Books, 2015 (1)

1. John Lyly, Selected Prose and Dramatic Works. 1/2. Ed. Leah Scragg. This contain Euphues: The  Anatomy of Wit, Campaspe, and Gallathea, the first a prose work presented largely in dialogues and soliloquies, and the last two dramatic comedies. Those who think the works ascribed to Shakespeare are too literate to be by someone who had only a grammar-school education should read these. These are the types of works that the educated men of Shakespeare's time wrote. All three testify to a thorough grounding in classical rhetoric. They are not for the uneducated. The plays contain the high and low elements found elsewhere in Elizabethan and Jacobean comedies--classical themes and references, discussions of love and chastity, gods and goddesses misbehaving, philosophers on one side, and on the other, clowns, comic dialogues by the lower classes, con men, singing and dancing and even some tumbling, along with both actors pretending to be maidens masquerading as young men. Lyly doesn't quite pull off separating the two. His shepherds and shepherds talk as eloquently as his aristocrats, and he doesn't integrate the two sides of the plot and make them speak to each other.

The plays are in the end amalgams of pageants and entertainments with dramas.

2.  David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks. 1/4. A readable and entertaining mix of science fiction, the supernatural, the dystopian, and a handful of other genres. The bone clocks are the metaphorical clocks within our bodies that are counting off the moments until our deaths. The two supernatural groups involved either lack the bone clocks or manage to stop them using human sacrifices. Holly Sykes is the central character threading all the stories together--her large family; the first group of supernaturals who save Holly at a critical point and who saves them during a battle with the bad guys; a Cambridge undergrad recruited to join the second group of supernaturals who just happens to have a short affair with Holly in a Swiss ski resort; a childhood friend of Holly's who becomes a war correspondent and Holly's lover and father of their child Aoife; a once-successful novelist who sort of falls in love with Holly and helps her out at various points; Holly's daughter and her husband, who die in a plane crash; Holly's granddaughter and a small refugee boy from Africa Holly takes in. The novel is sprawling--a quarter million words--and sometimes Mitchell indulges in a bit of extra verbiage (his novelist pauses long enough to discourse on the proper way to write). Mitchell also resurrects bits and pieces of his earlier novels and incorporates them. The battle between the two groups of supernaturals ought to be the climax of the novel, but it leads to a dystopian future in which society has run out of the means to fuel itself and the barbarians are at the gates, or would be if that nuclear power plant hadn't gone up.

3.  Shakespeare, Hamlet: The Texts of 1603 and 1623. Arden ed., ed. Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor. 1/12. This is a companion volume to the editors' fuller edition of the Second Quarto version of Hamlet, which they take as their primary text. It lacks the long introduction and detailed textual notes of the other volume; the texts are annotated only if the differences need glossing.

The. 1603 text is the First Quarto, and the 1623, the Folio. the First Quarto is about half the length of the second quarto and the Folio versions. The Folio text is the familiar one. Q1 moves along briskly. It has all the same actions as the longer versions but cuts much of Hamlet's verbal introspection. Of course, any reader familiar with the longer versions carries them over into the reading of this version. I wonder how the short version of Hamlet would strike a reader unfamiliar with the longer versions. Apparently audiences have liked the Q1 version in performance, but I suspect we would have value Hamlet less if this were the only version we possessed.

4.  Christopher Marlowe, Complete Plays. Ed. Frank Romany and Robert Lindsey. 1/16. Contains Dido: Queen of Carthage; Tamburlaine, the Great, Parts 1 and 2; The Jew of Malta: Doctor Faustus; Edward the Second; and The Massacre at Paris. Annoying organization--the explanatory notes on the texts are at the back of the book; there are separate glossaries of vocabulary and people and places. Since Marlow writes in the vocabulary of his times and makes extensive allusions to classical myths and history, this can mean consulting three separate lists for a single line. Marlowe's language and learning can pose enough obstacles to the modern reader without the publisher adding to them.

All these plays are poetically rich. Marlowe can also be a highly allusive writer. This gets to be a problem especially in Tamburlaine, where the lead character and his associates are supposed to be ignorant Scythian sheepherders, yet are ever ready to bandy erudite references to Greek and Roman mythology and history. These soldiers appear to have spent more time in the classroom than on the battlefield.  

