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Reading nonfic - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Reading nonfic
So, I'm reading some nonfic books that have been nominated for National Book Awards lately. It's interesting. :)

I first read They Poured Fire On Us from the Sky, by Benson Deng, Alephonsion Deng, and Benjamin Ajak, three of the "Lost Boys" who wandered across Sudan, eventually making it to San Diego and telling their stories. Alepho is a personal favorite, if for no other reason than that, in his own voice, he talks about reaching the Kakuma refugee camp, starving and almost dead of thirst, and is most worried about... being made fun of by other boys, who tell him he won't catch up in school. It was just this moment of universal recognizability. Because it's all about these individual kids and their family networks, it puts an instantly understandable face and point of view on events very far removed from anything most people in the west (excluding those escaping it, of course) have ever experienced personally, but it does not dwell on issues of assistance or anything political--it just tells these stories, talks about what happened in Sudan, and what it felt like to be a child experiencing all of it like a malign force of nature. I hope these young men continue to write, maybe venturing into fiction, because the voices are clear and interesting. I'd love to see them take a whack at something where their strong descriptive skills aren't limited by the plotlessness of real life!

I'm reading two books simultaneously at the moment.

First, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, by Stephen Greenblatt, which analyzes and extrapolates from records of Shakespeare's life combined with his plays to speculate what he might have experienced and lived through. I'm surprised it was nominated for an award--it's compelling imaginative work, but not exactly unassailable historical scholarship. (A typical example is looking at Shakespeare's marriage age, the date of birth of his eldest child--six months after marriage--then comparing it to several passages complaining about the hell of forced marriage and concluding from that that he resented a forced early marriage... reasonable psychological deduction, but still extreme speculation.) It's quite an interesting look at the world Shakespeare lived in, at the Catholic/Protestant schism, at the university wits who Shakespeare knew, but who despised him for his pretensions, at his father's loss of what family money there was, and Shakespeare's very atypical-for-an-actor acquisition of land and property and ability to handle money (and a possible reference to him refusing to lend money to an actor in the university wit circle who had shown a marked propensity for misusing it). It's a convincing psychological portrait, honestly, of a man who wanted to be a gentleman and so learned to pretend to be one, though, as Greenblatt said, hiring on to a team of players in order to become a gentleman is rather like becoming a prostitute in order to become a great lady. And of course, stories exist of the latter as well. Greenblatt looks at the entertainments that young Will would have been exposed to, the people he would have almost certainly known, and those he's likely to have encountered at least by reputation and/or family ties. All of this goes into the basic truth that Shakespeare's works show a very strong grounding in the world, in knowing people and understanding what makes them tick. I didn't realize just how good Shakespeare was at this until I had a thirteen year old read Juliet. Most of the love stuff, she kind of shrugged, but her brother was with her, and he was reading the Nurse, and when they got to the scene where Juliet is pestering the Nurse for information about Romeo, suddenly, her voice became completely familiar to the girl, and the scene came off as... a frustrated thirteen-year-old girl trying to get someone to talk. It was astounding. And, as with Twain a couple of centuries later, the characters step right out of their now-odd dialogue and breathe.

Er, that's off-topic on Greenblatt's book, isn't it? It's really making me appreciate just what Shakespeare did, though, and how phenomenally intelligent and perceptive he had to be to do it. He reminds me of many bright and irreverent kids I've known (including a girl who would be horrified that I think of her in any connection to the man she considers a form of torture that's only barely legal to inflict on high school students).

