Books, 2017 (1)

1. Shakespeare, King Lear. 1/1.

2. Shakespeare, Richard iii. 1/3.

3. Shakespeare, Twelfth Night. 1/6.

4. Shakespeare, The Tempest. 1/8. I grow increasingly inclined to see Prospero as the villain of this piece.

5. Four French Plays, Corneille, Cinna; Moliere, The Misanthrope; and Racine, Andromache and Phaedra. Trans. John Edmunds; with an introduction by Joseph Harris. 1/9. All very classical in terms of the three unities and showing a great debt to classical drama--only a few characters on stage at any moment and long declamatory speeches, with little action. Edmunds succeeded in his aim of producing versions that could be staged. The results aren't 'poetic', but the plays read well. The two Racine plays interested me the most--the characters' internal conflicts make them more complex as human beings and less static representatives of types.

6. Shakespeare, As You Like It. 1/13.

7. Kate Atkinson, Behind the Scenes at the Museum. 1/16. Atkinson pulls off the difficult feat of having a omniscient narrator who's also the first-person narrator of this book. Somehow it seems convincing that the fetus and then the child who narrates this book knows everything she does about the thoughts and motivations of not only the adults surrounding her but ancestors she never
 met.

Ruby Lennox is the youngest of four daughters and tells her family's story from conception to middle age. Her oldest sister, Patricia, remarks at one point that the past is something you put behind you. Ruby more perceptively remarks that the past is something you take with you. In her case, the past--the museum of the title--includes four generations of unhappy women making unwise marriages and having sometimes difficult relationships with their parents, spouses, siblings, and children.

Atkinson writes with considerable elan and much humour, despite the constant presence of death and unhappiness in this. There are a number of surprises. Ruby finds out a decade after the event that she had a twin sister who drowned (Ruby is falsely blamed for this). Characters disappear and are presumed dead, only to reappear. The great-grandmother of the clan runs off with a travelling photographer and nearly meets the rest of the family decades later. Pat runs away from home only to resurface in Autralia years afterwards. Unsuspected relatives turn up and flit in and out of the family's life--in nearly the last scene the nurse attending  the death bed of Ruby's mother is, unknown to all involved, the illegitimate daughter of a hitherto unknown Canadian cousin who showed up on the family's doorstep during WWII service in the RAF and then was shot down on an air raid. Atkinson writes with such skill that none of these twists and coincidences seem unreasonable.

8. Kate Atkinson,  Case Histories. 1/18. A complex mystery (actually several mysteries) linked by their investigation by the same PI, Jackson Brodie. Enlivened by Atkinson's sure sense of character and her facility with language.

9. Kate Atkinson, One Good Turn. 1/22.  The second instalment of the Jackson Brodie stories. Another complex mystery, filled with improbable coincidences. Jackson stumbles across a corpse floating in the water only because he falls into conversation with an old lady who tells him he should go sightseeing around a certain village. The corpse was murdered by a goon Brodie just happened to see earlier in the day attempting to kill the driver of a car the goon rearended. The driver is saved only because a passer-hy hurls his laptop computer at the goon. The driver is a hit man, hired by the wife of the man who is the goon's boss. The passer-by ends up killing the goon later with a gun he stole from the hit man. Wheels within wheels. There is also a Russian woman who is a great gangster, with many skills.

The work is saved by great characters and Atkinson's wit. It is really the characters who make such novels good or bad.

10. Kate Atkinson, When Will There Be Good News? 1/24. The third instalment in the Jackson Brodie Series. More ongoing entanglements from the past in the current lives of the characters.

11. Kate Atkinson, Started Early, Took My Dog. 1/25. The fourth and apparently final instalment of the Jackson Brodie series. These are perhaps best read as separate volumes of a four-volume work dealing with the impact of our pasts on our present and the tenacious grips of childhood traums. All presented with a narrative brio composed of equal parts audacity and wit. By the end, characters from earlier plots are resurfacing and interacting with the new characters.  Even the dead have walk-on parts. The coincidences beggar belief but are intriguing. They are less plot holes and shortcuts and more added mysteries. As several characters remark on different occasions, coincidences are explanations waiting to happen. Atkinson explores many of the same themes in her other works, with less overt violence and criminality perhaps, but these four novels aren't so much mysteries and private eye thrillers or police procedurals as explorations of her themes of the impacts of psst traumas, the difficulties of loving and being loved, responsibility, the role of accident.and randomness in our lives, hope, and the fact that art doesn't really have any answers, just questions.  This particular volume is graced with quotations from Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson.

12. Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers. 1/26. Trollope is such an exasperating author. He understands people, he writes well, but his novels end up being so trivial. He writes of the stuff that serious authors do, but he makes so little of it. His novels are entertaining and occasionally insightful, but they are disappointing, sugar-coated versions of life. The sad thing is that it is clear from his comments ("There is no happiness in love except at the end of an English novel") he knew that they were.

13. Kate Atkinson, Human Croquet. 1/31. Atkinson's second novel bears some superficial plot resemblances to Behind the Scenes at the Museum--narrated by a young girl, mysteries in the family, eccentric characters, coincidences, a jagged timeline.

Human croquet is a game in a women's household tips book owned by a neighbour. Pairs of players link hands and hold them over their heads to form arches (the hoops in the games). Other people are blindfolded and act as the balls. A third group of players "wield the mallets" by directing the "balls" through the hoops.

The characters in this are the balls being directed badly through the hoops. The young heroine/narrator imagines/experiences different versions of reality as she goes through the same hoops over and over. Her mother is dead, and she and her brother keep finding odd remnants of her in the old house they inhabit. Through flashbbacks and third-person narratives inserted into the action, Atkinson reveals the true story (or maybe alternative fictional versions) of the characters' histories. As in other Atkinson novels, coincidences abound. The boy of the narrator's juvenile  fantasies turns out to be her half-brother, born to her mother when she was a high-class prostitute and spirited away by the mother's pimp. None of the characters knows this or understands any of the other coincidences that link them.

