Sunday, June 27, 2010

Know Your Contemporary Authors- Scarlett Thomas

Scarlett Thomas
"One of the paradoxes of writing is that when you write non-fiction everyone tries to prove that it’s wrong, and when you publish fiction, everyone tries to see the truth in it."
 Scarlett Thomas is the author of eight novels.  I've only read two of those eight novels (so far, and it has been one right after the other) and I feel that she is an essential contemporary author to bring to your attention.  She's that good.

Her earlier novels are murder mysteries, but her two recent "breakaway" novels are Popco and The End of Mr. Y. They are, quite simply, works of genius. Popco deals with marketing, capitalism, codes, math, and manipulation. Part of what I find wonderful about her work is being highly intelligent out of the abundance of her heart without making it overly precious. It reminds me of something one of my theater professors said while I was in college. Being drama students, when someone would have a breakthrough, a great performance, actually produce real tears on-stage and so forth, the other students would fall all over themselves saying, "Let's build an altar here to this place where you have produced tears on-stage." The professor told us that we probably shouldn't make such a big deal over these things because these were the things we are supposed to do. In Thomas' world (and, I would argue, in our shared consensus reality as well) people are supposed to be highly intelligent and thirst for knowledge.
"I'm very much someone who wants to work out the answers. I want to know what's outside the universe, what's at the end of time, and is there a God? But I think fiction's great for that--it's very close to philosophy."

I gravitate toward contemporary fiction which blurs reality, also known as "meta-fiction," to employ a term in need of retirement (in light of my recent genre fiction rant, I should probably point out that meta-fiction is not a genre.  It's more of a form or device or mode of storytelling or tool to effect a specific outcome or response in the reader.  It's one that requires a masterful hand.)  I think I'm always looking for the book that will change everything, literally change reality, drive me mad, or make me able to see through time or alert the goblins to take me away as their king (one of the simplest examples of meta-fiction, if you've ever seen it, was a children's movie from the 1980s called The Neverending Story, which was about a young boy who reads a book in which he quite literally becomes part of the story. When I was a child I watched that movie with the obsessive repetitiveness that only children and other sociopaths are capable of. Also, I would add, there was a wonderful film a few years ago called Stranger Than Fiction. You'll also want to check out the oeuvre of Charlie Kaufman.) I know that every book changes one's life and that is an experience I like to have turned up to the highest possible frequency until I break through to the universe next door or something. There are some excellent books that actually really do, in my experience, grab you by the throat and force you down the rabbit hole. House of Leaves, Philip K. Dick, Robert Anton Wilson, Caitlin Kiernan's Murder of Angels and The Red Tree, Infinite Jest, Jonathan Carroll does a bit of it, as did John Gardner, to some extent some of Alan Moore's better work, certainly Lovecraft was looking for something along these lines too. Your father's version was Thomas Pynchon, your grandfather's was Kurt Vonnegut, your great-grandfather's was James Joyce and your ancient ancestor's was Chaucer's own tale in the Canterbury Tales. The End of Mr. Y is one of those books. I cannot recommend it highly enough and I will not tell you anything more about it. You do not come out of it the same person you were going into it. That, for me, is the mark of a great book.

Her upcoming book is called Our Tragic Universe. Its press is promising big ideas and a paradigm shifting story as well. I have no doubt it will be excellent and no hesitation, based upon past experiences, to recommend it without yet having had the pleasure of reading it.

In spite of her teaching position at University of Kent, I couldn't find any cool audio or video files of speaking engagements for this author. However, on her website is a nice trove of texts.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Let's All Write An Allegory!

And you may find yourself in the same confusion I am experiencing over this poetic exercise.  This is not a specific form of poetry, nor am I about to write a poem, and yet this is an exercise I am drawing from The Handbook of Poetic Forms.  The conclusion I think I am going to go with is "chops."  We're working on our poetic chops and this gets our head into the game, even if it doesn't guide us into a specific form.  Allegory is a means by which we can think poetically about existence.

Not surprisingly, Padgett spends a good deal of this entry talking about John Bunyan.  Bunyan and Plato probably wrote the two most famous allegories. "Allegories are written to explain ideas about good and evil, or about moral or religious principles." Other features include possibly identifying individuals as actual ideas, becoming the anthropomorphism of their defining characteristic. Not even so subtly as Dickens (a dirty man named something like Mr. Filchwater) but with a Bunyan-esque heavy hand (a dirty man named Mr. Dirty.)

To put it even more simply, I grew up reading allegories unawares.  One of my favorite children's book series was the Mister Men and Little Miss books by Roger Hargreaves.  These were short (maybe 30 pages or so), illustrated, moralistic tales about characters who were embodiments of aspects of human character.  For example:

Although they weren't all sanctimonious, finger-wagging stories. There were positive examples as well:

 And some that were morally neutral:

I have a little figurine of Mr. Greedy on my bookshelf to my left.  He is holding a cake and licking his lips in anticipation of eating it all by himself as a motivational tool to keep me from hoarding candy in my office (Laurie can tell you how effective of a tool it is by the candy wrappers she finds in the cubby holes of my desk.)

I also notice that my recent story of the wild boar comes close to this exercise. I'm not even going to attempt form poetry in this case, falling back into the poetic form mindset like a trust exercise.  So, now here is my allegory.

Allegory of the Worm of Regret
by Paul Mathers

The much abused specter of Charles Darwin has borne so much that I doubt a hint of blame from me will make much of a difference. A chance (if you believe in such things) acquisition from a local thrift store of The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms was providing me with several days worth of fascinating bedtime reading. As was usual, stuffed with enough asthma medication to hopefully see me through to another day and the mind fuzz of my daily allowance of a single glass of merlot, I soon found myself on the other side of the dream curtain.

Passing through the gates of a city, I was stopped by the gatekeeper who asked me what I knew of worms.  I told him that the Earth may support upwards of 250,000 earthworms per acre, producing humus that might enrich the loam for the purpose of greater organic growth.  He handed me a pair of steel rimmed spectacles and took my own black plastic framed ones which are customary to my appearance.

As I walked the streets of the city, I was at first aghast and disgusted by the citizens who had worms writhing under every inch of their skin. But I soon recognized that when they passed into the periphery outside the sight-line of the lenses of my new glasses, they appeared as normal as any human you would meet on any given day. Upon more careful observation, I saw the worms appearing just outside of the person and burrowing into them: a few here when they spoke hard to their spouse, a few more there when a man hit his faithful dog with his cane when the dog stepped in front of him while they walked.  A boy clearly from impoverished circumstances who was driving a cart full of produce took a corner of a street too tightly. The cart tipped and most of the produce fell to the ground and split open on the cobblestone street. Immediately, hundreds of worms appeared around him and worked their way into his skin.

I drew close to observe the destructive processes.  In direct light and close up, I could see the workings of the worms of regret through his (to me) pellucid skin.  The worms were making a great feast of that bright matter within the young man which I knew to be hope and producing, from their tapered end, a dark material which, if not the matter of death itself, was certainly entirely toxic.

