Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Upcoming Landmark Histories

I think it's clear I'm a huge fan of the Landmark Ancient Histories edited by Robert B. Stassler. For anyone else wondering what is forthcoming in the series and the timing, I stumbled across this note posted by Mr. Stassler to a query on an Amazon.com board:
I am avery much alive, and up to my ears in the effort to publish four more Landmark Series volumes. Anticipated Publication dates are: 2017, Landmark edition of Julius Caesar, 2018, Landmark edition of Xenophon's Anabasis, 2019, a Landmark edition of the works of Polybius, and 2020, a Landmark edition of Ammianus Marcellins. These volumes require a lot of care and much time. I have no publication plans after that, thank you.

While the last comment saddens me, I'm excited to see what is planned in this superb series. I will pass on additional information as I find out more.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

I was going to do what?

Well, August has been anything but fun...two trips to the hospital and some surgery, for starters. Hopefully the pain levels will recede and I'll feel like reading and posting again soon. I apologize for the break but I'll get going again soon.

Monday, August 08, 2016

Joy Division & Marketa Lazarová

It will be a little bit before I write on Marketa Lazarová by Vladislav Vančura, but I wanted to share something I stumbled across yesterday. Someone (I'm assuming Stefano Leone, who posted it) paired Joy Division's "Shadowplay" with scenes from Marketa Lazarová, a stunning combination. The scenes are as haunting as the song.

Speaking of the movie, I watched it again after reading the novel and was surprised the changes it made from Vančura's story. More on that later, hopefully.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Shakespeare: movies currently available online

There are some movies currently streaming online that I wanted to pass along to readers.

First up is Coriolanus available for free to Amazon Prime members. Directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes while John Logan adapted the play for the screen. I was impressed by the whole production, which was as troubling on the screen as it is on the page. Set in modern times, the action can be graphic and troubling for younger viewers, so discretion is advised. Fiennes brings a simmering intensity to the Roman general who defends Rome until he is banished, a political victim. It's one of the strongest performances I've seen from him lately. It helps that the supporting cast is strong, too. James Cox's Menenius was especially good, while Vanessa Redgrave's Volumnia provided a believable stern mother to Coriolanus. I even enjoyed Gerard Butler's portrayal of Aufidius. I highly recommend catching this while it is available.

I've not seen the 1984 TV adaptation of Antony and Cleopatra, starring Timothy Dalton and Lynn Redgrave. I'm not sure I'm brave enough to try it, although I did want to mention that it is also available for free on Amazon Prime.

The 2013 Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet starring Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad was released the following year as a movie and is currently available on Hulu. There was a lot of press about the play when it debuted so I won't go into much detail here. There were some nice touches, but the truncation of the burial vault scene (at least in the screen version) dealt a strong blow against it for me. The performances that stood out to me were Brent Carver as a nervous Friar Laurence and Christian Camargo’s Mercutio. Most of the other roles were played by the book. I'd put this production in the middle of the pack of versions I've seen, still enjoyable in places despite the unevenness.

Chime in if you have seen any of the these films!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Still ending, and beginning still

After swearing I'd never work for another startup company, I've agreed to work half-time for another startup. I think we all know what half-time will actually mean, though. Plus I'll continue homeschooling the boys. How all of this is going to work I have no idea. I guess I was worried that I was becoming too complacent or something.

So if the posts are even more sporadic and erratic than they currently are and the focus is lacking (more than normal), you'll understand why.

Friday, July 08, 2016

Romeo and Juliet by the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company

Last night I went to see the movie version of Romeo and Juliet presented by the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company. It was a little eerie being one of only four people in a sizable movie theater watching this marvelous production, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Richard Madden was solid as Romeo, showing progress from self-absorbed youth to a lover and husband, but Lily James as Juliet stole the show for me, one of the most impressive performances in that role I've seen. Interestingly enough, she doesn't seem that ... ahem ... inexperienced at the start of the play, displaying a pronounced amorous side from the beginning. Casting Derek Jacobi as Mercutio might have seemed a little odd, but having an older, more experienced friend works extremely well since his advice and entreaties to Romeo seem more credible. This is a Mercutio that has been around the block, the city, and the state. The rest of the cast was solid. I'll only point out Meera Syal as the Nurse, who adds a frisky quality to the role, seeming to look forward to Juliet's amorous meetings as much or more than her charge.

