Grimdark Shakespeare

Title: King Lear
(1988 Bantam Classic Edition)
Author: William Shakespeare
Genre: Play (Tragedy)
Pages: 222 (actual play: 137 pages)
Rating: 4 of 5

Ego, ambition, lust, and madness swirl into a raging whirlwind of betrayal and death in this grim tragedy. The plot is so bleak that it fell out of favor for 150 years, and modern scholars are deeply divided over what, if anything, is the point of it all. I’m not sure what possessed Shakespeare to transform a legendary story with a relatively happy ending into this grimdark play, but he did so with his typical flair and devastating result.

The Bantam edition that I read had a decent variety of supplemental material. There is a running glossary at the bottom of each page providing definitions of archaic words and difficult phrases. A couple essays and an annotated bibliography explored possible interpretations of the play, and several sections at the end provided excerpts from older writings that probably served as Shakespeare’s sources. There are significant difference between quarto versions and the folio version, and, like many editions, this one smooshes them all together so as not to lose any lines written by the Bard (the text-critical apparatus is inconveniently located all in one place rather than footnoted in the text where variants occur). Overall, an okay edition of one of Shakespeare’s bleakest plays.

(Also, I will be using this for my Classic Play category over at the Back to the Classics challenge.)

More Mini-Reviews

This week is Vacation Bible School at my church so between publicity and preparation last week and keeping control of a swarm of kids this week it’s been insanely busy.  Also, I’ve had kind of a run of “meh” books that I didn’t feel particularly motivated to review. However, I’m trying to give at least a short review of everything I read this year, so here are a few mini-reviews.

Title: The Maltese Falcon
Author: Dashiell Hammett
Genre: Hard-boiled Detective/Noir
Pages: 189
Rating: 4 of 5

This is probably the best known of Hammett’s novels thanks to the excellent Humphrey Bogart movie adaptation. Rather than the usual Continental Op, it features shady-but-not-quite-as-dishonest-as-he-seems private eye Sam Spade. Murder, greed, and lies (so many lies) surround the quest for “the black bird,” but Spade sees through the murk enough to come to a satisfactory ending for himself. Personally, I prefer the Continental Op to the more womanizing Sam Spade, but this is still a great book in the morally ambiguous world of Dashiell Hammett.

Title: The Crucible
Author: Arthur Miller
Genre: Play/Historical Fiction
Pages: 147
Rating: 3 of 5

This classic play about the Salem witch trials is really an exploration of the attitudes/actions during the McCarthy era Red Scare. Sadly, most of those attitudes rear their heads now and then to this day (I hate church politics so much!). Even though the author is insightful at times, I’m not a fan of authors of historical fiction altering solid historical facts to make the narrative fit the point they are trying to make, and Miller does this quite a bit. Between that and the overall bleakness, I didn’t really care for the play.

Title: Lysistrata
Author: Aristophanes
Translator: Douglas Parker
Genre: Play
Pages: 123
Rating: 2 of 5

I read this mostly because I needed something short to blast through for my library’s reading contest (and I was already at the plays shelf to pick up The Crucible). The premise of this raunchy comedy is that the women of Greece refuse all sexual favors to their men until they agree to end the ongoing war. The translator’s introduction described it as Aristophanes’ “most phallic” play…it was disturbingly so. Proof that crass humor has always been with us. Blech.

Title: The Stranger
Author: Max Brand
Genre: Western
Pages: 206
Rating: 2.5 of 5

About once per year I read a Western and then decide I’ve had my fill of the genre for at least another year. This one was combination of Western and Mystery as two cowpunchers try to figure out who killed the man they were supposed to be protecting for ten days at $1,000 per day. Between the insta-love, fairly obvious whodunnit, and a plot hole or two I wasn’t terribly impressed.

Title: Woman in the Dark
Author: Dashiell Hammett
Genre: Crime/Noir
Pages: 87
Rating: 3

This short novel, originally serialized in Black Mask, isn’t Hammett’s best, but it’s still a decent pulp story. Rather than Hammett’s usual detective, the protagonist is a convict recently released from prison. When his landlord’s mistress puts him in the middle of a messy domestic situation his newly regained freedom is threatened. Overall, a pretty typical Black Mask story worth reading if you’re into noir.

Title: The Captain’s Daughter and Other Stories
Author: Alexander Pushkin
Translator: Natalie Duddington
Genre: Classic/Short Story Anthology
Pages: 288
Rating: 3.5

I have never read anything by Pushkin before and was curious how he compared to other Russian authors, so I picked up this collection. There was quite a bit of variety from outlaw and soldier stories (reminiscent of Gogol’s Taras Bulba or Tolstoy’s Hadji Murad) to a slightly supernatural tale (The Queen of Spades – probably my favorite in the collection) to one with a nice twist at the end worthy of O Henry. Pushkin has a lot of the bleakness that I associate with Russian authors, but to a lesser degree. I’ll probably pick up more by him in the future.

More Mini-Reviews

I’m still on vacation with the brain only half-engaged, so here are a few more mini-reviews. Most of these are books that I read earlier this year and didn’t have the leisure or inclination to review at the time.

