Monday, April 30, 2012

Twelve by Shakespeare in 2012: Four Down, Eight to Go

Twelve by Shakespeare in 2012 has finished Twelfth Night.  We wrapped up the comedies with this gender-bending mistaken-identity farce.  Olivia's masquerade as a boy (which I'm still not sure I see the point of) sets the whole thing in motion.  More than one character mistakenly falls in love with someone of the same sex, which provided much fodder for did-Shakespeare-really-intend-to-suggest-that discussions.  And Malvolio's humiliation seemed uncalled-for to most of us!  In May we start the histories with Julius Caesar.

Twelve by Shakespeare in 2012
The Classics Club

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Just Finished: Maus--A Survivor's Tale

Mixing It Up has challenged me to read my first-ever graphic novel.  This is a genre that has never even been on my radar.  Never read one, or even considered reading one.  But it's good to stretch our boundaries a bit, and I'm so glad I did.  The subtlety and depth that can be communicated with cartoon sketching and some well-chosen text were a great pleasure to experience.

Based on interviews with his father Vladek, a Polish Jew who survived Auschwitz,  Art Spiegelman's  Maus tells Vladek's story.  But it isn't just Vladek's story;  it's Vladek's story interwoven with the fraught, complex, love-hate relationship between the father and son, as the father tells his story while his health deteriorates.

Maus consists of two volumes:  I--My Father Bleeds History, and II--And Here My Troubles Began.  In the first volume, Vladek tells of his youth, marriage, and the early years of the Nazi occupation of Poland, leading up to his arrest, with his wife Anja, and their transport to Auschwitz.  The second volume describes Vladek's and Anja's experiences in Auschwitz. 

Art Spiegelman uses animals to represent different ethnic groups.  The Jews are mice, and the Germans cats.  Controversially, he depicts non-Jewish Poles as pigs.  (Spiegelman has said that he represented people as the Germans did--the Germans themselves called the Poles pigs, and the Jews rats.  And he doesn't depict the Poles particularly negatively--Vladek and Anja would not have survived without the help of Polish friends.)  The French are frogs.  He plays with these animal personas in interesting ways.  Jews passing as Polish Gentiles, for instance, are drawn as mice wearing pig masks.  His wife Francoise, a Frenchwoman who converted to Judaism, is drawn as a (very stylish) mouse.

The story cuts back and forth between present and past, and this is its great strength.  The three narrative threads--Vladek's story, Art's struggle to present it via his art, and the relationship between father and son--spiral about one another, each coming into view in turn, and none separable from the others.  Vladek's trauma has made him who he is, and his son finds it very difficult to relate to him.  Art wrestles with his conflicting feelings for his father as he tries to present his story.  And somehow it all flows together in a seamless, page-turning read.

Mixing It Up

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Wednesday Verse

Six Haiku
by Yosa Buson (1716-1783)

White lotus--
the monk
draws back his blade.

Such a moon--
the thief
pauses to sing.

It pierces through me
to stumble in our bedroom
on my dead wife's comb.

Avoiding fishnet
and fishing lines,
moon on the water.

At the old pond
the frog is aging
among falling leaves

Plum blossoms scent
rising higher,
the moon's halo.

Monday, April 23, 2012

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Book Journey hosts this weekly meme.  As she says, "This is a great way to plan out your reading week and see what others are currently reading as well… you never know where that next 'must read' book will come from!"

My plate is, happily, pretty full right now.  I love being in the middle of several books;  I can pick up whichever one suits my mood at the moment.  And I'm currently in the middle of more than several, thanks in part to a couple of very challenging challenges (see PROJECTS in the sidebar).   

For the first time ever, I'm reading a graphic novel, Maus--A Survivor's Tale, by Art Spiegelman.  Honestly, I would never have picked up a graphic novel if the Mixing It Up challenge hadn't required me to.  I'm glad I did, though, because this one is very compelling.  Spiegelman manages to convey not only the heartbreaking suffering of Polish Jews under the Nazis, but the complexity and ambiguity of his relationship with his father, who tells the story.  I'm not sure how he does this in a comic book format, but he does.

