Monday, January 02, 2012

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

Over the course of the past few days, my spouse and I have watched a number of Shakespeare-related  DVDs. It began with the documentary, Discovering Hamlet, which features Derek Jacobi directing Kenneth Branagh in Hamlet for a live stage performance. What I largely came away with was the idea that directors must have to know the text of a play at such an internal level of absorption. It’s more than simply having read the play; it’s more than simply having played a particular part within that play and thereby having more than a passing familiarity with the lines. They have to have absorbed the text and the subtext, the language of the play as well as any unspoken themes.The director must have thought seriously about the various levels of text and theme. Directors must have considered each character in the play (just in order to cast the players), but also they must also have developed the possibilities in each character. How Ophelia interacts with Hamlet is more than just the scene wherein she tries to ascertain whether the man is mad with love or if its something more. Ophelia may be played as a pure innocent (immediately bruised by cold reality’s harshness), but she may also be played as someone essentially insecure from childhood (torn and uncertain) even before Hamlet’s behavior drives her over the edge. Which (of just those two interpretations) does the director want to see driving the action on-stage? Jacobi has a tremendous difficulty in stepping away from the physical acting on stage while directing; indeed, he says in the beginning that he -- as director -- wants to be considered as a member of the cast. His presence as the director (even if he is not onstage) should be felt by the cast in his direction of their playing as well as being felt by the audience (in terms of his interpretation of the various aspects of Hamlet and how his differs from foregoing interpretations).

The second thing that hit me was the very real difference between reading Shakespeare’s lines (as a reader of poetic form) and that of watching Shakespeare’s play unfolding with some plausibility. Some forms of Shakespeare deliver the performance with minimal set, costumes, etc., but with emphasis on the deliberate delivery of lines that have entered into our conscious use of the language. Other deliveries of Shakespeare want to make the performance so lifelike that phrases of lines may be swallowed up in the moment of emotional delivery. Two very different forms of performance and very different audience experiences.

I’ve been reading Hamlet over the past three or four days and I have found that one loses that as a solitary reader, moving slowly, reading all the words in one’s head, playing all the characters, but listening for the sound of the poetry rather than actually playing the part. I have been *reading* the play, but that’s not the same way of experiencing Shakespeare as watching Derek Jacobi, Kenneth Branagh or David Tennant play the title role. My print edition of Hamlet (Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark ) has illustrations by John Austen, dating back to 1922. Very reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley, which is yet another disconnect of sorts. Austen’s interpretation of Hamlet is not at all like the film versions I’ve seen of this play.

I have on The Canterville Ghost (in the background) as I type and this particular film version has Patrick Stewart playing the Ghost, who assumes the role of Hamlet’s father’s ghost for purposes of proving his existence to one of the characters. I didn’t know this when I left it on this channel but it does seem as if everything around me is lending itself to thinking about Hamlet.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Thoroughly enjoyed reading this essay, but in a world of ubiquitous computing and portable devices, do we still need to completely withdraw in order to write? After much consideration, I'm in favor (as is this author) of the approach adopted by Thoreau and his cabin in the woods.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Tales of the Arabian Nights

Title: Tales from 1001 Nights: Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Other Favorites
Author:  Anonymous, Translation by Malcolm J. Lyons, Ursula Lyons, and Introduction by Robert Irwin
ISBN: 978-0-141-19165-2 (Buy from Amazon here)
Copyright: 2010, Penguin Classics (An Imprint of Penguin Books), London
Pages: 496 (528 with bibliography, maps, and glossary)
Genre(s): Fantasy, folklore, literary fairy tale

