Saturday, March 30, 2019

The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare

The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare 

Nay, he’s [Time] a thief too; have you not heard men say
That time comes stealing on by night and day? ~ Dromio of Syracuse

The Comedy of Errors is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays written and first performed in late 16thcentury.

It is, as the name asserts, a comedy. Set in a single day, it is about two sets of identical twins, each separated from his brother early in life in a tragic shipwreck. The father and one twin, are rescued and taken to Syracuse; the mother and other child are separately taken to Ephesus. Neither knowing what has become of the other. Accompanying each is another boy, also a twin, also separated from his brother.

And while their separation, is thinly plausible, one thing puzzled me: each twin, raised separately have the same name. There is Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus, and their servants Dromio of Syracuse and Dromio of Ephesus.

But the identical names are crucial to the farce, so I suspended disbelief and accepted it.

The pair from Syracuse arrive in Ephesus not knowing it is home to their long-lost twins.

And the mix up begins. They are greeted by people they don’t know as if they are old friends. As Antipholus puts it…
          There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me
          As if I were their well-acquainted friend;
          And every one doth call me by my name
          Some tender money to me, some invite me;
          Some other give me thanks for kindnesses;
          Some offer me commodities to buy

The Syracuse bachelors are even met by women claiming to be their wives. There are numerous incidents of mistaken identity, false accusations, false arrest, undeserved beatings, and even Antipholus of Syracuse attempting to woo his brother’s sister-in-law, who can only believe her sister’s husband is suddenly obscenely unfaithful. The poor fellows from Syracuse assume the Ephesians are under bewitchment and sorcery, while the Ephesians conclude that both sets of Antipholus and Dromio are mad, or possessed of devils.

Like all plays, it is intended to be performed, not read, but some plays still read well. Not this one in my opinion. I think the mix ups would be great fun, and easier to follow, viewed on stage or screen, than they are in reading. 

Still, it was a fast paced and farcical romp.

Like most of Shakespeare’s plays, there are little idioms coined by the Bard that have become part of modern vernacular, with their provenance often forgotten. In this case: the title itself, comedy of errors, is one such example. In another example, Dromio of Syracuse complains:
    Was there ever any man thus beaten out of season, 
    When in the why and wherefore is neither rhyme nor reason?

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


Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Heart of a Lion: The Wild and Wooly Life of Bobby Layne by Bob St. John

Heart of a Lion: The Wild and Wooly Life of Bobby Layne

Bobby Layne never lost a game in his life. Once in a while time just ran out on him. ~ Doak Walker lifelong friend and teammate. 

This is the third in a series of four biographies I am reading/reviewing about Detroit sport legends: Ty Cobb, Gordie Howe, Bobby Layne, and Isiah Thomas. Each the greatest to ever play their respective games.

And while that superlative statement may genuinely apply to Cobb and Howe, I wouldn’t seriously say Bobby Layne is the greatest Football player of all time, or even the greatest quarterback ever. But at one time, he was the best.

When Time magazine ran its November 1954 edition with Bobby Layne on the cover (the first football player to ever grace the cover), the article read: 
The best quarterback in the world is Robert Lawrence Layne.

When he retired after the 1962 season, Bobby Layne was the NFL record holder for most touchdown passes, with 196. He won three NFL championships (before they were called Super Bowls) in the 50s, and is inducted into eight different Halls of Fame:
     -- NFL Hall of Fame
     -- National Quarterback’s Hall of Fame
     -- College Football Hall of Fame
     -- Texas High School Football Hall of Fame
     -- University of Texas Hall of Fame
     -- Texas Sports Hall of Fame
     -- State of Michigan Hall of Fame
     -- State of Pennsylvania Hall of Fame

He probably could have had a career as a professional baseball player as well. In his freshman year at Texas he was a perfect 26-0 as a starting pitcher.