I was seized with a panic and dashed into the town square.  I stood on the edge of the great fountain and implored the populus to listen to me.  I told them that regret was eating them all alive.  I told them that these foul, fourth-dimensional creatures, invisible to their eyes, had fixed points in space-time where they could manifest and feed on them.  I told them that they must eschew regret.  A lady yelled back, "Pah!  You ask us not to feel!  You would have us cut off all emotion and caring!"

Her breath was cold as a tomb and people began to shove me from my elevated position out of the town square with hands like clay six feet beneath the Earth. I was conveyed to the border of the town by a crowd of corpses, the walking dead.

Dismayed, I sat with my back against the town's wall and wept. Through the gates next to me came a sad faced and broken young man in rags who searched the faces of the townsfolk around him desperately. His eyes fell on an old man who was sitting on the stoop of a modest storefront directly across from me. He called out "Father!" and gave a hearty wave to the old man. The old man stood with astonishing dexterity and hastened toward the young man. They embraced and the young man said "Father, I am so sorry..."

But the old man cut him off and with teary voice said, "Let's forget all of that now! You're back now and all is forgiven."

I was at first horrified as thousands of worms began working their way out of the skin of the two men.  I was sure this must surely be the precursor to their immediate death, but the worms, as they came out, fell to the ground motionless and vanished. The two men stood bright, healthy, with life pulsing completely through them, full of hope for their future. I was suddenly aware of the antidote and looked down to see another thousand worms working their way out of my own flesh.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul- Pride and Prejudice part 1

First, some business.  I don't know about you, but I think the benefit of hindsight this week reveals to me that I have set our weekly reading a little overly ambitiously with this one.  I had a difficult time making it through 15 chapters this week and only just finished this morning.  So, I think we're going to add a week to our reading which you probably won't even notice aside from a saner page count in the weeks to come.

I think one of the first things that struck me about this story was class (as in economic class), which, if I'm not mistaken, was most likely something Austen was trying to communicate.  Even though the poorer of the main characters, the Bennets, are wealthier in their day than I am in mine, there seems to be subtle statements on the characters of those in the economic hierarchy (see Miss Bingley's reaction to Elizabeth's muddy hike to visit her sick sister.)  I'm catching a bit of fun being poked at the upper crust although it is to a Marx Brothers film what Age of Innocence is to Taxi Driver as far as subtlety goes.

It also seems to be largely a story about the social processes of getting married or, at least, it seems to be moving in that direction.  At this point there are a lot of candidates.  There's Mr. Bingley, Elizabeth, that Wickham guy maybe who Mr. Darcy doesn't seem to like, Lydia, Jane, Charlotte, of course there's Mr. Darcy too even though he's shaping up to be kind of problematic in the courtship front, clearly Mr. Collins (almost the first thing out of his mouth), and maybe even a few I'm forgetting.  One imagines that in the scramble toward matrimony that's bound to ensue for many of these parties, if hilarity is not inevitable, at least probably some mild chuckling as we read on.

It probably won't surprise anyone to learn that I was especially fascinated by the characters relationships to books.  This is a pre-television and radio world, so books provide a hefty source of entertainment to the characters.  Some use them as escape or entertainment, some use them as shields in undesirable social situations (Mr. Darcy springs to mind), and some reveal their snobbery through their reaction to certain books (Mr. Collins without a doubt.) I've heard it said that Austen reveals peoples character through their reaction to love.  I submit to you that she may also do it through their reaction to books.

At the end of this week's reading, I get the impression that we've pretty much made our way through (or, at the very least, into) the character development.  It seems clear that they all have diverse and sundry motives for and against one another which seems to be forming into a nice social satire.

I apologize that this week's response is so short and not terribly brilliant, but we are still mainly in character introduction (maybe a bit of development as well.)  We really get into the meat of the book in the near future.

So, for this next week we will read through Chapter 24, which in my edition will take me up to page 131.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

New Podcast! Also, Exciting Podcast Project Announcement!

This week's podcast comes with the announcement of a new project I am undertaking with my podcast.  This week I begin reading my first full length book in my podcast.  When we finished, I will have furnished you with an entire audio book gratis.  I expect this will also not be the last.  In the interest of excruciating honesty, along with my natural tendency to tackle huge projects (you may have noticed the Essential Classics reading group and the Poetic Forms writing exercise project) this will also provide me many weeks without having to decide what I'm going to read for that week's podcast (which usually takes far longer than you would likely imagine.)

The book I've chosen is The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain.  It is a book about a very early version of a cruise to Europe and the Holy Land taken by Mark Twain and 100 some other passengers.  More to the point, it is Europe observed through the eyes of Mark Twain.

The last time I read this book was in early High School and I think in retrospect I can see how formative this text really was to young Paul Mathers.  I am certain you will enjoy this book.

As usual, you can listen to it here:

Or, you can download the podcast for yourself through this link:

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Rest of the Weekend

The real reason we took a trip down south this weekend was the wedding of my friends David and Mindy (see photo above.)  They were married on Saturday in Ojai at what I gather was a yogic retreat center.  Laurie and I were, I believe, the only guests coming from the north.  We passed through acres upon acres of oil rigs down Highway 33 which I didn't even know existed.  We saw many things, wonderful to speak of, in our travels. 

Mindy and David had an unconventional wedding which included sawing a log in half together, breaking a geode, taking shots, poetry, music, and shooting wine glasses.  Here you can see the happy couple leaving the site of the ceremony with their guns on their backs.

We stayed for several hours afterward and visited with many old friends.  Unfortunately, my camera's flash went on the blitz, so that part of our trip's preservation relies solely on our memory.  So it goes.

We left and drove late at night down to my parent's house in Orange County.  KUSC, the world class classical music station that the LA area boasts, played a modern serious composition show which suited the late night drive surprisingly well.  As a side note, I had my usual fits of jealousy over LA's excellent 24 hour classical music station.  At one point I gasped and scared poor Laurie as she was driving when I heard an advertisement for their weekly broadcast of the Los Angeles Opera.

However, traffic on our way home from LA cured me of any romanticizing I may have been doing over the area.

It's always a little jarring for me to return to the area where I grew up for a number of reasons.  One is the memories, but also the dissonance of the past and the future converging in an unexpected present.  For example, the convenience store where I bought Lemonheads as a child now carrying soda cups advertising Facebook aps.  Or my childhood home with several rooms added on to it.

Here's Laurie and my Mom on my parent's porch next to Mom's fairy garden.
We ate a lot on the trip.  The two photos above were taken at our meal with my grandmother in downtown Orange (after which we went to my alma mater as you who read my previous post well know.)  We went almost immediately after lunch to dinner with my father for Father's Day.

It's always such a joy to spend time with my parents.  I love them dearly.  Laurie and I dragged our feet when it came time to leave.

