Friday, 27 January 2012

#15 The Duchess of Malfi

I just finished another play, this one Jacobean, and by John Webster.  I am beginning to discover that a multitude of great plays were written in the time of Shakespeare and not by Shakespeare.  I would rate this play above most of Shakespeare's plays, mainly for the character Bosola.  I can't remember reading a character of his mold in other plays, he is the most fully developed and complicated character I have read recently.  He starts off as the typical ambitious evil servant, but throughout the play he becomes disgusted at his own actions and the people around him and begins to search for his own "good nature".  His change throughout the play is subtle and interesting to watch.  Another curious thing about Bosola is that he seems a minor character, but by the end it would appear he is the protagonist.  He is degrees more interesting than Hamlet because he feels more human.

Besides Bosola, this play has much to speak of its merit.  It is for the most part well constructed except in a few scenes when Webster can be seen to contrive an artificial plot device, but those are rare.  Next on my list is Marlowe, who invaded my dreams today in a bizarre and fantastical way.  I hope his plays live up to the strange visions I had of them whilst sleeping today.

St. Loius

I finally finished The Life of St. Loius by Jean de Joinville.   This was a hard book to pick up and continue reading, but I persevered and have completed it.  I must say the last few chapters were by far the best.  They depict a right and just monarch who treated the poor with respect and ruled his country benevolently.  I imagine the middle ages would have been a nicer place had all monarchs been as charitable as St. Louis.  Also, there would have been a lot more Crusades.  He was pious, he was also a zealot for Christianity and went on two crusades.  His most important was the 7th, which most of the book dealt with because the author was a companion of the king, so this history was written from the first person perspective, a rarity for the time.

It had it's good points and not so good points.  At close to 200 pages it tended to drag a little.  I think reading too much popular history has soured me a bit on primary sources.  I'll know more after I read some Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Batman: Year One

So maybe it was watching The Spirit last week that inspired me to buy and then immediately read an old Frank Miller story from 1986.  The Spirit was terrible, and it was made by Miller, I wanted to see him in his glory and not the waning of genius which was the movie.

So I ordered what is considered one of the great graphic novels, and I have been telling everyone.  This is a beautiful book, the art is amazing, and the story is well constructed.  The words flow, and have a purpose.  This is Frank Miller in his prime, and I only hope that he can recapture that initial genius of his youth and give all of his fans something more to cherish.

Just a short synopsis:  This graphic novel tells the story of Bruce Wayne returning to Gothan and becoming Batman.  This is the first year for the vigilante.  It also tells another story of Detective Gordon also arriving the same day and cleaning out the police.  These two are foils and complement each other.  IT shows how they come to work together.  In that respect it felt very renaissance drama.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

The Changeling - Not the Clint Eastwood Movie, but better...

Middleton Challenge (3 of 10)  I should pace myself.  And #12 for the year.

So I just read what many consider to be Middleton's masterpiece, and good it was.  At first I thought it was a comedy, well everything was setting up to be a typical bawdy comedy.  There was a madhouse where everyone seemed to be a sane man pretending to be mad so they could sleep with the doctor's wife.  Their plan didn't quite work out, as in the end they were told to kill each other for the ladies love.

The other thread of the story involved a duchess that is being forced to marry a man she doesn't love, and she also has a servant that is a complete fool and in love with her.  And the whole time she is just insulting this servant right to his face.  I thought this was pretty funny for two acts, and then people start killing each other.  After the second killing I figured this wasn't a comedy.

So this woman asks the foolish servant to kill her groom to be, he does for love and her maidenhead, which she gives him.  So now she can marry her true love and discovers that he has a book on detecting virginity so she has her servant girl spend the wedding night with her husband so he doesn't notice her lack of virginity.  Well this servant girl enjoys it longer into the night than the duchess is happy with so the duchess has the foolish servant kill the servant girl.  Does this make sense?  Then all comes out, and the evildoers are killed at the end.  Also the madhouse scenes are more for the creation of foils than anything, as their importance to the plot is minimal.  The madhouse scenes are for the most part comedic.

