Monday, June 30, 2014

Books Read in June

This month will feature an almost embarrassingly short list.  Ready for it?

  • Spellbound, Larry Correia - the sequel to 'Hard Magic' which I read in May.  This book continues with super powered people in the 30's.  A very good read.  Fun book.
And that's it.  That's all I finished.  I read parts of about ten other books but didn't finish anything else.  Some of that is the time of year.  The kids are home from their various schools.  My wife is a teacher so she is home too.  I don't get nearly as much time for reading in the summer.  
Add in about half a dozen plays that I've read.  And some camping.  And day trips hither and yon.  It all adds up.
Another part is that I've had a hard time finding something that I can really sink my teeth into.  There are several books in my 'should read' pile but I find my concentration wandering.  My usual cure for this is to find something more 'beach read' and that's pretty much my plan here.  Once I get in enough mental play-time, I'll be back to the more rigorous reading.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

William Carlos Williams - Poetry

The blurb before the poem here (reminder: this book) says that William Carlos Williams 'was notable for writing about things, not ideas'.  This poem, titled 'The Red Wheelbarrow' certainly fits.  Both the poet and the poem are new to me.

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

And that's it.  We don't know anything else about the wheelbarrow or what it's needed for.  (The Stephen King fan in me can think of some scenarios...)  We know that there is a need.  We know that it is raining, or recently has been.  There are chickens nearby, so this could be a farm.  And with those clues, you can put together your own story.
I don't know if I like this or not.  I want to know more and, of course, I can't.  I can make up a story, and in fact, I'm almost forced to do so.  But isn't that a trick?  I mean, the poem is gimmicky, there's no question of that.  But some gimmicks work and others don't.  If I wrote a simple poem like 'I don't want to trust/That man behind you...', then I've written a poem of sorts (and even tried to create drama) but the trick is cheap and common.
No, I don't think that I like it.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Hostage, Behan - 97

This is a most Irish play.  The setting is 1958 and there is enormous tension between the Irish and the Brits.  The play takes place in a brothel that is run by a man named Pat, who fought the British in his youth but now has a bad leg and a cynical approach.  (Well, maybe that's not right.  He thinks of the cause as hopeless, but obviously is sympathetic to it.)  There is a somber note to the proceedings.  A young Irish boy of 18, is set to be executed the next morning.  He's an IRA member and was caught shooting at a policeman.
The owner of the building is a man called Monsewer.  He's Anglo/Irish but in full sympathy to the Irish cause.  A group of the IRA is going to kidnap a British soldier and bring him to the brothel.  If the Irish boy is killed, the soldier will be too.  None of the regulars at the brothel are to know of this, but of course they find out when the soldier is brought in.
The soldier is a young lad named Leslie and he really doesn't understand what's happening.  He feels badly for the Irish civilians that were harmed but he didn't do it.  As for the boy that will be executed, well, you can't go shooting at policeman, can you?  He personally hasn't hurt anyone so why should they hurt him?  And then he finds out that they really do intend to shoot him and (of course) he objects to that.
The situation of a captured soldier is absurd, but then, the overall situation is absurd for 'civilians' in a constant asymmetrical war-zone.  Behan captures that absurdity well.  You feel for these poor people even though the actions are hard to sympathize with.  Frankly, I can't imagine what living that kind of life must be like.  From a moral standpoint, I'm just going to stand back and keep my opinions to myself.
The play itself looks like it must be quite something to see.  The dialogue is crackling, the characters are all interesting and the over-arching questions are thorny.  I didn't mention this, but there are quite a few musical numbers too.  It's hard for me to picture how that fits in.  One of the limits of trying to get a feel for a play simply by reading the script instead of watching it performed.

Next up should be 'The Accidental Death of an Anarchist' by Dario Fo but I can't find it anywhere.  So I'm going to abuse my authority as the person running this project and skip ahead to #95, 'The Balcony' by Jean Genet.  Don't worry, I'll come back for Fo.  There may be more skipping around this year, but once I settle in to the one a month routine in January, I'll be certain to stay on track.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Alfred Noyes - Poetry

Yet another poem and poet that I've never heard of before.  (This just underscores the usefulness of this particular project.  By the end of it, I will be something better than completely ignorant!)  The poem is called 'The Highwayman' and it's by Alfred Noyes.  Once again (third week in a row?) the entire poem is too long to transcribe.  The full version is here.

