BOOK REVIEW: King Edward III by William Shakespeare

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

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This play, one of the histories attributed to Shakespeare, is among those that have only in recent decades come to be included in The Bard’s canon. While the current consensus among Shakespeare experts seems to be that this play was authored or co-authored by Shakespeare, it remains possible that it wasn’t or that it was only partially written by him. [Fun fact: Shakespeare was known to collaborate, even though only experts know anything about any of his collaborators — and even then it largely seems to be educated guesswork.]

This is not among the most narratively satisfying of Shakespeare’s plays, but histories inherently face the issue of following the events as they happened – at least in some degree. Even kings don’t necessarily live drama-shaped lives. The play addresses two major events in Edward’s life. The first is his unsuccessful wooing of a beautiful Countess after the King’s forces drive back a Scottish attack on the Earl of Salisbury’s castle. This part follows the common dramatic theme of the mere presence of a beautiful woman draining men of both virtue and smarts. For a time, the Countess simply rebuffs Edward’s advances, but when that doesn’t work, she tells him that the only way they can be together is if each one murders their current spouse. The Countess only says this to snap Edward out of it, but when he agrees to take her up on the bargain, she changes tack. She tells Edward that if he doesn’t quit his pursuit of her, she will end her own life. This does snap Edward out of his horn-dog induced insanity.

The second story line involves King Edward’s fight to claim the crown in France. While many will find this the more gripping part of the play, it’s not King Edward III, but rather his son Prince Edward, who is really the hero of this fight. It’s Prince Edward who is engaged in the most savage fighting and who narrowly ekes out a victory.

While this may not be as engaging and gripping as Shakespeare’s tragedies or comedies, it is an interesting way to glimpse history. I have little knowledge of British history, and can’t really say how accurate the depiction of events is, but Shakespeare generally follows the basic contours of events as accurately as was probably known at the time. I highly recommend all of Shakespeare’s works, but if you don’t have time for them all, this is probably one you’ll set aside for the time being.

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POEM: Literary Journeys

I’ve taken journeys by the page,
sitting before the Globe’s great stage,
trolling a knight’s tilt at windmills,
and seen where Grendel made his kills
to kick off a much greater rage.


I learned why birds sing in their cage,
and why the caged go on rampage,
while knights and knaves go quest for thrills.
I’ve read of roads…


I’ve spanned the Stone through the Space Age
while living too briefly to be sage,
I’ve moved by dogsled through the chill,
and opulently, with all the frills.
I’ve read of roads…

BOOK REVIEW: King John by William Shakespeare

King John (Folger Shakespeare Library)King John by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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King John is one of Shakespeare’s earliest histories (if not his first,) but is not among his better-known plays. That said, it mixes comedy and tragedy in a way that is engaging and interesting. There were points at which it felt Monty Python-esque and other points at which it was heartbreakingly tragic. In short, one shouldn’t conclude because this play isn’t so well-known that it isn’t an intriguing read.

King John turns heavily on the theme of legitimacy, and the nature of rights to rule and hold title. For the bulk of the play the question of right to rule focuses on the titular character, John, who faces competition in the form of a young boy, Arthur, who many believe has a stronger claim to the crown. But when the play opens, the question of legitimacy is about Philip Faulconbridge, who is an elder son but is being cut out of the family lands as a bastard. But, apparently, Philip’s baby-daddy was King Richard I, and so King John convinces the Philip to give up his claim to Faulconbridge lands and instead be knighted under the name of Richard. Richard [Plantagenet] is a major character in the play and an important supporter of King John.

[Warning: The plot will be discussed in some detail, so those wishing to avoid spoilers should look away now.] The real excitement begins when both King John and King Philip of France show up for a parley at the town of Angers — a fort city in present-day north-west France that was an English-controlled land at the time. The citizens of Angers won’t let either King’s party come inside because there is a dispute about who the actual king is [King John or the boy, Arthur.] As loyal subjects of the King of England, the Angerians will gladly admit the King (and whomever he deems fit) as soon as it’s determined who, exactly, is the king. [This is where the aforementioned Monty Python-like exchanges begin.] The two stupefied Kings eventually agree that their armies will fight and, in that way, determine who the true king is. The armies form up in an open field not far from the city walls. After a series of scuffles, no clear winner is established. However, [Monty Python, round 2] heralds from each side show up within minutes of each other — both heralds claiming that their King won [and, thus, should be granted access.] To which the citizens of Angers essentially say, ‘We can see you.’ [I paraphrase.]

