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ncgraham's reading nook 2012

Club Read 2012

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1ncgraham
Jan 5, 2012, 1:07am Top

Welcome, all, to my nook! (And no, I'm not talking about the tablet from Barnes & Noble.)



Okay, that isn't exactly a nook. It's too big to be a nook. But I am keeping the title I used the past two years for two reasons: consistency and alliteration. The image above is of the library in the DeGolyer Estate, in Dallas, TX. I visited the Estate for the first time this past December, and was simply wowed by the library. It was the largest room in the house. Apparently the DeGolyers had their priorities straight.

Previous reading threads
Club Read, 2011
Club Read, 2010
50 book challenge, 2009

In case you don't know me yet, my name is Nathan. I'm a college student living in Denton, TX, majoring in English. Reading and writing are my passions, although I probably could stand doing more of both. I read a large variety of books (or at least I think I do); for examples, you can browse my previous threads, or look at my "Possible Reads for 2012" collection. I enter this New Year with a bunch of current reads that I have held over from 2011, and a huge review queue. Hopefully I can polish both off this month.

Further up and further in!

2ncgraham
Edited: Dec 26, 2012, 10:20pm Top

This post will be used exclusively for for tracking my reading.

Hopefully the touchstone gods will be merciful this year.

1. Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
2. The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
3. Finishing the Hat by Stephen Sondheim
4. As You Like It by William Shakespeare
5. Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier
6. Richard II by William Shakespeare
7. Henry IV, Part I by William Shakespeare
8. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
9. Shattered Dreams: God's Unexpected Path to Joy by Larry Crabb
10. The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens and Leon Garfield
11. Macbeth by William Shakespeare
12. King Lear by William Shakespeare
13. Beast by Donna Jo Napoli
14. The Winter's Tale by William Shakespeare
15. Timon of Athens by William Shakespeare
16. The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold
17. Merlin's Booke by Jane Yolen
18. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
19. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
20. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
21. Home by Marilynne Robinson
22. Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien
23. The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
24. The Rumpelstiltskin Problem by Vivian Vande Velde
25. Wonders of the Invisible World by Patricia McKillip
27. Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien
28. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

3ronincats
Jan 5, 2012, 1:13am Top

Welcome to the new year, Nathan!

4theaelizabet
Jan 5, 2012, 8:29am Top

Welcome, Nathan! By the way, it's good to find another musical theater buff in the crowd.

5ncgraham
Edited: Jan 11, 2012, 11:01am Top

Yes, Teresa—I'm so glad I found that group via your profile page!

And I see that some folks have been thumbing my recent catch-up reviews. Thanks, all.

Now if only I could get my touchstones to work. Kidnapped ... Kidnapped ... Kidnapped.... It doesn't like that title for some reason.

6ChocolateMuse
Jan 8, 2012, 2:15am Top

Nathan, you have been hiding from me. But I found you anyway, so there. pthbthbth

7AnnieMod
Edited: Jan 9, 2012, 3:32am Top

>5 ncgraham:

If they keep not liking you, use the numbers trick (work_number::title) instead of just (title) - where () is to be replaced by the square variety of brackets. :)

If you want to call it a nook, we will comply and call it a nook -- even if it is a few square miles big. After all, for a giant, it will be a nook.

8edwinbcn
Jan 8, 2012, 11:26pm Top

>7 AnnieMod: Is this a trick to force touch stones? It might be a good idea to explain it in more detail on the message board, where more users might benefit from it.

9PimPhilipse
Edited: Jan 9, 2012, 12:24am Top

This message has been deleted by its author.

10ncgraham
Edited: Jan 9, 2012, 11:08am Top

I've used that touchstones trick before but it isn't working for me now for some reason. And Robert Louis Stevenson touchstones aren't working at all—maybe because the author's been split? I dunno. Anyway, thanks for the help, AnnieMod! I'm sure I'll get it all sorted soon here.

And Rena, I linked to this at the end of my last thread. What more d'ya want me to do girl? Next year, I'll be sure to send you a personal message regarding my relocation. At least it's not February, like last year, eh?

11ChocolateMuse
Jan 9, 2012, 8:19pm Top

I demand personalised attention.

You know what? I'm seriously considering not having a thread this year. How many lives will I ruin if I don't?

12ncgraham
Jan 9, 2012, 9:56pm Top

You won't ruin my life, but if you don't have a thread, you better keep in touch personally (ahem) and post reviews occasionally.

Honestly, I almost didn't make one either. But setting it up seemed too much fun, and I decided it would be a good way to jot down my thoughts on all my reads as I finish it, in preparation for writing the actual reviews. On that note, even though I still can't make the touchstone work....

13theaelizabet
Jan 9, 2012, 10:00pm Top

Choc, the world will not end. At least it didn't for me. I'm going to try it again here and be terribly low key/low pressure about it all. I like the give and take of LT, but the actual reading time is just so wonderfully quiet, personal and private. I don't do well with group reads and such. Like Nathan says though, keep in touch, visit often.

14ncgraham
Edited: Jan 11, 2012, 11:01am Top

1. Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

Previously I have ranked Robert Louis Stevenson among my favorite authors simply on the basis of Treasure Island, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and selections from A Child's Garden of Verses. Now I'm pleased to add Kidnapped to that list.

In my review of Treasure Island, I called Stevenson a master of atmosphere. This is particularly in evidence here, as the atmosphere varies from setting to setting. There's a Gothic air pervading the scenes with Uncle Ebeneezer (truly one of the most low and despicable of Stevenson's characters, and not at all similar to his usual The-Devil-as-Gentleman villain), followed by a nautical section that invokes all of the danger and little of the lightness of Treasure Island. The majority of the tale, however, centers on the romance and mystique of the highlands.

By my calculations, Jim Hawkins and David Balfour ought to be fairly close in age, but David is a more complicated character, and thus Kidnapped reads as an "older" story. Unfortunately, it's also more episodic than Treasure Island, with a weaker plot and an open ending. Still, I really enjoyed it, and look forward to reading more Stevenson—including the sequel, Catriona!

15ncgraham
Edited: Jan 11, 2012, 11:01am Top

See. All the touchstones worked. EXCEPT Kidnapped and Treasure Island. Gah, gah, gah.

16Mr.Durick
Edited: Jan 9, 2012, 10:48pm Top

Kidnapped

I had to force it. Furthermore the first response without forcing it was the DVD unmarked as DVD.

Robert

PS And even forcing it and selecting the right one brings up the DVD. I think that I will go report it to the Combiners Group.

R

CURSE THE TOUCHSTONES

17ncgraham
Jan 11, 2012, 11:03am Top

I changed the canonical titles of the Treasure Island and Kidnapped DVD/book wormholes, and now touchstones are working! Yay!

18dmsteyn
Jan 11, 2012, 3:00pm Top

I read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde a long time ago, and remember enjoying it immensely. I also read more about Robert Louis Stevenson in The Cambridge Companion to English Novelists recently, so I definitely hope to read more of him. Thanks for the pithy review of Kidnapped. Would you recommend reading that, or Treasure Island first?

19Poquette
Jan 11, 2012, 3:38pm Top

Treasure Island was another childhood favorite. Should try Kidnapped one of these years. BTW, I'm enjoying your reviews, Nathan!

20ncgraham
Jan 11, 2012, 10:46pm Top

dmsteyn, I'd go for Treasure Island first. It's the more complete book. But Kidnapped is great and I know a lot of people prefer it.

Thank you, Suzanne! Hopefully I'll be able to catch up on some more before school starts next week.

21Jargoneer
Jan 12, 2012, 6:36am Top

>14 ncgraham: - Catriona is definitely worth reading but is weaker than Kidnapped. The murder at the heart of Kidnapped is based on a real event, The Appin Murder.

>18 dmsteyn: - some of his best work is in his short stories (The Beach at Falesa, Markheim, The Body Snatcher, etc)

22dmsteyn
Jan 12, 2012, 8:21am Top

>20 ncgraham:, 21

Thanks for the advice, both of you! I'll see if I can get the Modern Library, or Penguin, editions.

23ncgraham
Jan 12, 2012, 10:50am Top

Thanks for the input, Jargoneer. I know that Catriona is considered a lesser work but the ending of Kidnapped certainly begged a continuation. I need to keep my eyes open for a collection of his short stories, too.

24LolaWalser
Edited: Jan 12, 2012, 10:55am Top

I adored The Black Arrow as a kid. I'm sad to see it doesn't seem to be much generally loved. Everything I know about the War of the Roses I learned from it!

25ncgraham
Edited: Jan 12, 2012, 11:11am Top

Lola, I have that and it's definitely on my reading list! I remember liking the old Louis Hayward movie (and, forgive me, the Wishbone episode) as a kid.

I'm loving all of this Stevenson discussion I've started.

26ronincats
Edited: Jan 12, 2012, 6:25pm Top

I loved The Black Arrow too, more than Kidnapped and Treasure Island, as a kid.

