What have you been reading lately? I've been casting about for something good. [she said sheepishly, while typing in a room with close to a thousand books on its shelves]
In high school I was in a play called The Curious Savage. In it a psychologist (or psychiatrist?) quotes Lord Byron: "And if I laugh at any mortal thing, 'tis that I may not weep." Words to live by, I'm telling you.
I've been a little stressed out reading Comedy of Errors, which sounds a little silly now that I write it out loud. The misunderstandings! The threats! The what-ifs! On the page, denuded of the silly costumes and the near misses and the slapstick one would see on the stage, it's less clearly a comedy. In fact, I am thinking about Othello as I am reading it, because both plays show how easy it is to be misled by appearances. Sometimes it ends well, as in Comedy of Errors. Sometimes it doesn't.
I didn't expect Antipholus and Dromio to leave me feeling glum.
Yesterday I had good intentions. I was going to write a wrap-up post for the croissants series, and come back today with a Shakespeare post. But then today happened.
This is pancake breakfast weekend. It's a really good thing, the pancake breakfast -- it's great to see the community support for the Scouts and it's fun, too, to see people from all over town coming out to eat pancakes. It meant two 5:30 alarms this weekend, though, the second one followed by 6+ hours of pouring coffee. Evening Mass, Cub Scout meeting, late dinner...and the only thing I can say about Shakespeare is that there are too many words in his plays for me to get to grips with them tonight.
I'm having a little trouble getting to grips with gravity at the moment.
So. Please do tell me about any Shakespeare you've been reading this week, and please do tell me if you'd be up for 1 Henry IV, which I plan to read between now and the end of March. And then please excuse me, because I'm going to throw up the white flag in the battle against gravity. I'm too tired to finish another
I've been thinking about what makes Shakespeare different on the page vs. the stage, and part of it, of course, is the pace. I have a vague memory that I have posted recently about how much deeper a reader can dive into a metaphor -- in the theater it zooms past and is gone. But a reader, who can go back over a line as many times as she might like, can get bogged down in a way that's just not an option for a viewer. The actors will be moving on, no matter how much you might like to ruminate.
I have decided that I'd rather see Shakespeare's more lyrical stuff on the stage, because there's just too much parsing to do as a reader. (This insight occurred to me in a conversation about the merits and failings of Richard II, which I found to be rather a painful read.) That might be why I hated the sonnets when I read them all in a row. But it also pops up in comedies: there's lots of rhyme, which is always harder to untangle, and so a person with a certain bent (determined, let's say, instead of obsessive), can slow down too far.
So I am moving slowly through Comedy of Errors despite its brevity, thinking that I might like to watch it when I'm done. Any favorite productions you can recommend? Any Shakespeare in your reading pile this week?
Attention, please: February is almost over! Huzzah! It's snowing tonight, but there are daffodils in the offing.
I have decided to blog daily in March and do the Whole 30 again. So you'll be hearing lots more from me in the month to come.
Quick thought tonight: I am often struck by Shakespeare's juxtapositions. Clowns in Hamlet, the drunken porter in Macbeth, and in Comedy of Errors, little nuggets of wisdom amid the mistaken identity madcappery.
From Luciana, in Act II: Why, headstrong liberty is lash'd with woe. / There's nothing situate under heaven's eye / But hath his bound, in earth, in sea, in sky.
It's a good thought for Lent, is it not? Real freedom requires limits.
Kaboom, it's a crisis. Egeon is condemned to die! Antipholus is missing a thousand marks! Act I of Comedy of Errors is short, especially compared to Lear, but it flings us right into the soup with the characters.
How could Egeon possibly raise his ransom? Why did Dromio apparently lose his mind? Who is this mysterious woman claiming to be Mrs. Antipholus?
Is the suspense killing you? It's not too late to join in the Comedy of Errors February Read-Along.
Over on the PBS site I found a video of Christopher Plummer talking about playing Lear.
I've only watched the beginning, but I'm intrigued that he calls Lear a boor. I see Lear as imperious and hotheaded, but not a boor.