Showing his worth and cleverness, Richard the Bastard, comes up with a new strategy. He convinces both Kings to put aside their differences for a just a few moments to jointly defeat Angers. Once they’ve destroyed the obstinate town, the Kings can go back to being hostiles and can conduct their parley. Both Kings are agreeable to this, but – of course – the citizenry of Angers are not so keen about it. The people of Angers, also being clever, come up with their own alternative plan. They tell the two kings that they can’t help but notice that King Philip has a son and King John has a niece who would seem to make a lovely couple. If the two were to wed, then it would solidify the relationship between the two kings and the town would then gladly host them (because they could do so with no fear of a ruckus breaking out.)

The marriage takes place and everybody, except Arthur’s mother [who feels badly betrayed,] is elated, but only for about two minutes until the Pope’s emissary shows up. The Pope’s man, Cardinal Pandolf, claims that King John is out of favor with the Holy See and insists the King yield to the Pope’s wishes. King John refused to be emasculated by the Pope, and this creates an awkward rift in the newly bonded families. Pandolf tells King Philip that he’d better defeat King John or he, too, will be on the Pope’s shit-list. France decides that going to war with the new in-laws is better than being on the Pope’s bad side.

In the ensuing battle, the most crucial outcome is that little Arthur is captured by King John’s forces, and control of Angers is solidified by John’s men. John orders one of his followers, a citizen of Angers, to kill Arthur – to firm up his position, especially since the bonding by marriage had such an ephemeral effect. Hubert can’t bring himself to kill the precocious boy, and, instead, hides him.

King John comes to regret the killing of Arthur (which he continues to believe took place) in part because some English noblemen are clamoring for the boy’s release, and (probably) in part because he’s ashamed of the morally reprehensible act. After King John sternly rebukes Hubert for actually following his orders, Hubert tells him that it’s no problem, for the regicidal murder did not actually take place. Again, it momentarily looks like all will be well (to King John and Hubert at least. Readers learn that Arthur, having narrowly talked his way out of being murdered, decides to make a jump from the castle either to safety or death, but it does not go well for the boy – i.e. he dies on impact. FYI – This tactic of revealing information to the audience that characters are kept in the dark about is considered by some to be one of Shakespeare’s great contributions to the art of story. It might seem like it’s “giving things away,” but it actually creates a visceral effect in which the audience member knows that the bottom is about to drop out on a temporarily pleased character.)

When the truth shakes out, King John contacts Pandolf and makes up with the Pope in exchange for having the French attack-dog called off (especially since a number of the King’s nobles have switched sides.) At first this doesn’t go well. Philip, having already once been treated as the Pope’s lapdog, refuses to make peace because to do so would make him look like nothing more than the Pope’s personal hand-puppet. King John is poisoned by a monk, and, after a touch-and-go period, eventually succumbs. Philip’s son, Louis, does ultimately agree to make peace – not that it does John any good.

I enjoyed this play tremendously. The swift changes of fortune keep one guessing about whether the story will ultimately play out as tragedy or comedy. It’s definitely worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: Poems to Night by Rainer Maria Rilke [Trans. Will Stone]

Poems to NightPoems to Night by Rainer Maria Rilke
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: March 2, 2021

This is a new English translation of Rilke’s 1916 collection of poems themed around the night. It includes the twenty-two poems of the “Poems to Night” collection, as well as seven draft poems from the same collection and another fifteen poems and fragments on the theme of night. Most of the poems were written during the same period as “Duino Elegies,” which is one of Rilke’s most beloved collections.

The period in which the collection was being composed was a tragic one for Rilke. He was trapped by the war in Germany (while he was born in Prague, he’d been living in France at the time) and all his possessions [in France] were disposed of by his landlord. He had a bit of military service, and — though it was a desk job — he wasn’t cut out for it. And he had an intense affair with a French artist.