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding -
Riding - riding -
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

He'd a French cocked-hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin,
A coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of brown doe-skin;
They fitted with never a wrinkle. His boots were up to the thigh.
And he rode with a jeweled twinkle,
His butt a-twinkle,
His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jeweled sky.

Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard;
He tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all was locked and barred;
He whistled a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord's black-eyed daughter;
Plaiting a dark red live-knot into her long black hair.

And dark in the dark old inn-yard a stable-wicket creaked
Where Tim the ostler listened; his face was white and peaked;
His eyes were hollows of madness, his hair like moldy hay,
But he loved the landlord's daughter;
The landlord's red-lipped daughter;
Dumb as a dog he listened, and he heard the robber say -
"One kiss, my bonny sweetheart, I'm after a prize tonight,
But I shall be back with the yellow gold before the morning light;
Yet, if they press me sharply, and harry me through the day,
Then look for me by moonlight,
Watch for me by moonlight,
I'll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way."

You'll have to click through the link to read the rest and I recommend that you do.  My book describes this poem as 'vividly romantic' and that seems very fitting.  The poem gives some very romantic elements.  The lovers are composed of a charming rogue and a beautiful daughter who is operating outside of her parents knowledge.
Though I should note that we don't actually know much about the highwayman, other than that he is going off to find gold and that this young woman is taken with him.  Indeed, we cheer for him, so it's easy to assume that in his fight against the redcoats, he is some sort of Robin Hood figure.  But we don't know.  He really could just be a common thief who has turned the head of a young girl who is too easily impressed with flash over substance.
The story is compelling and interesting.  I particularly like the repetition.  'Riding - riding - riding.'  Pulls you in and makes you want more.  The twists and turns of the plot are also very good.  I won't spoil, except to again recommend clicking through and reading the whole bit.
I'll just end by saying that I hope that Tim the ostler got his in the end.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Readings for the Second Half of Year Three

Only eight pieces, but some long ones out there.  

Shakespeare: Macbeth link

Milton: Paradise Lost link

Locke: An Essay on Human Understanding (Book III, Ch 1-3, 9-11) link
Kant: Science of Right link

Mill: Representative Government (Ch 1-6) link
Lavoisier: Elements of Chemistry (Part I) link

Dostoevsky: The Brothers Karamazov (Part I-II) link

Freud: The Origin and Development of Psycho-Analysis link

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Euclid, the Game

Remember a few months ago when we tackled Euclid?  (You all did that too, right?)  Well now you can play a game using your Euclidean methods.  The game is here

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Troilus and Cressida - Shakespeare

This piece isn't actually on the Great Books reading list but I thought it made sense to throw it in. 

Shakespeare's take on the Trojan War is much broader than Chaucer's.  (You can read my review of Chaucer here.)   With Chaucer we got a laser like focus on the relationship between Troilus and Cressida.  Not so with the Bard.  He wrote a large enough story to include Achilles sulking in his tent and the eventual death of Hector. 
The two make an interesting contrast.  Chaucer was hard to take because it was so overly romantic as to be dull.  Shakespeare's approach is cynical.  The Trojans are questioning whether Helen is worth all of the trouble that she has created.  The Greeks are in conflict with each other.  Almost no one shines.  The exception is Troilus who seems to be sincerely in love.
Cressida, on the other hand, isn't.  After Troilus proclaims his love, she (eventually) tells him that she loves him too.  She says that she was afraid of being open about her feelings because she was afraid that he would take advantage of her.  After she is transferred to the Greeks she immediately goes into a similar routine with a Greek named Diomedes. 
I frankly don't know if she's a villain or not.  On the one hand, her feelings aren't to be trusted.  On the other hand, in a time of war, when women were virtually property, it probably made sense to be somewhat pliable with your heart.  Was she wildly unfaithful or simply doing what she had to do to survive?
I could see it played either way.  In some ways, its like Hamlet where there are some very good alternate paths available to the actor.  And once again, I wonder how it was played in Shakespeare's time.