How about you? Reading any Shakespeare this week? Joining me for Comedy of Errors this month?
Dernit, this post was supposed to have a first line and it was this: There are a bunch of reasons you should read Comedy of Errors with me this month.
Reason #5. Because it is SO wintry and dreary that you need a little infusion of the Mediterranean coast into your life.
Reason #4. Because it is Shakespeare's shortest play, and thus only a modest commitment.
Reason #3. Because it will lead you straight to Plautus, Shakespeare's source, who is full of silliness and fun. (And testicle jokes. I can't even guess at the number of times Plautus characters say "I'm intestate!" -- meaning "I might die without a will" but also "And wouldn't it be hilarious if I were missing some important parts?")
Reason #2. Because reading is more fun when you can chat about it during and after. (I just finished The Paying Guests this morning and it left me wishing for a pal who could talk it over with me but also very sure I didn't want to recommend it to any book clubs. Let's talk about Comedy of Errors instead.)
Reason Too Lame for a Number. Because I have strep throat and you should be nice to me.
Reason #1. Because it is frothy and fun and you'll be glad you did.
This morning I was felled by an attack of vertigo and spent most of the day in bed. It was weird: I was up tending to a sick kid at 3:30 and I was perfectly fine. The alarm went off at 6:20 and I tried to get up for a 7:00 meeting. It was immediately evident that I wasn't going anywhere. I am mostly better and am freshly grateful for the concatenation of small miracles that makes possible my usual good health. Once I was a little better I finished Lear. I also had lots of time to think, and one of the things on my mind was Melanie's comment about beauty. She asked if I would describe Shakespeare as beautiful. What makes a work of literature beautiful? I have a formula for your consideration.
Phi is for phrasing. From the time I was small I have always loved a wordsmith, always felt a little shiver of pleasure at a thoughtfully constructed sentence. (It doesn't have to be clever phrasing, just memorable -- like Lear's "Never never never never never" today. Love that train of trochees.) But phrasing isn't enough. I often enjoy David Foster Wallace's writing, but I'd never call it beautiful. The more important part of beautiful literature, I think, is that it brings a moment of recognition, a glimpse of an enduring truth that is both familiar and unfamiliar.
The υ is for the unfamiliarity factor, the blending of known and unknown. There's a range of ratios that works, but it's important for me that both be present. Too much unknown and it feels too alien to be beautiful; too familiar and it seems trite. The τ is for truth. To be beautiful, a work needs to tell you about something that matters. This weekend I read Sign of the Seahorse to Stella. It scans beautifully; there are some clever turns of phrase. But the wanderings of saltwater trout don't offer much in the eternal truth department.
And I'm going to part company with Keats here: I disagree that truth is beauty. The world, I think, is awash in ugly truth. I've got that gamma in there as an exponent because what makes truth beautiful is seeing it through the lens of goodness. Maybe it's human goodness; maybe it's divine goodness. Naked truth can be monstrous, though. I haven't seen Hotel Rwanda, but I doubt I'd call it beautiful.
So that's my parenthetical term. The thing about beauty, though, is that you have to be in the right place at the right time to see it. The μ is for mysterious readiness. You can read Keats in a cynical mood and think "Shut UP, pal." You can see beauty in Calvin and Hobbes if you're feeling receptive. Sometimes it's about state of mind; sometimes it's about life circumstances. I was especially responsive to the bits of Lear that talk about frailty and death today, given the malfunction of my vestibular system.
This is my favorite Shakespeare quote, from Merchant of Venice: Such harmony is in immortal souls, / But whilst this muddy vesture of decay / Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it. It ticks all of those boxes: there's so much food for thought in the phrase "muddy vesture of decay." It puts me in mind of "Who will rescue me from this body of death?" It reminds me that there are better things beyond us that we cannot see. I came across it in late December one year, as I was reflecting on the year that was passing away and the year that lay ahead. There is a longing in that last line -- we cannot hear it -- that speaks to my heart year after year.
