and it’s fun! On July first we got to hear Cicero’s thoughts on the penis and obscenity more broadly.

The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard – IN PROGRESS

Before we get to Scott’s diary, we are first getting the set up to the journey the diary covers in the first few chapters of Cherry-Garrard’s memoir of the Terra Nova expedition. Much funnier than I expected, the opening line alone had me wheezing, “Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised.”

A friend of mine has said of the book that “Cherry is SO funny and then when you’ve got your guard down he comes and whacks you in the face with a two by four,” which tracks if you know how the story of the Terra Nova expedition ends. 

Tolkien & the Ancient World:

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien – We read various chapters from these books, not the whole books — though I’ve read the books before — to discuss various aspects of classical stories that are reflected in Tolkien’s writing, such as the fall of Gondolin as the fall of Troy; caves as spaces that reflect the Underworld; and Roman influence on Tolkien’s depiction of the Dead Marshes.

The Fall of Gondolin and the Fall of Troy: Tolkien and Book II of the Aeneid by Alexander M. Bruce – Bruce presents a nuanced take of the falls of Gondolin and Troy, and how they are at once similar and different and what other classical influences might account for those differences. It made me think about potential parallels between Aeneas’ son and Eärendil. The lineage of Aeneas and his son leads to the Roman people, Eärendil, who is notably a half elf and the father of Elrond, is the one responsible for entreating the Valar to come to the aid of Elves and Men and overthrow Morgoth.

Middle Earth as Underworld: From Katabasis to Eucatastrophe and Ancient Underworlds in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit by Benjamin Eldon Stevens – Both of these articles discuss katabasies or journeys down into underworlds — one focusing on specifically “The Hobbit” and the other on Middle Earth as a whole. There’s a lot of really fascinating stuff here, both on a very detailed level, discussing Bilbo’s interactions with Gollum and his journeys into multiple different caves within “The Hobbit,” and broadly discussing the underworldly feel of Middle Earth itself.

Memories of (Ancient Roman) War in Tolkien’s Dead Marshes by Marian W. Makins – Building off existing scholarship of the Dead Marshes as influenced by Tolkien’s experiences in WW1 and the folklore of will-o-the-wisps and similar stories, Makins posits the additional influence of the Teutoburg Forest and various depictions of it, through digging into an oft overlooked reference in Tolkien’s letters.

Archaeology and the Sense of History in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth by Deborah Sabo – The title alone had me super interested, because my undergraduate capstone was on indigenous rhetorics of place, ie. how physical locations along with the stories of place inform human relation to said place. This is exactly what Sabo is doing with Tolkien, though through the lens or archaeology instead of rhetoric. She even cites Keith Basso’s “Wisdom Sits in Places,” which was assigned as reading for my aforementioned capstone course. 

“Beneath Earth’s Dark Keel”: Tolkien and Geology by Gerard Hynes – A fascinating look on how the science of the day, particularly the emerging theory of continental drift, impacted Tolkien as he created the physical world of Middle Earth. 

Mythopoeia and On Fairy Stories by J.R.R. Tolkien – Two pieces that showcase Tolkien’s approach to the creation of stories and how he conceptualizes what he considers to be “fairy stories,” a sub-category of folklore tales. They are very much classic and foundational works of his that I would recommend to anyone interested in Tolkien scholarship. 

Personal Enjoyment:

The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation, Volume 2 by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu – FINISHED

Fantastic, once again. There was never a reality where I wasn’t going to enjoy an installment of this. We get more backstory about the war, learn about the new current antagonists, and their part in more tragedies. Things get revealed! And honestly, the plot moved along a lot faster than I was expecting considering the fact that we’ve still got three more volumes to go. The only reason I had a slightly more difficult time reading this installment — in that it took me longer to get through — was a minor increase in the amount of severe secondhand embarrassment I received. Drunk Lan Wangji is a force to be reckoned with and Wei Wuxian is, well, Wei Wuxian.

Jews in Old China: Studies by Chinese Scholars translated, compiled and edited by Sidney Shapiro – IN PROGRESS

I came to this area of study as a result of getting into “Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation.” While Judaism is not in any way the religion reflected in those novels (that would be Daoism, primarily), my brain will make Jewish thoughts about just about any media I get really into. My initial thoughts of course were met with the realization that I knew nothing about Chinese Judaism, particularly historically. My studies during my conversion had been U.S. and Ashkenazi centric. This is one of three books that I picked up to remedy that. 

Is Mah-Jongg a Jewish Game? by Meredith Lewis – FINISHED

A short little article from My Jewish Learning about the history of Mah-Jongg in the American Jewish community. It caught my attention because 1. I was an avid player of Mah-Jongg flash games for many years after getting hooked by the Mah-Jongg mini-game in the Mulan CD-ROM game; 2. I had no idea that there was a Jewish tradition concerning Mah-Jongg at all; and 3. I’ve been reading about Chinese Judaism, so it felt like very perfect timing to see an email about a Chinese game from My Jewish Learning (which is a fantastic free resource if you’re interested in learning about Judaism.)

Dungeons & Dragons:

Ghosts of Saltmarsh – IN PROGRESS

A lot of D&D books don’t really need to be read cover to cover and this is one of those. I am prepping the module “Salvage Operation” by Mike Mearls and so am really only reading the parts of the book relevant to that game, such as the introductory chapter about Saltmarsh, the module chapter itself and the appendixes for details. The book collects six other nautical adventures that were previously published between 1981 and 2005 and then adapted for 5e.

Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft – IN PROGRESS

Another D&D book that I am using to build a horror setting in which I can place “Salvage Operation” and potential future standalone adventures to act as side-quests when our main game (see below) is on hold. I am also using the class and lineage options in this book to build a character for a home brew game based in Antarctica.

The Wilds Beyond the Witchlight – IN PROGRESS

Mushu rising from the ground in a cloud of smoke and sparks saying "I live!"

It lives! 

My players are so close to meeting the first hag in Downfall. The player whose backstory is intertwined with this hag is absolutely chomping at the bit for a fight. Furthermore, “Van Richten’s Guide” has also proved useful for this game, because it has clarified the sister Carnival to the Witchlight Carnival. With the permission of my chronically busy player, we will be working to incorporate that into mini sidequests for them so that we can keep the main game moving. 

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