There are many references to other works and some outright quotations. The old house is named Arden, and Shakespeare figures not only as a source of references but as a character in the novel as the tutor in the household of a sixteenth-century ancestor.

Somehow Atkinson makes this all seem normal and acceptable.

14. Kate Atkinson, Emotionally Weird. 2/4. Another complex narrative. Most of this takes place in 1972 in the twin Scottish cities of Dundee and Fife. Effie Andrews, the first-person narrator, is a student at the University of Dundee taking courses in English and creative writing. She, like the other students, is writing fiction and essays on literature. Her own writings and those of the other students are quoted in the text--each in a different type. At the same time, the novel she is narrating--an account of life at the univeisity--is interrupted by comments from her future self and a woman named Nora, whom Effie believes to be her mother.

In a very complex twist, Nora turns out to be the incestuous child of siblings fathered by a man who later marries Effie's birth mother. Nora is raised as if she were the child of the man and his second wife (soon deceased) and her own parents were her siblings. Many years later, when the man is dying of cancer, Effie's mother is hired to nurse him. Eventually she becomes the man's third wife. After Effie is born, her mother poisons her husband and then herself. The evil sister who is Nora's mother tries to drown the infant Effie to ensure her inheritance, but Effie is rescued by Nora, who believes she kills her sister/mother in the process. Nora raises Effie as her own daughter. Because Nora is falsely believed to have killed Effie's birth mother and her husband, she and Effie spend their lives on the lam, running from one small seaside town to another.  All this comes out at the end of the novel.

At the University of Dundee, Effie is an inept student surrounded by the most part by other inept students. It is 1972, and there is much talk of the early theories of the post-modernists, as well as much facile left-wing posturing, early angry feminism, early nerdism (Star Trek mostly), and clueless hippy environmentalism. Effie keeps running into a private eye and a mysterious women in red who appears to be stalking her. The private eye turns out to be her real father, and the woman in red is Nora's birth mother. So Effie's supposed mother is not her real mother, her supposed aunt is not her aunt, her supposed father is not her father, etc. Much like the novel Atkinson is writing, Effie is a product of many sets of parents.

Effie is also attempting to finish an essay discussing Henry James's criticisms of Middlemarch as diffuse and too riddled with authorial interruptions of the text. The novel that Effie is narrating turns out to be more indebted to Eliot than to James, even as the novel that Atkinson is writing turns out to be Eliot crossed with post-modernist theories of the text.

All of this is embedded in a comic novel, which is great fun to read, even as it comments on the process of writing a novel.

15. Kate Atkinson, Not the End of the World. 2/13. A series of twelve linked stories bookended by the stories of Trudi and Charlene. It turns out in the last story that they are two friend trapped in Trudi's apartment when the door is nailed shut because of the presence of plague in the house. The stories they tell each other occupy themselves and keep them alive. As in the Jackson Brodie novels, Atkinson makes a minor character in one story a major character in another. The ten stories in the middle stand on their own, however. some stories are marked with odd transformations and supernatural details--a dead women who's been haunting her house comes back to life only to die a second time; a man encounters his doppelganger, a stray cat sires a brood of kittens on the woman who adopts him. The stories depend on free indirect prose and internal monologues of unhappy people.

16. Kate Atkinson, A God in Ruins. 2/21. The title derives from Emerson: 'A man is a god in ruins'; another epigraph quotes a character in the book; 'The purpose of Art is to convey the truth of a thing, not to be the truth itself.'

A complex tale of a British bomber pilot during WWII. Like Atkinson's other books, it roams easily back and forth through time, from the man's childhood in a well-off, middle-class home to his final years in an elder-care facility (sometimes within the same sentence). Teddy Todd is a nature enthusiast first seen in an extended walk with an aunt who is writing the first in what will become an extended series about a rambunctious boy. She is mining Teddy for material, The fictional Augustus is much more unconstrained and joyously bad than the fictional Teddy. Teddy emerges from Oxford unprepared to do much of anything and spends a year wandering about, labouring on farms in England and France. He is tricked into returning home and joins his father's bank, where he is bored. He enthusiastically joins the RAF at the start of the war and becomes a bomber pilot. He is one of the few to survive the war. He marries his childhood sweetheart. The two of them become teachers in Yorkshire. They eventually have a duaghter, who in turn has two children. The wife dies--actually Teddy kills her when she is in the final stages of brain cancer. He lives on, raising his daughter alone and much later taking in her two children. He grows old. The daughter forces him into an assisted living home and then later into a care facility, where he dies.

Teddy's wartime life is arduous and horrifying. Atkinson's descriptions of flying, of bombing raids, of ditching a plane, are harrowing. Teddy is shot down over Germany and spends the final months of the war in a prison camp. His post-war life is calm in comparison. He marries more for comfort than for romance. He is an unenthusiastic teacher. A chance encounter leads to a job on a small Yorkshire paper and a career in journalism. The daughter, Viola, is unexpected. She is named after Stakespeare's heroine and like that Viola spends much of the novel in disguise, mostly from herself. She is a genuine horror of self-obsession, a belated hippy communard and frequenter of fads until she become a successful popular novelist in her forties. Her two children are lucky to escape for a few years with Teddy, and, despite their mother, end up becoming rather successful as human beings.

In the final pages, all this post-war history is revealed to be an alternative life created by Atkinson. The 'real' fictional Teddy died in the war, and his post-war history provides him with the life that he and so many others missed. Along the way, there is much musing about the efficacy of the war and its morality. Its final cost is the lives it prevented--not only Teddy's but his child's and grandchildren's. None of these lives was important, at least not to anyone but themselves and their families. As the narrator points out, they won't be remembered (in their fictional world--they deserve to be remembered in the world of fiction).