I see that the top recommendation on TBA page is another Stevenson with which I am unfamiliar--The Master of Ballantrae. The other recommendations are old favorites: Captains Courageous, The Prisoner of Zenda, Ivanhoe, Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates, and The Jungle Book.

27ncgraham
Jan 12, 2012, 9:55pm Top

My Dad, a big fan of Scottish literature, just finished The Master of Ballantrae. He loved it except for the ending.

28Cynara
Jan 12, 2012, 10:00pm Top

I love Kidnapped. My father read it to me when I was a little girl, and I reread it every few years. I must agree about Catriona, though.

29dmsteyn
Jan 13, 2012, 4:23am Top

BTW, have any of you heard about Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine? Here is a review of it in The New York Times. Sounds... interesting.

30dchaikin
Jan 15, 2012, 9:20pm Top

Hi Nathan, just posting to say that I'm finally caught up in your nook and can now look ahead. Enjoying the RLS review/discussion, although I haven't read him.

31ncgraham
Edited: May 9, 2012, 12:33am Top

2. The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

The first of eight Shakespeare plays I'll be reading this semester, Merchant is one of the few that I've picked up before. I read it cold back in 2009 and struggled with it, although in the end I did come to enjoy it. It is certainly a difficult play. Should it be played as a comedy in the conventional sense, or as a drama? Are we supposed to find pathos or humor in Shylock's fall, or both? To what extent does playing Shylock as overly sympathetic unbalance the play? Is it fundamentally a different play now than it was when Shakespeare wrote it?

This time around I actually found Lancelot Gobbo funny, and Jessica didn't annoy me nearly as much. I still thought Act V seemed too lighthearted after the very dramatic trial sequence (this is what I meant above when I talked about unbalancing the work).

I sort of interleaved my reading with a viewing of the 1980 BBC adaptation, which was pretty good all in all, I thought. Despite a historically inaccurate Yiddish accent, Warren Mitchell made a fierce Shylock, alternately humorous, touching (two moments especially—his little aside about his wife, and his shame when he is forced to convert to Christianity), and snarlingly villainous. I also really enjoyed Gemma Jones's Portia.

My original review of the play, which I may be amending/adding to, is here.

32baswood
Jan 23, 2012, 5:04pm Top

Good thoughts on The Merchant of Venice. I will be following your thread to see what you think of those other 7 plays. I plan to read the complete works next year and have got all those BBC productions stored away.

33ChocolateMuse
Jan 23, 2012, 5:58pm Top

Cool, Nathan. Would you recommend Tales from Shakespeare for 'grownups'? :)

34ncgraham
Edited: May 9, 2012, 12:37am Top

Only as an aid in understanding specific plays. The Tales are summaries—very well-written summaries, but summaries all the same. Even as a child I was somewhat bored by the endless "he did this, she did that." I seem to recall that E. Nesbit's The Children's Shakespeare and Leon Garfield's Shakespeare Stories included more in the way of dialogue and description, though Garfield tended to run rather long. It has been ages since I picked up any of them (that one reading of Lamb's Merchant tale aside), so it is hard to evaluate them. Lamb was what we had in the house and what I reached for before I purchased my own Complete Works as a preteen.

35Cynara
Jan 24, 2012, 10:31am Top

I know what you mean about the "unbalancing" of the play. If you play Shylock too 'nice', then you more or less have to make the rest of the cast into big jerks. Since it's, at least in structure, a comedy, it makes it hard to care who marries who in the end. Like The Taming of the Shrew, it's a tough one to make satisfying.

36Cynara
Jan 24, 2012, 10:36am Top

Oh, and I wanted to mention that for short story adaptations of the plays, I love the Shakespeare Stories by Leon Garfield; he did at least two collections, and they're both wonderfully written and beautifully illustrated.

37ncgraham
Jan 24, 2012, 10:51am Top

That strikes me as a good comparison, Cynara, particularly because both of these plays are affected in performance by how attitudes regarding race and gender have changed. Shrew is one I haven't seen in ages, so I don't really have any fully formed views on it. Merchant is one of my favorites of the Shakespeare plays I've studied, despite its difficulty. Portia and Shylock are such great characters.

I may have to revisit Shakespeare Stories. Garfield is an excellent writer; I read his House of Cards a few years back and enjoyed it.

Yesterday we had our actual first class discussing one of the plays, and it was mindbogglingly dull; the professor spent about 85% of the class period explaining the plot and language. Umm, isn't this supposed to be an upper-level literature course? Aren't we supposed to dig deeper than this? I am glad that I have LibraryThing for intelligent literary conversation.

38Cynara
Jan 24, 2012, 11:40am Top

I haven't read any of Garfield's other work; I'm intrigued!

39Poquette
Jan 28, 2012, 4:59pm Top

Nathan – I hope you come to enjoy Merchant of Venice. It seems as though I've said this before, but I belong to the school of thought that says Shakespeare was meant to be seen and heard first and read afterwards. Seeing the play in the theater or on video as a first exposure really helps.

40ncgraham
Edited: Feb 3, 2012, 1:28pm Top

Just saw your comment!

I definitely enjoyed Merchant this time around, Suzanne—even more than on my first reading, and I already liked it then. I agree that one has to watch the plays as well as read them, although I don't think the order has to be set in stone. My professor has posted the BBC versions of each play to stream as a supplement for the printed work. I'm reading first, although I'm not exactly sure why.

41ChocolateMuse
Edited: Feb 3, 2012, 7:22pm Top

Probably from long-ingrained principles! It's a good habit generally, with novels if not plays. :)

ETA: principle, not principal!

42StevenTX
Feb 4, 2012, 12:24am Top

I just discovered your thread and noticed your photo of the DeGolyer Estate. I got married there, once upon a time (1977). Not in the library, of course--they'd never have gotten me away from the books long enough to do the deed.

I also took graduate courses in history at UNT in the early 90s.

43ronincats
Apr 26, 2012, 6:39pm Top

Where are you?

44ncgraham
Apr 28, 2012, 10:19am Top

Buried under a pile of school assignments! I'll begin updating this thread again in a couple of weeks.

45ncgraham
May 9, 2012, 5:40pm Top

I'm back! My papers have all been turned in (and some returned, surprisingly promptly) and my exams taken. Now summer commences, the season wherein I read and write whatever I want.

Right now I'm posting mainly to let you all know that Roni (ronincats) and I are doing a little group read of Lois McMaster Bujold's The Curse of Chalion starting today, with seven chapters a day for four days. We'll probably then read the sequel, Paladin of Souls, in the same manner. Anyone's welcome to join! I'm quite excited about this read. Roni's a Bujold aficionado but this is my first of her books.

I've neglected this thread terribly. Will try to catch up with a bunch of mini reviews sometime tomorrow.

46Poquette
May 9, 2012, 6:43pm Top

Nathan, glad to see you back. My wishlist is suffering without input from you. I am currently reading four books; otherwise, I might consider joining your "group" read. I am unacquainted with Bujold but I'll look forward to hearing more.

47ncgraham
May 9, 2012, 7:18pm Top

I have 11 "mini reviews" to write, so maybe some of those can go on your list! Of course, about half of them are plays for my Shakespeare class....

And thanks! It's good to be back.

48ChocolateMuse
May 9, 2012, 8:11pm Top

Welcome back! :-)

49dchaikin
Edited: May 9, 2012, 11:05pm Top

Nathan - glad you survived your semester, glad you're back.

50ncgraham
May 15, 2012, 1:23pm Top

All right. Here we go. Catching up with my mini-reviews from this semester. I'm going to start by posting each title and author as a separate comment and then going back and filling them in with my summaries/reactions.

51ncgraham
Edited: May 15, 2012, 1:37pm Top

3. Finishing the Hat by Stephen Sondheim

This is a treasure trove of a book. Of course Sondheim's lyrics are some of the best that have ever been written for the musical stage—perhaps the very best—and they are a delight whether you are just reading them, listening and reading simultaneously, or singing along. However, most Sondheim nuts such as myself will already be familiar with 90% of the lyrics. The real draw of the book for me lay not in the collected lyrics, but in the "attendant comments, principles, heresies, grudges, whines, and anecdotes," to quote the subtitle. Sondheim is a brilliant writer of prose as well, by turns funny, wry, and insightful. I laughed at many of his asides, such as his befuddlement as to how in the world Jerome Robbins was planning to include Ethel Merman in a ballet sequence, which was how Gypsy was supposed to end. My breath caught as he described how, the ballet idea falling through, he and Robbins created "Rose's Turn" at the last minute in a kind of euphoric haze. And however amusing some of his comments about his mentor Oscar Hammerstein's lyrics are—what is it with all of those bird images?—I also think that he has a better handle on who Hammerstein as an artist was than anyone else I've read. Sondheim argues that he was at once a traditionalist and an experimenter. The same could be said of Sondheim himself, although in different ways.

I look forward to eventually reading Part II of his collected lyrics/memoirs, Look, I Made a Hat.

