BOOK REVIEW: The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

The Merchant of VeniceThe Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This story hinges on the (now proverbial) pound of flesh. Bassanio is a poor gentleman in love with a rich lady, Portia. While Bassanio is upfront with Portia about his poverty — and she could care less — he can’t bring himself to propose to her without a few coins to his name. So, he goes to Antonio, the titular merchant of Venice and a close friend, and asks for a loan. Antonio is free and easy about making loans without requiring interest payments. Antonio says he’d gladly hand over the money to Bassanio, but all his money is tied up in his ships at sea. He, furthermore, tells Bassanio that if anyone will make him loan, the merchant can easily cover it. Antonio has tons of merchandise arriving in the next couple months from all around the world. The loan amount is small compared to what Antonio intends to earn from selling his goods.

The problem is that the only other game in town for loans is a Scrooge-esque lender named Shylock. Shylock is hard enough to deal with as it is, but he has it in for Antonio, in particular. Besides the fact that Antonio frequently offers interest-free loans — cutting into Shylock’s business — Antonio has also kept Shylock from collecting collateral by paying off other people’s loans before said loans went into default. (Maybe that’s why there were no other lenders in all of Venice?) To be fair, Shylock claims that his gripe with Antonio is that the latter is always leveling antisemitic slurs and other insults at the lender. At any rate, Shylock says he’ll make the loan of 3,000 Ducats, but, instead of ship or merchandise, he requires a pound of flesh as bond. Antonio, for reasons of friendship and the fact that he believes he will have a windfall by then, agrees to Shylock’s terms. If he doesn’t repay the 3,000 ducats in three months, Antonio will have a pound of flesh cut from his chest.

[Spoilers follow.] Bassanio takes the cash and goes traveling to make his proposal. First, he is required to play a “Let’s Make a Deal” game in order to earn the opportunity to wed Portia. The game involves three boxes (i.e. caskets): one of gold, one of silver, and one of lead. Inside one of them is a portrait of Portia, but the others are losers. All a prospective suitor has to go by is a brief inscription. By the time Bassanio arrives the reader has seen two Princes’s failed attempts at this courtship game. The inscriptions with the gold and silver boxes flatter Portia and the suitor, respectively. The inscription on the leaden box acknowledges that the marriage will not be all sunshine and roses, and that is the box Bassanio has the wisdom to choose. Unfortunately, shortly after he does so, he learns that a couple of Antonio’s ships wrecked at sea and the others haven’t been heard from, and – by now – the loan is in default.

Bassanio heads out to Venice with triple the Shylock’s money from his generous and wealthy new wife, planning to dispose of the situation. However, Shylock won’t budge on the terms of the bond. A drama plays out in the courtroom. Portia, anticipating the Shylock might not take the lucrative offer, has her butler take a letter to a legal expert and has said servant return with the lawyer’s reply posthaste. Portia and her handmaid disguise themselves as men – a lawyer and legal clerk, respectively – and catch up with the legal proceedings in Venice. After no one (i.e. the Duke, Bassanio, nor Portia-in-disguise as lawyer) is able to reason with the Shylock, Portia-as-lawyer tells him that he may proceed with cutting away the pound of flesh. However, the bond document says nothing about blood. So, if Shylock spills any of Antonio’s blood, he will be guilty of assault (at the least) and murder in the likely event that Antonio dies. Not to mention, going an ounce over a pound would be a breach of contract to be severely countered. This turns the tables, and Antonio and friends end up exploiting the situation to force the Shylock to convert religion as well as dictating the disposition of the lender’s estate (not to mention he’s still out his 3,000 ducats.)

[Spoiler end.] This play has a tense story line, particularly for a comedy, and is a gripping read. However, it’s also one of the most controversial Shakespearean works for its antisemitic and racist comments. On the other hand, there are reasons to believe that Shakespeare might have been engaging in satire. First, I mentioned that Shylock doesn’t cite loss of business as his quarrel with Antonio, but rather that the merchant has repeatedly insulted and slandered him. While we don’t see direct evidence of this behavior, the fact that Antonio rapes Shylock with his religion (by that I mean forcing a conversion using the threat of State force,) makes it ring true. Second, but continuing on this theme, there are a number of points during which the Shylock is sympathetic, most notably the famous “If you prick us, do we not bleed?…” monologue. Third, we learn that Shylock has a delightful daughter named Jessica, leading the reader to the conclusion that perhaps Shylock isn’t a jerk because he’s a Jew, but is a jerk who happens to be a Jew. Finally, the degree to which Antonio and his friends rake Shylock over the coals at the end of the court scene tarnishes Antonio’s virtue and makes Shylock sympathetic once again. The “turn the other cheek” approach of Christianity gives way to Old Testament vengefulness.