But I think his success on the field had more to do with intelligence, attitude, integrity, and work ethic than sheer athletic ability. He was gracious in defeat, but he always played to win. He said
Winning is the greatest thing in the world. Hell, I wouldn’t give you a nickel for any guy or any team that’s interested in finishing second. Second or last, there’s not a damn bit of difference.

He once stunned his general manager when he demanded a pay cut after a sub-standard season. 

And he was all about teamwork. He demanded full effort and execution from his teammates and would dress them down when they didn’t give it, but then…he established a team meeting the day after each game – 100% participation required – usually held at the bowling alley to go over any problems, patch up any personal grievances, and then to relax and bond as a team. 

As quarterback, Layne was paid three or four times more than other players, but when the team was collectively punished for a curfew violation, and each individual was given the choice of a fine or special workout – Layne knew the fine was not easily affordable to his teammates, so he did the grueling workout along with them.

Bobby Layne is also known for wearing no facemask on his helmet, and only minimal pads.

In addition to his legendary accomplishments on the gridiron, Bobby Layne possesses a rather notorious reputation – that of being a legendary carouser – “legendary” being a key word, as it turns out it is mostly just legend. He did like to party, but the stories of Lions coaches bailing him out of jail Saturday night so he could play Sunday morning, or the smell of alcohol on his breath in the huddle are just untrue. 

He was in fact – rather a prince of a human being.

When the wife of a teammate died suddenly due to a pregnancy complication, her parents flew to Detroit and were quickly overwhelmed by the big city and the enormity of their grief. Bobby took them personally under wing, helping them with arrangements and costs.

He was a devoted family man, fiercely loyal friend, successful business man outside of football, charitable to a fault, and seemed to always look on the bright side. He had a determined ability to put bad things behind him. And there were some bad things.

His father died when Bobby was eight, and a few months later his mother decided she could not cope and sent Bobby to live with an Aunt and Uncle. But according to Bobby’s sons, he never expressed bitter feelings toward his mother, but when recounting his childhood, he focused on what wonderful “parents” his aunt and uncle were.

He died young (59), happy, respected, and loved. He was planning a big Texas shindig to celebrate his and lifelong friend Doak Walker’s 60th birthdays – but borrowing from the Doak Walker quotation – time just ran out on him.


I have no complaints. Life’s been good. I wake up every morning and I say, ‘Good morning God.’ I never say, ‘Good God, morning.’

Bobby Layne never lost a game in his life. Once in a while time just ran out on him. ~ Doak Walker lifelong friend and teammate

Most of the stuff written about me was an exaggeration or a darn lie.

The best quarterback in the world is Robert Lawrence Layne, a blond, bandy-legged Texan with a prairie squint in his narrow blue eyes and an unathletic paunch puffing out his ample 6’1”, 195 frame. ~ Time Magazine Nov 54

I never even encouraged them [his two sons] to play football. I left it up to them. Everything was up to them and their coaches. They can play a piccolo if they want, as long as they’re good at it.

Trivia: Layne is rumored to have cursed the Lions when he was traded mid-season 1958. Legend has it that Layne said the Lions wouldn’t win a championship for 50 years. In the ensuing 50 years, the Lions were the most hapless team in the NFL, rarely making the playoffs, and in the final year of the curse posting the NFLs first ever 0-16 season. They still haven’t won a championship, and it’s now over 60 years, but they have been winning a bit more. That started the year after the curse expired and the Lions drafted Matthew Stafford – who attended the same high school as Bobby Layne.


Saturday, March 16, 2019

Wise Blood by Flannery O’Conner (novel #122)

This was my first read of a Flannery O’Connor novel. It was very reminiscent of her short stories. In fact, Wise Blood incorporates several of her short stories, some with minor adjustment, into one composite story. 

I didn’t love it, and to be honest, I’m never quite certain of O’Connor’s point. It’s the story of Hazel Motes, a WWII veteran returning to the dirty south, who is in the process of exorcising his disillusioned faith. He becomes, partly by accident, partly by design, an itinerant preacher of The Church without Christ. Like many of O’Connor’s characters Hazel is ignorant – but not simple. And also like most of O’Connor’s characters, he tries to make those around him understand him – but he can’t. 

