Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Book Club is Back

Late April of this year, my sis Hannah, our friend George, and I decided to start a little book club. God knows why, though I suppose it had something to do with the three of us coincidentally reading the same book, Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, around the same time. And I guess we three have enjoyed reading, separately, for most of our lives -- and we had toyed with the idea of a book club a few times before.

The stars seemed right, so we began with my choice, A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore. I think I needed its light humor after a five-day whirlwind through Jane Eyre. Which I enjoyed a lot, yes, but I am not the kind of guy who can handle these large, old books one after the other. So I break it up -- Dirty Job proved to be a great way to wind down. The two other members seemed to enjoy it too. At least, George had nothing very negative to say, and Hannah has picked up two or three Moore books since. The club was off to a good start.

In early June Hannah picked our second book, Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman. Yes, the book was as mediocre as the Bullock/Kidman movie based on it. It was a very feeble attempt at "girl-y" fiction -- oh heck, it was a lame attempt at fiction, period.

And that was the end of an era. Practical Magic may have dampened are enthusiasm a little and George dragged her feet with choosing the next book. The club was completely dead during the summer, probably the best time to have a book club on account of the free time. Hannah tried to bring it back with Margaret Atwoods Handmaid's Tale, but ultimately only she read it.

Now it very well could be back, with my selection of And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. Here's hoping, kiddo.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Book Review: The Hard Goodbye, by Frank Miller

Sin City, Vol. 1: The Hard GoodbyeMy rating: 4 of 5 stars

I thought the Sin City movie was great, when I watched it on DVD in 2007... Since then, the wait for Sin City 2 has been a bit of a pain. (OK, I don't agonise about it every second, but it would be nice to see.) I've flirted with reading the graphic novels on several occasions, until I finally got a hold of the first in the series. I'm going to take a leap here and call it the best.

As has been said, the story in this graphic novel was one of three plotlines in the movie. As has not been said, it was by far the best -- in my eyes, it bumped the movie from a C+/B- to a solid A. In a world full of hokey monologues and manly bad-assery, Marv outshines them all -- both in the movie, with Micky Rourke's stand-out performance, and as it turns out, in the graphic novel.

I am a big fan of highly-quotable, "B" movies. Some are so "bad" unintentionally, like Mommie Dearest, while productions like Sin City obviously took a lot of effort to be so hokey. Some people are turned off by the supposed testosterone-fuelled orgy -- I see it all as one big joke. I, and my kinsfolk, were laughing throughout the movie, in a good way.

As for specific scenes, who could forget the opening? (Apparently "She smells how angels oughta smell.") And how about the ending? ("Can we get a move on? I haven't got all night," says Marv in the electric chair.) Two classic moments that serve as the bread to an absolutely delicious sandwich.

Well, I've gone and made this review mostly about the movie, but that isn't completely inappropriate -- the two are remarkably similar. Must be Miller's famed cinematic style, and it couldn't hurt that he had a major role in the production of the movie.

The book has only a few minor differences. Marv never visits his mother in the movie, for example, and of course this GN only includes the one plotline. I prefer it that way -- every time I see Nancy in the book I think of Jessica Alba's horrific performance. I still cringed a little at "Sure, Marv. Who's the babe?"

But, overall, the book is shorter, and sweeter for it.

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Friday, October 23, 2009

The Shakespeare Challenge: A Rundown

Funny how life works. My relationship with Shakespeare was virtually nil -- aside from those infamous mandatory school readings -- until one day in late August 2009, when my sis brought home a big bag of things she had pilfered from her school's Lost&Found. It was mostly old gym clothes and a few coats, but there also happened to be a student's copy of Hamlet in the mix. On a whim, I snatched it and stole away to the smoky confines of my room. (This was probably the best solution as my sister, evil little capitalist that she is, might have made me pay; she made me pay a dollar for a pair of dress shoes from the bag -- wench.) She never made a fuss about it so...

A few days later, I had built up enough courage and free time to begin reading my first Shakespeare play since my high school days. I still have not built a concrete opinion of the play, but I must have enjoyed it -- it was soon followed by Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Twelfth Night, and Tempest.

