Adventures, we've had a few (more).

"Exploring Henry VIII"
As I mentioned here, earlier this month, we had the opportunity to see a working rehearsal of Henry VIII, which opens tonight at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater (CST) and will run through June 16. We are certainly looking forward to seeing the polished production in May!

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
In that same entry I mentioned that last week, we attended an open rehearsal of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra led by Ricardo Muti and featuring pianist Maurizio Pollini (Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467). The 2.5-hour program also included Beethoven's Consecration of the House Overture, Op. 124; Schumann's Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 97 (Rhenish); and our favorite piece of the day -- Mendelssohn's Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage Overture, Op. 27, which was inspired by two Goethe poems.

Chris Thile (mandolin) and Brad Mehldau (piano)
The week prior to that, we saw Thile and Mehldau at the home of the CSO. Most people would not think of pairing bluegrass and jazz, but Thile and Mehldau are onto something with this complex conversation between the two music traditions. The Chicago papers were surprisingly brief in their remarks, but here's a review from the duo's stop in Boston.

Giulio Cesare
Have you checked out FathomEvents.com yet? Among other programs, they promote live broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera's productions, including the current David McVicar production of Handel's 4.5-hour opera, Giulio Cesare, which stars Natalie Dessay as Cleopatra (although the absolute showstopper is Alice Coote in the "pants role," Sesto -- listen here). The broadcast was shown in a movie theater one town over on a Saturday on which all of us were available. Woot! It was terrific! And may I just add that as much of a privilege as it is to see productions at the Lyric Opera (in fact, we're heading to another next month), movie theater seats are eversomuch more comfortable than seating at the Lyric. Heh, heh, heh.

The second case erupted.


The Girls Rule! School: Another progress report

As I mentioned here, the Girls Rule! School operates year-round. Our academic year begins in August, and our studies sort themselves into three terms of unequal length: August through December (five months), January through April (four months), and May through July (three months). Rather than taking an extended break of any sort, we generally enjoy relaxed periods of study that usually coincide with the winter holidays, the conclusion of winter swim season, and the conclusion of summer swim season. 

For us, "relaxed" means, minimally, math-music-literature, but also includes wrapping up aspects of independent study projects, working on neglected art pursuits, and taking additional field trips, particularly those related to birding or nature study.  During our relaxed period of study this term, however, the literature leg of our math-music-literature model was shortened somewhat to more fully accommodate independent study projects and to allow for the time demands of both the driver education course (four days weekly for two hours each day; four weeks) and the lifeguard certification program (thirty-six hours of classwork over a two-week period (not to mention the assigned reading)). 

With the second term of our 2012-2013 academic year drawing to a close, then, I find myself reviewing our progress, which included (admittedly) only sporadic work with Destinos (Spanish) but also continued excellence in history, math, logic and philosophy, and science (the latter of which included the girls' ongoing self-directed study in animal behavior and physics, respectively).

Here are some highlights:

Shakespeare studies: 
Julius Caesar (a reread) 
Measure for Measure
Othello (review only)
Henry VIII

Flowers for Algernon (Daniel Keyes) 
Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger) 
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Philip K. Dick) 
The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)

Poetry 180: A Poem a Day for American High Schools
Poetry Out Loud

Julius Caesar at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Sweet Charity at the Writers' Theatre
Othello: The Remix at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater
"Exploring Henry VIII" at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater (discussions and rehearsal)

■ Frank Vignola (guitar) at SecondSpace Theatre 
Chris Thile (mandolin) and Brad Mehldau (piano) at Chicago Symphony Center
Open rehearsal for donors: Chicago Symphony Orchestra led by Ricardo Muti and featuring Maurizio Pollini (piano)

La Boheme at the Lyric Opera
Giulio Cesare, a live broadcast of the Met performance at the movie theater

■ Lincoln Park Zoo
■ "Picasso and Chicago" at the Art Institute of Chicago
"Art in Bloom" at the Milwaukee Art Museum

Chicago Wolves hockey game
"Beluga Encounter" at the Shedd Aquarium
■ The Vera Meineke Nature Center at Spring Valley 
Volo Bog State Natural Area
Eight swim meets: two rec team (including the conference meet) and six USA Swimming (including last-chance time trials for regionals, a conference meet, and regional championships)
■ Work: Miss M-mv(i)'s regular assignment as a lifeguard and both Misses' as substitute swim instructors 
■ Weekly piano (both Misses), violin (Miss M-mv(i)), and guitar (Miss M-mv(ii)) lessons and daily practice
■ A piano performance / evaluation at [insert college name here]
Driver education course
Lifeguard certification course (Miss M-mv(ii)) 
Stroke clinic 


Reading life review

Number of books read in 2013: 30
Complete list of books read in 2013 can be found here.
Number of books read since last "reading life review" post: 6