And perhaps that’s her point. We all want to be understood, and we think we make our case so plain, but people just don’t get it. True empathy is pretty rare. We look at others through the lens of our own experience – because how else can we do it – but that lens never gives a complete or accurate view.

O’Connor writes about such challenges. The story is poignant, and sad.

And though I’m not a big fan of the story, I like O’Connor’s writing. She uses unconventional, though easily accessible, descriptors that make the characters and scenes very real…
His face behind the windshield was sour and frog-like; it looked as if it had a shout closed up in it…
The patrolman had a red pleasant face and eyes the color of clear fresh ice.

She writes of a "rat-colored car" or a "cat-faced baby".

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This novel satisfies A Classic by a Woman Author for the Back to the Classics 2019 challenge.


Thursday, March 14, 2019

The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark (novel #121)

Most men are more afraid of being thought cowards than of anything else, and a lot more afraid of being thought physical cowards than moral ones. ~ Art Croft, first-person narrator of The Ox-Bow Incident

If I had to describe The Ox-Bow Incident in one word, it would be poignant.

Or maybe just Wow! It kept me up all night after I’d finished. It is disturbing and beautiful.

Spoiler alert – the following contains a spoiler

The Ox-Bow Incident must be categorized as a Western, but it transcends the genre.

The story is told by Art Croft, who rides with Gil Carter and is set in late 19th Century Nevada, it is the story of a lynching – a lynching of innocents, by men most of whom, on most days – were pretty decent guys. These decent guys include Art and Gil.

I think it is a story of the beginning of the end of the Wild West, about the need for the end of the Wild West. Indeed, the cowboys of Bridger’s Wells were trying to tame the wild by bringing murderers and rustlers to justice. They are spurred to action by the murder of one of their own – Kincaid.
…there was something about him [Kincaid] which made men cotton to him; nothing he did or said, but a gentle, permanent reality that was in him like his bones or his heart, that made him seem like an everlasting part of things.

The sheriff is away so the cowboys form a posse, not quite lawfully deputized, and set out in pursuit of the murderers. There are three dissenters: judge Tyler, preacher Osgood, and shopkeeper Davies. Tyler makes legal arguments and Osgood moral ones – neither are taken seriously. But the author, and some of the cowboys, give greater credence to Davies, who makes more pragmatic, more existential arguments.
…our crime’s worse than a murderer’s. His act puts him outside the law, but keeps the law intact. Ours would weaken the law. 

…it’s infinitely more deadly when the law is disregarded by men pretending to act for justice than when it’s simply inefficient…

There is much more to Davies’ argument, and a few of the cowboys, Art in particular, are nearly persuaded. In the middle of one argument Davies stops abruptly. I liked how Clark, through narrator Art describes that moment.
He stopped, not as if he had finished, but as if he suddenly saw he was wasting something precious.

The mob finds the rustlers, makes a mockery of a trial, convicts the men and executes them at dawn. 

Less than an hour later as they are riding back to town the mob meets the sheriff, the rancher who was supposedly rustled, and most incredibly Kincaid the cowboy who was supposedly murdered. The lynch victims are no murderers, nor even rustlers. But all that is left of them now is a widow and two children. All that is left for the mob is to atone.

Did I describe this novel as beautiful? I’m almost ashamed to say it, but yeah. It is tragically, powerfully, disturbingly beautiful.

I define greatness in a novel as one that evokes exalted thought or powerful emotions – it did both. Have you read The Ox-Bow Incident? What did you think? Could you ever describe something so tragic as beautiful?

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel satisfies A 20th Century Classic for the Back to the Classics 2019 challenge.

Film rendition: The 1942 rendition with Henry Fonda as Gil and Harry Morgan as Art is very good, fairly faithful to the book, until the end, and just as disturbing. I often say skip the movie, read the book, but for this one, I’d say read it first, then watch the movie. 