Highlights of the trip were: the wedding, the food at the wedding (which Laurie says is the best food she's ever eaten and I don't think that's an unfair assessment), reconnecting with old friends, the drive through the mountains, me forgetting to pack Laurie's clothes that she had picked for the wedding, the meals with my family, the visit to my old college, our battery failing and my father having to come out to my grandmother's house to replace it, eating a spicy dark chocolate-chili cupcake, our bi-yearly exposure to the Food Network, my mother's cat Bugsy's befriending of Laurie, a huge traffic jam on the Grapevine which actually closed just after we passed through due to a brush fire which went right up to the side of the freeway,

My Alma Mater

So, this weekend, Laurie and I took a secret trip down to Los Angeles (we didn't do anything particularly secret.  We've just learned that announcing to the world on social media that we will be away from our house for several days may not be the wisest tool to use from our box of life-choices.)  I'll have more on what we did specifically throughout the weekend in a forthcoming post (the other camera with pictures from the rest of the weekend is in Laurie's purse and she is at work, so I thought I would do this post right now.)  On Sunday afternoon, Laurie, my grandmother and I took a trip to my alma mater, the Nourishing Mother of my education, the campus of Chapman University in the city of Orange, California. 

Chapman University is a top tier private university.  As much as I like to beat the autodidact drum, I really do have a degree from an excellent university.  Part of the reason I wanted to visit the campus on Sunday was, of course, nostalgia.  But another reason was to take pictures of the buildings to show you here on my blog.  I absolutely love the architecture of Chapman.  Besides being an excellent university, it also boasts an excellent campus.

Here is the theater and visual arts building where I spent the lion's share of my time as a student (you'll note the bust of my beloved Mozart in the foreground.)  I believe it's the only building on campus that is actually ivy covered.  The darker building to the right is the large theater for the use of the theater department in educational or performance needs (seats about 250.)  The lighter, smaller building to the left is the Guggenheim Gallery where many of my close friends had art shows, poetry readings, experimental music concerts and so forth.  Down the hall between the buildings lie the classrooms and the small black box theater (seats about 30ish) where I performed my one-man show The Phoenix in my Senior year.

Here's the view if you turn about sixty degrees to your left from the photo above.  It looks down toward the library on the left, the stadium straight ahead.

Here is the Music building which is called Oliphant Hall.  It's a newer building.  The Music Department is one of Chapman's more celebrated disciplines (a list which also includes Film, Law, Business, Religion and, in full awareness of my natural bias on the topic, I would say Theater and Dance as well.)  I used to sit on a bench outside of the windows and listen to people practicing their art within.  I especially remember someone, I never learned who, over the course of two months practicing Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue every day during my lunch hour.  They had no idea how much pleasure I derived from hearing their gradual improvement.
This is the building in the front courtyard by Glassell and University Drive.  I think it's the Psych department.

Here is Memorial Hall.  Over to the left (just out of frame) would be the window to the President's office (my grandmother wanted me to mention that she watches and enjoys his television show regularly.)  Within the building is also a 900 seat theater which would be used for major campus events.  I met Ray Bradbury, Allen Ginsberg, and Edward Albee at different times in that building.

Ah, here is the lovely, new Leatherby Library.  I spent a lot of time in the earlier incarnation of that building.  I think the new one is gorgeous and contained within is a world class university library.  The fountain outside is also new.

This is also new.  This is the All Faiths Chapel.  It's huge!  Much to my chagrin, it has been locked every time I've tried to visit, but I can look in the door and see a gloriously large, white, minimalistic chapel.  You can take a virtual tour on their website.

A few words on the sculpture integrated into the campus: there is a great deal of wonderful modern sculpture around the campus (I'm told that one of Chapman's key contributors, George Argyros, is an avid modern sculpture aficionado) which compliments the post-modern, eclectic architectural styles of the buildings nicely.  Whoever is planning the Chapman Campus is doing a fantastic job.

I will say one thing that isn't a critique so much as an observation.  I feel that they are at bust capacity.  I noticed a lot of busts around campus, probably twice as many as when I attended a mere decade ago.  There are nearly 30 now and I think if they get any more they will approach clutter.  As it stands they are a nice compliment to the aura of the campus, projecting a fine collegiate atmosphere and focal points for the students to aspire toward.  Although, some I am decidedly delighted to have on that campus (Mozart, Schweitzer, Martin Luther King, Jr., Puccini, Ella Fitzgerald) while others I am highly disappointed that someone felt that they were worthy of enshrining (Ayn Rand?  Really?)  Still, the key placement of Albert Schweitzer as the sort of "campus centerpiece" has always been a point of pride for me.
Here is that lovely fountain between the library and the music building.

Finally, Chapman is an old campus.  It was established in 1861 (although it wasn't established in its present location until the early 1950s.)  The picture below did not enjoy the good focus of the rest of our visit, but I included it to show the wonderful old tree outside of the theater building, under which I sat studying for many hours.  For size comparison, Laurie and my grandmother are the two figures to the right.
I would recommend Chapman to anyone.  It is one of the finest private universities on the West Coast.  It is also one of the more pleasant places to visit in Orange County.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Let's All Write an Acrostic.

Now we come to a form that is very easy to explain.  If you read the letters than begin each line downwards they form a word or phrase.  At least that's the most basic form.  Most of the examples I find online are simply means through which one can deliver obscene messages covertly.  There are variations of every last letter of the line or the first letter of every word.  Famously, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals donated a brick to the newly opened Petco Stadium in San Diego:

I'm not going to write one with every letter.  I'm not feeling quite that clever today.  I'm going to go with the traditional "first letter of each line" variety of acrostic.

I'll admit my snobby hackles raised a little when I read it was this exercise this time, thinking it a poetic exercise for school children.  Then I got over myself and did it anyway.  It was fun, but probably not the best fruit of this project.  I think of it as a writing exercise, a means of sharpening vocabulary application and giving one's creative juices a workout.  I'm not sure it's a poetic form that's ever going to have much of a day and I notice even Ron Padgett was a little hard pressed to find examples of the form to include in his text.   And if I ever do employ the form again, I doubt I'll be showing it to people.

Having said all of that, it was an enjoyable exercise.

So, I just had fun, wrote freely, made a little self-deprecating joke, and played faster and looser with cadence than I'm normally comfortable with.  Here is what it yielded:


Mothers threaten naughty children with his poetry
And he is barred from at least six Ivy League campuses.
They say his acrid smell drives off anything with a nervous system.
He is, therefore, occasionally useful as a natural means of pest control.
Every other quality he possesses is entirely unseemly.
Refraining from naming him would be wisest here, but ultimately
Safe in that no one actually reads him.

Reading Group Reminder- Pride and Prejudice

Our Reading the Classics reading group is about to embark on Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.  Everyone is more than welcome to join us in our reading.  This first week we will be reading through Chapter Fifteen which, in my text, will take me up to page 70.  Don't panic!  They are very short chapters which means every third page has about a fifth of the page taken up by the chapter number.  It is also quick reading.  Our goal is to complete this book in five installments.  So, we will meet back next week with comments on Chapters 1-15.

For newcomers who may wish to join in, I post updates late Thursday night and you are welcome to comment, blog for yourself, or just enjoy reading along.

