BOOK REVIEW: Lessons by Ian McEwan

LessonsLessons by Ian McEwan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book not only shows the characters learning their lessons, it has a few teachings for the reader, as well. The story follows the protagonist, Roland Baines, as he receives a series of harsh life lessons, at the center of each is a woman. There is Miriam, his piano teacher at boarding school, a woman who enters into a manipulative sexual relationship with Roland while he’s still a minor. There is Alissa, the wife who abandons Roland and their seven-month-old child to pursue her writing career. Finally, when a woman, Daphne, comes along with whom he can at last have a healthy relationship with a dependable partner, he has difficulty embracing the relationship because of his earlier experiences. We also witness the intergenerational learning of Alissa, whose mother never made good on her own potential as a writer.

The lessons for the reader are profound. First, after developing an intense and visceral dislike for Alissa because she abandons a baby and seems so oblivious to the suffering her actions have caused (e.g. her husband being suspected of a murder that never happened,) we are reminded that disappearing dads are par for the course; we may think poorly of them, but we rarely have an intense emotional response to such situations. Second, we are offered insight into the “intentional fallacy” – i.e. thinking one knows the author’s intentions and subjective thought processes from what she writes.

I found this to be a powerful story that asks one to confront all manner of intriguing questions. (e.g. If an individual ditches her [or his] family for career, does it make a difference if that person is the best at what she does or if she’s mediocre or if she stinks?) I’d highly recommend this novel for readers of literary fiction.


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Macbeth Limerick

Macbeth and Banquo Meeting the Witches;
Théodore Chasséria (1855)
There was a great General named Macbeth.
All that kept him from kingship was a death,
but - as with a Pringle -
he couldn't do a single.
So, he showed seven more their last breaths.

BOOK REVIEW: An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope

An Essay On CriticismAn Essay On Criticism by Alexander Pope
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This essay is a poem, i.e. heroic couplets in iambic pentameter, to be precise. It advises both poets and critics of some of the mistakes made in their respective pursuits (though at the outset he warns that bad criticism is a bigger sin than bad poetry.) To critics, Pope advises against nit-picking, as well as failure to recognize the tradeoffs inherent in poetry – i.e. sometimes the better sounding line is grammatically strained, or the wittier line may be less musical. To poets, he lays out a range of insights from stylistic to psychological, and it is an essay both about improving the product of writing as well as improving the relations between writers and critics.

Those unfamiliar with the essay will still be aware of a few of its lines, these include: “A little learning is a dang’rous thing;” “To err is human, to forgive, divine.” “For fools rush in where angels fear to tread” and anyone who’s learned to write iambic pentameter (and the sins, thereof) will remember: “And ten low words oft creep in one dull line.”

But those everyday aphorisms are by no means the full extent of this essay’s wise words and its clever phrasing. My favorite couplets of the poem include:

“Some neither can for wits nor critics pass, // As heavy mules are neither horse nor ass.”

“Trust not yourself, but your defects to know, // Make use of ev’ry friend – and ev’ry foe.”

“For works may have more wit than does ‘em good, // As bodies perish through excess of blood.”

“Words are like leaves; and where they most abound, // Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found.”

“True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, // As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance.”

“Some praise at morning what they blame at night; // But always think the last opinion right.”

“Unhappy wit, like most mistaken things, // Atones not for that envy which it brings.”

“All seems infected that th’ infected spy, // As all looks yellow to the jaundic’d eye.”

“’Tis best sometimes your censure to restrain; // And charitably let the dull be vain:”

I delighted in this poem. It’s full of food-for-thought, and reads remarkably well for a piece from the year 1711.


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BOOK REVIEW: Supernatural Shakespeare by J. Snodgrass

Supernatural Shakespeare: Magic and Ritual in Merry Old EnglandSupernatural Shakespeare: Magic and Ritual in Merry Old England by J. Snodgrass
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Like – I suspect – most of humanity, I’m a big fan of Shakespeare’s work, but I’m also not alone in feeling that I’ve missed a some of the depth and texture of his plays. Both language and the body of common / popular knowledge have evolved and migrated tremendously since the Elizabethan era. This makes a market for books that offer insight into the age and the role that the beliefs, norms, and daily life played in Shakespeare’s theatrical works. This book is one such work. It focuses on the role supernatural beings and various festivals play in the Shakespearean canon and why they do so.

