Monday, January 31, 2011

Early Modern Verse

8. The Rape of Lucrece by William Shakespeare

This is not a book nor is it a play, it approaches the length of the latter and I feel like I deserve the credit of the former for reading it. This is a lyric poem, one of two attributed to Shakespeare including Venus and Adonis in my ginormous edition of The Collected Works of Shakespeare (the second Riverside edition, if you want to know). I'd read Venus and Adonis before, and found it amusing, this was my first read of Lucrece, which was predictably not amusing.

I did learn that the Rape of Lucrece is the founding myth of the Roman Republic, after the chaste Lucrece was raped by Tarquin, last king of Rome (that is, before the Caesars), and then killed herself, the people of Rome overthrew and banished him. Pretty cool that a woman had that power. Of course, not cool how she gets it.

This is in some ways a very standard lyric poem, it's got the iambic pentameter and the tiring repetition and descriptions of things that would appear to be meaningless in a modern novel (my professor would abhor it) but provide lots of fancy foreshadowing, metaphors, and allusions, which is the point. Shakespeare's poem is more dramatically-driven than most, I think, though I'm no expert. We get into Tarquin's head as he contemplates the deed, back and forth, then he sees Lucrece and goes completely evil on us. The innocent lamb of a Lucrece afterward becomes more interesting. We watch her go through realistic stages of feeling filthy, thinking everyone can see her shame, and then distracting herself with a painting of Troy. I really liked this ekphrastic device, especially about Troy, so reminiscent of Achilles' shield, and relevant to Roman history. She understands the traitor Sinon now and Helen and hates them, crying for Priam's wife Hecuba. Finally, her husband and father arrive, she reveals what occurred and stabs herself.

Lucrece may be a technically better work than its predecessor, but it's not my cup of tea. I still prefer the comedies over the tragedies in Shakespeare every time, though it's more to do with my preference to laugh than cry more than anything else, I suppose.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

What Makes a Good Book

7. Steal Across the Sky by Nancy Kress

I have raved about Kress' Beggars in Spain and been underwhelmed by her more recent Dogs.

I picked this one up at the library, and I'm glad I did. I was not impressed and did not find it a satisfying read by any means. The concept is certainly intriguing; an alien race calling themselves the Atoners land on the moon and ask for Twenty-One Witnesses to be transported to other planets to observe in order to discover the crime that the Atoners committed against humanity ten thousand years ago. The book takes place in the very near future and contains the experiences of some of the Witnesses and the aftermath when the Witnesses return to Earth and divulge the nature of the crime. The Atoners deleted human genes for the sixth sense; the ability to see the dead.

Here is where my analysis of the book will hopefully become interesting. While I felt the novel to be lacking in several senses (har har), it is consistent with what I believe my fiction workshop professor would deem a good book, that is to say, a marketable book.

My professor believes that in order to be marketable in the twenty-first century,a book must have one or more specific subjective perspectives. Steal Across the Sky has five primary narrators, four in each section of the book (one narrator from the first section dies and is replaced with a new narrator). I will give Kress some credit for creating distinctive voices, each shows the reader a different viewpoint on the events of the novel.

My professor believes that action and conflict should come early and often. The novel begins in the middle of the momentous occasion of Witnesses descending to their assigned planets, I agree that in-medias-res is always a good way to begin. However, I barely felt set up on the planets when the secret was uncovered and the Witnesses went home. There is conflict upon conflict in every chapter and every chapter ends with a hook to keep the reader engaged. My professor encourages this. I want to stress that I am not against this style, but I do not think that that alone can constitute a good book.

Several conflicts were left unresolved at the end of the book. Two of the Witnesses, Lucca and Cam, have slept with each other early on, which Lucca deeply regrets, but though mentioned often, this one never emerges as a confrontation. One of the Twenty-One Witnesses died mysteriously, despite the Atoners' guarantee of protection, and this is never resolved either, though referred to more than once. Finally, while the central question is somewhat answered, that dead souls do wander around "for real" and people used to have the ability to see them, the main characters never come to any definite conclusion and their environment seems just as polluted as ever from the revelation (an uptick in teen suicides, religious fanatics organizing against the witnesses). It's a problem of too many conflicts, resulting in an ending that feels lazy and unsatisfying.