Friday, 20 January 2012


I'm still on a medieval kick, and this is the latest book to come from this.  It chronicles the siege of Constantinople by Mehmet II, and how he was able to take the last Christian holdout in the Orient.  Though I know how it ended, Crowley's way of writing history was compelling enough for me to keep reading and see 'how' it ended.  Like any good storyteller he is always ready to let the reader know when events could have easily gone the other way, letting the reader form his own what ifs.  The characters and main actors of the story are sometimes fun and sometimes annoying.  And all the while Crowley doesn't preach to the reader and remind him/her that the dead on the battlefield were real people dying over religious differences or political ideologies.

Confession:  I secretly enjoy popular histories.  And at 262 pages this is a real slim history for a year that was probably felt centuries later.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

#10 Bone

Though I read most of this large (1000+pages) in 2011, I will count it for 2012, I imagine this all works out in the end.  I am on a record pace, hitting number 17 days.  I think my job is letting me read more.

Bone was graphic novel in the tradition of Lord of the Rings and other fantasy type books.  I enjoyed the characters, though Phoncible Bone was a bit tedious in that his only motivation the whole book was greed and he never deviated from that.  I would have liked to see a little growth after nearly witnessing the end of the world.  I am actually looking forward to the movies which will be out in a couple of years.  Something to wait for, though I imagine it is better to read the novel first and then watch the films.

A funny play

A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, Middleton challenge 2 of 10

Here is how this particular play starts.  Maudlin, an older woman is talking to Moll, a younger woman about getting some sex.

Last week? When I was of your bord, he missed me not a night, I was kept at it; I took delight to learn, and he to teach me, pretty brown gentleman, he took pleasure in my company; but you are dull, nothing comes nimbly from you, you dance like a plumber's daughter, and deserve two thousand pounds in lead to your marriage, and not in goldsmith's ware.

A pretty bawdy speech from one to another.  This is the last part of a somewhat longer conversation, and then Yellowhammer enters the scene and delivers and absolutely funny line.  (Or so I think.)

Now what's the din betwixt mother and daughter, ha?

This play revels in indecency, is populated with bastards, whores, adulterers, cheats, puritans, and liars.  It has everything a low mind as mine needs.  One of the first thoughts is that Shakespeare could not have written something like this, because I do not think he has ever written anything in contemporary London, and his characters are a little more formalized.  There are five love triangles in this play.  All of the children but one is a bastard, and I think all of the wives cheat except for one.  On of the funnier subplots involves a character names Allwit who allows his wife to sleep with Sir Walter Whorehound as long as Walter pays for the house, servants, and children's (Walter's) upbringing.  Allwit is delighted over the arrangement because he doesn't have to work or worry about his wife nagging him because she has nothing to do with him.

I can't leave out Touchwood Senior, who every time he sleeps with a maid gets her pregnant, so he decides to go into business by selling magic water (urine probably), that once drunk will help the man to impregnate his wife.  So he sells his water dearly to Sir Oliver, and then tell him he needs to ride a horse for five hours.  So while the husband is off on a horse, Touchwood is off on Oliver's wife getting her pregnant.  The cuckolded Sir Oliver is so delighted at his wife's condition at the end of the play he hires Touchwood for future services.  The play goes on and on, and right when you think it couldn't go lower, it does, and unfortunately the lower bits are censored.  But a strong imagination can fill in the gaps.

This play has about the most plots and subplots of any play I have ever read, and yet it doesn't feel tiring or overdone.  This is a definite recommendation.

I can't remember Welsh names

So I finished reading the Mabinogian, a collection of 11 tales, some of which involved Arthur.  The one similarity each tale had was a name so foreign that it was rendered impossible to remember.  Halfway through some stories I forgot which character with 20 letters was doing what and who everyone was.  Male and female was blended beyond recognition unless the narrator mercifully said, "he" or "she".

