It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Jill’s second update on Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

kavalier and clay cover 2kavalier and clay cover

I have made steady progress since my last update. I’ve gotten to page 206. I’m enjoying K and C (which is how I’m referring to this book from now on. The actual title is too much) quite a bit, and I wish I hadn’t been working so much since starting it so I could be reading it more. Here’s something interesting that happened, though. On Friday morning I was reading away, and thought I’d look ahead to see how many pages I had left in Part II, when I discovered that my copy, which I purchased at Borders at Stonestown in San Francisco in the fall of 2001, is missing pages 147 to 179, and pages 211 to 242 are present twice. This is obviously a problem. I was briefly torn between going on a scavenger hunt for a used copy and just buying a new copy somewhere when I decided to just go to The Avid Reader in Davis and buy a new copy. The scavenger hunt idea appealed to me, of course, because I love a good used book scavenger hunt, and K and C would probably be pretty easy to locate. But I didn’t feel quite like driving to Sacramento to go to many used bookstores. I wanted to read, damnit! So now I have two copies of the same book, this time on purpose. Kind of. I’m not sure which cover I like better, though I’m leaning towards the older one.

Wait, did you think you were reading a review of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay? Oh, sorry. I’ll get back to the actual book then. Since my last update, Joe Kavalier made his way to Brooklyn. I was a bit disappointed that his journey to the States happened off page for the most part, but I suppose the book has two protagonists, not just one. Sammy quickly learns that his long lost cousin is quite a talented artist, and elects to exploit Joe’s talent in order to get them both ahead financially. They go into the comic book business (surprise!) and make their bosses rich. I suspect that the talent (i.e. Sammy and Joe and their artist buddies) and the businessmen who run Empire Comics are heading for a bad breakup before the end of the novel. But I might be wrong. I honestly have no idea where things are going at this point. Joe’s father passes away in Europe, and this brings on an anti-German rage. Joe gets into fights with Germans at ball games, on the street, and in bars. He drinks too much. He generally mourns his father like any red-blooded American would: he does a bunch of dumb stuff in his dad’s honor. Joe even goes to Canada to join the RAF so he can go kill Germans in the war. It would not surprise me if he ends up joining the service when the US joins World War II.

I’m hoping that Sammy plays more of a central role as the book progresses. I’m not complaining about spending most of the first two hundred pages with Joe. I like Joe. But it’s about Kavalier and Clay, right? And the poor little comic book kid who survived polio seems like a nice guy. Also, I am enjoying the comic book aspect of the book, which is not a surprise, but I almost wish that there were illustrations, like from the old comics Chabon references.

I can’t think of any criticisms of Chabon’s writing style or anything of that sort. This book is, so far as I can tell, flawlessly written, hence the Pulitzer Prize, I suppose. Or his writing “tics” are too subtle for an amateur book blogger like me to pick up on.  I guess I’ll just have to see what I can find to complain about for Thursday!

Posted in Fiction - general, Fiction - Historical, Fiction - Important Award Winners, Fiction - literary, Michael Chabon, Reviews by Jill, The Numbers Challenge | 3 Comments

A Review of Kim Barker’s The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan (by Bethany)

the taliban shuffle cover image

This book was nothing at all like I expected. I bought it (before my book-buying fast, I should add) when it became clear that one of the pieces of fiction I’m working on might need to include some farcical elements concerning the U.S. military’s role in Afghanistan. This is not a topic that I would usually treat in a comical way, but fictional characters can be difficult taskmasters sometimes, and when it became clear that the story was heading in that direction, I thought it best to be prepared. I knew that this book would treat the events of the first decade of the 21st century in Afghanistan and Pakistan with a light touch (and even if I didn’t, the Andy Warhol-style psychedelic cover would certainly have tipped me off), but I did expect this book to be fundamentally a work of journalism. What it is, however, is Cheryl Strayed in a burqa. I’ll explain.

This book is a memoir of the years Kim Barker spent in central Asia as a journalist for the Chicago Tribune. The fact that Barker is probably quite an excellent journalist is a fact that the book keeps hidden for some time. You know how you can read all of Lolita and not actually find any direct references to the fact that Humbert Humbert is having sex with Lolita unless you look really, really closely? This book is the same way, but without the child molestation. On its surface, this book is about Barker’s social life and personal and professional angst, and it’s easy to view her as a classic American idiot who mocks the poverty and violence of the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan by enjoying these countries too much. Let me be clear: Eat, Pray, Love was too self-reverent for me, as was Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, and in some ways this book is worse. Nevertheless, Barker won me over, mostly.

