Harold Bloom makes a strong case that Shakespeare gave us the fullest depictions of humanity before or since the Elizabethan era, and though I agree wHarold Bloom makes a strong case that Shakespeare gave us the fullest depictions of humanity before or since the Elizabethan era, and though I agree with him, I cannot discount Chaucer's influence on the Bard. (And to be fair, neither does Bloom.) Consider how the Pardoner is a template for Iago; how the Wife of Bath's wit and filthy mind uncannily reflect those of Falstaff; how two young men struggle over a young lady under the supervision of an Athenian duke named Theseus, much as occurs in 'Midsummer'; and these are but a few of the examples that occur in the poem.
Extending beyond Chaucer's influence on Shakespeare, we can appreciate 'The Canterbury Tales' for the pleasure it delivers upon reading. The General Prologue alone, preferably in the original Middle English, is a gem among English language poetry (though a good translation, as found in this edition, can deliver enjoyment just as well). The 'Tales' might have influenced the greatest writer in the English language, but more importantly, it also exemplifies why we read in the first place: to see a bit of ourselves and laugh, cry, and rage at what we find.
[PS. I would be remiss to leave off mentioning how funny the 'Tales' are. I'm guessing that most adolescents who encounter the book in school put it down hating Chaucer because they do not understand that Chaucer DOES mean what he seems to be saying, and further I'm guessing most English teachers leave out those dirty bits--which actually make up a sizable chunk of the text--out of their lessons. Sex jokes, fart jokes, slapstick, and so on crawl throughout the 'Tales', and readers are getting a wrongfully sterile image of Chaucer if they do not walk away remembering those bits. (It seems germane to mention here that Shakespeare's texts also tend to feature this filthy-mindedness; case in point: Mercutio from 'Romeo & Juliet', with his invocation of Rosaline's quivering thigh and adjacent area and his not-so-subtle analogy to poperin pears...)
It IS quite a bit of a leap: how can a text be at the same time dirty-minded, beautifully written, and an influence on Shakespeare (and, no doubt, Monty Python)? Impossibly, it is. Thus the wonder of Chaucer!]...more
An absolute gem: Shakespeare via Joyce's Poldy Bloom. And we get to see the conception and execution of the Richards, Love's Labour's Lost, Romeo &An absolute gem: Shakespeare via Joyce's Poldy Bloom. And we get to see the conception and execution of the Richards, Love's Labour's Lost, Romeo & Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, the Henrys, the sonnets, and inklings of what will become Hamlet. Burgess's true strengths here are the language-play and the evocation of the period. Never before has Elizabethan England felt so real. This is undoubtedly a book I will be traversing again....more
In his first two books, 'Sex Lives of Cannibals' and 'Getting Stoned with Savages', J. Maarten Troost wrote about his life living with his diplomat wiIn his first two books, 'Sex Lives of Cannibals' and 'Getting Stoned with Savages', J. Maarten Troost wrote about his life living with his diplomat wife in the far reaches of the Equatorial Pacific. Strangely, these books earned Troost the moniker, “travel writer,” despite the fact they are more memoir than guidebook to traveling through those places. After all, it’s hard to imagine someone actually planning a vacation to remote islands where the U.S. government tested loads of A-bombs during the Cold War. In his third book, 'Lost on Planet China', Troost officially earns his “travel writer” status, for he details his journeys throughout the gargantuan country.
Early in the book, Troost begins discussing the extent of the pollution running rampant throughout China: it is everywhere, in the air, in the water, on the streets. Apparently, so polluted is China that its pollution reaches destinations as far away as the Great Lakes. Troost cannot even climb Tai Shan, a massive and sacred mountain, without experiencing the pollution-induced overcast weather. Sadly, Coleridge’s Xanadu this is not. Troost does, however, quickly adjust to the poisonous atmosphere — his coughing fits decrease, his eyes water less, and he is able to study and document China’s other aspects.
