Shakespeare’s Best Female Character

screen-shot-2016-12-08-at-2-54-27-pmShe’s in a poem that’s rarely read. Not only is she Shakespeare’s best female character, she’s his second best character overall (darn you, Hamlet!). She’s Lucrece, of the long narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece.

Two things especially impress me about her. The first is right before the criminal act of the title, when she attempts to persuade her attacker not to do it. She does not, however, say what might come to mind first in that situation, like saying that it’s cruel and selfish and hurts an innocent person. She actually improvises a compelling bit of oratory that appeals to his point of view, essentially warning him about the unintended consequences this act will have on his political career. Quite clever.

But after it happens, most of the rest of the story takes place inside her head, as she mentally soliloquizes about her situation for dozens of pages. She throws out one apostrophic lament after another, addressing her impassioned complaints to fate, lust, the gods, etc. Her thoughts here go far deeper than just depression (though, obviously, that’s a big feature) as she waxes profound about the nature of life and the world in a frenzy of philosophy that would make the Prince of Denmark jealous. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s truly and undeniably great writing.

More than once while reading it, I marveled at the depth of detailed world building that Shakespeare achieved in the mind of this one woman, and often wished that the reader could have met her under better circumstances.

 

“Silent Night” In “A Christmas Carol”

The rest of the world seems to have ignored the existence of this great 1999 film version of the classic story. I really like the use of “Silent Night” to illustrate people’s troubles to Scrooge. (Coincidence: this is the 2nd video with Patrick Stewart I’ve posted this week.)

Patrick Stewart Performs Shakespeare’s “This Sceptered Isle” Speech

I like each of the four versions in this video, but the final one–starting at 5:35 and delivered by Patrick Stewart, from the Richard II segment of The Hollow Crown–really gives me chills.

The Best Used Book Store In Las Vegas

Dead Poet Books closed last year, but as great as it was, it wasn’t the best spot in town to find cheap used books. It’s not the also-awesome Amber Unicorn, either, or any of the few other decent such stores.

It’s Savers, the thrift store. Yes, most thrift stores are full of junk and the used book section is a waste of time (I’m looking at you, Goodwill), but Savers gets the job done.

There’s a location near the school where I work, and I drop in sometimes to check in on the inventory. It rotates pretty quickly–a good sign. I could tell about plenty of great finds there, but here’s the most recent one:

Last week I went in with three things in mind: I’ve wanted to read Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth for years, but it’s long enough that I would want to own a copy so I could take my time. Ditto for James Michener’s Alaska, which I started three years ago and really liked, but couldn’t finish before I had to take it back to the library. Also, I’ve wanted to read Edward Rutherford’s London ever since it came out when I was in college. I’ve been keeping an eye out for good used copies of each for a long time, and they were all on my mind when I stopped in there last week. I decided ahead of time to buy a copy if I should see one of them.

They had all three. Six bucks well spent!

Here’s another example: a couple of years ago, when the Dragon Tattoo trilogy was super popular, I went looking for them in paperback for a friend. Found all three of those there, too.

Yes, it’s also full of Dean Koontz and John Grisham stuff, but the variety and quality of books there has never disappointed me.

 

 

The Aeneid

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The Aeneid

I liked the rest of The Odyssey more than the part with all the monsters; I liked The Iliad more than The Odyssey; and I liked The Aeneid even more than The Iliad. In fact, I love how The Aeneid is clearly structured as a condensed complement to the earlier epics:

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I’ve now read all three in the excellent recent translations by Robert Fagles (I like that he produced these works in chronological order, but The Aeneid was the last major translation of his long and storied career; he died only two years after publishing it, in 2008). My overall reactions to The Aeneid fall under three headings:

Fathers and sons

The first thing that struck me about The Aeneid is its focus on duty and family–themes that resonate strongly with me. I posted about one such passage on another blog.

At the end of book 2, Aeneas faces a choice–take revenge on the villainous Helen, or rescue his family from the crumbling, flaming ruin of Troy? In cinematic fashion, the scene cuts from his enraged face struggling with this decision to him running through the bowels of the city, young son in his hand and elderly father on his back.

In fact, I see another structure here: the first half of the book focuses mostly on his loyalty to his father, looking to the past, and the second half focuses on his loyalty to his son, looking to the future.

Indeed, the end of book 6–his visit to his father in the underworld, and the unveiling of his divine new shield, with its illustration of his people’s glorious destiny–is the perfect transition between the two. The quote below comes right at the midpoint of the tale, and gives me goosebumps.