The setting was moved to mid-20th century Italy. Given that the print was in high-contrast black and white, the play at times had the feel of a Fellini film. I loved the set design of towering columns, with fluid changes between scenes. My only complaint was that the sound was tinny at times, but since this has been a consistent complaint I've had with similar screenings, I guess I wasn't too disappointed.

I wanted to post on this production since Fathom Events sometimes provides encore screenings. If you get the chance to see it, I highly recommend it.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Richard Brautigan, The Lowest Pair, and Thou

If anyone else in the San Francisco Bar area is interested in seeing The Lowest Pair at Doc's Lab on September 8th, drop me a note here or via email (see my Profile). I'd love to meet up with some of you and enjoy the evening together.

I know...bluegrass/roots music isn't for everyone, but this is the group I can't stop playing lately. Summer tends to pull me back to my redneck roots. Plus Kendl Winter was nice enough to answer some questions I had about lyrics and references to Richard Brautigan. Short answer: Yes, the references are there. Nice to know I haven't hit complete dotage yet. Although I'm pretty sure it won't be long...

Update: Looks like I'll be going to their Santa Cruz show on September 11 instead. They keep adding dates, so be sure to check their website for changes and additions.

Update: An interview with the group at The Grateful Web, which includes a writers they enjoy.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Anatomy of a Soldier by Harry Parker

Anatomy of a Soldier by Harry Parker
Knopf, 2016

I was intrigued enough by the premise and approach of this book to overcome my reluctance in reading current fiction. The novel tells the story of Captain Tom Barnes, a 25-year-old British army captain stationed in Afghanistan (the location is not specifically named but it's clear where it is), covering his deployment and then his fight to survive and adapt after stepping on an improvised explosive device. The structure of the novel, though, is told through the "eyes" of 45 objects that touch on his life at some point just before, during, or after the explosion. It's an intriguing approach for such a story and sometimes leads to surprisingly moving moments from inanimate objects. The narrative jumps around in time, adding to the feel of putting together the pieces of a puzzle as you read it. I can't find the quote now, but I remember reading that Parker had said he wanted to tell a story where the chapters could be told in any order, and at that he succeeds. The disorientation the reader can feel at times in this approach mirrors what Barnes feels.

There's usually a distance between the objects and Barnes. Despite many of objects becoming "close" to the protagonist, they usually speak for their own role in the story while at the same time intuiting the feelings of Barnes. This distance is reflected in the detachment or gap in understanding between so many groups and individuals in the book, regardless of ties or affiliation. Despite inhabiting proximate spaces, there are so many gaps, whether between soldiers and civilians (at home or in Afghanistan), officers and enlisted men, doctors/therapists and patients, or several other comparisons. Part of the book's power comes from highlighting this gap in understanding and/or empathy.

It's clear that, just like these objects, the captain is an interchangeable cog, one of many that have come before and others who will come after him. Oftentimes the objects treat him as an another object, calling him by his tag number instead of his name. And therein lies one of the bigger points, I think. A name, an ID number, or a label can help us identify something but it doesn't necessarily follow that we will understand it better. To the specifics here, what makes Barnes special is how he interacts with those around him, whether in his command or locals (Afghanistan or Britain). His experience...what he has seen, done, and gone through...highlights his uniqueness. And Barnes isn't immune from the difficulty in understanding. At times he feels lost in what he is supposed to do or say. One of the funny quirks of the novels is that many of the objects demonstrate an understanding of Barnes better than most human characters.

So back to the narration style. While I think it largely succeeds, there are also several moments where I thought it detracted from the story or didn't quite work. Several of the chapters begin with "I am a ..." or describes its attributes. Other chapters leave you guessing for a while, in a "What's My Line" manner, until it becomes clear what they are. I'm not sure which worked best or worst...I think I wearied of the approach long before the end of the book. The book is uneven at times, although not because of the objects chosen. Some of the least likely objects, describing things in almost flat, unemotional terms, can provide the most moving narrative.