Usually in these reminder posts I like to post a little song or something in reference to the text we're about to read.  A thorough scouring of Youtube yielded nought but trailers of the forthcoming film version of the zombie infusion (which we will not speak of again) and enormous amounts of film clips with popular contemporary love songs playing over the action of recent straight film adaptations.  Not being a thirteen year old girl, my decision not to post any of those was immediate.

I can't believe in 200 years no serious music composer has thought to offer a musical meditation on the text.  I mean, there's a musical and a film soundtrack, both of which I couldn't make it through 30 seconds.  No librettos or symphonic offerings.  Not a single nod from Sibelius or Stravinsky.  Not even a Duke Ellington sort of thing, you know, something like "Pitching at the Pemberley."  Composers, take note.

So instead, here's Noel Coward singing about the Stately Homes of England:

Thursday, June 17, 2010

New Podcast- Wordsworth!

To answer your first question, it's called a Life Mask.  It was cast by sticking straws up a person's nose so they could breathe through the process and then creating a mold of their face.  All reports are that it was a remarkably unpleasant experience, but it gave future generations the opportunity to see the face of people pre-photography (when I was in Washington D.C. I was able to see Napoleon's life mask, as a traveling museum exhibit and my visit happily coincided.)  This was cast when Wordsworth was in the middle of his long life.  I've heard a rumor that while it was being cast, essayist Charles Lamb was in the room trying to make Wordsworth laugh.  I wonder if this surviving life mask was Take Four or Five or Ten.

Our podcast this week is a reading of William Wordsworth's Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.  It is a longer ode and a meditation on existence.  Wordsworth believed in pre-existence before birth, conception, and all that jazz and therefore believed that children had some wisdom that we forget in later years (if you're anything like me, you're thinking of a certain passage from a famous Louie Armstrong song now.)  I'll admit that the reason I've chosen this piece is that I've been struggling with this very thing.  I've been thinking heavily of late on the topic of my past splendid view of life being beaten by experience into a pragmatic cynicism.  How to recapture that ecstatic delight in existence?  Wordsworth may offer up a few thoughts on the topic, perhaps a personal conclusion one might find helpful.

As usual, you can listen to it here:

Or, you can go download it for yourself here:

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Know Your Contemporary Authors- Augusten Burroughs

Augusten Burroughs

About a decade ago, there was a great surge in the genre of memoirs in American publishing.  I have no idea why it happened at that time, but it did.  From my point of view it was a phenomenon that just emerged at random.  I paid very close attention to the trend because when I was young I wanted to be Spalding Gray when I grew up (except hopefully with a happier ending.)  We will be covering several contemporary memoirists in this series because it is a form which had unexpected vitality breathed into it recently.  Also because I happen to like a good deal of the contemporary memoirists (and have very strong opinions about some others.  Or, in the case of James Frey, contemporary "memoirists.")  

Although Augusten Burroughs often (but not always) has a streak of humor running through his work, his work walks us through some severely difficult experiences.  Burroughs has had what I think he aptly describes as "a horrible life."  He no longer seems to be in the midst of the horrible portion of his life now, but in his work he plunges you into the starkly hideous truth.  He is relentless for the sake of that truth.  They are remarkably brave and generous books.

I would venture a guess that Running With Scissors is probably his best known work, especially as it has been made into a major Hollywood motion picture.  I don't want to give away too much, but there is a horrific train wreck of permissiveness and a domino effect of psychological collapse.  His next book, Dry, dealt with Burroughs as an adult and an alcoholic, as well as the death of his former lover.  He has a novel, Sellevision, which I've not read yet, but I hear is excellent (and in pre-production for a film adaptation.)  He also has some collections of essays available.  And a Christmas book.

I'm really afraid of distilling the rich experience of his books into "the meaning of" and pat answers.  Part of what is so valuable about his work is a hyper-focused look at collapse, disintegration, and "man's inhumanity to man," as well as the variety of responses and effects on those who suffer through these experiences.  I think these are themes crucial to humankind. 

Case in point, one of the more remarkable and harrowing reading experiences I've had with a contemporary author is his memoir A Wolf At The Table.  The book deals with his relationship with his father and it explores some of the darkest material I've ever read.  Also one of the better books I've ever read.  It's not fun or funny or easy at all (which, unfortunately, may keep it from ever being read as widely as the others.  To say that's unfortunate would be a vast understatement), but anyone who has ever experienced the harshness of desiring love from someone who will not and does not give it to them (which I imagine happens to everyone to some degree) should read this.  It is also a book about the extreme evil, the complete inhumanity that some humans inflict upon others.  In this case, it's the nightmare of that person being the author's father.  You can and should hear Burroughs talk about it and read a bit from it here.  I highly highly recommend you listen to it.

Burroughs expresses a major theme of his work, specifically in reference to Dry:
"Nobody has to be stuck with the life they have if they don't like it. You can make very dramatic changes and it can all turn out ok. I also hope the book shows how the results are always better when you stop skating across the surface of your life and really go inside and dig around for the good stuff."

A few photos from the past few days

Well, as Laurie just posted a wonderful series about our home redecorating (here's part one and part two) and as I have two other blog posts and about three other writing projects in the works, I thought I would post a few quick and marginally interesting photos from the past few days.

As I mentioned before, the new rule at the Tree Farm that all dogs must be on leashes has cleared the place out.  We are taking our dogs on walks there several times a week now.  Schubert has become very fond of swimming in the creek although at times he misjudges the depth of the water.

Laurie takes Schubert a good deal of the time.  I think that's because how silly it looks for small Laurie to have big Ginger and big me to have tiny Schubert.

We've also recently paid a visit to the Chico Cemetery.  It is startlingly beautiful and in clear view of the fence in front are people across the street buying ice cream and shopping at Radio Shack loudly in a futile attempt to drown out the existential hum.  We parked by the monument with the weeping angel.  Don't blink.

We went because one of my current writing projects is a piece about John Bidwell, so we went to visit his grave.  You can see from the picture how stiflingly hot it was that day. 

Bidwell's grave is right next to a monument to fallen soliders from the Civil War (I was surprised that there were so many from Northern California.)
The Chico Cemetery is a place I would recommend everyone to visit.  It is filled with very old trees, very old graves, and it is terribly under-visited.

Monday, June 14, 2010

A Brief Retraction

In my poetry post "Let's All Write A Triolet" I repeated a piece of information from Ron Padgett's book Handbook of Poetic Forms.  It was this:
"A triolet (pronouced "tree-oh-lay")..."  
or so says Ron Padgett.  Apparently there is more than a little debate on this topic.  Stephen Fry wisely offers both pronunciations in his poetry textbook.   I was simply repeating information provided by Mr. Padgett (I assume not pronounced "Pad-jay") completely unawares of any controversy existing on the matter and if pressed would probably have assumed that it is a French form and you know how the French are with their "et"s.

But it turns out that the Oxford English Dictionary, which many (me included) refer to as the end all authority on matters of the English language, lists the "rhymes with 'violet'" pronunciation.  I am more than willing to retract and recant when I feel that I have related spurious information.  I think anyone with intellectual honesty ought to be capable of admitting to and correcting their missteps for the sake of truth.  I hereby retract my earlier pronunciation guide.

