Tuesday, November 7, 2006

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare

by Stephen Greenblatt

Greenblatt sketches out what is known about the life of Shakespeare, interspersing the meager details with background information about Elizabethan England.  He tells of, for example, the tension between Catholics and Protestants, the vilification of the Jews, the myriad ways in which the society was brutal and bloody, and King James’ beliefs on witches and prophecy.  The result is a very intriguing book with many interesting and extremely debatable propositions.

That some of the sonnets seem to be written to a man seems undeniable (see for example Sonnet XX); that Shakespeare was hired by nobles to write the sonnets in order to convince another young noble to marry a certain woman seems highly unlikely, especially since as Greenblatt himself notes, the sonnets hardly argue the merits of marriage.  Or to take another case, Robert Greene’s obvious attack on Shakespeare is immediately denounced by the people involved in it; but Greenblatt inadequately investigates why a mysterious and very powerful protector should concern himself with a player and playwright.  Or again, Greenblatt’s juxtaposition of “hamlet” with the death of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet and the deterioration of his own father is a very tenuous argument at best, but his connection of the writing of “Macbeth” with James’ paranoid obsession with witches and scrying makes perfect sense.  It is true that nearly every single statement about Shakespeare made in the book contains a qualifier like “probably,” or “it can never be certain that,” or “highly likely,” or “if;” but in the end, all these hypotheses don’t detract from the book’s purpose: to place Will Shakespeare in his world. 

four stars

Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Tell-Tale Heart and Other Writings

by Edgar Allan Poe

"The Cask Of Amontillado.”  A man takes cold, calculated revenge on a noble whom he perceives has insults him, walling the poor guy up in a catacomb.  Very creepy, especially the part where he echoes the noble’s screams.  [read three times]

"The Tell-Tale Heart.”  A elderly man with a cloudy eye is murdered by (presumably) his caretaker.  This reading really brought home how bat-shit insane the murderer is: he takes a full hour to put his head in the door.  The themes of guilt and paranoia run deep here.  Deservedly a classic.  [read twice]

"The Fall of the House Of Usher.”  A new Poe story to me.  A man comes to visit a childhood friend, Roderick Usher, and finds him suffering from a possibly mental illness that makes him react in horror to most light and sounds.  His twin sister is also suffering from catalepsy.  She dies, and they entomb her in the house, but that’s when the really morbid stuff starts happening.  This story is just pure Gothic horror.  There doesn’t seem to be any kind of allegory or meaning here, just a portrait of supernatural fear (the house seems to be almost sentient).  It’s written in an extremely lofty style, making it rather inaccessible to the casual reader, so it lacks the emotional punch of the previous two stories.  Still, it’s a spooky tale.

"The Black Cat.”  A man, once known for his kind disposition, is corrupted by drink and kills one of his pets, a cat.  Disaster and murder follow, capped by an ending very similar to “The Tell-Tale Heart,” except with a  more gruesome twist.  Though this story isn’t narratively tight as the former, I found it just as compelling.  It talks of the overpowering spirit of perverseness, doing “wrong for the wrong's sake only,” in all people.  It mixture of the fantastic (the cat’s shadow on their burned house) and the mundane (drunken dissolution) is also appealing.  Terrific and creepy as hell.

"Berenice.”  Possibly the most pointlessly gory of Poe’s tales.  A man suffering from spells of obsession on minor details becomes fixated on the teeth of his cousin, Berenice, who, though once athletic and merry, has succumbed to a degenerative disease.  So he removes them while she’s still alive.  Apparently, Poe himself said this story crossed the line of good taste.

“The Man Who Was All Used Up.”  A rather humorous piece; the narrator meets a general famed for his bravery and is foiled at every turn when he tries to find out details.  Finally, he goes to the general himself, only to find that scalping and the removing of limbs was only the start of what those savages did to him.  Not brutally told, this is a light story, and it was amusing, thought he constant repetitions of the interlocutors grated after a bit.

four stars

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn

by Mark Twain

Rural wild child Huck escapes “sivilization,” fakes his death, and goes down the river with the escaped slave Jim, meeting all manner of folks, from feuding families to charlatans, on the route.  Man, what can I say about this, possibly the Greatest American Novel?  It has it all: adventure, dry humor, biting parody, an aw-shucks down-home tone that belies its sharp mockery, faked death, adventure, religion, freedom, irony, treasure, and of course adventure.  And it tackles the Great American Question, slavery, head-on.

One of the recurring motifs is Huck’s ironic discourse on morals, which of course are presented backwards: Huck realizes he’s of “no account” and a bad seed, so he chalks up his desire to help a slave get to freedom as just part and parcel of his bad character and one of the many things that will send him to Hell.  Of course, Twain means the opposite, and in fact Huck is one of the most compassionate characters in literature.  He feels sick at the sight of death and destruction, and even feels sorry for the Duke and the King, two frauds who planned to sell Jim but were tarred and feathered.  The interesting thing, to me, is how Tom Sawyer is presented.  Although I believe Tom Sawyer is considered to be, in the conventional wisdom, one of literature’s clever, ingenious characters, he comes off in this book as a complete chowderhead, insensitive to the needs of others and the  exigencies of the moment.  Yes, his ornate, ridiculous, quite misplaced plans are funny to the reader, but with Jim’s freedom and life at stake, Tom really does appear to be a fool.  Worse, it unfolds that Tom only agreed to help free Jim because he knew Jim had been freed by his “rightful” owner.  Perhaps here Twain was parodying the kind of fresh-faced lad, breathing my country right or wrong, and full of inefficient schemes, who swallow everything they’re told and will die for their government without question as Tom takes a bullet due to his stupid plan.  Tom Sawyer aside, what an incredible novel.  I stand amazed at Twain’s wit, prescience and noble spirit.