Barker arrived in central Asia in March of 2003, when the U.S. media’s attention had shifted away from Afghanistan and toward the invasion of Iraq. The U.S. military had worked assiduously for a year and a half to capture, kill, and/or imprison Taliban leaders and al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan, which Barker describes as quite safe. Always surrounded by a bevy of male admirers (whom she treats only slightly better than Elizabeth Gilbert treats the men in her life in Eat, Pray, Love) – her Afghan driver and ‘fixer’ Farouq; boyfriend Chris, who moves to New Delhi to be with Barker just in time for her to dump him; various journalist friends; new boyfriend Dave; and – oh yeah – the attorney general of Afghanistan and a former president of Pakistan, both of whom offer themselves to her as suitors, Barker behaves more or less like a ditzy schoolgirl. She self-mockingly describes these early years in Afghanistan as her tenure at “Kabul High,” though to me her experiences seem more like college, where random groups of half-drunk mostly-acquainted kids roam around and do things like pound on the doors of brothels past midnight and shout, “Wake up, whores!” (75). These sections of the book annoyed me, because of course Barker and her friends aren’t in high school – or college. You know how old Barker was when the above-mentioned episode took place? Thirty-five. Barker is a good writer and describes these incidents well (and at times she is apologetic for her behavior, though not always), and over time it became clear to me that these incidents happened after hours, after she had put in long days of reporting and researching and writing. But still – she was thirty-five. Couldn’t she have found something to crochet? Or maybe a water aerobics class at the local gym?

This book isn’t really about the Taliban, of course; it’s about Americans. It’s about the stubborn way that no matter how much time passes, we’re still the world’s resident adolescents. America is the country where kids trick or treat until they’re in college, where laser tag and paintball and shooting at road signs are time-honored traditions. Barker reflects that the reason she felt so at home in Afghanistan is that it reminded her of her own childhood in lawless, libertarian Montana: “Even though New Delhi would be my home base, Afghanistan felt more like home than anywhere else in the region. I knew why. Afghanistan seemed familiar. It had jagged blue and purple mountains, big skies, and bearded men in pickup trucks stocked with guns and hate for the government. It was like Montana – just on different drugs.” (19)

This memoir’s other key focus is Barker’s growing obsession with her work. Back in the U.S., tumultuous things were happening to the economy (as you perhaps recall), and the Chicago Tribune was bought out by a conglomerate whose CEO didn’t see much reason to invest in international news (!!!). By the second half of the book, Barker is actively fighting to keep her job, darting all over the place, back and forth between Pakistan and Afghanistan and occasionally India. Every time she plans a short vacation, something explodes, and she makes a U-turn and goes back to work. Finally, she’s told she must return to Chicago and work on reporting local news, and she quits and hangs around Kabul for a while, unable to leave the intensity and adrenaline-soaked chaos that she associates with this city. I really do admire Barker’s work ethic and courage – she’s a class act in ways that Elizabeth Gilbert and Cheryl Strayed are not – and am aware that the behaviors I object to took place during Barker’s off hours. Crotchety as I can be, I do respect a person’s freedom to act like an idiot in her spare time.

I could do more summarizing, but I think I’ll call this review done. I enjoyed the book overall, even when it made me cringe a little, and I do think it helped me to see how the horrible events of these years can be rendered comically. I recommend it and will be interested in reading more of Barker’s work in the future.

Posted in Authors, Kim Barker, Non-fiction - History, Nonfiction - General, Nonfiction - Memoir/Biography, Nonfiction - Politics/Current Events, Nonfiction - Travel, Reviews by Bethany | 7 Comments

Final Thoughts on Deborah Harkness’ The Book of Life (by Bethany)


I’ve said in earlier posts that this final installment in Deborah Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy is disappointing, and I don’t plan to dwell on that any more. The Book of Life IS disappointing, but it does get better as the book progresses, and the ending itself is quite good. Today’s task is to break down the book as a whole and suggest some reasons for my disappointment while emphasizing the book’s strengths.