Late in the work, Sunny, the grandson, who is a yoga instructor in Bali, tells his students a story. In the beginning human beings were immortal like the gods, but they abused their powers. The gods decide to punish them by hiding immortality from them. They can't think of a place to hide it, however, where the clever humans won't rediscover it. Their solution is to hide immortality within people--it's the one place, they reason, that humans won't look. I think what Atkinson is trying to say is that for a man in ruins fiction, the stories we tell about ourselves, are our form of immortality. 

At the end, Atkinson appends a list of some of the works about WWII that she read as background preparation. What impresses me most about this list is not its quality and its quantity, but the deft way that Atkinson uses this information. A lesser writer would have subjected readers to 'info-dumps'; Atkinson makes it the characters' reality.

17. Kate Atkinson, Life After Life. 2/26. I should have read this before A God in Ruins. This deals with the same family as that work, but in Life the main character is Teddy Todd's sister Ursula. Ursula has an unusual power. She can go back and relive her previous life, correcting her mistakes until she gets it right. Ursula dies in childbirth, survives that in various ways, dies of childhood accidents, dies of the Spanish Flu at the end of WWI, gets pregnant and dies of a botched abortion, travels to Germany and kills Hitler, travels to Germany, marries a German, and dies in Berlin at the end of WWII, marries a sadistic man in England and is murdered by him, never marries and dies in several gruesome scenarios during the Blitz. Along the way, many of her loved ones die as well. She finally gets her life straightened out and survives WWII along with those she loves most.

Atkinson hurtles precipitously along these time lines, jogging back and forth among them with verve.  The book is an audacious investigation of the possibilities of fiction. It's also an entertaining read. Atkinson researched the period intensively and, as in A God in Ruins, uses that learning as background to create a convincing story. She can present the horrors of war so poignantly. In one sequence, Ursula is serving as an air-raid warden. She and a co-worker want to move a body. She picks the corpse up by the arms, and her co-worker lifts it by the feet. The body splits apart 'like a Christmas cracker'. That's all Atkinson writes. But nothing more is needed to convey that horror than a simile so far from the experience that it leaves the reader gasping.

18.  Shakespeare, Cymbeline. Arden 3 ed., ed. Valerie Wayne. Good introduction by Wayne placing the concerns of the plot in historical context. She, like many recent editors, prefers the spelling Innogen. There is a strong argument for this, but the tradition of Imogen pulls.

There are so many conflicts in this: Innogen with Cymbeline and her stepmother; Iachimo and Posthumous; Cloten and Innogen; Iachimo and Innogen; Posthumous and Imogen; Romans and Britons; more civilised Britons vs. less civilised Britons; Belarius and Cymbeline. There are also several characters are war with themselves: notably Posthumous, but also Pisanio and Innogen. There are three missing children.

The final scene has to reveal the true identities of Posthumous/fierce fighter for the Britons and sometime Roman, Innogen/Fidele, the two brothers/lost sons of Cymbeline, Belarius. Plus the jealosy plot has to be unraveled; the evil stepmother exposed; Cloten's death explained; the family reunited; all past transgressions forgiven; and peace restored between Rome and Britain. It's a tribute to Shakespeare that it somehow all works.

19. Barbara Pym,  A Few Green Leaves. 3/7. Pym's last novel. Emma, an anthropologist, takes up residence in a village in Oxfordshire. The village is inhabited by a widowed rector and his sister, several old maids or widows, an ex-priest turned food and wine expert and restaurant reviewer, two doctors and their wives, an academic couple, and briefly one of Emma's ex-boyfriends who rents a cottage on the local estate to finish a book. The only member of the lower classes is the rector's daily, an obstreperous gossip. There are several walk-on parts. Emma initially treats the locals as fodder for a research paper on modern village life but she is eventually drawn into village life. In her imagination she briefly constructs a renewed affair with the ex-boyfriend, but quickly rejects him upon further acquaintance. At the end, she is leaning towards the rector.

There is no plot. The characters are introduced, they walk about the village, they chat, they meet, they leave. The characters live curiously unexamined lives. They are content with their lot. Pym describes externals and only seldom gives us their thoughts. The novel is readable but unsatisfying. It's like reading one of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple stories but without the mystery.

Emma is named after the Austen character, and this novel's heroine similarly seems destined to become the wife of the local Mr Knightley.  The characters are, however, pale shadows of those in Austen.

18.  Barbara Pym, A Glass of Blessings. 3/10. I must have read this and the preceding item at some time, because they are on my bookshelves, but I have no recollection of having done so. In truth, neither is particularly memorable. This is a first-person narrative told by Wilmet Forsythe, a well-off woman with nothing in particular to do and not much in the way of qualifications to succeed at doing even the little she feels up to doing. She is married with no children to a gray man who works in a ministry; she and her husband live in his mother's house; Wilmet seems to have nothing to do with the running of the household. She attends a great many services at a high Anglican church and takes a gossipy interest in the lives of the three priests. Her thoughts tend to wander during the services, and she is intrigued more by the forms than by the doctrines. She also shops. She visits friends, most of whom she has little affection for. The one exception lives in the country and takes a rather bemused interest in her husband's desultory passion for Wilmet. Wilmet also finds it amusing.

Wilmet does conceive a crush for her friend's brother, Piers, who hasn't been successful at life. He is handsome and ekes out a living as a proofreader and a night-school teacher of Portuguese. Wilmet has what she imagines to be a date with him, only to discover what is clear to everyone else but Wilmet--that Piers's interests lie elsewhere. Indeed he has a live-in boyfriend. There is also another gay character--the priests' housekeeper and cook at the clergy house. Wilmet also doesn't understand that until late in the novel. Since this was first published in 1958, the gay business is handled with discretion and goes unnamed and unlabelled in the novel.

Wilmet is an incomplete person. Piers remarks that she is incapable of love. In the end, Wilmet achieves a form of serenity, her own version of the cup of blessings.