Though what I read I at once recognized as romances that Chretian de Troyes wroted, except with the much easier form of the Welsh names.  How many times did I read Gwenhwyfar before I realized it was Guinivere?  The tales I recognized were easy to follow because I already knew the plot.  Also, some of the earlier tales were easily forgettable.  I suggest anyone wanting to read the Mabinogian to skip it and head strait for Chretian.  That is all.

Friday, 13 January 2012

#7 The Creation

I am already on book seven, and it is only January 13.  At this rate I should have around 182 books read this year.  Not sure I can keep this pace though.

Having read a couple of E. O. Wilson's books on ants, I wanted to read something else of his, and this is the book I found.  Written as a very long epistle to a southern Baptist minister, Wilson argues for science and religion to work together to save earth from climate change and animals from extinction.  His science side of his arguments I quite enjoyed, but when simplified theology I felt he needed more guidance.  I don't normally suggest it, but in this instance I think a collaborative effort by Wilson and a theologian would have been nice.  It also would have been a much more convincing work, and more accepted by the audience he is most trying to reach, religious people.

I will read more of his books on entymology.  I am somewhat glad this book was short at 169 pages, but still not too bad.

The Roaring Girle

So I read my first play from my Oxford Thomas Middleton last night, and I might even have to say this book is better notated and arranged than the Riverside Shakespeare.  I love the copious amounts of notes at the bottom of the page and the long introductory essays at the beginning of each work.  I only imagine this is the case because Middleton is not written about nearly as much as Shakespeare.

I have a hard time talking about the play without bringing Shakespeare into the equation, even though the play is so dissimilar to Shakespeare.  And because it is dissimilar I have to say that it is, does that make sense?

I have, through Shakespeare, been looking at the Elizabethan world through the eyes of Shakespeare, which is probably a slightly skewed view, as he was a genius.  But now that I have turned my attention towards Middleton a new world is appearing.  I chose to represent this view through the Dutch painter Franz Hals, thats right, I had to go Dutch to show how Middleton writes.  Last night I finished reading The Roaring Girle, whose titular character is "more woman than man/ And more man than woman."  She is an androgynous heroine that rises above her the world around her.  She seems uncorruptible in a corruptible world.  The world of the play is full of lechers, adulterers, panderers, thieves, prostitutes, and all the other flavors of a early 17th century London.  This world felt more real than that of Shakespeare, mainly because it embraced the low like no other play from this time period that I have read.  Of course the aristocracy are a main element to the play, but the most lines went to a peasant woman!  And not only that, but a strong moral and admirable peasant!

Maybe it was the real elements of the low in this play that made me look to the Dutch painters, but so far this is the impression I have of Middleton so far.  In the introduction it made it seem that Middleton does for London of his time as Joyce did for Dublin.  I hope this is so, and look forward to more of this.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

An answer to questions never asked

In an effort to read more female writers I decided to start the year off with Margaret Atwood'd The Penelopiad. (Can someone tell me how to pronounce this.  Where does the stress go?)  As the name suggests, this is a story of The Odyssey from the perspective of the patient and devoted wife.  But the retelling makes diminishes her virtues as Atwood so very cleverly shows how miserable Penelope was and that she didn't really have a pleasant alternative to her 'virtues'.

This book explicates some of the more obscure lines from the epic and gives them reason.  Such as the killing of the twelve maids.  Why?  Atwood does an amazing job of explaining that.  She also lets us know that penelope hated Helen.  I have to admit, I feel I understand the epic original better after having read this novella.

About the best part of Atwoods book is to cast doubt on Odysseus' story.  There were apparently rumors that maybe the cyclops was something more pedestrian like a one-eyed brothel owner.  And that rather than being stuck in the Aegean for 10 years, Odysseus was boozing, whoring, and scheming.  I quite like this cast of doubt.

One more thing.  The feminist arguments and complaints in the book were pretty heavy handed, in that Atwood made sure the reader was beat over the head with the inequality of male and female in the ancient Greek world.  It was a veritable bludgeoning through repetition.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Seven Storey Mountain

What is up with the formatting of Blogger today?  Why can't I write up top?

