Review: Coriolanus

On Sunday, my roommates and I headed down to the Michigan Theater to see the National Theatre Live broadcast of Coriolanus.

I was a muddle of expectations: on one hand, I expected good things because it had Tom Hiddleston and Mark Gatiss at the very least.  On the other hand, the bits of the play I’d read (or read about) suggested that it involved a lot of politics (bleah) and Coriolanus being a jerk (which…could be interesting, but might just be annoying).  On the other other hand, I’d heard good things from Em about it.

So I went, braced for a bit of gore, some speeches I couldn’t hear very well, the possibility of boredom.


I was blown away.

Why?  The reasons include, but are not limited to, the following:

Set.  We watched it on-screen, of course, but it still had the without-a-net feeling live theater gives – no editing, nothing between you and the players.  The set was spare: a red wall with graffiti projected on it, a ladder, some chairs.  Some explanation was given beforehand about the effects they sought to achieve with the red wall and graffiti; it’s a way of lampshading both ancient Rome and modern political discontent.  The space was dedicated to the players, to movement, dynamic and compelling.  The set changes were strangely electric.  The costumes were a great mix of old and new – modern shirts and trousers, accented with leather cuffs and breastplates and carefully chosen jewelry.

Suspense.  Despite knowing more or less how the play would end, I was on the edge of my seat.  Virgilia’s anxiety over her husband somehow renders the possibility of grave injury to him as more probable and pressing.  The discussions amongst Menenius, Brutus, Sicinius, and Cominius keep the question of consulship open, not a foregone conclusion.  It even seemed possible that Coriolanus might kill Aufidius early on, or be killed in Aufidius’s household.

Clearly the servant is ready to stab him at a word from Aufidius.

Clearly the servant is ready to stab him at a word from Aufidius.

Sympathy.  Throughout the whole play, each character made understandable choices and acted in consistent ways.  Though it turned out badly, it’s hard to castigate Cominius and Volumnia for encouraging Coriolanus to become consul.  It’s impossible to assign all the culpability to Coriolanus either.  One could blame the tribunes Brutus and Sicinius, but at least some portion of their double-tongued talk rings true.

Tom Hiddleston as Caius Marcius Coriolanus.  As noted, this is hardly a sympathetic role.  Caius is a successful general who takes over a city, thereby winning the name Coriolanus, but he’s rather less successful at public office.  His campaign for consul – encouraged by his commander Cominius and his glory-hungry mother Volumnia – ends in a lot of yelling, since Coriolanus doesn’t think much of the citizens and doesn’t ever try to hide it.  People lambaste him for his pride, for rudeness, for harsh speech, etc., and yet it’s easy to see why Coriolanus is proud of his military service, guarded with his scars, impatient with the easily led rabble, and angry when accused of treason.  He goes from hollering in the streets to covering himself in blood in battle to clean-cut mama’s boy to smirking voice-stealer, and that’s just in the first couple acts.

Coriolanus hips

Mark Gatiss as Menenius.  For the bulk of the play, he alternates between encouraging everyone to behave reasonably (you can almost hear “Sherlock Holmes, put your trousers on,” except it’s more a “Coriolanus, take your shirt off so everyone can see your battle scars”) and being a master of sass:

Men.  Our very priests must become mockers if they shall encounter such ridiculous subjects as you are. When you speak best unto the purpose it is not worth the wagging of your beards; and your beards deserve not so honourable a grave as to stuff a botcher’s cushion, or to be entombed in an ass’s pack-saddle. Yet you must be saying Marcius is proud; who, in a cheap estimation, is worth all your predecessors since Deucalion, though peradventure some of the best of ’em were hereditary hangmen. Good den to your worships: more of your conversation would infect my brain, being the herdsmen of the beastly plebeians: I will be bold to take my leave of you.

So that was quite entertaining enough on its own.  But then I watched him bid Coriolanus farewell in Act IV, and approach his camp to beg Coriolanus to spare his erstwhile home from destruction in Act V.  Terribly moving, even more in my estimation than the tears of Virgilia or the clamorous exhortation of Volumnia.

All in all, I went away flooded with thoughts and reeling with emotion.  Somehow I didn’t expect that.  It’s been a while since a Shakespearian play has been such a surprise for me.  This, I kept thinking, this is why Shakespeare is still a big deal.

This is what theater should be.

This is what art ought to do.

Catch an encore performance if you possibly can, and prepare thy brow to crease in laughter, to frown, to furrow in sadness.

Review: August, Osage County

Wednesday was $5 day at my local theater, so after watching Frozen, I set out to give myself emotional whiplash by heading straight into August: Osage County.

Okay, that’s a lie.  I set out to watch Benedict Cumberbatch in one of his five movie projects released in 2013, and perhaps to see what Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan MacGregor, et al. brought to it.  The emotional whiplash was just a side effect.

August is the time of year, Osage county in northern Oklahoma the place.  Plot summary: author Beverly Weston disappears from his home (and, incidentally, puzzles me, because who names their son Beverly?  I bet he had a brother named Sue Not-Appearing-In-This-Film).  His family – 3 daughters, a sister-in-law, and their respective spouses/children – come home to empathize with his wife Violet while waiting for him to turn up, and are thus ideally placed for the funeral when he turns up drowned.  And then, the players having congregated on the board, family dynamics drive each person hither and yon again.

At first, I thought “This is one of the realest stories I have seen in a while.” The rural Oklahoma setting, for one, reminds me of my familial home down in southern Illinois in so many ways. It has the flat land, the oil wells, the unforgiving heat and the shimmer of the air, the small town nearby, even the left turn from the highway onto the dirt road heading home. The cars they drive, the style and decoration of the house, the casserole dishes: it all felt familiar, more familiar than I’ve seen in a film before.

You may be focusing on the knock-down brawl going on, but I am looking at those wooden pillars at the sides of the room. My grandparents’ house has pillars just like that!

Then there’s Meryl Streep as Violet Weston.  She’s phenomenal.  She stumbles in as Beverly interviews a young woman, Johnna, to be housekeeper.  “You an injun?” Violet asks, with the casual racism of the woman too old to care about political correctness (or too apathetic until she can attack someone else for alluding to childhood games of “cowboys and Indians”).  The way her voice alternately sweetens and sharpens as she asks Johnna about herself, addresses her husband, and gives some details about herself and her mouth cancer – I have seen that before, mostly in my grandmother as her own dementia began to progress.

Bev disappears.  The girls come home from Colorado and Miami, everyone bemoans the heat, the sheriff arrives with news and a body that needs to be identified, the funeral is followed by the most painful funeral lunch you ever saw.  Violet’s speech, her swift changes of mood, her not-always-appropriate anecdotes, her occasional lapses into bitterness over her children and what she sacrificed for them – these all prompt the other characters to react accordingly, also true-to-life.

Then it all goes a bit…screwy.  No, more than a bit.  The Weston family is far more dysfunctional than mine: there’s more divorce, the lone teenager is angstier (shame she doesn’t have siblings or cousins), there’s such distance between everyone…not to mention suicide, a touch of drug use (prescription and otherwise), and a soupçon of accidental incest.  Possibly more than a soupcon, actually.  There’s also far less religious observance – you can tell by the awkwardness of the mealtime prayer – which helps explain why no one ever seems to have heard of forgiving, forgetting, or wishing for another’s good more than one’s own.  Toss that all in a room together, and it becomes one big powder keg.

Here’s where the post-Frozen whiplash gets bad: whereas Anna trusts her sister Elsa unstintingly despite years of isolation (and that one time with the ice spikes), and Elsa protects Anna the best she can after conquering her fears, the Weston ladies are, as Ivy puts it, “Just people accidentally connected by genetics.”  You can’t pick your family, it says, though Charles Aiken (Bev and Violet’s brother-in-law) reminds everyone in word and deed that you can choose how to regard your family.

That’s more or less the upshot of it.  Violet and her oldest daughter, Barbara, might provide grim amusement with their increasingly vicious, obscene, and histrionic hollering, but I reckon they’re more important as an all-too-realistic cautionary tale.  I’ve read that Tracy Letts, the playwright and screenplay writer, is preoccupied with the question of “whether it’s ever possible to overcome the dysfunction passed down through generations.”  Of course, yes, it’s possible – but not alone. You need grace for that.  And grace, like Sue, is not appearing in this film.