Summary: This volume in the beautifully designed Penguin Classic Hardcover series is an abridged edition of the 2008 three volume Penguin translation of the full collection of folk and fairy tales that we think of as the Arabian Nights. That set of tales has a muddled provenance. The earliest collection known is a 9th century manuscript in Farsi; the next dated full set of tales is a 13th century Syrian manuscript used by Antoine Galland for his introduction of the collection to the Western world between 1704 and 1717. Modern scholarship suggests that the most well known tales from the Arabian Nights -- stories such as Aladdin and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves -- were likely the literary creations of Galland and not part of the original Middle Eastern collection of tales. Scroll down a bit on this page to find a most useful timeline for the various versions and translations. The audience for which Galland wrote was similar to the audience of Charles Perrault and Madame D’Aulnoy -- courtiers and intellectuals. This was leisure reading for the upper-class, adult world. It was not until the nineteenth century that the tales received more of a conservative treatment so that they would be more fit to pass down to those of tender sensibilities. The introduction to this volume is by Robert Irwin, and his background on the content was most engaging. Personally, I had no idea of the history of these tales nor any idea of how much they had been sanitized. Gregory Frost over at Endicott Studios has an excellent article that offers more background on the Arabian Nights as a work of fantasy.

The stories in this hardcover volume are risque, violent, far wilder than generally captured in volumes of these same stories targeted at young adults.  There is even something slightly hallucinatory in these tales; on one page is a realistic scene of hands and feet being cut off at the whim of a caliph and on the next, there is an account of some fantastical battle between jinn and sorceress.

Title: Arabian Nights   
Author: Anonymous, Illustrated by Rene Bull
Copyright: 2010, Calla Editions, New York
ISBN: 978-1606600085
Pages: 352 pages, including 20 full-color plates.
Genre: Fantasy, fairy tales and folklore


Calla Editions is an imprint of Dover Publications, more generally known for cheap reproductions of 19th century public domain materials. What makes this important is that Calla Editions are at the other end of the spectrum with regard to the production values. This edition of Arabian Nights is beautifully bound, with color plates of the 1919 edition illustrated by Irish artist, Rene Bull. (see images by Rene Bull here or here)

The presence of those illustrations in this Calla edition represent a huge difference between it and Penguin’s. I missed the presence of ANY illustrations in the Penguin which needs something to relieve the intensity of the tales. Not just a frontispiece but throughout the text the way that this edition has interspersed color and black and white design elements. The inclusion of graphics allows the reader to both see as well as imagine the fantastical elements in this collection. Oddly enough, the cover of the Bull is more muted (brown stamped with gold lettering) than the very busy one-color cloth cover of the other which features a sadly unoriginal rendition of Aladdin on his flying carpet sailing over palm trees and mythical palaces. It looks uncomfortably like something intended for children which is exactly what Lyons’ translation ought not to be packaged as being. Publishers have relegated art to the world of children unfortunately; unless a specialty or art book, titles in the mainstream targeted at adults do without. (I am aware of the business rationale. I think it’s an insufficient excuse for the shift.)

The overlap between the two collections of tales is primarily in the most well-known tales of the voyages of Sinbad, Ali Baba and Aladdin; but both also include the tale of the King who is half stone, the tale of the mechanical horse of black ebony, and of the city whose enchanted natives are fish of four colors.

Which would I rather spend time with? Frankly, the Calla Edition is the one with which I’m more comfortable, as I remain enamored of its beauty and its overall production values, but the Penguin may be more memorable for that strange juxtaposition of brutality and fantasy in the more accurate translation. The former is a pleasant and more simple world view, but the latter suggests more depth in the real culture.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Do You Need to Phone Home First?

Apparently no one gave the staff a heads-up about his return. See video of the President trying to get into the Oval Office at the White House unsuccessfully.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Participation in a Challenge Again? Maybe

As it happens, Carl over at Stainless Steel Droppings is once again hosting his delightful springtime tradition, the Once Upon A Time reading challenge. I think I participated in either the first or the second of these, or maybe I simply entertained the possibility of it. (I know I did complete one of his Readers in Peril (RIP) challenge.) At any rate, I am feeling nostalgic about fantasy at the moment and I have a number of titles available that qualify.
(1) Tales from 1,001 Arabian Nights: Aladdin, Ali Baba and Other Favorites (Penguin Hardcover Classic)
(2) Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner
(3) The Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones
(4) The Gates of Sleep by Mercedes Lackey (a retelling of Sleeping Beauty)
(5) The Victorian Fairy Tale Book (Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore Library) by Michael Patrick Hearn
At the same time, there's a nuance that Carl has added this year that I like - the option of reading two non-fiction titles about the four genres on which this challenge focuses -- mythology, fairy tales, folklore and fantasy. Of course, that one would require selecting which collection of expert essays I would want to read. I have ordered a new (to me) fairy tale book edited by Jack Zipes (actually published in 2000) and I never did finish Maria Tatar's Enchanted Hunters. So should I do this? Perhaps. Anyone know of a good retelling of Puss in Boots?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Are Fine Editions The Same as Fine Apps?