The Revenger's Tragedy is a renaissance-era play attributed to various authors;  my edition credits Cyril Tourneur.  Very Shakespearean in tone (unsurprisingly as it's from the same period), very dark, very bloody.  Its title calls it a tragedy, and a little googling reveals that the renaissance tragedy was a form that followed a specific pattern and generally didn't end well.  This is for the Classics Club.

I'm reading Shakespeare's Twelfth Night  as part of Twelve By Shakespeare in 2012.  We're discussing online as we go--it's nice to be able to do that.

 Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, also for the Classics Club, is quite a tome (1500-odd pages), but it's a compulsively readable one.  Set in India in the early 50s, just after the British pullout and partition, its scope is both grand and intimate, much like War and Peace.  The characters are so real, and their lives and situations so interesting, that whenever I sit down with them I lose track of time and devour several chapters.  

As part of my laborious effort to improve my German, I try do do a little reading in that language every day, even if only a couple of pages.  What I'm working through now is Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis) by Franz Kafka.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Just Finished: Literary Feasts: Recipes From the Classics of Literature

Barbara Scrofford's Literary Feasts:  Recipes From the Classics of Literature was my choice for the Cookery, Food, and Wine category of the Mixing It Up challenge.  It took me a long time to choose something for this category;  I think I'm fooded out.  I've read so much over the last few years on food-related subjects--nutrition, sustainable agriculture, clean eating, humane farming, all manner of cookbooks--that I'm somewhat tired of the subject.

So this book, if I must read one more about food, looked like a nice change from all that, and literature-related to boot.  And if I found it only slightly interesting, that wasn't the book's fault, and it was still a nice change. 

Literary Feasts looks at 25 classic novels through the prism of food.  Each novel gets a synopsis and a short discussion of the foods mentioned in it and how those foods are used in the novel--to symbolize sublimated feelings, to illuminate differences between social classes, to paint a picture of life in a particular time and place.  That was the interesting part for me;  I had only previously read about half of the books mentioned, so I enjoyed the synopses and food discussions.  And I had not thought of some of these books in terms of food, so even those I had read before appeared in a new light. 

Somewhat less interesting, surprisingly, were the recipes.  Maybe it's just that I'm not much of a cook, or maybe there weren't as many options in the past as we moderns are used to, but I got a little tired of reading recipes for various types of cake, pie, and boiled dinner.  Some recipes I looked for but didn't find--where was Mr. Woodhouse's gruel (Emma)?  I don't even know what gruel is, but I'd like to.  A few were bizarrely fascinating:  apparently in 1930s California (Cannery Row) you could get beer milkshakes in restaurants. 

So, a pleasant diversion:  a book about food that's really about literature. 

Mixing It Up

Wednesday Verse

Too Much to Ask
by Former Chief Priest Jien (Japan, 1155-1225)

Too much to ask
as I stand
this forested hill,
may my
Buddhist robes
cover protect
all who live
in the floating world.

Monday, April 16, 2012


From Shakespeare's Twelfth Night:

Not yet old enough for a man nor young enough for a boy; as a squash is before 'tis a peascod, or a codling when 'tis almost an apple.  'Tis with him in standing water, between boy and man.  He is very well-favored and he speaks very shrewishly.  One would think his mother's milk were scarce out of him.  

As apt a description of adolescent boys as I've ever seen (smiled to think of it while attending my son's Boy Scout meeting tonight).

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Wednesday Verse

Night and Sleep
by Jalal-ad-din Rumi

At the time of night-prayer, as the sun slides down,
the route the senses walk on closes, the route to the invisible opens.

The angel of sleep then gathers and drives along the spirits;
just as the mountain keeper gathers his sheep on a slope.

