Monthly Archives: January 2011

Shining Path

Nicolas Shakespeare, the author of The Dancer Upstairs has an incredible article on his first meeting with Martiza Lecca. Lecca is the ballerina in whose apartment Shining Path leader Alerto Guzman was captured. The article is haunting and excellent, check it out.

Not a lot is available in English about Shining Path, and much of what is available is very academic. My sources in the world of terrorism scholarship say the definitive book on the movement is David Scott Palmer’s The Shining Path of Peru. I might have to put that on the to be read list.

Acquisitions for week of 1/23/11

A new feature, weekly intake of books bought or received.

Epictetus, Discourses and Selected Writings, Penguin, (Borders)

Moshe Idel, Messianic Mystics, Yale, (The Strand)

Samuel Delany Watch

Samuel “Chip” Delany is one of my favorite authors. His masterpiece, Dhalgren, is one of my favorite books. I’ll write more about Dhalgren and Delany in the future, but I wanted to bring your attention to a couple of recent Delany items.

First, the great SF editor and writer Fredrick Pohl has done two great blog entries about Delany, the first is a recollection of a meeting between Delany and Pohl from the time that Delany and his (then) wife, poet Marilyn Hacker were living in England. The second post is an interesting recounting of Pohl’s acquisition of Dhalgren for Batam Books.

Another point of interest for the Delany fan is that Through The Valley Of The Nest Of Spiders, Delany’s latest book, has been delayed. Apparently the publisher is out of money and Delany’s agent is now shopping the book around. Delany has moved away from strict science fiction in recent years. This book tells the story of a gay male couple starting in 2007 and chronicling their life for the next seventy years. I imagine there will be some near future aspects, but Delany is describing the book as being “character driven”. My classics professor might even like it.

Henry VI Part III

Henry VI Part III (Folger Edition)
William Shakespeare

I don’t know this for a fact, but I imagine the Henry the 6th plays are among the least performed in the Shakespeare cannon. Written early in Will’s career, they just aren’t very good. The first is really down right awful. It is confusing, poorly plotted and hard to get through. Joan of Arc is a character in Part I and it still sucks. The second is a little better (the middle of Part II is dominated by an alternately bloody and comedic peasant revolt which is pretty amusing) but still not worth all that much. Part III, while not rising to the typical Will standards, isn’t bad, if you like ‘em bloody. It gets especially good in the second half when the evil caricature of Richard the III really gets going.

There are a couple of things about Henry VI Part III that I want to note. First is the real cruelty on display in portions of the play. I am no Shakespeare scholar, but it seems to me that the early Shakespeare plays* are more graphically violent than the later plays. In Henry VI Part III we have the cold blooded killing of a little child by a knight, the child’s father is then taunted with a handkerchief dipped in the kid’s blood and then if that wasn’t enough, get the mass stabbing of a  Prince by a gang of nobles. It is gruesome stuff.

Critics give a lot of reasons for this brutality in Henry VI Part II. Two of the reasons often argued resonate with me. Perhaps Will wasn’t confident enough yet that his dialogue could hold the crowd’s attention so he resorted to more graphic violence. He was competing with bear baiting after all. I’ll buy this. If you write a scene where a queen puts a paper crown on a man’s head, gives him a handkerchief with his own child’s blood on it, and then has him killed, people are going to remember your name.

The second reason for the violence often given is that the plays reflect a critique of chivalry and a dislike for war that was common in England in the years after the War of the Roses and the various wars in Europe. Maybe.  I will say that there are few heroes in these plays and generally the aristocracy behaves badly. Perhaps that is because Will was attempting a critique of the nobility, or perhaps royals acting badly filled seats. Like much in Shakespeare studies, it doesn’t much matter anymore what Will intended. It matters what resonates with us.

Also of interest is how the plays represent the Tudor ruling classes perception of the War of the Roses and the houses of York and Lancaster.** There is a huge literature out there on the way that Shakespeare’s plays influenced our understanding of the historical persons he used as the basis of his characters. I’ve read some of it, but not much. What I have read says that Richard very likely wasn’t a hunchback, if he was deformed, it probably was minimal. He also probably didn’t kill the princes in the Tower. But that doesn’t stop Shakespeare from portraying him as an evil hunchback murderer. And that is how we imagine him today.