I must have really enjoyed it -- hence the challenge alluded to in the post title: to read every play authored, or possibly authored, by Shakespeare. The goal is, at the very least, to become familiar with the plots, language, and characters. This will likely open the door for re-readings of my favorites and maybe even *shudder* a little literary criticism. The ultimate goal is to see each play live, though I may have to settle for a DVD in some cases. I look forward to exploring the BBC productions, particularly of the more obscure plays, which, so I read, tend to be better-produced than most of the big hitters.

I am not sure when I came upon the idea and I am not sure why I am so enthusiastic, but the conviction is there. I know, from my reading, Shakespeare can be a lot of fun. And at times, no doubt, it will feel like a never-ending slog. I cringe a little at all those history plays -- is Falstaff fat and drunk enough to keep my mind from the drudgery of English history? And just how bad is the greatest English writer's worst work? And can I handle reading about people carrying their own hands? (Horror of horrors, I think I can!)

But I suppose these concerns are merely deck chairs now; I best soldier on with my copies of King Lear and All's Well That Ends Well. Perhaps I will finish this challenge late next year, perhaps as my 2010 New Years resolution (that's kind of my thing now). Or am I doomed to years of wandering?

Until the answer comes, fyi, I am still chugging along with the Aeneid, nearly to Book VIII. I am determined to finish before the month is out -- wild harpies couldn't stop me.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Book Review: Flight: Volume One

Flight, Volume 1My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"A collection of short comics by an array of people who look awfully hip; I was drawn in by the pretty colors." I wrote that before I started this book and I assure you it still holds true, but I can add a few things:

I read my first graphic novel in early 2009 and I have been hooked ever since, but I am still not sold on the idea of super short graphic stories. Sure, these mysterious little things called "comic books" have done well for themselves, but still, anything shorter than sixteen pages makes me squirm a little.

I generally like my non-fiction short and to the point, while fiction I prefer plump and fleshed out. The old problem of creating a whole world within a short space is terribly amplified when an author has only a few hundred words and some pictures to tell his story. In fact, I have noticed that many short comics have trouble just with telling a complete story -- set aside things like character and world development.

I have read a few fantastic short comics -- including one that will always stick, by Will Eisner -- and I have read a lot of junk. This collection continues the trend, with around five enjoyable, memorable stories from the total twenty-five. The rest, well, some make you wonder what just happened to the time; still others lead you to weakly say, "Good effort..."

Some of these stories have "hipster" written on every page, while others feel oddly mainstream. No doubt these authors are (or were, in 2004) the up-and-coming stars of "underground comics" (that are not especially underground), mixed in with some chaff for good measure. But I feel I must applaud all these authors, for being the movers and shakers, for keeping things moving, if only slightly.

I love the variety of art styles in this book -- yes, some styles more than others, but variety is spice enough for me. And I enjoyed the number of attempts at wordless- or near-wordless stories, a sub-sub-genre that is even less developed and untapped.

I suppose I very easily could have given this two stars, but something about its spunk and vigour made me bump it up to a solid three. If you want something different, something that at least isn't boring -- read this.

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Sunday, October 18, 2009

What I Want to Read and Why I Have (Not)

Reading has been slower than usual this month and I do not expect to complete everything I had planned for October. I will still finish the Aeneid, but the Meditations and Pliny's letters will have to wait.

I got a little sidetracked with two Shakespeare plays, Twelfth Night and The Tempest, and I have some other things on my reading-platter.

First is an interesting character of American history, an artist named Chiura Obata. A Japanese-American painter, he is exactly the kind of person who is interesting enough to read about but does not quite reach the average History textbook. After learning about him from a PBS special on the American national parks, I ordered a book from the library called Obata's Yosemite. It features many of the pictures from his tour of the Yosemite National Park in the 1920's, probably his most famous collection.