I have before me two beautiful editions of Jane Eyre - one is the New York Public Library edition published in 1997 in conjunction with Doubleday's centennial  and the 150th anniversary of the text’s initial publication. The other edition is more recent, published in 2010 by White's Books a publisher specializing in artistic book cover design -- in this instance one designed by Petra Borner (http://www.borner.se/)  

Both editions have high-quality production values associated with them. Acid-free paper, good solid bindings,  The New York Public Library (NYPL) Edition is clearly a labor of both scholarship and pride. It features a brief biography of Charlotte Bronte with images not just of her but of manuscripts by and about the author of Jane Eyre, many of which are held in the NYPL collection. You see her written correspondence to a publisher signed as "Currer Bell", the pseudonym she used. There is a photo of her writing desk. These are not half-tones dropped in as an insert on photographic glossy stock but are instead are placed so expertly in the introduction that they do not intrude on the reader's experience of the primary text. Instead the supporting materials within this book’s binding are arranged to satisfy any curiosity on the part of that reader to know more of the text's background and context. 
The NYPL edition’s cover is less striking than the White’s edition, which according to the paper wrapped around the back cover at purchase reflects the artist's inspiration found in the natural symbolism of Jane Eyre with the intent of conveying “the brooding romanticism of the story”. The intent behind White's edition is to feature the cover art of the designer. The production values are perhaps even higher than those used for the NYPL edition; the quality of paper is superior as is the legibility delivered via combined font and leading on the page.

For real bibliophiles, these are important criteria. There is appreciation of the external packaging of the internal text.

What strikes me is that today (even as I type this) there is a panel at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, TX on the discussion of print as it impacts on the design of apps and other digital reading environments. From the panel’s descriptive abstract: ...Print Design is becoming an important influence in the evolution of Interaction Design. As a craft, design for printed media has a rich history. Several generations of designers have pushed its boundaries in countless directions. It has been shaped over several hundred years as both a functional and aesthetic discipline, with a deep foundation of principles, practices, theories, and professional dialogue. In comparison, Interaction and UI Design is still a relatively young field. Its history has largely been driven by technology and functional goals. The dialogue around it has been centered on usability, which has been its purpose in the context of technological advancement. The visual language of UI has evolved from that standpoint: that it should evoke the familiar, analog experience of tools, buttons, knobs, and dials. That foundation has led to a very specific visual language in interactive experiences. In the past ten years however, the relevant technologies that support the design of Interfaces - displays, processing speeds, and rendering engines - have matured to a point that they provide a more capable canvas for design. Meanwhile, our culture has become visibly more comfortable with the technologies that surround it. These combination of trends are creating an important inflection point for designers. The aesthetic experience of the digital surface can now be considered and explored in a more sophisticated manner.

Production values in a physical book matter. It is a visible demonstration as to whether this is a publication that someone deemed to be of such value as to deserve the best of treatment in production in order to attract the highest number of buyers at a sufficiently profitable price.

Knowing that bottom-of-the-line apps can cost in the range of $26,000, one wonders how we’re going to recognize quality in the digital reading environment. Will it just be determined through a slick interface (and I’m not intending to denigrate the difficulty of that achievement) but rather I’m wondering how long it will take for the navigational conventions as well as the packaging to be set for trade books in a digital environment.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Odd and the Frost Giants [Review]

Title: Odd and the Frost Giants
Author: Neil Gaiman (his site: http://www.neilgaiman.com)
Illustrator: Brian Helquist  (his blog: http://bretthelquist.blogspot.com/)
Copyright: 2009, Harper, ISBN 978-006-167173-9
Genre: Literary fairy tale
Length: 117 pages

Summary: Odd is a 12-year old boy very much at odds with the rest of his Viking environment. He’s lame in one leg and even he admits it was due to his own failure to think through his actions. His father is dead and his mother has remarried a man who has no particular interest in Odd. Winter has dragged on for far too long, affecting overall spirits in the village. Can anything be done to improve his lot in life?