This is a post in which I could tinker and edit and feel dissatisfied for a long time. But I am going to take my slightly wobbly self to bed, in hopes that a little extra rest will be good for the parts of my muddy vesture of decay that manage my sense of balance. Please tell me what you think -- I'm curious about your thoughts, and your favorite Shakespeare quotes, and the literature that you find beautiful yourself.
Lear, Act IV: Regan and Goneril are so evil, and Cordelia is so loving and forbearing, that I'm feeling a little skeptical this time through. (It reminds me of last summer, when I was rereading Bleak House and feeling doubtful about Esther.) Is an utter absence of bitterness a marker that you're either reading fiction or hagiography?
And there's Albany. In these circumstances is it plausible for him to say, "Woman, you're too evil for me"? It also rings false to me when Albany says, "Gloucester, I live / To thank thee for the love thou show'dst the king, / And to revenge thine eyes."
What say you? Do you buy it? Are you reading any Shakespeare this week?
Fifteen years ago I sat next to a boy who had just turned 3 and read Lear's words aloud: Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks. I didn't expect him to be interested; I just wanted to hear the rhythm, the urgency. "Read it again, Mama," he said. "And again." So I did.
Today I read those words aloud again: You sulphurous and thought-executing fires, / Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts, / Singe my white head!
Did people complain more about the weather in Shakespeare's day, since they had to be out in it more often in an Gore-Tex-less age, or did that spur them to adapt? I suspect the former. Lear's complaint is not with the weather.
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness; / I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children, / You owe me no subscription: then, let fall / Your horrible pleasure; here I stand, your slave, / A poor, infirm, weak, and despis’d old man.
In Act III Lear moves from wrath to derangement, wrecked by injustice and lack of love. I love the phrase "thought-executing fires." Make it so I don't have to think about this any more, Lear says. I can't keep thinking about this; I can't stop thinking about it.
In this act his elder daughters are descending too, not into madness but into savagery. Regan looks at the maimed and bleeding Gloucester and spits: "Let him smell his way to Dover." Wickedness begets wickedness, for Regan and for Goneril as for Lady Macbeth. And the costs of their wickedness are painful to see -- Edgar is so moved by Lear's agony that he struggles to maintain his disguise.
I was trying to imagine how one might stage Act III, with its rain and lightning and wind, its mangled snippets of nursery rhymes and its litany of fearsome devils. It would be a wild ride, one in which it's clear that the wheels are coming off. How did things fall apart so quickly? I scribbled a little note to myself as I was reading: Maybe it's only love and kindness holding us together. Betrayal from someone you love is enough to unman the manliest.
Any Shakespeare in your reading pile this week? I'd love to hear about it!
You guys, I have an idea. I am kicking off a ten-year re-read of the Complete Works, and I think you should join me. No pressure to read the whole thing if TItus Andronicus gives you the wobblies, but wouldn't your life be better with a little more Shakespeare in it?
My plan is to read King Lear in January, Comedy of Errors in February, Titus Andronicus in March, and 1 Henry IV in April. I'll put up a short post each Saturday about what I've been reading, filling in the gaps between plays with some of the poetry. Perhaps if I spread the sonnets out over several weeks they won't have that Devil Went Down To Georgia vibe (repetitive, annoying, self-aggrandizing).
Your task: read whatever Shakespeare catches your eye. Blog about it and share a link to your post, or comment here if you prefer. I think I'll probably do it each week until the end of April and then pick up again in 2016. If it turns out that this corner of the blogosphere is clamoring for a regular Shakespeare blog carnival (and why wouldn't it be?), we can re-evaluate. Who's in??
Pamela Druckerman was living in Paris when she had her three children, and she wrote a book about the differences in French and American expectations of children. I read it in early September and I'm still thinking about it.
I've been thinking about the sleep section, and mostly disagreeing with it. Early on French babies sleep through the night, or font les nuits, according to Druckerman, and she credits the willingness of French parents to give their babies some space when they stir in their sleep. They don't, she insists, leave babies to wail -- that idea strikes them as barbaric.
