If I were to focus my energies on poetry, I would be an acolyte of Wallace Stevens. This collection strikes me as a solid introduction to his works, a...moreIf I were to focus my energies on poetry, I would be an acolyte of Wallace Stevens. This collection strikes me as a solid introduction to his works, and best of all, it fits in one's back pocket (at least, my back pocket), perfect for glances and study while riding MUNI. More complete collections exist, obviously, but this grouping seems to ride the center line of his famous and "accessible" works (is anything Stevens wrote easily accessible?) and his more peripheral experiments.(less)
Graham Greene wrote books that some Americans would call "lit-er-chure". He wrote other books that were, to use his own term, "entertainments". The Qu...moreGraham Greene wrote books that some Americans would call "lit-er-chure". He wrote other books that were, to use his own term, "entertainments". The Quiet American straddles this divide, and brilliantly. At times a spy/suspense novel, at other times, a cautionary tale of nationalistic hubris, and above all, a story of one man's wasted life. Greene's genius is how he manages to put political discourse into his characters' mouths without making the reader feel preached down to. Even better is the crazy realization that Greene was warning America against involvement in Vietnam -- in the Fifties. Greene writes with an underappreciated effortlessness that rewards the reader rather than stuffs them full of the who-when-where's of a lesser novel of political intrigue.(less)
What more can be said of Lolita? If you haven't read it, read it. It's an amazing novel, a three hundred page wrestling match with Humbert Humbert, a...moreWhat more can be said of Lolita? If you haven't read it, read it. It's an amazing novel, a three hundred page wrestling match with Humbert Humbert, a man determined to tell the story his way, no matter how suspicious the reader becomes of his account. Definitely read the annotated version, however; unless you're an English grad student on a seven-year coke bender, Nabokov's games and punnery are overwhelming. Appel's commentary supplies quick analysis (and answers) to get you back into the book's always engaging storyline. The pace, I should add, is impressive. Nabokov's mastery of the language is infamous, but damn it all, his control of narrative time and space is just as honed.
A warning about Appel's commentary and annotations: Much like the commentator in Nabokov's Pale Fire, Appel seems determined to inject himself into the master's work by surrounding the text with essay and footnotes. (To be fair, Appel acknowledges this in the opening pages of his preface.) His comments are informed, true, but highly opinionated and sometimes debatable. Appel (Nabokov's literary executor and confidant) also doesn't seem to be above dropping in asides of all the good rompin' times he shared with ol' Vlad. If you can swallow his swollen personality, Appel does share solid and valuable insights with the curious reader. His notes on an early Nabokov short story that V.N. reworked into Lolita are particularly valuable.(less)
The Grapes of Wrath set in Beijing, but without the stratospheric commentary from Steinbeck's godlike narrator. Rickshaw is, as the forward points o...moreThe Grapes of Wrath set in Beijing, but without the stratospheric commentary from Steinbeck's godlike narrator. Rickshaw is, as the forward points out, the social realist work the Socialists of the 1930s wanted to write but never did. It's a stark and muscular read as well as a great introduction to Chinese culture and literature of the Republic between the two world wars. (If I were to teach economics, I'd have my class read this and Mildred Pierce as clearheaded rebuttals to the dismal science.) Be sure to pick up this translation and not the earlier one which changes the ending to something more palatable for us running dog capitalists.(less)
I've discovered the Signet Classics Shakespeare editions to be satisfying versions of the Old Man's stuff. They're thoroughly glossed and annotated, t...moreI've discovered the Signet Classics Shakespeare editions to be satisfying versions of the Old Man's stuff. They're thoroughly glossed and annotated, the editorial decisions are explained and reasoned out for the reader, and the supplementary criticism is insightful. I found the Signet Classics editions of The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Twelfth Night to also be of this high quality.
I've never read Hamlet -- ah, bless my public education -- and I fell asleep about forty-five minutes into the Kenneth Branaugh juggernaut. Reading the play, I discovered I was familiar enough with the plot, but also surprised how many of my expectations were upset.
The hoary chestnut of Hamlet is that it's four acts of wondering what to do, and a fifth of doing it. Not true! Sure, Hamlet mopes about Castle Elsinore wringing his hands, but the plot does not stall. Shakespeare imbues Hamlet not with indecisiveness -- he swears revenge at the end of Act One so stoutly, how can you not believe him? -- but with thoroughness. Hamlet does not want to make a move against Claudius until all the bubbles on the Scantron have been filled in.
Ghost is not Satan attempting to trick me -- check. Get rid of Ophelia, the woman I love, to stay true to my quest -- check. Convince everyone I'm mad and harmless -- check. Tell off mom for being such a tramp -- check. Ditch these snooping Rosencrantz and Guildenstern kiss-asses off in Britain -- check. Kill Uncle Claudius in such a way as to reveal his treachery and insure his eternal damnation -- check.
The genius of Hamlet, of course, is that everything I've just written could be reasonably argued down. It's as rich a read as all the stuffed-shirts say it is.
As another reviewer here on Goodreads points out, the play is not really about whether Hamlet will kill Claudius; it's about the journey to the final scene, the pondering and self-questioning, the contradictions in Hamlet's character that are so human. That's true, but it cannot be overlooked: this is a revenge tragedy. The central question Hamlet faces is, what price revenge? He finds it to be an expensive proposition.
The monologues are all they're cracked up to be, in particular "what a piece of work is a man", which I reread about eight times out of sheer joy of the language. Try reading it with a sneering or sarcastic tone; it has the muscular flexings of the hard-boiled school about it.
The Signet Classics edition features a good discussion of the two extant quartos and the folio versions of Hamlet. For grins, check out the "to be or not be" speech from the first quarto. It reads like a parody of the version we've all learned. Better yet, compare it to the Shakespeare parody the Duke and the Dolphin muff in Huckleberry Finn. Twain, as usual, is spot-on.(less)