Saturday, September 28, 2019

Coraline by Neil Gaiman (novel #136)

Be wise. Be brave. Be tricky.

Coraline Jones is eleven years old, the only child of loving, busy, and distracted parents. She is good at entertaining herself and likes to explore, which is a fortuitous pastime, since her family has moved into a large, old house, with eccentric tenants, who never get her name right, and lots of floors, windows and doors. There is one door in particular that captures her attention. Under normal circumstances, the door opens to a bricked-up wall.

But Coraline finds herself in circumstances, not at all normal, when upon opening the door, against the advice of the mice, the door opens to reveal a passage to another house much like her own, family and tenants included – and yet – not at all like her own.

Intrepid, inquisitive, and independent, Coraline explores the other worldly alternate home, and at first finds it fascinating. However, she soon discovers a sinister and ghoulish danger waiting to trap her.

I know this is supposed to be a spooky tale, a creepy tale, maybe even a horror, which is why I chose it as part of the R.I.P.14 reading challenge. But if I were to categorize Coraline in one word, it would be sweet. 

I believe it was Gaiman’s intent to show his daughters, and all children:
…that being brave didn’t mean you weren’t scared. Being Brave meant you were scared, really scared, badly scared, and you did the right thing anyway.

Truthfully, I KNOW that was his intent. He says so, with those very words in the foreword. He is probably a fan of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Do you read forewords? I sometimes do, sometimes don’t. I’ve read a couple that spoiled the novel – I hate that. This one didn’t spoil the story, but it probably added to my impression of the story being sweet. Neil Gaiman began this story for his first daughter Holly, but set it aside and finished it years later for his youngest daughter Maddy. Told ya it was sweet.

Coraline has been described as a story that all ages might enjoy, and I agree, but it was definitely written for children. The omniscient narrator is childlike, innocent, and unpretentious.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The San Francisco Chronicle Book Review put it very well:
Coraline is by turns creepy and funny, bittersweet and playful. A book that can be read quickly and enjoyed deeply.

The only work I’ve read previously by Gaiman is Sandman, a graphic novel, which has a decidedly different audience and theme. I knew Coraline was written with a different audience in mind, but otherwise, I had no expectations. I wasn’t surprised though. I knew Gaiman is a versatile writer, and this short story certainly demonstrates it. I really enjoyed Coraline – in short – it was sweet.

Film rendition: The 2009 Henry Selick film is very good. There are a few minor departures from the book, but still very faithful. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare 

He is a dreamer; let us leave him ~ Julius Caesar regarding the Soothsayer who told him Beware the ides of March

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves that we are underlings ~ Cassius, one of Caesar’s betrayers

Cry Havoc, and let slip the dogs of war… ~ Marc Antony

Julius Caesar is a tragedy by Shakespeare, though it is also historical. It was written very late 16thCentury and, in spite of the name, is really more about Marcus Brutus and the dilemma he faces regarding his friend Julius Caesar. 

The setting:  Rome, 44 BC, during the Roman Republic, not the Roman Empire. Julius Caesar was not emperor, there was no Roman emperor; he was the greatest military leader of his day, who was becoming increasingly powerful and popular. A group of Senators and Generals fear Caesar will soon be made King, and so, ostensibly for the love of Rome, they plot Caesars death. They need Brutus to join the conspiracy if they hope to keep the peace in the aftermath.

Brutus is greatly conflicted.

But you probably know the outcome. Ironically, the attempt to preserve the republic, causes its demise and ushers in the Roman Empire (or dictatorship), when Caesar’s adopted son Octavius becomes the first Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus.

This may be my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays. It is an intriguing mess of conflicted ideals: friendship vs patriotism, law vs justice, idealism vs pragmatism, and honor vs necessity. It is filled with powerful quotations, many of which are part of today’s vernacular. 

And a couple great speeches. First, Brutus who convinces the pro-Caesar mob that the assassination was necessary for the good of greater Rome. 
If, then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer, - Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.

He is followed immediately by Marc Antony’s eulogy of Caesar. Antony was not one of the conspirators, but he is allowed to speak kindly of Caesar, in hopes of bringing about some healing and unity to the nation.

But Antony, has a different agenda, and with crafty words, words that ostensibly place no shame on the conspirators, he subtly lays bare the treachery and ambition of the assassins, and turns the crowd against them. Antony’s speech, begins with some of Shakespeare’s most famous lines:
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears…

And later concludes:
Now let it work: mischief, thou art afoot.Take thou what course thou wilt!

I ached for Caesar at his betrayal. When he cries:
et tu, Brute? – Then fall, Caesar!

I was dubious of his betrayers – I think most acted from jealousy and ambition rather than altruism. I sympathized with Brutus, in a disappointed sort of way, and I admired Marc Antony, in a devious sort of way. Most of all, I despaired for Rome.

In the end, there is much death, much falling on swords, much suffering before the rise of an Empire.

I’d love to see this enacted on stage. In the meantime, any recommendations for a good film rendering?

I read this for the 2019 Year of Shakespeare Challenge, and although I didn’t read it as part of R.I.P. 14, I could have – because it has a ghost, ya gotta love a play with a ghost.

