Saturday, February 23, 2019

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare 

How now spirit! whither wander you? ~ Robin Goodfellow aka Puck

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a comedy by William Shakespeare, written late 16thcentury.

It begins with the impending marriage between Theseus, Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta queen of the Amazons – all very dignified and elegant, but pretty quickly things take a rather absurd turn.

There is a love quadrangle: Demetrius intends to wed fair Hermia. He has her father’s blessing, but not Hermia’s – who is in love with Lysander. Hermia’s friend Helena is in love with Demetrius, who once toyed with her affections, but has now cast her off for Hermia. In short – two dudes love Hermia, but she loves only one, while her father approves of the other, and nobody loves poor Helena. 

It’s rather dizzying at first – and there are further complications, but I still found it easier to read than many of Shakespeare’s plays. Some of the dialogue between Hermia and Helena for example:

Hermia     O, teach me how thou look; and with what art
                You sway the motion of Demetrius’ heart
Hermia     I frown upon him, yet he loves me still
Helena     O that your frowns would teach my smiles such skill
Hermia     I give him curses, yet he gives me love
Helena     O that my prayers could such affection move
Hermia     The more I hate, the more he follows me
Helena     The More I love, the more he hateth me
Hermia     His folly, Hermia is no fault of mine
Helena     None, but your beauty: would that fault were mine

And then the fairies get involved with some magic love potion, some of it applied to the wrong suitor, some of it applied to a fairy queen causing her to fall in love with an ass.

One of the fairies, cavalier Puck, is delighted by the confusion of it all and declares:
Lord, what fools these mortals be!

Maybe, but really? Their foolishness is caused by the meddling fairies. I shouted back at Puck: Lord, what pests these fairies be!

And then, there is a play within the play, as some none too accomplished thespians enact a comic tragedy for the wedding celebration. The acting is so bad that Hippolyta, ordinarily rather gracious and dignified exclaims:
This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard

And the wedding parties riff the play. Some of the scenes are so absurd in design and delivery that the actors break character to explain things, evoking yet more riffs from the audience.

It’s a lot of fun, and a very happy ending. But…

It may have all been…but a dream. 

Excerpt from Puck’s epilogue

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this – and all is mended –
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles do not reprehend;
If you pardon, we will mend.

I read this as part of the 2019 Year of Shakespeare Challenge.

Film Rendition: I watched the 68 version with very young Helen Mirren, Judy Dench and Ian Holm as Puck. You know the scene in LOTR when Ian Holm as Bilbo gets all crazed and evil looking and grabs for the ring? He makes nearly the same face as Puck in this. Good a film of a Shakespeare play should be it was true to the play.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty by Charles Leerhsen

Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty by Charles Leerhsen

The great trouble with baseball today is that most of the players are in the game for the money and that's it. Not for the love of it, the excitement of it, the thrill of it. ~ Ty Cobb

Before I tell you about this book, let me tell you a little about the greatest baseball player ever – not Babe Ruth, not Hank Aaron, not Willie Mays – Ty Cobb. Not an opinion – just a fact.

Evidence: There are six important stats for a position player (non-pitcher). Cobb is in the TOP 10 lifetime for 5 of the 6: #1 all-time batting average .366; #2 all-time hits 4189; #2 all-time Runs 2246; #4 all-time stolen bases 897; and #8 all-time runs-batted-in 1937. He was not a power hitter and doesn’t crack the top 100 in Home Runs. Ty Cobb is the only player Top 10 in 5 of the 6 stats.  Only Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron are TOP 10 in 4 of 6. He also owns lesser records such as #1 stealing home, #1 stealing multiple bases in one plate appearance, #2 all-time singles, and #2 all-time inside the park home runs. From 1907-1919 he was the American League batting champion every year but 1916 (when he was second) and the MLB batting champion every year but 1908 and 1916. He holds the MLB record for the most MLB records. Finally, in 1936, first-ever Baseball Hall of Fame induction, Cobb was named on 222 of 226 ballots, ahead of Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, and Walter Johnson. Greatest of All-Time – BOOM!

He was also the most hated man in baseball – well, maybe not. Charles Leerhsen’s book Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty attempts to dispel that myth.

Tyrus Raymond Cobb – The Georgia Peach – played from 1905-1928. Popular legends about Cobb: He was universally hated by opponents and teammates, he was a racist, he was mean, he despised children (probably puppies as well).

In addition to presenting real evidence contrary to these myths, Leerhsen also offers insight as to how the legends were created and how they persist. It’s complicated to say the least but perhaps the most compelling is that we are intrigued by monsters.
…a villain who inspires self-congratulation makes for one hell of a tenacious myth
At least one biographer capitalized on, or perhaps more precisely created much of the myth. His fantastic accounts are conspicuously lacking in sources. But demonizing a legend is sure to titillate – and sell.

History became legend. Legend became myth and myth became fact.