The book I'm reading simultaneously, though I haven't gotten as far, is Simon Winchester's Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded. I have a morbid interest in this sort of thing anyway, so I'm glad to get it, though so far I'm mostly in the history of Dutch colonization of Indonesia. The one thing I have to say is that this book has the Worst Cover In the History of Marketing. We have six copies on the shelf, but it took me quite a bit to see it, because the title doesn't appear on the spine. At all. It's written left to right across the entire width of the cover, starting on the back cover. The front cover only shows the second half of an "A" and "TOA." The picture is kind of low-res, so you can't really identify the volcano. So basically, you can neither put it spine-out nor cover-out and have the title show. And since it's usually spine out on a shelf, all you'd see is the author's name on a vaguely reddish background, with half a K and half an A.
24 comments or Leave a comment
lilacsigil From: lilacsigil Date: December 7th, 2006 07:36 am (UTC) (Link)
Krakatoa is a terrific book - I read it a few weeks before the tsunami of 2004, and it helped me make sense of what had happened. We must have different editions, though, because mine says KRAKATOA down the spine in big shiny letters.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 7th, 2006 03:03 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh, I'm glad to hear that's been fixed. All of the editions on the library shelf had the very weird red cover (and even the half-K and half-A were covered up by the call number!). It does seem to be an excellent book.
volandum From: volandum Date: December 7th, 2006 11:13 am (UTC) (Link)
I have a generic question: what is the point of warning "The Rating [of this story] may go up."?
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 7th, 2006 03:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'd guess it would be someone who started a story that mostly runs PG, but started to get into character issues that might lead to violence or drug use or... who am I kidding? The author is most likely saying, "Hey, I know it's boring now, but I might have a sex scene coming up." ;p
volandum From: volandum Date: December 7th, 2006 03:06 pm (UTC) (Link)
Heh, okay. Thank you.

You were actually kidding me. Must be the general air of sincerity.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 7th, 2006 03:09 pm (UTC) (Link)
I don't remember doing this--where was it?
volandum From: volandum Date: December 7th, 2006 03:10 pm (UTC) (Link)
Your last comment, right up to the "... who am I kidding?"
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 7th, 2006 03:20 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh, I thought you meant I'd put that warning on a fic, and I couldn't remember it. Which would be kind of sad...
keestone From: keestone Date: December 7th, 2006 12:34 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm definitely going to have to pick up They Poured Fire On Us from the Sky. Thanks for letting me know about it. I had a friend in undergrad who was a wonderful, friendly (a little too friendly with women, considering the unexpected strip-tease he gave one of my roommates), life-loving guy. I found out later that he was a Lost Boy. He died last year. I wish I'd known him better.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 7th, 2006 03:06 pm (UTC) (Link)
You're welcome. It's an excellent book.
kizmet_42 From: kizmet_42 Date: December 7th, 2006 01:41 pm (UTC) (Link)
Shakespeare must only be read by actors preparing to act. If you're not an actor, reading a play is excruciating.

My kids love Shakespeare because their introduction was the Reduced Shakespeare Company. Now that they've gotten the essence of Shakespeare, they're willing to get through the language barrier to get to the humor.

But reading plays - bah.
keestone From: keestone Date: December 7th, 2006 02:06 pm (UTC) (Link)
Hmm. I'd definitely agree that Shakespeare is theatre and that's how it is best experienced, but to be read only by actors preparing to act? Reading plays is just another skill like reading comics or reading poetry. And some plays seem to be written for readers, not actors (eg. all that useless expository character description in The Crucible).
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 7th, 2006 03:08 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think the problem in reading the plays is that the teachers don't seem to get across the fact that the script is just part of it. Ideally, I'd get local actors to come to high schools to do the plays. That would be a charity for actors to get into! Scripts by their nature are incomplete; the actors and set designers and directors and choreographers complete them.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 7th, 2006 03:23 pm (UTC) (Link)
Or, they could do something wild and wacky like performing the plays--as written, without a lot of stylishness of a full movie production--on an Elizabethan stage, with video cameras running, and make them available as downloads on a website, as well as offering them for the price of shipping on DVDs. I'm kind of liking this idea for a charity.
sreya From: sreya Date: December 7th, 2006 04:06 pm (UTC) (Link)
My best experience with Shakespeare was my senior year of high school, when I took a year long course. We spent most of the first semester reading the plays, but for one thing, we always read them out loud in class together, and for another, we knew in the spring we'd be performing scenes of our choosing, so we were on the lookout for what we wanted to do, which kept in mind all sorts of things - who should we group with for the roles, what kind of costumes and props would we need, can this scene stand on its own?