What is interesting here is the way Pym tailored Wilmet's first-person narrative to the limitation of the character while simultaneously letting the reader see things Wilmet does not. There are points where the narrative is inept and stilted and the emotions are cliched, but that is because Wilmet isn't the brightest person around. She is decorative and the recipient of ready-made opinions, and that limits her perceptions and comments. She is stunned to find out that Piers is gay, that her mother-in-law will marry the archaeology professor she spends so much time with, and that her husband had an affair--all matters that are clear to the reader long before Wilmet is told of these facts. The book is a lesson in literary irony and interesting more for its technical achievements than for its contents. Wilmet just isn't capable of supporting a great novel.

19.  B. S. Johnson, Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry. 3/16. Christie Malry is a young accountant in a large firm who decides to adapt double-entry bookkeeping to his personal life. He assigns a value to the various injuries, mostly psychological, that he receives and then takes revenge, again assigning a value to the deed. At the end of the month he balances debits against credits and carries forward the balance. He hits upon the idea when he is forced to take a detour around a building site and retaliates by defacing the facade of the building. His responses intensify to the point when he poisons a reservoir and kills 20,000 people to exact revenge for the income tax. Malry dies of cancer at a young age, still many thousands of pounds in arrears.

Johnson was an experimental writer in the 1960s. The novel features many direct comments from the author to reader and discussions between the author and the protagonist. Johnson also intentionally used rare words and a few nonce words that stop the reading in its tracks (or would if the reader takes the time to look the words up or tries to derive their meaning from the component parts). Johnson apparently wanted to interrupt the flow of the reading and force readers to think about what it was they were reading. He was opposed to the realistic novel, and he wanted readers to know that they were reading a fiction. He didn't want to produce the type of book in which readers lose themselves and forget that they are reading fiction. As Malry remarks to the author at one point, he is conducting an experiment in form. A quote: 'Headlam paused to provide a paragraph break for resting the reader's eye in what might otherwise have been a daunting mass of type.'

This isn't a long book, and Johnson wraps it up quickly. It is experimental, but it's not so strange that it comes across as just plain weird. There is a plot of sort; the characters are likable, and despite the author's intentions, it is a book that invites an imaginative reading and hallucinatory immersion. If anything, it proves that the novel is a malleable form.

20.  B. S. Johnson, Albert Angelo. 3/20. This was Johnson's second published novel and is less experimental than his later ones. It features multiple narrative approaches--dialogue presented as it would be in a published play, first- and third-person narrations, student essays, an excerpt from a biography of Marlowe, portions of pages cut out so that the text on other pages is readable. The Albert of the title is a young man trained as an architect who is a supply teacher in London schools. He recently lost his lover and soulmate and grieves and complains about that a lot. He has a friend with who he goes out in a similar situation and the two of them discuss their predicament. He complains about his students, and they complain about him.

Albert wanders around London evaluating the architecture, which results in many discussions with terms unfamiliar to me. Even Google didn't help with some of them. Still this is an intriguing book, if for no other reason that the lead character is so likable. The book ends with a distraught section in which Johnson draws parallels between his own life and Albert's and advocates truth-telling in fiction. There is a short epilogue in which a group of Albert's students toss him in a canal and he dies..

21-27. J. K. Rowling, The Harry Potter series. 4/22. A marathon reading of all seven books in the series.  Since I knew what would happen later in the series, what impressed me about Rowling's writing this time is the care with which she constructed it. Seemingly off-hand details and occurrences become the basis--sometimes much later in the saga--for other events. One thing that bothers me about sci-fi and fantasy novels is the ease with which authors conjure up just the right device at the moment the hero needs it--the machina ex deo maneuver of fiction writing. Rowling avoids that by imagining a complete universe and embedding its rules and procedures early on.

Another thing that impressed me is that she doesn't write down for kids. She uses an adult vocabulary, and she doesn't sugarcoat things--some very nasty deaths happen to people she has made readers care about. Nor are her characters perfect. Hermione is smart but not infallible. Ron and Harry are teenager boys and can be as petulant and irritating as any teenagers. Dumbledore has a troublesome history, and he makes mistakes in judgment. The important thing about the 'good' characters is that they have the courage to make the right choices when they need to and the capacity to love and sacrifice. Even some of the minor characters like Neville and Luna, who are often played for laughs earlier, step forward at the end.

The final battle at Hogwarts is a great set piece, and its climax is Mrs Weazely's defeat of Bellatrix Lestrange--a mother's love and desire to protect overcoming that particular bit of evil. Harry's destruction of Valdemort is an overdetermined event--both by the conventions of the genre and Neville's killing of the final horcrux. Valdemort's end isn't a surprise, but Mrs Weazely charging into battle calling Bellatrix a 'bitch'--well, that's just magnificent.

28. Ivy Compton-Burnett, Elders and Betters. 4/25. Started reading this after finishing (18) above, as part of my 20th-century English women novelists binge. I found this slow-going. Compton-Burnett is justly famous for her ability to portray characters through dialogue, but too often the brittle conversation in this reminded me strongly of the excesses of Meredith and Wilde. What saves this is the character of Anna, who despite her frequent protestations of her simplicity and straightforwardness is a conniving, dishonest, evil manipulator.

The plot revolves around a brother, Benjamin, and his family; and his two sisters. Benjamin and his family rent a place in the country to be nearer to the two sisters, Jessica and Sukie, who lives with Jessica and her family.  Sukie is ill of a vaguely defined disease that allows to impose herself on everyone around her. Anna is very much the leading figure in her family.

By the time Benjamin's family arrives, Jessica's family is used to Sukie and verbally rebellious about honouring her demands. Anna sees an opportunity in this and ingratiates herself with Sukie. In a fit of pique over the behaviour of Jessica's family, Sukie changes her will to leave her fortune to Anna. She quickly repents of this, tells Anna of the new will and asks her to burn it. Anna instead burns the previous will that left everything to Jessica. Sukie then dies. The will is discovered, and Anna inherits.Jessica questions Anna in an attempt to understand Sukie's will. Anna convinces Jessica that she is a flawed person resented by her husband and children. Jessica commits suicide.

