Saturday, June 24, 2017

Ciardi, Dante, and Destinations

First there is this from The Writer's Almanac:

     It's the birthday of poet and essayist John Ciardi (books by this author), born in Boston, Massachusetts (1916). He's remembered today for his book How Does a Poem Mean? (1959), which has become a standard textbook in high school and college poetry classes. He also published several collections of his own poetry, and his Collected Poems came out in 1997.
     But he may be best known for his translation of Dante's Divine Comedypublished in 1954. More than 50 English translations of the Divine Comedy were published in the 20th century, but Ciardi's is considered one of the best. For years, it was the standard translation used in English classes in the U.S.
     Ciardi said, "The reader deserves an honest opinion. If he doesn't deserve it, give it to him anyhow."

And there is this personal postscript:

     I have fond memories of reading Ciardi's Dante in college. It was a mesmerizing encounter. Perhaps I should return to The Inferno soon. Actually, I might be going there sooner than I would like. Hmmm.


Friday, June 23, 2017

Shaara, birthday, and questions

First there is this from The Writer's Almanac:

     It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Michael Shaara(books by this author), born in Jersey City, New Jersey (1928). His first story was published in a magazine called Astounding Science Fiction in 1951. When he had shown it to a professor, the man said, "Please don't write this sort of thing. Write literature." For the next 30 years, Shaara kept writing what he pleased. He said: "I've never written for a buck. Never stayed in one field. I write for the fun of it, and I don't think of the reader."
     He idolized Ernest Hemingway and John O'Hara. He wanted to be a man of action. He was a sailor, a paratrooper, a police officer, and a professional boxer. His novel The Killer Angels (1974) is about the Battle of Gettysburg. To prepare for it, Shaara flew his own plane over the battlefield to study the terrain. The book won the Pulitzer Prize.
     His last novel, For Love of the Game (1991), was published posthumously. He finished it just before he died of a heart attack. It tells the story of an aging baseball player named Billy Chapel, as he pitches his last and greatest game.

And there is this personal postscript:

     Regarding The Killer Angels, why would you read a novel about the American civil war (or any historical event) when you could instead read nonfiction? In other words, is there any good reason to read historical fiction? What do you think? If you have good recommendations in support of historical fiction, please pass them on to me. 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Review: Jefferson and Hamilton

Here is my review of Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged a Nation by John Ferling (Bloomsbury, 2013)

Here is a sad fact: Most Americans have only a superficial knowledge of Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and their pivotal and adversarial roles in American history.

For example, few Americans know very much at all about Alexander Hamilton. As the man who might be the more infamous of the two founders (at least to most people), especially given his fatal duel with Aaron Burr, Hamilton left his permanent imprint on American political science, particularly as it concerns debates about the roles of a central government, a financial system, and commercial enterprise.

At the same time, while most Americans can tell you a bit more about Thomas Jefferson (i.e., they will almost always cite his authorship of the Declaration of Independence and his relationship with the slave Sally Hemmings), few Americans are familiar with the complex depth of Jefferson's espousal of personal equality, which some would label as being a bit ironic, and his steadfast commitment to expansive national growth. Moreover, Americans would be hard-pressed to tell you how those issues and others led Jefferson to become Hamilton's fierce political opponent.

It is interesting to note, by way of digression, that both of these late 18th century politicians have been significant influences upon late 20th century presidential thinking: Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush frequently aligned themselves to Hamiltonian approaches; John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton were particularly clear about their embrace of Jeffersonian principles.

But, finally, to state the matter more succinctly, anyone's hope of understanding America in the 21st century requires knowledge of the ways in which Jefferson and Hamilton were so significant to the shaping of American government, society, and economics in the 18th and 19th centuries. As an aid to that understanding, here is a highly recommended new book that will be invaluable to all readers.

Written in clear, crisp expository prose by John Ferling, author of numerous books focusing on the American Revolution, and professor emeritus of history at the University of West Georgia, this exhaustively detailed study of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton is a valuable look at a unique era - and two singular personalities. Moreover, although this book is a scholarly presentation that may seem to be aimed at a specific, academic audience, everything presented by Professor Ferling should be accessible and interesting to general readers.


Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Hamlet: a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours

First there is this from William Shakespeare's Hamlet (Act II, Scene 2):

I have of late, (but wherefore I know not) lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition; that this goodly frame the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o'er hanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire: why, it appeareth no other thing to me, than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.