Conceptions of the supernatural may be one of the areas in which human beliefs have changed most severely since Shakespeare’s day. The book has chapters on witches, ghosts, fairies, and enchanted forests that are interspersed among chapters that deal with various seasonal festivals of Pagan origin. I did find this leapfrogging around a bit odd, but I would speculate two possible reasons for it. First, the author may have wanted to build cyclicality into the overall organization, and thus put beings and creatures that seemed thematically related to a season near its festivals. Second, it may have seemed like a good idea to break up the festivals because that discussion could have felt tedious to a general reader if it’d been clumped together (as opposed to the “sexier” topics of witches and ghosts and the like.) This organization didn’t bother me; it just seemed a bit strange, but I could imagine it being for the best.

I learned a great deal from this book, and my newly gained knowledge wasn’t all about the supernatural elements of Shakespeare. The author dropped some fascinating facts regarding other domains as well – such as Elizabethan sexuality and lifestyles as well as biographical facts about Shakespeare. If you’re looking to expand your understanding of background information relevant to Shakespeare’s plays, this book is worth looking into.

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Shakespeare’s Tragedies, Condensed: Part, The Last

I
King Lear too much loved being praised,
and too little recognized love.
He shunned the daughter he should’ve kept,
and held tightly those in need of a shove.

II
Timon of Athens spent lavishly,
but then - in his time of great need -
no one would return the favor, so
he gave his last coin to watch Athens bleed.

III
Antony is a love-struck boy,
and plots are afoot he can't grasp.
He ends in slow suicide by sword,
while Cleopatra goes out with an Asp.

IV
Coriolanus was kind of a jerk,
and that's why he was exiled.
But he could vanquish all of Rome.
Death to the reciprocally reviled!

BOOK REVIEW: Henry VIII by William Shakespeare

King Henry VIIIKing Henry VIII by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This play takes place over a period of time, for want of a better measure, straddling the first two [of six] marriages of Henry VIII. It doesn’t reach the ill-fated end of Anne Boleyn, but rather finishes with the baptism of the girl child she birthed [Elizabeth, who will later be Queen.] [Of course, the failure to produce a male child was the downfall of Katherine of Aragon’s Queenship, so the birth of Elizabeth doesn’t bode well.]

In as much as a history has a theme, this one would be the conflict between the aristocracy and the clergy. This is first, and most extensively, seen through the rise and fall of Cardinal Wolsey, who wins the favor of the King in the Cardinal’s conflict with the Duke of Buckingham, but later Wolsey gets ousted after an aristocratic cabal diverts the Cardinal’s mail to the King. Henry discovers that Wolsey has recommended denial of an annulment of Henry’s marriage to Katherine, despite the fact that Wolsey was telling the King to his face that the marriage’s end had his endorsement. Later, we find aristocrats (the King’s Council) taking on the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cranmer, but Henry sides with the Archbishop as he once had with Wolsey.

The play’s major events are the execution of Buckingham, the divorce from Katherine, the marriage to Anne Boleyn, and the birth of Elizabeth.

This isn’t the most compelling of the Shakespearean histories, but it does have its intrigues. No doubt it would be a bolder play in the absence of the authoritarian nature of monarchy, but it’s still worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: Richard III by William Shakespeare

King Richard IIIKing Richard III by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Like Macbeth, this is the story of one man’s unchecked ambition bringing about his ruin. Richard wants to be king. The problem is that his eldest brother (Edward) is already king. The good news for Richard is that Edward is sick. The bad news is that Edward has two sons (and a daughter,) and there’s another elder brother (i.e. Clarence.) While Richard is willing to let nature take its course with Edward, he’ll have to get rid of everyone else between himself and the Crown.

Richard is different from Macbeth in that Richard’s psychopathy is more like that of Iago from “Othello.” Macbeth is conflicted and, though he keeps digging himself deeper, the burden of guilt leads to a descent into madness. Richard is anxious, but it’s not clear that he feels bad about what he’s done (i.e. having his brother’s boys killed, as well as his own brother, his wife, and a number of aristocrats.) When his own mother tells him she wishes she’d strangled him to death with his umbilical cord it rolls off him with the cool detachment one expects of a psychopath. That said, in the last act, he is visited by a series of ghosts. These visitations and his subsequent monologue might give indication that he’s realized how awful he is, but one could also argue that he’s just worried about the precarious state of his kingship.

The hammer drops when Richmond, a nephew of Henry VI, leads forces against Richard. In part, the aforementioned ghosts (which could be interpreted as bad dreams) psychologically do in Richard. (Though the ghosts also visit Richmond with the opposite message, a positive one.) But also, Richmond has proven his leadership skill by forging alliances with the French and the Scots, and turning Lord Stanley (despite Stanley having a son held hostage by Richard.)

While this play not only lacks the character nuance of Macbeth as well as The Scottish Play’s brilliant poetic language, it does have more great lines than the other “War of the Roses” plays (i.e. Henry VI, Pt. I – III.) [e.g. It opens with “Now is the winter of our discontent” and, of course, there’s “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”]

This conclusion to the War of the Roses story is well worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: Henry VI, Part 3 by William Shakespeare

King Henry VI, Part 3King Henry VI, Part 3 by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Here we witness a tug-of-war for the British monarchy that plays out to a decisive conclusion (eventually.) It begins with Henry VI as king, but the Duke of York has gained the upper-hand. Henry makes a deal that, upon his death, succession will pass back to the Duke’s line, but not before. The Duke reluctantly agrees, but the deal makes everyone else furious. Margaret (Henry’s Queen) is upset because her son has lost his right to succession. The Duke’s sons are also displeased because they think their father should strike while the iron is hot, rather than risking that Henry’s strength and popularity will rise.

The Queen’s displeasure leads her and Clifford (enemy to the Duke, who killed Clifford’s father) to go on the offensive to reacquire the line of succession. They kill the Duke’s youngest son, a child, and then the Duke, himself. This would strengthen Henry’s position, but fortune doesn’t shine for long on anyone in this play, and soon the Duke’s sons capture Henry and Edward (the Duke’s eldest son) is crowned. But then Edward lusts after the first woman he meets as King, the widow Lady Grey, and being rebuffed in his plan to make Grey his “side piece,” he proposes to her. Unfortunately, Edward has already dispatched the Earl of Warwick to propose to the sister of the French King. This leads to the humiliation of Warwick (not to mention the French King’s sister,) and Warwick (with French troops) goes back and dethrones Edward. This, too, is short-lived. Edward consolidates support, captures Henry, and defeats Warwick. As the play ends it might seem stability has been achieved, but we know Edward’s brother, Richard, has ambitions.

While this one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays and it’s constrained by events, it’s worth a read. It has a lot to say about how arrogance, lust, and timidness can all precede a downfall.

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BOOK REVIEW: Henry VI, Part 2 by William Shakespeare

Henry VI, Part 2Henry VI, Part 2 by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Project Gutenberg

Whereas the previous part of this trilogy was a war story largely set in France, this middle section is much about courtly intrigues and more local threats to the Crown. It does see the “War of the Roses” infighting between York and Somerset come to a head, as well as a successful plot by the new Queen and Suffolk (who might be making the beast with two backs) to get rid of the much beloved Gloucester (the King’s protector / advisor.) And there’s a brief but tumultuous rebellion led by a commoner who thinks himself kingly material, Jack Cade.

Despite the fact that the historical events of this play are among the latter half of those covered in Shakespeare’s histories – chronologically — it is believed that this is one of Shakespeare’s first (and, quite possibly, THE first.) Like other early Shakespearean works (e.g. “Titus Andronicus,”) it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles by way of beautiful language. That said, it’s loaded with tension and has elements one might recognize from latter works, such as the comedically capricious nature of crowds. (Shown when the people yo-yo between Cade’s rebellion and the aristocrats who argue for loyalty to the Crown.)

The possibility that this might be Shakespeare’s first may seem unlikely because it turned out to be “Part II.” However, one piece of supporting evidence is the play’s intense cliff-hanger. [Henry VI, Part 1 is comparatively self-contained, but this this part ends with the King being pursued by York’s forces — who’ve dominated in a skirmish against loyalist forces.]

This may be an early play, and – thus — not one of the Shakespeare’s most mellifluous works, but it’s engaging and definitely worth a read.

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