Anna then manipulates Jessica's eldest son into marrying her. This triggers a spate of marriages--Anna's first brother marries Jessica's daughter, and her second brother marries the orphaned niece of the governess of Jessica's two younger children.

The two youngest children in Jessica's family are precocious adults of nine and ten (or thereabouts), and they undertake to act like children to deceive the adults in the two households, their elders and betters.

A book that is as clever and as heartless as its characters.

29. Edward P. Jones, Lost in the City. 4/27. A collection of 15 short stories, all of them involving characters from the black community in Washington, D.C., and covering a wide swath of ages and circumstances The title story is typical of the collection. A successful woman--she is a government lawyer--learns early one morning that her mother has just died.  She leaves the man she spent the night with--she has trouble remembering his name--showers, gets dressed, and does several lines of cocaine while she is waiting for the cab. But rather than go to the hospital, she tells the driver to get "lost in the city," which proves impossible. Everywhere the driver takes her brings up memories. In "Gospel," Vivian's husband is dying. She sees a man tip his hat to a woman, and that reminds her of her husband, who used to do that. She drives to a supermarket parking lot and sit there in her car, overcome by sadness. Many of the stories revolve around similar situations of hopelessness and a sense of being trapped by circumstances.

These are gentle stories for the most part. They are little dramas, very human and ordinary.

30. Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale. 5/4. I first read this in the mid-1980s. At the time, it seemed to me far-fetched and fantastical. It is less so now. Atwood's story of the takeover of parts of the United States by a religious dictatorship and its ruthless subjugation of women is even more relevant today. Less prominent but hinted at are the persecution of other religions, of gays, and of racial groups.

What makes this a successful novel is Atwood's totalistic vision of this society and the way it would work and her psychological insight into the ways that subjugated populations achieve some measure of agency despite the indignities and cruelties perpetrated on them.

31.The New Testament, Revised English Bible. 5/15. The aim of this version is to present the text in modern English. It succeeds in this, but lacks the verbal grandeur of earlier versions. This is the first time, I've read the complete text all the way through in one go. If read with the early disputes over the nature of Christ and the rivalry between those who saw Jesus as the Jewish Messiah and those who were seeking to spread belief in Christ among the gentiles, the text becomes quite tendentiously in favour of those open to the gentiles. The four gospels stress belief and adherence to the spirit of the Law rather than observance of every stricture of the Law. Christ is more a miracle worker and less a preacher; the miracles are signs of his power and his position as the son of God.  Those who believe in him are rewarded for their belief. The epistles reveal much discord in the early church, and Paul's stress on his status as God's chosen emissary as the source of his authority hints at the opposition to his missionary work among the gentiles. Interestingly, Paul's epistles say more about the everyday behaviour expected of Christians than do the gospels, perhaps because the gospels were written by Jews who already had a detailed code of behaviour for daily life, and the epistles were written for gentiles, who needed guidance on how to behave as Christians. Revelations is an unholy mess.

Another interesting point is that very little of what we now regard as Christian doctrine is contained within the New Testament. Jesus' status is fluid; the members of the Trinity are present but not as members of the Trinity; there is no explicit doctrine of original sin (humans are simply prone to sin); no apostolic succession; no reverence for Mary; the notion of grace is undeveloped. The one important constant is the stress on faith as the requisite for eternal life.  The prospect of eternal life seems to be the greatest selling point. Most of the tests seem to contrast this with eternal death, rather than an eternity in Hell, except for Revelations, which does condemn non-believers to Hell.

The omissions and discrepancies are also revealing. Mark and John do not mention the nativity; Jesus appears and begins at a meeting held by John the Baptist and is divinely recognized there. Matthew has the nativity with the Three Wise Men and the flight into Egypt. Luke has the nativity with the shepherds and the choirs of angel, with the infant Jesus being taken to the Temple, where he is hailed as special by some of those present.

32. Annie Proulx, Bark Skins. 5/22.  A sprawling saga of two families covering the period from the 1600s to the present day. The Dusques, who morph into the Dukes, descend from a French settler of Quebec, are the exploiters of the wilderness in Canada, New England, and the Midwest, among other areas. The Sels, whose founding ancestor is also a French settler in Quebec who marries an Indian woman, become the exploited, the workers, and the downtrodden. The two families are related but unknown to each other. This is billed as an environmental novel, and the good guys are those who use nature wisely. I'm not fond of historical fiction. Proulx obviously did a lot of homework, but she messes up a lot of the details--she has a woman canning in glass jars a full century before that started; her scenes in China get a lot wrong. That doesn't bother me as much as her didactic approach. I like the moral of the story to be a bit more subtle.

33. J. A. Jance, Without Due Process. 5/23. An entertaining police procedural. Male cops created by women tend to be more sympathetic, less hard-boiled.

34. Shakespeare and George Wilkins, Pericles, Arden 3 ed., ed. Suzanne Gossett. 6/10.

Wilkins is considered to be the primary author of the first two acts; Shakespeare of the last three. The text is much damaged, and Gossett is careful to note alternatives suggested by others. What survives gives evidence of careful plotting and symmetries in the actions and characters.

A sprawling narrative that takes place in many locations, this is considered one of the late romances. It is held together by a chorus, named after the English poet John Gower, who wrote an earlier version of this story, and by dumbshows. Gower sets the location and accounts for the presence of the principals. Other plays hint at the use of choruses and mimes but of all the surviving versions of the plays, this is the one that most details their use.

Themes of incest, separation, loss, death, and recovery and resurrection. Conflict between gift and monetary economies.  Virtue triumphant. I don't find this as compelling as the editor does. The resurrections and reunitings are too convenient. It shares many details with other plays, Comedy of Errors, The Winter's Tale, Cymbeline. Literature supplies the rebirths and reconciliations unlikely in life.