Continue reading

Review Part 2: Disney’s Frozen

Now that it’s nearly two months since it came out, I went to see Frozen.  Twice.  It is still the season for it, after all, and it hasn’t left the theaters quite yet.  So it was my turn to be delighted by the magic of animation and music and storytelling.  Here are some thoughts about it, a few of them in response to Melpomene’s earlier post.  In no particular order:

- The music is beautiful.  I particularly enjoyed “Frozen Heart,” the song of the ice harvesters at the start of the movie, as well as “Heimr Arnadalr,” the choral coronation piece which translates approximately as follows:

Worthy Queen of greatness
The heart of Gold shines
We crown thee with hope, love and faith.
Beautiful, stony land, home Arendelle
Follow the Queen of light/ the Queen’s light

Of course, it’s hard to sing a choral piece (or antiphonal yoiking) alone, so I’ve also had “Let it Go” and “Love is an Open Door” running through my head on repeat.  It’s lovely having a song of defiance against the Polar Vortex weather.

- Hullo, unexpected poignancy.  “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” sounds so lighthearted, and then it struck me with feelings.  Even worse is the thought that Elsa and Anna didn’t need to spend so long isolated from each other; Anna trusted her sister all along, and the utter lack of communication didn’t protect either of them.

Pardon me while I go do some gross sobbing in the corner.

Pardon me while I go do some gross sobbing in the corner.

- Nothing separates a guy from his reindeer.  Kristoff and Sven are precious, like a friendlier version of Flynn and Maximus from Tangled.  There were lots of moments that made me giggle, and those two probably accounted for most of them.

- Someone finally said it.

Marry Prudently yallThank GOD.

- Additional background would be groovy.  We don’t really need to know where Elsa’s power comes from, for the sake of the story, but I would love to know more about her as well as the erstwhile king and queen.  Is Elsa like a Muggle-born cryokinetic witch, or is Anna like a Squib who missed out on the elemental control?  Also, if I were a nerdier person, I would love to calculate how much energy is getting thrown around when, say, the entire fjord is frozen.  See a bit more commentary on that here.

- Darlin’, I don’t know why you go to extremes.  My brother and I wondered if, perhaps, the well-intentioned Love Experts actually gave the worst advice: concealing the source of the problem and counseling Elsa to beware of fear in no way encouraged her toward the positive virtue of being more loving.  “Conceal, don’t feel” was never a viable option, and when Elsa does finally let it go, she swings to the other extreme so hard that editorials on the dangers of repression write themselves.  Thankfully things reach a sort of equilibrium; it’s fortunate (and kind of weird) that she is able to undo her enchanted winter quicker than Aslan brings spring to Narnia.

- True love sacrifices.  Love is not summed up in kisses, but consists of all manner of heart-thawing actions.  Love forgives the pains one has suffered.  Love runs to the aid of the beloved, love throws itself between the beloved and the sword, and love binds people together whether they’re parents and children, siblings, romantic couples, or friends.

All in all, Frozen is a beautiful movie, and its depiction of sororal love the most beautiful thing about it.huggiiiiingNow, if only I could thaw the frozen wasteland outside with my own sororal love…

Review Part 1: Disney’s Frozen


Did you read The Snow Queen? It is my favorite Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales. And I grew up on fairy tales: Andrew Lang’s books, many beautiful picture books, and sundry collections of various folklore! (For some reason, Grimm’s fairy tales were not so big in my home. It might have been the R rating most of the originals have.)

Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”, is a tale of true love saving an icy heart through hard work and sacrifice. I loved the edition my family had, as it was gorgeously illustrated, highlighting the sharp, biting beauty of Ice and Snow.


When I heard that Disney was “reimagining” Andersen’s tale, I was both worried and intrigued. Frozen premiered yesterday, and my housemate and I went to see it.

And I like it. Maybe more than “like”. The more I think about it, it gets higher on my list of favorite movies. I want to share it with people I love.  Starting with you. You should go see Frozen.

It is not perfect by any means, so I am wary of overselling.  But I need to talk about it! My compromise is to make a list of pros and cons for the movie. (If you are fearful of spoilers, read carefully. A few might slip in.)