52ncgraham
Edited: May 15, 2012, 2:10pm Top

4. As You Like It by William Shakespeare

A strange play, but a very lovable one. Before I go on to praising it, let me catalog its oddities. Both of the villains undergo sudden changes of heart ... offstage. Bot leading couples fall in love ... on their first meeting. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare's other comedy set primarily in a forest, such happenings are explained away as the products of magic, the maneuverings of mischievous fairies. The only supernatural figure in As You Like It is Hymen, who, in one of the play's oddest turns, appears at the end to explain everything and bless the four marriages. It's unclear exactly why he is needed; Rosalind seems to have orchestrated everything perfectly up 'til now.

Rosalind is the true gem of the piece, and is probably the closest Shakespeare came to writing a female Hamlet, although of course this is a different genre. Famously, she has more lines than any other woman in the canon, but it's not sheer quantity that makes her material so winning. She's charming in a quicksilver fashion, and it's clear from her scenes with Orlando that as a character, she is an actor herself. She has wonderful moments of vulnerability, too, though.

As far as Shakespeare's young swains go, Orlando comes off pretty well. He doesn't threaten to rape the woman he loves him in the woods (a la Demetrius in A Midsummer Night's Dream), he doesn't pursue women for the sake of money (as Bassanio does in The Merchant of Venice), and he doesn't listen to and believe slurs against his lady (unlike Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing). He writes awful poetry, it's true, but in prose he is almost as witty as his beloved Rosalind, and I picture him as having an easy smile and laugh. Of the others in the play, Jacques is the standout—a melancholic personality, and the only character for whom room cannot be made during the happy ending.

The two video versions of the play that I've watched are very different. The 1978 BBC adaptation looks a bit like a kid took a camcorder and filmed it in his backyard; somehow, however, he was able to enlist the talents of some of Britain's finest actors. Richard Pasco steals the show as an unkempt and bleary-eyed Jacques—I really didn't understand the character until I watched his performance—while Helen Mirren makes a statuesque Rosalind and roguish Ganymede. I didn't like the more recent Kenneth Branagh film when I first saw it on account of its 19th century Japanese setting, but now that I've studied the play in an academic setting and noticed just how strongly the theme of usurpation figures in the plot, I understand what he was going for. There's still a bit more reorganizing of the script than I care for, as well as some occasional bouts of sheer oversell, but I like how he tries to smooth out the creases of this admittedly problematic play; for instance, he actually stages the lion attack, making Oliver's reformation a bit more believable.

53ncgraham
Edited: Jun 26, 2012, 6:53pm Top

5. Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier

Wow. I haven't been drawn into a fantasy novel this way in a long time. I had to remind myself not to put it in my backpack when I had serious studying to do, because otherwise I'd spend an hour or two sitting in the science library buried in this book.

I wasn't sure if I would like it starting out. On the one hand, it has a Celtic setting and is based on a fairy-tale (specifically, "The Six Swans"), two of my favorite things. On the other hand, I knew it contained a fairly intense rape scene, and I worried that the pagan/Christian interactions would devolve into a lot of whining about evil Christians and the Old Ways passing, something that fantasy novels in this vein have an unfortunate tendency for. Thankfully the rape scene struck the perfect balance between showing too much and making the horror of the act clear, and the book contains both positive and negative examples of Christian behavior (as well as pagan behavior), which is as it should be.

Sorcha is an amazingly compelling heroine, and proof of the fact that a woman doesn't need to go into battle to be strong, as many fantasy authors seem to think. To break the curse that turned her brothers into swans, she must stay silent and weave them each shirts made of starwort, a prickly nettle-like plant. She does this because of her determination and love for her brothers.

I was quite amazed that Marillier was able to give each of the brothers distinct personalities; I never once got them confused.

Having now read two of Marillier's books—the other one being the YA novel Wildwood Dancing—I can say with certainty that writing villains is not one of her strengths, but it doesn't really hurt her here. The Lady Oonagh is more than a little underdeveloped, but then she is the stereotypical evil stepmother/enchantress figure, and so we can fill in the blanks ourselves. Lord Simon has a more powerful presence, if little complexity.

The precise period details that Marillier was able to cram in here really inspired me as a writer; in future when I attempt this sort of subject, I will probably try to make my medieval fantasy worlds align more clearly with real medieval life, and not scam over the difficulty of many daily tasks. This book made me cry. There is so much about the ending that is bittersweet, but I won't spoil it right here.

A harrowing but redemptive story told in beautiful prose. I recommend this book, and look forward to continuing the series this summer.

54ncgraham
Edited: May 15, 2012, 2:48pm Top

6. The Tragedy of King Richard the Second by William Shakespeare

I don't have much to say about this play, mostly because I did not care for it much. Of the dozen or so Shakespeare plays that I've actually sat down and read/studied (as opposed to those I've seen in performance), this and Twelfth Night are the only two in which I've had a difficult time connecting to any of the characters. In the case of Richard, I'm sure it didn't help that I was coming to it straight off the comedies. While Richard II is one of the English plays, it is certainly in the tragic mode. Moreover, it is entirely in verse, places a huge stress on political ceremony, and is virtually devoid of humor. The result is rather solemn and emotionless. I did feel terrible for Richard's wife, and he himself gained in tragic stature during the final acts, but by then it was almost too late.

I tried watching the 1978 BBC adaptation starring Sir Derek Jacobi, but I had an even harder time getting into that—and I usually love Jacobi. I suppose this play just isn't for me, at least not right now. I've read many articles praising its brilliance, but somehow I just don't get it.

55ncgraham
Edited: May 15, 2012, 3:29pm Top

7. Henry IV, Part I by William Shakespeare

After my experience with Richard II outlined above, I was starting to worry that the history plays weren't for me, when along comes Henry IV, Part I to save me from that delusion. This is a wonderful play, perhaps one of my favorites of Shakespeare's now. It balances so many different elements—the court, the tavern, the rebel camp, the pathos, the humor, the discourse on honor. And it presented me with characters I could actually care about.

Faltstaff is often put forward as one of Shakespeare's greatest creations, and understandably so. The old, fat, roguish knight has great presence even on the page, and I could sympathize with his fatherly love for Prince Hal and his fear that the boy will eventually turn on him. Henry IV, who was emotionally distant in Richard II (like most everyone), has some moments of vulnerability, even breaking into tears in Act III scene 2. And despite the fact that he's the antagonist, I found Hotspur oddly likable. He's brazen and impetuous—there must be Scots blood in there somewhere—and in spite of his constant avowals that he does not have "the gift of tongue," he's quite eloquent:

"But I tell you, my lord fool, out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety."

Methinks the noble lord doth protest too much.

Actually, the only character who I had trouble liking was Hal himself, the protagonist. I learned this story through an old Wishbone episode, which whitewashed the character somewhat, and so I was surprised to pick up the play and discover just how cunning and scheming he is. His dissoluteness and eventual redemption is not genuine, but staged to bring about a certain result. He manipulates the people around him with Machiavellian dexterity. I find that more and more I am placing a premium on honesty, both in books and in real honesty, and that may be why I prefer some of the characters over the prince. Falstaff's attempts at fibbing and playacting are generally unconvincing to those around him—he is inexpert—and I don't think Hotspur could every bring himself to tell a barefaced lie, which may be one of the reasons I find him so lovable.

This is where we ended our perusal of the history plays as a class, but I plan to continue with this particular tetralogy before PBS airs new adaptations of all four plays this summer/fall, and because I enjoyed Henry IV, Part I so much, I'm actually looking forward to it.

56ncgraham
Edited: May 16, 2012, 12:18am Top

8. Hamlet by William Shakespeare

This is it. The big kahuna. The Shakespeare play to end all Shakespeare plays. And I confess, I have fallen in love with it.

When I was a child reading about Shakespeare plays in my Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare (and seeing occasional live performances of the comedies), and later when I was a teenager watching them on videotape (but still not reading them), I couldn't quite see what the big deal was with Hamlet. It sounded to me like it lacked the romance of Romeo and Juliet, the fun of the comedies, the magic of the romances, and the bloodiness of some of the other tragedies.

While I wouldn't necessarily advocate using a complete performance text—that would make for a long evening—and there are actually a large number of contradictions in the play as it has come down to us, what a joy it is to read all of Shakespeare's words! Hamlet is a long play, but in general it flows beautifully, with long, elaborate scenes that fold into each other. I haven't made a count, but I'd wager that in addition to being Shakespeare's lengthiest play, Hamlet has, on average, the longest scenes. To me, this makes it read easier, but I might be in the minority in that respect.

Hamlet as a character is a vehicle for some of Shakespeare's most beautiful poetry and most intimate and searching philosophy. The play has gained its worldwide renown almost solely on the basis of his soliloquies, which are many and lengthy. With all due respect to the famous "To be or not to be," my favorite of the lot is "O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!" I'm not an actor by profession, and haven't been on the stage since junior high, but this speech stirred the actor in me. It's a virtuosic piece, a great challenge, which opens with Hamlet's typical melancholy and self-deprecation and ending with a moment of true resolve and excitement. Of course, the next time we see him, he's depressed again and contemplating suicide.