My biggest problem with the book is the lack of character depth. I have a surface sketch of each character; moody hermitlike Lucca, lonely rational Soledad, childlike Cam, Everyman Frank, and Aveo, the old scholar from Kular A (the planet where Cam Witnesses); but no character besides Soledad who falls in love ever breaks form, we don't get a sense of who they were before they Witnessed, especially in the cases of Lucca and Cam, except that Lucca's beloved wife died, boo hoo. I just wasn't buying it, wasn't invested in them enough, didn't care enough. I found none of the characters likable except Soledad and even her I found flat. The real interesting part in the book is Aveo's brutal complicated society, and that we only get a couple chapters' portrait of. Their society is based on a game, kulith, and the Worship of the Goddess of All Green along with a sort of colored caste system, but I wanted to know much more about it and have kulith developed better. Throughout the book, Cam has nightmares about Aveo telling her to play kulith better, but she never does. Cam never changes, never becomes more than a "scared, scarred child" as Frank thinks of her.

The greater questions that I have about writing are the following:

Is capturing and keeping your reader's attention the only requirement for a good book? If so, Steal Across the Sky would be a good book. Or does that only make it a marketable book and is there or should there be a difference?

Is capturing and keeping your reader's attention necessary for a good book? Should this always be true? Is there anything to be said for challenging the readers to find their own meanings and interpretations? A lot of action can glue a reader to a page, but what does it help the reader gain? Is it possible for plot, not character, to supply meaning?

I'll stop there, suffice it to say this book will not be on my end-of-the-year list of SFF Literature.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

6. The Tragedy of Mariam, The Fair Queene of Jewry by Elizabeth Cary

I was fascinated to read this sixteenth century woman's reinterpretation of the story of Miriam, the Maccabean princess who was married to Herod, the Greek-Macedonian King of the Jews in the first century CE. Her story is related in Josephus, a Jew who chronicled several events of the era. Her husband had her killed after she allegedly spoke to him with too much anger and pride. He put aside his first wife to marry her because she was of the bloodline of King David, seen as the rightful rulers of the Jews, and then had her grandfather and brother,who had stronger claims to the throne than him, killed.

Cary makes of this story a female-centered tragedy that I saw as equal to Greek and Shakespearean tragedy. The plot, language, and characters are internally cohesive and consistent. Mariam is proud of her heritage, and both in love with Herod and resentful of him for the murders of her family. Her mother Alexandra hates him and believes her grandsons should be on the throne. Salome, Herod's man-eating sister, plays the real villain in the play, she cannot stand Mariam's contempt of her and plots to see her killed. Herod is presented as a paranoid weathervane, blown either way depending on which woman uses her guile to deceive him, which is Salome. Mariam's tragic flaw is that she will not deign to cater to her husband, she will not flatter or praise him, and openly declares her anger. Thus, Salome, the deceiver, wins.

The message is a bitter one, that only deceitful women can triumph through manipulating the power of men. One could see that it would be easy for Elizabeth Cary to espouse; she had a troubled marriage rocked by religious and financial turmoil, and undoubtedly suffered from her refusal to submit to her husband's will. Interestingly, the play was written in the early years of her marriage, before she and her husband separated, and is dedicated to her sister-in-law, also Elizabeth Cary. The dedication itself, a poem about how her husband's sister is the moon to her husband's sun appears good natured on the surface, but one would think she tread a careful road in dedicating to her sister-in-law a play where the protagonist's sister-in-law is the principal villain. I wonder if there is any information or scholarly work on that "coincidence."

I read this for my directed study on early modern women in contemporary and modern fiction. I'll probably be digesting it for a while and hopefully develop some brilliant paper, as I feel it is more than worthy.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Studies in Comedy and Tragedy

5. The Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare

My second read, first for a class, not one of the plays I've seen performed except for the snippet of it in Shakespeare in Love. Although it's one of the lesser known and least performed of Shakespeare's plays, I didn't find any lack of amusement while reading. Sure, it's inferior to As You Like It or Much Ado about Nothing, but we've still got witty women, clueless, boorish male love interests, and perhaps the most successful and sympathetic of absurd servants in Launce.

What I remembered most about reading this play were Launce's speeches about his dog Crab. While he condemns Crab as a villain, he's willing to sit in the stocks and be whipped lest his dog hang for the various crimes of stealing puddings and pissing indoors. That, my friends, is true love. The contrast with Launce's devotion to his dog is sharp in comparison to his master Proteus' swift abandon of his paramour Julia for his friend Valentine's lady Silvia. Throughout the play, the women and the servants remain faithful, while Proteus "the shapeshifter" indeed, switches his love, Valentine changes his mind about love when he meets Silvia, and both Proteus and Valentine ultimately forswear Silvia for each other. It's a complex story of relations between men and between men and women, and which wins out in the end is difficult to tell.