This literary fairy tale satisfies our appetite for stories about coming of age and quests. Odd encounters members of the Norse pantheon in animal form (with one of the priceless scenes being one with Odd awakened by those animals indulging in human speech when they think he’s still asleep.)  Ultimately, Odd thinks his way through the resolution of the conflict that has kept Spring from arriving when it ought. If there is a take-away from this reassuring fairy tale. He returns to his home and to his mother having grown in a variety of ways.

Excerpt:Winter hung in there, like an invalid refusing to die. Day after grey day, the ice stayed hard; the world remained unfriendly and cold.
In the village, people began to get on one anothers’ nerves. They’d been staring at each other across the Great Hall for four months now. It was time for the men to make the longship seaworthy, time for the women to start clearing the ground for planting. The games became nasty. The jokes became mean. Fights were to hurt.”

Spring is of course the antidote to this type of illness as is beauty.

Also relevant: I liked this story just as I liked the companion illustrations by Brett Helquist. (For a taste of those illustrations, make a point of viewing the book trailer found here: http://www.mousecircus.com/extras.aspx)  That said, I doubt that Odd and the Frost Giants is the most timeless of Gaiman’s works, but, on the whole, it is a satisfying story -- satisfying rather than being charming or adorable or enchanting. This short (14,000 words) tale is explanatory in many ways, helping younger readers better understand what is required in life. Odd is called upon to be smart; he must think  things out. He must be resourceful in meeting the challenge of putting things back on track. Far from being able to turn to his creature companions for assistance, he has to figure out the answers. The Norse Gods while helpful at times in Odd’s quest just as readily demonstrate their well-known character flaws. (Odin is overly taciturn while Loki tends to boast of his cleverness).

The length is right for the tale; it spins out over the course of six chapters, suitable for reading out loud over the course of an evening or two. Sentence structure is simple but appropriate. Nothing has been dumbed down.

One tidbit, this story has aleady been tranmuted into another medium; this link takes you to a puppeteer’s blog where she discusses her challenges in delivering Gaiman’s tale to an audience.

Perhaps I’m wrong and this work will live longer than I anticipate.  If it’s any indication, I don’t think I will be passing my own copy on to the local library friends book sale.  I too need to be reminded of Spring and the importance of Beauty.

My 2007 review of Gaiman's Stardust.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

A Time to Keep Silence [Review]

Title: A Time to Keep Silence 

Author: Patrick Leigh Fermor, Introduction by Karen Armstrong

Copyright: New York Review of Books, 2007, New York, ISBN: 978-1-59017-244-5

Length: 96 pages

Genre: Essays

Summary: On the surface this tale is about visits to several religious houses, taken not on the basis of any religious fervor but in the hope of finding a quiet place to work. Back in the '50's, Patrick Leigh Fermor visited St. Wandrille des Fontanes, La Grande Trappe,  and Solesmes, and an even more ancient form of monastic shelter found in the Turkish rock monasteries of Cappadocia with the purpose of writing a book. The three essays in this book were drawn from letters written by Fermor during the course of those visits to the woman who would later become his wife.

This is one-third travel, one-third history, one-third Fermor's meditation on a life that he finds as much disconcerting as it is engaging. He is respectful of the monastic life, but clearly has no idea why it would be pursued. What he finds most striking is the monastic pursuit of devotional silence in contrast to the rest of modern life. He writes with erudition, assuming that his reader will be comfortable with historical details as well as with untranslated phrases in French or Latin throughout A Time to Keep Silence. A 2005 newspaper profile of the author characterizes this work as “exquisite” and the lyricism of Fermor's descriptions are indeed beautiful.

