February Reading – The Month Ahead

I used to post almost every month about what was coming up in my planned reading. This routine post often aged into a public record of my lack of resolve and general slacking, which may have led to my discontinuing it. I think I’m going to try to start doing it again though, as perhaps it will make me feel more accountable and get more reading done. (yeah, right) Anyway, here goes:

Sign-Talker by James Alexander

This book was recommended by my Mom (“Hi, Mom!”), who has read many of Thom’s books. I’ve read one other, “Follow the River,” much of which is set in the Kanawha & New River area in West Virginia, where I have family ties. The Sign-Talker is the fictionalized story of George Drouillard, a half-Native American hunter/interpreter who was part of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. I’m already pretty far into this one and may finish up tonight. That would be fortuitous since the author will be at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library’s monthly “First Friday” event tomorrow. I’d like to go meet him.

Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut

This is the KVML Book Club’s selection for February. I know nothing about it and don’t even have a copy yet. It will be nice to return to Vonnegut this month, though, after struggling mightily to get through Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” last month.

Memory Babe by Gerald Nicosia

The second book of my unofficial planned “twelve author biographies in twelve months” project. I started this biography of Jack Kerouac once a few years ago but didn’t finish. I plan to start from scratch. It’s huge.

MacBeth by Shakespeare

This is the February play for an online year-long Shakespeare reading challenge (that I’ve lost track of where it actually is; I’m so bad). I re-read A Midsummer Night’s dream last month and really enjoyed the return visit. Hopefully I’ll feel the same way about MacBeth. Plus there are witches in this one…

Short Stories

I’m one behind schedule in my one per week project, but I’m sure I’ll read a bunch this month. Next up is Lester del Rey’s sci-fi tale, “Instinct.” I’ve also been enjoying following the weekly short story meme over at Breadcrumb Reads. Learning of lots of new short stories and authors that I. Will be reading this year and into the future, I’m sure.

Well that’s my currently planned month of reading. What about you? What’s on your February reading list?

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“This is Not Shakespeare, Louie…”

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In a scene from the great movie comedy, Trading Places (surely you’ve seen it…what, you haven’t? Well, go rent it now and watch. I’ll be here when you get back. :-)), Louis Winthorp, the cultured character played by Dan Aykroyd, upon discovering the first name of Jamie Curtis’s character, says, “Ophelia?! You realize, of course, that that’s…” She interrupts him and says, “I know. Hamlet’s girlfriend. He goes crazy; she kills herself. This is not Shakespeare, Louie.” Remember that?

Anyway, I was somewhat reminded of it recently when I read Michelle Ray’s book, Falling for Hamlet, which is a contemporary-based retelling of the classic tale, with very few changes. The few changes are significant, though, and deal with the fate of at least one of the major characters. That’s as much of a spoiler as I’m going to give you. Read the book yourself if you’re interested.

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I, for one, found the book a pleasant diversion from what I normally read. The author wrote it with a young audience in mind, and it is told in the first person by the Ophelia character. The story is also framed around a criminal investigation and a talk show appearance by one of the major characters (how’s that for modernizing?). The author also includes some lengthy notes on how she came to write the book and also on her background with the play and Shakespeare. I admire her courage for taking on such an ambitious work, knowing in advance she would likely encounter ridicule or hostility from some “purist” quarters. Overall, I think she did a great job.

I enjoyed how she weaved the modern, technological world and its idioms to the story. We see the young characters text messaging each other (one of the texts reading “strnge things afoot @ the circle K” in a nod to the movie Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, which I chuckled at). We also get lines like “Horatio took his iPod out of his jacket and focused on untangling the wires.”. We learn the first names of Rosencrantz and Gildenstern when they are introduced to someone and say. “Billy Rosencrantz, Dave Gildenstern.” I also love that the young characters are fans of a rock band named “The Poor Yoricks” and that one of their favorite tv shows is a musical reality program called “Denmark Divas” (sounds a little similar to a show here on the Fox network, doesn’t it?).

Of course I’m no expert on what dialogue between teenagers should sound like these days, but I found it to be natural and credible. The narrative voice of Ophelia was strong and she made some good observations about her world. At one point, while she was kind of ‘on the run’ and had a clandestine meeting with Horatio at a coffee shop, upon watching the other customers file in and out she says, “It occurred to me that those decisions at the coffee shop about what flavor and how much foam might be the only element over which these people had any control for that entire day. Perhaps that was why everyone loved their latte-machiatto-double-shot-light-whipped whatevers.” Insightful AND humorous!