My book, The Friendly Shakespeare (highly recommended), says that there is no record of this play being presented from Shakespeare's death until sometime in the late 19th century.  (Which doesn't mean that it was never put on, but if it was, it was done rarely.)  I can see why its not as popular as some of the biggies.  Still . . . it has potential.  There is a good, if difficult, story here. 
Not my favorite, but I'm glad that I read it.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Wallace Stevens - Poetry

Another poet that I haven't heard of, nor the poem either.  The title is 'Peter Quince at the Clavier'.  If my memory serves, Peter Quince is one of the bumbling actors from the play within 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'.  A clavier is a musical instrument from the piano family.  The entire play is too long to transcribe.  You can read the full thing here.

Just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the selfsame sounds
On my spirit make a music, too.

Music is feeling, then, not sound
And thus it is that what I feel,
Here in this room, desiring you,

Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk,
Is music. It is like the strain
Waked in the elders by Susanna.

Of a green evening, clear and warm,
She bathed in her still garden, while
The red-eyed elders watching, felt

The basses of their beings throb
In witching chords, and their thin blood
Pulse pizzicati of Hosanna.

I'm not sure I get this one at all.  If this is Peter Quince, bumbling fool, speaking to us, do we take it seriously?  I wouldn't think so.  And if we don't take him seriously, then these are, perhaps, concepts that he has heard about but doesn't understand.  In which case, the poem falls apart under its own weight.
Or maybe we do take it seriously, in which case there is some kind of message here.  Though maybe it is too subtle for me to really understand.  Susanna is spied upon and disturbed by others (Byzantines) at which point she is upset.  The beauty of herself (or her moment? her music?) breaks down and is lost in that moment.
Yeah, I didn't get this one.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Trojan War in Literature

I mentioned that the Trojan War has been active in Western Literature.  Here is a good list from Wikipedia to show that.  It begins with Homer, of course, then mentions several poems by Saphho and others.  It lists no less than 17 different plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides and others.  And that's just the Greeks!  The Romans talked about it with Virgil and Ovid.  Several medieval authors took a crack at it and the English are represented by Chaucer, Shakespeare, Marlowe and others.  This is an amazing amount of writing.  The only rival in terms of quality and quantity in Western literature is the Bible.

What's the intersection for our reading list?

  • In Year Two we read The 'Iliad' first and the followed that up with the works of Aeschylus, 'Agamemnon', 'the Libation Bearers' and 'Eumenides'.
  • Year Three has brought us Chaucer's tale of lost love, 'Troilus and Cressida'.
  • Year Four will start out with Euripides.  Four different plays, among them 'Trojan Women'.
  • In Year Five we'll cover Virgil with 'The Aeneid'.
  • Next up, Year Six, we'll go back to Homer with 'The Odyssey'.
  • And then a break until Year Ten when we open with Sophocles 'Ajax' and 'Electra'.  
That's nine different pieces, or about 5% of the total works in this reading list.  That's a lot.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Heidi Chronicles - 98

I really was delighted by the 'Heidi Chronicles' by Wendy Wasserstein.  The play chooses an interesting device to tell its story.  We see Heidi Holland in a number of scenes from her life, as she grows and learns things.  Along with her are three friends, Susan, Peter and Scoop.  Each of them changes and varies in cynicism and optimism as time goes by.
Heidi goes from a wallflower to a social activist to a feminist to writer about women and art to (finally) a mother of an adopted girl.  Apparently that last bit was controversial among feminists who resented the idea that a woman could need a child to feel complete.  That wasn't my reading but I'm a) not a feminist and b) a man, so I'm sure that they won't care about my opinion on this.
The writing throughout is clear and thoughtful.  These feel like real people in the way we seem them over twenty-some years of time.  Its also humorous and fun.  I'd enjoy seeing it on the stage.  I can only imagine that it would be effective, especially for women of a similar age to Heidi Holland.  The plays suggests that there is a struggle out there for women to figure out exactly how to live their lives.  Feminism and the various women's rights movements of the 60's and 70's didn't really solve that struggle.  It opened doors certainly but the eternal questions of how to live still need to be solved.  (This remains true for men too.)  I'm guessing that those question will still be unsolved a thousand years from now and beyond.
I very much enjoyed this and was glad that I was introduced to it.