Also early in the book, Troost describes what he calls the different “lenses” he needs in order to view certain aspects of China in its “truthful” sense, as opposed to the imagined sense the government sells to whoever cares enough to pay attention; he calls this the “Chinese context.” View a China-produced Nestlé water bottle label through your ordinary eyes, and you see that it is purified water as unpolluted as that which flows from the Adirondaks; but view the same label through your “Chinese context” lenses, and you see that the water might be from some ultra-polluted, parasite-ridden tap in Beijing. Why the facade? Because the Chinese government knows that the key to success is a pristine image, even if that image is laughably transparent. And apparently, this is working, for despite the many horror stories that continue to surface about Chinese-manufactured products (lead-ridden toys, poisonous dry wall, etc.), the U.S. and other leading world powers continue to buy Chinese goods. A transparent facade is easy to believe, it seems, when the price tags are cheap. Troost exploits this facade as often as possible, and often ironically: for instance, he describes a train car compartment filled with government suits, who are all smoking despite the large “No Smoking” signs posted everywhere on the train. A timid stewardess attempts to remind the suits of this; Troost notes that the suits say something to her in reply, and moments later she returns with ashtrays. The facade is that China is a country devoted to “The People,” but the reality is that the government does essentially whatever it wants. Such is the way with republics these days!
But 'Lost on Planet China' is hardly a political diatribe. Though Troost never passes up a chance to ridicule the hypocritical Chinese government, and though he spends some time lamenting the loss of Tibetan culture, he remains faithful to his “travel writer” status and focuses mainly on the experience of journeying through the country.
After describing life in the megalopolises, where crossing the street is hazardous to your health (if the speeding cars don’t kill you, the smog will), Troost moves on to describe the countryside, such as the stripmallish sections of the Great Wall and the afore-mentioned smoggishly hazy Tai Shan. He eventually discusses his travels in parts of the country where the pollution only slightly affects one’s experience. He climbs another mountain, for example, and embarks upon a trail above what is called Tiger Leaping Gorge: he details a natural experience so sublime that he becomes almost Romantic — this is as close to “Kubla Khan” as we will apparently ever get. And so, despite his snarky descriptions of the government and rampant pollution, Troost does leave us with many positive images of China, such as the sublimity of Tiger Leaping Gorge.
Ultimately, however, Troost leaves a sour taste in our mouths; for despite the friendly people he meets (including two helpful Chinese women named Meow Meow and Cinderella — yep) and the beautiful vistas he takes in, he gives us unpleasant images that sadly trump all the pleasant things he tells us about. Most lasting is the image of the boy he finds while walking with an immense crowd along the pier jutting out into Quingdao Bay:
"Then, suddenly, the crowd parted as if it had stumbled upon a lane divider. There before me sat a boy, not more than seven years old, though it was impossible to tell with any certainty. He was an albino with skin that was nearly translucent. He had no arms, and his ragged shirt had been pulled down to reveal the rough scars from where he arms should have been. His skin had been burned raw by the sun, and he sat there rocking and moaning with a plastic bowl before him that contained a scattering of coins.
"Who was this boy? Who had done this to him? The scars on his stumps suggested that he wasn’t born armless. Who was sending him forth to beg on a pier? It would be far from the last time that I’d find myself pondering a display of mind-boggling cruelty in China, and it was why, despite the whiz-bang, China-is-the-future vibe I felt in this coastal city, I’d likely never have warm and fuzzy feelings for the country" (112-113).
How could he have warm and fuzzy feelings for China with images such as these always haunting his memories of the country?
Suffice to say, the content of 'Lost on Planet China' is engaging, whether it pushes your political buttons, entices you to go backpacking through China’s remoter regions, or just plain tugs on your heart-strings. You will not become bored reading this book. Troost’s writing style helps this, for he is witty and immediately likeable. Though the books is close to 400 pages, you will zip right along as though it were a hundred pages shorter.
A book that documents one’s travels throughout modern-day China could be burdensome and overwhelming, but Troost pulls a Michael Palin on us and gives us a travel narrative that is at once humorous, informative, and insightful. Though I still question whether Troost’s earlier books should have earned him the “travel writer” moniker, 'Lost on Planet China' unquestionably raises him to this status, and deservedly so. I eagerly anticipate any and all forthcoming Troost narratives....more
Vonnegut--like fellow World War II vet-turned-writer Joseph Heller--showcases the absurdity of the "business of war," just like Catch-22, except whileVonnegut--like fellow World War II vet-turned-writer Joseph Heller--showcases the absurdity of the "business of war," just like Catch-22, except while Heller's book at most bends the rules of reality to showcase the absurd, Vonnegut's book completely obliterates the rules.