When I read that section I thought a lot about the Kippleys' influence on my parenting: as a rule of thumb, if your baby sleeps through the night, fertility returns shortly thereafter. And your baby neeeeeeeds you. Be one with your baby, Sheila Kippley exhorts her readers. I was, frankly, a bit of a nut about being neeeeeeeded by my babies. Some of them genuinely did neeeeeeed me a lot. A couple of those same babies were outrageously bad sleepers. I spent YEARS in a state of low-level (or sometimes high-level) sleep deprivation, most of the time thinking I was doing something noble by responding to my babies' neeeeeeeds. And as you might be able to tell from all of the extra Es in this paragraph, when I read this book part of me wondered if I had actually been doing something self-sabotaging.
It can't be a universal truth that babies ought to sleep through the night by 4 months old, because that would have real repercussions for baby-spacing and child nutrition in areas of the developing world where food insecurity and contamination are continuing problems. It can't be the case that there's One Right Way. We will gloss over my tendency to use any convenient stick to beat myself up, but I'm still wondering: what approach to infant sleep is closest to optimal?
So that was the part that I disagreed with while wondering if my disagreement was delusional. Much of the rest I found thought-provoking in a good way, except for the part about sending 5-year-olds to camp which is très-très cray-cray, to make a little multilingual poem about it. I think one of the major shortcomings of the books currently available on attachment parenting is that they don't provide a lot of guidance about making the transition from saying yes to saying no. French parents tell their children to be sage. They expect their children to be able to wait, without anything blinking entertainingly to assist them. Those are fantastic expectations. (Kid interruptions of adult conversations continue to vex my husband and me. A French visitor would apparently be appalled that we haven't put the kibosh on it yet.)
I once heard an accurate if unkind phrase from a breastfeeding counselor pal that has stuck with me: she described a mother-child pair as illustrating "the worst of La Leche League parenting." You have to make that transition from saying "I am here to help you learn that you are safe and loved..." to saying "...and also that you are not in charge and you need to listen and do what's right." Some parents, and some kids, navigate that change more easily than others. Druckerman points out that it's not about exerting authority for its own sake, to indulge some kind of tyrannical fantasy. One of the authorities she quotes says that "the main point of parental authority is to authorize kids to do things, not to block them." She describes a mother who "managed to be both affectionate and to have authority without raising her voice."
That's the way to be, I think. I'm still mulling over the best way to pull it off. I would love to hear your thoughts on the book too. I have more to say but it's 10:00 (the NaBloPoMo lament this year). See you in the comments!
I have been meaning since May to tell you how much I enjoyed Matt Fitzgerald's Iron War, the improbably gripping story of an early Ironman triathlon. I went back to the book a few months later to remind myself how quickly the elite athletes completed the 2.4-mile open-water swim (answer: very very quickly), and I got sucked in again. I don't often cry over books, and I don't ever remember crying twice over the same book before. I like Matt Fitzgerald's writing and have read a few of his books now. None of the rest made me cry.
Amazon suggested that I might like the Angela Marchmont books, and although I found them to be a guilty pleasure I mention them to you anyway. If you have a soft spot for English seaside mysteries with elegant detectives and free-ranging kids, you might like this one. Angela Marchmont owes a lot to Lord Peter Wimsey; Clara Benson is no Dorothy Sayers. I galloped through it anyway. On the subject of guilty pleasure Sayers-influenced English mysteries, A Presumption of Death follows Lady Peter back to Talboys in 1939-40.
Elizabeth Esther's memoir was disturbing and hopeful. One of my boys is still talking about Gates of Fire. And I'm still thinking about Pamela Druckerman's book about French parenting pretty much every day.
Between 2000 and 2010 I read a Dickens novel every year. Four years after I finished my Dickens project, I came back to Bleak House. This is a post about why I plan to work my way through his books again.
1. Because Dickens teaches us to pay attention. I have posted before about how the internet has left me with the attention span of a concussed fruit fly, but in my secret heart I didn't really believe it. My secret heart said, "I don't have an attention problem! I read lots!" Sorry, secret heart, but a return to Dickens has made it clear that you were delusional. Dickens says, "The world is full of important things. Notice them! Remember them! Or else you will be really confused on page 700!"