I have no great interest in visual arts, but of course I can appreciate these. I hold a special place for Japanese art in particular and I consider the American landscape one of the most beautiful in the world (from what I gather from pictures :). I admit my patriotism runs deep, but I like to think it is only pride in my country and its people -- not thinly disguised xenophobia.

Seeing this Japanese style collide with American scenery is both novel and enjoyable, and clear visual proof of the dualism most Japanese-Americans -- and indeed most immigrants -- must have felt. I will stop short of singing "Kumbaya," but still the book comes recommended.

I also learned, from the same show, about Harold Ickes, the Secretary of the Interior under Franklin D. Roosevelt. A brash, abrasive politician, he no doubt was a man who knew how to get things done -- at least he was instrumental in implementing a little thing called the "New Deal." Sadly, I have yet to get around to ordering or reading anything on the man, but at least it has been noted.

Next is Shakespeare in American Life, a catalogue of a 2007 exhibition by the Folger Library. It strikes me as something you are more likely to buy at a gift shop than find in a public library, but that does not make it cheap or useless. It features some dozen or so essays, which, given the nice paper on which the book is printed, I can only assume are scholarly. The essays cover a wide variety of topics, from popular to snooty von snoot. I have already learned much about the beginnings of Shakespeare's enrapture of America and I am oddly intrigued enough to read until the end. I do love Kiss Me Kate and I wonder if any mention is made of Huckleberry Finn's little foray into Hamlet.

Then I have some smaller projects:
  • V for Vendetta -- I do not expect to be wowed out of my socks, but I figure, as long as I am touring the "best of" in the graphic novels department, I might as well knock this one off.
  • Flight: Volume One -- A collection of short comics by an array of people who look awfully hip; I was drawn in by the pretty colors.
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight -- Honestly, I do not know why I am so excited about this one. Long British poems usually ain't my thang, but this looks just goofy enough to work.
So there you have it, a miscellany of books from a miscellany of a man. Smart thought of the day: I could have used the time I spent writing this to read.

Please hold your applause until the end.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Irrelevant Friday #2 (!)

I missed out on IF last week, probably as a result of cosmic wind or brain farts -- or maybe I am just rebellious enough to forgo an outlet for irrelevance that I created. But, hey, I found my way back to vanilla-living this week, so let's begin.

First, in "WTF?!" news, I found a Goodreads account of a man named (apparently) Will Colbert. A 73 year-old man who has been on the site since 2007, he has not found the time to add many books to his profile, yet he has 1,260 friends, most of them attractive young women. Though certain to raise an eyebrow or two already, this story gets weirder

On this man's profile page it shows that he made a thread on a Goodreads group called "We miss Hannah." The group's description says, "Hannah was killed today at 9 a.m." but leaves it at that. The group has only one discussion, the one created by Will, which features many of the group's 29 members writing around like headless chickens. The thread has no clear answers to the riddle of the group name and description, and I, Internet user that I am, am inclined to call the whole thing a hoax. A very odd kind of hoax, yes, but accepting the situation as true only adds a few points to the odd-o-meter.

In technology news, the first alpha release of Haiku OS came out on September 14th. Though I only recently learned about this project, it has sent several shock-waves and thrills through my brain (and hair). Based on the proprietary BeOS, which went defunct in 2001, Haiku has been in development ever since. Just imagine the dedication -- and distinct lack of more interesting things to do -- required to work on a completely free project for eight years, to reach the very first test release. I could never do it, but it least now it seems to be paying off for the developers and the world at large. Haiku incorporates many new features unheard of from the three conventional operating systems. And while it will be many years before the average Joe -- even an average Linux Joe like myself -- can fully enjoy these improvements, it's nice to see something radically new in the open-source world.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Book Review: The Agricola/ The Germania

The Agricola/The Germania My rating: 3 of 5 stars
A lovely pair these two make. They work well together, first, because they are two of the three minor works still extant from the master Tacitus -- often overlooked in favour of the Histories and the Annals. And, though ostensibly about very different topics -- Agricola is a suspiciously positive biography of the author's father-in-law, while Germania is a quick survey of the German land and its native people -- both offer interesting, though aggravatingly brief, glimpses at the Roman provinces and at the "barbarians" whom the Romans were constantly fighting.