Excerpt: The faces of the seated monks are hidden in their hoods; their heads are bowed; and they themselves are only just discernible under the accumulation of shadows. The solitary voice reading aloud seems to issue from an inner silence even greater than the silence that surrounds them. The reading comes to an end; the single light is extinguished; and the chanted psalms follow one another in total darkness. The whole service is a kind of precautionary exorcism of the terrors of the night; a warding off of the powers of darkness, each word throwing up a barrier or shooting home a bolt against the prowling regions of the Evil One. “Scapulus suis obumbrabit tibi”, the voices sing; “et sub pennis ejus sperabis”. The New York Review of Books site links to a Googl Books preview; visit http://www.nybooks.com/books/imprints/classics/a-time-to-keep-silence/

Also Relevant: This book reminded me however fleetingly of James Hilton's Lost Horizon. The desire to escape a society constantly moving in haste to the next Big Thing discounts the value of older approaches to solitude and sustaining inner quiet. Hilton's novel is, of course, more frivolous than this short series of essays but the mindset of Conway, the novel's protagonist, reflects the feelings of the author Fermor.

For this New York Review of Books edition, Karen Armstrong's introduction picks up on the similar attraction of Fermor's work for a distracted audience in the 21st century, “As time advances, the stress of work and the threat of outside distractions make the need for silence and privacy more urgent than ever...” We all benefit from pursuing some form of sabbatical from our pell-mell daily race towards – what? Seeking the silence of another form of life is sometimes the right answer.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

NKJV Greatest Stories of the Bible

I had enrolled in the Thomas Nelson Book Review Blogger program and received a free review copy of the book discussed in this blog entry back in 2010. The original draft of this review is quite literally a year old.  .

Title: NKJV Greatest Stories of the Bible

Author: Thomas Nelson Publishing

Copyright:  2009, Thomas Nelson, Nashville (ISBN: 978-1418541668)

Length: 624 pages (including index)

Summary: Those who publish Bibles are frequently challenged in finding new ways to present the content in ways that are both practically useful and attractive to the market.. For some publishers, the easy approach is to slap a new cover on the Biblical canon with some few study aids such as maps and glossary and ship the product.

Other publishers spend time and resources on considering the various purposes that readers have for selecting a Bible. The volume may be used for purposes of devotion, for purposes of education, for purposes of cultural reference. This particular volume, The Greatest Stories of the Bible, is not in fact a Bible in the traditional sense, as the front matter makes clear. While the actual text is taken literally from the New King James translation of material, the volume is made up of editorially-selected extracts from the Biblical canon with an eye to building a narrative thread through both the Old and New Testament. Rather than presenting a more fluid storyline, Nelson's Greatest Stories of the Bible has focused on ordering a string of  various stories and plot lines  (each not more than three or four pages in length). [For why this is currently considered to be a good approach, read this article, Why Johnny Can't Read the Bible http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/may/25.38.html]

This treatment works for some Books of the Bible (such as the Book of Jonah, a minor prophet) but not for others (such as the Book of Job).  The Book of Jonah is broken into four relatively equal segments (Rebellious Prophet, Repentant Prophet, Successful Prophet and Pouting Prophet). Given the length of the original and its flow of its storyline, this makes sense. Contrast that with the treatment given to Job, a fairly lengthy poetic treatment of Everyman's reaction to the decisions made by a seemingly capricious Deity. In this volume, Job has been reduced to three chapters (specifically 1,2, and 42) which reduces the message of Job down to the overly simplistic message (and this is my statement of the takeaway from those segments) of “God is God, so mind your manners and don't whine”. Hardly inspiring. Some of the more awkward incidents in the lives of patriarch Jacob as well as King David have been eliminated entirely.

It was heartening to see that certain stories of women were still deemed important to the overall message of the Bible.. We see somewhat less familiar figures such as the Judge Deborah, Jael, and Abigail.as well as the better-known Ruth, Sarah, Esther and Mary Magdalene.

Overall, however, this treatment is largely respectful of both the content and the reader's intelligence. Each of the 250 “stories” is manageable in length for purposes of reading aloud or instruction. For example, in introducing great works of classical art, a book such as this would be quite useful in presenting the literary reference for a painting of Jacob meeting Rachel at her father's well for the first time. Production values are pleasing (cream pages with a light brown type, good quality paper and deckle-edged, a ribbon bookmark sewn into the binding); the cover design uses the conceit of a tattered old volume and debossing of the trim at the edges adds a pleasing tactile touch.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Ventus [Review]

Title: Ventus

Author: Karl Schroeder (official web site). Schroeder is a physicist by training, an author of more than half a dozen science fiction titles and a professional futurist/consultant.

