Tag Archives: Shakespeare

February Reading Round-Up

BY JON PILL

I started the month by finally sending Underworld to the underworld. It is probably one of the easiest difficult books I’ve ever read. DeLillo manages to be stylish and lyrical and funny without making you have to work at reading his prose. He makes it look easy. The bastard. Underworld was great.

I like to read books about writing and the rather whiny (and in places kind of creepy-nerdy) Vita Nuova by Dante filled that slot this month. The translation I read seemed to have sapped all the joy from the verse. Not the best read. But interesting as a historical document. Also in the books about books camp was Kingsley Amis’ New Maps Of Hell: A Survey Of Science Fiction his review of the state of sci-fi back in the fifties. Interesting to see where the medium has changed, and where the perception has not.

For non-fiction I finished Measurement this month. One of the most mind-expanding books I’ve read in a long time. This is a maths professor’s successful attempt to make maths interesting. He teaches you how to create proofs then sets you off to do them yourself. I had the closest thing to a religious experience reading this book.

Necronomicon was the somewhat fraudulent audiobook which though marketed as being the unabridged audiobook of the collection of the same name, is in fact heavily abridged and according to the editor’s website, not affiliated with the lovely leather-bound edition he curated. Good, if formulaic, creepy stuff.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World’s less predictive and interesting cousin, as well. Orwell’s vision of the power growing from language has suddenly become prescient thanks to Kellyanne Conway. Double plus good read apart from the documentary stuff.

I also read the two plays of ol’ Bill’s that I’ve seen the most after Lear: Hamlet (great) and Twelfth Night (alright).

Total: 9 books.

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July’s Reading

This continues, and hopefully brings almost up to date the review of my reading. I read a mere five books last month so it has been relatively easy to catch-up.

1. The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley, who have a strikingly different view of the Beats than the Beats do.

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The Autobiography of Malcolm X

Well written and fascinating, this book is an extraordinary look into the life of a major international figure, and into the more local problems of racial and religious conflict that dog American culture.

The story follows Malcolm X nee Little from his earliest youth, through his period of criminal exploits, his redemption by the prophet Elijah Muhammad, and his eventual betrayal by the Nation of Islam. What is striking is to see the way Malcolm’s ‘hate’ is so much more complicated than him just being the violent flip side to the Martin Luther King coin.

The book is also fantastically well written, Haley manages to keep Malcolm’s distinctive style of speaking in the text, and contributes a fascinating introduction in his own voice.

I would highly recommend to everyone ever, especially now, when post-colonial Europe is entirely failing to understand the anger of the Middle East in almost exactly the same ways White Americans failed to understand Black Americans.

2. Shakespeare After All by Marjorie Garber, who liked the Winter’s Tale for some unfathomable reason.

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Shakespeare After All

Garber’s book is a wonderful introduction to Shakespeare scholarship and goes really well with Emma Smith’s lecture series (which can be listened to here). 

Garber’s book is made up of 38 essays – one on each of the plays – and an introduction. Each play is treating to an essay one by one, in a rough chronological order of when they were first written. The focus is on how the plays have been treated by scholarship over time, and on placing them in the progression and network of ideas and themes of Shakespeare’s as they develop through his career.

If you have a deep interest in Shakespeare this will deepen it, and if you just want a general overview this is probably the only book you’ll need on the subject. I would highly recommend to anyone who is not put off by its near 1000 pages of tiny type.

3. A War of Choice by Jack Fairweather, who likes his subjects a little too much.

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A War of Choice

I finished this, by coincidence, in the same week the Chilcot report came out. And off the back of the book I came away thinking that the media focus on the war as Tony Blair’s pet project is far too narrow.

Fairweather paints an ugly picture of just how many things went wrong in preventable ways: UK advances in the South were reversed because they ran counter to the general strategy of the US, cultural misunderstandings abounded, petty departmental squabbles in government kept experts out of the rebuilding process… the list goes on and on Blair was just the bloodstained tip of the iceberg.

The book is compellingly written as a series of individual’s stories which left me feeling that the war was a tragedy in Whitehead’s sense: the remorseless working of an impersonal thing that simply ground up people, nations and – in the end –the whole Middle East, in its relentless cogs. I would broadly recommend.

4. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, who must have had a grim time in the 50s.