The poems mix imagery with a heavy dose of strategic ambiguity — leaving the possibility for the poems to be interpreted in various ways. One might suspect a collection themed around the nighttime and written by a German in the midst of life crises would be deadly morose, but I felt that Rilke balanced the more somber elements with beauty and vibrancy. The poems felt more like a reach for catharsis than a wallowing in suffering (a fault of many poets, in my opinion.)

I found this collection to be evocative and mind-expanding. I’d highly recommend it for readers of poetry.

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BOOK REVIEW: Coriolanus by William Shakespeare

CoriolanusCoriolanus by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Caius Marcius Coriolanus is a brilliant General, and when war is afoot, he’s beloved by his Roman countrymen. However, in times of peace, he’s kind of cantankerous, thinking that people who don’t bleed for their nation should shut their pie-holes and thank their lucky stars for whatever they get in life. This latter fact puts him in conflict with both Rome’s political elite and its commoners. The play opens on this very conflict as rioting citizens are complaining about how the State’s grain silos are full while the rank-and-file are suffering. One gentleman (a friend of Coriolanus,) Menenius, tries to calm the rabble by listening and offering reasoned discussion on the issue. Coriolanus, alternatively, throws fuel on the fire by (and I paraphrase and oversimplify here) telling folks that if they want to get paid, they should join the army.

Soon, Coriolanus is off to war with his arch-enemy, Tullus Aufidius — who is also a great General, but for for the competing state of Volsci. Coriolanus is successful in battle, and uses the merit gained him to successfully be elected Consul. Of course, adversaries tire of being shut down because they aren’t all war heroes, and so conflict escalates. Eventually, the Romans run Coriolanus off, sending him into exile. Except for Coriolanus’s closest friends and his family, all of Rome is pleased to see him go.

But then Coriolanus shows up in Volsci and goes to see Tullus Aufidius. He tells his former enemy that one option would be for the Volscian General to kill his old foe where he stands, but alternatively, if they partnered together, they could easily sack Rome. Aufidius and the Volscians go along with this deal, and soon these great Generals have fought their way up to Rome’s gates. Rome sends three waves of envoys to talk Coriolanus out of burning down Rome. The first two envoys, the Consul Cominius and his old friend Senator Menenius, fail completely. The third wave is Coriolanus’s family and his dear mother, with an eloquent speech, succeeds where the others failed.

And now the Romans are happy, but the Volscians… not so much. In particular, Aufidius is seething because he feels he’s been betrayed. Coriolanus tries to tell the Volscian leaders that, “Look, I got you this far, now you can write a treaty on favorable terms, and Rome is no longer going to look down on you.” But Aufidius still feels that he’s been used and cast aside cheaply. So, he stabs Coriolanus.

This is one of Shakespeare’s last, if not his very last, tragedy. It’s fascinating to consider how his slate of tragedies unfolded. “Titus Andronicus” is generally not regarded as highly as the others because of its savagery – which at the time (and even today) was considered a bit over the top. I will say that I enjoyed the visceral intensity of “Titus Andronicus,” but won’t deny it was a bit bonkers in terms of its brutality. Toward the middle of his career, one has Shakespeare’s best-known and most warmly-regarded tragedies, e.g. “Hamlet,” “Othello,” “Macbeth,” etc. that are not as harsh as “Titus Andronicus” but are tragedies for more than the main character. The last few tragedies are much more personal in nature: (i.e. “Timon of Athens,” “Antony & Cleopatra,” and “Coriolanus.”) Obviously, a lot of people die off stage as Coriolanus works out his revenge plot on the way to Rome, but as far as on-stage / speaking characters, Coriolanus is the sole victim. I don’t know whether this has anything to do with a lesson in “less can be more” or if it’s just how the dice fell in Shakespeare’s writing, but it does make one wonder. (Like many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, this one is based on recorded history, and so that certainly is a factor in the number of deaths. However, it also raises the secondary question of why various projects held interest to the Bard when they did.) I will say these last plays aren’t as gripping the one’s in the middle, but they are never-the-less sound stories.

