Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Birthday Boys


I mentioned yesterday that my son's birthday falls on the anniversary of Shakespeare's baptism. Luckily, my now-12yo boy loves the bard with all his heart and completely embraces their connection. This year, I arranged a few Shakespeare presents for him:

The Reduced Shakespeare Company - The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)We discovered a VHS copy of The Reduced Shakespeare Company - The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) in our local library, many years ago. We checked it out over and over, eventually illegally copying the library's copy onto our own videotape. Well--we've come clean and now own our own DVD copy now.

My family loves the ridiculously nerdy slapstick of the RSC.  As the show starts, one of the actors tells us that the company is "proud to prevent the complete works of William Shakespeare"--and the laughs and groans get more intense as they work their way through the plays.  Othello is performed as a rap, Titus as Emeril's cooking show, and the histories as a football game.  The comedies are reduced to one medley of a play with a very long and very funny title.  Finally, the performance ends with Hamlet in several iterations--the last not only at lightening speed but backwards. 

If you haven't had the great pleasure of being introduced to the Reduced Shakespeare Company, go check them out right away. If you can't find the DVD in your library, you can check it out from Netflix.


Macbeth: The DVD Edition (Folger Shakespeare Library)A couple of years ago, my son and I were thrilled to be able to attend the Folger Shakespeare Library's performance of Macbeth.  The Folger, a theater I've discussed before, is one of our favorite venues.  And their production of Macbeth was one of our favorite productions there. Directed by Aaron Posner and Teller (from that famous duo of magicians Penn and Teller), the production combined subtle illusion with astounding (and sometimes gory) imagery.

A new Folger edition of the Shakespeare text has been released which includes a DVD of the live show..  We are thrilled--partly because A. and I both want to see it again, and partly because we are eager to show it to David (who was unable to see the live play with us).  I have high hopes that the Folger will produce other DVD/text editions--including, perhaps, the incredible version of The Comedy of Errors staged earlier this year.

Right now my son is learning his lines for a children's performance of Macbeth at the Shakespeare Theater Company in DC.  We've been talking a lot recently about the Folger performance as he prepares for his part and are looking forward to a viewing of the DVD this weekend.


Shakespeare in a Box: Taming of the ShrewOne more bit of Shakespeare silliness: Shakespeare in a Box: Taming of the Shrew contains instructions to put on your own version of a Shakespeare play with friends and family at home. All the living room's a stage!  We haven't tried it out yet, but the kit has excellent reviews of Amazon.  We've already thought of a few friends who might find this right up their alley.

The kit comes with director and technical director cards which explain how to cast the play, direct it, stage it, and create basic sets and sound effects.  It also provides cards for each of the major parts along with a summary of the characters and ideas about how to play them.  It also comes with multiple copies of an abridged version of the script.  Finally, the Shakespeare in a Box kit comes with props: a cheap wig, a plastic flute, and Groucho glasses--all modeled here by my son:

taming of the shrew

(There is also a "Shakespeare in a Box" kit for Shakespeare in a Box: King Lear.)


See his shirt in that picture?  I think he might have received it for his last birthday.  We found it in the Folger Library's small gift shop.  Don't you love the rebus?


Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Prince’s Cry

Today is my son's 12th birthday. Inconceivable.

Birthday Candles
Photography by Doris Favale

A. is an amazing kid--a young man who has helped me grow as I watch him mature.  He is a reader, a fencer, a violinist.  He bounds up and down the stairs with the joy of a toddler, understands human motivation in a very mature way, loves to brag about his ability to eat spicy food, and keeps me laughing with terrible puns that remind me of my father's sense of humor.

Every year on this day, I think about his birth at home, which I wrote about several years ago on my old personal blog. This is a day of celebration for him but also for me. also a lover of all things Shakespeare--and all things Princess Bride. In honor of the anniversary of my son's birth and of Shakespeare's baptism, I want to share with you a sonnet my son wrote to celebrate:

The Prince's Cry

“Who’s there?!” The ghost of my father tonight appears
To me in the dark as I walk—perchance in dreams.
“Inconceivable!” you say, consumed with fears.
(Methinks that word means not what you think it means.)

You poisoned my father and stole his throne and his crown.
I tried to forget his death by taking a lover.
But in her pain, she fell in the river and drowned.
And you didn’t care: you married the queen, my mother.

I must avenge my father’s death most foul,
Oh my uncle, who hath torn this house in two.
I’ve learned to use my sword and duel with skill.
And I have planned what I now say to you:

“Hello, my name is Hamlet the Dane,” quoth I.
“You killed my father--so now prepare to die.”