2. Because Dickens reminds us that we're all connected. In real life it is unlikely that the person you scarcely notice crossing your path will turn out to be the Key Player in unraveling both a troubling mystery and a legal tangle (don't you love Mr. Bucket?), but it happens all the time in Dickens. My 14yo views this as a bug; I am certain it is a feature. In real life there are more degrees of separation, but everyone you pass deserves consideration nonetheless.
3. Because Dickens encourages flow. Both languor and drudgery are enemies of joy: both Lady Dedlock and Jenny are unhappy specimens. But Esther immerses herself in her work -- as a cure for uncertainty, as a response to the blues, as a habit worth forming for its own sake.
4. Because Dickens shows us that life is short. This time through I was a little surprised by the body count in Bleak House: there are Coen Brothers movies in which fewer people die! The book is peppered with reminders that life is meant to be lived with purpose, that faith is meant to teach us to sow kindness in the present in preparation for eternity. (What happens if we sow pomposity and bloviation instead? Why, my friends, we bloviate. And pompose. Just ask Mr. Chadband. Is he not a riot? Does he not make you laugh out loud?)
5. Because Dickens knows that life is full of surprises. There is a thread that runs all through the novels of Dickens: time drives hidden things into the light. Sometimes this is a dread occurrence, but mostly it reflects a certainty that life is liberally sprinkled with good surprises. From piled-up detritus, from all the things we attempt to cast off and bury (and OH now I want to reread Our Mutual Friend and think more about rubbish collectors!), the truth will out and truth is intrinsically good.
6. Because Dickens says, "Be cautious about first impressions." I didn't remember the shifts we see in either Mr. Tulkinghorn or Mr. Bucket. And who would have guessed that Sir Leicester had so much good in him?
7. Because Dickens boosts your stamina. These days I worry that an 800-word blog post is too long. In a TL;DR world, an 800-page book is beyond the pale. The task of finishing a Dickens novel is a delicious (if occasionally bathetic) reminder that I can eat an elephant one bite at a time: if I show up, if I keep taking a whack at it, eventually I'll get there.
"...Spontaneous Combustion, and none other of all the deaths that can be died."
Last night I vaulted out of bed to read the end of chapter 32 aloud to my husband. "This is the best book in the world," I told him. That scene encapsulates so much of what I love about Dickens, the way it fearlessly straddles the line between horrifying and hilarious. It bespeaks a big brass of pair of writerly cojones: I imagine him thinking, "Hmmm, how am I going to keep these letters out of Guppy's hands? I know, I'll have a character spontaneously combust!"
Chapter 33 picks those themes right up: it's an unexpectedly small world, in which horror and hilarity meld in unexpected ways. Mr. Smallweed makes me laugh in spite of myself. Which is the point, I think.
During the years when I was reading Dickens regularly, it would take me about 200 pages to feel like I was in the groove. After some time away, it's been harder to get going. I'm a bit past the halfway mark, and I'm just beginning to think, "I don't want to put this down." If you are bogged down, persevere! Mrs. Bagnet awaits, and you wouldn't want her to reach out of chapter 34 to jab you with her trusty umbrella.
How's it going, everybody? I have been so pleased to see comments and emails and tweets about people reading Bleak House. I feel like a drug dealer, rubbing my hands with glee about getting you all hooked on the good stuff. Except I will not be raking in the Amazon affiliate dollars here, since Kindle versions of Dickens novels are pretty much free.
I was going to write a post that was more generally about summer goals, but I couldn't figure out an un-snore-y way to write it. So let's talk about Bleak House instead. I have been moving more slowly than I had hoped, but maybe that's for the best. I have some questions for you to consider, but please do talk about whatever floats your boat.
1. What do you think about the Jarndyce-Skimpole relationship? Do you want to give cousin John a shake? (a kind, friendly, non-violent shake?) Because I sort of do this time around. Is Skimpole more cunning than he lets on?
2. The focus on duty is at odds with follow-your-bliss culture. What's your reaction to the idea that love must help us fulfill our duty?