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Book 8, lines 854-858

Of course, the little boy from the beginning of the story grows up over the years, and by the great battle at the end, he is a young man fighting at his father’s side.

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Some Dark Humor in The Aeneid

I’m in book 10 of The Aeneid–a major battle scene–and I just came across this lovely bit:

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Ha! “There were these two identical twins…at least, they were identical twins until one got his hand cut off and the other got decapitated. NOW we can tell them apart just fine!”

What President Monson Is Reading

512ktnfwjelIn President Monson’s brief remarks at this month’s General Conference, perhaps the thing that struck me most was in the priesthood session when he said, “Recently I read the true account of a dramatic manifestation concerning these promises.” Most of the talk, in fact, is a summary of a story from the book. That right there is already pretty high praise for a book, to have a prophet mention it and cite from it as the core of an address to the world.

It’s great to know what the prophet has been reading. He’s still working full time as CEO of a global organization, he’s several years a widower now, and his strength is starting to decline, but he still reads, and this is what he reads: a book about the inspiring experiences of Latter-day Saints during World War II. As far as I know, there isn’t a team of research interns doing any behind-the-scenes lifting in preparing anybody’s conference talks; when the prophet says he’s been reading this book lately, it’s really something he chose to pick up and spend time with.

Maybe we would do well to follow the prophet in his priorities, his habits, and even in his specific choices in reading. The book he mentions, Saints at War: Experiences of Latter-Day Saints in World War II, isn’t on Google Books, but it’s on sale at Amazon for as low as 14 cents a copy.

14 cents, to do what the prophet does.

You know what would be great? A “Prophets Book Club,” where people read books mentioned by prophets and apostles in General Conference.

At the end of the citation for this book in the published version of President Monson’s talk, a note says, “used by permission.” That’s wonderful: the prophet (or maybe his secretary) reached out to the author to ask if it was OK to refer to the book in General Conference. What a sweet conversation I bet that was.

 

Top 5 Most Frightening Scenes In Stephen King Books

 

Be ye warned, Constant Reader: here there be spoilers.

5. The Dark Tower VII: “The Thing Under the Castle”

This is the most recent entry on this list; the only one from the 21st century, but it works because it so strongly harkens back to classic King style: that combination of simple, elemental storytelling with detailed, psychological exposition.

Roland and Susanna are, as the chapter title implies, fleeing some unknown thing in the winding, dark passages under a ruined, ancient castle. At first, there’s just a slight noise in the distance, but then, over the course of several pages, the noises get clearer and closer, and that primitive instinct we all have warns of an approaching predator.

The pace increases to one of sheer panic as they first jog, then run, then sprint with terror-fueled energy away from the mysterious thing. Susanna, whose wheelchair has been lost, rides on Roland’s back and can see behind them into the darkness at what’s coming. As it finally comes within biting distance…

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Anthony Esolen’s Translation of Dante’s Inferno

downloadI had never read the Inferno because, unlike other classics where there is broad agreement on which translations are the best, opinion here is divided. However, over the summer I read this amazing essay by Anthony Esolen (which I cannot recommend highly enough–it may be the best essay I’ve read all year); I was so impressed that I looked to see what else he had written, and lo and behold, he’d translated Dante.

This book was a beautiful joy from beginning to end. Dante’s story is even better than I’d imagined it would be. I was surprised to see it so full of, what was for Dante, contemporary social criticism. Quite a few of the movers and shakers of his world–men who had wronged him personally–were called out by name and given the retribution of having their eternal torments depicted in poetry. Even more surprising was the fact that popes were among that number (indeed, multiple passages basically say, “Hey, Pope Boniface VIII–you suck!”).

Dante’s criticism even veers into satire at points, with the punishments of hell fitting that “poetic justice” paradigm we expect. He seemingly relishes such opportunities to kick some of his targets when they’re down; for example, noting not only that one kind of sinner might spend eternity with their heads literally turned around backwards, but that the tears they always shed are running down between the cleft in their buttocks. Other sinners are seen wallowing in raw sewage forever. Stay classy, Dante!

This is not to make light of the text at all, though. In fact, the last several sections contain some of the most gruesome, horrific scenes I’ve ever come across in a book (and I read a whole lot of Stephen King as a kid!). The final scene, in the very center of hell, is fantastically graphic: Satan, frozen from the waist down in a lake of ice, has a second and third face on either side of his giant head, and each of the three mouths is eternally chewing on one of the great traitors of history: Brutus, Cassius, and Judas Iscariot. The image is incredibly vivid–below is just one of the more tasteful illustrations I found online.

