Category Archives: Books & Reviews

Literature, culture, fiction, non-fiction, writers, authors and the craft of writing.

Julius Caesar: Best of the Bard?


Julius CaesarFor my money, Julius Caesar is simply Billy Shakespeare’s best ever play. I mean, what’s not to like in it? It has some stonking great speeches in it – including one of his top five ever (Marc Antony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen….”) as well as a passel of memorable lines you can quote at parties (Who among my readers hasn’t passed off a quick “Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war…” just for effect?).

Plus it has a conspiracy, a murder, a riot, a battle, and a couple of suicides to gussy up the action. Treachery, betrayal, loyalty, raw ambition, backstabbing, front-stabbing, ghosts… really: what’s not to like?

It’s short and brisk, so it can be read in an evening and the plot followed easily enough, even by a non-academic. It’s bereft of the knotty love-action that makes you scratch your head and wonder which twin is onstage and why. WS eschewed his usual love for complicated metaphors, and hidden meanings when writing it, so almost anyone can understand it.

And on top of that, it’s all about politics and Billy the Bard was in his best game when writing about politics. Like I said, what’s not to like?

And then there’s the whole mess of subtext about manliness and masculinity, about friendship and loyalty, about power, about the conflict between reason and passion, about the nature of the state and the greater good, and whether it’s okay to kill someone for a Big Reason like saving the republic.

Like every other Shakespearean play, it’s about the complexity of being human and interacting with other conflicted humans. The issues, the insights, the internal tug-of-war over ethics and morals, the passions and lusts – they were the same in his day as they are in ours, and he makes them accessible by weaving them into great stories. That’s why the Bard is still so relevant today.

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Poor King Henry VII


Henry VIIAs Rodney Dangerfield might have said had he been cast in a role as Henry VII, “I don’t get no respect.”

Henry VII is one of those English kings who never seem to get any attention, outside the rarefied realms of academia. Only of late, it seems, have a few writers and TV producers turned their heads towards him – no doubt because a lot of the other, more exciting monarchs have been thoroughly covered on screen and in print.

Although he was the first of the short Tudor dynasty, his reign is overshadowed by those of his son, Henry VIII, and granddaughter, Elizabeth I. His continental contemporaries – Louis XI of France and Ferdinand II of Aragon – also outshone him.

Take Shakespeare, for example. The Bard wrote plays about Henry IV, V, VI and VIII. Just skipped VII as if the old geezer hadn’t been worth the price of a goose quill and paper. Plus he wrote about Kings John, Richard II and II and possibly Edward III. H7 is ignored.

Well, okay not completely. Just as far as top billing goes. He’s called the Earl of Richmond in Henry VI, part 3, a youngster who shows up towards the end – Act IV, Sc IV, a bit player without even a speaking part. Not very auspicious for the man who would be king not many years later.

Later, in Richard III, set in the finals years of the War of the Roses,  a somewhat older (28) Henry defeats the king (Richard III) at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. Again, Henry doesn’t show up until the end: Act V, Sc II – and his character is dull and stiff, compared to the vibrant and dynamic – albeit evil – Richard. He takes the crown to become King Henry VII, although the coronation itself is not shown (Derby removed it from the dead Richard). Yorkists win, Lancastrians lose. Sic friat crustulum.

(Apparently the 2016 sequel to the BBC’s superb Hollow Crown series will include Shakespeare’s Henry VI and Richard III plays, so you can watch them on DVD…)

Henry VII had long been dead by the time Shakespeare wrote Henry VIII, and so he gets short shrift there, too. Queen Katharine mentions him in passing in Act II :

The king, your father, was reputed for
A prince most prudent, of an excellent
And unmatch’d wit and judgment…

Henry VIII also mentions him in passing in Act III. Neither call him by his name or title, just “father.”

Otherwise, H7 was just bypassed by the Bard and other playwrights.

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Poems That Make You Cry


Poems That Make Grown Men CryI cannot read Dylan Thomas’ poem,Do not go gentle into that good night‘ without a lump in my throat. I read it at my father’s funeral, several years ago, so for me it has a personal context that retains its emotional impact. Many poems move me or touch my heartstrings, however, that have no such personal context, although I cannot recall the last time one moved me to tears.

When I got Anthony and Ben Holden’s book, “Poems That Make Grown Men Cry: 100 Men on the Words That Move Them,” I expected to be deeply and powerfully moved by the poems in it. Yet for the most part, I wasn’t. I read through it, then put the book down. I thought, perhaps it was my mood at the time. This week I re-read it. The result was the same: much of the poetry had little or no emotional effect for me.

Most of it, I thought, was very good poetry: skillfully written, beautifully crafted, stuff that made me pause and think. But not cry. In fact, most of it elicited an intellectual rather than an emotional reaction. That isn’t a bad thing, just not what I expected from a book with that title. I want poetry to slip past my thinking brain and tweak the organs that send a chemical rush of emotions through me. I want to feel a poem raise the hairs on my arm or a lump in my throat before I start to analyse the words.