The title of this book comes from a document that Diana Bishop finds in Oxford’s Bodleian Library at the beginning of A Discovery of Witches. For most of the trilogy, this document is called “Ashmole 782,” which means that it is the 782nd document from the collection of a person named Ashmole, who presumably donated or bequeathed his/her collection to the university. In A Discovery of Witches, Diana receives this document in a stack of other books she requested, and even though she did not request Ashmole 782 she is immediately drawn to it because it relates directly to her academic specialty, which is the history of alchemy. Later, when she requests this document again after returning it to the stacks, she is told that no such document exists. The mysteries surrounding this document – who created it (and when, and why), what is the meaning of its deeply symbolic imagery, why did it appear to Diana without being requested, and why does it fail to appear to her later – provide the impetus for the rest of the trilogy, as does the fact that some pages are missing from the document. Equally important plot strands include Diana’s love affair with (and marriage to) Matthew Clairmont and her growing understanding of her magical powers.

It happens that Diana meets Matthew at the Bodleian Library on the same day that she finds Ashmole 782. And at this point – in my opinion – the love story between Diana and Matthew, alongside the introduction of Matthew’s crazy vampire family, AND alongside Diana’s journey to learn more about her identity as a witch, takes over the novel – and Ashmole 782, which was interesting enough when it was first introduced, becomes yesterday’s news. That’s why I found the first half of this novel so slow: it was bringing to resolution a plot element that I had ceased to care about.

But of course it’s more complicated than that. Ashmole 782 (called The Book of Life by witches) is believed by all three of this trilogy’s groups of magical creatures (witches, daemons, and vampires) to be a foundational text containing secrets about how these three groups of creatures came to be. For that reason, all three groups covet it. As Matthew (who happens to have control of a 21st-century genetics lab) and others soon learn, the book is made from witch, vampire, and daemon skin – which is gross, of course, but it also means that it contains information about creature DNA. At the end of Shadow of Night and the beginning of The Book of Life, Diana is pregnant with twins, and all the Bishop-Clairmont friends and family (and enemies too, of course) are trying to figure out how a vampire managed to impregnate a witch. They do know of a few other isolated examples of witches who delivered vampire babies, and it soon becomes clear that many of these babies were fathered by Matthew’s horrific psychopathic son Benjamin.

Another relevant detail is that Matthew is afflicted with a “disease” called blood rage. In Shadow of Night, we saw Matthew in the grip of his blood rage, and we saw his father, Philippe, helping him to manage it. The usual belief among vampires is that blood rage can’t be controlled, and it is common practice to kill vampires with blood rage in order to stop them from harming others and from passing their disease on to other vampires that they create. Matthew comes from a powerful family that guards his secret carefully; in any other situation, he would likely have been killed centuries ago.

As Matthew, Diana, and the rest of their posse (which consists of vampires, witches, daemons, humans, gays, lesbians, heterosexual individuals, and so forth – this trilogy is so P.C. it almost gleams) learn more about the genetic makeup of magical creatures, they see a pattern. In every known case of a witch bearing a vampire’s baby, the vampire has had blood rage, and the witch was a “weaver,” which in this book means a witch who can create his or her own spells from scratch. Diana, of course, is a weaver. Weavers were plentiful in centuries past, but in the 21st century they are relatively rare; that’s why Diana and Matthew spent most of Shadow of Night in the 16th century, where Diana was able to find other weavers to teach her their craft.

So the conflicts the characters need to deal with in this novel are as follows: 1) find the missing pieces of Ashmole 782 and reassemble the book, 2) keep Diana and her babies safe, 3) learn why weavers and vampires with blood rage can reproduce with one another while other witches and vampires cannot, and 4) find Benjamin (and a few other related bad guys) and stop him from kidnapping and raping witches and performing other acts upon which society frowns. Secondary plots for Diana include her struggle to adjust to life in a vampire family and her ongoing anger at Matthew’s brother Baldwin, her grief for her aunt Emily, who was killed by Benjamin’s crew at the end of Shadow of Night, and her grief for the 16th century – where she came into her own as a weaver and as Matthew’s wife.

I said in an earlier post that in some ways this novel suffers because its predecessor, Shadow of Night, is so good. When Diana feels homesick for the 16th century, I can’t help wondering if this is Deborah Harkness’ way of saying that she feels homesick for the 16th century. I can’t help thinking that there must have been some magical joo-joo floating around the air ducts of the Harkness estate when she was writing Shadow of Night – and, to a lesser extent, when she was writing A Discovery of Witches, which is also quite good. In some schools of literary criticism, much is made of the fact that books and other texts play the same role as children do in the lives of their authors. In other words, authors can be deeply in love with their texts, but they can also grow to resent them. Texts can make their authors nervous, angry, and embarrassed, just as children can. And, more to the point, texts can rise up and interact with the world in ways their creators never expected: they are creatures whose trajectories their authors can’t control. I really think something of this sort happened when Harkness wrote Shadow of Night – and, specifically, in her creation of the character of Philippe de Clermont. Like many of its characters, The Book of Life seems to be in mourning.