ISBN: 0-312-87197-X (note that the full text of Ventus may be downloaded from the author's site in formats compatible with a number of e-reader devices; see this page for more information)

Genre: Science Fiction (Hard SF)

Copyright: 2000, Tor, New York

Length: 477 pages

Summary:  In exploring his theme of man's intelligence versus machine intelligence, Schroeder provides us with a set of characters who before the ending of the novel will reveal themselves to actually be a range of beings some of whom are fully human, others part-human-part-machine and finally others who are fully machine. We first meet Jordan, a youth who is ripped away from his home and family when he goes in pursuit of a runaway sister. Calandria May is a woman who has a mission to complete on Ventus, a planet she doesn't find to be particularly congenial or welcoming., and it is she who spirits Jordan away to join her in an assassination plot impacting on a war that threatens to engulf this planet. One meets the character Armiger when he is lying dead in his tomb with a grave robber about to sack the place for whatever may be of value. Later the reader encounters Queen Galas, both goddess and monarch to her people. These inhabitants of Ventus live uneasily between the tyranny of the Winds who maintain control over Ventus and the social constructs that humans have created in order to survive on this planet. Before Jordan, Armiger and Galas and the other significant players (Axel, Megan, General Lavin, Marya, Enneas, Ka) have assembled for the last battle, each will have traveled across the planet and into space in the interests of protecting and sustaining civilization as they understand it.

The story is told in tensions between male and female, human initiative and programmed hardware, agrarian world and technological environment. This is a science-fiction reworking of the Frankenstein tale -- what happens when man creates a machine that is smarter and stronger than humankind? What can be done when that machine must be turned off but there is no record of how that might be accomplished, when there is no clear understanding of the nature of the original programming that drives the machine? There are hints of the fantastical technologies found in Isaac Asimov's and Ray Bradbury's short stories of the 1950's, but Schroeder examines our interactions with tools and technologies in the harsh light of artificial intelligence and nanotechnology as we understood them in the year 2000.

Extract: One image that I tapped seemed to stagger as it stopped. I tapped it again and it jittered in place. I touched my finger to the wall and slowly drew it along. To my amazement, the pictograph followed....Soon I had ten or so of the things lined up in front of me. The rest were were still whirling around, but they were less fearsome now that I knew I could control them....I immediately made another discovery. If two or more images overlapped, they would both flash for a few seconds, then disappear, replaced by new ones. These new images were the reply of the desal. (page 221)

Also Relevant: Vernor Vinge addressed an audience of information professionals at ALA Midwinter this month and suggested that this novel along with Canticle for Liebowitz were the science fiction they needed to read in order to prepare for the future. As per his notes found here, he sees the theme of Ventus as being a discussion on the nature of extreme distributed computing. His talk was entitled "Guardians of the Past, Enablers of the Future" and focused on how important the preservation of the human record is at both a local level (as represented by the way in which the inhabitants of Ventus have fallen back in their use of technology) and at a far higher level (grasping Ventus' role in the wider space-traveling universe known as the Archipelago). The cover art shown above represents Queen Galas, but might just as easily have been a futuristic image of a librarian. Having learned through Twitter of Vinge's recommendation, I went out and found this book in both print and ebook forms and tried to race through it as quickly as I could.

That was a mistake. Ventus is a novel best read slowly, taking in every paragraph, as there is significance in every scene in the early chapters describing each individual character and their interactions. The pacing is slow in the beginning but in the middle third of the text, the action speeds up dramatically. You need to understand Armiger's rising from his tomb just as you need to absorb the nature of Calandria May's space ship and the uninhabited mansions of Ventus. This is not science fiction to be read through lightly, but rather to be ingested and considered. I thoroughly enjoyed it and recognize its creative fuel for re-thinking the role of libraries and archives in the future.

Bonus Link: Science fiction author Cory Doctorow blogs about Karl Schroeder's work (Feb 2006 -- note link to podcast interview there)