While Barnes is the central focus, many items are associated with other characters. We see Afghan families helping and fighting Barnes and his men. Family members and friends at home grapple to deal with the changes the blast has caused, usually coming up short, while fellow soldiers provide the most support. Professionals work tirelessly to first save Barnes, then help him transition into a new life. The interactions with other people highlights the gap between military and civilian life, where the general population often falls back on cliches to mask their discomfort.

An interesting and engaging first novel. I look forward in seeing where Parker goes from here.


Friday, June 24, 2016

Not All Bastards Are From Vienna by Andrea Molesini

Not All Bastards Are From Vienna by Andrea Molesini
Translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar and Patrick Creagh
Grove Press

I don't read much current fiction. The current releases I usually focus on are usually either nonfiction or recent translations of older books. I've been holding off posting on a few recent releases that I've read because I couldn't generate much enthusiasm in posting about them. To overcome that, I was going to post about all of them together, but as usual my comments and quotes made the post too long and unwieldy. Instead, I'll push on and start with this book...

First up is Not All Bastards are from Vienna by Andrea Molesini. Set in the autumn and winter of 1917, the aristocratic Spada household finds itself occupied by opposing armies. First the Germans, then the Austrians appropriate the villa and its grounds as they advance through northern Italy. Their villa in Renfrontolo, a small town north of Venice, becomes a way station for the Central Powers as they bog down in their offensive. Intrigues, mostly related to the war but also in romance, abound.

Molesini has created some engaging characters. At the center is Paolo, an orphaned 17-year old boy living with the extended family at the villa. Quiet and studious, Paolo is treated as a kid, both by his family and the (even more insultingly) by the invading armies. The women in the book are strong, forceful characters. Aunt Maria's steely demeanor is backed by her resolve to have things her way. “I don’t think I ever met anyone more conscious than she of her rank in society. She knew in her innermost being that privileges are paid for by responsibilities, and these were two things to be borne with grace.” Paolo's grandmother acts with a similar steadfastness, treating her husband dismissively most of the time. Compared to her husband's flights of fancy, she asserts, “Real life is my province.” The oddities of Giulia, a distant family member, are overlooked because of her beauty and social standing. “She wasn’t in a madhouse because she was a Candiani, and gentlefolk—at least in those days—did not end up inside. Indeed they were not even mad: simply eccentric.” The role of Renato, a "lame giant" from polio, ends up going well beyond his position as steward of the villa.

Paolo's grandfather steals the show. A wonderful character, he calls himself a Buddhist even though he knows next to nothing about Buddhism. He says he is writing a book (he named his typewriter Beelzebub), but no one believes him. A lover of Gibbon, he became exasperated if anyone contradicted the historian. His speech was full of sayings “from the dictionary of proverbs stored in his head.” His bravado, though, masks a humiliation at his deterioration due to age, especially when the family cook defends him from the Austrians. As usual with such characters, there is some substance behind the masks. A marvelous character.

The book has many of the themes you would expect from such a setting, to which I'll add a few fitting quotes.