The Story

Cons: It is not the original Andersen story. There are significant changes, mainly shifting the focus from a boy-girl pair to a pair of sisters.

Pros: It works. The heart of the story is figuring out what True Love is, and removing the possibility of romantic mushy feelings from the central pair certainly crystallizes our definition. 


The Plot

Cons: There are a few holes. Mainly, the sudden ability to control magical icy powers.

Pros: The holes are not in important parts. The magical abilities are a part of the setting, not the focus. And the story telling does a good job of making that clear.


The Art

Cons: It is a cartoon. Which means round faces and unlikely body proportions for all living things. Maybe I am spoiled, but I expect animated characters to make better use of  facial expressions.

Pros: It is a cartoon. Which means stunning closeups of snowflakes an ice and an ICE PALACE that will take away your breath. (Not to mention an ice dress.) And there are a few good faces. Also, there is a pretty scene of Anna imitating classical works of art that are hung around her palace.



The Music

Cons: It is not the Lion King. Or Prince of Egypt.

Pros: HARMONY! CHOIRS! SOARING NOTES! Songs than capture the moment and plot and emotions! Background music that works with the story so well I barely noticed it! Melodies that work with the lyrics, lyrics that appreciate pretty words! (“Frozen fractals”!!!)  But seriously, how long has it been since Disney actually used harmony and choirs? And lyrics that have united and developed the narrative themes and motifs? You can listen for yourself, if you wish.


Our Protagonist Sisters

Cons:  . . . . None

Pros: SISTERS! Their relationship is the center of the story, and . . . I can’t say more without spoilers. I really want my own sisters now.


The Side Characters

Cons: There is an annoying talking snowman named Olaf.

Pros: Other than Olaf, all the side characters are excellently crafted, acted, and used. Each has a purpose AND a personality. Even the snowman. (Supposedly he is the personification of the sisterly bond. But he is still annoying.)

The Wit

Cons: Not so witty. There is a tad bit of mild potty humor. And the kind of things that 5-year-olds find funny.

Pros: Fortunately, it has enough substance that it doesn’t need wit.


The Villain

Cons: There is no villain! There is a cad, but he is easily spotted, serves an important narrative purpose, and get his boring comeuppance.

Pros: There is no villain! Our two protagonist sisters face a true battle against FEAR. Yes, the real opposite of love is not hate, but fear. And this movie states that baldly. Which brings us to . . .


The Subtlety

Cons: Frozen has the subtlety of a sledgehammer. The themes, motifs and morals are so obvious, a five-year-old can identify them. Even the humor has big, blinking arrows pointing to it. (Not literally. But it may as have have.)

Pros: A five-year-old can identify the themes. Does a good fairy tale need subtlety? I have spent years looking at the art of literature, savoring the delicate images and tastes of humanity and truth. I appreciate those, but I recognize that sometimes bluntness is needed.

It is almost as if Disney is trying to reverse years of overly mushy ideas of romance and impractical ideas of love in one movie. It has the same theme as all real, important, fairy tales: True Love. It even correctly identifies the true opposite of love as fear! (I really can’t get over that.) The motifs (storms, doors, creation vs. control, etc.) are well chosen and well used.

To be fair, our modern society has stopped using or understanding  subtlety well. Those who do look for subtlety are the academics, most of whom tend to read their own insane symbols and agendas into the work. The frankness of Frozen does forestall this misunderstanding or misinterpretations.

While Frozen might have appealed to a more adult audience had it used subtlety, it adheres to the structure of old fairy tales and is accessible to all ages. It is blunt, but I can forgive that when it is blunt about Truth and gives the theological definition of love.

The Theology

Cons: Shockingly, there are no cons. There was a moment when I thought there might be, but then the characters very helpfully and carefully explained themselves, and all was well.

Pros: There must have been a solid Christian crafting this story. It is possible for  clever and thoughtful agnostic to have written it, but my instinct says otherwise. This movie not dares to ask and answer the question “what is love?” Their answer (as closely as I can remember) is “Love is wanting what is good for another person, and acting on it no matter what the cost for another person“. What does the Catholic Catechism say about love?  “To love is to will the good of another.’” Brilliant.