It is a comedy and must needs end in marriage, and the end's explicit deus ex machina rubs many Shakespeareans the wrong way. My professor defended the ending in terms of its being a deliberate satire, or cartoon of human behavior. It comes down to everyone in the woods, Proteus almost about to force Silvia to yield to his desire, Valentine coming in to protect her and declaring he can never trust any friend again, Proteus apologizing...and Valentine accepting. Then, Silvia's dad comes in, allows her to marry Valentine, and Proteus realizes he is still in love with Julia, as she conveniently appears dressed as a boy, having changed her shape but not her mind, as she chides him before falling into his arms. Instead, perhaps, Shakespeare didn't care that the ending was contrived, the actors' skill might have made it seem less (or more) ridiculous and here he's made his points and gratified the audience with a happy ending.

It seems like there was a lot of pressure on playwrights of the time for either complete redemption or utter, bloody ruination. Thus the endings of many of Shakespeare's comedies and tragedies until either he or his audience developed more nuanced sensibilities, and then the problem plays.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Book Quiz Results

I saw this quiz on The Boston Bibliophile and decided to have a gander. The results surprised me a little, but are also surprisingly accurate in some ways!

You're Fahrenheit 451!

by Ray Bradbury

Having wanted to be a firefighter much of your life, you've recently
discovered the job wasn't exactly what you were looking for. While ignorance seems like
the result of oppression, it all began with people just wanting to be ignorant. As you
realize more about the sordid world around you, you decide to watch less TV and work on
your memorization skills. Though your memory will save you in the end, don't forget to
practice running from dogs as well.

Take the Book Quiz
at the Blue Pyramid.

Treasure from a Kid's PoV

4. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Somewhere in my childhood, I missed reading this classic, despite having two copies of A Child's Garden of Verses. My boyfriend recently reread this and suggested I do so, so I borrowed his copy and spent a night immersed in the ultimate pirate fantasy for a boy of a certain age.

I can't say much for plot, language, or character, but as I am currently in a fiction workshop, I was looking for what made the story tick, and it clearly has a sense of urgency and adventure and makes use of a cliffhanger at the end of nearly every chapter. I did notice that Long John Silver's speech in particular kept nicely in character, "and I'll lay to that." He is clearly the most psychologically complex of the characters, the rest of the adults seem either dull or blindingly stupid. So the hero is our adolescent boy narrator Jim Hawkins, and from the praise of the adults around him, including the malicious Long John, and the feats he accomplishes, it is clear that Jim not only moves the plot, but is the smartest and bravest of the bunch. What boy doesn't want to believe he would have what it takes to practically single-handedly outsmart a group of bloodthirsty pirates?

The pirate themselves, save Long John, turn out to be hardly formidable enemies, though admittedly ruthless in who they are willing to kill, they are not only illiterate and superstitious, but stupid enough to camp in marshland where they all contract malaria, and wasteful enough to burn their own food supply. With these self-handicapping pirates and a bit of luck, Jim manages to save himself and a few of his companions (though some die bloody deaths). Long John Silver, the pirates' charismatic ringleader, nevertheless weasels his way into the return voyage and escapes with a share of the booty. That was the only plot point I didn't know beforehand, what from cultural references over the years.

I can see why Treasure Island is exciting for a child. As an adult, I'm wondering more about Long John, but we've only got Jim's point of view to go on. I think Pirates of the Caribbean taps more into this curiosity about a psychologically complex pirate with Jack Sparrow. This is a bare bones adventure story, quick reading but topical. I believe the author of The Strange Case of Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde was capable of more, but perhaps he achieved what he intended; a story for children.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

In the Western Tradition...

2. The Romance of Tristan & Iseult As Retold by Joseph Bedier Translated by Hilaire Belloc and Completed by Paul Rosenfeld

As the list of authors/translators etc. implies, this work can only be described as a mishmash and not a consistent narrative in any respect. That is, it is told as a consistent narrative, but it is not. Bits and pieces are taken from French and English poets that are themselves transcribing older legends and the more modern author put in some of his words in keeping with the older dialect, and THEN it was translated by more than one person!

However, I think the point of Arthurian legends and the associated stories (and Arthur comes into this surprisingly little, considering how often Tristan shows up in Le Morte D'Arthur), is that they're not "accurate" in language, the themes of romance and death and fate and Christianity are what is important and the characters are the vessels of these lessons. It is amazing how God is always on the side of the adulterous lovers in Tristan and Iseult, at least it's not always so clear cut with Lancelot and Guenivere. One story I hadn't heard before was that of the fairy dog Pticru, which Tristan gives to Iseult. Everyone accepts the existence of this fairy thing and doesn't view it as evil, though earlier Tristan was accused of being a warlock. As my professor said, older stories got pushed together with Christianity so that neither fully makes sense.