Monday, March 11, 2019

Recap of novels 111 - 120

Recap of Novels 111-120

Average rating of novels 111-120 – 3.8 stars (out of 5)

112. ★★★½   The Invisible Man
113. ★★★      The Idiot
114. ★★★½   Dream of the Red Chamber
115. ★★★½   A Study in Scarlet
119. ★★★★½   Watership Down
120. ★★★★½   Bleak House

Favorite: Waterhship Down
Honorable Mention: Bleak House

Least Favorite: The Idiot.  I’m ordinarily a fan of Dostoevsky, but not this time.

Best Hero: Hazel from Watership Down
Best Heroine: Esther from Bleak House

Best Villain: General Woundwort from Watership Down

Most interesting/Complex character: Mike the computer from The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Marvelous wordplay on the name. The sentient computer is named Mike, by his human friend Mannie, Mike is short for Mycroft (as in Mycroft Holmes). Mike the computer is a High-Optional, Logical, Multi-Evaluating Supervisor, or HOLMES mark IV.

Best Quotation: A fool with a heart and no brains is just as unhappy as a fool with brains and no heart. ~ Elizabetha Prokofievna from The Idiot

Best film adaptation: I really liked the 2018 Watership Down CGI, with some big names doing the voices. It was less traumatic than the 1978 animated version.

Worst film adaptation: I didn’t see film versions of most, so I’ll have to go with the 1941 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Spencer – though it wasn’t terrible.


Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Gordie: A Hockey Legend by Roy MacSkimming

Gordie: A Hockey Legend by Roy MacSkimming

Gordie Howe is still the greatest all-round player. ~ Ted Lindsay

This is the second biography, in a series of four, which I am reading/reviewing on Detroit sport legends: Ty Cobb, Gordie Howe, Bobby Layne, and Isiah Thomas. Each the greatest to ever play their respective games.

I might be a bit biased, and not entirely serious, but for Ty Cobb and Gordie Howe at least there is a pretty strong case. I doubt you could find a baseball or hockey enthusiast who would say they don’t at least belong in the debate. For baseball, there are only three names: Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron.

For hockey, there are only two: Gordie Howe (Mr. Hockey) and Wayne Gretzky (The Great One). To be fair, I have to give the nod to the Gretzky – you just can’t argue with his numbers. He broke all of Gordie Howe’s scoring records, and did it in fewer games. However, there are a fair number of hockey scholars who still argue that Howe is the greatest – based primarily on the differing eras the two played in. Regardless, Gordie Howe is ONE of the greatest to ever play the game. He won four Stanley Cups and owned all the scoring records when he retired in 1980.

Oh and…the Great One himself has this to say:
When I was a kid, I wanted to play, talk, shoot, walk, eat, laugh, look and be like Gordie Howe. He was far and away my favourite player…he’s the best player ever.

Like Cobb, Gordie Howe also has a reputation for being mean on the playing field (ice in his case). Unlike Cobb, who in my opinion suffers from an unfair reputation, Howe was indeed a bit mean – but only on the ice.

But as I’ve hinted – off ice he was a gentleman, humble, quiet, and unassuming.

I might as well keep up the comparisons with Ty Cobb. Unlike Cobb – who retired decades before I was born, I did have the privilege of watching Gordie Howe on television. Unfortunately, it was well after the glory days of the 50s when the Red Wings won four Stanley Cups. By the time I would watch the Wings were floundering in mediocrity, but Howe was still exciting to watch. In fact, in the 60s it is said there were four strong teams in the NHL: Toronto, Montreal, Chicago, and Howe.

Gordie Howe: A Hockey Legend traces his career from childhood playing on frozen ponds in Saskatchewan, to his early playing days for Detroit’s junior hockey teams, to his prime, to his later years playing into his 50s on the same team as his two sons, and of course the totality of his Hall-of-Fame career. 

Gordie was raised in a large family (nine siblings), during the depression in Saskatoon Saskatchewan. His father was hard working, pragmatic, and a bit aloof. Still Gordie often cited him as imparting this valuable wisdom:
Never take any dirt from nobody.

