Saturday, November 29, 2008

Friday, November 28, 2008

Alas, Poor Hamlet

I didn't have much to say today, so here's something silly instead.

And while we're on the subject, here's something even better. (Thank-you, Cara!)

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Becket or The Honor of God

Happy Thanks -giving! I am thankful to be over the flu and back online. But while I was sick I managed to finish some reading, including Becket by Jean Anouilh.

I have to confess, in my freshman history class, I had trouble keeping Thomas Becket separate from Thomas More. Both Thomases opposed powerful Henrys (the II and the VIII) and were killed for holding certain ideas of the Church above the king. And I'm not the only one to see a connection.

I particularly appreciated Stephen Greydanus' remark, "In a way the 12th-century events of Becket, which is the earlier story (and also the earlier play, and the earlier film), play as a kind of dress rehearsal for the more momentous 16th-century events related in A Man for All Seasons." The whole time I was reading the play, I kept thinking, "This line is so familiar. I've seen this. No, wait... that was A Man for All Seasons." Now I don't feel so silly.

Anouilh admits that his play is not always historically accurate (particularly in it's portrayal of Becket as a Saxon), and as I was reading, I found myself thinking, "Really? People were that primitive back then?" But it's not the actions, or even the attitudes, of the characters that I had trouble believing. Instead, it's the convenient simplicity of his dialogue that throws me. Anouilh says in his preface that he is not a "serious" person, and his dialogue has a witty, light touch, but this somehow makes it too heavy-handed when revealing who the unenlightened, selfish characters are (i.e. all the Normans). Also, Becket's motives for refusing the king seem petty, or even self-serving, at times, but Anouilh doesn't question them.

Not that I would be overly embarrassed if I had written Becket. Anouilh's play is still an enjoyable and powerfully concise treatment of honor, religion, and politics. I'll have more to say about it once I've read T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral.

Side note: Henry VIII may not have missed possible connections between Thomas Becket (d. 1170) and Thomas More (d. 1535) either because in 1538 he ordered Thomas Becket's shrine destroyed and all references to his murder and sainthood erased. This was only after the long-dead saint refused to show up at a trial to explain why he wasn't a traitor.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

King Lear

Huzzah! for Shakespeare. I just finished King Lear (which, strangely enough, I never read in my college Shakespeare class). This may be my favorite Shakespearean tragedy, after Hamlet.

Every possible opinion about King Lear (as well as every possible "study guide"--useful or otherwise) seems to available online. But the line "Would it have killed [Cordelia] to flatter her father just a little?" made me laugh. Cordelia as a pointlessly stubborn troublemaker could make an interesting essay...

On a more serious literary note, I found this wonderful exploration of Mansfield Park as a retelling of King Lear by Susan Allen Ford. I wish the ending wasn't so abrupt (I would have liked more about the significance of Austen's conclusion), but Mansfield Park is my least favorite Austen story, so anything that helps me see Fanny Price as more than a Regency period Elsie Dinsmore is greatly appreciated.

The painting at top is by Edwin Austin Abbey. (See how evil Regan and Goneril look? They're like Lady Macbeth twins!) I also love Susan Herbert's Cat King Lear yowling against the storm.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Eugene Onegin

I recently finished Eugene Onegin, a novel in verse by Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin (trans. by Douglas Hofstadter). This was my first Pushkin, and though it’s literary heresy, I have to admit that I was a little disappointed.

The translator’s preface says:
Those who have seen the Tchaikovsky opera will remember it as a lugubrious story of star-crossed lovers, of anger, jealousy, and tragic death. And yet, although that is indeed the “plot line” of the novel, it is but one facet of the work. What makes Pushkin’s book so marvelously alluring is not its sad plot line (which is fine as far as it goes), but the way in which that line like a single line in a piece by Bach, weaves in and out of focus, yielding the floor to other lines of quite different character.

Above all, the novel’s counterpoint involves an intricate, unpredictable bouncing back and forth between the characters in the story and Pushkin’s own droll, sardonic observations about life, about himself, about poetry, about women’s legs, about friendship, about wine, about truncated lives, about nature, about each of the seasons, about foreign words used in Russian, about hypocrisy, and on and on. All of this is executed in graceful, sparkling, yet mostly colloquial language[…] (xi).

I still kind of want to read the book Hofstadter is describing—it sounds wonderful. But now the question is why didn’t I enjoy Eugene Onegin?