Henry VIII (William Shakespeare (1613); Folger ed. 2007. 352 pages. Drama.) With the Misses. Henry VIII will run April 30 through June 16 at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, so we had planned to read the play in April ever since CST's 2012/2013 season was announced. But we pushed it a wee bit ahead on our planner when we received an invitation to attend a rehearsal held earlier this month. (I know, right? Squeeeeee!) Before the rehearsal, we were treated to a discussion hosted by Bob Mason and Chris Plevin, during which we learned how the incomparable Barbara Gaines distilled from the play three key relationships, eschewing pageantry for intimacy; how her vision is being interpreted by the production team; and even how CST productions, including this one, are cast. We then headed to the main theater. The actors had only just that afternoon moved from their initial rehearsal space to the stage and were reworking the blocking in Katherine of Aragon's (Ora Jones) divorce trial scene. After rehearsal concluded, director Gaines indulged participants in a Q&A. Wonderful, wonderful stuff.

(Related aside: This month, we also attended an open rehearsal of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra led by Ricardo Muti. The program included a piano concerto featuring Maurizio Pollini. I know, I know, right? Again, squeeeee!)

The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald; 1925/1980. 182 pages. Fiction.) With the Misses, in anticipation of the film. This was a reread for me, and I found the prose even more beautiful this go-'round.

p. 36
Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.
p. 58
Jordan Baker instinctively avoided clever, shrewd men, and now I saw that this was because she felt safer on a plane where any divergence from a code would be thought impossible. She was incurably dishonest. 
p. 59
"Suppose you meet somebody just as careless as yourself?"

"I hope I never will," she answered. "I hate careless people. That's why I like you."
p. 81
A phrase began to beat in my ears with a heady sort of  excitement: "There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy, and the tired."
p. 97
It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.
p. 131
Angry as I was, as we all were, I was tempted to laugh whenever he opened his mouth. The transition from libertine to prig was so complete.
p. 165
At first I was surprised and confused; then, as he lay in his house and didn't move or breathe or speak, hour upon hour, it grew upon me that I was responsible, because no one else was interested -- interested, I mean, with that intense personal interest to which every one has some vague right at the end.
Attachments (Rainbow Rowell; 2011. 336 pages. Fiction.) Light, sweet, well-written. More here.

Reconstructing Amelia (Kimberly McCreight; 2013. 400 pages. Fiction.) A bona fide page-turner. Smart and entertaining. EW's review can be found here.

The Autobiography of Henry VIII: With Notes by His Fool, Will Somers (Margaret George; 1998. 960 pages. Fiction.) This probably counts as my "chunkster" this year. Phew. It was a little... plodding, but I enjoy the subject and so stuck with it.

Picasso and Chicago: 100 Years, 100 Works (Stephanie D'Alessandro; 2013. 112 pages. Non-fiction.) In anticipation of our trip to see the exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago. Related entry here. Also, some "lightweight" reading on the artist:

And Picasso Painted Guernica (Alain Serres; 2013. 52 pages. Juvenile non-fiction.)
Pablo Picasso (Artists in Their Time) (Kate Scarborough; 2002. 46 pages. Juvenile non-fiction.)
Picasso: Soul on Fire (Rick Jacobson; 2011. 32 pages. Non-fiction.)


Loving Will

The following post was first published here in April 2004.

"Shakespeare is hard," asserts Fintan O'Toole in his book of the same title, "but so is life, and so long as you can see that there's a lot of life in Shakespeare, then the effort begins to make sense."

Now, I adore O'Toole's provocative, irreverent take on the bard, but I also have some fairly strong convictions about the "Shakespeare is, well, pretty easy, actually" camp.

At summer sessions for teachers, Peggy O'Brien, Ph.D., formerly of the Teaching Shakespeare Institute (Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.), would distribute a "Shakespeare Laundry List" to her students. Top on the list? "Everyone — all levels of society — went to see Shakespeare's plays. There weren't many other forms of entertainment... People went to the bear-baiting ring for a thrill, they went to a public execution of two — and they went to the theatre."

Bear-baiting. An execution or two. The theater. Anyone seeing, oh, I don't know, horse-racing, Court TV, and the theater? (And that's theater with an "er," please; "re" is an affectation, and I'll bet O'Brien knew it, but Ph.D.s, well... let's just say they come with their own academic baggage.) The point is that it was the "beloved groundlings" to whom Shakespeare and company played. To us. The Mountain Dew-swigging, overalls-wearing, pun-loving, regular folk.

Shakespeare can be hard, yeah. But he needn't be. Honestly, is there any doubt about his message in this passage from As You Like It, for example:
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
You've got it — the seven stages of man.

Seventh on O'Brien's "Laundry List" is a much uttered rarely heeded bit o' wisdom: "Reading Shakespeare is hard. [His] plays were written to be performed — acted and seen on a stage."

Ayup. It is cold water on... okay, you're with me... to have Mrs. Grimm the English teacher pass out a musty copy of Julius Caesar or Macbeth and say, "Read Act I. Be ready for a quiz tomorrow."