I would, at the very least, point out that it is a matter of some debate, but still I must go with the OED.  I am truly sorry if I've caused anyone to embarrass themselves at a cocktail party.  I hope that no one will eschew Padgett's otherwise solid text over this little oversight.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Let's All Write an Abstract Poem

Well, I start this project in alphabetical order and already Mr. Padgett is pulling no punches in his Handbook of Poetic Forms.

Abstract poems, in the words of Edith Sitwell, are experiments in "patterns of sound."  The consensus meaning of the words in our shared language is unimportant or at the very least peripheral in favor of the sound, the feel of the words, the composition on the tongue.

The painting above is by Mark Rothko.  I saw a Rothko at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and it took my breath away.  Any scans or prints do not do the work justice.  First of all, if you walk into a room with this on a plain wall in front of you something like eight foot by ten foot, it demands your attention.  The brushwork breathes.  As a print, it looks kind of like a paint swatch you get at the hardware store.  In reality, it is an abyss of color into which you could fall screaming.  The point of a work like this is not that it is secretly about something, like a Magic Eye trick, that only very intelligent people can pick up on.  The point is what happens to you when you are before this magnificent thing.

In high school, I had a tremendous crush on a certain girl who did not reciprocate those feelings.  I was quiet and goofy looking, but given her apparent desire to project the image of an intellectual without taking any actual steps toward being one, I think she must have thought associating with me was a necessary evil. I read Somerset Maugham of my own free will and used words like "ameliorate" in casual conversation. So, she organized a tea party/poetry reading to take place in the backyard of her parent's large house by the beach. I had never written poetry before and had no idea what I was doing. I sat down and wrote what I thought poetry must be like. It turned out, assessing with the benefit of hindsight, I was, in fact, writing abstract poetry, stringing words together for the love of the sound of them. I remember the girl scolding me after the poetry reading about what she called "trap poetry" which was poetry that was written to sound like it was about something, but really wasn't about anything at all. I have no idea where she got that although there was precedent that would suggest she was making something up to appear smarter than me. In other words, I had to be carefully taught NOT to do this form of poetry naturally.

What fools these mortals be. It's not up to the gods to bake bricks. And several other quotations hastily swished around my palette to remove the flavor of that unfortunate trip down Regrettery Lane.

Padgett recommends a few possible ways to explore. He recommends replacing the words of an existing poem with other words or saying a word over and over until it loses its meaning and then stringing other words around it in like manner. He mentions the Dadaist sound poetry, which I would also recommend looking up.

I, on the other hand, decided to just jump right in. I'm going with rhymed couplets because I am most comfortable in life shut into a prison cell while holding my own key to the lock. Seeing as to how it's abstract, I start free associating about Ionesco and away I go.

Wensleydale Rhinoceros,
great aireydales and phosphorous.
Bleeding mead and stark repast.
Bold blue air at mooring mast.

Gingham robes flop up the stern.
Mark the tortoise tries to learn.
Here I strain my yellow tweezer.
Great bear gains his lalochezia.

Shovel covens in the eye.
Counting ounce florescent dye.
Hoping opals on the mend.
Rubble couplet to abend.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul- Hamlet Part III

We begin our final week in Hamlet with the two gravediggers.  It's a scene which sort of echoes the Porter scene from The Scottish Play in that it's kind of the last call for humor in what the author surely knew would be a long stretch of tragedy for the groundlings to stand through.  Although we do also have the fop Osric coming up in the next scene so that's not entirely accurate, but it certainly does have the feel of "the last laugh."

When I was the Assistant Director for a production of Hamlet, I remember on the tech run sitting next to the Technical Director as we ran though the technical cues for the show.  Our Gravedigger went with an extremely thick cockney accent in his performance and, as it says in the script, when Hamlet asked whose skull it was, the Gravedigger said, "A whoreson mad fellow's it was."

The Tech Director turned to me and said, "Did he just say that was Orson Welles' skull?"

I was a little surprised, in light of last week's post, to realize that our friend Professor Harold Bloom seems to have completely neglected to mention how closely Yorick's relationship with Hamlet mirrors Falstaff's relationship with Hal.  In brief, a raucous older man whose main lesson to the younger man is how essential it is in life that one maintain a high level of joie de vivre, a lesson which the younger man in both cases seems to scrap the moment the older man is out of his life.  As another aside, yes, there really was a theater teacher in Chicago about a decade ago who willed his skull to a theater so that he could play the part of Yorick after he died.  That really did happen.

The funeral enters, and Laertes gets in a hyperbolic as well as a literal fight with Hamlet.

Also in the production in which I Assistant Directed, near the end of rehearsals and smack in the middle of a frustrating night's run through of the show, the Director turned to me during this scene and said, "Paul, we're going to need to get a bier."
I said, "I know what you mean, Tom.  I know what you mean."
He turned, saw that I hadn't written that down, and said, "No, Paul, I mean a bier.  As in a bier to bring Ophelia out to the grave."

Scene Two opens with a report of how Hamlet got past the plot involving Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  In this play, we don't shed any tears over them as they were fixing to betray our hero.  Our "sort of" hero.  The Protagonist anyway.  He's not been terribly heroic yet.

Enter Osric with a bit of slapstick to bridge us to the final scene which Osric toddles off to in his hat.  Just before the fight, Hamlet and Horatio give a short exchange that seems to suggest that Hamlet may be fully aware of what's coming and seems to have resigned himself to his fate.

Hamlet's apology strikes me a bit like Richard III's wooing of Lady Anne.  Not in sincerity, mind you.  Hamlet seems to be completely sincere in his apology, but I mean to say in the astonishing efficacy of the apology. Here Hamlet is essentially responsible for the death of Laertes' entire family, but Hamlet's sincere apology and explanation of his madness seems to genuinely shake Laertes' resolve, a precursor to Laertes' redemption in his final moments.

This sword-fighting part is usually far longer on stage than it is when you're reading the script.

I've seen Gertrude's drinking of the wine played several ways.  I've seen it played as though Hamlet's words to her back in Polonius' death scene struck her so to the core that she is utterly destroyed (much like Ophelia) and now she is fully aware of what she is doing when she is drinking.  In other words, I've seen it played as suicide.  I've also seen it played with complete ignorance to the poison.  One very effective performance had Gertrude well past tipsy already and while she was drinking to Hamlet's health, she was also using it as an excuse to chug a little more of the red.  I think all of these are fine interpretations.

But I know what most of you are thinking.  Why does Gertrude call Hamlet "fat" before she drinks the wine?  Goethe thought this was meant literally, as in Richard Burbage was the actor who was playing Hamlet in the original production and he was probably a portly man and probably huffing and sweaty after two bouts of play fencing on stage.  You may have noticed that in modern filmic Hamlets (David Tenant, Derek Jacobi, Ethan Hawke, Olivier, Mel Gibson, Kenneth Branagh) we do not find fat Hamlets in spite of what the text might suggest.  Many modern critics interpret this line as "he is out of training" although, personally, I think that contradicts Hamlet's assertion to Horatio in the previous scene "Since he went into France I have been in continual practice."  Take that, Hollywood and contemporary critics.  I'll accept your apology with a Jorge Garcia version of Hamlet... Or... I don't know... me, maybe?