And now there is this personal postscript:

When I stumbled upon the foregoing quote earlier today, I realized how much I feel like Hamlet. Yes, it has been a lot like that for me lately. But let me not make this posting about me but about William Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Consider carefully the life and death of the melancholy Prince of Denmark, a young man overwhelmed by the foul and pestilent vapors overwhelming Elsinore's sterile promontory. Very early in Hamlet, we learn that the prince's father, King Hamlet, has recently died; the prince's mother, Gertrude, in short order has married the dead king's brother; and the prince's uncle and step-father, Claudius, according to spectral but uncorroborated evidence, seems to be guilty of murdering King Hamlet. Then in quick order we learn that Prince Hamlet, believing Claudius to be guilty of regicide and more, but needing both confidence and proof, will pretend to be insane while he goes about trying to prove Claudius' guilt. As the play moves along in brilliant fashion, with never a dull moment for readers or audiences, Hamlet obtains the necessary evidence against Claudius and must finally act upon the unequivocal instructions from his father's ghost: He must avenge the dead king's murder.

e all know what ought to happen next: Hamlet, of course, should fulfill his promise to his dead father, so -- without further delay -- he should kill Claudius. However, young Hamlet will not take the ordered action, but instead he makes a big mistake, one that will lead to quite a few deaths and will make his own tragic death inevitable.

Well, by the time we finish with Shakespeare's masterpiece, four bodies clutter the stage; a foreigner, someone not of the royal family in Denmark, young Fortinbras, becomes monarch at Elsinore; and we are left trying to answer an important question, one that will help us understand both the structure of the tragedy and the reasons for all the happens at the end: What was Hamlet's fatal mistake?

Well, now it is time for you to consider that question. What do you think?

Snowden's birthday is not worth celebrating

First there is this from The Writer's Almanac:

It's the birthday of Edward Snowden, born in Elizabeth City, North Carolina (1983). His family moved to Maryland when he was a boy, and his mother went to work for the federal court in Baltimore. Snowden dropped out of high school, but later earned his GED, and studied computers at a community college. He never earned his college degree, but he seemed to have a natural aptitude for technology. He also enlisted in the Army Reserves but left after four months; depending on whom you ask, he either broke both his legs in a training accident or washed out of the program when he developed shin splints.
He got a job with the Center for Advanced Study of Language at the University of Maryland. The center had ties to the National Security Agency. From there, Snowden went to work for the CIA in 2006; he quit when people began to suspect him of breaking into classified files. He took a series of jobs with NSA subcontractors, and while he was working for consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, he began secretly copying classified documents. He believed that the NSA was gathering too much information on American citizens, and he intended to blow the whistle. In May 2013, he told his supervisor that he needed a medical leave, and then took off for Hong Kong. Soon after, theGuardian and the Washington Post released some of his secret documents.
Snowden has lived overseas ever since and is currently living in Russia on a three-year residence permit that expires this August; his request for clemency from the U.S. government was denied, and despite a plea from various human rights groups, President Obama declined to pardon him before he left office. The House Intelligence Committee called Snowden a "disgruntled employee" and a "serial exaggerator," and said he "caused tremendous damage to national security." For his part, Snowden said: "I love my country. I love my family. I don't know where we're going from here. I don't know what tomorrow looks like. But I'm glad for the decisions I've made."

And there is this personal postscript:

I have no idea why Snowden is featured in The Writer's Almanac. I know why he is featured here: I believe Snowden is a despicable criminal who should be prosecuted and punished, and I will take every opportunity to remind people of that important fact. Why do I say he is a criminal? Because I have an important perspective on the subject of classified material control: I once was entrusted with some of the nation's most sensitive classified information, I understand the need to protect U.S. secrets, and if I had ever revealed even the smallest bits of classified information to people not authorized to receive them, I soon would have been court martialled and punished. Snowden, my friends, has earned my everlasting enmity because he engaged in serious criminal behavior that endangers the security and stability of the nation. He most certainly is not a hero, and he must be captured, returned to U.S. jurisdiction, prosecuted, and severely punished: 20 to 30 years in prison sounds just about right to me. 

Here is the bottom line: Criminals like Snowden must not be celebrated. They must be punished. 

(Note: I am reevaluating my interest in The Writer's Almanac because of their  strangely inappropriate celebration of Snowden. The site has an editorial bias that bothers me. I guess I should not be surprised given its founder and background.)


Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Lillian Hellman's birthday celebration

First there is this from The Writer's Almanac:

It's the birthday of American playwright and memoirist Lillian Hellman (books by this author), born in New Orleans (1905). She spent her childhood bouncing between Upper West End Avenue in New York City and a series of genteel boarding houses run by relatives in New Orleans. She was a smart loner who took refuge in books. She once ran away at 14 and pawned a birthday ring her uncle gave her to buy books. After she was found out, instead of scolding her, he told her, "So, you've got spirit, after all. Most of the rest of them are made of sugar water." Hellman later used that line in one her most famous plays, The Little Foxes (1939). Her friend Dorothy Parker came up with the title for that play, which comes from Chapter 2, Verse 15 of The Song of Solomon.

Hellman was opinionated, brash, funny, and sometimes rash, as when she got into a very public spat with novelist Mary McCarthy, who went on the Dick Cavett show in 1979 and said every word Hellman ever wrote, "including 'and' and 'the,' was a 'lie.'" Hellman sued McCarthy, the Educational Television Corporation, and Dick Cavett, for damages of $1.75 million for "mental pain and anguish." It wasn't the first time Hellman, who wrote four memoirs, had been challenged about her writing. She once said: "What I have written is the truth as I saw it, but the truth as I saw it, of course, doesn't have much to do with the truth. It's as if I have fitted parts of a picture puzzle and then a child overturned it and threw out some pieces."

Hellman got her start in the theater working as a play reader for a producer. She was in a romantic relationship with novelist and screenwriter Dashiell Hammett, a relationship they'd cultivate for 30 tempestuous years, and he told her to try her hand at playwriting. She did, thinking what she was working on was just a lark, but when the producer read the first act, he said, "Swell." After reading the second act he said, "I hope it keeps up." After reading the third act he said, "I'll produce it," and he did. That play was called The Children's Hour, and took on the taboo subject of rumors and lesbianism in a girls' boarding school. It was a hit and ran for 691 performances, making Lillian Hellman a famous writer.

                                                           * * * * *

And there is this personal postscript:

The Writer's Almanac article omits important details. Read more here. 

I am now searching for a biographies of Hellman and Hammett. I also hope to read some things by Hellman and Hammett. 

Do you have any reading recommendations?

Monday, June 19, 2017

Julius Caesar -- past, present, and future

In NYC, there has been a production of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar -- read one writer's perspective on it here -- and because of (or in spite of) the notoriety attached to the production, which I will avoid critiquing because I did not see it, I am reminded of when I first encountered Shakespeare's version of Roman history. It was during my junior high school years, but I cannot remember which year, and everyone in my English class struggled (well, I certainly struggled) through in-class readings and discussions of the play; I went away from the experience more impressed with Roman history than with William Shakespeare. The Bard would have to wait a while for me to become another of his fans.

Later in my schoolboy days -- first in high school and then in college (when I turned my back on history studies and became a theatre major who read more of Shakespeare's plays, but see the confession that follows in a later paragraph) -- while sitting and studying as a student, I began to appreciate much more the poet-playwright's creations in some profound, life-changing ways. This appreciation was especially enhanced when I saw Richard Burton as Hamlet in John Gielgud's production. And my several opportunities to perform in and design productions of Shakespeare's plays were icing on the cake. I had become both a Shakespearean actor and a worshipful reader of the Bard of Avon.

Much later in life, when I retired from the Navy, went to graduate school, and became an adjunct instructor of English composition and literature, I stood at a different place in classrooms, and my syllabus staples were Hamlet, Othello, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, Othello, Macbeth, and even Percicles. Students may have suffered through the close readings, animated "lectures," and challenging discussions, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Ah, I was on stage again, but this time without greasepaint and footlights, and I was performing one of my favorite roles! 

Now, however, here is the promised confession: Even though I have had some good experiences with Shakespeare in my lifetime, I have never gotten around to reading and studying all of his plays. Some conspicuous gaps and oversights embarrass me. So, motivated by the recent kerfuffle over Julius Caesar in NYC -- much ado about nothing (in my opinion) -- and anxious to do penance for those gaps and oversights, and eager to add some structure and purpose to my final scenes, I am going to try (again) to read every one of Shakespeare's plays before the final curtain comes down. 

But, as you know, I can hardly ever close a posting without asking you at least one bothersome question, so I will now ask you several:

What was your first and/or most memorable Shakespeare experience?
Have you read all of his plays? (Which one(s) do you most regret not reading?)
Do you have any opinions about the controversial Julius Caesar production in NYC?