Like all Shakespeare, this is a must read.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

A Prayer for Owen MeanyA Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is an oldie (originally published in 1989,) but I just got to it and must say that it’s one of the most skillfully crafted novels I’ve read in some time. One indication of this is that it is both highly readable and often nonlinear in storytelling. Stories that jump about in time have to keep the reader in a rapt state of attention and need to be written with multiple cues as to where one is in the timeline. Otherwise, if one misses a time transition, one is lost — and then the reading becomes a tedious slog. Irving maintains one’s attention through masterful revelation. The reader is always asking questions that are teased out until (at the optimal time) a revelation is made, but by that time one has a new slate of questions – all of which are resolved by book’s end.

The story revolves around the relationship between the titular character, Owen Meany, and the narrator – who is also Meany’s best friend, John Wheelwright. Owen Meany is a fascinating character mentally, physically, and spiritually. Mentally, he is at the top of his class and is often the smartest person in the room even when the room contains adults. Conversely, physically he is the tiniest kid in class and never grows out of that position, and he has a strange and grating voice that also isn’t cured by puberty. Spiritually, he is not only a person of iron-clad faith, he also believes he is God’s instrument. [Faith and doubt is a major theme of this novel.] The close relationship between Wheelwright and Meany is fire-forged by the trauma of Meany hitting a foul ball that careens into the temporal lobe of John’s mother, killing her instantaneously (and, perhaps more crucially, the relationship survives the the revelation that Owen believes he is God’s instrument.) It should be pointed out that Owen is also devastated by the foul ball killing. John’s mother, Tabitha Wheelwright, is as much a mother figure to him as to John, both because Owen’s mother is ambiguously not right in the head and because Tabitha says she will pay for anything necessary (beyond the scholarship he is sure to get) to allow Owen to go to the Gravesend Academy. (John comes from money but Owen is from a struggling blue-collar family, and so Owen couldn’t go to the prestigious school otherwise – even though he is academically much more suitable for such an educational environment.)

One fascinating aspect of character development is that Irving keeps the reader in Owen Meany’s corner. This is no small feat as the boy can be a bit of a pill, being a self-important know-it-all with a Biblical level of faith and (in some cases) dogmatism, as well as – oddly enough – a palpable disrespect for his own parents. One way this is done is by making Meany relatively reasonable, moral, and consistent – i.e. even when he is irksome it is usually in opposition to even more irksome forces. The other way that the author achieves this is by showing us that all the likeable characters in the book stay in Owen’s corner, as well. The most telling example of this is when John admits that he secretly hasn’t forgiven the batter two before Owen in the lineup for a play that allowed his friend to get to bat [while Owen, himself, is exonerated.] When John’s grandmother, who initially finds Owen to be painfully annoying, becomes Owen’s benefactor and primary maternal figure we know that there is something about this guy.

As kids who grew up in the 50’s and 60’s, Owen and John enter adulthood at the height of the Vietnam conflict, and the story climax revolves around there diverging paths. Neither is a fan of the war, but Owen believes he has been called by God to participate for a very specific purpose. Therefore, he ends up in the bizarre situation of struggling to get sent to war while the Army finds him unfit for combat because of his diminutive stature (and his friends and family think he’s lost his mind.) The climax and conclusion tie up all the loose-ends generated by the book, including a few that one may have dismissed as purposeless “quirky behavior.”

Interspersed throughout the book are flash forwards to the “present day” (mid / late 1980’s.) These were the least appealing part of the book to read, though they did serve a purpose. For the most part, these sections consisted of John Wheelwright ranting about American politics or discussing his troubled relationship with the church he attends or the school at which he teaches. Ultimately, I saw these as a way to show John’s loathing for the American government and America because he believes they stole the genius of Owen Meany from him and from the world. As I was reading them, I wondered if they weren’t Irving’s way of getting across a loathing for the Reagan Administration and the Iran-Contra Affair. However, these parts also created an evocative lonely feel because one notices all the characters with strong individual identities are absent. This is not to say that the character of John Wheelwright / narrator is ill-developed, but he is a bit milquetoast compared to Owen or even characters like Hester or Grandmother. John’s obsession with national and institutional entities rather than individuals makes one feel the loss at points throughout that John has felt since Owen’s demise.