I’m not going to tell you exactly how the book ends, but I do want to assure you that the ending really is quite wonderful. Parts of the ending are formulaic: the structure of the trilogy is a comic one, and at the end of this novel all the bad guys are either dead or appropriately punished, the good guys have started to settle into the routines that make them happy, and Ashmole 782 is reassembled and its secrets revealed. There’s a bit of hokeyness surrounding the ending – broad truisms about unity and harmony and such things – but it’s not out of proportion to the tone of the trilogy as a whole, which has always been light. What I am most impressed with is the way Harkness settles the question of why weavers and blood-rage vampires are able to reproduce. I was taught by a fiction professor that the ending of a story or novel has to do two things that are almost contradictory to one another: it has to emerge naturally from the plot (as if it is the only inevitable way the story could have ended), and it has to be a surprise. Balancing these two tasks is not easy – this is why the last day of teaching a novel is always so much fun. Everyone seems to have an opinion about the endings. Deborah Harkness makes a number of mistakes in this novel (some of which I can’t quite blame her for, since they involve magical joo-joo and all), but on the resolution of this central question, she nails it.

Posted in Authors, Deborah Harkness, Fiction - Fantasy, Fiction - general, Reviews by Bethany | Leave a comment

Some Brief Not-So-Final Thoughts on Deborah Harkness’ The Book of Life (by Bethany)


I’m about 80 pages away from the end of The Book of Life, which to me seems like too far along for a lengthy progress report (because what would I say in the final thoughts? I would be reduced to telling stories about my cat) but too early for final thoughts. So for now, all I’m going to say is that this novel – with which I was very frustrated a few days ago – gets good at around page 250. Of course, this is not a good thing; a novel should be good beginning with the very first sentence. Even now, when I’m pretty engaged with it, it’s still nowhere near as good as The Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night. I’m sorry to have this trilogy end on a low note, since I’ve enjoyed the other books in it so much. More to come on Sunday!

I also want to report that it has been a full ten days since I started my ban on book-buying, and I’ve been good – I haven’t cheated. As of today, though, Amazon officially knows that Something is Wrong. They’ve started sending me emails with sad subject headings like “It’s been a while” (I’m serious), and then they sent me a voucher good for a Kindle book of my choice for $1.99 (Damn it – I forgot to make a rule about vouchers!). Next thing I know Jeff Bezos will park his car outside my house in the middle of the night and listen to sad songs and gazes up at my bedroom window.

Have a good weekend, everyone!

Posted in Authors, Deborah Harkness, Fiction - Fantasy, Fiction - general, Reviews by Bethany | Leave a comment

Early thoughts on Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

kavalier and clay cover


When I learned what my July Numbers Challenge book was, I was happy. I’ve been a devoted buyer of Michael Chabon’s books for years now, since I saw the movie version of Wonder Boys about a hundred years ago, but I’ve never actually read one of them, which is the major reason I put this one on my list. For some reason, I remember precisely when and where I bought this book, and who was with me when I did it. I bought it at the Borders at Stonestown Galleria in the fall of 2001. I was with my now husband and my friend Rosanna. We were meeting our other friends for lunch, either at Olive Garden or Chevy’s. It was either right before or right after 9/11, though I’m pretty sure it was after. When I think about this gathering of my high school friends, I have feelings of needing to see friends no matter how busy our lives are, because who knows when something awful is going to happen (which is why I think it was after 9/11). Thinking about what a production it’s become these days to see my high school friends, it makes our “busy” lives in 2001 seem positively leisurely. We should have been able to see each other at least once a week back then. I know I didn’t just buy The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay that day, because I don’t know that I ever bought just one book at Borders ever, but this is the one I remember buying. I felt like a fancy grown up reader because I was buying a book that had won the Pulitzer Prize, but at the same time I was being subversive because I was buying a book about comic books.