And because there is no subtlety, they even point out the in-movie examples. Just in case we missed them. But the examples are good, realistic, and, like all good theology, filled with common sense.



In his chapter, the Ethics of Elfland, G.K. Chesterton describes a fairy tale as being built on common sense and the ideals of eternal Truth and Reality. Frozen does fit this definition: it adhere to its internal logic, and is surprisingly well rooted in common sense. The characters ring true as portraits of humanity. The story is well crafted, if obvious, and holds fast to the heart of all good stories: love and sacrifice.

In short, go see Frozen.

And then come back and discuss it with me! When I have had time to percolate ideas, I will come back and expand on the themes and story telling. As obvious as it is, it might be a good teaching tool to point all those literary devices!


An Experiment in Art Criticism

A couple weeks ago (gosh, is it already that far past?), Thalia and the Brilliant Scrupulously Exact Physicist came to visit.  Having but limited time together, and the Scrupulously Exact Physicist having nixed the suggestion that we go busking with a plaid hat and a repertoire of hymns, we took ourselves down to the museum in town.

You know the one.  The one with a weird bit of iron out in front, and a weird bit of carved wood out back, and oddness in between.

We determined that it would be diverting to level our most withering wit at the works within, provided we were suitably fortified; Thalia had the further brainwave that we might tell the truth slant – in fact, not merely slant, but actually perpendicular to our normal mode of discourse.  All of which is to say that we gathered up our pens, notebooks, and a flask of bourbon, and rhapsodized in the blankest verse we could muster.

(Dear sweet teetotalers: surely even you understand the importance of fortification against the utter lack of metanarrative in postpostmodern art?  Have you not read your Walker Percy? Do you not know that “post-painterly abstraction” is an honest term used by an art critic to distinguish from earlier abstract expressionism?  Read this whole page  and tell me you don’t want a drink by the end of it.)

(N.B. that we were, at least, covert in our potation.  The Scrupulously Exact Physicist whose pockets guarded the flask ended up quaffing the lion’s share, which is to say, maybe an ounce or two more than the rest of us.)

So without further ado, here are the fruits of our labors.

First, the piece the Scrupulously Exact Physicist wrote on:  Smoke Rings, by Donald Sultan

Smoke Rings

“Thunderstorm in Purple No. 6”*

inspiration drawn,
flames of unity,
darkness spills through it.

A phoenix is promised to ignite from the ashes
its crimson mane flowing,
as the firefox turns
and peace is dislodged

How many times?
will an elder rise or fall?
a leaf
falling Adonis
Cut from the top
in a swirl of cloud.

I wrote on something by Richard Diebenkorn.  It might not have looked exactly like this, but it was…similar:


Re: un tarde de Julio…

an envelope not yet trimmed or folded
rain has worn down the lines
of division,
jagged door opening
revealing naught but beige beyond.
Three figures sit at the bottom of it,
soon to be cropped out
by demands of time,
the folds pulling upward and away.
That bleeding paper
(such it might be)
bled not from any meaningful word,
any knife of truth.
All is quiet

All is empty.
something wrong:
assayed beauty via truth
as assured by Keats of unity
and believing truth
simple to see
simple to sign

a veil drawn over drawn truths
or a wash over half-depicted figures

not sad empty hopeless being,
nor vacant past plains:
a slightly yellowed page
awaiting drawing of the future.

Lastly, Thalia peered up at Helen Frankenthaler’s Sunset Corner, wrote a while, then carefully removed a number of connecting words and threw a brick at her punctuation.  Seems apt. Sunset Corner

Venetian Earthquake by Candlelight*

Lofty Depth.
Sundered plain
(Cower, blood – Dry)
murk, jagged; lurk, snagged -
Possess, weigh, measure, despair
Ache,  bile, blotch
Central – corrosive
Control, Knot, Vomit.
A template ?
Abrupt, the hope
Hence therefore; hell.

*Credit must be given to our friend, the Doctrix M. Harrison, for pointing out that such poetic assays must be titled appropriately, and for her endeavor to find something appropriate.