Going in, of course, I knew all about the poetry and philosophy in Hamlet. What I didn't expect was that I would relate so powerfully to the main character. Perhaps this is because I was approaching the play for the first time with the understanding that the character is a very young man; he has traditionally been thought to be about 30 due to a remark of the gravedigger's, but all other internal evidence points to him being in his late teens or so, and it's very much possible that the gravedigger's remark was a later addition to accommodate an older actor. By stressing his youth and the way in which I personally relate to him, I don't want to take away from the universality of Hamlet as a character. It's really remarkable how many different ways he can be interpreted. A friend and I were discussing how we might each play the role were we ever given the chance: he would probably emphasize his intellectualism, his savvy, his struggle with madness, and his quest for revenge, whereas I would stress his youth, depression, and emotional variance.

There's so much in this play that it is utterly impossible to touch on everything in a single review, and I'm sure that when I reread it I will find new things there that I never saw before.

57ncgraham
Edited: May 16, 2012, 12:33am Top

9. Shattered Dreams: God's Unexpected Path to Joy by Larry Crabb

I actually didn't finish this book, and I probably wouldn't be counting it among my reads for the year and reviewing it if it weren't an Early Reviewers title. As such, I have the unenviable task of explaining why I didn't like it—something I will be more expansive on when it comes time to post it as a real, polished review, rather than a collection of thoughts on this thread.

Personally, I think the concept of Crabb's book is excellent, and that he does a good job of diagnosing various problems in contemporary church services, specifically as regards their views on happiness, suffering, and joy. I really wanted to like the book; when I received it in the mail, I thought it had come into my life at the perfect moment. At the time I was picking up the shards of several shattered dreams: I had flunked out of the school I intended to be my alma mater, my scholarships and high GPA were nowhere to be seen, and the girl I liked had rejected me. Twice.

But enough about me. The book started off well enough, but as I read on the sequins began to fall from my eyes, and I began to see Crabb's work for what it was rather than what I wanted it to be. To begin with, Shattered Dreams is very repetitive, a typical problem with poorly-written nonfiction books. Then Crabb turns to some very mystical readings of the Bible, even though he pokes fun at mysticism elsewhere in the book. Finally, his citations are practically nonexistent. I'm not necessarily one for scripture references at the end of every sentence in Christian nonfiction books, but Crabb just comes across as lazy. At one point he cites C. S. Lewis but doesn't even say which book he's referencing.

Finally, the view of Christian life this book presents is a pretty dim one, and not one I subscribe to.

58ncgraham
Edited: May 16, 2012, 11:33pm Top

10. The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens and Leon Garfield

This is my fifth Dickens novel. Normally I wouldn't read a final, unfinished work so soon in my perusal of an author's oeuvre, but once I learned that the BBC was going to be airing what sounded like a pretty interesting adaptation of Drood, I decided that I ought to give it a shot.

Like anyone approaching this book, I had to make one very important decision. Would I read it as Dickens left it to the world, incomplete and with no resolution, yet all the master's own work? Or would I settle for the conclusion of one of his lesser imitators, doing his best to honor Dickens's intentions? Some purists would balk at the second idea, but I must admit it appealed to me: the chance to compare the styles of two different authors writing the same story and characters. I went for Leon Garfield's 1980 completion, as I was already familiar with Garfield as an excellent children's author with more than a touch of the Dickensian about him.

This is an unusual Dickens novel on several levels. I had to read the first paragraph over several times before I could understand it—and, moreover, understand why it was confusing me. To begin with, it was in present tense, atypical for a nineteenth-century novel. Secondly, the exotic scene that was being presented was not of a physical location that the character inhabited; instead, it was part of a character's opium-induced hallucinations. The orientalism of the vision, coupled with the darkness and squalor of the London opium den that John Jasper wakes up to, made me think more of Wilkie Collins than Charles Dickens. My instincts were right for once; there's quite a bit of scholarly speculation that Dickens based Jasper's opium on Collins's own addiction.

Not much of Dickens's portion of the novel is set in London, however. Instead, most of the action takes place in Cloisterham, an "ancient English cathedral town." I just love the way in which Dickens is able to swiftly yet accurately capture this community:

A drowsy city, Cloisterham, whose inhabitants seem to suppose, with an inconsistency more strange than rare, that all its changes lie behind it, and that there are no more to come. A queer moral to derive from antiquity, yet older than any traceable antiquity.

This being Dickens, both London and Cloisterham are peopled with eccentric and charming personalities. Chief among them, of course, is John Jasper himself, one of the most fascinating and mysterious antiheroes in the canon. It is chiefly on his account that one regrets Dickens's inability to complete the novel; the mystery's solution would have solved the problem of how exactly one ought to read his character. Others surrounding him are worth notice in their own way, though. It's almost impossible not to fall in love with the Mr. Crisparkle, the cheerful, lonely bachelor of a minor canon who plays at boxing in the mirror every morning. Likewise, I couldn't help laughing at Mr. Sapsea's conceitedness. Speaking of humor, how about this exchange between Mr. Jasper and the sodden stonemason Durdles?

"Is there anything new down in the crypt, Durdles?" asks John Jasper.

"Anything old, I think you mean," growls Durdles. "It ain't a spot for novelty."


Among the most moving of the figures is Mr. Grewgious, a stiff, seemingly emotionless lawyer who harbors past regrets and heartbreaks all his own. The scene in which Dickens pulls back the curtain and allows we readers to look into this lovely old gentleman's soul is masterfully done. The only character I didn't much care for was Rosa Bud, Mr. Grewgious's ward and the object of so many affections. She is spoiled, pert, and childish, but painted in golden, rosy hues. She is simultaneously perfect and annoying—just the sort of Dickens heroine that gives a bad name to all the rest. The other young people are more convincingly drawn, especially the poor, beautiful, and sensible Helena Landless, who ought to be as annoying as Rosa but somehow is not.

The narrative style of the book confused me a bit; it switches between past and present tense, seemingly at random. I believe that in Bleak House includes two narratives, one in each tense, but here there's no clear distinction like that.

The mystery of the title revolves around several questions: Why did young Edwin Drood disappear? Was he murdered? And, if so, Who was the murderer? Looking at the text, the answers to these questions seem fairly obvious, and the secondhand accounts we have of Dickens's intentions square up with the most common interpretation, but one has to wonder: was he pulling our legs all along?

Leon Garfield goes for a pretty conservative conclusion, but a good one. Stylistically, he copies Dickens admirably; the only things that seemed out of place were the overabundance of Shakespeare references and a few supernatural occurrences. I took the back cover's claim that the contents could be read as a single, unified piece as pure marketing, aka rubbish, but as I read I didn't really make distinctions between Dickens's Jasper and Garfield's Jasper, Dickens's Rosa and Garfield's Rosa. It functioned as a continuous narrative. Bravo to Garfield for that!

His achievement appears all the more stunning when viewed next to some of the film adaptations, which of course make up endings of their own. Claude Rains makes for the perfect John Jasper in a 1935 film, despite his diminutive stature, and the scenes between he and Zeffie Tilbury in the opium den are amazingly good. But the rest of the movie is dated and cartoonish in the manner of most of the Dickens adaptations from the 30s and 40s, and the narrative winds down too quickly; there's less than a quarter of an hour's worth of material added to Dickens's manuscript. The version recently aired on the BBC and PBS had a more consistently Gothic tone and a great cast—Tamzin Merchant actually made me like Rosa somewhat—but the ending was like something out of Gilbert and Sullivan. Too far-fetched, even for Dickens.

59ncgraham
Edited: May 16, 2012, 8:21pm Top

11. Macbeth by William Shakespeare

I always seem to read this play at the wrong time or in the wrong manner. The first time I went through it a few years ago, I was speed-reading it in order to be able to discuss it with my brother; this time around, I was reading immediately after Hamlet. Next to that long, graceful, introspective play, Macbeth's strengths and weaknesses become that much clearer. It is short, lean, and action-packed, but it can also seem very choppy and sketchy, particularly near the beginning and end of the play. I think that because of this, Macbeth may play much better than it reads, more so than some of Shakespeare's other plays. I certainly remember loving the Ian McKellen and Judi Dench version directed by Trevor Nunn, but then it's been awhile.

I've been reading all of these plays for class in my Complete Pelican Shakespeare. The notes and introductions have ranged from great to mediocre, with Stephen Orgel's hack job on Macbeth being at the bottom of the pile. I disagreed with virtually every piece of interpretation in his intro; not only did his discussion of the play's historical background conflict with my professor's—that might have her error instead of his, of course—but he also implied that Malcolm and Macduff were LOVERS! I can understand why you might want to apply queer theory to certain Shakespeare plays, such as The Merchant of Venice, but this suggestion of Orgel's is just too ridiculous to take seriously. Moreover, his line-by-line notes weren't nearly as helpful as A. R. Braunmuller's for Hamlet, to cite just one example.