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


I hope you all enjoy are enjoying the warmer temperatures, beautiful blossoms, and pollen as much as I am.


For the last several weeks, I've been committed to reading and writing about an unrelated topic--and I'm afraid that project has kept me from being active in the blog world.  I'm itching to get back to fiction soon--and to posting more regularly and commenting on other people's blogs.

See you all next Tuesday. Happy Passover and Easter!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Golden Apples


In Greek mythology, the story of conflict during the wedding of Peleus and Thetis is used to explain historical conflict in real human history--such as the Trojan War. According to the story, Eris was angry that she had not been invited to the marriage celebration.  To get even, she planted seeds of discord at the party by throwing a golden apple into the celebration.  The fruit was labeled "To the fairest."  The Greek goddesses began to argue about which woman deserved the prize. Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite each made arguments that they were the fairest and deserving of the apple.

Trojan prince Paris was called in to judge the contest.  Hera offered him political power if he chose her.  Athena offered him wisdom and skill in battle.  Aphrodite offered him the love of the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen.  Paris handed the golden apple to Aphrodite.  As the story goes, Paris stole Helen away from her Spartan husband and took her to Troy, thus starting the Trojan War.

*  *  *

The Philosopher's Kitchen: Recipes from Ancient Greece and Rome for the Modern CookTo celebrate the story of the Golden Apple, my family made a special dessert last night, inspired by the incredible cookbook by Francine Segan called The Philosopher's Kitchen: Recipes from Ancient Greece and Rome for the Modern Cook.  I've loved looking through this book full of fascinating stories connecting the history of ancient Greece with modern culinary adventures.

These are not utterly authentic ancient recipes by any means, but what Segan looses by deviation from history she more than gains by presenting practical and tempting dishes inspired by a culture long gone.  I'm eager to try many of the recipes in the book, from Cherry Lasagna to Pea Souffle.

Perhaps best of all is the "Menus and Entertaining" chapter at the end of the book.  Here there are historical discussions of the ancient ideas about feasting and entertaining as well as ideas for modern celebrations.  How about having a party to celebrate Plato's birthday?  Perhaps an outdoor picnic complete with Olympic games (including "ant chariot races" and "hot dog javelin hurling")?  Or how about a vegetarian feast to usher in the beginning of spring?

The recipe for Golden Apples is quite simple and a tremendously showy dessert for company:
1. Peel and core a relatively small apple
2. Roll the apple in honey, then roll in a mix of brown sugar and spices
3. Cover it with a square of store-bought puff pastry
4. Stick a cinnamon stick into the center
5. Paint the pastry with egg wash
6. Bake for about half an hour in a 400 degree oven.
7. Garnish with a mint leaf.

I suggest making more than one Golden Apple for your party, just to prevent conflict...

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Lost Books of the Odyssey

The Lost Books of the Odyssey: A NovelI found that Zachary Mason's The Lost Books of the Odyssey: A Novel is a much more serious work of literature than The Penelopiad or No Man's Land.  I also found the book to be both more thought-provoking and more appealing than most of the other books about the Odyssey which I've been reading lately.  Although I loved Walcott's modern epic variation, Omeros, Mason's book is significantly more accessible than Walcott's.  Readers who have read Homer's The Odyssey recently will most fully appreciate the author's humor and adventurous exploration.

Mason begins his novel--a book which is not a retelling but instead an expansion of Homer's original--in medias res.  While Homer himself is known for this technique of starting a story in its middle, Mason takes the technique to its extreme and throws chronology into some alternative mathematical reality.

The book is a series of vignettes, spanning the original epic's stories and themes.  Sometimes the vignettes seem more about play than about truth--that is, they are exploratory, sometimes even contradictory.  Various elements in the vignettes come together in explosive, insightful ways.  Although I stress again that this book is highly accessible, The Lost Books is also a complex read at times.  Stories fold on top of stories, twisting into new meanings as the book progresses.

Rigorous thought about the nature of authorship, the complex and shifting relationships that exist between husbands and wives, the meaning of commercial culture, the collisions that happen between power and beauty, and the deep meaning of time circle through non-traditional takes on stories about the guest-host relationship, the start of the Trojan War, the fate of Penelope, as well as the role of the gods.

In many ways, Mason turns The Odyssey inside out in the same way a Talmud scholar might investigate the Bible: looking for secret meanings which might be held in each word and in space, considering how and why particular stories were collected (or not collected), and imagining why the stories were put in a particular order.  While Mason makes it clear that his book is a novel, this tone of treating a classic work so respectfully and so seriously--and yet so playfully at the same time--makes Mason's novel resonate for me very deeply.