If you read fiction, this is a must-read. It is storytelling at its best. Despite excellent foreshadowing that lets the reader know the the book is on a tragic course, how this plays out is full of unexpected turns. The book is emotionally charged and intellectually engaging. I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Inferno [a.k.a. Hell] by Henri Barbusse

The InfernoThe Inferno by Henri Barbusse
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a translation of the French novel, L’Enfer, which is alternatively entitled Hell or The Inferno in various English language editions. It’s a short work with a simple premise, but is nevertheless psychologically and philosophically intriguing. An unnamed narrator, lodging at a rooming house, discovers that he can see and hear into an adjacent room. The book describes what this man witnesses, as well as doing some philosophizing about what he sees and the conversations he hears.

While the events of the book are voyeuristic and said voyeur does witness various sexual dalliances, it’s not a graphic – and certainly not a pornographic – work. The author is as much interested in the pillow talk as he is in the acts of intimacy, which it’s not clear how well he can see anyways.

It should also be pointed out that not all of what the narrator witnesses is carnal in nature. It could be argued that the most fascinating scenes involve an old man who is dying. In addition to the non-erotic intimacy of dying, itself, there’s a scene in which a priest comes to offer the dying man last rites. At first the old man is agreeable enough to this, but as the priest’s dogmatism and accusatory tone becomes oppressive, the man has enough and tries to send the priest away. The scene turns expectation on its head as the priest is so fearful for the man that he ultimately tries to just get the man to say the bare minimum needed to ensure his salvation. But, by that time the man — who doesn’t seem fearful at all – is no longer interested.

Another intriguing scene sits toward the end of the book. It’s one in which the story goes meta- on itself. The narrator, this time dining at a restaurant, witnesses a well-known writer who is sitting at a nearby table tell his guests about his new writing project. What he describes is the same as the book one has just read (in subject but not in tone) – i.e. it involves a boarder who is a voyeur, peeking in on an adjacent room. The difference is that the fictitious author wants to make it all humorous. This offends the narrator’s sensibilities. The narrator presumably wishes such a book to be more like the one that one is almost finish reading – deeper and more philosophical.

I found this book to be thought-provoking and evocative. It puts the reader into the voyeur’s seat and shows one people’s behavior when they think they are alone, they think they are only with a loved one, or they are engaged in intimate activities with someone with whom they don’t have a truly intimate relationship. It makes one think about how well one really reads the people one comes in contact with.

If you are interested in the psychology of intimacy and solitary behavior, this book raises some interesting considerations. I’d highly recommend it for individuals not too weirded out by the book’s voyeuristic aspect.

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BOOK REVIEW: Manga Classics Frankenstein Adapted by M Chandler

Manga Classics FrankensteinManga Classics Frankenstein by Mary Shelly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: November 10, 2020

 

This is Mary Shelly’s story adapted into a manga-style graphic novel. It’s the story of an ambitious young scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who races to create a human-like living being, but faced with the horror of seeing the creature alive and in the flesh, Victor flees, abandoning his “monster” to its own resources. Shelly’s story is considered one of the first (if not The first) science fiction novel and is also one of the great works of horror. But it’s not just a piece of cross-genre pop fiction. Because it artfully deals with a number of issues central to the human experience, such as the potential for monstrosity in ambition and question of whether evil is made or birthed, the book is frequently studied as literary fiction and is one of the preeminent works of the Romantic movement.

The manga adaptation follows the beats of Shelly’s story. The story opens in media res with a Captain Walton seeing Victor out on the ice. Victor is giving chase to his creature. Walton brings the haggard scientist aboard. Thus, the tale is told through this device of a story within a story. The manga adaptation even begins with an epistolary (told through letters) entry and revisits that form briefly at the end. However, the story is largely conveyed as a shipboard Victor introduces flashbacks by directly speaking to the Captain. Shelly wrote the novel in epistolary form, which was popular in those days, but it isn’t the most conducive to a graphic vehicle. The epistolary dialogue bubbles are given their own distinct font, and so it’s not hard to distinguish them.