Last night, while working, I finished reading Merton's autobiography of faith.  He has such an amazing ability to construct an autobiography that I had to keep reminding myself this was his true story and not a well written novel.  It is an easy mistake to become absorbed in this book, especially since Merton seems to never have forgotten anything in his life.  The small details that he recalls in his memoir is quite extraordinary.  I often was left wondering if he either embellished the narrative for a more novelistic feel, or he truly remembered everything up to and including his childhood.  As wit any good story there is struggle, sadness, and an ultimate happiness at the end.

If a reader wants to read a truly 3-dimensional character I would recommend this book as a readerly experience.  And it is also a spiritual salve for those wanting a more ponderous reflection on personal spiritualism.  His story is the story of most people and their desire to find meaning.  His meaning and life was for God, and that brought him happiness, but I think his journey has an application beyond his own experiences.

Monday, 9 January 2012

The Insatiable Foil

So while I wait for Thomas Middleton I keep reading his contemporaries.  I don't know why, because they continue to make me feel dreary.  Webster whirls he audience on a trip to chaos and perdition.  And my latest reading was a strange mix of comedy and tragedy, and both styles leaving me drained once again.  I think I'm satiated right now, but tonight during the long hours of the silent morning I might just pick up Webster again and delve right into The Duchess of Malfi.  I will attempt restraint.

So I just finished The Insatiate Countess by William Barksted and Lewis Machin.  Collaborations were common in renaissance drama.  Even Shakespeare collaborated with others as well, though those people are not given much credit!  I have trouble calling this a play.  It is more like two shorter plays with the same theme of adultery and lust combined, kind of similar to Grindhouse.  The tragic short play is an absurd story about a countess whose love is flighty and shifts from one paramour to another.  Even on her wedding night her love drifted to another man and they ran off together.  She keeps doing this and eventually her name is slandered so she uses her sexuality to dupe a man into killing the slanderer.  Her sexuality is so powerful that it is likened to sorcery, and her victims are excused of their crimes (murder) because they were put under a sexual spell.

The other half of the play was comedy about two rivals in business who try and cuckold the other on the same night.  It is just as absurd a story and the other half of the play.  The loyal wives realize what their husbands are up to and trick the men into thinking they are cheating.  Of course  the portrayal of women are less that flattering in this play. --or plays?  So these two wives talk about sex the whole time and crack jokes on how their husbands were so much better when they thought they were with another man's wife.  Some of it was quite funny.

Most of the play was lewd talk about sex and about having sex.  It was borderline pornographic, which makes me wonder how this was received at the time.  I don't think I am being prudish in making this observation.  All said, I found the mix of the two plays uncomfortable.  The characters from one half did not interact with the other half.  The only structural connection was that the Duke of the city they both took place in was the judge of both sides.  He was kind of the Deus ex Machina at the end that united the two halves in judgement.

One could also judge the play as an extreme example of a playwright going way out of his way to create a moral foil.  In this case the foil of the tragic half is the comic half.  Half of the total play was used to create foils!

Keeping up with Bybee

Reading Naked Without Books and all this talk of resolutions for a new year of reading, I felt I too should try and focus my reading list and not keep getting distracted with science fiction and fantasy novels.  Though they are fun, I felt I read too many the previous year.  So here are my resolutions (many of which are shameless ripoffs of Bybee's.)

1.  Limit myself to no more than 10 SF or Fantasy novels.  This will be a challenge as I have just rediscovered Douglas Adams, and I continue to read Pratchett.  These are my reward books for having trudged through something like La Morte D'Arthur.  I already have one completed, I will have to ration these books from here on out.

2.  My Oregon challenge.  I am aiming for a half-dozen of these little gems.  This is a much better attempt than my measly 1 from 2011.

3.  As I am preparing for more college (hoping beyond hope I get accepted) I am going to read at least 10 academic books pertaining to my area of study.  As much as I want history books about Rome and Byzantium to count, I cannot accept those.

4.  Thomas Middleton.  10 of his plays (A full third of his oeuvre!)  As I write this I have a package waiting for me at the post office...