Agricola, probably the less popular of the two, unfurls the life of Gnaeus Julius Agricola, who made his mark on history mainly through his bloody governorship of Britain and through his good fortune to marry his daughter off to one of the greatest ancient historian. In short, he extended Roman control on the island farther north than ever before, handily defeating a large mass of Caledonians in the process. This success probably made the Emperor Domitian both jealous and nervous, so Agricola's career was cut short by an early, likely forced, retirement.

This work offers us only tiny glimpses at the natives of Britain, and even then tends to focus on their tactics and habits on the battlefield. A natural lack of information -- Tacitus probably never visited Britain and relied solely on Roman accounts of the area and people -- as well as a general lack of interest in the provinces and the "barbarian" cultures, makes this work heavy on minutiae. It is, after all, a biography of Agricola, and the account of his cursus honorum was no doubt interesting to wealthy Romans for hundreds of years, but it makes for less than exciting reading these days.

Germania offers much more to the anthropologists and average readers of today. I imagine it has been picked apart many times, for any little clue that others may have missed. Depicting the Germans as strong, war-like people, Germania conjures images of thousands of half-naked men emerging from an icy forest, ready to do battle. They give a might cry and all rush forward, ready to die for family and country. They are unabashedly vulgar, yet somehow proud. One can't help but think of the word "liberty" and ponder on Eden, as in some ways Tacitus did thousands of years ago. At times, it makes me proud to have some German blood in me, though my cooler head always cuts through the romanticism in the end.

A great pair for any occasion. I will surely return to these in, at the latest, a year or two.

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Monday, October 12, 2009

The Twelfth Night Performace

Yesterday I finally went to see Twelfth Night, at the Hanna Theatre in downtown Cleveland. The show is part of the Great Lakes Theatre Festival and we -- me, my sister Hannah, and our good friend George -- managed to get in on a group rate of $13 each. They were very good seats for that price and the show was just great. But first:

As the director of the festival walked onto the stage to deliver opening remarks he brought with him a big surprise: Tom Hanks. Tom got his start working as an intern at the Hanna and has returned for a few days to help raise the last chunk of money for its restoration. He said a few words, made the audience laugh -- most of the audience. I have never cared much for Hollywood movies, or his in particular. Yet I sensed this to be a momentous occasion. Alas, for Hollywood royalty he looked oddly human. When he left the stage he walked right past us and I wanted to shout something witty to him -- I was leaning towards "I loved you in 'Big'" -- but I chickened out. I managed only to whisper to my sister, "He must dye his hair."

He sat close enough that I could see him comfortably from my seat -- he didn't even know I was watchin' him. He watched some of the play -- just like a real person -- but snuck out sometime before the intermission -- not so much.

But to the play! It was, in short, better than I had hoped -- a play I enjoyed a lot on paper brought to beautiful life. Now I recognise the importance of performance -- especially with Shakespeare since the humor as written is rather archaic and needs a good shot in the arm. Shakespeare provides the ridiculous situations and fancy wording, but most of the big laughs came from pantomime, the unspoken aspects on which the directors have free reign. I was surprised by the number of laughs this play produced, though I was right there with the rest of the audience this time.

In this performance, the two knights, Toby and Andrew, absolutely stole the show. Their plotting and camaraderie eclipses the arguably more important plot lines. But that's just fine: first because this play is all about fun, laughs, entertainment; and second, because the other plot lines are not so great. The Sebastian-Antonio subplot is particularly slow and does not come to comic fruition until the last act.

The gags that produced the biggest laughs:
1) When Malvolio is reading the "love letter" he eventually reads the mysterious letters "MOAI" as "meoow."
2) In the same scene the plotters are scurrying around in the background . When Malvolio finally turns around they pretend to be a fountain and Toby spits water.
3) When Olivia mistakes Sebastian for Viola and eventually hurries him off-stage he turns around and mouths to the audience "Oh my God."