Highly recommended.  Thanks to Picador for sharing a review copy with me of this marvelous book.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The World of Pride and Prejudice

Lost in AustenRecently my family watched the hysterical Lost in Austen, a British television series which we found on Netflix. It is the story of Amanda, a 21st-century Londoner, who travels back in time through a door in her shower to the world of Pride and Prejudice.

On the other side of that door is the home of the Bennets. Amanda more or less switches roles with Elizabeth (who is meanwhile visiting modern London). Brash Amanda, obsessed with the book Pride and Prejudice, enters the 19th-century scene and tries to make the Bennet's lives conform to what she knows from the book should happen.  Unfortunately she succeeds only in tangling them up.  There are some surprising "revelations" along the way--some of which might make Jane Austen roll over in her grave, and all of which are quite amusing.  I was expecting a pat and obvious ending, but Lost in Austen ends with a lovely twist instead that leaves the viewer thinking about all the layers of fiction and responsibility that this show presents.

Pride and Prejudice - The Special Edition (A&E, 1996)Much of the movie--with the deliberately-out-of-place exception of Amanda--feels as lush and proper as the Firth/Ehle BBC film version.  There are even several references to Colin Firth, including one wonderful scene parodying this clip.

Although Lost in Austen is in many ways a romantic sit-com, it feels deeper that that.  For those of us who are Austen fans from birth, this is a playful adventure.  If you are very familiar with the book Pride and Prejudice and have seen the Firth movie, you'll appreciate the silliness--and the seriousness--of Lost in Austen.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Graphic Novels and the Classics

I should acknowledge right up front that I am totally new to graphic novels.  As a person who was never interested in comics even as a child, I really had no desire to explore the genre of graphic books at all.  But one day while I was wandering in the library, I stumbled across a few graphic versions of classic novels.  I was intrigued and picked up a few to look through.  I thought I would start with one of my very favorite books: Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

Pride and Prejudice (Marvel Classics)The Marvel graphic novel version of Pride and Prejudice has a wonderfully clever cover. Mimicking teen-fashion magazines, it advertises themes like "Bingleys Bring Bling to Britain" and "How to CURE your BOY-CRAZY SISTERS!"  The art throughout is appealing (although quite often I was bothered by portrayals of women who seemed to be wearing 1980s makeup) and the language of the text sticks to the spirit of Austen's language.

Believing that girls often stand outside chatting when their male friends enter the comics shop, the writer-adapter of this GN, Nancy Butler, believed that a "girl book" could encourage more girls to read graphic novels.  I don't particularly care whether or not girls start reading more graphic novels, honestly.  What I do care about is whether or not they come to experience true Jane Austen books.  Butler believes the Marvel adaptation can do exactly that.  She argues that young readers will be introduced to the characters and might "be tempted to investigate the actual book."  I have my doubts about their ability to enjoy the Austen novel if their expectations are shaped by this light read.

But Butler's next argument, that adult readers who already love the novel might enjoy revisiting "their favorite characters in a graphic format" is undoubtedly true.  While I would prefer to reread the book, flipping through the graphic novel was a quick, enjoyable way to relive favorite moments.  In some ways it felt like watching a BBC adaptation--although the graphic novel adds the humor of playing an old classic off a modern art form.  Austen and other classic authors seem to respond beautifully to this kind of adventuresome play--as the success of the Classics-Zombies books also shows.  As Butler (who has also has also produced a Marvel version of Sense and Sensibility) says, "You don't update a classic; you give it free rein."

Although I'm intrigued with the idea, the concept of seeing my favorite books turned into graphic novels or comic strips really doesn't appeal to me in the end.   What do you think?  Do you have any favorite GN classics to recommend?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Oscar Wilde's The Ideal Husband

An Ideal Husband
Photo by Scott Suchman

My son and I went with other homeschoolers yesterday to see the Shakespeare Theater's production of Oscar Wilde's The Ideal Husband. Although I have not read the play, my family recently saw the very funny film adaptation starring Rupert Everett, Julianne Moore, Minnie Driver, and other favorites.  We all laughed our way through the film.  So when we entered the theater this morning, I was expecting a light-hearted romp more or less along the lines of the movie.  As the curtain rose on an absolutely magnificent set, there was nothing to shake my initial assumptions.

During the first act, the play seemed subdued--much more than I expected from Wilde.  I made the assumption that the performance was off to a slow start.  But as the second act developed, it became clear that the directors had made a decision to override (to a degree) the comedic elements in the play in order to emphasize the seriousness of the moral questions raised in the play.  Although the plot line is of course the same basic plot as we see in the movie, lines that are delivered as ironically or as trite amusements in the film are here explored with incredible emotional depth.