Mighty Mead-Glee

It has been so long, friends, since we’ve had a review of anything but a book on here.  Sure, there was a play review in January, and a poem review last May, but nearly a year has passed since we last shared a review of beverages.  This should be remedied, so grab a glass and a seat while I tell you about last Saturday’s Meadfest.B Nektar mead

On hearing that the B. Nektar Meadery of Ferndale, Michigan was having a mead-tasting festival, several friends and I decided to conduct ourselves thence.  I was put in charge of all Beowulf references, and packed my Chickering accordingly.

þa wæs Geatmæcgum         geador ætsomne
on beorsele         benc gerymed;
þær swiðferhþe         sittan eodon,
þryðum dealle.         þegn nytte beheold,

se þe on handa bær         hroden ealowæge,
scencte scir wered.         Scop hwilum sang
hador on Heorote.         þær wæs hæleða dream,
duguð unlytel         Dena ond Wedera.

Then a bench was cleared,   room made in the hall    491
for the gathered Weders   standing in a troop;
the courageous men     took their seats,
proud in their strength;   a thane did his office,
carried in his hands     the gold ale-flagons,
poured bright mead.     At times the scop sang,
bright-voiced in Heorot;     there was joy of warriors,
no small gathering     of Geats and Danes.  

þær wæs sang ond sweg         samod ætgædere
fore Healfdenes         hildewisan,
gomenwudu greted,         gid oft wrecen,

ðonne healgamen         Hroþgares scop
æfter medobence         mænan scolde
be Finnes eaferum,         ða hie se fær begeat,

There was tumult and song,    melodious noise,     1063
in front of Healfdene’s    battle-commander;
the harp was plucked,   good verses chanted
when Hrothgar’s scop    in his place on the mead-bench  
came to tell over   the famous hall-sport
of Finn’s sons    when the attack came on them…

I shared these lines of the mead-hall, along with various diverting kennings, until we reached our destination.  We were not immediately certain, on doing so, that we had reached it.  The rosy lenses of our expectation sought the promised tent and musicians and honey-drink on a grassy knoll amid a few trees.  Even if the grass were a bit much to hope for, Ferndale is known locally as a chic and trendy hotspot, so we were surprised to find ourselves in a janky parking lot between the brewery and its industrial neighbors.  It struck us as the mead-tasting no one had ever heard of.  Michelle, conductor of our chariot, reckoned that our Hipster Quotient had skyrocketed, to which our friend Adam remarked “Man, I knew I should have worn tighter jeans!”

Huddled against the brisk breeze, our crew meted out beverage tokens to try 11 of the varieties available and recorded our impressions at the tables and folding chairs standing in for mead-hall benches.  The wind whipped our cups over if ever we were careless, and the sun, overly concerned by the possibility of bothering us, kept hidden.

Against such a backdrop, the meads were welcome.  Some had been brewed to resemble an IPA beer in mouthfeel and strength; others had a thicker, more traditional texture; still others had had fruit or spices added to impart different flavors.  Here are our notes:

The Beer-Like (served on draft)

Lager-Style mead: sweet but not oversweet, no bad aftertaste.  PCS approval.

IPA-Style Evil Genius: Lightly carbonated mix of honey and hops.  “Nose of wine, taste of Kool-Aid.”  “That really just tastes like I ate a field of flowers.”  Grapefruity.  Like unto Jerome more than Ambrose or Bernard.

Necromangocon – made with mango juice, honey, and black pepper.  Very bubbly.  Smells of mango, tastes peppery.  Peculiar.

Apricot Cardamom – fascinating and strange.  Very tangy, spicy, not hard cider-y.  Smells more like apricot than it tastes.  JCS approval.

Zombie Killer – technically a “cyser,” or blend of honey and apple cider, with tart cherry juice added and light carbonation.  Apricot tang; very fruity.  Like a Lambic beer.  “Sparkling black cherry juice” (which I misheard as “carrot juice,” and was instructed to buy an ear trumpet for reasons both practical and sartorial).  JCS approval.

The Fruity

Wildberry Pyment – Made with clover honey, shiraz grapes (pyment = mead/wine mixture), and wildberry concentrate.  This last made it slightly like cough syrup.  Very winey.  Blackberry jam.  Ooof da.  Increasingly hard to drink.  Sweeter, peppery?

Unicorn – smells like different cough syrup, different fruits.  Less sweet.

