Monday, November 26, 2012

Are spoiler alerts necessary for Shakespearean plays?

 [If so, consider yourself warned.]

Teachers are interesting. Sometimes they say things that can stick with you for years and years. I never really thought about it until now but it's a little scary to me. I'm left wondering if when I was teaching I said something that's going to stick with someone for years and years to get quoted back later...

Anyway, I had this teacher who despised Titus Andronicus. He called it Shakespeare's worst play. Even the movie Shakespeare in Love sort of ragged on it. I took this as a challenge so I went out and found it. As always, though, you can't read Shakespeare. You have to see him, or more importantly hear him. Eventually, I stumbled on the version with Anthony Hopkins in the title role. It's over-the-top, of course, which is fitting for a play that seems to wallow in its absurdity.

Another teacher told me (see what I mean?) that Shakespeare was like the Quintin Tarantino of his day. That statement is epitomized by Titus Andronicus. There are executions, rape, murder, cannibalism, get the picture. The level of gore itself--bordering on the ridiculous--gives it a kind of rough charm. If I can stretch the Tarantino parallel just a bit further, Titus Andronicus is a little like Kill Bill.

The gore clearly distracted critics, making them hate it, though they usually attack it on other fronts as well. I have to admit, it doesn't have the philosophical nuance of Hamlet or the tragic sense of destiny in Macbeth. But it does have something to offer. Titus' losses pile up one after another, dropping the audience in a harrowing roller coast plunge to the depths of grief and madness. I find his character compelling, and we still get some great lines along the way. In a particularly memorable scene after he's hit rock bottom, Titus begins laughing when he learns another awful thing has happened:

"What fool hath added water to the sea,
Or brought a faggot to bright-burning Troy?
My grief was at the height before thou camest,
And now like Nilus, it disdaineth bounds."

It's good that it was written several hundred years ago. I imagine if it were written yesterday, all I would do is complain about how Shakespeare completely mutilated Roman history. It still grates a little, but what can you do? I know it's permissible to hate the Bard (I think Lord Byron did, for instance), but I just don't have it in me. How can I hate the man who gave his character this line:

"O, why should wrath be mute, and fury dumb?
I am no baby, I, that with base prayers
I should repent the evils I have done:
Ten thousand worse than ever yet I did
Would I perform, if I might have my will;
If one good deed in all my life I did,
I do repent it from my very soul."

That, ladies and gentlemen, is a villain.

Please note~ Rather than lug out my trusty volumes of Shakespeare, I went ahead and hopped around the interweb until I found a site that had Titus in in its entirety. So apparently I only bought those books because my shelves needed some class.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Dialogue through a Fence

ME: Sorry about the dog barking. He doesn't get enough exercise lately.

NEIGHBOR: Why not? Take him to the park.

ME: Well, it's difficult. I love to hike with him but I've got to pack up the kids, then the dog, then drive to the park, unpack the kids, then the dog...

NEIGHBOR: You've got children now. Learn to deal.

ME: Right, I understand that. But sometimes--

NEIGHBOR: You know what I did?

ME: No. What did you do?

NEIGHBOR: I put my little girl on one of those leashes. It worked great. We were up in the mountains and I didn't trust her walking around on her own. For toddlers, you have to have a leash.

ME: I'm not going to have a kid strapped to my chest plus another kid on a leash AND a dog on a leash...

NEIGHBOR: Oh, well that's simple. Leave the dog at home.


I wish I were making this up.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Good News for Listeners out there

Audible has decided to pick up Vacant Graves! No word on when it will be released (there may be a delay as it gets recorded). Carina is still on track to release the regular copy in February, 2013.

Monday, November 12, 2012

I didn't know it was Monday, I swear

I’ve been rereading Prospero’s Children by Jan Siegel. It’s a book I’ve always had a fondness for. I haven’t read it in a long time, maybe a decade, despite recommending it to several people. I was looking for something to read the other day and noticed it on my shelf wearing one of the most cunning covers I’ve ever seen. I probably bought it because of that cover. I have no regrets on that count. The dust jacket has a picture with a door in it, a door opening onto the actual cover which is an elegant scene of an underwater city. So you flip off the dust jacket and you can see the entire scene. But when the dust jacket is on, it's this mysterious doorway going underwater.

Like I said, cunning. And beautiful.

