Thursday, May 31, 2012

Twelve by Shakespeare in 2012: Five Down, None to Go...

Twelve by Shakespeare in 2012 has finished Julius Caesar.   And sadly, our group has had to disband after this play, just when we had started the histories, which are my weak area, and about which I would most have appreciated some discussion.  So.  Well, I expected to find Julius Caesar a little dry, and I couldn't have been more wrong.  It's wonderfully moody and suspenseful, and even exciting.  Discussions revolved mainly around the characters of Caesar and Brutus--how they each rationalized their actions;  were they justified or not in their choices;  were they really motivated by love of the Roman people?  I learned that Shakespeare used Plutarch's Lives as his source for this play, which motivated me to read the sections on Caesar and on Brutus, which in turn led me to discover that I really enjoy Plutarch!

Twelve by Shakespeare in 2012
The Classics Club

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Wednesday Verse

This poet, who lost a son in Stalin's gulags, seems an appropriate choice while reading Bloodlands.

And You, My Friends Who Have Been Called Away
by Anna Akhmatova
And you, my friends who have been called away,
I have been spared to mourn for you and weep,
Not as a frozen willow over your memory,
But to cry to the world the names of those who sleep.
What names are those!
I slam shut the calendar,
Down on your knees, all!
Blood of my heart,
The people of Leningrad march out in even rows,
The living, the dead:  fame can't tell them apart.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Just Finished: Die Verwandlung

Die Verwandlung (in English, The Metamorphosis) by Franz Kafka, while an easy read in English, was very, very difficult for me in German.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, I'm not fluent in German, but am trying to improve my reading. 

The story is one that probably most of us are familiar with from high school.  Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning to find that he has changed overnight into a giant cockroach.   I've always enjoyed this book, because of its deadpan approach to a bizarre situation.  Kafka wrote that he wanted it to have the quality of a dream, and that's precisely what it has.  In dreams, the bizarre is calmly accepted, and its ramifications play out in silly ways.  In the book, neither Gregor nor his family is remotely surprised that he is now a giant insect, but they all make adjustments, small and large, to deal with the new situation.  Gregor learns to get all of his many tiny legs under control and going in the same direction.  The loss of Gregor's income is dealt with, as is the rearrangement of his room to make crawling and hiding easier.  His sister, through trial and error, figures out what he now prefers to eat (spoiled food and wilted vegetables, in case you're wondering), and puts it on a tray on his floor every day. 

As with other readings in German, the problem for me with this one boils down to vocabulary.  Last summer I did some intensive vocabulary work with index cards, and it was really helpful.  I'm thinking I should do that again--we'll be finished schooling at the end of this week, so maybe it's a good time.  

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Friday 56

Hosted by Freda's Voice, the Friday 56 invites us to share a sentence from page 56 of our current read.  Here's mine:

Stoop, Romans, stoop,
And let us bathe our hands in Caesar's blood
Up to the elbows, and besmear our swords;
Then walk we forth, even to the marketplace, 
And, waving our red weapons o'er our heads,
Let's all cry "Peace, freedom, and liberty!"

                                         (From Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare)


Monday, May 14, 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!"

Still sailing through A Suitable Boy, and toiling through Die Verwandlung.   Loving the former because it's just so page-turningly readable;  not one of its vast array of characters, families, or situations is uninteresting.  Plodding through the latter because it's really above my level--but I'm not giving up!

I'm on Act III of Julius Caesar, along with my Shakespeare reading group, which sadly is going to disband after this book.  I was a little intimidated to start this one, because the histories are my weak area with Shakespeare, but it's been quite interesting and even moving so far.  

New on my list this week is Bloodlands:  Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder.  Not a happy subject, to wildly understate, but one which I keep coming back to.  Snyder is an engaging writer with a strong moral voice.  In this book he looks at the lands between Germany and Russia, where Hitler and Stalin between them deliberately caused the deaths of 14 million people, apart from battle casualties.  Snyder calls his book "a history of political mass murder." 

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Just Finished: The Adventures and Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

The Adventues and Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, turns out to be two (originally separate) collections published together.  I needed to pick a mystery or thriller for the Mixing It Up challenge.  I'd read The Hound of the Baskervilles eons ago, but never any of the short-story "cases,"  so I thought I'd try one of the Holmes collections.

It's interesting for an avid Agatha Christie fan like myself to read Sherlock Holmes stories.  That is to say, it's interesting to find out just how much Christie owed to Conan Doyle.  Poirot and Hastings are patterned on Holmes and Watson, of course;  I knew that already.  The great detective shares bachelor quarters with his war-veteran friend, who chronicles his cases.