3. What is something in 21st-century fiction that will sound as charmingly anachronistic in 150 years as the portrayal of barefoot Hortense as a madwoman? Love that bit!
Oohhhh, I have spoiler-y sorts of questions too but I am restraining myself.
Whatever you are reading this summer, I suggest that you put it aside for a few weeks and read Bleak House instead. It is on my short list of Best Books In The English Language and it is sheer delight to come back to it. Or at least it is almost sheer delight. To be perfectly content I need some pals to chat with me about its delights. (And its occasional shortcomings. Slim informs me that she is only playing along if she can mock Esther. Is Esther plausible, do you think? Given her background, wouldn't you expect her to be a BIT more shriveled and bitter? You know you want to talk Dickens this summer, don't you?)
Thoughts from the first 60 pages: it's been four years since I last read a Dickens novel, and I'd forgotten how much I enjoy his wordsmithing. From the first paragraph: "...with flakes of soot...as big as full-grown snowflakes -- gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun." I had forgotten, too, the intensity of his contempt for the legal system. This time through I know how it's all going to shake out, and maybe that makes it easier to hear the message -- give it up, people! Laws and lawyers will never bring you happiness. Is it true, do you think? It's hard for me to get entirely on board with his cynicism.
As I had hoped, it is delightful to meet these characters again. This time through it seems like a bold authorial decision to juxtapose Lady Dedlock in chapter 2 with Esther in chapter 3. I do love Esther, even though I can see where Slim is coming from. I think Ada is a little dippy, though I try to like her for Esther's sake. And oh, Mrs. Jellyby! And Mr. Krook! Better watch out, Mr. Krook!
The last time I read this book, I thought that Dickens was condemning Mrs. Jellyby for having interests outside her home. It annoyed me. But this time through, I don't think he's saying that she should give them up, just that she needs to re-prioritize. He's not suggesting that she should dismiss her servants and clean up her own messes, just that her servants (and her children, and her home) need some management. What say you? I'd love to hear what you think!
Hi, all, I am blowing away the cobwebs here. I am alive and well, just not blogging.
Months and months ago, I signed up for an Amazon Affiliate account. Before I ever used it, there was some weird regulatory thing that made Amazon tell me I couldn't use it. Now they are telling me I have a green light, but I have to hurry or they will close my account. So I am going to tell you about books I have been reading, and you can click through if they interest you, and then maybe I can figure out this Amazon Affiiate thing that doesn't seem like it ought to be that hard.
1. Remember when I posted about books I had been meaning to finish? I'm almost to the end of One Hundred Names for Love, and I'm enjoying the second half more than the first half. Diane Ackerman described her husband Paul West's remarkable recovery from a stroke that left him severely aphasic. It is leaving me in awe of his resilience and persistence. I think I will probably wind up assigning parts of it in a class I'm teaching next year. (Oh, wait, it looks like you have to give separate links for book-books and e-books? Kindle version here.)
2. I just finished How To Write A Lot (Kindle link): accessible, funny, encouraging, motivating. Recommended.
3. Stella is way into this Marcia WIlliams book at the moment. My kids have all enjoyed Marcia Williams, but this one is in especially heavy rotation right now.
4. After I finish this batch of grading I am going to buy myself a new Dorothy Sayers novel. I will sigh a happy sigh, knowing that it has not been plagiarized. (Seriously, students. What part of "If you plagiarize, I will catch you and you will be sorry" did you not understand?)
5. I bought a copy of Honest Pretzels when Elizabeth Foss recommended it. Stella is fascinated by it. (I haven't actually cooked anything from it. It might blow her little mind to realize that we could actually make some of the foods she enjoys chatting about.)
6. I am continuing to think about Stephanie Pearl-McPhee's newest essay collection. There's a hilarious essay about better parenting through nudity, and a thoughtful one about the way that we can carry high school ugliness with us for a long time.
7. The Warden is at the top of my TBR queue, and it's free! Happy reading.
More quick takes at Jen's, as usual.
PS Speaking of Jen, you can pre-order her book and get a free e-book along with it.