I haven’t gotten that far in this book yet, only about sixty pages out of over six hundred, but I am enjoying it quite a bit. The book opens in 1930s Brooklyn, when Sam Clay meets his Czech cousin, Josef Kavalier, for the first time. They become fast friends, and then we flash back to Joe’s life in Czechoslovakia. Joe is Jewish, and his family spends their entire savings to get him out of the country before Hitler’s veil falls completely. There are complications with this plan, and Josef goes to his former teacher, Kornblum, for assistance in exiting the country and getting to America. Turns out Kornblum is a magician/escape artist like Houdini. Josef took lessons from him until he attempted an escape and almost got himself and his younger brother Thomas killed. Where I am currently, Josef and Kornblum are readying for the great escape, which I believe involves a coffin and an ancient Jewish relic.


Somehow 2014 is becoming the year in which I read a lot of books about World War II. Portions of The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, and Life After Life take place during WWII, and all of The Book Thief did, and The Polished Hoe happened right after WWII. It’s been really interesting to get all of these perspectives on this era. My friend Katee said that she loves reading about World War II, or rather reading books that take place during World War II, and I can see why—it’s a fascinating, emotionally charged time. Modern, but not contemporary, a simpler, but also more complicated time. (A brief aside: I’ve also been reading books with really long titles this year….)


I’m hopeful that I’ll make a significant amount of progress on The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay over the next couple of days, but I have a feeling I’ll be spending the next few weeks to a month or more with Joe and Sam. I think that’s probably okay.

Posted in Fiction - general, Fiction - Historical, Fiction - Important Award Winners, Fiction - literary, Michael Chabon, Reviews by Jill, The Numbers Challenge | Leave a comment

Yarn Along (by Bethany)

Yarn Along 7.23.1

This photo makes me think of a line that comes close to the end of one of my favorite short stories, John Cheever’s “The Country Husband”: “The village hangs, morally and economically, from a thread, but it hangs from its thread in the evening light.” I took this week’s Yarn Along photo – as well as last week’s – on the front porch of the house where I live with my dad. There’s nothing special about the porch – just some basic utilitarian ironwork, red paint that peels where it meets the front wall of the house – but lately, every time I want to photograph something, I head to the porch. The sun casting the shadows in these photos is in the process of setting over the Pacific Ocean.

I’m still not very happy with The Book of Life. This book’s own plot (as opposed to review and backstory from the previous two books) has sort of gotten started, but it’s still painfully slow. I’m still holding out hope, though.

And look – I finally got some knitting done last weekend. To be specific, I finished the neckband of my next Palm Desert Winter Sweater. This yarn is light and airy and made partly from alpaca wool. I actually had trouble taking photos because the wind kept trying to blow the neckband away!

Here are a few more samples from the photo shoot. I couldn’t pick just one:

Yarn Along 7.23.2

Yarn Along 7.23.3

As always, Yarn Along is hosted by Ginny on her wonderful blog, Small Things.



Posted in Yarn Along | 6 Comments

Thoughts on Shakespeare’s As You Like It (by Bethany)


The weekend before last, Jill and I took a quick trip to Tahoe to see As You Like It at the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival. I’ve attended this festival – which used to be called Shakespeare at Sand Harbor – several times before. I saw As You Like It there in 2004 with my friends Tara and Bill, and when I heard the festival was showing this play again this year, I was a little miffed. But then I thought – oh, wait. 2004 is TEN YEARS AGO. It only FEELS like it was just a couple of years ago. That’s what happens when you’re over 35: an entire decade collapses into one long all-nighter in which you alternate back and forth: one-hour shifts of grading essays, plunging the toilet, and waiting on hold with Covered California. This happened in a Sartre play, right?

I remember exactly nothing about the production of As You Like It that I saw in 2004, except that at one point a shepherd boy came out on stage holding a sheep over his shoulders, and Tara and I fell over laughing. A few years prior, when we were in grad school, Tara and I signed up for a course in Pastoral Literature. I’m not sure about Tara, but I was interested in the course because the entire syllabus was made up of texts that I had never studied before: lots of ancient Romans, some medieval folks, and two Shakespeare plays: A Winter’s Tale and As You Like It. We were a little nervous because we were the only M.F.A. students in a class full of M.A. and Ph.D students, and there was a fair amount of rivalry between the creative writing types and the lit types in our English department. The professor was a little nervous because on the first day of the semester, a grad student walked into a professor’s office and shot him at point-blank range, an act that he followed a moment later with a suicide. It didn’t really occur to me until later how scared the professors must have been of us.

