Tag Archives: book review

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.

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

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: The Quiet War

The Quiet War, Paul McAuley

Fans of science fiction often try to place works in the genre into one or more subcategories. It is “space opera” or it is “cyberpunk”; it is “steam punk” or it is “military SF”. It is “Hard SF” or “New Wave”. These distinctions can be helpful to the reader picking up a book by an unknown author, I for one will take a space opera over a military SF novel almost any day, but the constant categorization is also terribly limiting.

Take the Quiet War. In one sense, it is a classic “space opera”. Shuttling between planets and factions, it follows various characters in the lead up to a war between earth and various breakaway colonies throughout the galaxy. Intricate plotting based around political and romantic entanglements? Sounds like space opera to me.

In another sense, it is very “hard SF”. McAuley is a former research biologist, and the book includes extensive discussions of various genetically engineered people, plants and weapons. (All of which are handled very well. Hard SF can too often descend into some sort of lab report where the authors flights of scientific fancy ramble on with little connection to the plot.)

And finally, the Quiet War is also a work which takes some of its ideas from the New Wave’s insistence on tying the “science” in SF to its political and social ramifications*. The “war” at the center of the novel is at least in part about what it means to be human. How far can we take genetic engineering before we have created a new species? What does it mean to be human?  The sort of questions the book brings up around genetic engineering are the main reason I read science fiction; it gives us a place to toy with outlandish ideas and imagine problems and solutions which, while they may arise from far future conjectures, have analogies to the problems we suffer today.

But enough about how the Quiet War fits into the world of science fiction sub genres, was it a good book? Yes. McAuley can write, which is more than you can say for many genre authors, and the characters and conflicts he imagines here are captivating. I do wish he had spent more time on the social consequences his scientific speculation creates. But finishing a novel wanting more is a fine criticism to have of any work. There is apparently a prequel to the Quiet War, I will probably read it.

*I realize this definition of “New Wave” is very vague, I’ll write a lot more about how I view New Wave in the future.

– Sean

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.