Don't get me wrong: Wilde's play is full of witty dialogue ("To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance") and there is a great deal of superb comedic acting in this production (especially by Floyd King and Cameron Folmar).  Still, the humor of the play does not in any way mask the seriousness with which the characters address questions of whether it is acceptable to be deceitful in one's private relationships (including to one's spouse), when it might be acceptable to hide one's past in one's public position, and how the two venues intersect.  One could say the theme of this play more than any other is "the importance of being earnest."

This production of The Ideal Husband addresses the importance of honesty about one's own flaws and missteps,  but it also hammers home the idea that it is dangerous for us to believe that our spouses are perfect and always moral.  Wilde emphasizes the necessity for the granting of true forgiveness in the face of genuine apology.  And he offers us a portrait of how a marriage between two loving people can weather a breach of trust and arrive at a place of true healing.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Great Gatsby

I am lucky to live in a family of serious readers.  My partner David, while not a particularly bookish person growing up, now reads a great deal of nonfiction and fiction, for work and for pleasure.  Our homeschooled son, now almost twelve, has for more than two-thirds of his life been as obsessed with books as I am.  Although the three of us talk about our reading almost every evening, we’ve never planned these discussions in advance.

Reading about Amanda and Jason’s family book club was an inspiration to create our own.  We’ve structured our book club a bit differently because of the age of our child, the size of our family, and our personal interests and needs.  Because A. is reading some emotionally complex books for his banned book club at our local library, we had already been thinking of reading a few of the texts as a family in order to talk about the difficult issues.  So this month, we decided to discuss F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

The Great GatsbyFitzgerald is one of the central figures writing during what is sometimes called America's "Lost Generation"--this month's theme for the Classics Circuit.  We are thrilled to be participating this month as a family, sharing some of the thoughts that came out of our first family book club discussion.

*  *  *

My son and I had a bit of discussion before David joined.  Listen in for a moment:

Me: What did you think of this book?  Did you enjoy reading it?

A: Yes, I did.  Absolutely, old sport.  I thought it was very interesting how Fitzgerald provokes thoughts in his readers.  I'd never really read books where I saw major symbolism before, and that was a new experience for me.

Me: Can you talk about some of the symbols you saw and what you thought about them?

A: The green light at the end of the dock!  I think someone at one of Papa's meetings used the same idea recently.  It seems to be referring to the quest for the American dream.  Another one of my favorite symbols is the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg.  There are a lot of ways to interpret it.  In my book group, someone said it could be the watchful eye of God.

Me:  What do you think of the eyes on the cover?  I've heard that many editions of the book use this picture and that Fitzgerald knew the illustration before he completed his novel.

A: Well, they could definitely be referencing the doctor's eyes.  Because of the lips on the face, it seems like they may be a woman's eyes--maybe Daisy's.  The figure is crying.  It is kind of funny that the tears look like an exclamation point.  The tears also look kind of like Long Island where the story takes place.  At the bottom, a city seems to be portrayed.  The bright lights show there is a lot of excitement there.

Me: Interesting!  I thought it was a fairground.  It made me think of the line in the book when Gatsby wants to go to Coney Island, in his car, late one night.  I like your idea that it shows excitement, the high life.

A: Is there anything you see in the book now that is different from the way you read it when you were in ninth grade?

Ah, yes--I read this book many years ago.  And I still have that 9th grade book, full of my notes and underlinings.  The doctor's eyes drew my own attention back then:

GG eyes

See that round early-teen-girl handwriting?  Yikes.  Still--it is much more legible than my writing these days.  Who knows what I will make of my book notes in another thirty years.

(Comment at the bottom of the page: the billboard with the picture of the eyes "takes place of god in wasteland." )

I think the biggest change in my understanding of the book now is that I struggle more with Gatsby's relationship with Daisy.  Does he love her?  Did he ever love her?  I used to be sure he did when he was young, and sure as an adult he was trying to get back that love.  Now I feel more that he wants to win her to prove that he has reached success in his life.  She seems to me no more than a trophy representing the rich life--one who speaks with the voice of money and can be collected just as easily.  My partner David does not get this impression at all, and I think my son is a little young for any real insight on this question.  Any thoughts from y'all?

*  *  *

In our full conversation, we circled around a couple of questions--approaching them from different angles and debating meanings.  One central facet of our discussion was whether any of the characters are sympathetic.  Our son responded with frustration to the question, "Everybody and nobody!  That is such a complex question that I don't know how you could expect a straight answer."