But Gordie was a bit of a momma’s boy. He was shy, and conscientious about his own physical size and strength – considerably larger than children his own age. The author claims that Gordie inherited a mixed legacy from his two very different parents.
He is by turns self-deprecating and proud; introverted and outgoing; kindly and aggressive, excessively dependent and boldly risk-taking; guilelessly naïve and shrewdly down-to-earth.

The story of Gordie’s first skates has reached nearly mythical proportions in Canada. A neighbor came to the house one day, offering to sell a bag of “stuff” in order to buy food. Mrs. Howe gave her what she could spare and when the sack was emptied, out fell a pair of skates. Gordie pounced, claiming them as his own – and the rest is history (though he did have to share them for a while with his sister).

My favorite part of the book though tells of Howe’s early years in the NHL and of his friendship with teammate Ted Lindsay. Lindsay passed away yesterday, the day I finished reading Gordie: A Hockey Legend – rest in peace Terrible Ted. According to Colleen Howe, Gordie’s wife…
Ted was family to Gordie, really the only family he had outside of Saskatoon.

Lindsay and Howe were opposites off the ice. Lindsay was bold and confident, helping the shy kid from the Canadian plains adjust to the big city and the spotlight. On ice, they were two-thirds of Detroit’s legendary “Production Line” (marvelous word play): Howe at right wing, Sid Abel at center, and Lindsay at left wing – one of the greatest front lines in hockey history.

There is much more of course. The narrative tells how Gordie was guided and protected in early life by his mother, later by teammate Lindsay, and eventually by wife Colleen. It tells of his epic rivalry with Maurice “Rocket” Richard, the man who previously held all the scoring records, and of his near fatal injury during the 1950 Stanley Cup playoffs. And there are some wonderful pictures, mostly of Gordie in action, but also one of a young teenager named Wayne Gretzky meeting his idol.

And there is the story of the most famous of all NHL fights – Gordie’s epic bout with NHL tough guy Leapin Louie Fontinato in 1959. Fontinato started the fight, but Gordie ended it. According to the author it was Howe’s last major bout…
Not because he lost the stomach for it, but because it put the word around the league that challenging him face-to-face was not an intelligent move.

And one more story, that explains one of the oddest traditions in North American sports. In the 1952 Stanley Cup playoffs, Detroit swept Toronto in four straight in the semis, and then swept Montreal in four straight in the finals. It was the first ever eight-game sweep in the playoffs. And eight you know, eight’s an important number now, and an octopus has eight tentacles – which somehow represent the eight-game sweep. And now, at moments of extreme fan delight at Detroit home games, fans are known to throw octopi onto the ice.

A very enjoyable and thorough look at Mr. Hockey.

Trivia: A “Hat Trick” in hockey is when a player scores three goals in a game. A “Gordie Howe Hat Trick” is scoring a goal, an assist, and a fight in one game. 

Sunday, March 3, 2019

The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle – a Sherlock Holmes short story

The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle – a Sherlock Holmes short story

The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is a Sherlock Holmes short story from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes collection. According to The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, it was Holmes 15thcase.

A good story; I liked it, but I gotta tell you something I’m getting tired of.

Holmes sees some insignificant item, a worn out old hat in this case, and deduces all sorts of things about the owner – and Watson is incredulous, just can’t believe it.

C’mon Doc (actually C’mon Sir ACD). At some point, Watson – pretty smart bloke himself, should just realize – I don’t know how he does it, but he’s done it before, and he’s always right, so I’ll just believe him.

But back to the story, about an old hat – missing its owner, and a Christmas goose, probably of the same owner, with some very surprising giblets: an enormous, and valuable, blue carbuncle.

Spoiler alert – Holmes solves the case, but he does something quite unexpected: he lets the culprit go.

It was a day or two after Christmas after all, and the man was not a hardened criminal. Nice to see the softer side of Holmes.