Tamburlaine also repeats the same basic plot several times: Tamburlaine boasts of his prowess and then threatens another country; that country's leaders complain about his base origins and bluster about how they will treat him after defeating him; Tamburlaine defeats them and parades them in a triumph. Tamburlaine does get more bombastic as the play goes on. His greed for ever more territory increases. And he remains true to form right through to the end.

Dcotor Faustus--Marlowe didn't seem to know what to do with the theme of a man who sells his soul to the devil. His Faust uses his powers for magic tricks. Other than being conflicted about his bargain as the due date approaches, Faust isn't particularly troubled or elated by having Mephistopheles around to cater to his wishes.

The Jew of Malta and Edward the Second are the most satisfying.

Self-awareness isn't a trait common in Marlowe's characters. Marlowe's approach to characterisation is repetition and intensification rather than development. The plays focus on actions rather than on discussions of them, and spectacle is an important element in them. Marlowe murders people onstage rather than having a messenger report their deaths. Compared to Shakespeare, Marlowe is more alert to the theatrical, and his plays are more closely organized, with fewer subplots and contrasting episodes and characters. Marlowe doesn't have characters like the Son Who Kills His Father and the Father Who Kills His Son. Faustus is the only play with clowns--although this may be an accident of the editing of the plays; the publisher of Tamburlaine wrote in a preface that he omitted much that was not in his opinion germane to the play.

5. Shakespeare, King Henry VI, Part 3. Arden ed., ed, John D Cox and Eric Rasmussen. 1/16. Good introduction and notes by Cox and Rasmussen.  An eventful and action-packed play with a great role for actresses in the character of Margaret. In comparison with S's later histories and tragedies, this has  more ghoulish acts and battles portrayed on stage. It also resembles Marlowe's Tamburlaine in having more military bluster as a prelude to the battles. Perhaps because I just read Marlowe, I see similarities between the two plays in terms of staging and presentation of characters but there does seem to be some mutual influence here.

The play distorts, compresses, and conflates a lot of history in the usual Shakespearean fashion (the future Richard III is portrayed as an adult throughout, for example, but in reality he was a child when many of the events depicted in the early acts occurred), but Shakespeare hadn't quite figured out yet how to hone in on certain characters and select events to focus a spotlight on his theme. Here we get perfidy and evil in generous proportions, but they are spread out over a great many characters. All the characters appeal to moral standards when it suits their purposes but ignore them when it's convenient--politicians haven't changed. The major players here see that they are creating misery for everyone but they put the blame on their opponents--again, politicians haven't changed. There's a lot of Realpolitic and ambition here, but little morality. The only moral character is Henry VI, and he's such a weakling that he gives morality (not to mention stupidity) a bad name. Like Marlowe, Shakespeare sees that both strength and weakness in rulers create problems (and trouble for England in French queens).

Read by itself, the play's treatment of Richard would seem unfinished and open-ended. It's only in Richard III that we see the outcome of these hints. It makes the play seem a way station on the road to Richard III. In the editors' discussion of the play's performance history. they note that some productions have taken prefaced Richard III with Richard's long speeches in 3 Henry VI. That makes sense. Shakespeare, however, seems to have assumed his audience's acquaintance with the events in the play; so perhaps a common vision of Richard made the play more self-contained to contemporary audiences.

6. Edgard Telles Ribeiro, His Own Man. Trans. from the Portuguese by Kim M. Hastings. 1/18. A first-person narrator recounts the events of the period of military rule in Brazil that started in the 1960s from the perspective of an employee of the Foreign Ministry. Just before the military coup, the narrator is befriended by Max, a high-flyer in the ministry. Max is ambitious and devoted to furthering himself. After the coup, he rises quickly and becomes a mid-level player in the destabilisation of Paraguay and then Chile. When civilian rule returns, he switches camps and just as quickly rises even further. The novel is the narrator's attempt to account for Max's career, and his own as well.

The story is told from the perspective of the present (ca. 2010). Both the narrator and other characters who lived through the events remark that people are forgetting the horrors of military rule. The novel appears to be an earnest attempt to enshrine at least the memories of a middle-class person who cooperated with the military yet was appalled by their actions. Max is the ostensible focus of the work, but it deals equally with the narrator. There are a lot of technical flaws--chief among them is that the first-person narration makes it necessary for the author to put the narrator through no small amount of contortions to learn what he learns about Max. Lots of heavy-handed symbolism. It's not a bad work overall, but neither Max nor the narrator is tormented by his insider's knowledge of the workings of the military government in any way except verbally. They not only get off easy compared to others but let themselves off easily. Max thinks that he is own man, but he is being manipulated by others--his superiors in the ministry, the church, his social and career ambitions, and the CIA and other intelligence services.

