So prolific is Shakespeare scholarship that they say if you were to read a book a day it would take you something like a thousand years to read them a...moreSo prolific is Shakespeare scholarship that they say if you were to read a book a day it would take you something like a thousand years to read them all. Whenever I see a new book about Shakespeare, my mouth waters. I get a very subtle case of the shakes. The hair on my neck stands up, my heart palpitates, my testicles perspire, and a wicked fat vein pulsates in my forehead. Seriously. I've looked in the mirror and seen it pulsate. My hand goes immediately to my wallet and then I wonder: do I really need another book about Shakespeare. Is this one going to say anything I don't already know. I mean, it's not like they learn something knew about Shakespeare often enough to justify the five or six new books about him that get published every year. In point of fact, I don't think anything new has been learned about Shakespeare in nearly 100 years. Does the world need another one? No. So why read this particular book rather than reread one of the eight (no shit, I own eight f^%$ing books about the Bard--nine counting this one) currently on my bookshelf?
Because, like coffee and cigarettes, peanut butter and chocolate, beer and summertime, red wine and red meat, or fallatio and anything, Bill Bryson and Bill Shakespeare are complimentary flavors. The Bills bring out the finer qualities in each other. Bryson, my favorite non-fiction writer in the world, states his objective as being to cut the bullshit, tradition, speculation, and conjecture and give the reader as straight-forward as possible the actual facts of Shakespeare's life to the extent they are known, which is why this is probably the shortest book he has ever written. Not much is known. Bryson writes with keen observation, witty reflection, admiration for his subject, and exasperation at his subject's admirers. More than anything, I recommend this particular homage to Shakespeare for the chapter on the alternate Shakespeares and how every one of the possible "Real" Shakespeare's is ludicrous. Bryson points out that some scholars are willing to use virtually everything and anything as proof that the plays were not written by Shakespeare except, of course, for a single fact. Any fact. Bryson does one better by pointing out all the evidence that suggests the plays were written by a farm boy from the midlands and not a university educated nobleman. Included in this section are several facts. A great if unhappily short read.(less)
King's exploration of the birth of Impressionism, which he considers the greatest revolution in art since the Italian Renaissance, interweaves the sto...moreKing's exploration of the birth of Impressionism, which he considers the greatest revolution in art since the Italian Renaissance, interweaves the stories of two French artists: Ernest Meissanier, the most famous artist of his time who is now derided, dismissed, and virtually forgotten by art historians, and Edouard Manet, considered the father of Impressionism and one of the most influential artists in history who was scorned and insulted for most of his professional career. This dichotomy represents the central conceit of the book. History will tell the tale, King implies, the fickle tasts of a generation have no bearing on what will ultimately prove to be immortal. Posterity chooses its heroes, the Academies do not get to perscribe them. That's fine. For me, however, there is just one glaring problem: when considered alongside one another there is not a question in my mind about who is the superior artist: Meissonier. I believe King's premise ought also to be attached to our current tastes in art. Posterity, in the truest sense, has not yet had its full say. What the twentieth century deamed to be great art (Manet) will most likely be rebelled against in the 21st century, and Meissonier may, in the end, have the final say. One art historian quoted by King said something to the effect that he is disgusted by the thought that Meissonier, a pompous self-indulgeant technician supposedly without a true artistic notion, who made a career and a lot of money by creating empty decorations for the homes of rich bourgoisie's, while obviously supperior artists, such as Manet, toiled in absolute obscurity, barely able to scratch together enough francs to buy paints and brushes. This is the prevailing sentiment among art historians, and one would imagine, among contemporary artists. These idiots don't seem to understand that Manet's work today decorates the homes of the rich bourgoisie, that ultimately political sentiment has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with art, and that, yes, history will tell the tale. When viewed next to Meissonier's paintings, Manet's best work seems cartoonish, immature, untalented, and entirely forgettable, with the only exceptions being Le dejaneur sur l'herbe and The Assassination of Maximillian. By contrast, Meissonier's best work is breathtaking, even in reproductions, and his less great paintings are at least interesting.
But back to the book. Ross King is a great writer, a compelling storyteller, and, for the most part, a fair historian. The only exception to this is his never clearly justified loathing for Victor Hugo. The Judgment of Paris is a very good read and likely to spark many interesting conversations about the nature of art, artistic immortality, taste, transformation, revolution, and evolution.(less)
“Angel Butcher” is one of my all-time favorite poems. It has everything I seek in a first-rate poem: fascinating premise, light narrative, vivid image...more“Angel Butcher” is one of my all-time favorite poems. It has everything I seek in a first-rate poem: fascinating premise, light narrative, vivid imagery, an inspiring finish, and breathtaking metaphor on both the micro (line) and macro (holistic) levels. It is well grounded in reality but contains a mythic element. It’s personal without being elliptical, emotional without becoming sentimental, clever but not disingenuous, easy to read but not overly-simplistic. I wish the entire volume were as good, but it’s not.
