Category Archives: Reviews

Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus

Titus Andronicus (Arden Shakespeare: Third Series)

Is this the most disturbing of Shakespeare’s plays? If it isn’t, it is close. Titus Andronicus returns from war, triumphant, but his cruelty to his captive, Tamora, queen of the Goths, sets of a spiral of increasingly horrific acts of vengeance.  The violence is copious and horrific: Titus murders one of Tamora’s son in vengeance for the death of his own on the battlefield; Titus’s daughter, Lavina, is horrifically raped and mutilated; Lavina’s fiancée is murdered;  two more of Titus’s sons are murdered; Titus’s hand is cut off; Tamora’s sons are murdered and feed to her baked into a pie; Lavina is murdered, by her father; and, finally, after having lost everything, Titus himself is killed and Aaron the Moor, Tamora’s lover who was behind much of the treachery, is buried chest deep and left to die.

 

It is important when reading plays like Titus to remember that in his time, Shakespeare was competing against such sophisticated entertainment as bear baiting. The level of violence here is like a horror movie and it can be very rough going.  Especially tough are the scenes involving the rape of Lavinia and its aftermath the cruelty here rivals the torture porn of today’s horror movie industry. There is a strong thread of misogyny running through Shakespeare works. Woman are routinely abused or portrayed as evil and conniving. In Titus, we have both.  Lavinia is raped, abused and finally killed, while Tamora is portrayed as the conniving, evil, villain. There are those who will think I am being too harsh, bringing my contemporary feminism to a playwright working hundreds of years ago, but it is hard to look past Shakespeare’s depictions of women in these early plays – he was profoundly sexist and that need to be remembered.

 

The rape scene and Lavina’s mutilation are hard enough, but the scene later in the play where Lavinia carries away her father’s hand in her mouth is really just over the top in its cheap cruelty. Am I supposed to laugh at this? If so, then something has been lost between the Bard’s time and our own. I find nothing amusing in the scene. There is a reason this is one of the least preformed of Shakespeares works. It is offensive, bloody, and just not very good.

 

Bloom and others have championed Aaron the Moor as one of Shakespeare’s first great characters. I am not sure I agree. Though Aaron is somewhat humanized by his love for his child, in the end, he is a caricature of the villain. If any character foreshadows the Bard’s later, greater, creations it is Titus himself, a sort of horror show funhouse King Lear and perhaps for that alone, this is one worth reading if you can stomach it.

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Rubenstein’s When Jesus Became God

When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome

Richard E. Rubenstein

From the modern perspective it is hard to understand how amorphous the early Christian movements were. In the first few hundred years after the death of Christ, much of what we now take for granted as pillars of the Christian faith were still in dispute. Were Christians Jews? Was Christ divine? Leaders of the Christian movement argued and died over these questions. Rubenstein, the author of Aristotle’s Children, another engaging book religious history attempts to tell the complicated story of this time in an accessible way. Overall he does a bangup job.

Like Rubenstein’s other works, When Jesus Became God is a good book with a misleading title. This isn’t really about defining the nature of Christianity – such a book would have to be much longer and more detailed. It is instead a popular history of one of the great theological debates of the early church – the Arian controversy. As that, it is a great read. I should say that I am no theologian, my knowledge of the time period and of the theological questions at issue in the Arian controversy are superficial at best, but from a layman’s perspective, Rubenstein brings the goods.

Briefly, the Arian controversy was about the nature of Christ and his relationship to god the Father. Was Christ the son of god, a part of god, or simple a prophet? Was he to be worshipped and if so, how? These were the issues that brought monks and priests of the fourth century into conflict and man did they get mad. Bitter fights, violence, excommunications, this controversy had it all. When it was all over we had the dogma which has remained the center piece of the Catholic faith – the trinity and the divine nature of Jesus.

Many biblical controversies seem silly in hindsight, but not the Arian controversy. That those who backed Jesus’s divine nature and the conception of the trinity won had a massive and long lasting effect on the Church and on western society.  All of which makes the Arian controversy an important and interesting story which Rubenstein tells well. I would recommend this to those interested in an overview of the era.

– Sean

Schmahmann’s The Double Life of Alfred Buber

The Double Life of Alfred Buber

I received this as a review copy from the Permanent Press, an excellent independent publisher based in New York. The Permanent Press is one of only a few literary independent publishers left who take the chance to publish serious novels by little known writers. I admire that. And I admire what David Schmahmann was trying to do here, though he ultimately comes up a little short.

