Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

Source of book: I own this as part of my hardback “World’s Best Reading” collection

Buckle your swashes! Time for a rip-roaring adventure story!

Illustration by Charles Dana Gibson, 1898

Anthony Hope wrote a few books, but none was more popular than The Prisoner of Zenda, although the sequel, Rupert of Hentzau came close. Written at the close of the 19th Century, it started a revival of the tale of sword and chivalry, practically creating the “Ruritanian Romance” genre.

In order to make the anachronistic tale more believable, Hope set it primarily in an imaginary Central or Eastern European country he called Ruritania. For the 1890s, this area of the world was barely less exotic than the Persia of the Arabian Nights or the Far East. It was still believable as the half-savage, backward, forested wilderness in which a sword fight in a castle was entirely possible. Even Count Dracula was possible, and children could be stolen away and turn up in Transylvania. I’m not sure the Romanians entirely appreciated this stereotyping. Perhaps these days, one of the few places that would still work for this sort of thing is North Korea.

In any case, “Ruritania” becomes the setting for this tale. Englishman Rudolf Rassendyll is a rather unmotivated and silly young aristocrat somewhat in the vein of Bertie Wooster. Either blessed or cursed with flaming red hair, he is the living reminder of the checkered past of his family. A few generations back, a torrid affair took place between a respectable matron of the family and the rakish prince of Ruritania, and the red hair crops up once each generation as a reminder of the incident.

Pestered to do something useful with himself, Rudolf takes a trip to Ruritania on the pretence of going to Italy to research a book. He accidentally runs into the heir apparent to the throne, who happens to be his doppelganger. After the king is drugged and abducted by his brother - who also wants the throne - Rudolf finds himself impersonating the king, so he can free him from the dungeon at Zenda. This wasn’t exactly his plan for his vacation, but, after all, why ever not?

Hope realizes that this story is a bit silly, and doesn’t take it entirely seriously. For both Rudolf and the author, this is a fortunate lark, a chance to show their mettle while indulging in a fantasy. Hope writes in a flowing, well paced manner, allowing the story to unfold at a perfect pace.

The Prisoner of Zenda would prove to be influential. While some authors would lean more to the serious side, the best and most memorable of the subsequent Ruritanian Romances would mine the concept for its comic potential. The Adventures of Tintin draw significantly from Zenda, both in idea and in plot devices. Both Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers (Duck Soup) would utilize the concept to comedic effect. George Bernard Shaw parodied the genre in Arms and the Man. Ian Flemming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang invents perhaps the best “Ruritania” of them all, the kingdom of Vulgaria. Even recently, Grand Budapest Hotel draws from the tradition.

The Prisoner of Zenda is great fun, and a nice light read. I also intend to introduce my children to it at some point. Perhaps I can find an audiobook for one of our adventures this summer.

What is a “swash,” and how do you buckle it anyway?

“Swashbuckler” is similar to “gunslinger,” but the meaning isn’t quite as obvious. The derivation comes from the sound the sword makes through the air, and a buckler is a round shield. (And also one of the great naughty jokes in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.) A swashbuckler is the sort who prefers a sword to a gun, is as idealistic as they come, and rescues the damsel in distress. Obviously, Robin Hood and the Three Musketeers qualify, along with any number of movie heroes of the past. Nearly every book by Sir Walter Scott [insert link] contains this archetype, and many adventure stories and movies have had to choose whether to embrace or parody the trope. The eminently quotable The Princess Bride encompasses both, with the quintessential swashbuckler Inigo Montoya contrasted with the cynical but resourceful Westley. Even the Star Wars franchise capitalizes on the enduring love for swordplay and the wistful desire that it could in fact still trump the far less romantic firearm.