What I didn't know was that Holmes gave Poirot many of his personality traits and detective methods, too.  Let's compare.  Both detectives are:  lifelong bachelors who admire only one woman (a criminal who got away);  wealthy enough to pick only those cases that are interesting enough to be tempting, but kind enough to take a case for a client in distress;  given to mentally solving a case almost immediately, but keeping the solution secret till the dramatic ending;  fond of telling Watson/Hastings to use his brain, that the same facts are available to both of them.

The one big difference between the two detectives is so often harped upon by Poirot that it amounts to an homage to Holmes:  Poirot, at least once in every book, proudly insists that he does not crawl about in the mud, looking for cigarette ends or burnt matches.  He leaves that to the police, preferring to sit in a comfortable armchair and exercise the little gray cells of his brain.  Holmes, on the other hand, eagerly examines footprints, match ends buried in mud, and the soles of suspects' boots.

I don't think less of Christie after learning how much she lifted from Conan Doyle.  I enjoy her books not because they're great literature (they're not), but for the ingeniousness of the puzzles, and the picture of a time and place--England between the wars.  Her ear for dialogue is particularly wonderful.  The Sherlock Holmes stories offer not only better-quality writing, but great puzzles in another interesting setting (gaslight-era London). 

Mixing It Up
The Classics Club

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Wednesday Verse

Written in the Mountains
by Kuan Hsiu (832-912)

A mountain's a palace
for all things crystalling and pure:
there's not a speck of dust
on a single one of all these flowers.

When we start chanting poems like madmen
it sets all the peaks to dancing.
And once we've put the brush to work
even the sky becomes mere ornament.

For you and me the joy's in the doing
and I'm damned if I care about "talent."

But if, my friend, from time to time
you hear sounds like ghostly laughter...
It's all the great mad poets, dead,
and just dropping in for a listen.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Just Finished: The Revenger's Tragedy

The Revenger's Tragedy, published in 1607/8, a renaissance tragedy, has been credited to various authors, including Cyril Tourneur, Brian Gibbons, Thomas Middleton, and perhaps most accurately, "an unknown Jacobean dramatist." 

Renaissance tragedies generally involve monarchs or nobles, violence, and the death of the protagonist.  Plenty of all that here.

The "revenger" of the title, Vindice, plots to murder the Duke who poisoned his fiancee for refusing to become his mistress.  By the end of the play, most of the male characters, including Vindice, are dead.  This is not a spoiler;  Jacobean audiences would have known to expect it. 

I have no experience with the genre, but I found it very reminiscent of Shakespeare, particularly in its language.  It even opens with Vindice carrying the skull (!) of his murdered sweetheart, brooding on "the bright face of my betrothed lady, /When life and beauty naturally filled out /These ragged imperfections... "  and nursing his plan for revenge. 

The author plays with the names; not only Vindice (the revenger--get it?), but all the Duke's sons have Latin-sounding-but-made-up names that reflect their characters:  Lussorioso, Spurio, Ambitioso, and Supervacuo.  There is even a hanger-on called Sordido.  Not a nice family, you might think, and you'd be right.  They seem to have been a scourge on the local womanhood--between them they have multiple rapes and murders to their credit. 

I can't say that I cared very strongly about the characters--they were "types" more than human beings.  The innocent virgin, the calculating mother, the evil seducer, the avenging brother/lover.  But my impression is that these types are among the conventions of this very stylized type of drama, along with the violence, scheming, and death.

Its language, for me, redeems it--graceful, and full of lines that stick in my memory, from the famous "Hell would look like a lord's great kitchen without fire in't,"  to  the cynical  "A duke's soft hand strokes the rough head of law, /And makes it lie smooth,"  to the despairing "Why does not earth start up /And strike the sins that tread upon it?"  Wonderful, memorable lines are easy to find in this play, which makes it very much a worthwhile read.

Mixing It Up

The Classics Club

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Wednesday Verse

The Survivor
by Primo Levi

Once more he sees his companions' faces
Livid in the first faint light,
Gray with cement dust,
Nebulous in the mist,
Tinged with death in their uneasy sleep.
At night, under the heavy burden
Of their dreams, their jaws move,
Chewing a non-existant turnip.
'Stand back, leave me alone, submerged people,
Go away. I haven't dispossessed anyone,
Haven't usurped anyone's bread.
No one died in my place. No one.
Go back into your mist.
It's not my fault if I live and breathe,
Eat, drink, sleep and put on clothes.'