Has anyone else out there read this book? Or better yet, how do you feel in general about modern retellings of older, classic (dare I say sacred?) stories? I’m intrigued every time I see a title like “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” but this is the first book I’ve read – at least recently – that falls into this category.

(below: Author Michelle Ray)

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The Tempest read-along – Acts I & II

Shakespeare’s, The Tempest is unique among his plays in many ways. The most interesting to me is that it appears to be the only play of his where he made up the plot entirely on his own.  Other plays are based, admittedly sometimes very loosely, on historical, legendary, or mythological events, but there doesn’t seem to be a ‘source story’ here.  It has been argued that the inspiration for the play was a ‘current event’ of the time – that being the 1609 voyage of a fleet of supply ships bound for the colony of Jamestown in America which encountered bad weather, losing it’s flagship In storms around the islands of Bermuda. The Tempest is also thought to be the last play that Shakespeare wrote entirely on his own, without collaborators.

 The first two acts of the play (which stage one of the read-along covers) generally set the stage for the main action later.  It starts quite dramatically with the the crew of a ship struggling to save their ship in a storm (a tempest, if you will). The passengers of the ship are royalty from Naples and Milan, and provide some brief comic relief in the opening scene, getting in the way of the earnest efforts of the crew “you do assist the storm!”

In the second scene we learn that there is a ‘puppet-master’ behind all these events:  Prospero.  Described as the “right Duke of Milan” in the Dramatis Personae, we learn he has been deposed by his brother, Antonio, and has been living in exile on an island with his daughter Miranda.  She knows something of his “powers ” (his position was usurped at least in part because he spent too much time in ‘secret books,’ apparently learning the ways of magic) and asks him to stop the storm, as she feels empathy toward the crew.  Prospero begins to tell her something of her past in Milan, before their exile.  She surprises him by remembering, though young when they departed, some detail of their time there.  This leads Prospero to say, “what seest thou else, in the dark backward and abysm of time?”  I love the language “dark backward and abysm of time.”  Funny, I just looked up “abysm” on Merriam-Webster.com to see the difference, if any, between that word and “abyss” and the definition is given as: ABYSS <the dark backward and abysm of time – Shakespeare>.  Neat.

We also meet one of Prospero’s two servants, Ariel.  A spirit of some kind that had been imprisoned (within a piece of driftwood for twelve years!) on the island by its prior owner/resident, the witch Sycorax.  In payment for freeing him, some bargain has been made where Ariel will serve Prospero for a determined period of time.  With Ariel’s help & powers, Prospero has conjured the storm which has brought his ‘enemies’ to the shores of the island.  Ariel is careful to strand them in various locations, not all together – perhaps this makes future staging of the play easier than if they were all in one group.  Left alone is Ferdinand, the son of the King of Naples.  Miranda sees him and thinks him the noblest man she has ever seen (indeed, besides her father and his other servant, the wretched Caliban, Ferdinand is the ONLY man she has ever seen).  The other ‘nobles’ are washed ashore in a group, as are the two ‘comic’ characters, Trinculo and Stephano.  One of the latter stumbles upon Caliban (the offspring of the witch) sheltering underneath a blanket and provides some comic relief when Stephano finds them as well.  Our visit with the stranded nobles does not endear them to us, however.  With the exception of the King of Naples, who is sure his son has perished, they all give a rather distatesful, self-serving impression.  They are clearly “the bad guy” in the play, but who is “the good guy?”  Prospero seems a little shady too, in my opinion.  Perhaps the final acts will illuminate for us…

Remembering 2008’s “Project: Shakespeare”

I’m not sure now what my original impetus was, but toward the end of 2007, I came up with the idea for a 2008 reading project, the goal of which was to read all of Shakespeare’s plays over the course of the year. I should probably confess right away that I did not complete the project, BUT I did make an honest effort that resulted in my getting through about 2/3 of them.