The major points of the story will be familiar to many, even if one hasn’t read the book. [While the most famous of the movies are quite different and less philosophical, elements of the story appear throughout various pop culture media.] In a nutshell, Victor Frankenstein goes off to university, learns to animate a pile of stitched up animal and human parts, and goes deadbeat dad when his creature comes to life. A while later, Victor returns to his home to find that his young brother William has been murdered, and that a beloved family servant, Justine, is to be tried for the killing. Nobody in the family believes Justine is responsible, and Victor (in particular) has reason to believe his sins have come back to haunt him. (However, Victor’s ongoing lack of capacity to truly see what his sins are and to address them is the source of virtually all the suffering in the book – not only his own. While the creature does the killing, Victor often comes off more monstrously. Conversely, the creature explains himself in a way that invites empathy in the reader.)

The monster appears to Victor and tells him the whole story of what happened after Victor fled. The creature wandered off and prodigiously learned how to be human [including how to speak and read classic literature,] largely by watching the De Lacey family from a distance. In his loneliness, the creature introduces himself to the blind old man De Lacey, and the meeting is going swimmingly until De Lacey’s [sighted] children come home and freak out upon seeing the monstrous (if articulate) being before them. This is when, twice spurned, the monster goes to Victor’s home, kills William, and frames Justine.

The monster offers Victor a deal, if Victor will build the creature a companion, it will stop its deadly rampage. Victor travels to England and Scotland, mostly with a friend Clerval, but leaves solo to a remote island to construct and animate the creature’s companion. The creature follows him. With Frankenstein’s bride stitched together, Victor has a change of heart and destroys it as the creature watches. Instead of killing Victor as the self-obsessed scientist expects it to, the creature retreats after delivering an ominous threat. A pair of dire tragedies follow. It is the second of these that results in Victor’s chase of the monster toward the Arctic pole.

Soon, we are back to the point that Victor is on the ship. The crew are petitioning Captain Walton to return toward home even though Victor has already begged the Captain to assume the scientist’s obligation to kill the creature [if the beaten-down scientist is unable to.] Ultimately, Walton agrees to turn back because he is at risk of getting his crew killed. Victor is in poor shape. We see the creature once more, when he comes to ask forgiveness of his creator. The creature explains to Walton that it isn’t the only monster, nor is it the one whose actions really created the tragedy.

I thought the art, which was drawn and shaded in monochrome, was well-done. The artist took efforts to capture the descriptions conveyed in the book. They chose to stick with the convention of reading as one would a Japanese manga (right to left, not left to right,) but there is a handy explainer page up front to make this clear from the start. Also, there are visual cues to help remind one as one reads, e.g. how the bubbles are positioned and angled, etc., and so I can’t say I had any problem reading it that way. It just seemed a bit odd, but I don’t know whether there is a Japanese edition. If there isn’t, it seems like it would have been just as easy to put it together in the manner of an English language comic book, but – like I say – it was no great reading challenge.

I thought this adaptation was well done. I think one gets a very good sense of the story through the combination of selected text and graphics, as well as the varied styles of text and thought bubbles used to suggest who is speaking or thinking.

I’d highly recommend this book for those wishing to revisit the story in a compact and / or visual form, or even for those who have trouble following the writing style of early 19th century epistolary novels, which can be a bit formal.

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BOOK REVIEW: Antony & Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

Antony and CleopatraAntony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is Shakespeare’s telling of the tragic love story of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Mark Antony was one-third of a triumvirate (along with Octavius Caesar and Lepidus) ruling Roman territories. Cleopatra is the queen of Egypt. The couple carries out an intense love affair despite the fact that Antony is legally wed to two other women over the course of the play. Early in the play we learn that his first wife, Fulvia, has died and that she was part of a rebellion against Octavius. Hanging out in Egypt, playing kissy-face with Cleopatra, Antony is largely oblivious to events in Rome. Fulvia’s death would be a boon to the love affair, but shortly later [when Antony makes a trip to Rome to deal with Roman affairs, including the campaign against Sextus Pompey,] he ends up marrying Octavia – Octavius’s sister. This marriage is explicitly made to re-cement a growing rift in the triumvirate [and it’s probably also hoped that it might keep Antony from living in Egypt in his own little world.]