7.  James Ellroy, Perfidia. 127. Nearly 700 pages. This is a prequel to Ellroy's later series dealing with the LA police department. More or less the same cast of characters but younger. It takes place just after Pearl Harbor. A family of four Japanese Americans has been murdered in their home. One of the lead CSI investigators is also a Japanese American. The cops occasionally take time out from corrupt money-making schemes and intra-office politics to fit someone up for a crime or kill a few people. The Japanese American CSI techie solves the crime, but the wrong people suffer for it. It's much the same blend of police mayhem and corrupt politicians and capitalists found in all of Ellroy's books along with a new touch of CSI, which is probably an influence from all the TV CSI shows.

8. Shakespeare, The Two Gentlemen of Verona. 1/29. This is a decent play up until the last act, which is rushed and improbable even by the standards of last acts of comedies in which all is set right. The scene where Proteus starts to rape Sylvia, is interrupted by Valentine, who then forgives Proteus and  offers Sylvia to him as a token of his forgiveness, is just bizarre.  The bonds of male friendship apparently outweigh adoration for or even simple courtesy to the female, who is offered up as a sacrifice to that friendship by someone with no right to do so. The betrayal of one friend by another, especially when a woman in involved, is repeated in later plays such as Cymbeline and Othello (although only Othello thinks Iago a friend) and in poems such as Lucrece and the Sonnets. Even in this early play, S is handling the subplots well--Lance's loyalty to his dog compares favorably to Proteus' loyalty to Valentine and Julia.

9. Ben Jonson, Ben Jonson's Plays and Masques, Norton ed., ed. Richard Harp. Contains Volpone, Epicoene, The Alchemist, and a selection of three masques presented at court. The masques are of historical interest--elaborate entertainments meant to buttress the monarchy and praise the current sovereign.

All three plays presented here feature con artists and schemers. No one gets seriously hurt in Jonson--embarrassed perhaps but not seriously injured. No one really learns a lesson, however, from their comeuppance. One suspects that all of them will be back the next day unchanged.

Jonson is technically one of the best playwrights of his age. Congreve and Sheridan owe a lot to him. These are very adept and witty comedies. Still, if given the choice, I'd opt for Shakespeare's messier works.

10. Val McDermid, The Skeleton Road. 2/5. Three disparate story lines that become linked at the end because the killer is the same person of interest to all three investigations. A weathered skeleton with a bullet hole in the head is found in a building scheduled for demolition in Edinburgh. The cold case squad, which is led by a woman, is brought in. The findings of the forensic anthropologist point her toward a Croatian general. An Oxford female professor, who as a young woman was caught in Dubrovnic during the Serbian siege, is trying to sort out her life with the same Croatian general, who disappeared eight years earlier. She thinks he returned to Croatia and his family there. Two lawyers who work for the International Court of Justice in the Hague are trying to find the person in their organization who is leaking information to a person who is assassinating Serbian war criminals who have escaped justice. Eventually all three investigations lead them to the same person. About halfway through, it became clear who that person had to be.  McDermid as usual delivers, but this could have done with an editing--there are too many subplots; even the two lawyers searching for their assassin could have been cut out, with no loss.

11.  Stuart Neville, The Final Silence. 2/6. A serial killer is uncovered after a man dies and his niece cleans up his house and discovers a diary detailing the crimes. Niece is killed by uncle's accomplice (who is the real serial killer; the uncle was just a sympathetic friend), but not before she tells story to former boyfriend, who is a dysfunctional but honest cop battling corruption in the police forces. A tough female cop accuses the dysfunctional cop of the murder of the girlfriend, but he evades arrest and uncovers the real killer.

Complications: Female cop has just found out she has cancer and is agonising over telling husband and children. Dysfunctional cop is battling his deceased wife's relatives over custody of their child. Niece has politician/father and battered mum who want her to keep her uncle's secrets. Father is the one who unwittingly sets the killer on his daughter by giving him a key to the uncle's house so that the killer can steal the diary. The uncle and the serial killer had a quasi homosexual relationship. All this takes place with a cast of characters with deep roots in the Troubles.

Nicely written and carefully plotted. 

12. Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew. 2/7. A farce that cannot bear much analysis. Rampant confusion, no clear motivation for half the actions, unconvincing conversions. The women in this aren't close to the complex characters of the later plays. So many of the characters are playing a role and hiding from themselves or others. Unlike many of the other comedies, tragedy is not lurking nearby.