Beside the text itself, Esolen has given us a great gift in this volume. The translation itself is crisp, clear, and moving, but the other features also make this a great book: the Italian text on each facing page, the extensive endnotes delving into Dante’s references in detail, and a series of appendices that provide excerpts from seminal texts that all informed Dante’s vision. I made frequent use of these, and look forward to a time when I can just sit around all day and absorb them all. For the avid reader of classics, Esolen has provided a truly fine treat.

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Nevada in 2042

Nevada had always been a magnet for kooks. Misfits, outcasts, miscreants, mavericks–the malcontents, the fantasists, the seekers of shortcuts. Born of mining boom and bust, the economy was founded on vice: prizefighting, loose women, drunkenness, gambling, and marital fecklessness. Even before going it alone, the state was an outlier, making it all too easy to get married, easier still to divorce. Alcohol was plied twenty-four hours a day. A lenient relationship to prostitution well predated the era in which Savannah was able to earn an accredited community college degree in stimulation therapy. Real cigarettes–or giant, smelly cigars. for that matter–were legal in casinos. A prohibition against state income tax was enshrined in its constitution. In 2042, Nevadans had merely formalized that they were a people apart. 

–Lionel Shriver, The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047, page 382

Literature: The Major Art Form of Western Civilization

The special thing about literature, the major art form of a Western civilization now ending before our very eyes, is not hard to define. Like literature, music can overwhelm you with sudden emotion, can move you to absolute sorrow or ecstasy; like literature, painting has the power to astonish, and to make you see the world through fresh eyes. But only literature can put you in touch with another human spirit, as a whole, with all its weaknesses and grandeurs, its limitations, its pettinesses, its obsessions, its beliefs; with whatever it finds moving, interesting, exciting, or repugnant. Only literature can grant you access to a spirit from beyond the grave–a more direct, more complete, deeper access than you’d have in conversation with a friend. Even in our deepest, most lasting friendships, we never speak so openly as when we face a blank page and address an unknown reader.

–Michel Houellebecq, Submission

 

Fans of H.P. Lovecraft May Not Want To Read This

This week I was thinking of something I read somewhere, that much of what we think of as “Lovecraftian” doesn’t really come from the works of Lovecraft. It’s true. Most of his work is not horror fiction as we think of it; his style has that ring to it, but the plots tend to be be of different genres.

Most of his major work is really more science fiction. The rest is a mix of weird Gothic, some is dark fantasy, and, sure, some is just horror. But he jumps around, blends genres, and covers his main body of work under the very broad umbrella of speculative fiction.

Basically, he’s Dean Koontz.

There, I said it. Let the rioting begin.

 

 

A Great Essay: “How It Feels To Be Colored Me”

220px-Hurston-Zora-Neale-LOCOne of my favorite essays is Zora Neale Hurston’s 1928 personal reflection “How It Feels To Be Colored Me.”

It’s rightly honored as a classic for many reasons, but one thing about it that doesn’t get enough attention is its humor. Hurston has so much confidence and clarity that she’s empowered to laugh at aspects of life that depress others. Parts of this serious social criticism essay are really quite funny.

That clarity and confidence in her outlook on life present a powerful challenge to the prevailing attitudes today, and offer a very positive role model for all of us. But I digress; this isn’t a political post.

As literature, her writing is just superb. Consider the eleventh paragraph in the essay (the linked version is numbered). It crafts an extended metaphor that viscerally builds a sense of dizzying, pulse-pounding abandon. The style perfectly matches the topic.

But then check out the contrast between that sprawling rave of a paragraph with the short punch of paragraph twelve. The stylistic difference there highlights the difference between her reaction to music and her friend’s reaction. It’s glorious.

There are plenty of other reasons to love this essay, besides those three. Just to give one more great thing about Hurston, though, is this: if you merely remove one little letter “r” from her last name, it becomes even better !  :)

Illustrating Hemingway

I just found this great video that narrates and illustrates Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” Joyce said of it: “He [Hemingway] has reduced the veil between literature and life, which is what every writer strives to do. Have you read ‘A Clean Well-Lighted Place’?…It is masterly. Indeed, it is one of the best short stories ever written…” I agree.