Morganatic Marriage:

This was a term I had to look up after it appeared in the book. A Morganatic marriage is one between a member of the nobility and a commoner. (In fact, the marriage of Prince William to Kate is technically Morganatic, which makes it a big deal for those who care about such things.) The legal question to be settled is one of inheritance. Obviously, the commoner spouse cannot inherit the family estate, but what of the children? Do they inherit the titles and property? As I presume any British barrister could tell you, “it’s complicated.” Morganatic marriage doesn’t drive the plot in this book, but it does at least come into play in the back story of a few minor characters.

Movie and Stage Adaptations:

Hope co-wrote a stage version of the novel soon after it was published.

Naturally, a plot this good has been turned into a movie on several occasions. Early films were made in 1913, 1915, and 1922. The definitive version is the 1937 film starring Douglas Fairbanks as the dastardly yet dashing Rupert Hentzau, and Ronald Colman as Rudolf and the king. The same script would be used for the 1952 remake starring Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr. A very loose adaptation was made for a 1979 film starring Peter Sellers.

Trailer for the 1937 version

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt

Source of book: Borrowed from the library, but I really need to buy this one

Republicans don’t believe in the imagination, partly because so few of them have one, but mostly because it gets in the way of their chosen work, which is to destroy the human race and the planet. Human beings, who have imaginations, can see a recipe for disaster in the making; Republicans, whose goal in life is to profit from disaster and who don’t give a hoot about human beings, either can’t or won’t. Which is why I personally think they should be exterminated before they cause any more harm.

~ Michael Feingold, theater critic for The Village Voice

This is the vision of the Democrats, get children abused, kill them in the womb as much as possible, be sure there are as many dysfunctional families as possible, as many homosexual families as possible and children abused as much as possible, so government can grow their child welfare services even more, so that they can kill more kids, so that more adults can commit adultery, so that more kids would be murdered, so that more kids would be abused, so more government would tax and regulate and tax and regulate to produce the worst possible hellhole on planet earth.

~ Kevin Swanson, Christian Patriarchy leader, Pastor, and Radio Show Host


Clearly, I picked the most extreme examples. Neither of these two is particularly representative of the average person on the Right or the Left, but they are fairly representative of the rhetoric that has been increasingly common on both sides of the political coin. Politics has indeed become more polarized than it used to be, and people seem increasingly willing to ascribe evil intentions to the other side.

The first quote is offered in The Righteous Mind as an example of someone who should have an imagination, but is unable to imagine someone acting from a different moral matrix from his own. The second quote is one I have used before, from one of my least favorite figures on the Christian Right. Thankfully Kevin Swanson is no relative of mine.

The similarities between the quotes are striking. Two media figures who simply cannot imagine that the other side might be anything other than intentionally malevolent.

The full title of this book is The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. The author originally intended to call it The Moral Mind, but settled on “righteous” because, as he puts it, “But I chose the title The Righteous Mind to convey the sense that human nature is not just intrinsically moral, it’s also intrinsically moralistic, critical, and judgmental.” In this book, the author explores how humans develop systems of morality and “righteousness,” and why these systems are alike and different.

There is far too much in this book to easily digest, much less to discuss in a blog review, so I will just hit a few highlights.

One word of caution at the outset to my fellow Christians: Haidt writes from an atheistic and Darwinistic viewpoint. The reason I mention this is that it would be easy to read his foundational ideas and reject the book based on those differences. I believe this would be a mistake. Haidt’s view of the origins of the human ability to form social groups (similar to animals like ants and bees) is not necessary to set up his conclusions. It is easy enough to simply acknowledge that we were created with these characteristics, whether by the invisible hand of God, or the invisible hand of natural selection, or some combination thereof.

Another caution I would give is to avoid the pitfall of assuming that the different moral “frameworks” discussed in this book can be divided into “Christian” and “non-Christian,” “good,” or “evil.” The whole point of this book is to examine how people with a similar human morality can come to radically different ideas and points of emphasis. This isn’t Gandalf versus Sauron, but “The Blind Men and the Elephant.”

One of the key concepts in this book that I wholeheartedly agree with is that humans are not - at our core - rational creatures. We are not fully irrational, exactly, but we are not primarily governed by the intellect. Rather, we tend to form our conclusions through an intuitive process, then use our intellect to justify our decisions. Haidt refers to the intellect as the “press secretary,” but I might go with “lawyer,” for obvious reasons. This concept has been something that I have become more aware of since my law school days, and throughout my legal career. If anything, we are trained to do this. We take the pre-determined result we want (namely, our client’s view of the case) and build up a legal and intellectual case for our client’s position.

If I am honest with myself, this is very often how I go about making moral decisions as well. The author describes the intellect as the rider of an elephant. He may think he is controlling where the elephant goes, but most of the time, he is along for the ride. This isn’t to say that we don’t overrule our intuition using our intellect, because we do, but it happens less than we think, and it doesn’t happen easily.

This explains why it seems nearly impossible to reason other people out of their beliefs. Lecturing the rider usually doesn’t change the way the elephant leans. Instead, opinions change, not as the result of pure logic, but as a result of contact with other people in situations where we have affection or admiration or a desire to please that person. In other words, empathy and friendships matter. More about this later.

One of the most striking things about this is that this tendency is a good thing in practice. There is actually a group of people who are able to function using logic alone, and lack the moral emotions that drive the rest of us.

These people are known as psychopaths.

Indeed, the ability to function from pure reason with no moral emotion is exactly the root flaw in psychopaths, and why they are able to do unspeakably evil things to others without guilt. On the flip side, even very small children, who can hardly be considered the most rational of humans, show intuitive responses to moral questions. In fact, toddlers can intuit their way to remarkably moral answers long before they can come close to articulating the questions.

The second major theme of the book is that of “moral taste buds.” We as humans respond to moral stimuli just as we do to physical input. Haidt identifies six “tastes” that we respond to. The ways these tastes combine and the way we fit our viewpoints into these flavors are our “moral matrix.” In general, the differences we see in moral systems, whether it is between different cultures, different times in history, and in political and moral differences today can be understood as differences in the proportions of these flavors, and the way that we tie specific issues to them. I cannot do justice to the way the author explores the flavors and how they apply to modern American (and other) politics, but it is quite intriguing.

The six “flavors” are:

  1. Care/Harm
  2. Liberty/Oppression
  3. Fairness/Cheating
  4. Loyalty/Betrayal
  5. Authority/Subversion
  6. Sanctity/Degradation

These are at the heart of many disagreements where people tend to talk past each other. A great (simple) example of this is when liberals and conservatives talk about poverty. This is an oversimplification, of course, but generally, liberals see poverty as a combination of Care/Harm while conservatives see it as Fairness/Cheating. That is, liberals will see the poor as being harmed by unjust systems and thus in need of care; while conservatives look on the poor as cheaters getting a free ride from the system. Both views tend to oversimplify the complexities of poverty, but the issue isn’t rationality, it is how the elephant leans. You can see the evidence of these different “leans” in the quotes at the beginning of this post. Feingold sees “Republicans” as having no heart. He is responding to a Care/Harm view, and cannot see outside of that view of the issue. Swanson, in contrast, sees a Fairness/Cheating viewpoint, and cannot see how anyone could view the issue otherwise.

The third idea in this book is that of the “hivish” nature of humans. On the one hand, we often resemble the Darwinian viewpoint of life. We act out of selfishness, just like other animals, trying to be the “fittest.” On the other, we, like other “social” animals, are capable of sacrificing ourselves for the greater good. For the “hive,” if you will. This section is fascinating, because it explores the ability that humans have to function as groups. Armies are a great example, but even such entities as orchestras (dear to my heart) have the same characteristics. We function as a “superorganism,” greater than the sum of the parts, in the furtherance of a greater goal. This is a positive feature of our “hivish” nature.

On the other hand, those “hives” that often function in the most “hivelike” manner are cults and totalitarian political systems. The individual has been suppressed completely in service of the “hive.”

One of the beauties of the way that modern democracies function is that they are the sum of small hives, smaller organizations, sometimes in competition, that function to prevent despotism, largely by providing meaningful common goals, and thus preventing a despot from convincing the members to sacrifice all autonomy in order to gain meaning in life.

For what happens when catastrophe destroys the small hives, I recommend Anne Applebaum’s excellent book, Iron Curtain, reviewed here

The author closes with some interesting musings on potential ways to increase the quality of political discourse and aid the understanding between competing moral systems. I find many of his ideas to be compelling, which is unusual for a book of this sort. Often, when an author moves from the abstract to the specific, things go downhill. (Just a quick mention here of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, as an example of a good book with a disappointing last chapter.) However, in this case, Haidt actually has some good suggestions.

I think the reason why is that he draws from his own political and moral journey. Haidt comes from a liberal family, and has lived primarily in the world of liberal academia. However, his journey was triggered by time spent abroad in the Third World, where he observed first-hand other moral systems based on emphasis on other “flavors” than the Care/Harm and Liberty/Oppression favored by Western liberals. He came to realize that these other “moralities” were also moral in a true sense, if as imperfect as any moral system will inevitably be. It was just different, and thus hard to understand until one has been immersed in it. This led Haidt to reconsider his own views of conservatism, and to look at how the flavor proportions differ. As a result, he moved toward the center politically, while also gaining an appreciation for the other side. A particularly good observation, in my (politically center-right) opinion is that in addition to “social capital,” there is “moral capital,” which represents a common moral framework leading to trust. In general, conservatives of all stripes (not just the current right/left split in 21st Century America) are concerned with the preservation of moral capital, on the grounds that what damages the “hive” is also damaging to the bees. I think this has been one of the main grounds of contention between right and left (as described above). Conservatives in many cases feel that actions taken to care for others can have the unintended consequence of damaging the small hives of society, such as families and other groups. I appreciate that the author understands that risk, and thus doesn’t dismiss conservative thought on this issue.

Another thing that was surprising about this book is that Haidt is generally positive toward religion, which is in contrast to the “New Atheists,” who view religion as a disease to be exterminated. While Haidt is not religious himself, he views religion, not as a virus preying on humanity, but as an adaptation enabling and supporting the positive aspects of “hive” behavior. In other words, it developed and remains because it is a net benefit to the survival of humans as a greater social group. Now, obviously, as a Theist, I disagree with the underlying assumption of religion as a mere adaptation, but the whole discussion of this issue in the book is fascinating and thoughtful. I give Haidt serious brownie points for honesty when it comes to this issue.

One of the suggestions that Haidt makes is therefore compelling: we need to spend time with people outside of our cocoon. Increasingly, people are segregated in neighborhoods, schools, churches, and workplaces. More people than ever before (in the United States) live in congressional districts skewed 20% or more toward one party. We associate with people we agree with, and we become not just like each other - but more polarized - as a result. I discussed this phenomenon more in my review of Cass Sunstein’s outstanding book, Why Societies Need Dissent - a book I believe everyone needs to read.

As the author stresses, our own frameworks - our very ways of viewing ourselves and others - easily become tribal.

Morality binds and blinds. This is not just something that happens to people on the other side. We all get sucked into tribal moral communities. We circle around sacred values and then share post hoc arguments about why we are so right and they are so wrong. We think the other side is blind to truth, reason, science, and common sense, but in fact everyone goes blind when talking about their sacred objects.

If you want to understand another group, follow the sacredness...And if you really want to open your mind, open your heart first. If you can have at least one friendly interaction with a member of the “other” group, you’ll find it far easier to listen to what they’re saying, and maybe even see a controversial issue in a new light.

I believe this book is one of the best I have read this year, and it may even make my list of most influential books in the future. I highly recommend it to my friends, liberal, conservative, and in between. 





Some musings on the moral matrix and the teachings of Christ:

One of the interesting things that came to mind while reading the author’s views on the different moral “flavors” is just how much Christ turned completely upside down.

Sanctity was no longer about the externals.

“There is nothing outside the man which can defile him if it goes into him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man.” Mark 7:15 (NASB)

Authority was exploded.

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles dominate them, and the men of high position exercise power over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant.” Matthew 20:25-26

Loyalty was no longer to earthly groups, and would no longer be used as a means of exclusion.

Rather than focus on fairness, we are to love our enemies and turn the other cheek. Fairness is replaced with grace - wholly undeserved and freely given to us, and to be given by us to others.

Liberty no longer means the mere absence of oppression, but life abundant.

And care for others becomes not just one of the flavors, but the very essence of the law and of the Kingdom. And this care extends not just to those in the group, but to all. “Who is my neighbor?”

Another interesting bit is that the discussion of “what makes a man unclean” came after a complaint about hand washing. One of the studies that Haidt cites in the book is one where subjects were asked about moral issues with or without washing their hands first. The results were that those who washed their hands before answering the questions became much more moralistic toward others. Perhaps the feeling of self righteousness caused by cleanliness? Mark’s Gospel notes that Christ’s statement that it is what comes out of a man defiles him made the Pharisees furious.

This phenomenon explains the true danger of legalism. We wash the outside of the cup (or our hands), and then feel both more righteous and more judgmental. We are blinded to the evil within while becoming more acutely aware of the failings of others. The focus on the externals we find easy to clean leads us to neglect the more important heart issues - the things that come out of a man - and condemn others for failing to wash their hands the right way.

The author also points out that the traits of “domestication,” whether in other animals or in humans, are those of children. “Smaller teeth, smaller body, reduced aggression, and greater playfulness, carried on even into adulthood.” Or, perhaps, “"Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Just a few thoughts.

Note on my history:

I grew up in a family that was pretty universally strongly Republican and conservative. However, the neighborhoods in which we lived were urban working class, with a majority of the residents non-white. Thus, I was also in constant contact with those on the “other” side, if you will. In addition, the worlds of classical music and law tend to skew left or center-left, depending on the geographical area, so I have had continual interaction with a wide variety of political viewpoints. Importantly, because these were people that I liked, admired, and wished to get along with, I couldn’t just dismiss differences of opinion as evil.

I think this meant that my natural disposition as a conservative leaning person and the political viewpoints taken for granted in my family warred with my experience. I kept hearing the claims that "the other side is just evil" from both sides, and it bothered me, because I knew and loved people on both sides. I have found that politics has become more and more distasteful to me as it has gotten more polarized, for that reason. The demonization of both sides by the other is frustrating, and the internet has made it difficult to escape.

Although there are no easy cures, I believe Haidt is on the right track that we need to have more mixing and less isolation.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Gourmet Rhapsody by Muriel Barbery

Source of book: I own this

A few years back, I took a chance based on a review, and read The Elegance of the Hedgehog, also by Muriel Barbery. I enjoyed it so much that I put Gourmet Rhapsody on my list as well. My wife found a (barely) used copy for me as a gift, and I got around to reading it this last month.

Muriel Barbery is a French author, and professor of philosophy. Although Gourmet Rhapsody was written first, it wasn’t translated into English until the year after The Elegance of the Hedgehog became a runaway success in its English translation. Sadly, these two are the only novels Barbery has written. I hope she has a few more stories in her, because these are both gems.



Gourmet Rhapsody isn’t quite as good as The Elegance of the Hedgehog, but it is still delightful. It shows some signs of being a first novel. Only the main character is really developed, in large part because of the format and the short length of the book. (It is more of a  novella than a full length novel.) By her second book, the author seems to be more comfortable, in a way that I can’t really put my finger on, but can feel. The characterization is also better in the second book, more subtle and complex.

Food critic Pierre Arthens is dying. As he lays on his deathbed, he reflects on his life, and searches his memory for one taste that he longs for, but cannot recall.

I am going to die and there is a flavor that has been teasing my taste buds and my heart and I simply cannot recall it. I know that this particular flavor is the first and ultimate truth of my entire life, and that it holds the key to a heart that I have since silenced. I know that it is a flavor from childhood or adolescence, an original, marvelous dish that predates my vocation as a critic, before I had any desire or pretension to expound on my pleasure in eating. A forgotten flavor, lodged in my deepest self, and which has surfaced at the twilight of my life as the only truth ever told - or realized. I search, and cannot find.

The book alternates chapters narrated by Arthens with ones by various people in his life. His children and wife. His cat. A couple of his mistresses. Renee, the concierge at his apartment building. (She would become one of the main characters in The Elegance of the Hedgehog.) Each has their own perspective on the man and his legacy.

Perhaps the best analogue to Arthens is Anton Ego in Pixar’s film, Ratatouille. In fact, I wonder if the writers on the film were familiar with Gourmet Rhapsody because the parallels are striking. Both are huge egoists with a biting writing style, eager to bring down establishments that fail to meet their standard. Both, though, are transported back to their childhoods by certain flavors. Unlike Ego, however, Arthens may have his epiphany, but never finds redemption. 



The problem is that he has lived his life solely for himself, and has treated others as mere means to his ends. He may re-live his gustatory past, but he no longer is able to feel the love and connection he once did.

One particularly heart-rending passage comes when Arthens speaks of his children.

I caused them to rot and decompose, those three children who emerged from my wife’s entrails, gifts I had negligently given to her in exchange for her decorative wifely abnegation - terrible gifts, when I think about it today, for what are children other than the monstrous excrescences of our own selves, pitiful substitutes for our unfulfilled desires? For the likes of me - people, in other words, who already have something which gives them pleasure in life - children are worthy of interest only when they finally leave home and become something other than one’s own daughters or sons. I do not love them. I have never loved them, and I feel no remorse on that account. If they expend all their energy hating me with all their strength, that is no concern of mine; the only paternity that I might lay claim to is that of my own oeuvre. And the buried flavor that I cannot find is beginning to make me doubt even that.

It is strange to suppose that because one already has something that gives one pleasure that that would exclude the pleasure of relationships, but this is sadly all too common. Many a man or woman has chosen a career or an obsession to the exclusion of human connection, and some, like Arthens, never seem to regret it.

Despite this rather depressing theme, the book isn’t all darkness, particularly for a foodie. I have a great love for food, I’m afraid. My determination to keep physically active is only partially driven by my enjoyment of exercise. If I am honest, I want to be able to eat without guilt, and without swelling to unhealthy horizontal proportions. Barbery’s descriptions of food lead me to believe that she too shares this passion. To a non-foodie, they might seem a bit over the top, but to a true believer, they are almost as delectable as the real thing. (It is my understanding that they aren’t quite as over-the-top in the original French, perhaps because of the French foodie culture.)

There are so many, but I will limit myself to one: the description of the tomato fresh from the garden.

And yet I had always been acquainted with the tomato, since the time of Aunt Marthe’s garden, since the summer when an ever more ardent sun kissed the timid little growths, since the moment my teeth tore into the flesh to splatter my tongue with the rich, warm and bountiful juice, whose essential generosity is masked by the chill of a refrigerator, or the affront of vinegar, or the false nobility of oil. Sugar, water, fruit, pulp, liquid or solid? The raw tomato, devoured in the garden when freshly picked, is a horn of abundance of simple sensations, a radiating rush in one’s mouth that brings with it every pleasure. The resistance of the skin - slightly taut, just enough; the luscious yield of the tissues, their seed-filled liqueur oozing to the corners of one’s lips, and that one wipes away without any fear of staining one’s fingers; this plump little globe unleashing a flood of nature inside us: a tomato, an adventure.

I could not have captured it better myself.

If you are going to read just one book by Barbery, go with The Elegance of the Hedgehog, but this one is worth a read as well.



Sunday, December 7, 2014

Pericles, Prince of Tyre by William Shakespeare

One of our family’s favorite vacation destinations is San Diego. Blessed with the world’s most perfect climate (I kid you not - it’s nearly always between 60 and 75 degrees) plenty of kid-friendly activities, and an abundance of interesting and tasty food, it is only four hours from us. If it weren’t for the traffic and the high cost of housing, I might consider moving there.

So, we were down there, hanging at Balboa Park with my wife’s cousin and her kids, when we decided to take a stroll around the place for fun and to kill some time until dinner. We were unsurprised to see a crowd of kids and parents around the Globe Theater, because they usually do The Grinch in November and December. However, Amanda noticed that the smaller venue was doing Pericles, Prince of Tyre, one of Shakespeare’s more obscure plays. Also, that that night was the last night, and that if we grabbed a quick dinner, we could fit it in. After all, when would we have a chance to see Pericles again? Who does it anymore?

And that is how one finds one’s self on a Sunday evening attending a Shakespeare play with five children on the spur of the moment.

This isn’t the first rodeo for the kids, as I noted in my previous Shakespeare review for this year. Fortunately, my littlest kept it together. The others, as usual, were enthraled. 

The poster art for this production of Pericles

The performance took place in a small “theater in the round,” which meant that we could easily see and hear everything even from the “back” row (of 5 total rows). Even better for my older son, the lighting rigs were visible. He was thoroughly fascinated by the lighting choreography - including the storm.

Pericles is believed to have been written only in part by The Bard. Parts of it seem lesser in quality and language, and the whole has a certain slapped-together feel. Some of Shakespeare’s contemporaries mocked it as fluff, but it has gained in reputation in later years. It isn’t up to the very best of Shakespeare, but it has its moments. In some ways, it is possible to see the foreshadowings of later themes. For example, the reconciliation scene in A Winter’s Tale closely parallels this one, although I am inclined to think that Pericles handles it in a more believeable way. (On the other hand, Pericles doesn’t have an “exit, pursued by a bear” moment…)

It is easy to see why the play was popular with audiences. The plot is easy to follow, a bit melodramatic, and karma wins out in the end. (I don’t recall any other Shakespeare play in which a bad guy got a divine smiting - but that was the part probably written by another author.) The fourth act is pretty bawdy. Not that Shakespeare isn’t this way plenty often in other plays or anything. Measure for Measure likewise illustrates his ability to use the bawdy-house mistress for sharp-tongued humor. For all the low-brow humor, the act does touch a good bit on consent and virtue. In some ways, this section is the most psychologically compelling portion of the play.

The staging of this play was interesting. Like a classical play, there is a role for a narrator or chorus in linking the scenes. Shakespeare would use the same voicing for the opening of Henry V, but he uses it throughout Pericles. In this version, the set is an archeological dig. The workers are about to stop for the night, when the narrator appears, and leads them through a reenactment of the story. At crucial junctures, she provides the props they will need. A crown and robe for Pericles, fishing equipment for the fishermen, new characters as they appear. The plastic shrouds covering the work likewise become part of the set, hiding new characters until they appear, functioning as tables, sails, and whatever else is needed. Throughout the play, they are removed, layer by layer, as the layers of Pericles’ psyche are removed and revealed through his misfortunes. At the end, all that remains is the bare rock and the intricate floor revealed by the excavations, and all that has gone before becomes the memory discovered by the archeologists. I thought it was a creative way of approaching the story, requiring no additional dialogue or explanation, but created through the action and the simple and flexible set. 

I should also mention the, um, distinctive use of coconuts during the jousting scene. 

It turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable evening, despite the last minute planning. (Spontaneity is not my strongest feature, shall we say. I like to plan stuff, though, so if you want the boring but crucial details of something right, let me plan it.) I’m thrilled that we were able to make it work, because of the rarity of the play. This is the first year since B.C. (before children) that we have been able to do stuff like this without a babysitter, and I must admit it is nice. So that is my Pericles story...

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Big, Bad, Book of Botany by Michael Largo

Source of book: I own this

Michael Largo has written several books that I want to read, not the least of which is one about how famous people died. It sounds rather irreverent and morbid, which is rather my style when it comes to celebrities. However, I ended up buying this book first, because I thought that the kids might have fun with it in connection with our current study of biology.

This book isn’t a textbook or anything, but a collection of short essays on particular interesting plants. The author focuses on plants that are interesting (to him), but specifically ones that are poisonous, medicinal, or symbolic - often all three. Thus, in alphabetical order, it goes from “Absinthe” to “Zubrowka,” with a panoply of bizarre and interesting plants in between.

One thing I like about books like this is that one can read a few pages at a time, without losing the thread of the plot. It is perfect for those odd bits of time too short to dive into something more involved.

For the most part, I liked this book. Most of the information was accurate and verifiable - and interesting. My one quibble is that the author is content to list the ways that the plants have been used medicinally by other cultures without any indication as to whether there is any actual beneficial effect, or whether there are potential harmful side effects. If anything, he is too credulous as to claims of medicinal benefits.

This isn’t a big deal in the case of, say, willow bark (which contains the chemical known to us as aspirin). It is unlikely one could swallow a harmful dose, unless one drinks a huge quantity of willow tea. Others are less safe, with the therapeutic dose uncomfortably close to the fatal dose. And there are others that have no active ingredients that would have the desired effect, but rely on a placebo effect. The author treats homeopathy as if it might have some merit, not noting that the endless dilutions of any possible substance make the commercial remedies literally nothing more than “blessed” water.

The failure to distinguish between legitimate uses and folk remedies is particularly egregious in the case of the Yew tree. The author mentions that it was used by some cultures in treatment of cancer. The author fails to clarify that some modern chemotherapy drugs were originally obtained from Yew bark, and that, since Yew is pretty dang poisonous, self medication is likely to be fatal, rather than therapeutic. This probably wouldn’t bother me so much if there wasn’t already a general distrust of science and medicine and a willingness to embrace forms of self-medication. So, if you get cancer, please don’t chew on a Yew tree. Go see a doctor.

I will give the author credit for at least noting the risks inherent in the various psychoactive plants described. Use at one’s own risk. (Or not.)

I’ll just mention a few of my favorites from the book.
First is the Welwitschia, a unique gymnosperm (conifer) that - unusual for plants - never sheds its leaves. Since the plant can live over a thousand years, this is quite amazing. 




Another is the Hydnora, a parasitic plant that attracts pollinators through its fecal smell. Despite the smell, it is edible, and considered tasty. (Similar, perhaps, to the Durian, which unfortunately does not make it into the book.)

I was also pleased to see that Oleander got its just deserts. Here in Central California, this stuff grows everywhere, including in freeway dividers. During the spring and summer, it has attractive flowers, and it has the advantage of being nearly impossible to kill. It can resist drought and pests, and stays green all year. The problem? It is highly poisonous. Not just if eaten. The sap can get in scratches (which are all to easy to get) and cause respiratory issues, the smoke when it burns is toxic, and a few of the leaves can kill if eaten. One of the first things I did when I moved to my current house was to remove the Oleander. Despite using gloves and long sleeves, I still got angry sap blisters, and felt under the weather for a day afterward. Glad to have it gone.



This is a fun book for an introduction to some unusual and unexpectedly fascinating plants. Read and enjoy, but don’t mistake it for a medical manual.