Levine is fundamentally an excellent poet with a knack for profound metaphor. His syntax is mildly inventive but never so technical as to become oblique. His diction is spot on, almost always, and he does an excellent job of modulating his voice so that it is always sincere, always intimate, never confessional. But in these two books, now out of print and republished here together, his talents, which are vast, reach their full potential only occasionally and usually in brief spurts, lasting for no more than a few lines at a time. They Feed They Lion and The Names of the Lost contain precious few poems that measure up to “Angel Butcher.”
They Feed They Lion, which contains “Angel Butcher” is a chronicle of the lives of common people struggling with poverty in urban Detroit. The Names of the Lost is an elegiac collection concerned mainly with the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War and of the two is, in my opinion, the stronger book. Other highlights include parts of “Cry for Nothing,” part IV of “Angels of Detroit,” “They Feed They Lion,” “How Much Can It Hurt?” “To P.L., 1916-1937,” parts of “No One Remembers,” “For the Poets of Chile,” “A Late Answer,” and most of “To My God in His Sickness.” (less)
I recently read an interview with the poet that piqued my curiosity and sent me to the library in search of this book.
The results are mixed, to say t...moreI recently read an interview with the poet that piqued my curiosity and sent me to the library in search of this book.
The results are mixed, to say the least.
Orr’s thesis: All art (all the poetry, music, paintings, books, etc—all of what Erasmus of Rotterdam coined “The Great Discussion”) make up a single metaphorical book. This book is the book of the world and is actually a more faithful representation of the world than is the literal world. The book is constantly growing as more and more artists contribute. Each of us opens the book and takes out the stuff we need to help us get through life. What we place in the book will serve this purpose for future generations. It is the Book that is the Body of the Beloved which is the World. The book is a 197 page meditative love song to the metaphorical book.
On the one hand, this idea appeals to me very much. I think of it as a sort of Pop-culture pseudo-Cabala. On the other hand, I could see iTunes, Barnes & Noble, and Universal Studios chomping at the bit to make this quaint notion a widely held belief. It screams Reaganomics. And, after all, how much better would we all feel about ourselves if we could espouse a spiritual consumerism? If Orr were a better poet, I wouldn’t give a damn about any of this. I am not above loving the hell out of a book in spite of its ethically or logically suspicious philosophical underpinnings.
Orr is a lyric poet of some breathtaking powers, but more and more as the volume rolls on, he becomes a lyricist in the worst possible sense. More than once I found myself wondering if he wouldn’t have been much happier writing songs, say, along the lines of Air Supply. The interviewer commended his courageous sentimentality, which sounds good, but reading this book I was often-times embarrassed at the insipid sappiness. Parts of it are down right eye-rolling, which is frustrating because at his best Orr is inspiring. Unfortunately there are not enough awesome parts to justify the deluge of brie.
I sought out this novel on Ben’s recommendation, and while my final assessment is somewhat lukewarm, I don’t regret a single moment I spent reading it...moreI sought out this novel on Ben’s recommendation, and while my final assessment is somewhat lukewarm, I don’t regret a single moment I spent reading it. Huysmans gives us a meditation on the evils of capitalism, a critique of fin-de-siècle literature, a manifesto for a literature of “Spiritual Naturalism,” and a glowing review of the sculptor Matthias Grunewald’s “Crucifixion.”
And that’s just the first two chapters.
However, the early abstractions of the novel coalesce down the stretch into a well-grounded physical narrative equal parts romance, mystery, and farce. Ultimately, the story does not hold itself together in any compelling way. Its several strands more or less peter out rather than resolve by the end.
On the plus side, the information about medieval church bells, especially the consecration of bells and the ritualistic “ringing the changes” is highly interesting. There are some characteristically early twentieth century bourgeois sexual references and a riveting description of a Satanic Black Mass that borders on titillation.
Huysmans’ crowing achievement, though, is his account of the crimes, trial, and punishment of the infamous serial killer Gilles de Rais. Here the author’s true gifts seem to get away from him as the prose swells with intensity and passion along the lines of Cormac McCarthy. His account is vivid, poetic, infectious, and for me the highlight of an otherwise meandering, trite, and blasé (I don’t know why I always use adjectives in groups of threes in my book reviews, but whatever) yarn.
While writing his memoirs, the grandson of the seventeenth century bibliomaniac Isaiah Thomas euphemized that his grandfather suffered from “the gentl...moreWhile writing his memoirs, the grandson of the seventeenth century bibliomaniac Isaiah Thomas euphemized that his grandfather suffered from “the gentlest of infirmities.” Taking this quotation as inspiration for the title is somewhat of a misnomer, however, as Basbane’s book only partly concerns itself with bibliomania. Primarily, it is a fascinating survey of the history of book collecting. Basbane stylistically blends the erudition, research and paranoid self-qualification of historical scholarship with the narrative flare and anecdotal interest of investigative journalism to great effect. This is what Jonathan Harr’s Carravaggio book could have been if he’d actually tried. The survey begins with the great library of Alexandria and touches on such celebrity book collectors as Julius Caesar, Euripides, King George III, Benjamin Franklin, J. Pierpont Morgan, and John Laroquette (aka Dan Fielding, for those who don’t remember Night Court), escorting the reader through twenty-odd centuries of book lust, to 1995.