Long story short, we both dropped the class. I think we lasted two weeks. The professor was disorganized and tongue-tied (understandable under the circumstances but still annoying) and, to our surprise, pastoral literature turned out to be about fucking sheep.

What’s that? You say I’m oversimplifying? Well, of course I’m oversimplifying. I’ll explain a bit more: Pastoral literature idealizes country life, which many writers throughout history have associated with childhood. In the minds of these writers, the countryside takes on the status of Eden: a prelapsarian paradise where fruit is ripe for the picking and where self-consciousness and shame haven’t yet been invented. Because shepherding was the job most often assigned to young boys in the countryside, shepherding gets a lot of air time from pastoral writers, who long for the simplicity and wholesomeness and solitude of the time they spent in nature.

That, and they miss fucking sheep. Apparently many boys were still in their shepherding years when they began to feel the first stirrings of puberty. They were alone most of the day, and even when they were off duty they had been well schooled by their priests to stay away from the local girls. But then there were all those long silent days on the hillside with the sheep, and – well – I suppose the sheep started to look pretty darn appealing after while. So along with the memory of the simplicity and slower pace of childhood – a lighter, less sinister understanding of the world that they mistake for a lighter and less sinister world – the adult pastoral writers also longed for this sinless sex. In some cases, these episodes may represent the only time in the lives of these writers when they could enjoy a sexual release without any fear of retribution, disease, pregnancy, or – worse – marriage.

If you haven’t read it, check out James Dickey’s poem “The Sheep Child” here. It’s a modern poem in this tradition and is damn good.

You’ve probably already noticed that there are a number of ironies floating around the pastoral tradition. The poets writing in this tradition were adults. They were usually well educated and had traveled at least a little – to a major city center and/or to a university. They had studied their Greek and their Ovid and St. Jerome’s disgraceful butchery of the Christian scriptures. They were likely married, possibly more than once, and perhaps there had been dalliances with whores, with servant girls, with servant boys – the works. Hell, they probably even had their own flocks of sheep by this point – what was stopping them from muttering something about the outhouse and stepping out to the barn for a little roll in the shit-speckled hay? Nothing was stopping them – but the thing is, they don’t really want to fuck sheep. They want to fuck sheep as children, when fucking sheep felt blissful and secret and grown-up and mysterious. They want to go back to Eden. They want to un-eat the apple from the tree of knowledge. Fucking sheep as an adult is just gross.

Even if these adult writers were to go back to the idyllic hillsides of their childhoods, they wouldn’t find Eden. They would find humidity and mosquitos and loneliness and sheep crap everywhere. Even if they did happen upon the hillside on a temperate, dry day when all the sheep were constipated, they still wouldn’t find the paradise they were looking for, because they would still be there: their big, sweating bodies, their cynical minds, their backs and legs aching after a morning of climbing hills. It took the human race as a whole an unconscionably long time to figure out how subjective reality is, but the pastoral writers have known for centuries that no one ever really sees the world for what it is. The world we see is filtered through the lens of our own consciousness and is shaped by our memories, our desires, and our prejudices.

All this is a very long way of telling you that when that shepherd boy stepped out on stage in 2004, Tara and I fell apart laughing. WE know what YOU do with THAT SHEEP! we whispered back and forth to each other. But it turned out that the shepherd boy had very little to do with the play as a whole, and I remember exactly nothing else from that entire theatrical experience.

The production we saw last weekend, on the other hand, may be the best live production of a Shakespeare play that I’ve ever seen. The director chose to update the play and set in in the early 20th century, but the Elizabethan language was retained. The setting was an industrial city in New England, with the understanding that the forest scenes were in some Walden-like woodsy area near the city. Overall, though, the updating of the setting is a minor point – the quality of the acting was what made me enjoy the play so much.

I meant to read the play before we went to see it, but of course I was behind in my reading schedule as usual, so I read it last week and finished it tonight. Like most of Shakespeare’s comedies, I kind of hated reading it. The comedies just don’t translate to the page the way the tragedies and histories do. When I’m reading, I groan every time Touchstone (the requisite clown or Fool figure) steps onstage, because I know that when the clown shows up, there is going to be witty banter, and it’s going to revolve around slang terms for genitalia that no one has used for four hundred years, and I’m going to feel kind of stupid. On the contrary, Touchstone was one of the highlights of the live performance. He still rambled on and on and there were puns that I didn’t get, but his face was so expressive and his body language was perfect and it didn’t matter if I understood exactly what that whole diatribe about the pancake and the mustard (I.ii.65ff) was supposed to mean.