Despite these problems, I found myself getting into the story just about as I reached the middle. It really is a magnificent play. Hopefully someday I'll read it under better circumstances—and probably with a different edition!

My original review here:
http://www.librarything.com/work/4948864/reviews/50031290

60ncgraham
Edited: May 31, 2012, 5:25pm Top

12. King Lear by William Shakespeare

I think King Lear might be Shakespeare's most powerful tragedy. The only reasons I rate Hamlet slightly higher are the sheer beauty of the poetry and the excellence of Hamlet's soliloquies. Otherwise, Lear had the greatest impact on me.

My prof remarked that King Lear featured her favorite opening scene in all of Shakespeare, and I'd have to concur. It introduces all of the major characters (every one of them onstage except for Edgar, who is mentioned in the play's opening lines), establishes both of the mirroring plot lines, and immediately sets all of the tragic machinery in motion. Lear's fall begins earlier than most of Shakespeare's heroes, and he is a fascinating character from the outset. When he appears on the scene, he is completely shallow, self-absorbed, and foolish. He is also incapable of distinguishing between lip service and true devotion.

What I'd never noticed about the play before I read it for class was how politically pointless the testing of the three daughters is: we know from Kent and Gloucester's exchange that the division of the kingdom has already been agreed upon in a more private setting, so the ceremony with Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia is nothing more than a cruel little game in which the king requires them to flatter and heap praises upon him. Cordelia's "fault" is not that she doesn't love her father enough, but that she refuses to play his game. In the first act, Lear turns away all those who truly love and are honest with him, while giving unwarranted power to the flattering elder daughters who despise him behind their lying lips. Politically and personally, he ruins himself, calling into question his later statement that he is "more sinned against than sinning," although he is certainly treated abominably by the other characters.

The corollary to Lear's early foolishness is his growth as a character. He develops more beautifully than any other tragic hero I know. Suffering cures him somewhat of his self-absorption; he begins indulging in self-critique and is even able to look outside of himself and think of others. One of the most powerful moments in the play occurs when Lear is about to take shelter from the storm. He pauses to think about all the other poor souls who might be out on this dreary, wet night, and then, with a sudden realization of how poor a king he really was, says, "I have taken too little care of this."

Even more moving is Lear and Cordelia's reconciliation scene, for me the highlight of the play. Lear's torment and new-found humility is answered by Cordelia's bountiful forgiveness, which is encapsulated in the four simple words "No cause, no cause."

Looking at this scene, one might expect for the play to end happily. Indeed, this is exactly what the original audience would have expected, because the older versions of the story, which Shakespeare used as his source materials, ended with Cordelia reclaiming the throne for Lear. I think that one of the reasons that this play ends so differently is on account of the Gloucester plot, specifically the character of Edmund, both of which are original to Shakespeare. Goneril and Regan are villainous, but it is Edmund who is the play's destabilizing force. His order to have Cordelia hanged brings about the catastrophe. He's a fascinating character, as most Shakespearean antagonists are. He has good reason to hate his father—the way Gloucester talks about him in the first scene is abominable—but in his soliloquies he seems to be motivated solely by love of power. Unlike his superstitious power, he believes that the workings of the universe do not consist sloely of causes and effects, that the gods will not simply make good prosper and evil falter, and that one must take one's fate into one's own hands. He is a purely anarchic figure.

There are a couple of film versions of Lear that are well worth watching. The 1983 Granada television production features Sir Laurence Olivier's leonine mane of white hair and trademark clarity of speech—many Lears are almost incomprehensible in their raging—but I'm not sure he ever properly got into this role. (The only time he played it onstage was when he was quite a young man, and the reviews not good.) I've never seen the blinding of Gloucester done as well as it was in this production, however; Leo McKern and Diana Rigg are absolutely fearless here.

Even better, in my opinion, is Ian McKellen's recent take on the mad king, directed by Trevor Nunn. Having toured extensively in Nunn's production, McKellen seems comfortable in Lear's skin, and far less mechanical than Olivier. The supporting cast is stellar from top to bottom, with special marks to the Goneril and Edmund, and there are some fascinating directorial touches. For instance, I had never bothered to wonder which of her suitors Cordelia prefers; Nunn stages it so that it is clear that she loves Burgundy, and is heartbroken when he withdraws his suit. This version is available for online viewing, at least in America.

The very best bit of Lear on film, though, may be a short homemade video of the Lear/Cordelia reconciliation scene with Sir Michael Regrave as the king and his daughter Vanessa as Cordelia. I dare you to watch this and not weep:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w9MXvCflhd8

61ncgraham
Edited: May 31, 2012, 3:40pm Top

13. Beast by Donna Jo Napoli

My first audiobook of the year, although I'd tried two others before—the public library's copy of The Night Circus was scratched and The Black Tulip featured terrible narration (see my review). Fortunately the very same copy of The Night Circus was resurfaced and I'm listening to that now.

Anyway, disappointed with my recent string of bad luck in this department, I was browsing the shelves of the YA audio section, saw this, and thought, Why not? I'd tried reading a couple of Napoli's fairy tale retellings as a preteen without much success, but this particular title had been bouncing around in the back of my mind for a long time. I think I would have read it years ago had I not been toying with the idea of writing a novel with a similar concept: a retelling of "Beauty and the Beast" from the Beast's point of view.

The premise of the book is fabulous, and I'm not just talking about the Beast-as-narrator idea; setting the story in medieval Persia was also a terrific notion. Unfortunately the execution was somewhat uneven.

I was surprised and fascinated by how Napoli chose to portray the prince in the opening chapters. Perhaps due to the Disney movie, I had always thought of the Beast pre-transformation as deeply flawed: vain, selfish, spoiled, even cruel. This is how I would have written him if I ever came around to writing my Beauty and the Beast novel. It gives him more room to grow as a character, and the paradox of becoming kinder and less beastly in character while outwardly a beast is a truly beautiful thing. Napoli's Prince Orasmin is imperfect but not all that bad; his tragic flaw is that he is perhaps not quite as diligent in studying The Koran as he ought to be, which causes him to make a mistake regarding an animal sacrifice. The invites the wrath of a pari (or fairy), who then curses him.

I enjoyed the depiction of Persian/Muslim culture in this part of the book (I was previously unaware that one of the names for God in Islam is "The Merciful One"), but I didn't think that the magical cause-and-effect was very clear. Why did one of the pari's spells work, turning Orasmin into a lion, while her curse dooming him to die at his father's hands never came true? The explanation Napoli ended up offering sounded more like an excuse.

It was at this point of the book that I really started to have problems with the story. Orasmin is now a lion trapped on his father's hunting grounds, cursed to die at the Shah's hands—so what does he do but take some off to copulate with a couple of lionesses? The descriptions of leonine sex mad me laugh, but as another reviewer pointed out, they're also rather disturbing once you remember that Orasmin's mind and soul are still those of a man. The next third of the book, which is set in India and documents Orasmin's struggle to live happily as a lion without breaking the pari's curse, is less ridiculous but basically more of the same.

The arrival of Belle on the scene rejuvenates the narrative. She is easily the best of Napoli's creations, shyer and more frightened than I had seen the character portrayed before, but still strong, feisty, and loving. I also loved the care Orasmin-as-lion took to prepare the castle for her, although the way he imagines her to be a very small girl child who he can rear up to care for him romantically is unnerving to say the least. I was certainly glad when she turned out to be a mature young woman instead. I would certainly have liked for this section of the book featuring the romance to have gone on longer. While there is a certain minimalist beauty to the ending, my first reaction was "That's it?

Robert Rodriguez's reading of the audiobook was average. In the opening chapters I found his delivery a bit stilted, lacking passion and full of odd pauses. He seemed to gain confidence as he went along, though, and there was one moment in particular when his voice deepened and almost sounded like a growl. It was a nice touch.

62Poquette
May 15, 2012, 2:30pm Top

It has been forever (literally) since I read As You Like It and your comments make me want to go back and read it again, sooner rather than later. This one IS going on the list.

63ncgraham
Edited: Jun 9, 2012, 12:54pm Top

14. The Winter's Tale by William Shakespeare

Exit, pursued by a bear.

This is the most famous stage direction not only in Shakespeare, but probably in all of theater. Indeed, it is likely all that most people are familiar with from The Winter's Tale. That was the case with me prior to this spring. This was the last play we read for my Shakespeare course, and the only romance (or serio-comedy). It was also the one I was the least familiar with, except for maybe Richard II.

Some Scholars read The Winter's Tale as Othello in reverse, or Othello with a happy ending, which makes sense given the theme of jealousy and how it destroys Othello and Desdemona's and Leontes and Hermione's marriages. But I also see it as being a bit like King Lear, especially in regards to how Shakespeare used his source material. King Lear was a historical romance that he turned into a tragedy; The Winter's Tale, a tragedy he turned into a romance. Lear is tragic nearly from the beginning, although the appearance of Lear with Cordelia's body would have been a grisly twist for Renaissance audiences. The transformation of The Winter's Tale into a romance involves a more marked change of tone. The first three and a half acts are entirely in the tragic mode, but with the removal of the action to the countryside, comic elements begin impinging on the plot, with the appearances of the rustic clown figure and of the bear, which is both an instrument of divine plot justice and a hilariously random plot device.