Basbane’s thesis is that throughout the ages, private book collectors, not institutions, have been primarily responsible for protecting the great wealth of knowledge and literature from the tyranny of despots and the ravages of time. The epic poem Beowulf, I’m sure you know, is considered the earliest known example of the English language, but had it not been for the efforts of Sir Thomas Phillips, none of us ever would have heard of the Geat hero. Everything we have of the poem comes from a single copy rescued by Phillips from a rubbish heap in the seventeenth century. Today it is the centerpiece of the British Library’s collection. A late nineteenth century Frenchman holed himself away in a slum garret compulsively collecting books at great cost to his personal health. When a neighbor took pity on him and gave him some money for food, he happened to pass a bookstore on his way to the grocers. He was found the next day in his garret, among hundreds of thousands of books, dead of starvation. Other characters of interest include the homicidal monk Don Vincente, the thief Stephen Blumberg, Harry Ransom of the University of Texas-Austin’s Humanities Research Center, and the enigmatic ex-CIA new-age spiritualist Haven O’More, among others.
One of Basbane’s primary concerns is discerning what it is that compels collectors to spend vast sums on rare books. The most ever paid for a single volume was $30.8 million for a notebook containing drawings and notes by Leonardo DaVinci, such as blueprints for a flying machine, a submarine, a steam engine, and, believe it or not, a computer. Bill Gates was the buyer. Basbane’s subject really seems to be the “eternal passion for books,” as he investigates bibliomaniacs, bibliophiles, and bibliokleptomaniacs. His scope is comprehensive, his research is thorough, and his talent is formidable. He is a good writer who asks all the right questions, which makes this an absorbing, obsessive read.
The thing I found especially fascinating was that important texts by Copernicus, Vasilius, and Chaucer, as well as the first four folios of Shakespeare, the first ever Gutenburg Bible to come off the press, and the only known first edition copies of Paradise Lost and L’Morte d’Arthur are not kept in libraries or other institutions of learning, but are owned privately, bought at auction, and by Americans, not Europeans. They were acquired for not nearly as much money as you would think, and this is but a sampling of the treasures. A very good, occasionally exhausting, read. (less)
Sholem Aleichem, a Yiddish idiom which basically means, “Hey, what’s up?” is the pseudonym of Sholem Rabinovich, who has been heralded as the Jewish M...moreSholem Aleichem, a Yiddish idiom which basically means, “Hey, what’s up?” is the pseudonym of Sholem Rabinovich, who has been heralded as the Jewish Mark Twain and who, in my opinion, favorably deserves the comparison. I became interested in reading this book when I learned it was the inspiration for Fiddler on the Roof, one of a precious few Broadway musicals my stomach is strong enough to endure. The novel runs just 131 pages, made up of eight episodes written and published over a twenty-three year period, from 1894 to 1917. As an episodic novel, or a novel told in a cycle of short-stories, it is exemplary. Each episode manages to both build on the previous installments and still remain self-sustaining unto itself.
The episodes happen in real time. That is to say, if five years have passed since the publication of the previous episode, Tevye is five years older at the onset of the next one, so that by the end of the novel Tevye has aged twenty-three years since the first, just as the author has aged twenty-three years, and, theoretically, just as the reader has aged. How effortlessly Alecheim sustains the narrative over such a span is one of the interesting things about the novel, for me. Tevye’s maturation seems seamless, natural, and believable. The reader can sense throughout the narrative that Tevye is changing, sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically, and not necessarily in response to major events in the plot, but just as a matter of course, because he is aging.
Tevye as a character and as a narrator becomes a joyous treat. The narrative mode is a series of monologues in which Tevye directly speaks to Sholem Aleichem, who apparently writes the stories down at a later date. This makes the voice conversational, homey, colorful, and occasionally digressive. The style is easy to read and quickly absorbing, as the reader feels as if he is listening to an old man spinning a clever yarn. The effect is that we think of Tevye, and not necessarily the author, as an entertaining storyteller. Tevye fancies himself a scholar and constantly misquotes scripture or quotes it humorously out of context. “Tevye is no woman,” is the most often repeated phrase in the novel, humorous because, as Ryan pointed out to me, if Tevye had been more inclined to behave “womanly,” he might have avoided the misadventures that provide the basis of the plot. But Tevye, like many men, is only superficially a misogynist. The most compelling aspect of the story is his powerful, constant affection for his daughters and his unflinching pursuit of their happiness.
Aleichem, like Twain, uses humor as a means toward social criticism, and like Twain avoids ideological preachiness or scathing bitterness. His satire is warm and compassionate with a firm eye to the story. However, none of the sentimentalism of the musical is found in Tevye the Dairyman. Injustice, ignorance, and even death take important roles in the tales, and while the novel is far darker and more human than the musical, Aleichem’s triumph is the harmony with which he mingles comedy and tragedy, and the befuddled amusement with which his protagonist relates all his sad experiences. Despite his many flaws and sorrows Tevye’s good-will, humor, and charm ultimately carry the day.