Like many of Shakespeare’s plays (notably “The Taming of the Shrew”,) accusations of sexism are also common, but if there were an award for BOSS of this play it would go to Portia, hands down. True, she has to pretend to be a man to get it all done, but those were those the times. The need for disguise also facilitates a prank that she and her handmaid play on their new husbands, regarding their wedding rings. While they are forced to comply with the dictates of the age, the women in this play certainly hold their own as strong characters. Still, I can’t say the degree to which Shakespeare was a satirist versus an anti-Semite / racist / sexist, but it’s a testament to the richness of his stories and the depth of his characters that his works can be interpreted so diversely.

It’s a masterpiece. Read it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Dream Machine by Su-Yee Lin

Dream Machine (A Short Story) (Kindle Single)Dream Machine (A Short Story) by Su-Yee Lin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This surreal short story is a reprint from “Day One” magazine that is available as a Kindle Single. The story is about a factory in an industrial part of Shanghai that seems to make metal objects / shapes, the purpose of which no one seems to understand. The protagonist is – at the start of the the story – the newest of the half-dozen employees who work at the plant. The story has a sparse feeling that ranges from the fact that the characters are designated only with a single letter to the fact that we really don’t get much indication of the broad and bustling city of Shanghai in which the story is supposedly set.

It isn’t easy to convey a world that isn’t quite right – seemingly like the world we are familiar with, but just a little off. I thought the author did a good job of this.

I enjoyed this story immensely. I thought the author used strategic ambiguity nicely. There are a few ways I believe one could reasonably interpret this story. If you are the kind that needs to have iron-clad clarity, that might be a bit aggravating. [If you’ve seen the Christopher Nolan movie “Inception,” and you liked that it left an open ending, this story is for you. If you insist that there is no ambiguity to the ending and that the top definitely toppled or didn’t, you might not enjoy it as much.]

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BOOK REVIEW: Faust [Part I] by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

FaustFaust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This review will cover the first part of the play in verse by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. I start with that statement because there is some potential for confusion, because: 1.) there are many tellings of the Germanic legend loosely-based on Johann Georg Faust; 2.) there are two parts to Goethe’s play and some editions include both and others just one; 3.) Goethe’s play was apparently not written with the intention that it would be in two parts and so the proper title of this isn’t “Faust, Part I” but rather that became a common title, retroactively and after the author’s death. I’ve done my best to link to the same edition as I read (which seems to be sometimes erroneously listed as containing both parts one and two – when it is really just the first.) Part I is said to be more closely based on the myth than is the second.

The gist of the story is so well-known that it will be recognized even by those who’ve not read this play (or works like Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus” [written well before Goethe’s play(s).]) The successful but bored Doctor Faust makes a deal with the devil in which Mephistopheles gets Faust’s soul if Faust can ever be made to feel truly satisfied. Goethe’s “Faust” opens with a wager between God and the Devil. The Devil believes he can corrupt God’s favorite (i.e. Dr. Faust) and turn him from a righteous path. Faust’s deal leads to a series of adventures that culminate in an ill-fated love relationship with a woman named Gretchen (a.k.a. Margarete.)

The story and its theme are straightforward. The idea is that there is a ceaseless yearning – be it for pleasure or understanding or whatnot – that is insatiable, and that giving into a desire to quench that yearning can lead even the best of humanity into tragedy.

The play is delivered in rhymed verse, and the translation by Bayard Taylor makes for pleasant reading.

I’d recommend this book for readers of classic literature. It’s an old tale, and is well conveyed in this translation of the play.