When I think of Richard the Third, I think of Olivier, sneering:

I will go into this more after I read and review Richard III, but Henry VII, the founder of Tudor England, usurped Richard so it isn’t surprising that Richard is portrayed so awfully in Henry VI. But Shakespeare being Shakespeare, the play isn’t just a hit piece on the house of Lancaster. The Yorks, those of the killing of the little kids, don’t get off easily either.  The Henry the VI cycle isn’t among the best Shakespeare has to offer, but it is worth the time to read both to put the other, better, works in context and to enjoy the spectacle of royalty acting badly.

* People argue ad nausea about the order in which Shakespeare wrote the plays, but there is little doubt that the Henry the VI plays are among the first.

** Before I read these plays I knew jack shit about the War of the Roses. I might write something just synopsizing this skirmish. If you are reading the Henry Plays and Richard III, instead of watching them, I think you need to have some familiarity with the War or you’ll be lost.

The Passage by Justin Cronin

The Passage

Justin Cronin

The Passage is a seven hundred page vampire novel written by a novelist who graduated from the Iowa Writers Workshop. That makes it a pretty rare bird. It is also a book I enjoyed tremendously. I imagine there is very little middle ground with this book. You either enjoy its epic scope, slightly showy writing, and meandering plot or you think it’s a bloated book by a guy who couldn’t make money with serious fiction so turned to genre literature to put his kids through school.  I liked it, your mileage may vary.

The plot is convoluted and epic, but to put it briefly, and not spoil the fun, the U.S. government has created a sort of vampire. Not Twilight style sexy vampire, but really grody scary vampire. Anyway, the vampires get out, all hell breaks loose, and humanity has to fight… for its very survival!

There must be a thousand books out there with that basic plotline. What separates the Passage is the skill of the writing, which is well beyond what you see in most genre fiction, and Cronin’s ability to be good at both plot and character.

The plot versus character dichotomy is something I have written about before. I remember in undergrad my classics professor drawing a scale up on the chalkboard with “character” written on one side and “plot” on the other and saying, “works which focus on character are literature, work which focuses on plot are entertainment.” He was that kind of a dick. He wore a bowtie.

He also had a point. Too often what I find lacking in the genre literature (save the true crossover geniuses like Gibson, Price, etc) is a lack of proper character development. What I often miss when I read “serious” fiction is any sort of plot to care about. I am not particularly interested in cardboard cut outs rampaging through an alien world shooting lemurs with lasers, but nor am I particularly interested in reading something where two very well drawn individuals sit in a café in Brooklyn and talk about fucking “love” or whatever. Can’t I have three dimensional characters AND lasers? I guess I can, in books like the Passage.

Though there aren’t any actual lasers in the Passage. But you get the idea.

Every Book I Read in 2010

Here is a list of every book I read in 2010, I’ve noted whether or not I would recommend it, not recommend it, or recommend it for the enthusiast. If a book is recommended I think you would enjoy it whether or not you are particularly interested in the area. Recommended for the enthusiast means that if for some reason you share my obscure interests then this book will interest you.

I read 44 books this year, the most I have read in years. I blame that on spending half the year riding the bus between Washington and New York every weekend. This coming year I am making a concerted effort to finally get a grip on Spanish which means I’ll probably read significantly less.

The careful reader may notice some trends.

•    I read basically no “serious” fiction. If it didn’t have a murder or space ships, I didn’t read it. I’m going to try and be a little better about that next year, but books where assholes in Brooklyn talk about language aren’t nearly as interesting as books with laser.
•    I read a number of books on Judaism, Jewish history and the classical world. This is a trend I think will deepen in the New Year. I am very interested in history from around the birth of Christ to the codification of the Talmud. This is where so much of what shapes the western world started to get codified and I’d like to learn about lot more about the era. I am especially interested in the effect of greek philosophy on early Christian thinkers and the codifiers of the Talmud. Currently, I know next to nothing about this, but digging into this era is something I hope to do a lot more of in 2011.
•    The back half of the year includes a much higher percentage of not recommended books. I blame this on the library. I started actively using the library more this year which incentivised me to put books on hold as soon as I read about them in some review or other. Since I didn’t have to put down money, I picked up a lot of books I wouldn’t have otherwise and this lead to wasted reading.
•    I am reading all of Shakespeare’s plays in order of “publication” because this is the kind of obsessive thing I enjoy doing so fuck you.