I created a schedule/syllabus that spread the reading over the year, which comes to about three plays a month. I found a trusted guide for my project in Isaac Asimov’s book, Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare. This book includes all the plays and two of Shakespeare’s lyrical poems. It presents them in two volumes, in “chronological” order – the chronology in this case being that of the time of the setting of the plays. Creating the schedule was somewhat empowering, as “that’s only three plays a month!” didn’t seem so bad as looking at the huge, I mean HUGE, copy of The Complete Works at I have.

My scheme for reading was:
A) First read Asimov’s chapter on the play, to gain some background knowledge (this helped tremendously when I got to the ‘reading the play’ step, as I “knew what was going on” even if the language was difficult. B) Read the actual play
C) seek out other commentary/discussion on the play. (eventually, for this step, I settled on a book, Shakespeare After All, by Marjorie Garber, which I found to be a scholarly yet helpful companion to my project.

If anyone is interested in viewing the remnants of the online chronicle I almost kept for project Shakespeare, the ruins of its web page still reside in the subdirectories of my book club’s web page at the following URL.

http://ircbookclub.wetpaint.com/page/Project%3A+Shakespeare

I thought that, once completed, the project could be continued or “refreshed” with subsequent three year projects, where I would review and revisit the plays at a more leisurely pace of one a month, completing the entire set every three years, and so on. I have also since learned that Isaac Asimov also wrote a similar “guidebook” for the bible. I bet that would make interesting reading as well. I also, just this year, discovered a website where an erstwhile blogger and Shakespeare fan was working on a “38 Plays in 38 Days” project. Now THAT is ambitious.

What about you? Do you devise reading projects and goals for yourself or you read more ‘randomly,’ picking up whatever strikes your fancy?

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My First Introduction to Shakespeare’s The Tempest

We always hear stories from people – usually those who have achieved some great success and are being interviewed or otherwise lauded for their success – and they often seem to include a specific teacher or two who had a great influence on the person doing the “achieving.”

I of course had a few teachers/professors like this too (it’s just that I haven’t achieved anything yet!). Among them was an English Literature professor at Wabash College, one Thomas Campbell. At the time I was in college, he was one of the younger, “cooler” profs, and I took a class of his – damned if I can remember the exact title of it – on Medieval (& beyond) English Literature, dealing a lot with the Canterbury Tales, Beowulf, and Shakespeare, among others. Campbell was one of those professors who students could tell was genuinely excited about his subject. Professors like this always carried a little more authority with me, almost as if to say, “well here’s a grownup who clearly thinks this stuff is cool, so there must be SOMETHING to it, even if I don’t get it yet.”

Wabash College was a great school that often made non-standard forms of entertainment available (for free) to it’s students, including contemporary and sometimes classic movies in the huge campus theatre. (this building still makes me cringe in horror as I am reminded of sitting through a semester of 8am chemistry lectures in its amphitheater – staying awake through that entire period was a miracle rarely achieved; thank God handouts were provided!) Anyway, I think it was my senior year when they showed the classic 1956 sci-fi movie Forbidden Planet.

Professor Campbell was the faculty member who introduced the film to those in attendance (I was already familiar with it from seeing it on tv – possibly on WTTV’s “Science Fiction Theater” on Saturday night, which was a staple of the entertainment of my youth). He enthusiastically pointed out that the film was essentially a sci-fi version of The Tempest, matching the film characters to those in the play one by one. I remember that he also took time to point out some of the “campier” elements, e.g. that the crew of the spaceship – with their neat little uniforms and their caps resembled a professional sports club (“They’re a BASEBALL team!” I distinctly remember him proclaiming)

Anyway, once the intro was done we settled into our seats and enjoyed this classic movie. In fact, I seem to remember that – since these were the days of the old-fashioned films on reels (yes, I’m THAT old) – Campbell would take advantage of the reel-changing pauses to comment further on the film which again would often include it’s similarities to The Tempest. If you’ve never seen this movie, I’d recommend giving it a view. If you’re a sci-fi fan, you’re undoubtedly already familiar with it, BUT if you’re also a fan of literature and never made the connection noticing that it could be seen as a remake of The Tempest, it may be time to watch it again…

-Jay

Above: a movie poster for forbidden planet, and the house (since demolished to make room for a new one) where I lived most of my college days.

Time for a Little Shakespeare: The Tempest read-along!

Hi all,

Allie – over at A Literary Odyssey – is hosting another read-along, this time for Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  Click this link to see the details.  Hope you will join us!

-Jay