The Traditional (or thereabouts)

Rainbow – sweet, traditional smell, but drier taste; a field of delight!

Orange Blossom – less like syrup; Kool-Aid with chalk.  Smells light; floral.

Wildflower – very sweet, thicker, more traditional, yeasty, field-like.  JCS, MH approval

Episode 13 meadEpisode 13 – orange blossom/buckwheat honey mead, aged in a bourbon barrel.  Curious to smell; sweet, then quite smoky to taste; thicker in mouthfeel with a toasted vanilla aftertaste; almost meaty, the way buckwheat can be; and “like unto whiskey-flavored gelato.” PH approval, enough to buy a bottle of it.

                                             Gamen eft astah,
beorhtode bencsweg;         byrelas sealdon
win of wunderfatum.         þa cwom Wealhþeo forð
gan under gyldnum beage,…
“Onfoh þissum fulle,         freodrihten min,
sinces brytta!         þu on sælum wes,

goldwine gumena,         ond to Geatum spræc
mildum wordum,         swa sceal man don.

                        The glad noise resumed,                 1160
bright-clanking bench-music;    wine-bearers poured
from fluted silver.    Wealhtheow came forth,
glistening in gold, …
“Accept this cup,     my noble lord,
gold-giving king;    be filled in your joys,
treasure-friend to all,   and give to the Geats
your kind words,   as is proper for men…

Review: Out of the Silent Planet

Note: This review was written as part of the Pages Unbound C. S. Lewis Read-Along for the month of February 2013.  Go check out their master list for more Lewisian topics!
Perhaps it is a peculiar practice to review a book one has read at least two or three times already.  But perhaps it is the only honest way to do it.  I’ve let Out of the Silent Planet, first book of Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy, rest on my shelf for a few years already; though I recalled where the story ended up, I didn’t always recall how it got there.  “Narrative lust,” that is, wanting to know How It Ends, wasn’t necessary to carry me through; the story retains an element of freshness and would not, I think, be worn thin by further rereadings.

Why not?  In part, because of its oddest aspect: the mystery of the title.  Here’s a prepositional phrase, appearing nowhere in the story itself, whose meaning is obscure even when we learn which planet it indicates.  Is it the start of a sentence?  The end of one?  Perhaps it means to set up a contrast: out of the silent planet, into the heavens.  For though the planets are the chief concern of this book and the trilogy in general, Lewis doesn’t miss his chance to share his favored cosmology:

A nightmare, long engendered in the modern mind by the mythology that follows in the wake of science, was falling off him.  He had read of “Space’: at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds.  He had not known how much it affected him till now – now that the very name “Space” seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam.  He could not call it “dead’; he felt life pouring into him from it every moment.  …No: space was the wrong name. 

Hence my references to the Cosmic Trilogy, rather than the Space Trilogy.  Cosmic better captures the nature of this book, which is a bit of a pastiche genre-wise: it has something of the mythic (particularly where the hrossa and their poetic inclinations are concerned), a good dollop of the supernatural, bound up in a science-fiction narrative which was composed early enough to be called scientifiction.  Even without that slightly archaic term, there are points when it becomes clear that this book is an early effort (though far from the earliest) in the science-fiction genre.  The nature of the spaceship, Ransom’s somewhat foggy understanding of the ship itself, gravity, the occasional confusion where other celestial bodies are concerned, his attempts to figure out how this new planet Malacandra sustains life: these are details absent, or strikingly different and more true-to-life, in books written fewer than 75 years ago.  Some readers get distracted by this, but I suppose it’s never troubled me, since it’s clearly a facet of Lewis’s world-building.

The three main facets of said world-building, so far as I noted them, are as follows: the physical descriptions as Ransom sees and interacts with the country around him; the details and history learned from the hrossa, sorns, and Oyarsa; and over-around-through it all, the use and limits of language.