  • Occupation, as it relates to the family and to the country: The occupiers make it clear they don't need permission to take what they want. Even so, they exhibit varying levels of courtesy and propriety to the (formerly) well-to-do family. Those further down the social ladder are ignored (at best) or, more likely, abused. 
    • “To be guests of the enemy in one’s own house is perhaps more embittering than the sorrows of exile.” 
    • “[W]e were guests in our own house, reduced to dependence on the goodwill of enemy officers.”
  • The change in social order and classes: the Spada family deals with the change in fortune that the war brings, but hints emerge that things were already changing and will never be the same. 
    • “The Hapsburgs know how to govern; or at least, they did. There are at least fifteen languages spoken within the empire, and it is only loyalty to the emperor that holds the lid on that stew pot. If the ruling house falls—and I tell you that it will—then the various nations grumbling in its belly today will all turn against one another and tear each other to pieces.” 
    • “No one really wanted this war, not the peoples concerned, nor the governments. It just emerged from the boiling pot of dynasties that are decrepit and worn out, but have no, alas, forgotten their old dreams of grandeur. And the spoon that stirred the pot was in the inept hands of diplomats who for generations had dealt only with ordinary matters: ships, railways, money.”  
    • “When this war is over, the world will belong to people him,” said my aunt. “Our earls, our dukes, our gentlemen, and all their vons…so many hulks drifting with the tide; they don’t have—they won’t have any strength left to throw into the battle.” 
    • The grandfather, who had earlier talked about the time of officers controlling things would be replaced with a time of sergeants (reminiscent of Hesiod's ages of man): “And after the time of the sergeants, you’ll see, then will come the time of the corporals of the day.” (Obviously it can be taken several ways, not least of which is a prediction of the rise of Hitler.)
  • The atrocities of war, such as looting, rape, indiscriminate destruction: despite the attempt to retain some sort of social and moral order, once the war starts all such standards get swept away on both sides. Related to the previous point, the insistence on military order by the officers finds its reflection in the Spadas' views on social order. I find it an interesting study on how characters react to these changes. 
    • “Hunger had triumphed over honour.” 
    • “Their gestures, their neatly pressed uniforms, were eloquent expressions of the desire to rescue at least a memory of the courteous old way of life from the hurricane of med and death that was sweeping away nations and families.” 
    • “War also is like a child. A child who every so often shows us what we’ve had before our eyes and never seen, because we’re too careless or cowardly.” 
    • “The fear of hunger was stronger in him than hunger itself.” 
    • “They [soldiers] were empty bodies, perfectly healthy but empty, the soul, incapable of maintaining its grip, long separated from the flesh.”
  • Paolo’s coming of age: maturing is never an easy task, and occurring during such tumultuous times makes it even harder. Writing about it can be even harder. Despite being seventeen, Paolo is still treated as a child by both his family and the enemy. Compounding the slights in being treated this way, he is miserable because of his desire for Giulia. The closest thing Paolo has to a father figure is the steward Renato, who he initially underestimates but comes to respect and envy. I find many approaches on the coming-of-age theme awkward and sometimes cringe inducing. Fortunately, Molesini avoids this for the most part, but I still found Paolo's development stilted...which may be the point.
There are some very good moments in the book, many of the characters intrigued me, and Molesini can deftly turn a phrase. Given all that, I'm not sure why my enthusiasm and recommendation for this book is lukewarm. I enjoyed reading it, but I wonder if all the praise showered on it set my expectations too high. So take my comments with a grain or two of salt (as you should on anything I comment on).
We weren’t at all comforted by the thought that the chickens were a gift. "Nothing comes free of charge, and a gift costs more than anything else": this was one of Grandpa’s axioms, and for years Grandma had insisted that there was a mathematical basis to that truth. I knew that if Grandpa and Grandma agreed on an axiom—something that happened only rarely—it became a law of the universe, neither more nor less certain than the law of gravity.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Gil Roth's podcast with Christopher Nelson, President of St. John's College (Annapolis)

I remember running across St. John's College's website in the late 1990s and being inspired by the reading list they provided. THIS was the liberal arts education I wished I had gotten. It inspired me to take my reading more seriously. This blog, for better or worse, was one eventual outcome.

Gil Roth at Virtual Memories has a podcast episode with Christopher Nelson, President of the Annapolis campus of St. John's College. I highly recommend it. The interview ranges far and wide, covering some of the special challenges Nelson faces at an institution like St. John's, both as its President and when he was a student there, and its goal of cultivating the whole human being.

I could identify a little too well with Roth's statement that he doesn't think he would have been ready for such an undergraduate program straight out of high school. Even though I said it was the education I wished I had worked on, I wasn't ready for such a program at 17, either. I'm impressed by the depth of required reading, and at least it is something I can work on my own toward acheiving. I also liked how Nelson talks about "growing into" certain books and how his view on some have changed over the years.

Anyway, please check out Roth's page for the episode and give it a listen!

Note: Roth makes it clear in the introduction that the current political issues within St. John's College are not addressed in the interview, but I wanted to make sure I highlight it here, too.