13. Shakespeare, King Henry VI, Part I. 2/9. Apparently a 'prequel' written after Parts II and III. A lot of spectacle here and foreshadowing of later actions. The Rose Garden scene and the start of the War of the Roses, Joan of Arc, the French and English contest over France, the dynastic struggles of the Plantagenets, noble Talbot. The action largely is left unresolved. The indecisiveness of Henry VI, the rivalries of the upper levels of the aristocracy, and the problematic Margaret of Anjou are introduced. There is much celebration of Englishness in this play, and much dispargement of the French and popish schemes to hobble the English. It's rather an stew of events early in Henry VI's reign, with much mangling of historical chronology. I read it out of chronological order because it's the weakest of the three plays.

14. Shakespeare, King Henry VI, Part 2. 2/16. Another omnibus play--the downfall of the Duke of Gloucester and his wife, the struggle to control Henry VI, Henry's weaknesses and sanctity, the Cade rebellion, the Duke of York and the battle of St. Albans.

15. Thomas Nashe, The Unfortunate Traveller and Other Works. 2/16. Ed. J. B. Steane. Contains complete texts of Pierce Penniless his supplication to the devil, Summer's Last Will and Testament, The Terrors of the Night, The Unfortunate Traveller, Lenten Stu, and The Choice of Valentine; and excerpts from The Anatomy of Absurdity, Preface to Green's Menaphon, Strange News, Christ's Tears over Jerusalem, and Have with You to Saffron Walden.

I find Nashe more of historical than of literary interest. He was verbose and apparently a facile writer. Much of this reads like undergraduate humour and childish venom. This took me several weeks to read, and I didn't finish Lenten Stuff--a too long panegyric to Yarmouth and smoked herring. The Unfortunate Traveller was the most interesting work--part picaresque adventure novel, part travelogue, part potted history.

16. Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus. 2/20.  Luckily Shakespeare abandoned the type of theatrical ghoulishness so on display here. I get the feeling that in the early plays Shakespeare was trying things out to see what he could make work on stage. Unlike others of his contemporaries he abandoned on-stage portrayals of violence in favor of vivid descriptions of off-stage mayhem. Aaron and Tamora remain the most interesting characters here--an unabashed villain who revels in his evil and a vengeful mother who uses sex to gain power. A lot of upper-class women in subsequent plays are accused of being seductive, but Tamora and Margaret in the Henry VI plays are among the few upper-class women actually guilty of adultery and of using sex to further their successes. The other seductive women in the plays tend to come from the lower classes, as in the Henry IV plays and The Merry Wives.

17. Shakespeare, King Richard III, Arden ed. ed. James R. Siemon. Siemon's introduction gets at what Shakespeare added to the Tudor propaganda about Richard--the humour is apparently S's innovation in Richard's portrait.  The  villainy and treachery in this play are unrelenting, but somehow one ends up half-liking Richard while not thinking well of his opponents. Richard oddly doesn't seem to know what to do with the kingship once he gets his hands on the throne. About the only actions he does on-stage as king are to drive his adherents into rebellion and sentence them to death. No one comes off well in this, however. Richmond comes across as devious and self-serving as Richard. Margaret is a great character, but she is terminally blessed with a blind eye for her own transgressions.

18. Shakespeare, King Lear. 3/11. Arden ed., ed. R. A. Foakes. Good introduction and notes by the editor. Read against the histories, S's thoughts on the impact of rulers' foolish decisions are clear. To say the least, Lear and everyone around him pay a heavy price for his enlightenment. Foakes conflates the quarto and the folio texts. Through his copious notes on the differences between the two editions and long discussions in the introduction and appendixes, it's possible to trace S's revisions of the story.

19. Val McDermid, NorthangerAbbey. 3/11. An updating of Austen by an author who should have known better.

20.  Peter Ackroyd, Rebellion: The History of England from James ( to the Glorious Revolution.  3/15.  A history of the Stuart period, concentrating on the politics, but with separate, short chapters on Milton, Hobbes, and Newton. Covers the reigns of James I and Charles I much more thoroughly than those of Charles II and James II, which it passes over rather quickly. It's almost as if a page count had been determined before the writing began, and once the author got to Cromwell, he discovered he didn't have many pages left and needed to compress the last two reigns. He does avoid the sexual scandals of the periods and passes over them with only brief mentions, which is to his credit. A serviceable popular history.