While he has a point, we weren't about to let the issue rest.  We agreed that Tom Buchanan was the least sympathetic.  David suggested that our condemnation of Tom might be greater now than it was when Fitzgerald was writing the book in the mid-1920s.  Eugenic thought and Jim Crow racism were the background to his perspectives and his attitudes might have seemed more acceptable then.  Our son A. pointed out that the other characters did not seem to accept Tom's views as normal at all.  I was torn; Daisy and Nick simply laugh at Tom's ideas--not explicitly reject them or seem disturbed by their implications.

Daisy starts at the beginning of the book as a mostly sympathetic character.  We are hopeful that she will find true love in the book and escape from evil Tom.  By the end, however, our opinion of her has changed.  She seems self-centered, blind to other people's needs, and shallow.

Is Gatsby the character with whom we are to identify?  That seems impossible.  He is distant at the beginning, drawn larger than life in the middle (perhaps deserving the superhero title of "The Great Gatsby"), and committed to goals we don't respect.  On the other hand, Nick (the narrator) tells us that Gatsby is worth far more than the "whole damn bunch" of Toms and Daisys and their ilk.  His hope for the future seem to be what the narrator admires--but it is this commitment to building his future that encourages Gatsby to lie about his past and engage in illegal or unethical acts in order to make that dream come true.

My family came to no conclusions beyond what A. suggested at the beginning: that the characters all embody both good and bad--and in the process gain both our sympathy and our contempt.

The lesson Fitzgerald appears to be telling us is that the wealth and the quest for more wealth leads to spiritual or ethical ruin.  Although the author seems to say that reaching for a dream is a noble goal, reaching for the American dream--that is, in this book, the search for unbridled wealth--is fundamentally destructive.  Tom and Daisy, divorced from any higher goals of humanity and immersed in a fishbowl of money, "smashed up things and creatures then retreated back into their money, or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made."  Nick ends the book by realizing that he must leave the glittering disconnection of New York.  He decides to move back to his Midwestern home--a land of honesty and plainness, a place where people take responsibility for the harm they cause.

But is the corruptive power of the high life what Fitzgerald meant for us to see in this book?  The first-person narration makes it easy for us to conflate the character of Nick with Fitzgerald.  But the author's real similarity is not with Nick.  The better fit is Gatsby.  Like the character of Gatsby, Fitzgerald grew up poor, fell in love with a rich girl who would not marry him for monetary reasons, and eventually made money enough to allow him to get the girl.  Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda watched their lives spiral more and more out of control in the years after the publication of The Great Gatsby.  Their lives became as explosive as Gatsby's.

Interestingly, Nick idealizes Gatsby even as he rejects much of what defines him.  Perhaps this book was Fitzgerald's attempt to analyze both the dangers and the magic of the life he had chosen to embrace.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad

The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus (Myths, The)I am almost reluctant to write this review of Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus--for two main reasons.  First, I love many of Atwood's novels--especially Cat's Eye which I read as a young woman.  Second, many bloggers I admire very much, from Trisha and Mel to Nymeth and Caribousmom, were much more impressed with the book than I am.

Rather than being amused by Atwood's attempts at humor, I found many of her lines annoying and artificial.  When the dead Penelope is narrating her story to modern audiences, for example, she says what is supposed to be hip: "In your world, you don't get visitations from the gods the way people used to unless you're on drugs."  This kind of talk made Penelope seem like a trivial character to me rather than a voice from the past I wanted to spend my time listening to.  I expected Atwood to use her deep insights to turn Penelope into a fuller character, not draw her into a comic strip.  Similarly, the rapping maids come out with ridiculous lines like "Word has it that Penelope the Prissy was--when it came to sex--no shrinking sissy!"  This kind of portrayal I find to be so surface level as to be demeaning.

Although I disliked this book fairly intensely, there were many insights and lines I was drawn to.  My favorite: Odysseus "had a reputation as a man who could undo any complicated knot, though sometimes by tying a more complicated one."

*  *  *

I've been thinking about my displeasure at what I see as Atwood's derision of Homer's epic. Do I dislike her novel so much because of my desire to take classic literature "seriously"?  When I read the Literary Blog Hop's question of the week (about whether a book's status as a classic affects our enjoyment or perception of a book), it made think about why I had so many problems with this book.  I feel called to work hard to try to understand what people have found valuable in great literature over the centuries.  Can I just not take a joke when an author pokes fun of those works?

I think the answer is that I do like literary joking around.  For example, I love works that turn Shakespeare on his head to make us laugh--as I have said before and will say again.  I can't quite figure out what the difference is here.  It feels like Atwood is dismissing The Odyssey rather than playing with it or building on it.  Does that make any sense?

I would love to hear your thoughts.  Anyone who loved the book want to make a spirited defense of it?
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