And what amazing sights he offers to the descending sheep!
Cities with sparkling streets, hyacinth gardens, emerald pastures!

The spirit sees astounding beings, turtles turned to men,
men turned to angels, when sleep erases the banal.

I think one could say the spirit goes back to its old home;
it no longer remembers where it lives, and loses its fatigue.

It carries around in life so many griefs and loads
and trembles under their weight;  they are gone;  it is all well.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Kids' Picks: April

5 Minutes for Books is inviting bloggers to share what their children are reading.  It's some new and some old here.  Let's see:

Elder daughter (17):  Currently complaining that she has no time to read what she wants to read.  Hmm.  Claims to be looking forward to next semester and lit classes, when she'll at least be assigned some interesting reading. 

Younger daughter (14):  Still going strong with Phantom of the Opera-related fan-fic, but thankfully she has also picked up Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell, and started Anna Karenina (but seems to have put that down for later).

Elder son (11):  He's almost finished with Ghost Hunter, the sixth and final book in a series called The Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, by Michelle Paver.  What we will do when he finishes it, I do not know, because he's loved this series so much.  Suggestions are welcome! 

Younger son (8):  Recently finished The Iron Man by Ted Hughes, and The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.  The former was my suggestion, and he liked it well enough.  The latter was a Great Illustrated Classic, and he loves those. 

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Just Finished: Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories by M. R. James

Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories, by M. R. James, is just about as good as it gets if you like your ghost stories to be of the cozy, English, nineteenth-century variety.  Even the book jacket describes the settings as "the leisurely, late-Victorian, middle-class world of country houses, seaside inns, out-of-the-way railway stations, and cathedral closes, where gentlemen of independent means and antiquarian tastes suddenly find themselves confronted by terrifying agents of supernatural malice." 

I read these stories mainly over lunch, one or two a day for a very pleasant couple of weeks.  They are short (five to ten pages), and each is an atmospheric gem, creepy but not terrifying, which is just my cup of tea.  Many center on an antique document--manuscript, prayer-book, etching, or diary--and the unfortunate literary-minded gent who takes an interest in it.  Some center on a place--a locked room in an inn or a shady corner of a garden or a nook in a cathedral--which people avoid without consciously knowing why.  There are many stormy nights, dusty libraries, forbidding strangers appearing and disappearing, and train journeys to remote locales peopled by folk who keep ancient secrets.  When the secret is revealed, usually with a wry twist, our "gentleman of independent means and antiquarian tastes" generally wishes it had not been.

Casting the Runes reminded me strongly of Sheridan Le Fanu's work, which I enjoyed immensely, and even of one or two of Isak Dinesen's, with their windswept Scandinavian settings.  And the combination of intricate language with occasional humor recalled Dickens, who also told some good ghost stories.   Happily, James seems to have been a prolific author and there's a lot more from him to enjoy.

Mixing It Up
The Classics Club

Wednesday Verse

I Will Make You Brooches
by Robert Louis Stevenson

I will make you brooches and toys for your delight
Of bird-song at morning and star-shine at night.
I will make a palace fit for you and me
Of green days in forests and blue days at sea.

I will make my kitchen, and you shall keep your room,
Where white flows the river and bright blows the broom,
And you shall wash your linen and keep your body white
In rainfall at morning and dewfall at night.

And this shall be for music when no one else is near,
The fine song for singing, the rare song to hear!
That only I remember, that only you admire,
Of the broad road that stretches and the roadside fire.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Twelve by Shakespeare in 2012 March: Three Down, Nine to Go

Twelve by Shakespeare in 2012 has finished The Tempest.  Set on an enchanted island, this play is one of my favorites.  Themes discussed were utopian societies, the character of Miranda, and Shakespeare's anachronistic use of the classical Greek deities. I love the poignancy of Prospero's "drowning his book."  Sadly, I was MIA for the final week's discussion due to illness.  On the agenda for April:  Twelfth Night.