Let’s start with the plot: The plot line of Onegin is, in many ways, your stereotypical Russian tragedy: Someone dies, someone’s heart is broken, there are some scenes with snow, there are some lengthy digressions about Russian society, there are too many balls. There is, interestingly enough, very little mention of the Russian Orthodox Church, unlike Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. Also, unlike the more romantic Tolstoy, both country life and city life seem to be equal platforms for ennui, and changing scenes doesn’t help Pushkin’s characters.

Side Note: From my little bits of Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky (who I don’t really consider tragic), and now, Pushkin, I assume that the Platonic ideal Russian tragedy would have all the expected tragic things (i.e. deaths, murder, guilt, broken hearts, suicide, adultery, etc.), but the added bonus of having most of them start with some sort of lack of communication that could be easily fixed, only the characters are predestined to have communication problems forever. Also, society is messed up—but you still have to keep going to balls, or at least, keep wishing that someone important will invite you to balls. Also, instead of ending with some nice melodramatic scene like, say, an English or French tragedy, the characters who are still alive in the last fourth of the Russian novel are doomed to continue miscommunicating their feelings and/or hating each other for their earlier miscommunication—to the point that they can only mutter, “Ah… Don’t you…? No, of course not.” This is a lot less cathartic than the usual, high body count, tragic ending.

Back to Onegin’s plot, there are some interesting scenes—particularly Tanya’s dream sequence—but overall I kept wishing I was reading something else. Maybe because I didn't care much for Eugene: a sort of world-weary, cynical, goalless protagonist. Most of the novel involves getting to hear about how world-weary and cynical he is in different settings.

But plot only a small piece of the novel. So let’s talk about “Pushkin’s own droll, sardonic observations,” which are supposed to be at least half the novel’s charm. And some of it was charming (particularly the parts where talks about writing and the poem itself), but after a while I grew tired of this too. I’m still trying to figure out why. Perhaps because I’m a dialogue person and, no matter the quality of the narration, I would have preferred to follow the characters without so most authorial interference? But I do enjoy some other authors who spend passages “telling instead of showing” in droll language (Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, for example). Perhaps Pushkin’s narrator reminded me too much of Eugene—bored with the world and announcing it every so many stanzas? Yes, I think that may have something to do with it.

Perhaps some of it was the translation. This is not to make light of Hofstadter’s hard work. My favorite part of the novel was actually his preface, in which he talks about his love of Eugene Onegin, his exploration of various Onegin translations, and how this eventually led to his learning Russian so he could translate Pushkin’s work. The preface really makes me wish I had enjoyed Onegin because Hofstadter is obviously moved by it. Hofstadter admits that his translation is not the most Pushkin-like, but more modern, more “jazzy.” (One translator remarked that parts sounded as if they “had been translated by Cole Porter,” and Hofstadter was flattered.) Hofstadter generously provides samples of other translators’ work that readers might prefer to his. (Hofstadter does not, however, recommend Vladimir Nabokov’s translation. And though it’s not hard to understand why--their philosophies on translation are completely opposed--I still find it humorous that most of Hofstadter's footnotes are about how he’s purposely doing the opposite of Nabokov.) I think I might have preferred Jim Falen, Walter Arndt, or Babette Deutsch just because their sentence structures seem to be a little less staccato, a little less overtly alliterative; outrageous statements seem more droll to me when said smoothly and subtly. Though many of Hofstadter's plays on words are fun, I prefer rhymes and translations that don't call so much attention to themselves. I'm willing to try again at some point, but I doubt another translation will make me love Onegin.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Characters as Moral Centers in Writing

So far I've blogged about reading and writing, but I haven't really touched on how those might relate to "Christian Spirituality." I suppose it's a given that most Christian writers (whoever their audience) feel that stories, if they're good stories, turn on questions of morality and human nature (even if the characters aren't human). But straight-up morality tales tend to seem simple, if not dull.

Many authors (Christian or not) manage to get around the problem of how-to-promote-an-idea-without-seeming-didactic, by having a character who is the moral center of the work and speaks for the author. (Though there are other ways of promoting an idea.) Often the moral center is not the protagonist of the work, but a companion the protagonist should not ignore. Examples of moral centers in literature would be Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and Lee in East of Eden by John Steinbeck. (By the way, every time I watch Eli Stone, Dr. Chen makes me think of Lee: his role as moral center, his knowledge of spiritual texts, his fake Chinese accent that he puts on or discards at will--someone working on Eli Stone knows some Steinbeck).