21. Charles Elton, Mr. Toppit. 3/15. Mr Toppit is a bogeyman in a series of fictional children's stories written by the main character's late father. Luke Hayman and his childhood home (a restored English manor in Devon) were his father's sources of inspiration for five novels about a boy named Luke Hayseed and Mr Toppit, a denizen of Darkwood. The popularity of the novels causes problems for Luke and his sister, as well as their mother. The woman behind the popularity of the 'Hayseed series' is an American talk-show host, and she is one of the other main characters. Elton gets both the British and the American parts of the story right, which is uncommon. This is a debut novel, but, according to jacket blurb, Elton has had a career in publishing and in producing for ITV, and so he has experience in other areas of writing and narrative. It's a very entertaining black comedy.

22. Jasper Fforde, The Fourth Bear. 3/17. Part of the Nursery Crime series. Usual Fforde,

23.  Shakespeare, Comedy of Errors. 3/21. Technically adroit, fast-paced, probably funny if well acted, but just not that interesting. One of the few comedies that doesn't threaten to become a tragedy, and perhaps because of that bland and innocuous.

24.  Shakespeare, King Henry IV, Part 1. Arden ed., ed. David Scott Kastan. 3/22. Excellent introduction and notes by Kastan summarizing the major interpretations of the play and making a strong case that the play is open to sundry approaches. Good explanation of why the historical Oldcastle was chosen as the comic character who became Falstaff.  Prince Hal is so calculating in his actions; it's hard to see him in a good light. It's also difficult to buy his explanation that all his carousing is intended to make his later reformation that much more admirable. Shakespeare is again questioning the basis of rule, and the roles of what we would call legitimacy, coercion, charisma, expediency, tradition, and inertia.

25. Shakespeare, Love's Labour's Lost. 3/23. Like the Comedy of Errors, this is technically adroit, and contemporary audiences probably found it witty, but the wit now gets lost in all the footnotes necessary to explain it. It's also lifeless and cold and rather mean-spirited.  A jest and a jape rather than a comedy. Love pro forma from clueless swains who are quite rightly not taken seriously by the women. The lack of serious engagement between the couples makes it a contests of wits rather than emotions--unlike Beatrice and Benedict, these pairs never catch fire. It come across as another of S's experiments in a genre he didn't take to.

26. Shakespeare, Richard II. 3/26. In reading the plays by probably order of composition, this is one of the first in which the mature Shakespeare is apparent. A man undone by his own actions is pushed aside by an ambitious man with an eye for the main chance. No one comes off well in this play, except perhaps for Richard's queen, but that is a minor role. Expedience trumps morality in politics, and loyalty is in scant supply.

27.  Andre  Gide, Les Faux-monnayeurs, with appended Journal des Faux-mannayeurs. 3/28. Gide's attempt to come to terms with the gulf between fiction and reality. Both he and the fictional writer Edouard, the protagonist of the novel, are hampered in this effort by tendency of humans, both real and fictional, to create their own fictions about themselves. The multiple layers of counterfeiting make the novelist's goals difficult to achieve, a fact Gide ends up embracing and celebrating. Successful portraits of teenage boys capturing their propensity for enthusiasms and the rigidity of their opinions. A lot is going on in this work--God and the Devil play major roles, as do good and evil, beliefs, sexual attraction, and the relationships between spouses, between parents and children, and between seducers and the seduced. Sometimes it feels as if Gide was determine to express opinions on a wide range of topics. Gide also employs a highly intrusive narrator--the kind found more often in early novels.

The appended journals are the notebooks that Gide kept while writing the work. The book had a long gestation and ended up almost drifting in being.

28.  Neil Gordon, The Company You Keep. 3/30. The modern version of an epistolary novel--the email novel, except it isn't. No one, writes emails like the ones in the book--only a traditional novelist strews emails with lyrical scenic descriptions. Since emails are written in the first person, this does allow the author access to the characters' inner thoughts and points of view, which means that he can examine the story from diverse angles. The only problem is that the voices aren't clearly distinguishable, a point he proves late in the novels by having two characters describe each other's actions in their own emails. Contrived tale about ex-Vietnam-era revolutionaries on the run in 1996. Somehow all the main characters know what the others are thinking and everyone ends up in the same place, doing the right thing. Many info-dumps about the Vietnam era and impassioned speeches about the failing of modern society. The only question is why I bothered to finish this.

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