While Antony has been accused of being out of touch, he does become irate when Octavius unilaterally decides to renege on a peace treaty with Sextus Pompey. In conjunction with the removal of Lepidus from the triumvirate, being left out of the decision to fight Pompey triggers Antony to take his portion of the Roman lands [the Eastern portion] and jointly rule them with Cleopatra in conjunction with her Egyptian lands. Of course, this brings Antony head-to-head with Octavius. The Battle of Actium, which was fought at sea [though Antony is strongly advised he would be much better off strategically to fight on land,] is a major event in the story. The battle is a disaster for Antony and Cleopatra. The latter prematurely withdraws her fleet, Antony follows, letting his naval forces collapse and the battle is decisively handed to Octavius.

Antony is enraged both by Cleopatra’s apparent betrayal and by self-loathing over his own decision not to fight to the bitter end. Still, his love is so intense that he quickly makes up with Cleopatra even though it appears that he caught her in the act of seriously mulling over Octavius’s offer [delivered via messenger] for a deal whereby she would give up Antony and be spared.

Antony is again enraged when he loses the battle on land, believing he’s been betrayed by Cleopatra once more. Still, he can’t help but be moved when he is told that Cleopatra has died. In fact, she is alive at that point. It turns out that Antony being told that Cleopatra is dead was an ill-considered scheme by Cleopatra to win back Antony’s affections.

This brings us to the most frequently discussed feature of this play, the character of Cleopatra. She is often referred to as Shakespeare’s most well-rounded and intriguing female character. This is saying a lot because Shakespeare has some clever and courageous women among his characters. [True, he also has a number of female characters that serve only as victims, love interests, or some combination thereof.] Probably part of this admiration can be chalked up to the fact that the Egyptian queen is the only female character who has true agency – independent of a father, a husband, a brother, a king, or a fiancé. However, it’s also got to do with the fact that Cleopatra manages to combine the ‘Do you think I’m pretty?’ vanity and petulance of a shallow teenage girl with the ‘Ready my battle fleet!’ authority of a commander. She is both in one package, and people [apparently] find her convincingly so. Mark Antony is also a mish-mash of the loyal and virtuous leader we knew from Julius Caesar but dulled by being smitten and lovelorn. [One event that stands out as showing Antony’s character is when he has the wealth of a traitorous man, Enobarbus, forwarded home to him. It can’t fully be determined whether this is an act of pure virtue or a clever screw-you. If the latter, it worked splendidly as Enobarbus is crippled with regret for shifting sides to join Octavius.]

At any rate, Cleopatra’s plot to endear herself to Antony by making him feel her loss fails utterly. Having been definitively routed by Octavius by sea and by land, and now believing his true love is dead, Antony mortally wounds himself in an attempted suicide. [After failing to get a subordinate to do it for him – one of whom commits suicide himself to be freed of the obligation of killing Antony.] The play ends with Cleopatra’s own dramatic suicide by asp. It should be noted that she kills herself not so much because her poorly conceived plan contributed to Antony’s death, but more because she can’t take the idea of being paraded through the streets of Rome and being subjected to the imagined barbs of Octavia –Antony’s legal wife. [At least there is a great deal of explicit discussion of this fear of humiliation, and not so much of regret.]

This was one of Shakespeare’s last tragedies. For many it is one of his most beloved [though I’d put it more in the middle of the pack.] Still, it’s a great read, and I particularly enjoyed the latter acts.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Fall of America Journals, 1965-1971 by Allen Ginsberg

The Fall of America Journals, 1965–1971The Fall of America Journals, 1965–1971 by Allen Ginsberg
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: November 10, 2020

 

Not to be confused with the poetry collection that derived from the thoughts, drafts, and dreams contained herein, this is an edited and annotated journal from that period. In addition to drafts of poems from that collection, the journal includes prose descriptions of both real world and dream world events – as well as various notes Ginsberg made to himself. In addition to fans of Ginsberg and Beat poetry, the primary audience for this book will be poets and others with curiosity about how the [poetic] sausage gets made.