The wounds, the Queen dies, Hamlet "hurts the king" which is usually done as dramatically as the warped little Director's mind can imagine.   In the end, Horatio stands and, recalling the beginning of the play, it almost seems as if the major character arch, the through-line of the narrative, belongs to Horatio instead of to the title character.  Fortinbras stumbles into the rather graphic mis-en-scene, a portrait of unnatural acts painted thick in stage blood.  As his gorge rises a little into his mouth, he swallows, then calls for the bodies to be borne (on biers perhaps) from the grizzly tableau.  The only ones who get a happy ending are the Gravediggers who will soon be enjoying double time on their paycheck.

There you go.  Our book group just completed what many will argue is the greatest piece of writing in the history of the English language.  I hope you enjoyed it as much as I clearly have.  Report back next week, book groupies, and I will assign our first week's worth of reading in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.


New Podcast- The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen

This week's podcast is a reading of The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen.  Andersen was a remarkable story teller.  This is a story that is so ingrained in our collective unconscious.  I know when I was looking for this week's material and I passed over this title I had a passing thought to the effect of, "Right, the one with the duck that thinks he's ugly but then he isn't."  Then I paused over the language of the opening lines and decided to use it as this week's podcast.  I did not plan on doing this story.  It was a happy accident that I stumbled upon it.

It really is a wonderful story although I'm not sure it needs praise from me.  There is such a barrage of terror and mistreatment in the world where the duckling does not belong.  As Mother-Duck says, "The way of the world."  I imagine it's one of those universal stories that speaks to so many people.  I know it speaks to me.

As usual, you can listen to it here:

Or you can go download it for yourself here: 

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

More Home Decorating Updates- Finished With Painting At Last!

We framed the Palahniuk poster and hung it in the dining room.  It looks like this, although we quickly decided it might be more at home in my office, but this is what it looks like hanging anyway.

So, we finished painting the front room, which I believe will be our last major painting project for a while (next in line, I think, will be repainting the white trim on the outside of our house.)  We took down the magnificent model ship, put it out on the porch, and used one of those cans that spray air on the dust (look at the deck of the model ship in this picture!)

And it lived in the kitchen for a couple days while we finished painting the front room (ah, and compare the deck in this picture: post air-spraying.)

We have many art prints from our visit to the J. Paul Getty Museum on our second anniversary which we've been waiting to frame and hang.  At last we've reached that point and our house feels much closer to a home.  We haven't hung all of the art yet, but we've begun.  As Christopher Lowell tweeted to Laurie, "Now comes the fun part!"  More photos to come, but here's Fernand Khnopff's Jeanne Kefer which is immediately in front as you enter our front door (that heater will soon be painted black.)

Even more than art prints, we love original art from people we know.  Here is a print by our friend and photographer James Evarro, which is to your immediate right as you enter our home.

And, as you enter our house, here is what you see as you look slightly to your left.  There is the model of The Napoleon atop the wardrobe in the corner in all of its glory.  And, in all of his glory, there is Napoleon the cat on the coffee table.  You'll most likely see both if you come to visit.  Only one of them is likely to bite you on the nose.

If you pass through the archway and turn around to look at the room from the other side, here is what you will see.  We have a lot more art to hang, but it's already looking and feeling so much nicer.  So much more like a home.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Where I Am Virtual

If you'll forgive the shameless self-promotion, it's been a very long time since I've compiled a list of all of the places where one can find me online.  You are more than welcome to fellowship with me on any of these venues.  Clearly, there is here:

There is also the blog that Laurie and I write together (I know we haven't posted for a while.  I assure you we will be back soon.  It's been an intense few months and we've taken a little break, but stay tuned): 

For those of you who don't know, I do have a Livejournal as well.  I use it like most people would use Tumblr (I've had it far longer than Tumblr has existed) as a receptacle for photos, videos, poems and miscellaneous things I like, with almost no original content. You can find it here: 

I stream to the Livejournal from Posterous in case you prefer Posterous (I sure do!): 

I am on Twitter which I love and use often:

I am on Foursquare which I also use often.  I think it's hilarious.  It's a tool on your computer to encourage you to get away from your computer.  It seems to be ideal for people with iPhones (among whom I am not numbered) so I tend to use it to log where I'm about to go (so if your iPhone pops up to tell you that I'm at the Chico Library, wait a good 10 minutes before looking for me):

One of my recent favorite additions to my social media networks has been Mubi.  It's a site for film geeks and it provides huge amounts of Netflix fodder when you peek at what other people are into: 

I am on Facebook, but I mainly only use to it stream this blog and read what other people are doing.  In short, I'm not terribly active on Facebook:

I am on Linkedin.  I've heard tell that one can sometimes get jobs through that site but I've yet to experience that.  If you're on there, I will recommend you if you recommend me:

I am on with the username: Fafner.  I welcome all challengers.

I am also on Google Wave and I think I even have some invites left if you want them.  To be honest, I almost never go on there anymore because it doesn't work well on Opera, so I have to go out and get on Laurie's computer if I want to use it.

And, of course, you can always buy books from me: 

Monday, June 7, 2010

Know Your Contemporary Authors- Caitlin R. Kiernan

 Caitlin R. Kiernan

I thought it might be good for me to write about this author early so I'm not thinking about it as we talk about other authors.  Long time readers and people who know me are most likely aware that my only hesitation in answering "Caitlin Kiernan" to the question "Who is your favorite living author?" is on account of Ray Bradbury being alive.  There is not a living author whose work I enjoy as much as Caitlin Kiernan's and let me tell you why.

In a recent interview with Clarkesworld Magazine, here was some of her response when asked what she writes about:
"The weight the past exerts on the present, that's a big one. Encounters with the Other, and the almost inevitably transformative nature of those encounters, that's another theme that's present in almost everything I've ever written. Also, the insignificance of humanity when faced with deep time and the vastness of the universe. No, never mind the vast universe. Humanity's insignificance when faced with the depth of the ocean, or the distance to the edge of our own solar system, or, inversely, the space between an electron and an atom's nucleus. Anyway, on a more personal level, I'm often writing about insanity, or at least the unreliability of perception and cognition. I write quite a bit about gender.
"So, what does this all add up to, ultimately? Sometimes I think of it as existential shock. I'm writing about existential shock, and by this I mean, simply, the shock that arises from the realization that the world is not only not what we think it is, but the realization that we can probably never arrive at conclusive answers about reality. Nothing is as it seems, and even if is it, there's probably no way to know."
It probably shouldn't surprise anyone to know that these are themes which fascinate me; I would even go so far as to say are some of my "life themes."  Kiernan not only consistently explores them in various ways, she does it very very well.