The Holdens begin each poem with a piece by the man (or in a few cases where more than one chose the same piece, men) who explains why he chose the particular poem. Then the chapter ends with a brief biography of the chooser(s), so the reader can frame his or her appreciation of the poem in some context. This really helps in some cases, but not all. (As for why just men: read their introduction).

For example, the Japanese hokku (a brief poem, later renamed as haiku) by Fukuda Chiyo-Ni and chose for the collection by Boris Akunin:

Dragonfly catcher
Where today
have you gone?

As Akunin writes, it seems either mysterious or banal, but once you learn that the author wrote it after she lost her little son, it becomes deeply poignant. You can read more of her work here.

But as David Orr wrote in his book, Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry, poetry – and books about poetry  – has a limited audience today:

…the potential audience for a book about poetry nowadays consists of two mutually uncomprehending factions: the poets, for whom poetry is a matter of casual, day-to-day conversation; and the rest of the world, for whom it’s a subject of at best mild and confused interest.

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The Theology of The Fly


The Fly CollectionWhile watching the 1958 film of The Fly last night, I was struck by its similarities to Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein. And in the similarity of the underpinning morality of both.

I recently picked up the DVD collection with all three movies (The Fly, Return of The Fly and Curse of the Fly, plus a collection of special features).*

I saw the original film back in the late 1950s at the drive-in with my parents, and I’ve seen it on TV since, but not for many years. It’s not quite the “terror topping supershock thrill sensation” promised on the box (a term lifted from ads for The Return of The Fly and similar films).**

Still, it’s a good, classic example of the genre. As I watched it last night, I was struck by several things in the movie I had not considered before.

First is the role of Vincent Price. Known for his serio-comic roles in horror films – mostly B-films – he was usually cast as the villain, often some sort of mad scientist character. In The Fly, he plays a dramatic, sympathetic role, not the sort of person one expects of Price. Not villainous at all; a very understated character. helped no doubt by a literate script written by James Clavell (later novelist of Shogun and Noble House fame).

Second is that the film was shot in colour, which was not common for low-budget films (the sequel was shot in B&W) but the sets and props were minimal (the basement lab is more a metaphor for mad scientist than an actually believable laboratory). It looks more like the set from Father Knows Best than a monster film.

Third is the aforementioned similarities with Shelley’s Frankenstein (the original novel, not the subsequent films, which, with rare exception, veer significantly from the book’s plot – but again to be fair, the film script of The Fly changed the plot of the original short story).

In both, the moral of the story is that messing around with Nature (aka God) is wrong and ends in tragedy. In both, the creatures have a strong sense of morality. In the novel the creature (Shelley never names him) develops his views and behaviour from observing humans; in The Fly is it the essential humanity still maintained within Andre, the human-turned-fly. In both, they make a decision “for the best” or the greater good that involves their own death (suicide, although in Shelley’s story the creature only vows his own death; the act is not described, thus allowing us to wonder if he carried it out).

That ending is quite different from the usual monster film in which the creature is overcome by villagers, loyal friends, the police, a priest, a doctor or some other figure (or group) that represents authority, orthodoxy and the community (you can see in monster films the metaphor of the stranger or outsider a la Camus or Kafka, versus the status quo – The Wild One with a bug’s head).

The Fly also features an assisted suicide, which makes it relevant to the debate going on today about that issue. Plus it has a mercy murder – or is it? Is the fly with the human head a human? – which raises the question or euthanasia in another light. The short story also has a suicide. All big, moral and ethical issues.

Both stories make us question our values. Are the creatures worth our sympathy, or at least empathy? Or simply horror and disgust? Do they have a soul? Are they to be hated (the Frankenstein Complex that despises the artificial results of scientific experiment) or pitied? Helped or destroyed? Do they reason or are they simply animals? And is it right to experiment on animals?

And how does our perspective on the fictional characters relate to our perspective in the real world – towards animals, insects, other humans (especially those with physical or developmental challenges)? Shelley’s creature is a walking, talking human – but is treated like an animal to be hunted and destroyed. The Fly creature is a human-insect meld, unable to speak but capable of writing, that in the end must also be destroyed. Although why either needs to die is never made clear – they certainly don’t pose a threat to humanity, although they may to individuals. There’s no justice for monsters, no due process.

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Words, Your Brain and Sex


Naked readingOne of the reasons I’m a dedicated librocubularist* can be found in a story on IFL Science that is headlined, “Learning New Words Activates The Same Brain Regions As Sex And Drugs.” It opens:

While it doesn’t get much better than sex and drugs for many out there, new research has found that simply learning a new word can spark up the same reward circuits in the brain that are activated during pleasurable activities such as these. No wonder there are so many bookworms and scrabble addicts out there.

So nothing like a good, brisk read through the Compact English to get in the mood, eh? Get all purfled from the effort of learning new words. While you groak your snoutfair mate and suggest she festinate her reading while she tells you to be testudineous while she deliciates her words…

The actual article this story draws from doesn’t exactly say that learning new words is the same as sex or drugs. What it says is that learning them lights up the regions of the brain that kicks into play when it wants to reward you. At least it works on people who were being studied under MRIs, not necessary those in libraries or bookstores. Don’t go ecstasiated over it, yet.