35. Shakespeare, Two Gentlemen of Verona. Arden 3 ed., ed. William C Carroll. 6/12. A play whose reputation has suffered because of an act of generosity and forgiveness at the end. It is the sort of gesture that appalls now, but it would have made sense to S's contemporaries. It's also fashionable to dismiss the play as the work of a novice writer, but there is much in it that foreshadows S's later habits in playwriting--the doubling of events and characters for contrast, foreshadowing that becomes ironic only as events unfold--and the language is as clever as much of his later writing.

36.  Anthony Munday, et al., including Shakespeare, Sir Thomas More. Arden 3 ed., ed. John Jowett. 6/26. Jowett's introduction and postscripts are largely devoted to disentangling the history and authorship of this work.

This is not the martyred saint of conscious of A Man for All Seasons, but a man who rises because he uses his wits to end a rebellion and prospers because of that, and a man who falls because he cannot in conscience obey the king. The outcomes are the same in both cases. The malefactors are put to death. More meets his end with Christian forbearance, but the onlookers' comments leave no doubt that his execution was seen as lawful.

An interesting play for its evidence of the effects of censorship, both formal and the informal censorship of authors hoping to avoid censorship.

37. Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew. Arden 3 ed., ed. Barbara Hodgdon. 6/27. The number of characters in this who pretend to be someone else or are duped into thinking they are someone else is quite high. The assumption seems to be that one can easily assume or be made to assume other roles through little more than a change of clothes and an assertion. Are Petrucchio and Katherine playing at being shrew-tamer and tamed shrew?

38.  Tolkien, The Hobbit. 7/5. I had a hankering to re-read this. It wasn't as clever as I remembered.

39-41. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings, 3 vols. 7/11. So many noble sentiments.

42.  Henry James, Complete Stories, 1892-1898. The Library of America ed. 7/12. Have been reading at this for weeks. A collection of twenty-one short stories, including many on writers, writing, and writers and their audience.

43.  Shakespeare, King Henry VI, Part 1. 7/16. The English triumph when united, fail when divided. The lesson seems more to be one of practical politics rather than the workings of Providence in human affairs. The ending, with Sussex meeting Margaret and persuading the King to marry her, fit the demands that a prequel lead into the plays written earlier. That at least shows that S (or whoever wrote this) saw the play as a precursor to the last two parts. Most of this is a play about Talbot, with elements explaining the origins of the Lancaster/York rivalry and looking forward to characters and stories that will become important in the later plays.

Why do commentators on the Histories feel the need to find an overarching theme in them?

44. Shakespeare, King Henry VI, Part 2. Arden 3 ed.. 7/19. These plays have a bad reputation for being filled with fights, which were evidently as popular in S's day as they are today (witness, action movies). The fights are summarized in stage directions--alarums, excursions, groups of soldiers crossing the stage, x and y fight, y is killed. Acting that out, even perfunctorily, would take a few minutes of stage time. Reading the description, however, is matter of seconds, and then one moves on the speeches--the dying man's and the victor's thoughts, the reactions of others to the death and victory, which are much more important in our notions of drama. Perhaps that is why the reading experience for these plays has historically been much more favourable than the watching experience.

45.   Shakespeare, King Henry VI, Part3. Arden 3 ed. 7/24, This is about half of a good play. S. had too much history (chaotic history) to cram in here. Even in his conflated and elided version of the many battles at the end of the Henry VI's reign, there are too many deaths to record, celebrate, and regret. The poetry is improving. Clifford as he dies: "Here burns my candle out. Ay, here it dies,/ Which whilst it lasted gave King Henry light."

46.  Shakespeare, King Richard III, Arden 3 ed. 7/26. This is great theatre until history catches up with Shakespeare, and he has to kill off Richard. James Siemon, the editor of this, makes the point that the women characters could get away with criticizing the King in ways men could not because they were not considered fully adult beings. What he doesn't say is that this allows S to exploit the women as a chorus who guide the audience's opinion of Richard. But S went beyond that and made the women into full-fledged characters. When his own mother slags off a villain, you know that he is evil. And Margaret continues to be one of the best female characters in S. She rails at everyone for doing exactly what she did when she had the upper hand, but is oblivious to the parallels between her opponents' acts and her own. It serves to emphasize S's point about the amorality of those in power and our capacity to view ourselves favourably.
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47.  Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus. Arden 3 ed. 7/30. Midway through this, Titus Andronicus laughs. By this point, several of his sons have died, he has been tricked into cutting off a hand in a vain attempt to save two of his sons, his daughter has been raped and mutilated by having her hands and tongue removed. He and his brother and surviving son have been crying and lamenting. And then TA laughs. Not because he's gone crazy but because he has suddenly resolved to have revenge, and he enjoys the thought. Even in this bloody melodramatic farce, S could still produce psychologically complex and true characters. Another example is Aaron the Moor, a villain so black--literally and figuratively--that he dies hoping that he never did a good deed--who betrays his fellow criminals on condition that his child be spared, S understood people--it's why we still perform and read his plays.

By my count, of the seventeen characters with a claim to be more than walk-on parts, fourteen die, many of them gruesomely. Add to that Titus' sacrifice of one of Tamora's sons, Lavinia's rape and mutilation and the unwitting cannibalism of Tamora--it's a festival of carnage. It's not a pleasant play to read. I can't imagine how it would be to witness a performance. The editor of this discusses a performance tradition in which the violence is aestheticized--but to me that would serve to sanitize the violence. Performance of this ought to be so bloody and rude that it appalls the audience. It should nauseate.

48.  Shakespeare, Love's Labour's Lost. 8/3. Words are slippery in this play; many of them have two meanings; many lose their meaning because of the characters' actions. Wise men act like fools; the fools see more than the wise men sometimes.

Unlike most of S's comedies, there are no marriages at the end of this. The women impose tasks on the men the men are unlikely to complete, if their past acts are any guide. S thus avoids those odd marriages that unite such unsuitable people at the end of his other comedies.  Most of his marriages would end in divorce in the modern world.