And others similar. Unfortunately, my two favorite scenes from the reading were toned down or at least mishandled. Malvolio's stockings were neither goofy nor yellow enough, and the "sword fight" was surprisingly low key. The ending was handled well, with plenty of uncomfortable moments, though I still think the final song by Feste kills the levity.

It was a great performance by a generally great troupe. I can not bring myself to choose a favorite actor, though the worst performance must go to the actress of Olivia.

The Hanna Theatre itself is an attractive place, as most theaters are, but it seems more intimate than the other ten or so I have visited. The stage projects far into the audience and two of the stage entrances require the actors to walk through the crowd. The place manages a great balance of intimacy and capacity, not sacrificing one for the other. It is perfect for Shakespeare and the director(s) took full advantage of it. Maybe Tom Hank's assertion that the Hanna is one of the best theaters in the world is not so far of the mark. (Send me some money if you want me to prove it.)

When the play was over we had to wait about an hour for out ride so we walked around. The place was desolate, even for a Sunday evening. I know the area well as I used to attend school (high school and college) but two blocks from the theater, and it was as depressing an experience as ever. You can smell the millions wasted -- on lures that never quite catch their suburban prey. For example, mere minutes after the show, the hundreds of spectators had evaporated. My dad's old shop sits derelict just across the street from the empty lot where I once went to school. The county and city governments are as corrupt as ever and the average person just as poor.

But the play was good! I wish I could do this kind of thing all the time.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Book Review: Twelfth Night

I finished Twelfth Night yesterday and wrote up a little review of it today.

Wow, this really surprised me. I have read some Shakespeare, yes, but strangely enough this is my first Shakespearean comedy. I was expecting it to me much drier, a string of esoteric jokes that have little foothold on the average modern mind.

I was right to a point -- a few jokes flew right over my head, even with the annotations -- but I was totally unprepared for the bawdiness, the goofiness, the insanity. Some examples: the letter to Malvolio from Maria and friends, and of course the "quarrel" between Sir Andrew and "Cesario" -- that last pair of quotes contains yet another goofy plot line. You, the onlooker, will watch a succession of ill-advised love interests. And you, the onlooker, will discover that Olivia doesn't much care for yellow stockings at all!

As for Feste, the clown, well I think he's just great, my favourite character of the play and perhaps all of Shakespeare (that I've read). His "witty" wordplay -- that usually ends up in a ridiculous mess -- just tickles me all kinds of pink.

I can't wait to see it performed, this Sunday.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Linux and Shakespeare

For the last few days I have been busy installing and fussing around with the new version of Ubuntu Linux, the operating system I use. Sometimes I wonder why I bother with it, but at least, in the end, I managed to un-break my computer (again).

I did manage to get a little reading done, namely book two of the Aeneid and Twelfth Night. I want to finish the former by the end of the month, of course, and I am going to see a performance of Twelfth Night on Sunday so I want to read the play first. I am starting to get into it -- it is Shakespeare -- but I have a stinking suspicion that Shakespearean comedies have lost most of their gusto during the last few centuries. Most of his jokes have to be explained, then they are much less funny and it throws off the whole flow of the play. Many times while reading, I could almost see the wry smiles on the character's faces -- I know it is funny but I do not know why. Just another way Shakespeare makes children of us all.

I also suspect that Shakespeare was not a masterful comedian, even in his own day -- and yes, those grapes probably are sour.

But, but, this is the first of his comedies that I have read (and I'm not even finished), so allow me to zip up my tongue for now, and blab it away a few months from now.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

First Thoughts on the Aeneid -- and more

Four days into "Roman October" and I don't have a ton to show for it in the reading department. I have managed to finish the first book of the Aeneid and am nearly done with a slim book called "The Collapse and Recovery of the Roman Empire" by Michael Grant.

On The Aeneid, I do not feel at all qualified to critique this hallowed and ancient piece of literature -- and yet I will. Personally, this first of its twelve books has left me cold. Perhaps it is the translation, but it simply does not ring "epic" in my ears, nor does it jump out as a masterpiece. Furthermore, I can already see that it leans towards real history and away from the exciting mythical aspects that color Homer's works and modern children's books alike, which comes as a bit of a disappointment to me.