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The Golden Notebook

Impressive rather than enjoyable, this intimidatingly long book breaks the life of Anna into a narrative portion and her notebooks. The notebooks themselves are split up, and into each of four different coloured books Anna writes a specific aspect of her life. One contains her political life, another her writing life, another her personal life, and another the unadorned events of her life.

That life is largely made up of one unhappy marriage and numerous unhappy affairs, the struggles of an artist who feels unable to produce art, and an idealist turned cynic. It is not a happy book, and in many places becomes extremely boring. But there are flashes of greatness, and long sections that qualify as page-turner-y.

The main triumph of the work, however is its form. I would highly recommend.

5. The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman, whose father definitely did have a grim time in the 40s.

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The Complete Maus

This Pulitzer prize winner is one of the great graphic novels ever written. Part holocaust biography, part family history and part meta-journalistic analysis, Maus casts Spiegelman and his Jewish ancestors as mice, the Germans as cats, and the Polish people who helped and/or turned on his parents as pigs.

This zoological whimsy does nothing to reduce the appalling horror of the narrative which is as much about human nature under duress and how a community under threat responds, as it is about the Holocaust itself.

Based on conversations with his father, Art draws up a beautiful and harrowing story that is one of the major artistic responses to one of the 20th Century’s darkest hours. Cannot recommend this highly enough.

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June’s Reading

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A few of my favourite things.

It’s been a while since I did one of these (see May’s here) for more on why there has been such a delay see the most recent life update (here). But I did read a decent amount in June. Eight books to be precise:

1. 1968 by Joe Haldemann, who clearly had a rubbish time in the 60s.

This novel was something of a surprise. Haldemann, who is better known for The Forever War, seemed at first to be writing a Vietnam novel, with all the grimness, madness and corrupted youth that goes with that. But just a little way into the book Spider, the GI protagonist of the book ends up being sectioned back home after a really, really bad day in the jungle and the book turns into a State of the Nation novel for the USA in what turned out to be a really, really bad year for the USA.

The grimness, madness and corruption of youth continues stateside for the rest of the novel as Spider finds himself dealing with the barbarities of the psychiatry industry of the late 60s (an interesting UK comparison might be Will Self’s Umbrella and Shark). The story deals with PTSD, homophobia, homelessness and the mad political happenings of the year that MLK and RFK were shot and the Nixon-Agnew White House was inaugurated.

Which is all pretty fun and interesting. The main problem with the novel is the prose, which is plodding, and its failure to make more of the ideas with which it is playing. There was a really great novel in the shadows behind this book, and I wished I was reading that instead.

Overall, I think I would tentatively recommend to those who like that sort of thing.

2. The Girl Who Played Go by Shan Sa, who writes well about board games and abortions.

This novel, by a Sino-French author about the Sino-Japanese war, was an interesting one. The chapters are narrated alternately by a young Chinese girl as she discovers love, sex, death and politics; and a  Japanese soldier as he the marches south towards Nanking discovering love, sex, death and politics. Eventually the two threads combine as the two characters meet in a public square and play a game of go.

The book is primarily about ‘growing up’ with an emphasis on loss of innocence. Both the plots contain stories of sexual awakening that lead to brutally unhappy conclusions, and both feature the characters learning about violence in ways that are linked to becoming and adult.

The book is very dense, at just over 200 pages it crams a lot of action and ideas into that narrow space. That is achieved by beautiful and extremely elegant prose, in which very short passages are often made to carry a huge amount of impact or information.

I would highly recommend.

3. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, who may or may not love Jesus and/or the Devil and/or neither.

This was an odd read and a super fun, if somewhat slapdashedly structured book. Master & Margarita tells the story of various members of Moscow’s literary and theatrical scene who run into the pranks and violence of the Devil and his entourage (including the unforgettable Behemoth a vodka drinking, chess playing, gigantic black cat) during their weekend jolly to Moscow.

The first half is an episodic mess as various characters fall foul of the pranks with often funny, sometimes horrifying results. While in the second half the titular characters are introduced and all those random happenings begin to pull together into a satisfying if slightly enigmatic end.

Occasionally cropping up within the novel is another novel about Pilate on the weekend of the crucifixion of Jesus and in which the events in Jerusalem have interesting parallels with happenings in the Moscow story.

I would highly recommend it. Both as an entertainment, full of weird – and occasionally quite dark – comedy; but also as a serious work of Literature.