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BOOK REVIEW: Shakespeare: A Very Short Introduction by Germaine Greer

Shakespeare: A Very Short IntroductionShakespeare: A Very Short Introduction by Germaine Greer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This series (Very Short Introductions [VSI]) put out Oxford University Press [OUP] features several books about William Shakespeare and his works. Most of these “Introductions” deal with a subset of Shakespeare’s work, (e.g. the tragedies, the comedies, or his sonnets and other poems.) However, the book most likely to be confused with the one under review is “William Shakespeare: A Very Short Introduction” by Stanley Wells. Greer’s theme involves how Shakespeare’s philosophy and worldview are reflected in his plays (and to a small extent, his poetry.) While I haven’t yet read Wells’ book, it seems to take a history-centric approach, examining who Shakespeare was and the interaction between the the man and the times in which he lived on the work he produced.

The reason that I open with this distinction is that this is the kind of book that leaves some readers feeling duped. The title and inclusion in the VSI series might suggest to a reader that they are getting a basic overview of the the works of Shakespeare, leaving them surprised to find they are diving into arcane philosophical discussions. If the reader has a background and interest in both philosophy and the literature of Shakespeare, this may be just the book for which one is looking. However, if one is truly looking to be introduced to Shakespeare and his work, it is unlikely to be the book one is seeking. The biggest criticism is therefore about the title and placement of the book in this series, and not about it’s content, which is interesting and insightful.

The six chapters of Greer’s book begin with a brief biographical sketch of the man’s life and times. (This is where Greer’s work presumable overlaps most significantly with that of Wells.) The five remaining chapters each consider an aspect of the Shakespeare’s thinking and philosophy: poetics, ethics, politics, teleology, and sociology, respectively. There are extensive discussions of a few of the Shakespearean works as they pertain to the discipline under discussion, and snippets of text are used throughout to make points, but – again – the presumption is that that the reader has a basic familiarity with Shakespeare’s work.

There are graphics throughout the book, mostly portraits, playbills, and block prints from the era. There is a Further Reading section that is more than the usual bibliographical list, including descriptions of what is covered by the various books. Some will find this approach beneficial, and others may find it needlessly dense.

If one is looking for a book that considers how Shakespeare’s personal philosophy influenced his works, this is a good overview. However, if one hasn’t read Shakespeare’s works, or one has little understanding of philosophy, it’s probably not the book for which one is looking.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

The Satanic VersesThe Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Anyone who’s ever written for public consumption knows that having one’s writing despised is not the worst of fates. While it might be preferable to have a work loved than loathed, it’s far better for it to be loathed than to be greeted with a “meh.” Like many, I read “The Satanic Verses” because any work of fiction that generates an emotional response of murderous intensity must have something going for it. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, the release of this novel in 1988 triggered a fatwa (an Islamic decree) ordering the author’s murder. While the Iranian government retracted support for the killing in the late 1990’s, Rushdie lived in hiding for decades.

So, that is my full-disclosure confession, I probably would never have gotten around to reading this novel if not for the response it incurred. It’s not the first work I’ve read by Rushdie, and I’d hazard to say it’s not considered his best (though I wouldn’t be surprised if it was his best-selling book, though it may not be because it’s banned in India – a huge book market.) If I were more well-acquainted with Islamic mythology, the book probably would have been much more readable, but as things stand it was a bit of a slog. There is a huge cast of characters (a couple names, e.g. Ayesha, are used for multiple characters over different time periods – on purpose, but still….) And the story – far from a clear and readable narrative arc — is a thicket of plot, subplots, and happenings that may have some symbolic purpose but don’t seem germane to the story. Also, some scenes are meant to reflect a dreamlike or surreal quality, and the switching between states requires a high degree of attentiveness in reading. Some of the story is work-a-day realism and some is dreams and transformations. Most of it is present day, but some of it is during the dawn of Islam.

The main plot revolves around two characters who survive falling out of a plane blown up by terrorists over the English Channel. The two characters, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, play the role of archangel and demon, though there isn’t a clear imprimatur of good and evil to distinguish the two. Of course, rejection of the notion that good and evil are clearly distinguishable opposites is the theme of this novel. (After all, the title refers to a controversial belief that a few of the revelations presented to the prophet Mohammad [renamed “Mahound” in the novel] were the whisperings of the devil.) While one might think angels and demons above the mundane concerns like relationships, we spend a great deal of time learning about Gibreel’s relationship with his mountain-climbing girlfriend and Saladin’s troubles with his adulterous wife.