I will, of course, stick it out to the end. I have no qualms about setting down an acknowledge classic (everyone has different tastes, I say) but this one has too much going for it in my eyes. It is quite possibly the pinnacle of Roman literature and I feel I should have read it long ago. If I can spend so much time reading my usual trash, I suppose I can free some space in my schedule for a classic or two.

But now, from classic to trash. Michael Grant, well-known and acclaimed writer of books on Ancient Greece and Rome for the popular audience, apparently likes money. At least enough to charge exorbitant amounts for many of his books. In particular, this 150-page hardback, "The Collapse and Recovery of the Roman Empire," costs $30 and is basically a recycling ground for some of the author's previous work. If you were to tally the number of original words Grant wrote for this book, (not including the appendix) I am sure they would fill less than twenty pages.

Organizationally, the book is an absolute mess -- he repeats himself to the point of disgrace. And the book never goes anywhere: he says basically the same thing in the Epilogue as in the Introduction and I, the reader, am not in the least convinced by his conclusions. These assertions are not particularly radical, but he does a terrible job of proving them with, you know, facts and words and stuff.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Irrelevant Fridays!

Yay! The first weekly feature of this blog is now here: Irrelevant Fridays. Consider it an off day, a day I will use to post whatever strikes my fancy -- I aim for interesting, but I am not always the best shot. *smiles*

First up, a poem. Written by an assistant professor at MIT, and all-around smart guy (in a science-y kinda way) Scott Aaronson, it is a cute little rewrite of Walt Whitman's "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" -- from the other side of the thinking-fence. As a former engineering student who now reads poetry, I am intimately familiar with the endless conflicts between the arts and sciences. It is fertile ground for thought. But for now, enjoy:

When I Heard the Learn'd Poet by
Scott Aaronson

When I heard the learn'd poet,
When the Freudian symbolism, the Biblical allusions, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the themes and styles, to analyze, categorize,

and criticize them,
When I sitting heard the poet where she lectured

with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself,
In the rational dry night-air, and dropped my copy of Leaves of Grass off a cliff,
And correctly predicted that it would hit the ground in 3.82 seconds.

(To see this poem side-by-side with Whitman's original, visit Aaronson's homepage )

Thursday, October 1, 2009

October Reading List

It is the first day of a new month, an event that has always held an odd significance with me and my family. I suppose it is no more odd than many of our holidays, official and unofficial -- I celebrate Christmas and I am not even Christian , and New Years Eve is truly the granddaddy of new-month celebrations -- but it always feels strange to celebrate a day whose only significance is rooted in an arbitrary calendar system. Such thinking brings to mind the modern, Gregorian calendar, which inevitably leads to thoughts of the Julian calendar and then the Romans in general.

Which, naturally, brings me to the topic of this post: what am I gonna read in October?

The Roman-themed intro should furnish some clues - the Goodreads widget on the right should supply even more. Yes, I have been on a little Roman kick since early August, really a rebirth of my enthusiasm for the topic during high school, spurred on by an extremely enthusiastic Latin teacher.

After reading mostly straight history in September (see my recent reads -- I hope to have reviews for all soon), I have set October aside to explore some of the literary side of Rome. The tentative list:
  1. The Aeneid, by Virgil (the Robert Fagles translation) - I am a little surpised I have not read this foundation stone of western literature before. I am not in a position to comment on this translation, but it is a handsome edition, it is generally praised, and it was produced by two very well-known, respectable classicists. I'll take it.
  2. The Letters, Books 1-7, by Pliny the Younger - I have the Loeb edition of this enduring, little look into the lives of the Roman upper crust. Sounds fascinating
  3. Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius - A look into an Emperor's mind -- a Stoic philosopher Emperor at that (don't ask me about proper punctuation; I have no idea)
I may squeeze some more in there. Time will tell.