Ok, the books:

1.    Rumple of the Bailey, John Mortimer – Recommended for the enthusiast.
2.    The Fire Engine that Disappears, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo – Recommended for the enthusiast.
3.    Master of Reality, John Darnielle – Recommended.
4.    The Sabbath, Abrham Joshua Heschel – Recommended for the enthusiast.
5.    Walking the Perfect Square, Reed Farrell Coleman – Recommended for the enthusiast.
6.    Game Change, John Heilemann and Mark Halperin – Recommended.
7.    Murder at the Savoy, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo – Recommended for the enthusiast.
8.    The Perfect Heresy: The Revolutionary Life and Death of Medieval Cathars, Stephen O’Shea – Recommended
9.    Solaris, Stanislaw Lem – Recommended for the enthusiast.
10.    Four Hasidic Masters and Their Struggle Against Melancholy, Elie Wiesel – Recommended for the enthusiast.
11.    Redemption Street, Reed Farrel Coleman – Recommended for the enthusiast.
12.    The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, Alison Hoove Bartlett – Recommended for the enthusiast.
13.    Clockers, Richard Price – Recommended.
14.    The Girl Who Played with Fire, Steig Larsson – Recommended
15.    Understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls, ed. Hershel Shank – Recommended for the enthusiast.
16.    He Died with His Eyes Open, Derek Raymond – Recommended for the enthusiast.
17.    Once a Runner, John L. Parker – Recommended for the enthusiast.
18.    The Bible Unearthed Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman – Recommended.
19.     The Finder Colin Harrison – Recommended.
20.    Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, Gershom Scholem – Recommended for the enthusiast.
21.    Agincourt, Bernard Cromwell – Not Recommended.
22.    As a Driven Leaf, Milton Steinberg – Recommended for the enthusiast.
23.     Stones Fall, Iain Pears – Recommended for the enthusiast.
24.    Faceless Killers Henning Mankell – Recommended for the enthusiast.
25.    Born to Run, Christopher McDougall – Recommended for the enthusiast.
26.     The Turnaround, George Pelecanos – Recommended for the enthusiast.
27.    A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson – Not Recommended. I fucking hate Bill Bryson
28.    Farewell my Lovely, Raymond Chandler – Recommended for the enthusiast.
29.    The Family Trade, Charles Stross – Recommended for the enthusiast.
30.    The Tourist, Olen Steinhauer – Recommended for the enthusiast.
31.    American Tabloid, James Ellroy – Recommended for the enthusiast.
32.    Sophies World, Jostein Gaardner – Not Recommended
33.    Will in the World, Stephen Greenblatt – Recommended
34.    Again to Carthage, John Parker – Recommended for the enthusiast (but nowhere near as good as Once a Runner).
35.    Meditations, Marcus Aurelius – Recommended
36.    Henry VI Part 1, William Shakespeare – Recommended for the enthusiast.
37.    The Daughter of Time, Josephine Tey – Recommended
38.    Know before Whom You Stand, Hayyim J. Angel – Not Recommended
39.    Outside Looking In: Adventures of an Observer, Garry Wills – Not Recommended
40.    The Network, Jason Elliot – Not Recommended
41.    Henry VI Part 2, William Shakespear – Recommended for the enthusiast.
42.    Why Mahler? Norman Lebrachy – Recommended for the enthusiast.
43.    Obama’s War, Bob Woodward – Not Recommended
44.    Jewish Literacy, Joseph Teluskin – Recommended.


Like many, much of how I relate to the world is filtered through the culture I consume. The books I read, the music I listen to, the movies and television I watch are a big part of who I am.

I’d like to keep better track of what I read, watch and listen to, I’d like to engage with it more actively. I plan on doing that here. Review will be tagged by the media they are in, I am going to try and not make them prefunctory.