I'm playing around with a moral center in my own work right now, but I'm stumbling across what I'm sure must be a common problem. In real life, one person really shouldn't be the absolute guide for another. And I like (to try) to write about my characters as people and not simply as symbols for certain philosophies. This generally means that they have to have blind spots--areas of human silliness that are (or become) apparent to the reader while remaining obscured to the characters. The more attached I become to a character the more I want to make sure I do his/her "human-ness" justice. So my moral center character seems a bit uncentered lately.

There must be some good ways to play with this combination of moral center and fallible human being. Forgive me while I think out loud for a moment... Perhaps one could write a character who is reliable on general issues of morality, but completely unreliable on issues of, say, world politics and how elevators work?

Or perhaps better still, have the moral center's blind spot be the opposite of the protagonist's? I suppose you could say this was the case in The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde. Throughout the novel (the painter) Basil's advice is consistently better than anyone else's. But both Basil and Dorian have sins that they wish to hide. Without giving too much away, about three thirds of the way through the tale, these sins come to light. Basil, however, solidifies his role as the moral center by putting his finger on the places their crimes sprang from: "I worshipped you too much. I am punished for it. You worshipped yourself too much. We are both punished" (ch. 13, some very Christian language in this chapter). Basil's main flaw is the reverse of Dorian's, and his role as moral center is reinforced by the fact that he can see his blind spot long before Dorian sees his own.

I kind of like Wilde's format here. Thoughts?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Favorite Children's Picture Books 2

There's a children's book I remember loving but I can't find anywhere online or in my parents' attic. It was about a little green fish, and I seem to remember a white duck and a little girl and some bread crumbs (sort of abstract, almost Asian illustrations, at least in my memory). The story was printed on a square board book and the cover was blue with the green fish on it (or possibly the other way around). I can't remember whether or not the book was wordless or just economical with language. I think it was called something like Fish or The Little Fish. Anyone remember this?

I did find some other favorites while searching through the attic/online. Like

But Not the Hippopotamus by Sandra Boynton.

The Delicious Plums of King Oscar the Bad by Rick Schreiter.

Follow the Line by Demi. An enthralling wordless book. (I can't find my copy or a photo to post here, so click on the link.)

Monday, November 17, 2008

Favorite Children's Picture Books

I did some Christmas shopping today and spent too much time looking through picture books and thinking about my childhood favorites.

Everyone remembers Goodnight Moon, but here are some I'm not sure everyone knows.

Little Rabbit's Loose Tooth written by Lucy Bate, illustrated by Diane De Groat. What I loved the most were Little Rabbit's plans about what to do with her tooth instead of giving it to the tooth fairy.

Grandfather Twilight by Barbara Helen Berger. Beautiful, beautiful illustrations.

Little Daylight written by George MacDonald, illustrated by Erick Ingraham. One of George MacDonald's loveliest fairytales, and Ingraham's illustrations made me want to be an artist as a kid.

Whose Mouse are You? by Robert Kraus. Silly even for a children's book, but I adored it. Hurrah for mice who don't accept defeat.

Chicken Soup with Rice: A Book of Months by Maurice Sendak. Sendak is not an unknown in children's literature by any stretch of the imagination, but I don't hear a lot of talk about this book. I learned all my months through their relationship to chicken soup with rice. Chicken soup with noodles, to this day, seems like a bit of a disappointment.

There are many others, but I'm having a little trouble remembering the titles of, or finding, the picture books that are a little more obscure.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Northanger Abbey

I thought the cover of my 1968 Magnum Easy Eye Northanger Abbey was unironically melodramatic, but this one (read inside blurb) is even better. Apparently, in the sixties Northanger Abbey was marketed as a Gothic novel, which is hilariously sad for a satire of Gothic novels.

After the Jane Austen mania on PBS earlier this year, I felt embarrassed to realize that I was more familiar with movies based off Austen's books than with the books themselves. I can now add Northanger Abbey to my "have read" pile, along with Persuasion, Mansfield Park, and (of course) Pride and Prejudice. (Only two to go!)

It must say something for the book that I could enjoy Catherine's misplaced suspicions and trust, while still knowing everything that was going to happen.