The Winter's Tale is not Shakespeare's shortest play, but it felt very brief to me, partially because I was speed-reading it for class, partially because the amount of time covered is so great: seventeen years! There are also so many characters that some of them are frighteningly underdeveloped; Florizel in particular is little more than a cipher, just a necessary link between Perdita and Polixines. All the female characters are strong and feisty, Paulina in particular.

Parts of this play are very, very silly—I didin't find the comic characters (such as the clownish shepherd's son and the knavish Autolycus) funny at all—but there are some good things here. The opening scene, in which Leontes begins suspecting his wife of adultery, caused me to start thinking like a directer. How should Hermione and Polixines's interactions be staged? Make them too affectionate and the audience might believe them lovers, too; make them too reserved and there won't be anything at all for Leontes to base his suspicion on. I didn't get to watch the BBC video of this play before the semester ended, so I'm not sure yet how they handled this.

Later, the play develops into a discourse on art vs. nature and the relative value of hybrids. In Act IV scene 4, Perdita expresses disdain for caarnations and gillyvors because they are "nature's bastards," aka hybrids. This is ironic, because Perdita is (seemingly) engaging in an act of social hybridization via her romance with Folorizel. At the same time, she is herself a hybrid, though she does not know it: she was born in the court and has been raised in the country. But Polixines counters that hybrids are not unnatural, but rather the marrying of natural and artificial means to create something beautiful and new. This idea is borne out by the least scene when Hermione comes to life: she is presented as being at once a statue and a living, breathing person.

If Stephen Orgel's hack job on Macbeth is the worst introduction in The Complete Pelican Shakespeare, France E. Dolan's take on The Winter's Tale is unquestionably the best. I'd like to close this review with a quote from her:

Many striking elements of The Winter's Tale are unique to Shakespeare's vision: the bear, the appearance of Tim as a character, Hermione's sixteen-year absence, the sea sickness that prevents Autolycus from making the shepherd (and his story) known to Florizel, a statue that comes to life, Paulina's sudden remarriage. These improbabilities, which might be summed up in the notorious stage direction 'Exit, pursued by a bear' (III.3.57 s.d.), make it hard for some people to take this play seriously. But perhaps what is most unlikely, but also most moving is not that a bear will turn up out of nowhere and eat you—which is one way of dramatizing the unexpected assaults of daily life—but that the bear does not eat the baby on whom hope depends; not that one is betrayed or aggrieved, but that one goes on; not that we grow wrinkled, but that love can be renewed and sustained, and that forgiveness can attend a process of loss.

Mmm. That's lovely, both in phrasing and in meaning. The Bard himself might be pleased to put his name to it.

64The_Hibernator
May 15, 2012, 6:48pm Top

I haven't read Shakespeare since I was in high school...I read a good half of his plays by that time. I've always been meaning to get back....

65dchaikin
May 16, 2012, 8:24am Top

You have provided an interesting LT logistical challenge - how will I remember to look up the books you haven't commented on yet to see your comments? And then how will I remember which ones I've read and which ones I haven't?

Love all these Shakespeare reviews.

66StevenTX
May 16, 2012, 2:37pm Top

Thanks to all your recent reading of Shakespeare you may be able to give me some advice. Our son wants to have our grandson try some Shakespeare over the summer. What would you recommend as the starting point for a 13-year-old boy who's read nothing but typical young adult fare? I've read all the plays myself, but none recently. My thoughts were either Julius Caesar (where I started) or As You Like It.

67baswood
May 16, 2012, 4:37pm Top

I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on the Shakespeare Nathan, with an excellent review of Hamlet.

Too bad about the girl, but you will be a wiser person from reading all that Shakespeare.

68ncgraham
Jun 9, 2012, 9:01pm Top

15. Timon of Athens by William Shakespeare

I normally wouldn't have read a Shakespeare play so soon after taking a class on him, but I happened to be going to the Windy City while Ian McDiarmid was performing Timon of Athens with the Chicago Sahekspeare Theater, so I decided to read the play before I went to see it. Because I read so quickly and uncritically, and because I saw the play so soon afterward, I'm having difficulty separating text from performance in my mind, but I'll try to do my best.

Many have compared Timon to King Lear, and it's not terribly surprising considering that many of the tropes in this play recur in King Lear: the self-centered protagonist, the proliferation of two-faced flatterers, the faithful servant type, stirrings of civil war, various banishments and self-banishments. What I've often heard hinted at, but never stated outright, is this small truth: Timon is the poor man's Lear. It is simply a fairly good play, not a great one. Current scholarship holds that Shakespeare collaborated on the play with Thomas Middleton, which makes sense because there's quite a stylistic shift between the frenetic scenes in Timon's Athenian home and his melancholy, elegiac asylum in the woods. I can say from experience that the first half plays better while the rest reads better, but the first three acts or so are more entertaining in any format. This is odd because I think I read somewhere that Middleton was probably responsible for the first two to three acts, after which Shakespeare continued in a less enjoyable fashion. I guess his heart wasn't in it. Maybe he was just using the opportunity to warm up for King Lear.

There is one truly great moment in the play: Act III scene 6, wherein Timon invites his false friends to yet another of his feasts, serves them only stones and hot water, then proceeds to chase them out. It's thrilling both to read and behold (in the right production). The problem is that, after this and his great soliloquy in Act IV scene 1, Timon has nowhere to go as a character. He just continues hating humanity to the exact same degree, not developing in either direction. The ending is not quite as bleak as King Lear—there is a sense that society will continue lumbering on—but it is perhaps Shakespeare's most cynical.

The highly-abridged, two act version that I saw at Chicago Shakespeare Theater is probably about the best this play can get. It was reset to the present day, something I don't usually care for, but in this case it was incredibly effective. The cuts were nicely chosen, although I wish we had gotte more of Flavius early on. And the acting was excellent. Ian McDiarmid (Emperor Palpatine) for you Star Wars geeks) has incredible range and energy, not to mention a powerful voice, and it was a pleasure to view his craft at such close quarters, on a simple thrust stage. Sean Fortunato as Flavius matched him line for line. The Alcibiades and Apemantus were among the weakest of the ensemble, unfortunate since those are among the most important roles in the play. Nonetheless, the last 20 minutes before the intermission, detailing Timon's shunning of his friends and his leavetaking of Athens, made for theatrical magic; unfortunately, the director wasn't able to do much with the scene's of Timon's solitude, and I simply disliked the ending, which showed Flavius taking Timon's place in society, with the flatterers and false friends flocking to him. Though it underlined the cynicism of th eplay, I thought it was out of character for Flavius to befriend the men who helped ruin his master, and whom he described as "monstrous." I suppose he could only be pretending to befriend them, with the intent to avenge Timon, but I never thought him in any way vengeful.

I don't think I'll ever return to Timon of Athens, but I'm glad I read it, and even happier that I saw the CST production. There is a part of me that still wishes McDiarmid had been playing Lear or Prospero instead, though.

69ncgraham
Jun 9, 2012, 9:02pm Top

16. The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold

This is a lovely and engrossing fantasy novel; thanks to ronincats for recommending it to me.

There are many things to like about The Curse of Chalion, but it is the characters who stand out for me, particularly Cazaril, the unconventional protagonist. At the start of the book, he has just returned from serving time on a slave galley, where he was sold after his name did not show up on the list of men to be ransomed after a siege. Though he is only thirty-five, he feels much older. He is tired, physically and emotionally—certainly not the young farmboy type you encounter in most fantasies and space operas.

I also loved the stern, no-nonsense, Provincara, the feisty royesse (or princess) Iselle, her sensible handmaiden Betriz, Caz's earnest and nosy friend Palli, and the mysterious head groom of the royal bestiary, Umegat.

You know a book must be good when it makes you grin from ear to ear. That happened several times with me while reading The Curse of Chalion—once when Cazaril's innocence is proven by an unusual sort of test, once when an impetuous Iselle confronts her half-brother Orrico and attempts to arrange her own marriage, and once when a figure from Cazaril's past reappears in a very different guise to aid his plans. I'd like to say more about that last twist, but I don't want to spoil it. Suffice to say that it's amazing. I'm smiling again just from thinking about it.

It's not often that a book leaves me wondering about the author's personal life, but reading The Curse of Chalion certainly made me want to learn more about Lois McMaster Bujold. Specifically, the novel's theological content lead me to speculate about the nature of her religious views. The Quintarian pantheon is fascinating, seemingly based on both the seasons of the year and the family unit. It includes figures: the Father of Winter, the Mother of Summer, the Son of Autumn, the Daughter of Spring, and the Bastard. The Bastard is not included in the pantheons of some surrounding countries, being a Satanic/Plutonic figure in charge of demons and hell, but the Quintarians see him as providing balance, a very Eastern idea. At the same time, much of the theology detailing the interactions between the human and the divine smacks of Christianity, with the Quintarian view of human freedom having a decidedly Armenian slant. (I've read that in some of Bujold's sci-fi, the characters adopt quasi-Calvinist views. At the very least, this author is very familiar with varying strains of Christian thought.)