Not an enjoyable read--the wit is too laboured and precious, and the smutty double meanings aren't amusing. An exact performance of these lines, without benefit of footnotes, would leave audiences dumbfounded,

49-52. Philip K. Dick, Four Novels of the 1960s: The Man in the High Castle, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Ubik.  6/112. Library of America series. Dick managed to combine pulp science fiction with questions about existence and identity. God lingers in the background.

53.  Shakespeare, Richard ii,  Arden 3 ed. 8/13. Richard is one of the more interesting kings in the Histories. As unfit to rule as Henry VI, but more complex, more vocal, more histrionic, more aware of himself as an actor and player upon a public stage, and more willing to present himself and his woes. Richard relies on his ascriptive, normative role as king to claim his position and fails because he lives in a world in which that form of assertion works only as long as the ruler has the power to back it up. His mistake is believe that his position gives him that power, when all his actions alienate the people who would otherwise be willing to concede that power to him. His ultimate failing is stultitia. And yet, S performs his magic of making us admire him, at least more than Bolingbroke and the Percies.

54. James Salter, All That Is. 8/23. A curious book--the sort of novel written in the 1950s but with more explicit sex scenes. A man bumbles his way through life and several love affairs and ends up unattached. Salter is a successful "serious" writer and strikes me as someone who has never worked and knows nothing outside writing--he makes his main character an editor but has little idea of what editors do outside their interactions with authors. He is also the type of writer who references other (better) writers to explain his character.

This was the only one of three books I was able to finish on my week away. One was a supernatural thriller that quickly became too ridiculous; the other a thriller, which was too predictable.

55. John Sandford, Gathering Prey. 8/24. Typical Sandford work featuring Lucas Davenport. A good airplane book.

56. Annie Proulx, That Old Ace in the Hole. 8/26. A young man scouting for sites for factory hog farms in the Texas Panhandle falls in love with the place and decides to make his life there. This is a much better approach to the historical novel than she achieved in Bark Skins. Proulx relates the history of the place by having present-day people reminisce and tell stories; this has the added benefit of making their connection to the place clearer.

57.   Shakespeare, King Henry IV, Part I, 8/30.Arden 3 ed. Well edited by David Scott Kastan.

58.  Shakespeare, King Henry IV, Part 2. 9/5. Arden 3 ed. Well edited by James Bulman. Taken together, the two plays show Prince Hal's rejection not only of the less regal example of Falstaff and the tavern world but of the moral expediency of Prince John's and the Earl of Westmorland's machiavellian approach to power.

The extended tavern scene with Falstaff, Pistol, Doll Tearsheet, and the Hostess must by hard to put across--the language is so dependent on knowing Elizabethan cant and understanding sexual innuendos. 

59.  Shakespeare(?) et al., King Edward III, Arden 3 ed., ed, Richard Proudfoot and Nicola Bennett. The editors' chief concern is the possible authorship of sections of this by Shakespeare; the rest is perhaps by Marlowe, Kyd, or Nashe, or maybe somebody else.

The play itself is the usual much-compressed account of events--for the most part the military victories at Sluys, Crecy, Poitiers, and Calais, The battles are reported by messengers and observers rather than depicted, however (one solution to the problem of staging warfare on the stage with the limited space and casts available on the Elizabethan stage).

The part attributed to Shakespeare deals with the moral education of the king (he tries to seduce the wife of one of his commanders, but the lady rebuffs him, and he comes to his senses and, his status as the good guy reinforced, wins all the battles at the start of the Hundred Years War). The Black Prince also gains an education in military leadership. The English are the heroes here and opposed to the invidious, back-stabbing, oath-breaking Scots and French.

Other than the seduction scenes (unhistorical inventions), there isn't much drama here. The contemporary audience would have known what happened. Oddly there are attempts to drum up suspense by letting the characters on-stage think that the Black Prince is dead, but like most such ploys to place the hero in danger and create drama, the leading man triumphs despite the overwhelming odds against him.

The language is highly poetic and filled with classical references. Even the messengers reporting on the progress of battles are highly educated and capable of classical allusions--whoever was responsible for most of this, he (or they) didn't have Shakespeare's common touch. Except for one brief scene in which ordinary French people illustrate the impact of the war on commoners and walk-on parts for the burghers of Calais, this focuses on the kings and princes. Clowns have no role here, and the usual sexual puns and references to cuckolds that S might have used in the seduction scenes are absent.

60. Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet. Arden 3 ed. 9/12. There are two groups of impetuous youth here: the young lovers: Romeo and Juliet; and the young men: Mercutio and Tybald, and, to a lesser, extent, County Paris--all of them end up dead. It is the elders who survive to be chastened. The only young person who survives is Benvolio, and he's a necessary plot device to tell the Prince how Mercutio and Tybald came to die and to win Romeo a sentence of banishment rather than death. The young people pay for the misjudgments and sins of the older generation.

The editor of this makes the point that Mercutio has to be sacrificed lest he take over the play in the same way that Falstaff takes over the Henry Iv plays. He is a far more engaging character than Romeo.

61. Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch. 9/18, Two reviewers quoted on the back cover compare this to Dickens's works. Like many of Dickens's works, it involves an orphan left to make alliances on his own who finds benefactors as well as criminals to help him and covers various social strata from high to low. And like Dickens, Tartt has a complex plot firmly under control in this long novel (close to 450K words). Tartt also creates both people and characters--the people being realistic, and the characters being larger than life.