Title: The Inimitable Jeeves
Author: P. G. Wodehouse
Genre: Classic Humor
Pages: 240
Rating: 5 of 5

I love the Jeeves and Wooster books, and this one is no exception. The adventures of good-hearted-but-a-bit-dim Bertie Wooster who navigates the “trials” of post WWI English high society with the help of Jeeves, his genius valet, always provide a chuckle. This book (the second in the series) collects a number of loosely connected short stories which mostly feature Bertie trying to help the frequently-love-smitten “Bingo” Little (and then having to be extricated from difficulty by Jeeves).

Image result for Dracula book coverTitle: Dracula
Author: Bram Stoker
Genre: Classic Gothic/Horror
Pages: 416
Rating: 4 of 5

This book that originally popularized the “sexy vampire”  doesn’t have as much to offer thematically as the equally classic Frankenstein, but I found it creepier and a lot more fun to read. Stoker was definitely sexist (and shows flashes of other common prejudices of his day), and there’s the usual Gothic ramblings and melodrama, but if you can just roll your eyes at the worst of it, it’s well worth a read.

Title: The Thin Man
Author: Dashiell Hammett
Genre: Hardboiled Detective
Pages: 201
Rating: 4.5 of 5

If Oscar Wilde had written  hardboiled/noir fiction this is how it would have turned out. The interplay between perpetually-tipsy ex-detective Nick Charles and his young wife, Norah is reminiscent of Wilde’s characters who say “wicked” things just to get a rise out of people…all this while solving the usual Hammett-style case. I didn’t care for this the first time I read it because I didn’t catch Nick’s slightly tongue-in-cheek tone, but after seeing William Powell’s portrayal of Nick Charles in the 1934 Thin Man movie, it made more sense and I really enjoyed it.

Title: Poems of Heaven & Hell from Ancient Mesopotamia
Translator: N. K. Sandars
Genre: Ancient Religious/Narrative Poetry
Pages: 192
Rating: 4 of 5

A large part of the page count for this book is commentary by the translator, much of which is helpful even if it does necessarily include a bit of speculation. For me, the poetry itself (the longest one is the Enuma Elish / Babylonian creation account) provides interesting background for what various people in the Old Testament would have believed (e.g. Abraham and his family when they lived in “Ur of the Chaldees”).

Black Wings Has My AngelTitle: Black Wings Has My Angel
Author: Eliot Chaze
Genre: Crime Noir
Pages: 154
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This is a fairly typical crime-spiral-of-self-destruction novel on the same order as The Postman Always Rings Twice or Thieves Like Us (or the real life Bonnie and Clyde). There’s not a lot to say about it other than it’s a competently executed example of the genre.

Ten Days in a Mad-House by [Bly, Nellie]Title: Ten Days in a Madhouse
Author: Nellie Bly
Genre: Exposé
Pages: 110
Rating: 4 of 5

In the late 19th century, journalist Nellie Bly deliberately got herself committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island. Her report of the callous treatment of the women there (many of whom she believed to be perfectly sane) is deeply disturbing. Apparently the publication of her observations resulted in NYC earmarking an additional $1 million for helping these women, but I don’t know if there were any lasting reforms.

Title: The Great God Pan
Author: Arthur Machen
Genre: Horror/Weird
Pages: 84
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This story deeply influenced other horror writers, especially in the field of cosmic horror (that “something incomprehensible/evil/wholly other is ‘out there'” themed sub-genre). As with some genre-defining stories I didn’t find it as enjoyable as the works of authors who refined the formula (e.g. H. P. Lovecraft), but it was still interesting, if rather predictable and verbose.

Title: Othello
Author: William Shakespeare
Genre: Play
Pages: 180 (about half was commentary)
Rating: 4 of 5

I wasn’t going to review this because I kind of did so when I reviewed New Boy, but for the sake of being able to say I reviewed everything I read this year I’ll include it. A lot of people see this as being primarily about race since Othello is a Moor, but it is much more about jealousy and ambition (fueled only partly by racism). The despicable, manipulative Iago just might be one of the nastiest villains in Shakespeare. A great tragedy (though I prefer Hamlet and “The Scottish Play”).

And with that I’ve reviewed all the books I have read so far this year (63 of them)!

Shakespearean Stockholm Syndrome?

Image result for the taming of the shrew coverTitle: The Taming of the Shrew
Author: William Shakespeare
Genre: Play
Pages: 125
Rating: 2 of 5

The Taming of the Shrew has not aged as well as a lot of Shakespeare’s other plays. Sure, there’s some clever wordplay and amusing antics. However, the extremes to which Petruchio goes to “tame” his new wife (food and sleep deprivation) and her absolute dishrag submission by the end come across more like someone fawning on their abuser than anything humorous. There must be a way to play those parts of the story a bit tongue-in-cheek, but as written it’s a bit disturbing. I’ve just started Vinegar Girl from the Hogarth Shakespeare series…I’m curious to see how this updated version handles it.

Also, I’m using this as my Romance Classic over at the Back to the Classics Challenge… hey, it doesn’t say good or healthy romance!