Anyway, the prose felt a little clunky at first. But as I settled in and got used to the author’s style, I remembered what an absolute genius Siegel is. Some people do not care for it and I understand why. She loves similes and rambling descriptions. That kind of writing can be exhausting if you want something snappy. Jan Siegel is closer to Victor Hugo than Ernest Hemingway on the Descriptive Prose Spectrum.

Personally, I love to crack open a book and read about the moon for a page or two. Sometimes I want to ramble down country roads, knowing we’ll get to the plot eventually but in the meantime, just look at that scenery…

Oddly enough, the author Siegel reminds me of is H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft is getting a lot of attention right now because of the Cthulhu Mythos. But what originally drew me to Lovecraft (hipster moment: before everyone else liked him!) was not his Mythos stories but the stunning beauty of his prose. I can read Lovecraft’s fantasy stories just for the prose and ignore the plots entirely. Look at this:

"When tales fly thick in the grottoes of titans, and conches in seaweed cities blow wild tunes learned from the Elder Ones, then great eager mists flock to heaven laden with lore, and oceanward eyes on the rocks see only a mystic whiteness, as if the cliff’s rim were the rim of all earth, and the solemn bells of buoys tolled free in the aether of faery. "

[H.P. Lovecraft, The Strange High House in the Mist]

I get goose-bumps every time. That man was a poet. We’ve never had much use for poetry in America, though, so I suspect many of our country’s poets turn to fiction.

I have a metaphor to illustrate my obsession with prose. The plot of a story is the skeleton. Characters are the heart. But the prose is its flesh and blood.

Prose is very much on my mind because of my current project. I recently unearthed an MS I wrote after I returned from Hawai’i. Needless to say, it’s a joyful rambler. What else could I write after two years in paradise?

Hopefully, I can turn it into a published joyful rambler. But we’ll see.

We’ll see.

PS: Happy Veteran's Day. I'd love to say I posted this late because of that but I didn't. I won't say what did make me post late because that would be embarrassing. It's purely coincidence that there's a new show with Sarah Michelle Geller on Netflix...
PPS: Yeah, I still hate the word 'hipster,' even though I used it.

Monday, November 5, 2012

A Trip to the Metaphysical Zoo

I've always been fascinated by the universality of Myth. You know, the kind of stuff Joseph Campbell does. Full disclosure: I have a degree in History, with a strong focus on religion, but I am NOT an anthropologist, and more importantly, I've been reading the stuff below for fun, not research.

I stumbled on an interesting legend in GURPS Shapeshifters. This old Italian village had a tradition of the benandantes, or ‘good walkers.’ We know about this tradition because the Inquisition investigated it. Some of the peasants insisted to the Inquisition that they were ‘good witches.’ The Inquisition had them whipped for heresy, which was actually kind of nice, given how the Inquisition usually dealt with witches.

Benandantes were nocturnal shapeshifters. They turned into wolves as they slept. Rather than run around eating babies, though, they were good guy werewolves. Every night the Devil and his minions tried to steal the village’s harvest. But the benandantes wouldn't let him. These werewolves fought off Ol’ Scratch with iron whips (a delightful detail, that last one).

Today, scholars believe this tradition was a survival of a pagan fertility cult into the Christian era.

It has a lot of parallels. Lithuania had good guy werewolves in their stories, too. This reiterates a common belief among scholars that the evil werewolf is a Christian revision of an earlier legend. It was common for Christian storytellers to take pagan gods or heroes and twist them into villains. It’s worth noting, however, that the opposite also happened. They would also take "pagan" heroes and turn them into Christian heroes. (Pagan, by the way, is an insult, the Roman equivalent of 'hillbilly' or 'redneck').

Across the Pond, the Mayans had a strong corollary to the benandantes. When Mayan shamans (a term of convenience here) entered the spirit world, they became animals called wayob.

Shapeshifting is a common theme in myth, often related to journeys through the spirit world. One has to wonder if it's a result of our essential helplessness. As strong or fast as a human can be, we always need gadgets like clothes and spears to survive in the wilderness. Animals don’t. Since we can’t bring clothes or guns to the spirit world, we have to take a form where we can defend ourselves. This would explain why humans most often change into predators such as eagles, tigers, or wolves.

I have a more optimistic spin, of course. By taking the shape of an animal in our dreams or spirit-journeys, humans experience reality from a different perspective. The world would be a lot better if everyone could take a break from being human every once in a while.

There is an interesting twist that complicates this, though: many cultures believed that animals could turn into humans. That's a legend for another day, though.