AWOL Sunday Crossword

Elaine and I like doing crosswords, so we thought we’d try the famous New York Times Sunday crossword.

We bought it, looked for the crossword, and couldn’t find it! We scoured the paper, searching even the least likely spots twice, but no luck.

So we bought the Boston Globe Sunday edition for its crossword. But it was similarly shy.

We couldn’t figure it out. I’ve always heard about the crossword being a famous staple of Sunday papers. Were we being stupid and looking in the wrong place? Did we fail the first test?

We eventually settled for a free circular’s crossword. But it was distinctly subpar.

Stream of Shakespeare

I recently read Will in the World, in which Stephen Greenblatt makes the argument that Shakespeare’s major literary breakthrough came while writing Hamlet. In that play, Shakespeare started a tradition, continued in Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth, of cutting out the rationale for characters’ actions.

Shakespeare

As Greenblatt explains,

Shakespeare found that he could immeasurably deepen the effect of his plays, that he could provoke in the audience and in himself a peculiarly passionate intensity of response, if he took out a key explanatory element, thereby occluding the rationale, motivation, or ethical principle that accounted for the action that was to unfold. The principle was not the making of a riddle to be solved, but the creation of a strategic opacity. This opacity, Shakespeare found, released an enormous energy that had been at least partially blocked or contained by familiar, reassuring explanations.

As proof of this, he talks about the sources Shakespeare used for these plays. In the original Hamlet saga, Hamlet’s father is killed at an early age and Hamlet feigns madness all during his youth as a way to seem harmless until the day he can kill the king and assume the throne.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, he is already of age when the murder happens. The original reason for Hamlet’s madness doesn’t hold. In fact, it makes him more suspicious. Hamlet spends most of the play analyzing his odd behavior and inaction, rather than having a clear purpose as the original Hamlet did.

In Macbeth, you have what would seem to be a straighforward rationale for murdering the king: to gain the crown. But Shakespeare muddles the picture by having Macbeth himself be exceedingly surprised by his murderous inclinations and introducing the odd device of the witches. It’s not clear whether they are cause or retroactive effect of Macbeth’s actions.

In Othello, Iagno blatently and forcefully never provides a reason. “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word.” In the original source, his motive was clear: he lusted for Desdemona and aimed to kill those she preferred.

King Lear starts with Lear already settling on a fair distribution of his land. He then establishes a test among them to see which loves him more, resting the land distribution on that. In the source, Leir set the test in order to change the eldest daughter’s mind about which suitor to marry. No such reasoning is present in Shakespeare’s Lear.

Modernism

I find a striking parallel between Shakespeare’s excision of clear motive to create a more complicated character and the modernist movement’s stream of consciousness technique employed in books like Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway. For me, one of SoC‘s defining characteristics is precisely lack of motivation provided by narrative plot. Rather, a character just does what he or she does and the reader is left to fill in the blanks.

For example, a character might receive a letter whose contents refer to events that the reader doesn’t know. Or a character may just think or do something that the reader doesn’t understand because there is no narrative context in which to understand it. People don’t actually mentally run through all the backstory for their actions, and SoC captures some of that.

Anyway, that’s my big insight. Shakespeare was ahead of his time, and some of his enduring popularity is a result of this intrigue-inducing opacity also present in modernist works. Thus his works resemble not so much simple morality plays but analyses of inner turmoil via a character’s outer actions and speech.

Charles Dickens

The 1800s were the Golden Age of writing, as far as I’m concerned. One happy issue of that bygone era’s marriage betwixt understatement and overstatement is Charles Dickens.

I don’t know what it is about that dude, but I love him, though I’m aware of his reputed shortcomings. A high school friend, in response to my claim that one joy of reading Dickens was finding brilliant gems of prose in his rough of volumous expository, suggested that the pleasure might then be equated to that derived from the cessation of beating one’s head against the wall.

Here’s a sample passage that prompted me to laugh out loud. The Master Micawber referred herein is a boy of about twelve.

These observations, and indeed the greater part of the observations made that evening, were interrupted by Mrs. Micawber’s discovering that Master Micawber was sitting on his boots, or holding his head on with both arms as if he felt it loose, or accidentally kicking Traddles under the table, or shuffling his feet over one another, or producing them at distances from himself apparently outrageous to nature, or lying sideways with his hair among the wine-glasses, or developing his restlessness of limb in some other form incompatible with the general interests of society, and by Master Micawber’s receiving those discoveries in a resentful spirit.

It is, I am sure, an aquired taste.

Curious Incident Review

The other day, as part of my friends’ reading group, I blitzed through The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. It was so involving I didn’t want to put it down, so I just spent all day reading it.

The narrator is a 15-year-old autistic kid who tries to find out who killed his neighbor’s dog. It was entertaining and engaging mostly because of the gimmick of an autistic storyteller. He would go on interesting tangents and his interactions with other characters were often amusing.

Plus, the kid was a math geek, which never hurts. There was even a cool proof of a math problem in the back.

I don’t want to spoil anything, but I will say that I was oddly pleased with how the book ended. I think Hadden did well.

Bonus Fact: The way I hurried through Curious Incident reminded me of reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull as a kid. I read it in one long sit on the toilet. I wasn’t actively using it the whole time, though. I just didn’t want to take the time away from reading that pulling up my pants would demand. So I sat there and finished it.