Incredible experience and I just loved it. Though, I still have trouble just sitting down and reading a script for the sake of reading it.
From: spitc1899 Date: December 7th, 2006 05:34 pm (UTC) (Link)
Maybe I'm crazy, but when I was in middle school, I used to go down to the public library and rummage through the drama section just for the heck of it. Shakespeare never bothered me for the language. I discovered a lot of plays I hated that way, but also some I liked.
izhilzha From: izhilzha Date: December 7th, 2006 06:03 pm (UTC) (Link)
I disagree; I've always found reading (well-written) plays much more swift and easy than reading prose (and I am addicted to good prose). It may be harder for some kids, because there is a learned-skill aspect to it...in college, my prof had us split into groups and act out scenes for the class. In fact, just reading the play aloud is a great way to get people involved in the story, imho.
kizmet_42 From: kizmet_42 Date: December 7th, 2006 07:12 pm (UTC) (Link)
reading the play aloud is a great way to get people involved in the story

But they're acting it out, even if it's just with their voices.

I agree it's a skill, but Shakespeare wrote not for the reader but for the audience.
a_t_rain From: a_t_rain Date: December 7th, 2006 03:33 pm (UTC) (Link)
A typical example is looking at Shakespeare's marriage age, the date of birth of his eldest child--six months after marriage--then comparing it to several passages complaining about the hell of forced marriage and concluding from that that he resented a forced early marriage... reasonable psychological deduction, but still extreme speculation.

:: boggles :: I'm surprised that Greenblatt would leap to such a conclusion, considering that "boy and girl want to marry each other, parents want them to marry somebody else, comedy or tragedy ensues" was easily the most popular stock plot on the Renaissance stage in general, not just in Shakespeare. I'm hard pressed to think of a city comedy that doesn't include this particular plot device -- it was both a convenient source of dramatic conflict and a hot topic of debate in the culture at large.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 7th, 2006 04:38 pm (UTC) (Link)
Which is why that particular bit surprised me enough to remember. The chapter on Shakespeare's marriage seems to spend a lot of time intellectually spanking people who try to find some evidence that Shakespeare might have had any feelings for his wife. Not sure why. I mean, yeah--he more or less abandoned her, though he apparently went back and forth on rare occasions and went there to die--so there's not a lot of evidence that they were an especially close couple, but the examples in the plays seem very odd. (The only solid couples were evil, twisted ones, like Gertrude and Claudious or the Macbeths, for instance.)
sep12 From: sep12 Date: December 9th, 2006 01:09 am (UTC) (Link)
What about Benedick and Beatrice? Although they spend some time getting there, I would argue that they are among the healthiest of all Shakespearean couples, especially when you compare them to their play counterparts, Hero and Claudio, in Much Ado.
BTW, Greenblatt is the editor of the Norton Edition Shakespeare, and his bio of Will seems to pretty much follow what you've outlined. I think a much better book for someone interested in the life and times of Shakespeare would be Russ McDonald's Companion to Shakespeare. It's a Bedford in its 2nd edition, and it is superb. I've used it for three English classes so far, two of them being Shakespeare classes, and it's the best I've found for general info type stuff. :)
a_t_rain From: a_t_rain Date: December 9th, 2006 03:29 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, the McDonald book is outstanding. I also liked James Shapiro's A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare very much.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 9th, 2006 06:14 pm (UTC) (Link)
I took the Greenblatt off a list of National Book Award nominees--more as an example of imaginative writing, I imagine, than straight information. It is interesting in that way, I guess.
sreya From: sreya Date: December 7th, 2006 04:09 pm (UTC) (Link)
I am definitely going to look for the Lost Boys book - that sounds really good. It's really sad to know that there have been such horrible things going on there for so many years, and yet it only seems recently that we're hearing very much about it.
24 comments or Leave a comment