5.  Read more contemporary authors.  The majority of the books I read in 2011 were pre-1900, and the ones that weren't were history books describing the pre-1700s.

6.  This is a big one.  Read all of H.P. Lovecraft.  I am not using this for my SF or Fantasy resolution.  I have the complete Lovecraft with me in Yellowstone, so why not?

I think this should cover me for the year, and help direct my reading.  I wonder how long this will last before I start dismissing these resolutions and breaking them without regard?

Saturday, 7 January 2012

The Devil with John Webster

So I've been on a renaissance literature kick now since I discovered that Thomas Middleton was a nice alternative to Shakespeare.  It's really like Shakespeare had a slightly less talented brother (or sister!) and wrote a whole bunch of plays.  So naturally I decided to read the other dramatists of the time, and not only that, I decided to stick solely to tragedy.  I ordered the complete Middleton, which contains all 30+ of his plays and his long poems and masques, but it is taking such a long time to get here, so I have had to find my renaissance fix elsewhwere.  Which leads me to John Webster, whose play, The White Devil was my latest foray into ren. lit., and to be quite honest my mirth is drained.  If tragedy is cathartic, as Aristotle assures me daily, then I think I have overdosed on catharsis.

The play starts off normal enough for a tragedy, most of the main characters are either evil, sadistic, or whores (which is how women are addressed in the play.  I wonder if this was a term of endearment Webster used frequently?)  Even the characters that are supposed to be good tend to be annoying, or have some flaws.  Flamineo was the funniest character despite being evil incarnate.  He managed to kill his brother in front of his mom and then make his sister think she killed him and then tried to kill his sister.  All the while cracking jokes and pandering his sister to a duke.  And when his sister thought she killed him, she was cackling and mocking him in his supposed death.  This was a long play, with each scene chocked full of insults, anger, hatred, duplicitous behavior, and everything else that stings of a ren. tragedy.  My urge to read another tragedy at this point is waning fast.  Please Middleton, why is Amazon being so slow in getting you here?  Will I have to read another Webster to pass the long days?  Get here soon.  I miss you.

A holistic reading.

So begins another year and my quest to break the 100 book barrier.  If anything I will try and break 80 and go for the legendary 81.  My quest will be fraught with distractions, lethargy, and indifference, and all other manner of eldritch evils.  Though I may not be an Arthurian knight errant, I can still apply the allegory to myself.

First up, and taking a mere three days to read ON THE JOB.  At a staggering 303 pages I read what will probably be the funniest book I read all year.  Few books are funnier than a Douglas Adams book, and few books are written by said Douglas Adams.

The title includes the word holistic, which is the approach Dirk Gently takes to understand any of life's mysteries to show how all things are connected to each other.  He describes it as taking quantum mechanics and applying it to a detective agency.  This simple mystery of who shot who includes ghosts (human and alien), time traveling Cambridge dons, messing with famous poets and ruining their inspiration, and of course saving all of humankind from destruction.  It even has a couch impossibly lodged in the stairwell that even well written computer programs cannot un-stuck.  I don't think I ruined the plot so long as all is forgotten that I wrote.

I understand there is a sequel, which I will probably be reading in about a month.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

#79 and #80

These are my last books of the year.  I finished them in December, I just neglected posting them.  This will put me at 80, which is twenty shy of my goal.  But I still think a noble effort.

A Hugo winning science fiction book by the same writer that brought you Starship Troopers, which is on my reading list.  This book started off as political in nature and then turned into an orgy. I have the suspicion that the author was shamelessly writing his own sexual fantasies and trying to pull it off as reasonable and shameless.  But this was written in the early sixties during the time of 'free-love', or as I understand it to be 'free-love'.  His writing was informed enough and he was definitely willing to take risks as an author which makes me want to read another book of his.
438 pages.

My second book by Bernd Heinrich this year, and though not as fun as Mind of a Raven, it is definitely as informative, if not more so.  How do some small animals survive in harsh winters, like mice and Kinglets?  Though it explains the science of the animal's body, it does not use scientific language.  I enjoyed it and will try and read more of Heinrich in the years to come.