Billy Pilgrim, a World War II veteran (though not Vonnegut himself, apparently, as becomes semi-clear throughout the narrative), is one day abducted by an enlightened race of aliens called Tralfamadorians. These creatures teach Billy how to become "unstuck in time," meaning he can jump from one point in his life to another point at any time. So, we see glimpses of Billy's life, from his boring but at least peaceful life after the war to his brutal experience as a POW in Dresden, where he and his fellow POWs are forced to take shelter from the essentially absurd and ultimately pointless U.S. bombing of the civilian German city in a slaughterhouse--slaughterhouse-five, to be exact.
Vonnegut uses humor to get his points across, so there are many places in the novel where you will stop reading and enjoy a laugh. But once you finish reading--still chuckling over some of the novel's most clever punch-lines--you put the book down, look up with a startled expression and say, "Oh."
A "new classic" that puts an hilarious postmodern spin on war. Published in the era of gung-ho GI-Joe John Wayne war movies, Catch-22 showcases the utA "new classic" that puts an hilarious postmodern spin on war. Published in the era of gung-ho GI-Joe John Wayne war movies, Catch-22 showcases the utter absurdity of war and, relentlessly, the hierarchy of the armed forces. Not that this book diminishes those serving in the armed forces--by any means--but merely points out how ridiculous the whole "business" of war is.
The titular Catch-22? The main character, a pilot named Yossarian, wants to leave the air force, but he can't because his colonel keeps upping the number of flights required for honorable discharge. The only other way to be discharged is to be declared insane. But if Yossarian shows that he is insane (or pretends to be), but does not say anything, the superiors won't declare him insane. On the other hand, if he does say something, that is proof enough that he is not, in fact, insane, so he can't get out that way, either. Hence, the Catch-22.
Some parts of this novel will leave you rolling on the floor with laughter while others are so poignant that they'll stick with you. Highly recommended if you were never required to read it in high school or college, and then still recommended anyway--sometimes books are infinitely more enjoyable when they don't have the "required reading" label attached to them....more
Naked was my first encounter with...well, whatever it is David Sedaris writes (not quite memoir, not really fiction)...and I think it was a good startNaked was my first encounter with...well, whatever it is David Sedaris writes (not quite memoir, not really fiction)...and I think it was a good starting point.
The book offers the bare essentials for one first entering the weird, wild world of David Sedaris: stories about his kooky and altogether bizarre family, his homosexuality, his unabashed neurosis, his penchant for the flamboyant ("The Drama Bug" should read by all students starting to read Shakespeare), and of course, Dinah the Christmas Whore.
Sedaris does manage to offer some biting realism admist the otherwise surreal depictions of his life in an essay entitled, "Ashes," which is about his mother's death of lung cancer. Very sad, but still peppered in places with Sedaris' trademark wit and humor.
Naked is a well-chosen title for this book since the essays within essentially lay bare Sedaris and his family. When you finish reading it, you will know quite a bit about his life and relations, but moreover will feel as though you have a new--if altogether strange--branch of your family....more
Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim delves further into the fascinating, hilarious, and otherwise utterly bizarre life of David Sedaris and his faDress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim delves further into the fascinating, hilarious, and otherwise utterly bizarre life of David Sedaris and his family. This collection of his essays is quite good--among my favorites of his--because throughout most of it, he manages to find a moving balance between the tragic and the comic.
Take, for instance, "The Ship Shape," about how his family almost bought a summer home, but ultimately lost out on the chance because of his father's fickleness with money. The essay starts off humorously enough, with plenty of zany details, like the absurd names his family comes up with for the summer home in question. But by the end, we have a rather melancholic picture painted of the family, headed by a father who would like to give his family something nice like a summer home on the beach, but is just too fickle to actually go through with it.
Then there is "Hejira," about how Sedaris' father kicked him out of the house seemingly because he was an unemployed college dropout whose number of bong hits surpassed his number of trips out of the house, but really, we learn, because he was gay. We have plenty of funny anecdotes throughout, giving us hilarious images of Sedaris sitting stoned in his room listening to the same Joni Mitchell record over and over again, but by the end, we see ultimately see a father who finds his son so unacceptable that he removes him from the situation. From reading his other works, we know that Sedaris and his father eventually mended ways, but as "Hejira" closes, we only see a depressed young man wanting to be acknowledged for being, as he puts it, "special."