I should probably take a moment to discuss genre.  Ray Bradbury and Caitlin Kiernan, as well as being my two favorite living authors, share the uphill battle of what I would call unfair genre distinctions.  Genre distinctions are a sort of insult we hoist upon authors who have the bad fortune to be alive (and still trying to make a buck at writing.)  For example, most people would not place A Midsummer Night's Dream in a bookstore in the same section as the Twilight novels.  Although following the logic of genre fiction placement in corporate bookstore models, one imagines a room full of marketers saying "Well, why not?  They're both paranormal romance involving teenagers!"  I think about these things every time I see Dandelion Wine in the Science-Fiction section.  You may find Kiernan's work in the Science-Fiction, Fantasy, or possibly even Horror section of most bookstores, but the themes of her writing, the point of it all, is what she expressed in that quote above.  I would stress the point that they are themes valuable for everyone.  In a nutshell, I would hate to think of someone who is serious about contemporary literature avoiding Kiernan because of the genre placement.  I think she is doing some very important work and it would be unfortunate indeed if genre placement deterred anyone (as an aside, Kiernan, on her website, offers alternate covers for at least one of her books which you can print out and cover your copy of her book should you feel uncomfortable with the cover art provided by the publisher.  Very thoughtful of her.  The cover art on the more recent printings of her books strike me as extremely misguided in their target audience.)

Mainly I think genres also give false expectation as to what's within.  Also when I'm in the Science-Fiction section of a bookstore, I often wonder if somewhere a befuddled father with an eight year old who is wild about Asimov's Robot series picks a gift at random from the SF section and comes home with The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch for his child.  And I chuckle quietly to myself. 

Ultimately, I think we ought to read to grow, learn, branch out, see the world through different eyes, and feel a little less alone.  I think everything we read should be challenging in one way or another.  Which is why I would recommend Kiernan's work to anyone.  Something else I appreciate about her writing is that she does not let her readers off the hook easily.  Neither, in my experience, does The Universe.

Also, sometimes it is important to tackle the difficult aspects of the human experience and that fevered lifelong commentary that's always going on in our brains.  Last week our Contemporary Author in this series was the Eagle Scout of Contemporary American Humorists.  This week, we have someone who explores questions like "What if someone who we all agree is having a psychotic episode is correct?"  I am of the opinion that it is beneficial to explore all sorts of great literature with diverse tones.  I think you'll find that sometimes in the darkest corners are some of the most startling beauties.

Which brings me to specifics.  One of the amazing things about Caitlin Kiernan is the colossal volume of her output.  She has a strong internet presence.  She is on Twitter, Facebook, Livejournal, as well as her own website which, if memory serves, has a subscription based writing and original material program called Sirenia Digest (for hypothetical wealthy readers of this blog looking for an outlet to bestow their largess, I assure you I think it terribly ill-mannered to refuse gift subscriptions.)  If you walk down to your local bookstore, you're likely to find around six of her novels in stock.  There is a lot more out there which you can find by digging around a few websites.

I highly recommend Murder of Angels, The Red Tree and Low Red Moon as starting points (I also appreciate her sensibility in choosing titles.  They tend to have a sort of guttural, primal feel to them.)  All three are excellent.  I do not think it an overstatement to say that she is one of our best contemporary authors.

Triolet P.S. and Annoucement

My subconscious has been mocking my statements in my previous post about editing and writing quick pieces.  One of the rhymes I used in my triolet has been sticking in my brain like a splinter.  In brief, it seems forced to me, which is my constant struggle with writing in rhyme.  Stephen Fry, in his poetry textbook, encourages us not to force rhyme, but also writes us a permission slip to take it easy on ourselves by explaining that success in that area often takes much practice.

As I mentioned before, about a decade ago I took myself through rigorous poetic forms exercises.  Today I looked at my collection of poetry from 2003 (Kinko's Press) and found the triolet that came out of that bout of exercises.  I think it's a much more successful attempt at a triolet although in retrospect I can see that I was not far enough away from my adolescent obsession with the poetry of Bukowski.

Brokedown Triolet
by Paul Mathers

The clock strikes eleven and a quarter.
My steaming radiator empties onto the ground.
Weather near midday is murder.
The clock strikes eleven and a quarter.
Sitting on the chapel steps by the city's border
waiting for my engine to stop its hissing sound.
The clock strikes eleven and a quarter.
My steaming radiator empties onto the ground.

Okay, in the interest of full disclosure to my readers, it was the "timidity" line in yesterday's triolet.  It fits in the poem and makes sense thematically, but I think it's a clunky line.  I thought it might actually be helpful to talk about this self-perceived failure (or perhaps "mis-step") to show that this is something writers do and it's okay.  It's perfectly appropriate to care deeply about what you've written, to edit, to work a single phrase over and over, to agonize over your work.  That's why writing is a labor and also a labor of love.  I can tell you from experience, waking up at 2 am to deliver produce is easy.  Writing is hard.  But so often I have found that those things in life that are hardest often turn out to be the most rewarding.

Which leads me to the announcement.  We just watched Julie & Julia and I think I've decided to work through Ron Padgett's entire Handbook of Poetic Forms.  So far I've only done a few on this blog and I've stuck to ones I really liked.  This exercise is going to include some things that the prospect of me attempting to write one is terrifying to me (an "Insult Poem?"  A "Rap?!!?")  Which is all the more reason I feel like it's a good idea.  By my count there are 75 poetic forms covered in the book and we've already done four of them.  So, next time, we'll start at "A" with... oh dear.  "Abstract Poem."  Stick around, this should get interesting.  

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Let's All Write a Triolet

This week, we're going to write a shorter form.  In my opinion it's an easier form as well.  First of all, it's another one of those forms which makes the poet look good.  Second, it's short.  Look, I know a lot of writers will talk about agonizing over short pieces, spending days over a comma placement, and all that jazz.  Spending ten years on one haiku.  I know that that can happen and, believe me, I understand the importance of scrupulous editing, attention to form and flow, and putting very hard work and planning into your writing.

This just happens, in my opinion, to be an easy form to work with.  This is actually a very good thing, especially during dry spells for writers.  I am in total agreement with Ray Bradbury who wrote,
"You must write every single day of your life... You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads... may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world." 
I strive to live like that.  I too strive to write every day in some capacity.  Some days you sit down to write a long piece you've been working on and it's like the glue has coagulated around the spout.  Slamming down a few triolets or haiku or something usually gets the juice flowing again.

A triolet (pronouced "tree-oh-lay") is a form in which the opening line recurs thrice within the poem. The first line is also the fourth and the seventh line.  The second line is the same as the eighth line.  It is an eight line poem.  As usual, don't let the diagram scare you as it will make a lot more sense when you read my example at the end of this post.  In this diagram, A and B are the other lines, A1 marks the repeating of the first line and B2 will mark the repeating of the second line.  So it goes like this:


Got it?  As usual, I will boldly write my own modest example below and all of you are then free to write your own triolets.  Work with it; own the form for yourself.  You can post yours here or on Facebook or not at all and keep it to yourself or roll it up and tie it to the leg of a pigeon.  A good way to start one of these is simply to write two lines about something going on around you.  Maybe your cat is snoring at your feet or thunderclouds are on the horizon or your olive tree is blossoming.  Just throw something out there and I think you'll find the rhyme structure will compose the poem around your first two thoughts for you.  As usual, have fun.