While I’ve presented the book like it’s a complete morass, I should point out that it has moments of lucidity, and — in those moments — it makes for both evocative and though-provoking reading. I would say the best example of this is the subplot that plays out through the penultimate chapter. This arc involves a woman in India with cancer who is marching to the sea because she strongly believes that when she gets to the coast the waters of the Arabian Sea will part, and she’ll be able to march on to Mecca. Along with this woman are 140 pilgrims led by one of the book’s three Ayeshas. This woman’s husband is a merchant and a secular Muslim. He is more than willing to take his wife to Mecca, but would like to do so by plane. He thinks that she’s a bit off her rocker, owing to the disease, but his love leads him to follow her to the sea (riding along in an automobile.) I got caught up in this story line as it has this tension between believers and non-believers (more accurately secular religious types who belong to religion but don’t buy into the supernatural), and an intrigue about whether the seas will – in deed — part.

If you’re up for a challenging read, I’d recommend this book. It deals with some fascinating questions. It has a mix of humor and drama, and presents interesting characters and conundrums. That said, it isn’t the type of story one get’s lost in. It’s the kind of reading that requires a high degree of attention, and which can be a bit mentally exhausting. As for whether it’s worth reading because some people don’t want you to, my guess would be that the people who wanted to murder Rushdie (and some who still do) never got past the title, probably don’t understand the theological debate that the title references, and definitely didn’t get to the subplot of the book in Chapter 3 that deals in historic events. In other words, the violent response didn’t result from reading the book, but rather from hearing about the title. [In general, I suspect the Venn intersect of “reads books” and “wants to murder people about ideas” is – if not an empty set – pretty slim pickings.]

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BOOK REVIEW: My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

My Sister, the Serial KillerMy Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This clever novel revolves around two sisters who seemingly couldn’t be more different, but who are never-the-less bound by blood and fate. The protagonist, Korede, is a diligent nurse who is respected for her rock steady and no-nonsense nature. She’s precise, meticulous, hardworking, but plain looking. The relevance of that latter bit is that her sister, Ayoola, is stupid beautiful (i.e. the kind of pretty that turns people into blithering idiots in her presence), is a little flighty, and is a serial killer.

While Korede is too smart to fall for Ayoola’s self-defense explanations for deceased boyfriends completely, Korede never-the-less assists Ayoola with disposing of bodies while trying to let Ayoola’s explanations soothe her conscience. But while Korede is morally-conflicted and guilt-ridden, the blood bond is such that her stance is never in question. That is until a handsome young doctor that Korede has a crush on and a friendship with becomes infatuated with Ayoola. This development sets up the ultimate test of the sisters’ bond.

Braithwaite does a great job of peeling away the layers of the characters. The beautiful sister / serial killer is only the most obvious example of the risk of taking people at skin depth. We learn that other characters aren’t as they appear when we can see them more fully. And as the morality tale is playing out, we are offered a lesson in how beauty (as with any other envied trait) can be as much of a curse as it is a blessing.

I found this book to be gripping and highly readable. The story is strong and the character development is well done. If you’re looking for an entertaining read in a strong story, I’d highly recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Deciduous Qween by Matty Layne Glasgow

Deciduous QweenDeciduous Qween by Matty Layne Glasgow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection of [mostly] free verse and prose poems touches on nature, sexuality, and the loss of a mother. The poems are evocative and sometimes haunting, and they offer insight into experiences as specific as the author’s life as a gay man in Houston’s bayous and as universal as the loss of a loved one.

The collection is arranged into five parts. Each part continues the eponymous poem, “Deciduous Qween,” such that that poem acts as a connective tissue for the collection. The various parts each have their own unique feel.

As mentioned, sexuality is a major feature of this collection, and so readers sensitive to the subject should be forewarned. The fourth part is where the poems become explicit. In terms of graphicness, I’d put them in line with the more risqué works of Allen Ginsberg.