Other excerpts:

It was Greek to me ~ Casca, on not being able to understand Cicero who was speaking Greek

For let the gods so speed me as I love
The name of honour more than I fear death. ~ Brutus

Good night then Casca: this disturbed sky is not to walk in. ~ Cicero

Let’s be sacrificers, but not butchers… ~ Brutus

O ye gods, Render me worthy of this noble wife ~ Brutus

No, Cassius, no: think not, thou noble Roman
That ever Brutus will go bound to Rome;
He bears too great a mind. But this same day
Must end that work the ides of March began;
And whether we shall meet again, I know not.
Therefore our everlasting farewell take:
For ever, and for ever, farewell Cassius!
If we do meet again, why, we shall smile;
If not, why then, this parting was well made. ~ Brutus

O, coward that I am, to live so long,
To see my best friend ta’en before my face. ~ Cassius on seeing Titinius captured

Like most of Shakespeare’s plays, Julius Caesar is filled with phrases that have made their way into the modern vernacular – many of which I’ve already cited: The Dogs of War, It’s Greek to me, Cowards die a thousand deaths, etc. There is probably one more modern colloquialism that should be attributed to this play…
Great Caesar’s Ghost!


Saturday, September 21, 2019

The Short Stories of Edgar Allan Poe

The Short Stories of Edgar Allan Poe

They who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night. ~ Edgar Allan Poe, from Eleonora

There are few persons, even among the calmest thinkers, who have not occasionally been startled into a vague yet thrilling half-credence in the supernatural… ~ Edgar Allan Poe, from The Mystery of Marie Roget

Edgar Allan Poe’s short life was a mixture of personal tragedy, economic hardship, physical illness, and self-destruction. He achieved popular and critical acclaim during his lifetime, that did not equate to financial success or personal peace. He died in 1949 at the age of 40, just four years after publication of The Raven – his greatest literary success.

In spite of his too-short life, he is one of America’s most original, and influential writers. He wrote one novel, dozens of poems, and dozens of short stories. I was reading from The Collected Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. I previously read and reviewed his POETRY and his one NOVEL. This review is of his short stories.

My edition, divides his short stories into three categories: Tales of Mystery and Imagination, Tales of Humor and Satire, and Flights of Fancy.

And although those are fair designations, I would categorize them a bit differently: Tales of the Macabre; Humor and Satire; Fantasy and Absurdity; and Detective Stories. There is also a fair bit of what I would call crossover between these categories.

I’ve read Poe, now and then, on and off, over the years, but this is the first time I dedicated myself to reading the complete collection of his short stories. My admiration, even loyalty to him, causes me some reluctance to admit, that I’m not a huge fan of the humor or fantasy stories. It isn’t very surprising that I would find his macabre tales his best, as these are what he is best known for (apart from that one poem).

A couple excerpts from two of his best known macabre tales:
A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. ~ The Cask of Amontillado
I went to work! I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him. ~ The Tell Tale Heart

Poe’s humor has its moments. A few excerpts:
Mr. Crab first opened his eyes, and then his mouth, to quite a remarkable extent; causing his personal appearance to resemble that of a highly agitated duck in the act of quacking… ~ The Literary Life of Thingum Bob, Esq, Late Editor of the Goosetherumfoodle
If there is any thing on earth I hate, it is a genius. Your geniuses are all arrant asses – the greater the genius the greater the ass – and to this rule there is no exception whatever. ~ The Business Man
The Dutch have, perhaps, an indeterminate idea that a curtain is not a cabbage…The Yankees alone are preposterous ~ Philosophy of Furniture

Or this bit of satire, that I couldn’t help but think was aimed at some of his contemporary detractors:
There is no just ground, therefore, for the charge brought against me by certain ignoramuses – that I have never written a moral tale, or, in more precise words, a tale with a moral. ~ Never Bet the Devil Your Head: A Tale with a Moral

Similarly, his fantasies have some amusing moments and beautiful prose:
As if by some sudden convulsive exertion, reason had at once hurled superstition from her throne. ~ The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion

His detective stories, though few, are superb. Poe is said to have invented the genre, and his French detective, C. August Dupin of No. 33, Rue Dunot, was in part, the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes. Holmes even mentions Dupin in A Study in Scarlet. Just as Sherlock has Watson, Dupin has a friend and colleague, unnamed, who recounts his cases, which are solved by Dupin’s fastidious powers of observation. And like Sherlock, Dupin often comes to the aid of the police, whom he holds, to some degree in contempt.
“That is another of your odd notions,” said the Prefect, who had a fashion of calling every thing “odd” that was beyond his comprehension, and thus lived amid an absolute legion of “oddities.” ~ The Purloined Letter

All in all, a very good read – which owing mostly to the macabre tales, I read for R.I.P 14.


Monday, September 16, 2019

Classics Club Spin #21

Classics Club Spin #21

It is time for the 21stedition of the Classics Club Spin – List 20 books from my CC TBR, by September 23, the mods then pick a random number, and I have until October 31 to read the corresponding book.

‘cept I’m gonna cheat. That really shouldn’t surprise you. I cheat on most memes, challenges, double dog-dares, and quests. For reasons that I won’t go into (cuz it would be boring and no one cares), I’m only going to list 10 books. I used a random number generator to pick their order. If the chosen spin number is one of my BLANKS, I exempt myself from the Spin, without forfeiting the associated cash prize.

5. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
6. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
7. Dracula by Bram Stoker
8. Lost Horizon by James Hilton
9. Under the Net by Iris Murdoch
10. Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow
11. The Greek Interpreter by Arthur Conan Doyle
12. Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach
17. At Swim Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien
18. Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Saturday, September 7, 2019

R.I.P (a spook inspired reading challenge)


I’ve always wanted to participate in R.I.P (Readers Imbibing Peril) – well, not always, but since whenever I first became aware of it – but some self-imposed reading schedule has precluded me in years previous.

But not this year – I planned ahead; wrapped up my Back to the Classics 2019 Challenge early, so I’d be ready.

I’m going for Peril in the First Degree by reading four works from the loosely defined criteria. I will read:

The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter (a Sherlock Holmes short story)

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Update: The following were not part of my original R.I.P plan, but since they are both Ghost Stories, I'm adding them as bonus reads for my R.I.P challenge.

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens