Some Shakespeare for your Saturday

So, today, April 23, is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and according to some sources, his birthday as well! To honor the Bard in a small way, here are his first and last sonnets.

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From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thy self thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel:
Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament,
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content,
And tender churl mak’st waste in niggarding:
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

The first sonnet is addressed to a male friend of Shakespeare’s. He’s trying to convince his friend to have children, so his beauty and legacy can live on. He’s urging his friend not to be niggardly and end his family’s line, that it would be “cruel” to the world. Wouldn’t this sonnet convince you to have children? 😉
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The Valkyries: discovering Paulo Coelho

The Valkyries is my third Coelho. I asked for it for Christmas, having picked a Coelho title at random, and now that I’ve read it, I think that it’s perfect that I read this one third, after By The River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept and The Alchemist. This is the incredibly personal, true story of Paulo Coelho’s life journey from Satan worshiper to spiritual magus, to an emotionally frantic man searching for his guardian angel.

1425To understand this book, you have to have some background knowledge of Coelho’s “religion,” a Christianity-based theology called “the Tradition” that combines spiritual magic and faith in a Christian god. Coelho, in this memoir, recounts his journey to speak to and see his guardian angel. It is a process that involves intense spiritual trials and the ability to challenge your inner demons. It’s about forgiveness, the complexity of the human condition, and the ability to overcome your biggest fears and your most destructive flaws. In these ways, the book excels. It speaks to the human condition in the way it reminds us that each of us has the tendency to “kill what we love the most.” But this is about Coelho specifically, and the book almost never strays into the general: this novel is all about Coelho and his past.

In the beginning of the novel, Coelho meets with his master, a man called J. He receives directions to travel from Brazil to the Mojave Desert, to speak to and to meet his angel in person. This feat is a huge accomplishment for Coelho, and he’s anxious to achieve it. He’s proud and impatient, displaying an arrogance not apparent in the writing style of his other novels.

Coelho brings his wife Christina with him on this 40-day journey, for he fears that his dissatisfaction with married life will be dissolved if he manages to meet his angel and therefore change his flawed personality. Coelho has the tendency to “kill what he loves the most” and before he succumbs to this weakness and leaves his beloved wife because of boredom or childishness, he wants to confront his demons and hopefully reverse the self-destructive path he is on. It’s a brave journey, but it also displays Coelho’s huge weaknesses, and the novel is almost too personal in the way it describes his marriage to Christina.

I have won important things for myself, but I’m going to destroy them, because I tell myself they have lost their meaning. I know that is not true. I know they are important, and that if I destroy them, I’ll be destroying myself, as well.

So where do the Valkyries come in? The Valkyries is a traveling band of leather-wearing, motorcycle-riding women who preach up and down the Mojave Desert and its surrounding areas. Led by a woman named Valhalla, the Valkyries adopt Coelho when they realize he is of their “Tradition” and guide him through the trials necessary for him to finally meet his angel. Valhalla also tests his fidelity and his dedication to his wife. And Christina, who never really believed in her husband’s magic at all, begins to feel her worldview changing and widening, engaging in her own spiritual journey that seemed to me more rich and rewarding than Coelho’s.

They had seen the same mountains, and the same trees, although each of them had seem them differently. She knew his weaknesses, his moments of hatred, of despair. Yet she was there at his side. They shared the same universe.

I thought this novel afforded me singular access to Coelho’s spiritual journey, his personality, his struggles, his magic, and his humanity. His humanity included his many, many flaws, such as his boredom in marriage and his tendency to “kill what he loves the most.” But I appreciated his struggle and that he had the forethought and the self-awareness to break the self-destructive path he was on to preserve those things he knows he will regret abandoning. I felt in the first half of the novel that I had gotten to know Coelho as a man rather than just a novelist or spiritual figure. This novel is like reading a journal. Or a blog 😉

However, I found myself relating to Christina more than Paulo. Her spiritual journey is less about proving her power than it is about discovering herself and who she wants to be. Her journey was graceful, open-minded, and not the frantic, chaotic journey Coelho has. I think that’s the point: Christina is written as an incredibly forgiving, strong character willing to stand by her husband despite her flaws, despite her sense that their marriage is indeed crumbling.

Reading this novel did shatter that blind admiration I had for Coelho after reading those first two novels, but it also elicited a strong feeling of respect. Penning this book required a huge amount of courage and self-awareness, knowing that your personal life and past indiscretions will be read by all your fans. This novel let me discover Coelho the man more than the other two I’d read, and it makes me eager to read his other novels now, knowing what I know about the author. This closeness is what separates Coelho from other authors: the work is almost indistinguishable from the man, which makes for an altogether different reading experience. It is a bit like reading a diary, albeit slightly fictionalized.

In the end, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I enjoyed The Alchemist because the reader cannot so easily understand the arcane trials and Coelho’s personal “Tradition.” You can’t be the “boy” in this book as you could with The Alchemist. And while the tone comes off as both apologetic and rebellious, I did gain new insight into a new favorite author and found the experience rewarding. More Coelho in future 🙂

References

Coelho, P. The Valkyries. (1996) New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Thought and Memory: A Review of "Bellman & Black"

I’m itching to discuss this book, and where better to begin a discussion than on my blog? After reading, if you have or haven’t read the book, feel free to engage me in fiery debate. Bellman & Black is the sophomore novel by Diane Setterfield, of The Thirteenth Tale fame. It’s been a long seven years since that glorious debut novel entered our bookshelves and our hearts, and I, for one, waited with tense anticipation for Bellman & Black. I found it in Barnes & Noble around Christmas and my friend had to pry it out of my hands (the hardcover price was steep even after my member discount). Undaunted, I asked for it, and received it, for Christmas. I thrilled.

imagesBellman & Black promises many squeal-inducing, shiny, book-lover’s-dream kind of things: a gripping story, sparkling characterization, generously smacked with the supernatural and a sense of pagan magic. I wish I could say it delivers flawlessly on all fronts, but the truth is, this book sort of falls flat. The potential is there, but the plot falls into stagnation and the characterization isn’t just faulty: it’s almost nonexistent. If good writing should ensnare all your senses, Bellman & Black fails the test. It piques one’s interest, but doesn’t keep it, unfortunately.

What’s annoying is that it starts out wonderfully. The novel begins with the death of our enigmatic protagonist, William Bellman. In this one scene, we learn that Bellman has lost his wife and three of his children, and is contemplating his life and its regrets. In the next, William is a young boy of ten playing with other boys his age. William has a catapult, a slingshot of sorts, so perfectly made that the other boys marvel at it, eager for William to showcase its abilities.

Reluctantly yet with a measure of pride, William selects a rook in a tree, loads his catapult, and shoots the rook dead with one shot. It’s an impossible shot, a beautiful arc, a perfect trajectory of rock and rook, but William almost instantly regrets it. He killed the bird and he’s guilty, ashamed. He spends the next week sick in bed and “applied his ten-year-old genius and power to the greatest feat he had ever attempted: forgetting. He very largely succeeded.”

William Bellman grows up into a dashing seventeen-year-old, loved and respected by most in town. He has astonishing business acumen and despite his bastard status, secures a place as secretary in his uncle’s successful cotton mill. Bellman marries a girl he loves passionately, takes over the mill and turns it into a formidable business due to his brilliant mind and dedication, and fathers four children, the oldest of which is his daughter Dora. William considers himself a lucky man, blessed beyond the norm and expecting nothing to disrupt his happiness and success. William’s luck does hold–until a fever sweeps through town and claims the lives of his beloved wife, and his three youngest children. Death seems to follow Bellman wherever he goes, and whether it is the funeral of his mother, his uncle, his cousin, or his wife and children, there is a mysterious man in the back, never making contact, driving Bellman crazy.
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All of this sounds eerie, chilling, gripping, and it should be. I think this novel fails the most in characterization. William Bellman isn’t a well-rounded character. He has some interesting qualities, but really, he’s just a “good” person with an above average brain for business. He is a workaholic, really. He loves his wife, his children, he is universally beloved and admired. He has a good singing voice. And I think that’s about it. The only distinguishing feature of Bellman’s is his inability to deal with grief. This makes Bellman more of an allegory than a person.

Another flaw lies with the narrative itself. So much of the book is devoted to minutiae about Bellman’s mill and then later, with his London emporium. Yes, Setterfield, we know how devoted Bellman is. We know he’s a workaholic, we know that he doesn’t socialize and shuns human contact and sleeps at his desk: there is really no need to drill it into our heads. There leaves little for character development and actual events. The structure is interesting but not impressive: the novel is interspersed with what seems to be excerpts from an encyclopedia/anecdotal history written by rooks. Readers are led to believe that the bird Bellman shot out of the tree as a child is stalking him in some way, reaping revenge.

There is a story much older than this one in which two ravens…were companions and advisers to the great God of the north. One bird was called Huginn, which in that place and time meant Though, the other Muninn, which meant Memory. They lived in a magic ash tree where borders of many worlds came together, and from its branches they flew blithely between worlds, gathering information for Odin. Other creatures could not cross the borders from one world to another, but Thought and Memory flew where they pleased, and came back laughing.

Thought and Memory had a great many offspring, all of whom were gifted with great mental powers allowing them to accumulate and pass on a good deal of knowledge from their ancestors.

The rooks that lived in Will Bellman’s oak tree were descendants of Thought and Memory. The rook that fell was one of their many-times-great-grandchildren…Rooks are made of thought and memory. They know everything and they do not forget. (124)

Setterfield undoubtedly meant it to atmospheric and foreboding, but I found it kind of comical that rooks write and keep a little bird book of their history. It came off as either cute like a cartoon or weird and unbelievable.

Most of the novel is given up to exhausting detail about Bellman’s business, christened Bellman & Black after the mysterious man, but there is an underlying allegory that doesn’t save the novel, but makes it more interesting to read, at least toward the end. Bellman is an allegory: for regret, guilt, shame, and grief that is consistently pushed away. Bellman has never learned to deal with the abandonment of this father, the death of his beloved mother, the destruction of his entire family. The rooks, made of thought and memory as they are, serve to remind Bellman and the readers of the danger of unprocessed grief. In this way, Setterfield makes a commentary on human nature that is worth making, but the format–and execution–of the novel, ultimately fall short of expectations.

There are many unanswered questions, and the novel ends somewhat unsatisfactorily. The only consolation I had from the disappointment of this book was the last scene, where Bellman’s daughter Dora witnesses the magnificent glory of a “rooking escapade:” watching rooks in their natural habitat:

Dora glitters, serenely exultant. It is what a rooking escapade does to a human. She looks as if she has gathered all the glory of the world into herself. To see it once is never to be without the feeling for the rest of your life…Dora has been set right within herself…She will live the best she can for as long as she can…And rooks will paint mysteries on the sky at dawn and dusk for as long as the world exists. (324)

Dora represents everything Bellman does not: the ability to deal gently with grief, the tendency to cherish memories to make one stronger, introspection, creativity, artistic thought. She was my favorite character and unfortunately wildly neglected.

References

Setterfield, D. Bellman & Black. 2013. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

The quirky Michel Faber and "The Courage Consort"

I’ve come to realize that Michel Faber is really ****ing weird, and I love it. My third Faber adventure, after The Crimson Petal and the White and The Fire Gospel is his collection of three novellas entitled The Courage Consort. I liked it much better than The Fire Gospel and can see how his wit and his sense of the strange and surreal influenced the writing of Crimson Petal. These three novellas are witty, ironic, sometimes downright ridiculous, and unexpectedly poignant at times. The three are “The Courage Consort,” “The Hundred Ninety-Nine Steps,” and “The Fahrenheit Twins.”

The Courage Consort ReviewThe Courage Consort” begins this collection. It tells the story of an a cappella group named, appropriately, The Courage Consort. Their group is christened such both because their founder’s surname is Courage and also for the old Wesleyan adage, “sing lustily and with much courage.” Roger and Catherine Courage are a married couple in the Consort who live for weeks in the Chateau de Luth, practicing a modern piece for a concert. The dynamic of the five members of the consort figure prominently in the narrative, as does the mental state of Kate, who suffers from depression. Kate has fantasies of suicide and is unhappy in her marriage. She also hears an ethereal, anguish-filled child’s cry every night during her sleep. Kate is the main protagonist of this story, as she navigates her awkward, sexless marriage; her relationship with the only other woman in the consort, a sexual, confident mother named Dagmar; and the kinship she feels with bulky, overweight Ben Lamb. It’s an interesting story of character development and the way these very different people manage not to rip each others’ hair out. When tragedy strikes the consort, they must examine their principles and begin new lives.

The Hundred Ninety-Nine Steps” takes place in the UK town of Whitby, the same setting as Dracula, a gothic setting for a less-than-gothic novella. It does have touches of the dramatic, however:

She closed her eyes, longing to trust him, longing to rest her head in the pillowy crook of his arm, but at the last instant, she glimpsed sideways, and saw the knife in his other hand. Her scream was gagged by the blade slicing deep into her throat, severing everything right through to the bone of her spine, plunging her terrified soul into pitch darkness.

Thus this novella begins, with a thirty-something archaeology student named Siân on a dig of a monastery in Whitby. Since her arrival in Whitby, Siân has been plagued by the same murderous dream night after night. A shy, idealistic woman, Siân meets a fit jogger named Mack, a Londoner in town to handle his late father’s affairs. The two are attracted to each other but find themselves constantly butting heads on issues of religion, antiquity, and faith. Siân believes strongly in the virtue of the medieval monks and priests, in the truth and nobility of history, in a higher power. Mack, a cynic, tries to disabuse Siân of her long-held notions and comes across, to me, as obnoxious and self-serving. When Mack discovers a message in a bottle in his father’s estate, he enlists Siân’s help with interpreting its contents, hoping for a grisly tale of murder. What they find plays with the readers’ expectations of the gothic genre and sheds new light upon the nature, and sometimes contradictory nature, of religion and faith. A great, quick read with solid, interesting characters and a satisfying ending.

The Fahrenheit Twins” was my favorite of the three stories. It’s set on an island near the North Pole and follows the lives of young twins Marko’cain and Tainto’lilith as they make sense of their bleak, desolate world around them. The twins are the children of ethnologists who are conducting research on nearby aboriginal communities on the island. Marko’cain and Tainto’lilith, who are probably around ten years old, were born on the island, possess impressive survival skills, know nothing of the outside world, and together, piece together little bits and pieces of facts they write down in a book. Their banter and wit and they way they finish each others’ sentences lend this story a touch of levity in an otherwise bleak novella. Bleak, because their ethnologist mother dies, and their alleged father (it’s implied that an aboriginal man is actually the twins’ biological father) sends them on a deadly expedition from which they must find their way back. Because of my love of the North, the lively little characters, and the dry humor of this piece, it was easily my favorite.

Faber is an interesting writer for the way he infuses his stories with a bit of surrealism and the fantastical without explaining anything; for example, the nightmares Siân has echo the murder she discovers in the bottle’s message; and Kate in “The Courage Consort” never discovers the source of that eerie, unearthly child’s cry. I liked those elements of unexplained, otherworldly events. They add a touch of surreality to the narrative and do much to explain the characters’ mental states.

Next on the Faber agenda: the short-story collection Some Rain Must Fall. Stay tuned!