The Double Life of Alfred Buber is the story of an attorney who becomes involved in the sex trade and, eventually, prostitution in Asia. He falls for a Bangkok bar girl and his troubles begin. The role of fantasy for the men involved in sex tourism (“this girl really likes me” or “I’m helping this woman”) and the nature of the relationships between the Westerners who frequent Asia and the local people, especially the sex workers, a large part of what this book is about and the conclusions are both obvious and disturbing.

Schmahmann is definitely a Nabokov fan and the book leans heavily on the style of Lolita. Narrated by Buber, who comes off as a less charming version of Humbert, it is hard, just like in Lolita, hard to know what to believe. Turns out, it is best to believe nothing and let the story unwind as it will. By half way through, you’ll be pleasantly confused, by the end, you might be a bit disappointed by the failure to wrap things up cleanly, and I guarantee you’ll feel a little dirty.

The sex tourist is a sad creature, but he is also a powerful one, and that is an aspect of this world I wish the book had focused on more. The book hints at this, but it isn’t explored enough. Buber is powerful attorney in the United States, but also sad sack who can’t find love. In Asia, he thinks he can be a hero, or at least buy love but again, he comes up short. Buber is Buber no matter where in the world he goes. This is a decent read. The descriptions of sex tourism in Asia are suitably stomach turning, even if the power relations are not explored enough, and the depiction of the drudgery of the commercial lawyers is well done. Schamahmann can write, I just wish he had ended the book in a more careful manner.

– Sean

Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors

Comedy of Errors (Arden Shakespeare)

William Shakespeare

Last year I decided I was going to read the Bard’s works in chronological order, who knew that was going to be such a trying ordeal? I warn you, before you get to Lear and Hamlet you have to go through the long and turgid Richard the VI and the silly and unfunny Comedy of Errors. You have been warned, fellow readers.

Most of Shakespeare’s comedies leave me cold, but the early comedies, starting with Comedy or Errors, really take the cake for unfunny. The plot here is simple  and wildly unbelievable – two sets of twins, one set of gentleman, one set of servants, are separated at birth, but come together when the twins from Syracuse visit the twins from Ephesus. Confusion and plenty of cheap jokes ensue. Putting aside the shear implausibility that a wife wouldn’t recognize her husband, the comedic slap stick of the play is just poorly done.

Shakespeare’s later comedies are filled with double entendres and clever set pieces – this one is not. It is the same joke told in variation for five acts. Antipholus of Syracuse is confused with Antipholus of Ephesus and says something silly, confusion ensues. Dromio of Syracuse is confused for Dromio of Ephesus and says something silly, confusion ensues. Antipholus of Syracuse confuses Dromio of Ephesus with Dromio of Syracuse and Drimio says something silly… and on and on.

Perhaps I’d like the work better if I saw it performed by a competent company. Comedy of Errors is one of the early plays which is often staged, probably because the comedies are eternally popular, and this has a relatively small cast. The only production of Comedy of Errors I have ever seen was performed by a high school drama group when I was fifteen. It was not funny. I would guess the Royal Shakespeare Company does a better job.

Harold Bloom, who seems able to find something or merit in almost all of the works of the Bard, says in his enormous Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human (which I am reading in conjunction with the plays) that “Exuberant fun as it is and must be, this fierce little play is also one of the starting points for Shakespeare’s reinvention of the Human. A role in a face hardly seems an arena for inwardness by genre never confined Shakespeare, even at his origins, and Antipholus of Syracuse is a sketch for the abysses of self that are to come.” Really? I just don’t see it, Harold. Perhaps there are hints of the kind of character development and articulation of the human condition that will make the later plays so great, but on first reading all I see a silly little play which uses the same trick over and over again to get cheap laughs.

– Sean

Ellroy’s The Cold Six Thousand

The Cold Six Thousand is the second volume of Ellroy’s “Underworld Trilogy” tracing the history of 1960s America through the lives of real and imagined gangsters. Written in an intense staccato style, the books are filled with conspiracies, bad men behaving horribly, and real and imagined dirt on most of the pivotal figures of the 1960s.

I enjoyed the first book in the series, American Tabloid. By turns exhausting and exhilarating, it felt like something new in crime fiction. The dirty machismo of much the genre boiled down to a thick tar of nasty violence. Ellroy’s books relish in violence and hatred. They’re not nice and can at times be difficult to read, but despite my conflicted feelings about Ellroy as a person and a writer, I enjoyed the hell out of American Tabloid.