As I’ve said before, I was a slow learner when it came to Shakespeare. I was exposed to his plays fairly extensively: we read Romeo and Juliet in the 7th grade, A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 8th, The Merchant of Venice and Romeo and Juliet (again) in 9th, Othello and Julius Caesar in 10th, and, as you know from our AP Challenge, we read Measure for Measure, Much Ado About Nothing, and Hamlet in our senior year of high school – and we were also briefly exposed to King Lear via a film adaptation. Yet in spite of all these plays I ostensibly studied, I felt hopelessly behind the game. I had a knack for writing essays about books I hadn’t read (something I NEVER do here on Postcards from Purgatory, I promise), so I think the fact that I had a nasty case of Shakespeare-induced dyslexia managed to slip under the radar. It honestly wasn’t until my senior year of college that I was able find a few small snippets of meaning and beauty and insight in Shakespeare: first in Henry IV, Part I, then in Hamlet. I did make up for these deficiencies in grad school – when I took a great Shakespeare course and also read a number of the plays out loud with friends and on my own – and later, when I was a teacher and had no choice but to learn how to explain first Macbeth, then Othello and Measure for Measure and The Taming of the Shrew and Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice and King Lear. Nowadays, I consider my ability to read and teach Shakespeare to be one of my strengths, but the journey to this point was a long one, and I still get defensive when I read the long passages of comedic wordplay attributed to characters like Touchstone. I feel my former self giving up, tossing As You Like It aside and picking up The Great Santini.

In some ways, As You Like It is an easy play to read. Without actually counting words, I think this play contains a higher ratio of prose to poetry than any other Shakespeare play I can think of – and the prose is often easier to read than poetry (though in Shakespeare I usually like poetry better). The language is more straightforward than in Shakespeare’s other plays. But, this being a Shakespeare comedy, we still have all kinds of people in disguise and mistaken identities and multiple people with the same name – just to make sure we’re on our toes.

Somewhere along the line I retained the fact that “melancholy Jaques” is a character in this play – and he is. When I scanned the list of characters in my copy of the play, I saw that Jaques was the second brother in Oliver and Orlando’s family – i.e. the second son of Sir Rowland de Boys. In the play, though, Orlando and Oliver show no sign of recognizing Jaques or having happy childhood memories of fucking sheep together, as one might expect from brothers. I examined my copy of the play more closely and saw that in fact there are TWO characters named Jaques in this play. One is the second brother, who only appears for a moment at the end of the play, though he is mentioned earlier. The other Jaques is the melancholy one, the one who recites the “Seven Ages of Man” speech that everyone studies in school at some point. Why would Shakespeare do this? Do there need to be two characters named Jaques? There are no comedic consequences or mistaken identities surrounding this name, and neither is a major character. This reminds me of the time a small-town New Hampshire newscaster was relating an incident about a serial killer who had exactly the same name as the newscaster and never commented on the coincidence.

Here’s the plot: Orlando is the youngest son of the deceased Sir Rowland de Boys, and at the beginning of the play his complaint is that his brother Oliver was instructed by their father’s will to educate Orlando well and to ‘breed’ him with a marriage partner suited to his status in the world. In reality, though, Oliver treats Orlando like crap, going so far in scene 1 as to try to rig a wrestling match so that Orlando will be “accidentally” killed by Charles the wrestler (Jill and I were both disappointed that Charles the wrestler didn’t reappear later in the play. Didn’t he have anyone that he wanted to marry in the woods? Everyone else seemed perfectly happy to jump on that bandwagon).

But Orlando survives his wrestling match with Charles but soon receives word that his brother is going to continue to try to have him killed, so Orlando arranges to escape with Oliver’s servant Adam, an elderly man who is loyal to Orlando’s late father and shares Orlando’s contempt for Oliver. Adam pledges his loyalty to Orlando and promises to cash in his 401K to support the two of them during their sojourn in the woods (think I’m kidding about the 401K? Check out II.iii.39ff – it’s there, I promise). Orlando accepts this offer readily – this offer of a elderly servant’s last penny – which struck me as kind of a shitty thing to do, but whatever. Cultural relativism.