My only complaint is not so much with the book itself as with the way I went about reading it. I did all right for the most part, but I was determined to finish by a certain time and so I read the last hundred and fifty pages or so while in a state of near exhaustion. As a result, the climax and denouement do not shine quite as brightly in my memory as the rest of the book. I'll have to reread at some point. But I look forward to it, and to reading some of Bujold's other tales. Recommended.

70ncgraham
Jun 9, 2012, 9:15pm Top

Catching up with comments after having filled in the missing reviews....

62 > Glad to hear that, Suzanne! Most (not all) of Shakespeare's plays are worth revisiting, and I'm sure As You Like It is among that number. As you see, I have many more of the Bard's best reviewed now. I'm not sure whether I should wish for others to make your list or not ... it's always flattering to see my name on your monthly summary, but I also feel guilty for adding to Mount TBR!

64 > Good to see you drop by, Hibernator! Yes, do return to Shakespeare if you are so inclined! I'm sure you'll get a lot more out of the plays now.

65 > Didn't mean to cause difficulty, Dan—I was just trying to simplifying things for myself! Here's a friendly memo letting you know I have filled the whole log in with comments now. As for the matter of your memory, 'fraid I can't help there. ;)

66 > Hmm. Those are pretty good suggestions, Stephen. I would definitely say start with a comedy: As You Like It is a good choice, but so is Much Ado About Nothing, and A Midsummer Night's Dream might be best of all for a 13-year-old boy. For the tragedies, you're wise to go to the shorter and more action-packed of the lot; along with Julius Caesar, I'd recommend Macbeth, which should definitely satisfy any adolescent cravings for gore and excitement!

67 > Thank you, Barry, and too true. I feel like I have learned so much—about myself and about life in general—from reading these plays, especially Hamlet and King Lear.

71ncgraham
Jun 9, 2012, 9:19pm Top

I apologize for the length of some of those later reviews. I always tend to underestimate my powers of wordiness, which are very great indeed.

72ronincats
Jun 9, 2012, 9:45pm Top

Small world--Joe (Joe's Book Cafe thread) just saw that play last night there in Chicago and talked about it on his thread too. You both mentioned that the main lead played Emperor Palpatine!

Glad you were able to finish Chalion although sorry you had to rush it.

73baswood
Jun 11, 2012, 4:48am Top

Timon of Athens is another of your excellent reviews of Shakespeare. What a great idea to read the play just before going to see it. It would appear from your review that huge benefits can be gained that way.

74ncgraham
Jun 12, 2012, 3:30pm Top

Thanks for directing me to Joe's thread, Roni!

Thanks once again, Barry. There are a lot of people who would prefer to go into a performance with their minds uncluttered by the text and their own interpretation of it, but I like to do some homework beforehand. The various innovations and departures from the play as scripted stand out so much more then, for good or ill.

I've even been known to seek out and read the source material for an opera before going to see it performed.

75ncgraham
Jun 12, 2012, 4:00pm Top

17. Merlin's Booke by Jane Yolen

I've yet to list Yolen as one of my favorite authors, but I do think she's a master. I'm always excited to see her name listed in anthologies. Her short story "Meditation in a Whitethorn Tree" is a masterpiece, and her award-winning picture book Owl Moon is just lovely. Oddly enough, I've found her novels hit-and-miss; she seems to do better with shorter forms.

Merlin's Booke contains thirteen stories and poems centered around the figure of a mythical mage. Merlin appears in many different guises over the course of the collection: the devil-child born of a nun and an incubus, the feral boy of the woods, the young dreamer who sees truth "on the slant," the mysterious orchestrator of a king's conception, the old druid arranging political marriages, the bard who undertakes a young boy's education, the old dotard who falls for a vixen's charms. For "was not Merlin a shape-shifter, a man of shadows, ... a creatures of mists?" Yolen writes in her introduction. "There is not one Merlin, but a multitude."

I didn't care care for the poems that open and close the collection, but the other verse pieces are beautiful, showcasing Yolen's musical ear and shifting gracefully from the general to the specific. I love this stanza from "The Annunciation":

Love goes in motley
and in mask
and, counterfeit,
completes the task
that I have set him
for this night.
So love plays love
without the light.


The short stories are just as good, if not better. Some feel a little incomplete at their endings, as if they are merely the beginning of stories. But then, I don't read Yolen for plot, which is not her strong suit; I read her for her characters and the beauty of her language. And most of the time you can guess what follows if you are at all familiar with the mythos. I was impressed with the opening tale, "The Confession of Brother Blaise," which takes a part of Merlin's story that I dislike and somehow turns it into a tale of redemption. "The Gwynhfar" is an odd, eerie, haunting little tale that is completely unexpected, but somehow unforgettable. And "The Sword and the Stone" may be even better than the novel she turned it into, Sword of the Rightful King, which I remember liking quite a bit.

What really makes Yolen's take on the Arthurian legend special (both here and elsewhere) is her ability to suggest possibilities, subplots, relationships that you might never have thought of before with just a few carefully chosen words. For instance, I want to know more about the Lancelot of "The Sword and the Stone," even though he was a minor character at best.

If you're looking for short stories about the Matter of Britain, this collection is highly recommended. (Also check out Parke Godwin's anthology Invitation to Camelot.)

76baswood
Jun 13, 2012, 5:28pm Top

Excellent review of Merlin's Booke That one has really caught my interest

77dchaikin
Jun 15, 2012, 8:29am Top

#70 (from #65) - was no problem thanks to the date edited on each message. My memory, however, was not so good. :)

More wonderful reviews on Shakespeare. And, interesting about Jane Yolen, who I only know through Owl Moon, which I loved, but my kids weren't crazy about.

78ncgraham
Jun 16, 2012, 12:08am Top

Thanks to you both!

Okay, so I'm a little over halfway through my audiobook of The Night Circus and feel the need to vent. I know Roni and Suzanne have read it and would like their input. The rest of you may want to skip this post, because—

SPOILERS

The Marco/Celia romance is starting to unfold. Honestly, I saw this coming; I may have read about it in a review, but it's pretty obvious regardless. My feelings about it are very, very mixed. On the one hand, the situation of being both competitors and star-crossed lovers is rife with dramatic potential. But I really hate how Marco has been treating Isobel, who strikes me as much more human and relatable than the two competitors. Although I think his "enchanting" of Chandresh may be even worse. At least he had feelings for Isobel at one point. He causes Chandresh to fall in love with him and stay in love with him just so he can get a position in his household. Gah.

Anyway, I'm obviously quite annoyed with Marco right now. Otherwise I love the book.

79ChocolateMuse
Jun 16, 2012, 3:04am Top

Nathan, such a wealth of reviews! I must read more Shakespeare. Hamlet is my favourite of all I've read, and I actually wouldn't recommend a first-timer to start with a comedy as you do somewhere above. I'd say start with a tragedy, because Elizabethan humour can be kinda hard to get, IMO. Whereas tragedy is always tragedy. I'd say Romeo and Juliet for the young; Hamlet or Othello for the younger adult; and probably King Lear if you're getting on in years :)

80baswood
Jun 16, 2012, 3:30am Top

OK muse I will read King Lear next

81ChocolateMuse
Edited: Jun 16, 2012, 8:10am Top

oh bas, you are not as old as King Lear!



(I'll remove the pic if you want, Nathan. It's by Ford Maddox Brown.)

Nathan, my suggestions are not disagreements by the way, just my take on the matter.

ETA: A quote by one Stephen Greenblatt: “The tragedy is {Shakespeare's} greatest meditation on extreme old age; on the painful necessity of renouncing power; on the loss of house, land, authority, love, eyesight, and sanity itself.”

82ncgraham
Jun 16, 2012, 9:33am Top

No, don't remove the pic! It's lovely.

I was just trying to suggest faster-paced plays for Steven's 13-year-old grandson, since it sounds like he's mostly used to reading modern YA fare, not the classics. Also, I'm thinking of my own early experiences with the Bard of Avon. I fell in love with Shakespeare via the comedies—I went to see Shakespeare in the Park productions of Much Ado About Nothing, The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Taming of the Shrew, The Tempest, and A Midsummer Night's Dream when I was a child. I was only 5 when I went to see Much Ado, and somehow I knew then that I loved Shakespeare. But it wasn't until I was a teenager that I started delving into the tragedies.

83ChocolateMuse
Jun 17, 2012, 7:56am Top

Well age 13 is a far cry from ancient-and-venerable-baswood and King Lear! I'm sure you're right. I'm speaking from vast inexperience, since the one and only comedy of Shakespeare's I've ever seen or read is A Midsummer Night's Dream. Hardly conclusive, huh.

Wow though Nathan, you really started Shakespeare young! Most impressive.