Of course, there is also plenty of outright absurdity, such as "Six to Eight Black Men," which I have my students read each year during the holiday season; and "Rooster at the Hitchin' Post," which is on the outset about his obnoxious, foul-mouthed younger brother's wedding, but we eventually see is about the relationship between Sedaris and his brother. These are wholly hilarious, and do well to offset much of the depressing downheartedness emoted from the essays mentioned above.
Fans of Sedaris will certainly appreciate this collection of essays. Newbies may find his life and family a bit too bizarre to digest at first, but after pushing through will realize the palette of emotions mentioned earlier. After all, while Sedaris' life is strange and usually utterly absurd, it is still life nonetheless....more
As a pretentious senior in high school, I thought I would uber-sheik and take a girl a had a crush on to a play, Waiting for Godot, which I had read iAs a pretentious senior in high school, I thought I would uber-sheik and take a girl a had a crush on to a play, Waiting for Godot, which I had read in the Comedy, Wit, and Satire English elective that I took the previous year with my favorite high school English teacher, Dr. Stone. How I got the tickets is inconsequential (okay, okay: my dad won them from the radio; my uber-sheik persona just took a big hit), but suffice to say, my crush and I were the youngest members in the crowd. Fortunately for me, my crush was also somewhat pretentious (though not nearly as much as myself), so the evening was not an entire bust.
About fifteen minutes into the show, my memory finally overpowered my hormones and I remembered what Waiting for Godot actually is: a philosophical piece, more for discussion afterwards than for immediate enjoyment. I silently berated myself; after all, how could I possibly make a move during Wait for Godot? I mean...it was WAITING FOR GODOT, for crying out loud! There is not one female role in the entire play, and the closest thing to a romantic relationship we get is between the two lead male characters, Vladimir and Estragon, who bicker, joke, hug, and so on as though they are a married couple. Oh well, no romance for me that evening, but at the very least, I retained my decidedly cool, uber-sheik persona.
Well, I guess "cool" is a subjective term.
In any event, in the years since my botched date, I have come to sincerely appreciate Godot. The play is almost literally about nothing (ahead of Seinfeld by more than a few decades) as it depicts the two men mentioned earlier just sitting (or standing, or dancing, etc.) around as they wait for a man named Godot (who, incidentally, never arrives). Other characters arrive from time to time, but that's about it for the main action. So how has this been interpreted so many different ways?
Well, you could say it is the lack of action that speaks to us. Or perhaps it's simply the kooky, wordy dialogue. Or maybe it's the complex, desperate characterization. Or it could also possibly be its minimalist approach to theater. Or, to be sure, it's a combination of all these things. Whatever it is, political, social, cultural, Freudian, Jungian, existentialist, Biblical, and even gay theorists have all written volumes about what Godot means, or if it even means anything at all, or if that even matters one way or the other. I like that about works of literature like this: you can't pin any "meaning" down in one place (as you ostensibly can with, say, The Chronicles of Narnia). Not only does it keep you, the reader (or audience member) thinking long after the work is over, but it ensures the author some amount of immortality. It's like James Joyce once said (and incidentally, Joyce employed Beckett as his personal secretary for a time): “I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it [Ulysses] will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that's the only way of insuring one's immortality.”
A girl I used to work with tried to convince me that "Godot" is pronounced "God-ott." Despite my rebuttals that Beckett had originally written the play in French--which would mean "Godot" would be pronounced with the French -ot ending as "oh"--she violently proclaimed that it was "God-ott," which she learned from her favorite theater professor, who had supposedly heard this from Beckett himself while they shared a drink in a bar. Whatever. I guess this just goes to prove my point that just about everything in this play is open to interpretation, whether it's the overall meaning, or the simple pronunciation of a word.
The professor who taught my "Homer and Joyce" honors seminar in college best described how one should read Finnegans Wake:
After you have a couple of GThe professor who taught my "Homer and Joyce" honors seminar in college best described how one should read Finnegans Wake:
After you have a couple of Guinnesses in your stomach.
(Seriously, it does help.)