And if an Academy Award winning actor portrays the myth – it must be fact. (The film Cobb was based on the unsourced biography noted above)

Oh, and one other thing – if Cobb was “hated” by opponents it was mostly because he made them look like silly. But this “hatred” was respect, bordering on awe of the greatest batter/baserunner ever. Leerhsen offers testimony after testimony from Cobb’s contemporaries that are generous in praise and almost completely lacking in criticism.

Another myth was that Cobb was a natural-born hitter – a description he detested. He was a student of the game and trained constantly. He was an innovator, rule breaker, and risk taker. According to Leerhsen
Almost everything he did on the field was a considered, conscious decision based on his theory of the game.
Cobb was no saint. He had an ego, a temper, and was a brawler – but this was true of most ballplayers at the turn of the century. Leerhsen simply attempts to set the record straight. He casts doubt on, if not outright disproves most of the infamous Cobb behavior with substantiated facts and first-hand testimony.

Just one example: In August 1909 while sliding into third, Cobb’s spikes cut the arm of A’s third baseman Frank Baker.  Connie Mack the legendary manager of the A’s raised Cain – probably trying to get Cobb ejected – which wouldn’t hurt the A’s chances. After much bluster, there was no ejection and Baker was able to continue play. However, the incident became a scandal with a handful of players and managers around the league asserting Cobb was a dirty player who tried to maim opponents, though there were more who came to his defense. The American League president, Ban Johnson publicly admonished Cobb after hearing only Connie Mack’s version of the incident, but a few days later, a photograph of the play surfaced that clearly shows Cobb sliding away from the tag, showing it was Baker who caused the minor injury – something Baker himself did not dispute.

But the damage was done – the reputation stuck. Cobb was a dirty player.

Leerhsen cites dozens of other incidents that similarly show Cobb’s villainous reputation is largely undeserved. Some dispute this of course, but for me at least, he presented conscientious, substantiated and unbiased evidence

But this biography is not only about disproving the less flattering aspects of the Cobb myth, it is also about his passion, his wit, his values, his foibles, his scholarly view of the game and his legendary accomplishments on the field.

It is about his wounded ego, at the end of his career and the end of the dead-ball era, when Babe Ruth emerged on the scene, and it is about his failed experiment as a player manager.

It is also about his failure to win a World Series. The Tigers made it to the series three years in a row 1907-1909, but never managed to win it all. In the final two years of his career, Cobb played for Connie Mack and the Philadelphia A’s. The A’s won the World Series the year AFTER Cobb retired.

And then there is the most bizarre chapter in his extraordinary life in which Cobb’s mother shot and killed his father, probably mistaking him for a prowler? She was acquitted but like the rest of the Cobb legend, some prefer a more scandalous explanation.

Oh and, Cobb was a voracious reader – enjoying biographies of Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon, and the novels of Victor Hugo, James Joyce, Henry James, Wilkie Collins, and others. On road trips to Washington D.C. he was known to visit the Library of Congress.

Quotations about Ty Cobb:

He didn’t out-hit the opposition and he didn’t out-run them; he out-thought them. ~ Sam Crawford

Cobb was the roughest, toughest player I ever saw, a terror on the base paths. He was not dirty, though. I never saw him spike a player deliberately. ~ Burt Shotton

I’ve been on top of many plays in which Cobb was the runner and I never saw him cut anyone intentionally. ~ Silk O’Loughlin (Umpire)

I would take Cobb. I like to see Ruth hit the long ones, but nothing has thrilled me more than the sight of Ty Cobb dashing around the bases, taking chances, outwitting the other side. You could never tell what he was going to do, and it was fine fun trying to figure out what he might do next. You don’t get that with Ruth. ~ Tom Yawkey, Boston Red Sox owner

I’d want him [Cobb] over Ruth on my team. Ruth would fill your stadium. Cobb would beat you in it. ~ Carl Mays

Cobb lived off the field as though he wished to live forever. He lived on the field as though it was his last day. ~ Branch Rickey

Every time I hear of this guy again, I wonder how he was possible. ~ Joe DiMaggio

Hornsby could run like anything but not like this kid. Cobb was the fastest I ever saw for being sensational on the bases. ~ Casey Stengel

I never saw anyone like Ty Cobb. No one even close to him. He was the greatest all time ballplayer. That guy was superhuman, amazing. ~ Casey Stengel

Let him sleep if he will. If you get him riled up, he will annihilate us. ~ Connie Mack

The Babe was a great ballplayer, sure, but Cobb was even greater. Babe could knock your brains out, but Cobb would drive you crazy. ~ Tris Speaker

The greatness of Ty Cobb was something that had to be seen, and to see him was to remember him forever. ~ George Sisler

When I get the record, all it will make me is the player with the most hits. I'm also the player with the most at bats and the most outs. I never said I was a greater player than Cobb. ~ Pete Rose

He was a man who needed a tremendous amount of love – but who nevertheless pushed everyone away. ~ Peggy Cobb Shugg, granddaughter

This is the first biography in a series of four that I will read on Detroit sports legends Ty Cobb, Gordie Howe, Bobby Layne, and Isiah Thomas. Besides playing in Detroit they also all share rather infamous reputations, though to varying degrees.


Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Bleak House by Charles Dickens (novel #120)

Bleak House is the story of Esther Summerson, though very early in the narrative, Esther asserts it is not about her.

Well, that’s just like Esther: unassuming and humble. Nonetheless, it is about her. Esther is a beautiful young woman – could a Dickens heroine be anything but? Indeed yes, because smallpox disfigures Esther’s face, and yet I stand by my opinion that she is beautiful.

In fact, I have read some who dislike Esther for being too virtuous, too saintly, too good to be true. I don’t quite get that. I liked her in spite of her virtue and sincerity.

And she wasn’t even the saintliest person in the story. That distinction goes to Esther’s guardian John Jarndyce, whom Vladimir Nabokov described as

one of the best and kindest human beings ever described in a novel.

I found Jarndyce likeable as well in spite of his annoying niceness.

I might have given a hint to one of the surprising aspects of this novel. Contrary to what I expect from Dickens. There was no heartbreaking dilemma. There was no forlorn orphan – though Esther was an orphan, but never forlorn, and not always truly an orphan, though later truly. There were no heinous villains - minor villains only, no gross injustice – just minor inequities in English chancery law (that this novel is sometimes credited with changing).

But there is the old familiar Dickens’ hallmark of serendipitous coincidence which intertwines the mysteries of Esther’s birth and fortunes with numerous other subplots.

In another departure, Bleak House is the only Dickens story with a female narrator. The narrative switches between Esther’s first-person narration, and an omniscient narrator.

Bleak House, the abode of John Jarndyce, in spite of its name is a pleasant, homey place, as Esther describes:
…one of those delightfully irregular houses where you go up and down steps out of one room into another, and where you come upon more rooms when you think you have seen all there are, and where there is a bountiful provision of little halls and passages, and where you find still older cottage-rooms in unexpected places with lattice windows and green growth pressing through them.

And it has a marvelous feature that I shall look for in my next house: The Growlery, where Jarndyce would at times retreat to lament the ways of the world to no one in particular. Jarndyce typically retires to The Growlery when the wind is in the East, when he is dissatisfied with the world, vs when all is well and the wind is in the West.

In one final departure from the normal Dickens motif, not all of the plots or subplots turn out to the perfect satisfaction of the reader. For me – that works. Sometimes I like Dickens’ perfect poetic justice. At others, I like a little harsh reality (never too harsh from Dickens though – that just wouldn’t be right).

And last I come to this. There are some, many in fact, who say this is Dickens’ finest work, among them are George Gissing, G. K. Chesterton, and Stephen King who lists it among his 10 favorite novels by any author. Me? But not so for me. I liked it very much, but I still put A Tale of Two Cities at #1, and give a slight edge to David Copperfield over Bleak House.

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

This novel satisfies A 19th Century Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2019

Film rendition: 2005 BBC - as usual BBC does a great job with Dickens. Well cast, well written, well acted, sets and wardrobe very convincing, and only minor, fairly tolerable deviations from the original.


Saturday, February 9, 2019

The Adventure of the Dying Detective – a Sherlock Holmes short story

The Adventure of the Dying Detective – a Sherlock Holmes short story

The Adventure of the Dying Detective by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is a Sherlock Holmes short story from His Last Bow collection. According to The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, it was Holmes 14thcase.

Would it alarm you to learn the dying detective is none other than Sherlock Holmes? It certainly alarmed Mrs. Hudson.

Mrs. Hudson, the landlady of Sherlock Holmes, was a long-suffering woman. Not only was her first-floor flat invaded at all hours by throngs of singular and often undesirable characters, but her remarkable lodger showed an eccentricity and irregularity in his life which must have sorely tried her patience. His incredible untidiness, his addiction to music at strange hours, his occasional revolver practice within doors, his weird and often malodorous scientific experiments, and the atmosphere of violence and danger which hung around him made him the very worst tenant in London. 
And yet…

She was fond of him…

And would only tolerate Holmes’ refusal of a Doctor for so long. Eventually, she sends for Dr. Watson.

Who found Holmes emaciated and delirious, causing Watson to remark…

Of all ruins, that of a noble mind is the most deplorable.

He still retained, however, the jaunty gallantry of his speech. To the last gasp he would always be the master. 

Of course, it does not require Sherlock Holmes’ powers to deduce that I have many Sherlock Holmes stories yet to read – so there must be hope for the persnickety detective.

Indeed, his condition is simply a ruse – though ever the slave to his craft, Holmes did deny himself food and water for three days to affect his gaunt condition. It was necessary to first deceive Mrs. Hudson – who Holmes knew would alert Dr. Watson. Next he would fool Watson in order that Watson should be convincing when he plead Holmes’ fatal condition to the real subject – and the villain in this case.

I think I am catching on to Holmes’ ways – I suspected Holmes was malingering. It was a fun adventure nonetheless.