4. The Two Noble Kinsmen by William Shakespeare, who was the original bromancer.

The plot is roughly this: two besties fall in love with the same lass, shenanigans ensue.

There is some great poetry in it, especially about male friendships, but overall the play is far from being the best of Shakespeare’s work. The end is rather poorly telegraphed for example, and the character’s are not terribly rounded or interesting, it may be that it plays better on the stage, but I was not super convinced by it.

Don’t think I would recommend especially.

5. All’s Well That Ends Well by William Shakespeare, who seems to feel marrying a total arse makes for a happy ending, just because you fancy him.

A pretty solid and hugely underrated play with plenty of the slick wordplay and dialogue you get in things like the Merry Wives of Windsor and is at its very best in Much Ado About Nothing.

The sexual politics of the piece are a little concerning, the plot involves a woman who heals the King and in return has the King force the man she loves to marry her. He is so horrified by her low birth he goes off to war to avoid having sex with her saying he’ll never be her husband till she lays him. A couple of bed tricks later, he finds out that he accidentally had sex with her and grudgingly starts to act like a husband.

The plot works interestingly as a Rube-Goldberg machine, but is hard to take seriously as a human story. Still, a moderate recommend from me.

6. King Henry VIII by William Shakespeare, who Zzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Eurgh. So dull. So, so dull.

A few good speeches and no real plot get us from wife #1 to wife #2 (Fun note for trivia pedants: Henry VIII, despite the schoolroom rhyme never divorced anyone. The rhyme should go: Annulled, beheaded, died, annulled, beheaded, survived). At the end of the play Elizabeth I is born and the play ends.

Would not recommend.

7. The Memory of War and Children in Exile by James Fenton, who literally rode a North Vietnamese tank through Saigon.

A collection of poetry made up of poems from Fenton’s time in Vietnam and Cambodia, some from after his return to England. Some of the poems are very funny, others more complex and formal. All of them are pretty good and some are excellent.

Would recommend to poetical people.

8. King Harald’s Saga by Snorri Sturluson, who clearly fancies Norwegians and thinks the Danes smell weird.

King Harald’s Saga is taken from Heimskringla a huge history of Norway by the Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson. It tells the story of Harald Hardradr, who every English school child knows as a footnote to the story of 1066.

In fact King Harald lived an interesting life before Stamford Bridge, something of a trickster and prone to violence he travelled Europe and fought as head of the Byzantine Emperor’s Varangian guard before coming home to Norway to fight the Danes and invading England to fight the English.

The story climaxes with an interesting description of Stamford Bridge as it were the climax of the story and which contains the immortal line from Harold II who, when asked what he would give Harald in return for a peace settlement, responded with: ‘Seven feet of English soil.’

Overall I would recommend, especially to anyone interested in Medieval European history. So basically everyone.

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May’s Reading

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The Man With the Golden Gun, original cover art.

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, who write’s the most romantic moments of necrophilia.

A Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf, who is every bit as insecure about her writing on bad days as is this writer.

Song of Myself by Walt Whitman, who is hugely patronising about everyone who is not him which is also everyone he claims he is.

A Vietnam War Reader by Michael H. Hunt, who is actually genuinely named Mike Hunt.

Static Exile by George Ttoouli, whose book can and should be bought here. I do know the author, and may therefore lack integrity.

Ooga-Booga by Frederick Seidel, who rhymes too much.

Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo, who somehow got his great work on sexual obsession turned into a children’s movie.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson, who is just great.

The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare, who is probably funnier on the stage than on the page.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, who writes a narrator who is both super-compelling and super-annoying.

The Man With the Golden Gun by Ian Fleming, who is always a fascinating source of trivia.

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February Reading Round-Up

A pitiful showing after last months many many books. There are instead just a few including and limited to:

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Caution: may contain paper.

Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare, who is a massive sexist.

The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels, who taught me that if you want your theories to become the most important political philosophy of the 20th-Century the trick is to come up with really memorable metaphors.

Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare, who is a massive racist.

Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, whose chapter titles are funnier than most modern rom-coms.

Falling Man by Don DeLillo, who doesn’t seem to know anyone except weirdos and scary children.

Novel Without A Name by Duong Thu Huong, who writes the most poignant story of cow molestation I’ve ever read.

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, who made me so unsure what truth even is.

Reviews and ratings here.

 

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