Out of the Silent PlanetThis last seems especially noteworthy.  Lewis paints the world and its inhabitants in bold, bright colors: clouds of red stone, neon blue rivers hiding a lightning-fast eel, pink scrub, sweeping green mountains, and precarious-looking purple vegetation.  By analogy he gives us to understand more or less what a hross looks like (something like a penguin, otter, and seal, with the flexibility and litheness of a stoat), and a sorn, and even a pfiffltrigg.  There are occasions where discussions of life and philosophy are worked in, despite Ransom’s shaky grip on the Malacandrian tongue.  But there are also times when words fall short, both when the narrator tries to put an experience into words which cannot be so rendered, and when Ransom attempts to translate Earthly arguments into Malacandrian.

This language doesn’t have so many shades of meaning as English, and therefore cannot be used in the subtly misleading fashion that is the travelers’ wont.  It reminded me of nothing so much as Diggory and his Uncle Andrew: Devine and Weston, the other Earthlings, are so quick to couch their goal in the rosiest terms and obscure whom shall be sacrificed on the altar of progress, making it really seem, for a second, that ‘they were saying something rather fine” (indeed, they think they are).  In the end their greed, their halting understanding, and their having set up an unimportant rule as their guiding principle, reveals these two to be ridiculously silly figures.  It is quite as entertaining as Uncle Andrew being planted and watered.

I have some minor quibbles with the story near the end – there’s a spot of trouble the Earthlings manage to avoid though it’s never explained how – but overall, this first book of the Cosmic Trilogy is a fine step in a somewhat different direction for those who loved Narnia.  Further delights await elsewhere in the Field of Arbol!

Mistaken Title Twins

A couple years back, David reviewed a book called Undine.  I read his review, put the title on my mental “to read” list, and went on my way.  Before long, time ate away all details of the review except that title, but I figured it was enough to see me through.  So last week, flushed with the victory of my new library card, I typed “Undine” into Ann Arbor District Library’s catalog, and rejoiced when I picked it up.

It was only after dashing through it that I looked at David’s review again and realized that oh, the thing I just read was written nearly 200 years after the thing he reviewed.  Not only that, but he included a note that the novella he read is available in full on Google books.

So perhaps it could be regarded as an inconvenient happenstance, but I grieve not.  Instead of an Irish fairy story by Friedrich de la Motte Fouque, I got an Australian story of magic and the sea by Penni Russon, very clearly inspired by The Tempest, with some intriguing relationships and a dash of localized diction.

Undine’s a sixteen-year-old girl living next door to her best friend Trout (not even his teachers call him Trevor anymore), dealing with a peculiar heavy feeling and the unpleasant weight of Tuesdays (“which, on the whole, were not to be trusted”).  Whispers call Undine home, as though she weren’t at home already, and she has a freak storm, a love triangle, and curiously inevitable fights with her mum to deal with as well.  Meanwhile, Trout is doing a bit of research on chaos theory, a bit of reading on Shakespeare, and a bit of pondering how discrete he should be with other people’s secrets.  My apologies for being vague, but I’m trying not to spoil any of the plot.  Here are a few selections from it:

Little scales glittered on her hands from the fish, and her skin felt dry and salty.  She lathered and washed, but suspected the scales were as insidious as Jasper’s day-care glitter, which hung around for months, miraculously appearing underneath a fingernail or at the end of an eyelash, no matter how many baths he took, and migrating to Lou and Undine, and various other unlikely places, so that little bits of Christmas would suddenly and surprisingly appear in the corners of things.

“Anyway, he didn’t waffle.  He sang.”
Undine groaned.  “That’s even worse.  Tra la la.  And then the great hero Achilles went into an epic sulk and was boring for a very long time.  Tra la la.  And here’s the name of every ship, all one billion of them, and everyone who was ever on each ship, tra la la.”

“But who…I mean…I already know my father is dead.  This is hardly a revelation.”
“Do you know the story of The Tempest?”
“No.  We studied Hamlet in English lit.”
Trout rolled his eyes.  “You can actually just read Shakespeare, you know.  It’s not outlawed outside of school hours.”

It was a fast and evocative read.  My chief complaint is that a storyline dependent on the extra-ordinariness of the protagonist may ring a bit hollow to the ordinary reader.  There were moments when I thought “Okay, so there’s this power you could wield; what is that to me?” because, of course, I can’t.  Thankfully Undine has enough of the ordinary teenage girl about her: navigating relationships with friends and family, some awkwardness, and a quest to understand who she really is when she’s never seen or heard from her father.