The Cold Six Thousand is another story. American Tabloid ends with the assassination of JFK. The Cold Six Thousand takes us from the “cover up” of that assassination through to the deaths of MLK and RFK with extended stops in mobbed up Las Vegas and drug-fueled Vietnam. If anything, The Cold Six Thousand is uglier than American Tabloid, racism plays a key role, and it is hard not to think that Ellroy enjoys putting despicable dialogue in the mouths of his characters. It is all a bit much. The ultra short declarative sentence style that seemed new and exciting in American Tabloid is just tiring in the Cold Six Thousand.

But Ellroy can write, and the characters remain compelling. I wanted to put it down, but I didn’t. If you’re a fan of Ellroy’s you’ve probably already read this. If not, start with American Tabloid. If after that you haven’t gotten enough, you could give this a try. I should probably leave well enough alone and not read the final book in the series, Bloods a Rover, but I probably will. I can’t leave a series unfinished.

– Sean

Crime in the City – Mosley’s the Long Fall

The Long Fall

Walter Mosley

Crime novels are very grounded in place. George Pelacanos’s novels sing of DC; Laura Lippman’s of Baltimore of Los Angeles, and until recently, Walter Mosley’s most famous crime novels were set in Watts. For the last decade of so the heavy hitters of crime fiction have mostly been avoiding New York. There is, of course, Lawrence Block, but I have not read him.  In recent years the crime writers I read came to New York were Richard Price’s “Dempsy” novels: Clockers, Freedomland and Samaritan, which were set in a fictionalized version of Newark with the occasional glimpses of life in New York. Price has said that he set the novels in a fictionalized city because the real thing was too overpowering. I can see that.

Lately, there has been a bit of a return to New York. Price set Lush Life on the Lower East Side, up and comers Reed Farrel Coleman and Colin Harrison have both set their novels in Brooklyn, and now Mosley has started a new crime series in the City staring a new protagonists, Leonid McGill.

The Long Fall’s plot is a classic of the genre – private detective investigates a case that leads him into a conspiracy bigger than he imagined. Innocents are injured; the detective must get his hands dirty; justice must be done. If you read these novels, you know exactly what I am talking about. Mosley knows what he is doing; the plotting is catnip to crime novel fans.

More interesting, perhaps, is the creation of the character of McGill. He is a private investigator, and in crime novels, PIs generally come in two types – those on their way down, and those on their way up. McGill is a little of both, morally he is on his way up. He isn’t taking enforcer gigs anymore; he isn’t setting people up for crimes they didn’t commit. But he is behind in the rent, drinking too much and cheating on his wife (who is cheating on him). It’s a nice juxtaposition. By being good he is doing bad. I am curious to see how it plays out in the other novels. Will McGill’s better angels lead him into financial ruin, or will he turn his back on the moral life and return to a life of crime. Mosley seems to be setting us up to watch McGill rise up again, but I could be wrong. Either way, it is a treat to see such a great crime writer set his stories in my city.

Worth reading for fans of the genre, especially those who wish more crime novels were set in New York.

– Sean

Review: Black Sun by Goodrich-Clarke

Black Sun: Aryan Cults, Esoteric Nazism, and the Politics of Identity

Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke

This is the first time two people associated with Fox Hill are writing a review of the same book, and, of course, its got to be a book about esoteric Hitler cults. We really aren’t this weird people – honest.

Charm laid out the nature of this book well in his review. It is an overview of Nazi inspired right wing lunatics of the post World War II era, covering the heavy hitters and some lesser known individuals. It is a very well researched account of world for which it is difficult to get information, but it is also dry, and skims too lightly over the biographies of these people for my taste. While I think it is important to seriously engage with lunatic ideas about Nazis in Antarctica, I don’t necessarily want to read fifty pages about it. I’d recommend it for the person deeply interested in the lunatic fringe of the right, but perhaps not for the average reader.

A thought on the substance of the book: Much of post WWIII Nazism is enraptured with a mystical religious understanding of Hitler and Nazism. There is much talk in this book about Hitler as a Hindu avatar, Hitler as an alien intelligence, Hitler as a blah blah blah.. What all of this does it put distance between the reality of Hitler as the mastermind of one of the greatest genocides in history and the “theoretical” Hitler of Julius Evola’s books. Goodrick-Clarke hints at this, but is too much of an even keel academic to say what needs to be said – by placing a mystical veneer on the man’s action, you can attempt to cloud the history and make the man more than a murder. This mysticalization of Hitler and Nazism is a dangerous trend in modern ultra right politics, and one that needs to be combated with the cold hard truth that Hitler was just a sociopath, nothing more.

– Sean