Good YA Reads

I’ve recently been reminded of a couple book series that I read as a youth and would highly recommend. They are all aimed at the young adult market, but I think that’s more because they use simple vocabulary and are easy reads, not because they only appeal to that age group. Point is, they aren’t Ulysses or anything, but they are enjoyable.

The Harper Hall Trilogy

Dragonsong, Dragonsinger, and Dragondrums; written by Anne McCaffrey.

This science fiction/fantasy trilogy takes place in the Pern world, where dragons protect a pre-industrial society by searing flesh-eating thread as it falls from the sky. But most of the action here doesn’t concern itself with dragons. Rather, we follow fisherman’s daughter Menolly as she learns to be a harper (a musician/diplomat).

That doesn’t sound particularly exciting as I write it, but (A) Pern is a delightfully well-developed fictional world and (B) Menolly is so endearing you find yourself really wanting her to succeed. I devoured these as a kid and went on to read all the Pern novels.

The Tripod Trilogy

The White Mountains, The City of Gold and Lead, The Pool of Fire, and a prequel, When the Tripods Came; written by Samuel Youd (using the pen name John Christopher).

This science fiction trilogy takes place in an Earth already enslaved by an alien power. The action follows a few friends as they join the small resistance force and try to fight against the Masters.

One thing I really liked about this series is how epic it all is. The very fate of humanity rests in the hands of a few kids and they have to figure out a way to infiltrate and outsmart these much more technically-advanced aliens.

I’d also recommend the works of William Sleator as good teen science fiction fare. He deals more with bizarre things that occur rather than exotic locales in space. My favorite book was Interstellar Pig, but I also have fond memories of The Boy Who Reversed Himself and The Duplicate. I’ve heard that The House of Stairs is also pretty bitchin’.

Three Men in a Boat Review

A while back, I was reading To Say Nothing of the Dog, a cute sci-fi novel about traveling back to 19th century England. It’s dedication reads:

To Robert A. Heinlein

Who, in Have Space Suit — Will Travel,
first introduced me to Jerome K. Jerome’s
Three Men in a Boat,
To Say Nothing of the Dog

And throughout the book were littered direct references to Three Men in a Boat. So naturally I was curious and picked it up at the library.

It was great! Written in 1889, it details a trip down the Thames that the author, two friends, and his dog took. It is brimming with that delightful, uniquely English sense of irony and understatement. But I can’t sell it as well as a selection of some passages that caught my eye:

…I had just been reading a patent liver-pill circular, in which were detailed the various symptoms by which a man could tell when his liver was out of order. I had them all.

…I had the symptoms, beyond all mistake, the chief among them being “a general disinclination to work of any kind.”

What I suffer in that way no tongue can tell. From my earliest infancy I have been a martyr to it. As a boy, the disease hardly ever left me for a day. They did not know, then, that it was my liver. Medical science was in a far less advanced state than now, and they used to put it down to laziness.

“Why you skulking little devil, you,” they would say, “get up and do something for your living, can’t you?”–not knowing, of course, that I was ill.

And:

I called for the cheeses, and took them away in a cab. It was a ramshackle affair, dragged along by a knock-kneed, broken-winded somnambulist, which his owner, in a moment of enthusiasm, during conversation, referred to as a horse. I put the cheeses on the top, and we started off at a shamble that would have done credit to the swiftest steam-roller ever built, and all went merry as a funeral bell, until we turned the corner. There, the wind carried a whiff from the cheeses full on our steed. It woke him up, and with a snort of terror, he dashed off at three miles an hour. The wind still blew in his direction, and before we reached the end of the street he was laying himself out at the rate of nearly four miles an hour, leaving the cripples and stout old ladies simply nowhere.

And finally:

I like to watch an old boatman rowing, especially one who has been hired by the hour. There is something so beautifully calm and restful about his method. It is so free from that fretful haste, that vehement striving, that is every day becoming more and more the bane of nineteenth-century life. He is not for ever straining himself to pass all the other boats. If another boat overtakes him and passes him it does not annoy him; as a matter of fact, they all do overtake him and pass him–all those that are going his way. This would trouble and irritate some people; the sublime equanimity of the hired boatman under the ordeal affords us a beautiful lesson against ambition and uppishness.

Anyway, I recommend it. Wikipedia tells me that it was required reading in Soviet schools, so there’s that too.

Poetry Day

Every now and then I come across some poem or writing that is well known for a few good turns of phrase, but that I don’t usually see in whole. Here are two that I think are very pretty in their entirety:

Meditation 17 from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions

No man is an island, entire of itself;
Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less,
As well as if a promontory were,
As well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were;
Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind;
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

John Donne

The Gettysburg Address

Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth
on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and
dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing
whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so
dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-
field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of
that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave
their lives that this nation might live. It is altogether
fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate…we cannot
consecrate…we cannot hallow…this ground. The brave men,
living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it
far above our poor power to add or detract. The world
will little note nor long remember what we say here, but
it can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the
living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished
work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly
advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the
great task remaining before us…that from these honored
dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which
they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here
highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain;
that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of
freedom; and that government of the people, by the people,
for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Abraham Lincoln

Quote of the Day

I had forgotten how poetic Ray Bradbury was. I’m reading his short story “The Wilderness,” and the imagery of this one line caught my eye. The two main characters are jetpacking above and around their rural town for the last time before moving to Mars.

“The two women passed like needles, sewing one tree to the next with their perfume.”