It does the same thing for gambling, although I have to admit for this unrepentant mumpsimus, my own reward-centre connection for learning kicks a much more powerful punch than that for gambling. It’s a burden I bajulate well, though.

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Larry & Jerry’s Inferno


InfernoI had forgotten about this book until recently when I came across a reprint. I read it originally in the late 1970s when I was reading a lot more sci-fi than I do today. (Many years ago, I ran a Toronto computer convention where I invited the authors to be the keynote speakers. I got to spend many hours and a memorable dinner with them.) I finished the reprint only a few days ago and started the sequel, Escape From Hell, shortly after.

I was researching Dante of late for something I’ve been slogging at for the past couple of years, when I came across the novel again. I’m always looking for something to sharpen my understanding of Dante, and sometimes a perspective like this can help.

Dante’s Inferno, the first of the Divine Comedy trilogy, has always fascinated me for its complex subject matter; its politics, theology, human drama and vision. I have numerous translations of it on my bookshelves. Some I keep just for the introduction and notes – the poetry is almost unintelligible without a guide (which is amusing; you need a second Virgil to guide you through Dante’s references and make sense of them in modern terms).

Dante is tough, but not for his words. Those are easy to read, but the poems are full of historical and literary references that make little sense to the average (non-academic) modern reader. Some of those references were contemporary to Dante, others are classical. Archaic politics have little resonance today.

He also had a rather ornate, medieval theology that furnished his view of Hell (apparently influenced by the writings of Thomas Aquinas (who I have not read but may some day tackle the 3,500-page Summa Theologica if i can work up the nerve). Without having some background knowledge or at least an edition with good notes, the words themselves often don’t tell you as much as you need to know.

Pinsky’s version was my favourite, although Kirkpatrick’s translation made it a close second last year. I recently started reading Mary Jo Bang’s colloquial version and it so far intrigues me, although it seems to have annoyed some critics for her modern (and not literate) interpretations. I also have the Ciardi, Wordsworth and Musa translations. Musa’s notes are worth the book alone.

Since its first translation into English, in 1782, the Inferno has been the subject of much literary discussion and the merits of each translation heavily debated. Ciardi’s version seems to have garnered the most accolades before Pinsky. I am somewhat iffy about versions that attempt to replicate Dante’s three-line rhyming scheme – it can seem rather strained – and tend to like blank verse versions better.

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A Modern Take on Gorgias


GorgiasPlato’s dialogue Gorgias is mostly about the difference between content and form. Or rather it’s about how Socrates saw the difference between philosophy – content and truth – and rhetoric – form and words. Both of which are practiced and studied today in much different forms from what they were in ancient Greece. But the essential core of his argument is still there for us.

Socrates felt rhetoric  – oratory – was shallow; merely using words for persuasion, for effect, for emotion: it lacked the validity, the meaning and depth of philosophy. It lacked truth and knowledge.

If you look at the dichotomy in Gorgias as one between science, fact and evidence on one side, and pseudoscience, conspiracy theories and angry bloggers on the other, then it makes sense in a modern way. Instead of the speeches he discusses, imagine them like this: as blog posts. Gorgias argues his speeches are about freedom – angry bloggers often argue their posts are a right, and they have freedom to write whatever they please, to belittle and demean others without punishment. A modern Socrates might label these sophists “A” types.

What kind of change, then, does rhetoric effect in the soul? Socrates infers from Gorgias that it is persuasion. What kind of persuasion? One kind of persuasion “provides belief without knowing,” and another “provides knowledge.” Clearly knowledge is better than true belief, which is better than false belief, and more knowledge is better than less knowledge. But rhetoric merely imparts belief, Gorgias admits, and experience shows that rhetoric produces both true belief and false belief (454e). By this reasoning rhetoric, to the extent that it is a theoretic art, is powerless to effect the best possible change (knowledge) in the soul of the hearer, but it has the power to effect the worst possible change (false belief) in the hearer’s soul.

This may be the main reason that Socrates stops discussing the greatest of goods and begins to discuss the greatest of evils. It is important to protect one’s soul against the worst effects of rhetoric. Socrates refers to the greatest of evils, in slightly different formulations, over a dozen times. The subject matter of the greatest evil takes many forms, most notably that of injustice. Can the state of soul called false belief be reconciled with the state of soul called injustice?

One could easily apply Socrates’ views about content versus empty form to the local political scene: the debate between financial facts, facility facts and council accomplishments versus the fictions, fantasies and outright lies presented in attack ads, on social media and angry blog posts. Wikipedia tells us:

Socrates believes there are two types: “…one part of it would be flattery, I suppose, and shameful public harangue, while the other—that of getting the souls of the citizens to be as good as possible and of striving valiantly to say what is best, whether the audience will find it more pleasant or more unpleasant—is something admirable. But you’ve never seen this type of oratory…” (502e). Although rhetoric has the potential to be used justly, Socrates believes that in practice, rhetoric is flattery; the rhetorician makes the audience feel worthy because they can identify with the rhetorician’s argument.

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