I wonder why people of this time period were so fascinated with illegitimate love and eager to legitimize it from a Higher Power. I suppose this is due to the oft-cited fact that women were basically bargaining chips to be married for political gain. In modern eyes, that would make adultery much more understandable. What is less understandable from a modern viewpoint is how Tristan gives Iseult up to Mark even after they have drunk the philtre that will cause them to love each other to death. This must have to do with the honour or code of chivalry between men that is evoked to explain all sorts of behavior in the Arthurian legends. If neither love nor honour can be scorned, then death does seem fated indeed. We've let whatever this notion of honour was (and I haven't entirely pinpointed it) become eclipsed by love in our culture, and therefore romance no longer always carries the death sentence it once did.

3. Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare

I've already reviewed this, but I read it again for my Shakespeare class, so there will be plenty more of the Bard to come. Adriana and Luciana remain some of my favorite of Shakespeare's women (though truth be told, I think I like them all, except Juliet and Desdemona and even they have their moments), the Antipholi remain blindingly obtuse, and the Dromios as droll as ever. I mostly just wanted to say Antipholi, as this is apparently the correct way to refer to them!

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Hunger Games

1. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

My first read of 2011 started the year off on the YA fantasy angle I wanted. Collins' book kept me enthralled through plane, Metro, and bus rides and I finished it in one epic day of travel. Her dystopian world is convincing in its own context and her protagonist Katniss manages to be a strong, likable heroine without compromising one jot of authenticity.I felt throughout that there was more to the world than seen in the book, and I imagine more of it will be divulged in the next two books of the trilogy.

Collins takes a very old idea, of pitting children against each other in a battle to the death, and infuses it with cultural and historical significance and a deep message about government control. The plot has its twists and turns, but the protagonist's reactions remain the most interesting thing about the book. Of course, this is also what the in-text audience is interested in, which sets up a creepy parallel between the reader and the sadistic (or coerced) watchers of the Hunger Games. We watch Katniss struggle to survive both physically and mentally and Collins creates a cast of worthy allies and opponents, all of whose motives must be suspect. The dangers Katniss faces seem real, as do the consequences, and, as in all good series, at the end of the book we're still questioning everyone's motives and what little nugget will blossom into the plot of the next book. We leave Katniss in a complex relationship and to the disturbing fate of having to coach "tribute" for the next year's Hunger Games. I have several guesses as to what will transpire next, but I'll keep that to myself.

Overall, compelling, original and containing a grittiness worthy of Orson Scott Card and a world worthy of J.K. Rowling. I strongly recommend this to readers of all ages and will be seeking out the rest of the trilogy.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Book Goals for 2011

57 can be my official number for books read in 2010, it's a tad embarrassing that the last book I read last year was Sister of the Dead.

However, I started the New Year off right with a trip to Barnes&Noble (as my patient, loving boyfriend stood by) and bought The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and The Collected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen. The former was a bit of an impulse buy, influenced by my late trashy/fantasy kick and a zeitgeist around the book blogs that YA is where it's at. The latter has been on my list since I attended a panel with Reif Larsen at the first annual Boston Book Festival and when I saw it in the bookstore, I knew I had waited long enough. Apparently, the hardcover is no longer available new and I decided not to wait and buy used, so mine is paperback. However, seeing as the hardcover has some extra features and I expect to enjoy the book a lot, I might see if I could arrange some trade at a later date.

Like last year, I've decided not to set a number quota of books to read for this year, although for different reasons. Since I will be graduating in May, I expect to have more free time on my hands and I intend to use it to tackle bigger and denser works of both fiction and nonfiction. I recently starting compiling, in addition to a list of books I've been recommended or liked the sound of from reviews, a list of seminal works that I don't want to die without reading. This includes de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, The Communist Manifesto, and The Origin of Species, as well as several foundational religious works. I don't think that I'll get through all of this in a year, but after I graduate will be the time to start working down that list.

Before I graduate, however, I don't expect to have a lot of free time, so if I do any reading outside of school, I would like to dedicate most of it to fantasy and science fiction. I feel that I haven't been reading enough of the two genres that have often brought me the most pleasure and I am also on a mission to discover more high quality writing in the genres. To accomplish this goal, I'll have to spend more time on related blogs and review sites and of course browsing in bookstores and libraries! By the end of this year, I hope to be able to pinpoint 10-20 science fiction/fantasy books that I would also consider literature.

In summary, my goals for reading in 2011 are:

1. Find 10-20 good quality science fiction/fantasy novels

2. Make a dent in my list of seminal works to read

Finally, updates may be sporadic, but I plan to list, number and at least minimally review all the books I read, including those for school, and also report on any book-related events or news. I am also not above a travel post, if my year includes any.

Happy New Year!