I found these poems to be poignant, heartfelt, and readable. I’d recommend the collection for poetry readers, particularly those who aren’t sensitive to matters of sex and sexuality.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Drum That Beats Within Us by Mike Bond

The Drum That Beats Within UsThe Drum That Beats Within Us by Mike Bond
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection of short form poems touch on themes of nature, Americana, and the Native American experience, but it covers a lot of ground and is, ultimately, a reflection of Bond’s experience and philosophy in poetic form. Among the 80+ poems, there are some as short and sparse as haiku, but most run between a page or two.

In the prologue, Bond takes up the eternal argument of whether free verse is poetry, and the antithesis of whether rhymed and metered poetry is “serious poetry.” His view, not dissimilar to my own, is that there is room for the coexistence of these two poetic forms. That said, he overwhelmingly favors free verse in practice – as do most poets in the modern era – though not exclusively so.

I enjoyed this collection. It offers food-for-thought, beautiful language, and doesn’t wallow in a view of the world (or the poet’s life) as a fetid morass (as is a common theme in poetry collections these days.) It’s worth reading as an exemplar of a personal poetic statement. The collection offers examples of verse that is evocative without sopping with sentimentality. In the prologue, Bond urges expression through the poetic form, and this is him putting his money where his mouth is.

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BOOK REVIEW: Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch

Venus in FursVenus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This novella revolves around the relationship of Severin and Wanda. Severin is obsessed with Wanda (the titular “Venus in Furs”) to the extent that he seeks to deify her and to submit to her as a slave. The problem arises that Severin can only take this proposition to a middle ground. He isn’t contented with a traditional spousal arrangement, but yet he is unable to submit to the fullest extent of what it means to be enslaved. He, as have many others, believes that if he submits himself fully, he will become the center of Wanda’s world and she will have no need of other relationships. And, as it has for many others, this “domination through submission” scheme frays and fails in time.

Wanda, for her part, recognizes this disparity and is conflicted about the idea of having a slave. Her rational mind thinks it’s a bad idea, her own cravings are for a man with a more commanding personality, but her hedonistic pleasure centers find it a not altogether objectionable state of affairs. After an extended period of spurning the proposition, she goes all in and agrees to test the proposition. If she is reliable, she does this in order to teach Severin a lesson – though one can never tell about the reliability of claims on motive, particularly when made by a character who is conflicted. What is clear is that Severin’s desire to be both her man and her slave is untenable because what she wants in the former is not seen in the latter. As the story unfolds, Severin is exposed to greater and greater challenges to his ability to maintain the façade of slave.

This novella, first published in 1870, is a bit slow-moving, particularly in the early part of the arc. However, it is an interesting study in psychology and how mismatched motives kill relationships. If it seems intriguing, read it, but it’s not a premise everyone will find intriguing. Some will find it disturbingly kinky, though — it should be noted — others will find it far too tame and lacking in explicit sexuality for a book about an intimate relationship.

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BOOK REVIEW: Intimate Ties by Robert Musil

Intimate Ties: Two NovellasIntimate Ties: Two Novellas by Robert Musil
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This volume collects two recently-translated novellas written by the Austrian author, Robert Musil. Originally published in Musil’s native tongue in 1911, the novellas in question are: “The Culmination of Love” and “The Temptation of Silent Veronica.” Both novellas revolve around a woman tormented by love relationships and indiscretion. In the first, the woman is haunted by marital infidelity, and in the second, the titular character is entangled in an unconsummated love triangle gone awry.

While I can’t speak to how true the translations are to the original, I will say that the language is beautiful and is the highlight of book. However, these works shun story, and so readers of popular fiction will find them unengaging, and may come away thinking that the book’s greatest feature is its brevity. I will say, that “The Temptation of Silent Veronica” was more pleasurable to read as it built up some tension. Readers of prose poetry may enjoy the play of words and emotional content of these novellas.

For readers of literary fiction and prose poetry, I would recommend “Intimate Ties.” However, I suspect readers of popular fiction will find the book tedious. Particularly, likely to think so are those who pick up the book thinking it is romance or – even more so — erotica. While the themes revolve around love and relationships, the “action” is more in the character’s mind than in the bedroom.

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