84ncgraham
Jun 17, 2012, 9:57am Top

Well, yes, I was probably a bit too precocious for my own good. I even tried to read Shakespeare young! A few months after seeing that performance I bought a copy of Much Ado from Half Price Books and started reading it; I was probably about six at the time. I think I made it 3/4 of the way through and then gave up. The language and complicated footnotes were a bit too much for me at the time. It was quite a jump, though. A year before I had read my first book—Tip.

85StevenTX
Jun 17, 2012, 10:45am Top

Thanks for the suggestions for my grandson; we'll see what happens. The summer reading assignment from his school was astonishingly light. These days it's difficult to get a kid to read anything but a cell phone display.

Actually now that you mention King Lear I'm tempted in my darker moments to recommend it to son and grandson alike as a lesson in the pain of filial ingratitude.

86LolaWalser
Jun 17, 2012, 10:58am Top

#84

You BOUGHT yourself a Shakespeare at age six?! I pronounce you the cutest precocious six yo ever.

I was reading and re-reading the Lambs' retellings well into my twelfth year. There were also the comics--Othello in something like Classics Illustrated, The Tempest, Hamlet... aaaaand: Kiss me, Kate.

87ncgraham
Jun 17, 2012, 4:51pm Top

Thanks for the official title, Lola! (And I love Kiss Me, Kate.)

An interesting comment re: your darker moments, Steven. Who in King Lear suffers pain due to filial ingratitude, do you think?

88ronincats
Jun 17, 2012, 4:58pm Top

>78 ncgraham: No, you are right. Marco is being a total prick. The author is not unaware of this. Isn't this a fascinating book?

89ncgraham
Jun 17, 2012, 5:27pm Top

It is! I can't decide yet whether I adore it or merely like and respect it greatly. I suppose it will depend on how everything turns out. Your assertion that Marco is not SUPPOSED to be completely sympathetic at this point is most reassuring.

90StevenTX
Jun 17, 2012, 9:30pm Top

#87 - Sorry if my recollection of the play is incorrect. It's been 40+ years since I read it. I withdraw my comment.

91ncgraham
Edited: Jun 17, 2012, 9:47pm Top

Please don't! I want to hear your answer, aka what prompted you to make the comment. I've been thinking on the matter and may post my own view later.

92ChocolateMuse
Edited: Jun 17, 2012, 11:04pm Top

Surely betraying your father and purposely undermining his power counts as filial ingratitude?

ETA: or is betraying too strong a word? You're making me doubt it now.

93ncgraham
Jun 17, 2012, 11:11pm Top

Yes, but I was more interested in the pain thing. To me, Lear is the primary sufferer, so I'm not sure the play can be used as a threat to one's offspring (and their offspring), except in the sense of "look how much you might be hurting me." Of course, Regan and Goneril gets theirs in the end too, but one of the things that the play drives home is the idea that life is never as simple as the evil and the ingrates getting their "just deserts." Gloucester and Edgar hold to this view of the universe, and at the very last moment it's thrown in their faces. The three villains have been done away with, and though Gloucester himself has perished, Edgar supposedly has made sense of it by calling it the punishment he bore for having a child (Edmund) out of wedlock—when suddenly, Lear enters crying over the body of Cordelia, the play's most unambiguously good character.

And of course the whole tragedy comes about because Lear makes a false assumption about Cordelia, reading her truthfulness and disdain for flattery AS filial ingratitude. I don't want to diminish the villainy of the elder sisters, but I still wonder if Lear truly was "more sinned against than sinning."

94ChocolateMuse
Edited: Jun 17, 2012, 11:31pm Top

Oh I see. I read Stephen's post as saying to the children "look how much you might be hurting me" as you say. But certainly the implications and consequences of Lear's own misunderstanding (which probably came about from pride and too much power) all mean that we can't be too simplistic about who's the villain and who's the good-guy, except Cordelia of course. Hm, I like what you say about the just deserts (desserts? surely not! but pronounced the same way!) and that moment when the whole worldview of being served right gets turned upside down.

95ncgraham
Jun 26, 2012, 3:38pm Top

18. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

I really wanted to love this book. It came to me highly recommended from several people whose tastes I trust. One lady from church suggested it to me after she read my review of Willa Cather's A Lost Lady, so I went in expecting it to be somewhat in that vein. Robinson shares with Cather beautifully simple prose, loving descriptions of the American plains, and a unique ability to write from a man's point of view, but as a novel, this left me feeling a bit unsatisfied.

It won't take long for me to summarize the plot because, well, there isn't much of one. John Ames, an elderly congregationalist minister living in 1950s Iowa, is encumbered with a heart condition. Knowing that he may soon leave his young wife and six-year-old son, he writes an extended letter to the boy in which he tells him all the things he might have learned if he had been able to grow up with his father still living. Ames writes about his first marriage, his visionary, half-mad grandfather, his pacifist father, and—when a specter of the past suddenly encroaches upon their lives—his ne'er-do-well godson, John Ames Boughton, or "Jack."

Robinson writes so eloquently about everyday things. Sample this:

You are standing up on the seat of your swing and sailing higher than you really ought to, with that bold, planted stance of a sailor on a billowy sea. The ropes are long and you are light and the ropes bow like cobwebs, laggardly, indolent. Your shirt is read—it is your favorite shirt—and you fly into the sunlight and pause there brilliantly for a second and then fall back into the shadows again. You appear to be altogether happy. I remember those first experiments with fundamental things, gravity and light, and what an absolute pleasure they were. And there is your mother. "Don't go so high," she says. You'll mind. You're a good fellow.

I tend to think of Ames himself as more of an outlook than a character, but certainly his musings are very beautiful. The way he views the world is suffused with love, humility, and a deep consciousness of God's grace. I loved the scene where he and his friend Boughton, another old preacher, read and critique and article in Ladies' Home Journal titled "God and the American People." It's the kind of article I stumble upon all the time, trying to evaluate the legitimacy of the Christian church in America. Ames and Boughton see this for the self-righteous priggishness it is, as the writer looks down his nose at all of the "false Christians," the scribes and Pharisees, who surely must be populating all these little churches! "He seems to me to be a bit of a scribe himself, mocking and rebuking the way he does," Ames writes. The writer of the article goes on to wonder how many Christians could define Christianity. "In 25 volumes or less," the two old ministers add comically.

What I've written so far makes it look like I loved the book, and indeed, once I figured out what kind of book it was, I spent much of my time underlining passages I thought lovely, inspirational, or thought-provoking. But if I'm honest, I don't think I would have gotten past page 50 if I hadn't picked it up for a reading group. Until Jack showed up around page 100 or so, I was tempted to say that there was no plot, because there no antagonist, and thus no conflict. Jack provides that conflict, and he also made me want to keep reading, because I had to figure out what made Ames so distrustful of him. Even after that, though, I felt at times that I was reading two different books simultaneously, one a book of devotions written for the next generation, and the other an actual novel.

I know that Gilead won the Pulitzer, and I can understand why, but I can't rightfully say that it's a favorite. I respect it, and even enjoyed aspects of it, but I didn't like it as a whole. It never really meshed for me. Here's hoping Home is more my cup of tea.

96baswood
Jun 26, 2012, 5:17pm Top

Excellent review of Gilead nathan. I have been thinking of suggesting this for my book club. I am not quite so sure now - it may be a bit too American.

97ncgraham
Jun 26, 2012, 5:47pm Top

It prompted some good discussion in our group, but then, we are Americans, as well as church-goers. (Although it's not at all the sort of thing you'd picture when thinking of the phrase "church reading group"—last time I participated, we were reading dystopian novels like Brave New World and 1984!) If you read it, either by yourself or with your book club, let me know what you think!

98ncgraham
Jun 26, 2012, 6:03pm Top

Also, here's the best quote from The Night Circus so far, and quite appropriate considering how much of this thread has been taken up by Shakespeare:

"I am haunted by the ghost of my father; I think that should allow me to quote Hamlet as much as I please."

99dchaikin
Jun 28, 2012, 8:36am Top

That's a terrific review of Gilead. Considering how mixed your reaction was, it seems you still got a lot out of it. Your "if I'm honest" response was the same way I felt the first time I read it. Then I read Home, which I really liked, and then I re-read Gilead, and it became a much better book. I consider the pair a single whole, and a personal favorite.

#96 Bas - Never had a RL book club, so can't give you good advise. But, as much as I like Gilead, I hesitate to recommend it because it's a bit dry, at least the first time through. Also, there is the religious aspect and Robinson's own religious sense, which could make some people uncomfortable if they are sensitive about that kind of thing...more a problem for atheists like me, I think.

100ncgraham
Jun 28, 2012, 11:58am Top

We're reading Home now and I'm enjoying it quite a bit more. It seems to be more of a piece.

101avilas
Jul 3, 2012, 2:30pm Top

I do really like your Gilead review. It is very slow. I think it just has to be one of those books that's taken in short spurts. I look forward to hearing about Home. I haven't read it.

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