Saturday Afternoon Triolet
by Paul Mathers

We move the furniture to paint the walls
Then stall on account of the humidity.
We found the light switch was poorly installed.
We move the furniture to paint the walls.
The tv stand is heavy, the dust appalls.
Living room rearranging with timidity.
We move the furniture to paint the walls
Then stall on account of the humidity.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul- Hamlet Part 2

This week's reading was enormous in scope, although not so much in length (I think the average week in Jane Eyre had a much higher page count.)  Contained in it was not only some of the most famous passages in the English language, but tremendous depth of emotion, incalculable layers of meaning, and, needless to say, way more information than we'll be able to unpack in a meager blog post.  Faced with such predicaments, let us forge ahead, eh what?

We begin this week with Claudius' astute observation (and about a 400 year precursor to McLuhan) that Hamlet is "putting on" lunacy.  Naturally, given Shakespeare's strict economy of direction outside of dialogue, there has been centuries of scholarly debate and onstage explorations of the nature of Hamlet's madness.  Has he really gone mad to some extent?  Is he faking it entirely?  Or is it somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between?  Personally, I am of the camp that Hamlet is exploiting his distress over the current state of his life to control events in the only way he sees possible.  In other words, he is using his crazy effectively.

And so we reach some of the most famous words in the English language aside from the most current McDonald's jingles.  To Laurie's great distress, I came mooing this soliloquy from off of the porch into the house when I reached it in my reading.  This "should I kill myself or no" soliloquy is one of the earlier establishments of one of my great questions about Hamlet's character.  Is doubt his great sin?  I scribbled that in the margin as he's setting up the play within the play.  I know I'm not original in posing this question.  Of course, if Hamlet had walked back to the castle from his meeting with the ghost in Act I, picked up the nearest rock, and used it to bash in Claudius' head immediately, we would have a rather brutish one-act play on our hands.  Exciting maybe, but hardly worth fifty smackers and nothing worth reporting to Foursquare over.  You'd be home in time for Letterman's monologue.  In this, I appreciate the realism in Hamlet's desire for knowledge, his weighing of ethical dillemmas, his uncertainty of who all comprise villainy.  Is Hamlet really a hero or a proto-anti-hero?

Perhaps not a good question to be asking right now as we watch him effectively rape and destroy the psyche of Ophelia.  One could (and again, some have. Very few perspectives on this play haven't been explored by now) make the argument that Hamlet is, in his own twisted way, trying to save Ophelia by instructing her to "be not a breeder of sinners."  His worldview is so bleak at this point that this is his way of trying to help.  One may have to play it that way as one has to retain audience sympathy for two and a half more acts.  I'm not sure I buy that personally.  It's even worse, as the text might suggest, that Hamlet is putting this whole scene on knowing that he's being watched ("Where is your father?") as he doesn't let poor Ophelia in on the stunt.  The character of Ophelia breaks my heart.  She is the archetype of the Doomed Innocent.  If this were a slasher film (see Act V) I think this would be the scene where Hamlet earns the wages he receives at the end of the play.  Unfortunately for the sake of a just universe, Ophelia does not deserve this.

Immediately after, we see a return of Businessman Claudius (much like his first appearance at court) in which he sets down the events and even catches something Polonius misses.  He sees that Hamlet is not, in his estimation given what he's just witnessed, suffering on account of love, which is especially troubling to the guilt-ridden Claudius.  Claudius may have great anxiety about what really is bothering Hamlet.  Claudius may be fat, but he's not stupid.

Hamlet further makes a grotesque ass of himself with Ophelia at the play with some of the bawdier lines in the text.  As an aside, I was further endeared to Polonius with his dopey description of his own acting years, which Hamlet parries with a hefty bit of foreshadowing over his future relationship to Polonius.  The play does indeed catch the conscience of the king and as the players remove their masks, Hamlet begins to remove some of his own.  He tips his hand of disgust to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  He employs musical instruments to express his disappointment with them.

For scene III, it may be helpful to look for a moment at a facet of the life of Shakespeare.  Yale's eminent Humanities professor Harold Bloom in his book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, startlingly asserts that James Joyce, in the library scene from Ulysses, is the first to note that Hamlet may be a projection of Shakespeare's son who died... whose name was Hamnet.  I took off my glasses, rubbed my eyes, put them back on and re-read that.  He seems to really be suggesting that in 300 years no one thought "hey, that's funny!  The prince is named Hamlet and Shakespeare's son was named Hamnet!"

I do, however, agree with Bloom that Hamlet may be an idealization of the son of Shakespeare who never made it to adulthood.  It may be significant that there is some evidence that in the early Globe productions of Hamlet, Shakespeare himself played the part of the Ghost.  Bloom also suggests (and I agree) that Falstaff, especially in Henry IV Parts I & II, and his relationship to Hal may be a projection of Shakespeare himself.  Falstaff was Shakespeare's most loved and famous character in his own day and Bloom suggests that Falstaff's relationship to Hal may be similar to Shakespeare's relationship to the Mr. W.H. to whom the Sonnets are dedicated.

Also in significant biographical detail, and one I would suggest is more overt and clearly applicable, is that a young woman drowned herself in the Avon in Stratford when William Shakespeare was a child.  She was said to have been despairing over lost love.  Her name was Kate Hamnet. 

A quick word about Claudius praying: We do get a glimpse into the brain of Claudius and he is wracked with guilt, but not to the point where he is willing to do right (which, I suppose, would not only entail losing all of the spoils of his murder, but most like also to be put to death himself for the crime of regicide.)  We can point to this scene as one point where Hamlet distinctly dithers.  I think we all caught that Claudius is not absolved for his sins and Hamlet would not be sending him to Heaven by killing him right there and then.  Heck, even Claudius knows this from the text of his speech!  But Hamlet still doesn't do it.

Although, the assertion about Joyce and the Hamnet thing does serve to remind us that modern psychology is... well, modern.  It's easy to forget with scenes like the one with Gertrude here, that an Oedipal Complex was not a known concept when Shakespeare wrote it.  Almost immediately, Hamlet confuses Polonius for the king and now has no problem stabbing away.  Hamlet echos our own thoughts in that Polonius' only real sin was overextending his own cleverness.  Hamlet mirrors in tone his earlier scene with Ophelia with his own mother.  I daresay one wouldn't want to be a woman in Hamlet's world, although I would argue that the play itself is very sympathetic to Ophelia and even to Gertrude to some extent.  The Ghost certainly is.

You'll note the quick progression of scenes now in Act IV as we build toward the climax.

Hamlet is getting openly defiant to everyone (which is another of his major flaws.  In not knowing who precisely his enemies are, he treats everyone as if they very well may be.)  Skipping ahead, Laertes returns with conclusive evidence that The People are also not satisfied with Claudius.  Claudius talks him down and, right on cue (hopefully) Ophelia enters to drive the point home.

The sailors deliver letters to Horatio and Claudius.  Hamlet is coming back naked.  Claudius and Laertes lay out their plan which we will see played out in Act V.  Which we will read this next week!