Many of the entries contained in this volume are dream journaling. That is significant both because one can see how dream images worked into Ginsberg’s poems, but also because it is crucial to understanding Ginsberg’s approach to poetry – an approach which highly valued the subconscious mind. One can see this in a June 6, 1966 entry in which Ginsberg, after complimenting Bob Dylan’s poetry, goes on to work through why he thinks Dylan’s lyrics are so effective. Saying, “…he takes no thought for superficial logic but reads into his mind like a Rorschach blot.” Drilling down into deep and unconscious bits of the mind is crucial to Ginsberg’s poetry, and may hint at why he was so drawn to the Buddhist and yogic teachers who were undisputed masters of this domain of the mind. Some might accuse those who attempt to tap into this stream-of-consciousness of being lazy, but it really is a challenge to draw from that mystical well. An April 8, 1969 journal entry tells of a dreamt meeting between Ginsberg and a collector of literary memorabilia. The two were looking over a Hemingway manuscript, and it says, “We talk ‘Hemingway wasn’t such a good writer,’ I guess, after seeing plodding paper of manuscript.” [It’s not clear whether this is the stated opinion of Ginsberg, the collector, both, or even whether Ginsberg remembered that detail.] Of course, Hemingway thought drafts were to writing as lumping together clay was to sculpting. [At least, I’d guess as much from Hemingway’s famous quote, “The first draft of anything is shit.”] These are very different approaches to the craft of putting words on paper – writer as shaman versus writer as sculptor. [Note: it’s not that Ginsberg didn’t believe in editing. Owners of “The Fall of America” collection might compare its poems to the drafts herein. It’s just a matter of giving more weight to respecting the voice tapped into and less to the pruning and shaping process.]

The poems include those of political protest, confessionals, calls to Eastern spirituality, image-centric poems from travels in America and abroad, poems that aren’t readily categorized, elegies, and ones that are some combination of the above. It was an intense period for Ginsberg both as one of society’s dissenting voices as well as a private person. The former because the war in Vietnam continued to be a charnel house for America’s youth and because the psychedelia witnessed a sharp turn from laissez-faire conditions to an outright war on drugs. The latter because of untimely deaths of some of his close friends, a couple of whom were also major figures in Beat literature, i.e. Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac (both of whom died in their 40’s.) This makes for a number doleful or angry poems. However, one can also see times – particular in the last couple years covered by the volume – where Ginsberg shifts tone to one more reflective of the yogic / Buddhist thought process. Perhaps, rage can only burn so bright and so long, or maybe those spiritual lessons were taking root.

At its best, Ginsberg’s poetry is mystically transcendent, caustically burning, or brutally candid. It takes one on a journey to scenic places and through a turbulent time. History is embedded in these journals because so much of Ginsberg’s subject matter is a reaction to what was going on in America at the time: politically, legally / judicially, and diplomatically. One can feel the influence of Blake and Whitman throughout. At its worst, Ginsberg’s poetry reads a little like either collected snippets from the news or a personal to-do list. However, if one is interested enough to read the poet’s journals, one will probably find these lines provide insight into his work and the forces that shaped him. There are few (not many) cryptic notes that will separate the super-fans from those of us who can only guess what Ginsberg was trying to note. Those who aren’t familiar with Ginsberg’s work and who have delicate sensibilities regarding erotic matter should be aware that his homoerotic poetry is explicit, graphic, and widespread throughout.

I thought the editorial comments, which are clearly differentiated from Ginsberg’s text, pulled their own weight. There isn’t a lot of this editorial commentary, mostly a paragraph at the beginning of each year’s entry and then a few here and there throughout as needed to offer background. However, this text does offer valuable insight. For example, one sees toward the end of the volume that Ginsberg begins writing in lyric verse (rhymed and [roughly/musically] metered) verse from his usual free verse. [He also writes the occasional haiku, and more commonly in free verse informed by haiku’s Zen sensibilities.] Through commentary, one learns that Ginsberg went through a phase of being hyper-aware of how easily people picked up lyrics like those of Dylan, while few could recite poetry [particularly modern vers libre poems.] So, Ginsberg went through a period of musically recording Blake’s poems (many of which are memorable / recitable,) as well as writing more lyrical poetry himself. The footnotes were also useful, pointing out where final versions of poems were published and clueing readers into the people, places, and events referred to in Ginsberg’s entries. (Many of which were unfamiliar to me as no more than words.)

If you are poet or a fan of either Ginsberg or the Beats, generally, I’d highly recommend this book.

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