What Tartt does better than Dickens is to manage symbols . The "goldfinch" of the title refers to a painting by the seventeenth-century Dutch painter Fabritius. The goldfinch is a pet bird held to its perch by a chain around a leg, not unlike Theo, the first-person narrator of the story, who loses his mother in a terrorist attach on the Met Museum in New York City while they are attending an exhibition of Dutch masterpieces and becomes chained to that moment. Theo finds the painting on the floor and takes it. For him, it represents a tie with his dead mother and a form of solace, as well as a source of guilt--like the painting, Theo is a survivor, unlike his mother and Fabritius himself (who also died in an explosion), and a thief. As another character explains, from a distance, it appears to be a realistic, trompe-l'oeil work, but viewed closely, it becomes a self-consciously painted object. In this aspect, it represents a junction between art and reality and opens into a discussion of the role of art and beauty in our life. One of Theo's benefactors is a furniture restorer (and the work is replete with lots of secrets of that trade--Tartt did her homework), and marks of use on antique furniture and the evidence of age, as well as the ways in which damage to old furniture can be repaired and the marks of age faked come to represent the damage that living does to us and the ways in which we overcome that damage as well as the ways in which art "fakes" those marks.

In the end Theo achieves a type of restoration. It's not the happily-ever-after of Dickens, but he is able to get on with his life.

There's much more in this--fate and chance and the senselessness of life and the role of art. It's also a compulsive, staying-up-late-at-night read.

62. Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Arden 3d ed., ed. Sukanta Chaudhuri. 9/27. Strong introduction by Chaudhuri. One of the strongest of the earlier plays. Disciplined and entertaining, although perhaps the only complex characters are Bottom, who begins to see beyond his verbal confusion and his self-absorption, and Helena, who wallows in her wretchedness and refuses to trust her good fortune. The others are rather static. The artisans' misunderstanding of the nature of drama is high dramatic irony, especially since the stage is often populated nut just by simulacra of humans but also by actors portraying imaginary beings that we are expected to accept as real.

63. Graham Norton, Holding. 10/7/ A mystery set in a small Irish village in which everyone knows everyeone's business and loves to recount gossip generations old. But there is a disturbance in the force--two skeletons found on a construction site. Local Garda sergeant P.J. Collins is a bumbling oaf but he manages in the end to find the murderer and gets laid in the bargain. A good crime drama, and a good laugh.

64. Michael Connolly, The Black Box. 10/9. Found this in the cabin and re-read it. A Bosch cold-case mystery with the usual defying of obnoxious authorities and multiple murders as harry unravels the crime.

65. M. O. Walsh, My Sunshine Away. 10/10. Another book found in the cabin.  A debut novel. A teenage is raped and a neighbour, a slightly younger teenage boy, devotes himself to solving the mystery of the rapist-s identity. Very atmospheric tale set in Baton Rouge. This is a first-person narrative, and eventually the author reveals that the boy, now a middle-aged father, is recounting the story for the benefit and instruction of his son. Walsh is a graduate of several writing courses and teaches writing himself, and the book reflects the thoughtful and attentive devotion to programs of symbolism and tautly controlled narratives that such courses propound. This was a well reviewed and received work, but unless the author subsequently writes better works that keep his debut novel in print, this will, I predict, join the long list of best-sellers never heard of again. A curiously soul-less book.

66. Patcik McCabe, The Butcher's Boy. 10/12. Francie Brady is one of those children who never stands a chance. He wants what everyone wants--love, respect, dignity, friendship--but his parents and the inhabitants of his small town and the Irish system of treating juvenile delinquents rob him od any chance not only of success but of understanding his condition. In a horrifying act, he kills the woman whom he identifies as his chief nemesis and also as the mother he would have liked his own mother to be. This harrowing first-person narrative is not without its moments of humour and levity, but ultimately Francie ends up in a psychiatric ward for the criminally insane.  This book achieves what Walsh's work strives to do. but the prose in this is effortless and unforced and doesn't continually demand that one stop and admire the author's skill.  Favourite quote:

'Mary had the same face as ma used have sitting staring into the ashes it was funny that face it slowly grew over the other one until one day you looked and the person you knew was gone. And instead there was a half-ghost sitting there who had only one thing to say. All the beautiful things of this world are lies. They count for nothing in the end.'

67. Colm Toibin, House of Nemes, 10/19. Toibin's version of the Oresteia. Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Iphigenia, Electra, Aegisthus, and Orestes all make an appearance, but there are other major characters and a host of walk-on parts. As a youngster, Orestes is sent away from Argos as Clytemnestra prepares to kill Agamemnon. He joins the other boys of Argos in captivity, who are being held as hostages for their fathers' cooperation with Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. There he meets Leander and Mitros and escapes with them to a farmstead near the sea run by a solitary old woman. Mitros and the old woman die, and Leander and Orestes grow closer. There is a suggestion of some sexual conduct. When the two return to Argos, they become separated. Leander becomes a leader of the rebels. In the palace, Orestes finds a confusing situation. He gradually learns that Clytemnestra and Aegisthus face strong opposition, which they are countering with strong measures. Eventually he learns that Clytemnestra killed his father, and Electra manoeuvres him into killing his mother. Leander captures Aegisthus and then invades the palace. Electra, who is very similar to her mother in this version, joins with Leander to rule the city (aided by counsel from Aegisthus). Orestes is shut out of power and shunned as a matricide. He is married off to Leander's sister, who is pregnant (raped by the thugs Clytemnestra sent to murder Leander's family). There is a suggestion that Orestes and the sister are not having sexual relations and that Orestes wants to resume his physical relationship with Leander.

Clytemnestra's and Electra's stories are told in the first person; Orestes' in the third person. He isn't permitted his own voice. Orestes is much younger and more naive and more easily manipulated in this version. It's unclear how young he is, but certainly no more than a teenager when he kills his mother. He is a pawn in Aegisthus's and Electra's plots to get rid of Clytemnestra, as his feelings and beliefs are manipulated by the various players in this drama. The final scene has Leander and Orestes standing together outside the room in which Orestes' nominal wife is giving birth, attended by a midwife and Electra--the women control Argos.

The language in this is noticeable for its formality in places. Clytemnestra, especially early in the work, tends to declaim in the style of Greek tragedy. Although invoked frequently, the gods are dead or dying. They may have set the tragedy in motion, but its working out is very much a human matter.

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