There are several things one can [try to] say about this book (I don't really want to call it a novel), but there is really no point in going into much in-depth discussion about this work. It's best instead to just skim the surface: it's cyclical (the first line of the book seems to have started somewhere else; the last line starts but doesn't finish...put them together and what have you got? Bibbidy, bobbidy, boo), which I'm pretty sure says something about the cyclical nature of life, particularly since the first word of the book (actually the middle word in the complete sentence) is "riverrun," and rivers are ubiquitous symbols for life in Joyce's works (particularly the Liffey...why, you ask? What do sperm do in order to get to an ovum and get about making life? Why, swim up-river, of course!). Then there are all the archetypes to talk about: Mr. Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker (aka HCE aka Here Comes Everybody--hence, the quintessential "Everyman"), his stern but life-giving wife, Anna Livia Plurabelle (aka ALP, the quintessential "Wife of Everyman," or, I suppose, "Everywoman," though I don't quite think Joyce had that in mind), and then, of course, HCE and ALP's Cain-and-Abel-esque sons, Shem and Shaun (who have aka's of their own, but enough is enough).
So, what does this all mean?
I haven't the slightest idea. Nor do I care to, really. I'm sure this meant a lot to Joyce (who was essentially blind when he "wrote" it, and had to have his secretary, Samuel Beckett, transcribe it for him), and the ideas of life cycles and archetypes are quite interesting, but you can't actually read this book, at least not in the normal way you'd read, say, The Sun Also Rises or even To the Lighthouse. To "read" this book is to essentially decipher a nonstop 628-page cyptogram, and to decipher the code, you need to know a lot of foreign languages and minutiae.
Still, it took Joyce from 1922-1938 to finish the Wake (as we Joyceans prefer to call it), so you have to at least appreciate the book for that. A lot of effort, pain, and frustration went into the creation of this book, and that's quite admirable, to say the least.
Even if no one knows what the heck it means....more
Certain things, it is made clear, will not be spoken aloud; certain events will not be shown onstage; though it is difficult to imagine, given the exc
Certain things, it is made clear, will not be spoken aloud; certain events will not be shown onstage; though it is difficult to imagine, given the excesses of the preceding acts, what these things could possibly be. (55)
This passage, describing a section of The Courier's Tragedy, the play-within-the-novel in The Crying of Lot 49, seems an accurate description of the novel itself: deliberately ambiguous and yet brimming with meaning. Or, perhaps more accurately, the desire for meaning to exist. I'm not sure that meaning does exist in this novel, and frankly, I'm okay with that; the journey Pynchon sends us on looking for it is satisfying enough.
Certain things are never made clear nor spoken aloud: who or what is Trystero/Tristero? (And which is the correct spelling?) Is there really a conspiracy involving, among other things, the German nobility, the U.S. Postal Service, and the grinding up of WWII GIs' bones into charcoal? Did Inverarity include Oedipa Maas, the protagonist, in the execution of his will for a reason, or was he merely planning to mess with her from the grave?
One can get easily frustrated looking for answers to these questions, but once you come to terms with the fact that the answers most likely do not exist, you can pay attention to what does exist: the brilliant characterization, particularly that of Oedipa.
Towards the end of her journey, emerging from what seems to be a descent into Hell (really a descent into the alienated Southern California underworld), Oedipa sees "an old man huddled, shaking with grief she couldn't hear. Both hands, smoke-white, covered his face" (101). Not surprisingly, he bears an old tattoo of the Tristero bugle, an image Oedipa seems to see everywhere. He has left his wife in Fresno, she learns, and he is now broken and alone, crumpled up on the steps of this downtown rooming house. Despite his outward repulsiveness, Oedipa feels drawn to the old man:
She was overcome all at once by a need to touch him, as if she could not believe in him, or would not remember him, without it. Exhausted, hardly knowing what she was doing, she came the last three steps and sat, took the man in her arms, actually held him, gazing out of her smudged eyes down the stairs, back into the morning. She felt wetness against her breast and saw that he was crying again. He hardly breathed but tears came as if being pumped. "I can't help," she whispered, rocking him, "I can't help." (102)
Though this scene is only remotely connected to the main "plot" -- to use that word loosely -- I find that it amounts to an intensely poignant image: a lost, broken woman cradling a remorseful, broken old man. I'm not sure what it means, within and without the context of the novel, but I always remember this first when thinking of this book.
Oedipa, an interesting surrogate for the reader, is at last described as haloed and angelic: "She stood in a patch of sun, among brilliant rising and falling points of dust, trying to get a little warm, wondering if she'd go through with it" (151). Don't worry about what "it" is -- all that matters is that Oedipa has evolved: she begins the novel as a meek housewife who sees herself as a damsel in need of rescuing, and she concludes, following this absurdly cryptic journey, as strong and independent, no longer needing to rely on others.
With characterization like this, do we even need all the answers?...more