Next up is 'The Hostage' by Brendan Behan.  I haven't found it yet to read but I believe there is a full staging of it online to watch.  Part of me feels that this would be cheating, but that's probably silly.  Plays were meant to be watched, not read, right?

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Troilus and Cressida - Chaucer

The story of Troilus and Cressida comes to us from the Trojan war.  I doubt that any conflict has created more pure literature in Western civilization.  I don't remember either Troilus or Cressida being mentioned by Homer in the Iliad but that fault might be mine.
So what happens?  Our story opens with a priest from Troy named Calchas.  He has forseen that the Greeks will win and Troy will be burned.  He decides to change over to the winning side.  The Trojans are understandably upset by this.  His daughter Cressida was left behind in disgrace.  Hector took her into his house to shield her honor.
Next we meet Troilus, one of the sons of the Trojan king Priam.  He falls for Cressida at a distance.  His love is so strong that instead of asking for her hand, he sulks in agony.  Pandarus, a fellow soldier and Cressida's uncle, finds him and eventually finds out why he is upset.
And then very little happens.  Pandarus tells Cressida about Troilus' love.  She won't commit herself to him because she knows that men are flighty.  Troilus writes a letter.  Pandarus contrives to have them meet.  Cressida falls for him.  Pandarus makes a plan for them to spend a night together.  After much, much hesitation, they do.  (The actions in this paragraph take some 500 stanzas of poetry.)
Then the twists come.  Calchas asks that Cressida be given to the Greeks as part of a prisoner exchange.  Troilus is of course opposed but he can't publicly proclaim it.  He goes to seize Cressida (if she's ok with it).  She declines.  Instead, she'll go to the Greeks but escape ten days later and come back to him.
Alas, she can't escape.  Ten days later, she is convinced by a Greek commander, Diomede, to become his lover.  Eventually Troilus realizes that she isn't coming back.  Later he dies in battle.

Let me start by saying that this wasn't my favorite piece of writing.  Epic poetry isn't quite my taste.  Though, 'Paradise Lost', coming up in August, is quite good.  Maybe I would have enjoyed this more if it was set out in a narrative, though frankly I doubt it.  If it were a modern novel, I'd say that it suffers from serious pacing issues.  The first three books were a slog.
Language barrier?  Some, maybe.  I used the version put out in the Great Books volume 22.  It has the middle English stanzas next to a translation by (I'm not making this up) George Phillip Krapp.  I mostly read the translation but bounced back and forth.  It wasn't too hard to figure out things like this:

But ye loveres, that bathen in gladnesse,
If any drope of pitee in you be,
Remembreth yow on passed hevinesse
That he han felt, and on the adversitee
Of othere folk, and thenketh how that ye
Han felt that Love dorste yow displease;
Or ye han wonne him with to greet an ese.

It may help to try and read it out loud.  (The spell-check in Blogger hates it.)  The translation:

But O ye lovers, bathed in bliss always,
If any drops of pity in you be,
Recall the griefs gone by of other days,
And think sometimes upon the adversity
Of other folk, forgetting not that ye
Have felt yourselves Love's power to displease,
Lest ye might win Love's prize with too great ease.

It's not hard to look back and forth and figure it out.  I did this mostly in seeing how certain phrases would translate out.  The translation seems to be very good in terms of staying right with the story.  This Krapp job wasn't a crap job.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Vachel Lindsay - Poetry

I don't know this weeks poem, but I do know the poet.  One of Vachel Lindsay's poems was in the movie, 'Dead Poet's Society'.  That poem was 'Congo' and you can read it here.  This poem is called 'General William Booth Enters into Heaven'.  The entire thing is too long to put here, so I'll just put down the beginning.  The whole thing is here.