It turns out that there’s this whole subculture in the Forest of Arden. It reminds me a lot of what the eastern end of Golden Gate Park – the part right across the street from the Stanyan Street McDonalds – looked like when I was a kid, circa 1978 or so. The phrase ‘the Great Unwashed’ comes to mind. There’s a duke hanging out in the forest – he was usurped by his brother, heretofore known as the Asshole Duke – and he has the sort of retinue that a duke might be expected to cart around with him. Jaques – the melancholy one – is one of these courtiers. Many of the courtiers have names that sound rather French, and it occurred to me as I was reading the play that the Forest of Arden – as it’s called in the play – may be what was later known as the Ardennes forest – famous for playing host to the Battle of the Bulge? This is neither here nor there, really, though I should point out that the placement of this play in Belgium becomes somewhat problematic when a LION shows up roundabout Act IV and mauls Orlando. I mean, where were this lion’s great-great-great grandchildren back when we could have used some help kicking some Nazi ass?

The exiled duke has a daughter named Rosalind, and the Asshole Duke has a daughter named Celia. Rosalind has not been exiled alongside her father but has been allowed to stay with Celia because they’re such good friends. But around the time that Orlando is fleeing into the woods with an elderly servant’s life savings, the Asshole Duke is deciding that maybe he doesn’t trust Rosalind after all. He exiles her, threatening to execute her if she isn’t gone by morning. So Rosalind does what any reasonable character in a Shakespeare comedy would do in that situation: she dresses up like a boy. Not to be outdone, Celia dresses up like – well, a girl. But a poor girl, the kind of girl who would live in the woods and have brothers who might occasionally fuck sheep.

But here’s the thing: Rosalind and Orlando have already started to consider the possibility that they are in love with one another. They met on the night of the wrestling match. So Orlando starts writing poems about Rosalind and leaving them in the trees for her to find. She finds them, mocks them gleefully when she’s alone with Celia, and finds Orlando and offers to pretend to be Rosalind so he can practice seducing her. This is the sort of thing that happens in just about every Shakespeare comedy. If at least two characters aren’t in disguise as someone else while pretending to be themselves, then the play most likely hasn’t started yet.

And then there are some ‘rude mechanicals,’ who are actually not called ‘rude mechanicals’ in this play (I borrowed this expression from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which this play somewhat resembles) but who all seem to want to marry someone who doesn’t love them back. Shakespeare was cynical about love, of course, largely due to his own unhappy marriage, and over and over again his comedies end with marriages that any reasonable person – or at least any reasonable person who watches Dr. Phil – knows are doomed. Sometimes marriages are given as punishments, and elsewhere characters who just happen to be standing around when the other weddings are taking place sort of shrug and agree to get married too. In this play, Celia does absolutely nothing besides dress up as a girl (in spite of the fact that she already is a girl) and give Rosalind someone to talk to – but all of a sudden she is madly in love with Oliver, Orlando’s older brother who tried to have him killed a few times (imagine Thanksgiving dinner in that family). Oliver, of course, is no longer a jerk; he saw the error of his ways when Orlando saved him from the lion. And did I mention that there is another Oliver? Yep, there is. He’s the local priest. He only shows up once or twice to make some vague pronouncements. For the rest of the play, I picture the other Oliver joining forces with the other Jaques for some doobie action in the costume shop.

Oh, and one more thing – guess who shows up at the wedding? Hymen, the god of marriage! Yes, really. There was a time when I was wondering why this play is not often taught in high schools, but I think I may have my answer now.

So I’ve allowed this post to get very long and very silly, and I’ve enjoyed writing it and hope you enjoyed reading it. There’s more I could say about any number of the characters, and the strange, illogical ways Shakespeare blends poetry and prose, and, in particular, there’s a whole lot more I could say about the pastoral motif, which, all kidding aside, I find very compelling. Once you start looking for the pastoral motif, you’ll find it everywhere. It’s the central tension in the Eden story, and it’s hard to imagine a coming-of-age story without it. I’m going to sign off here without digging into this play in more detail. I will say, though, that I don’t like this play one bit, but I am also very happy I read it. Over and over again, this is how I react to Shakespeare’s comedies. All the coincidences, all the cross-dressing and coincidences and punishment marriages and fools and silliness – who needs it? But even the lamest of Shakespeare’s comedies give a person more to think about and react to than the greatest works of almost every other writer. It’s a cliché even to say this, but it’s true.

Posted in Authors, Book-related personal narratives, Drama, Reviews by Bethany, William Shakespeare | 2 Comments