[read twice]

five stars

Monday, September 25, 2006


by Kurt Vonnegut

Billy Pilgrim, fatalistic ex-soldier injured in a plane accident, psychologically scarred in the Dresden bombing, gets “unstuck in time” and flickers back and forth through all points of his own past, present and future – which include a stay on the planet Tralfamadore. Or, he may be a nut; he lived through the firebombing of Dresden, and it scarred him.

Based loosely on Vonnegut’s own experiences, this is a remarkable book, both for its detached wisdom in discussing the Dresden massacre, and for its fantastic, careening imagination.  Though I wonder how useful Vonnegut’s meta- textual self-commentary is – a typical moment is when he stops his narrative to explain the epigraph of his book – Vonnegut is clearly a philosopher and a great writer with an eye for catchy phrases and scenes (“fizzing with rabies;” “among the things he could not change were the past, the present and the future;” “so it goes”).  A wonderful testament to the absurdity of human existence.  So it goes.

[read twice]

five stars

Friday, September 22, 2006

Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology

by Eric Brende

The author, a graduate of Yale and MIT, moved with his newlywed wife to an Amish-like community (that he calls “Minimites”) and lived for eighteen months with no electricity or running water.  They plowed their field and grew and sold crops, helped the Minimites (but much less than they got help from the community, of course), and learned about themselves.

Brende has written a fairly interesting book about the experience.  As Jon Krakauer said in a blurb, he certainly does not come off as a “sanctimonious scold,” which would be boring.  Instead, he quietly asks a series of questions about how we use technology and how technology takes from us (in terms of time, money and social skills).  He argues that technology is a not a tool, but a sort of organism, because it grows and uses fuel, and therefore we should be wary that it can be a drain on us, or worse, a competition with human endeavor.  I liked Brende’s conclusions on labor, on how in its pure state it frees the mind and shapes the body and promotes socialization; in fact, the work was less strenuous than he’d feared it would be, and they had what he calls a lot of leisure time.  It’s certainly an interesting line of thought, and Brende lives it, because despite his education he works as a buggy driver and soap maker. 

four stars

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Sharpe's Gold

by Bernard Cornwell

Sharpe, immediately after winning accolades for capturing a French Eagle, is ordered by Wellington to steal a fortune in Spanish gold.  This is in the care of El Catolico, a devious and selfish Spanish partisan, who wants it for himself.  Naturally, Sharpe means to take it – and El Catolico’s fierce, beautiful lover, of course.

Cornwell surprised me in this book: Major Kearsey, the strict, rather uptight official whom Sharpe has difficulties with, did not, to my great amazement, turn out to be traitor, merely somewhat of a boob.  I got the sense that Cornwell did intend Kearsey to be a traitor, but a shrewd editor told him that Sharpe had faced a few too many traitors in a row, so he rewrote the character a bit – though El Catolico is, in some ways, a traitor, since he’s nominally a British ally – so Cornwell got a turncoat in after all.  Whew!  In any case, whether it’s the less formulaic characters, the rather questionable morality of Sharpe’s mission, or just the exciting climax during the siege of Almeida, this is the first Sharpe book in a while to hold my interest from beginning to end.

four stars

Tuesday, June 6, 2006

Pride And Prejudice

by Jane Austen

In early 19th century England, a family of five girls is marked for marriage by their rather silly mother, Mrs. Bennet. More than one suitor comes calling; Elizabeth, the second oldest, is courted by the wealthy and arrogant Mr. Darcy, but she finds him insupportable. Will his snooty relatives crush her sister’s chance of marrying their friend Mr. Bingley? Will the foolish youngest sister, Lydia, lead them into ruin with her wanton ways? Will Elizabeth never find happiness with Darcy? The answers, of course, are obviously negative – but this delicate, intricate novel kept me turning the pages (all 375 of them) eagerly. Written with a superb verbal dexterity, laced with rich and subtle wit, this novel is truly a classic.

five stars

Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World

by A.J. Jacobs

The author, an editor at Esquire, reads the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, A-Z.  He breaks the books down into alphabetical entries, relating each heading to some event in his life or reading.  Along the way, he and his wife succeed in their quest to become pregnant, he goes on “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire,” they travel, and he meets people such as Mensa members, Alex Trebek, and the editors of the EB.  This is truly a hilarious book, absolutely laugh-out-loud funny, and not without a few poignant moments on the nature of learning and life itself.  Excellent.

four stars

Tuesday, February 7, 2006

Dear Mr. Henshaw

by Beverly Cleary

A young boy writes letters to an author and in his diary, detailing his parents’ divorce and his adjustment to a new school.  I found this to be an interesting and poignant kids’ novella, but it ended very abruptly.  I know it’s a slice of life type of book, but the utter lack of resolution surprised me.