[Bass drums beat loudly.]

Booth led boldly with his big bass drum-
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)
The Saints smiled gravely and they said: "He's come."
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)
Walking lepers followed, rank on rank,
Lurching bravoes from the ditches dank,
Drabs from the alleyways and drug fiends pale-
Minds still passion-ridden, soul-powers frail:-
Vermin-eaten saints with mouldy breath,
Unwashed legions with the ways of Death-
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)


I don't know that a cold reading can do this justice.  Here is a musical rendition which seems to be in line with the spirit of the poem.

Well, it's not my usual taste.  I can't really tell if this poem is ironic or should be read straight.  After hearing the performed version, I really, really can't tell.  I don't care for dissonance in my music and the written words don't move me either. 
I didn't care for it.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Author Timeline

Aeschylus  525-456
Herodotus  484-425
Thucydides  460-395
Plato  428-348
Aristotle  384-322
Euclid  Unknown (300 BC?)
Tacitus  56-117
St Thomas Aquinas  1225-1274
Chaucer  1343-1400
Shakespeare  1564-1616
Milton  1608-1674
Locke  1632-1704
Kant  1724-1804
Mill  1806-1873
Lavoisier  1743-1794
Dostoevsky  1821-1881
Freud  1856-1939

For some reason, I had never put Chaucer at 200 years before Shakespeare.

Monday, June 2, 2014

The King, the Greatest Alcalde - 99

I did find a copy and it turned out to be easier than I expected.  Thank God for used bookstores, right?  It was in an anthology of world drama.

Probably the most important thing to know about this play is the author, Lope de Vega (biographical link).  He was the father of Spanish theater and a man of prodigious work.  He is thought to have written some 1800 plays and around 3000 sonnets.  Cervantes called him a 'monster of nature' for his ability to write such sheer quantity.  He also changed the nature of theater in Spain (and Europe) by breaking from Aristotle's strict rules.  (Or so it is said.  He was roughly contemporary to Shakespeare and you really can't accuse Shakespeare of following the rules here either.  But I'm not a drama historian and might be missing something here.)  Is he any good?  I'll get back to that.
This play, 'The King, the Greatest Judge' (or Magistrate or Alcalde, translations vary) is chosen as a representative.  From what I can tell, Lope de Vega has not enjoyed a huge amount of translation into English or been seen much on American stages.  Which is a shame, as I can easily see putting on this and similar plays.  The historical value alone is high enough to create interest.
So what happens?  In the play, a peasant by the name of Sancho has fallen in love with a fair maiden named Elvira.  He asks her father for her hand and her father tells him that he must ask for their lord and patron to bless the marriage.  Sancho asks for and receives the blessing and his patron, Don Tello, decides to attend the wedding.  And then the problem happens.  Don Tello falls in love with Elvira and contrives to kidnap her.
Sancho goes to the king and begs for help.  The king writes a letter ordering Don Tello to give her back but Don Tello refuses to do so.  So Sancho goes back to the king.  Meanwhile, Don Tello is becoming more and more frustrated, because Elvira won't give up her charms.  He schemes to make her do so but she resists.
The king returns with Sancho and discovers that Don Tello has finally just taken her.  He orders a priest and a hangman.  Don Tello will marry her to restore her honor and then he'll be executed.  Elvira and Sancho will then be together and wealthy.
The plot is on the simple side.  The characters are interesting, but a bit cartoonish.  My favorite is a swineherd named Pelayo who travels with Sancho.  He misunderstands everything in a most amusing fashion.  It's the part that I would want to play.  In short, I enjoyed it, but you'd have to do some hard work to make me think of it as one of the 100 best plays of all time.  If you happen to run across it somewhere, it's definitely worth a read.

Next up: 'The Heidi Chronicles' by Wendy Wasserstein.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Reading for June

Just one:

Chaucer: Troilus and Cressida link

I'm thinking of throwing Shakespeare's version of the story (link) in there for comparison sake.