Side note: Even in this early novel, Austen's sentence structure is elegantly complex. Any disruptions to that structure can be frustrating. As a former editor, I know a typo or two occansionally escapes notice. But my Magnum copy of Northanger Abbey had several, including this brain-twister (in bold):

[...]Henry, turning to Catherine, for the first time since her mother's entrance, asked her, with sudden alacrity, if Mr. and Mrs. Allen were now at Fullerton? And on developing, from amidst all her perplexity of words in reply, the meaning, which one short syllable would have given, immediately expressed his intention of paying his respects to them, and, with a rising colour, asked her if she would have the goodness to show him the way. "You may see the house from the window, sir," was information on Sarah's side, which produced only a bow of acknowledgement from the gentleman, and a silencing nod from her mother; Mrs. Morland, thinking it probable, as a secondary consideration in his wish of waiting on their on their worthy neighbors, that he might have some explanation to give on his father's account he had to give; but his pleasant for him to communicate only to Catherine, would not on any account prevent her accompanying him.

The last bit had me rereading that paragraph half a dozen times. Google Books reveals that this passage is not meant to sound like poorly translated Luxembourgish:
[...]Mrs. Morland, thinking it probable, as a secondary consideration in his wish of waiting on their on their worthy neighbors, that he might have some explanation to give of his father's behaviour, which it must be more pleasant for him to communicate only to Catherine, would not on any account prevent her accompanying him.

That's better. I'm not sure what happened to my copy. Blame it on the sixties?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Kentucky Authors and Poets

After my post on Tuesday, I felt that I ought to give writers from my home state props. So here, in no particular order and subject to change, are my current favorite books by Kentucky writers:

Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry. The closest you'll ever come to reading a river.

Buffalo Dance: The Journey of York poems by Frank X Walker. The story of York, William Clark's slave and a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, told through York's own, beautifully imagined, voice.

The Coal Tattoo by Silas House. The sisters in this novel are an Applachian Sense and Sensibility pairing, but the story is House's own and very Kentuckian: relationships lost, broken, and mended; drinking; baptism; coal; land rights; and religion.

The Mother on the Other Side of the World: Poems by James Baker Hall. I have a feeling, from the readings I've been to, that anything by this former Poet Laureate of Kentucky is good poetry; this just happens to be the book I have right now.

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver. I'm sad that I haven't read more by Kingsolver because the characters in this novel are so well-drawn. I know that Kingsolver is no longer in Kentucky, but there's no denying the Kentucky influence here.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Novel Struggles and Fun

Lately, all my conversations have gone something like this:

Other Person: I haven’t seen you in a while—what are you up to?

Me: Um, I’m writing a novel…

Other Person: Really? What’s it about?

Me: Can I get back to you on that?

Since I’ve been researching and writing for about a year I ought to be able to say something. So here goes…

I’m using a multiple viewpoint structure.

The first book I ever read that changed narrative structure in the middle of the story was Treasure Island. I was about ten-years-old and shocked. And delighted. I’d been reading from Jim Hawkins' perspective and suddenly I was reading from the Doctor’s. The idea that one story could be viewed differently by different characters fascinated me.

As I matured, I read more books that played with narrative structure, moving between viewpoints, time frames, tenses, etc.: Home at the End of the World, In the Time of the Butterflies, The Hours, As I Lay Dying, and Rabbit, Run.

In other words, all the cool literary kids are doing it. (Correction: All the cool literary kids have done it; now it’s kind of old hat.) So I thought I would enjoy writing a multi-viewpoint novel. I do, but fitting all the different voices and tenses into my story structure is a bit like trying to create a single image out of several 5,000-piece puzzles—after they’ve been run through the wood-chipper.

I begin to see why some multi-viewpoint stories, although I enjoy their style, seem disappointing in terms of plot and character-development—by the time the author got all the structure worked out, her brain melted onto the keyboard.

So here’s a question: Is there a multi-viewpoint novel that you really enjoyed—both for the structure and story itself?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

My Kind of Lunatics

Moby Dick is now the official "epic novel" of Massachusetts. What I love, however, is Rep. Cory Atkins' reaction to making Moby Dick the state book. Atkins sounds as if she was being asked to pass legislation to allow an open hunting season for kittens. I doubt my state legislature would get that excited over picking a state book.

But I suppose it's no surprise that Boston, MA is the U.S.A.'s 7th most literate city?

Monday, November 10, 2008

This is My Blog Post to the World

This is my blog post to the world
that’s always spamming me—
the simple news: I have a blog!
with silly buoyancy.
This message now submitted
(posts semi-regularly);
for love of words, dear readers,
please comment frequently.

With apologies to Emily Dickinson and meter in general.