With all of the productions now available on DVD and video, why would any teacher turn her students loose without a hint of what the beloved groundlings once knew (i.e., that Shakespeare's play must be seen and heard)? If you're wondering, by the way, Norrie Epstein's The Friendly Shakespeare is a good place to begin for viewing recommendations because there is no comparison between, say, Mel Gibson's Hamlet and Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet.

In The Shakespeare Book of Lists, Michael LoMonico notes, "Unlike many, I didn't fall in love with Shakespeare in high school or college. No, my passion began some 30 years ago, when I first heard lines from Hamlet, Macbeth, and Othello coming from the mouths of my students."

Ditto, Michael.

I took the requisite courses, both undergrad and grad. I attended if not acclaimed then certainly decent productions of the plays, oh, yes. I appreciated Shakespeare, for sure. But I didn't fall in love until my son decided that this was the "coolest" writing he had heard in his then eleven years:
Let me have men about me that are fat,
Sleek-headed men, and such as sleep o' nights:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much; such men are dangerous.
And when my daughters dressed their dolls as a princesses and their brother's long forgotten G.I. Joes as kings and enacted the wooing scene from Henry V ("O Kate! Nice customs curtsey to great kings"), I made a long-term commitment to ol' Bill.

And here we are. Writing about him again. Hoping someone else will see what we see: That there's something in Shakespeare's plays for all of us. And asserting that, no, Fintan, Shakespeare isn't all that hard; at least, he doesn't have to be. Visit the Folger Shakespeare Library site. It's not about Shakespeare's inaccessibility, is it?

Harold Bloom's Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human is a frequently consulted book in our house. That said, let me hastily add that I don't think our tastes are necessarily "snobbish" (yeah, there's that word again) or even particularly high-brow. Remember? Mountain Dew? Overalls? Beloved groundlings? But Bloom's love of Shakespeare is heady stuff, his fervor infectious:
Bardolatry, the worship of Shakespeare, ought to be even more a secular religion than it already is. The plays remain the outward limit of human achievement: aesthetically, cognitively, in certain ways morally, even spiritually. They abide beyond the end of the mind's reach; we cannot catch up to them. Shakespeare will go on explaining us, in part because he invented us....

From A Midsummer Night's Dream:
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this,—and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend;
If you pardon, we will mend.
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to 'scape the serpent's tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call:
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

Happy belated birthday, Mr. Shakespeare! For more Bardolatry, visit the archive.


Joyce Carol Oates: (Woman) Writer

This entry was first published in September 2006 and has been pulled from the archives and lightly updated by request.

Joyce Carol Oates (or, more accurately, my admiration of her work) was partially responsible for my success in graduate school: One of two scholarly essays of mine to capture honors in my second year of study concerned JCO, and part of my oral defense involved examining her work within the framework of the Burkean pentad.

Perhaps because I've been so frank in my admiration or maybe because I've recommended so many of her works, a few readers have written to ask my opinion about reading and appreciating JCO. I had occasion to review my replies to two such queries this weekend and realized they might be pulled together into worthwhile entry.

She has written so many books! Where should I start?

Where to start, where to start... Well, the first book I read was her first, Them, but I think others are far more inviting: Marya, What I Lived For, Because It Is Bitter and Because It Is My Heart, American Appetites, Foxfire, You Must Remember This, Blonde....

Then again, her collections of short stories give you an opportunity to dip and choose. Haunted, Heat, and A Sentimental Education come immediately to mind.

And her non-fiction is the easiest of all her work to embrace. My particular favorites: (Woman) Writer, The Faith of a Writer, and Where I've Been and Where I'm Going.

Oates has written a number of psychological thrillers under the pseudonym Rosamond Smith (e.g., The Barrens), as well as several slim, intense novels (e.g., Zombie, Beasts, Rape: A Love Story) and a number of novels for young adults (e.g., Freaky Green Eyes, Sexy). If you like mysteries, psych thrillers, and/or YA lit, then these may be comfortable introduction to the slightly off-kilter world of JCO.

If she's an entirely new author to you, why not start with the short story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been"? It's widely anthologized and also available online.

I just recalled that We Were the Mulvaneys was an Oprah pick. Like most O selections, it's a large, sprawling novel of the despair and destruction just beneath the surface of a seemingly "perfect" family. What separates it from most of the talk show host's selections is that this is a remarkable piece of contemporary fiction. Of course, I'm partial to the amazing Ms. Oates.

Some tips: 

■  JCO's sentences tend to repeat, fold in upon themselves, and swirl like water down a drain. This effect is a hallmark of her style. It drives some readers bonkers.

■  It's not uncommon for her to wander down one path, chase a thought to its near death, and then... abandon it. Just as we do, her characters do.

■  Some her work spends a lot of time in the darkest, most appalling places of the human experience and imagination. If you arrive at one of these novels or short stories and it's some place you don't want to be, set it aside. Not all of her books go there... or there... or even there. If, for example, the humanization of a serial killer boggles your mind, skip Zombie. If the secret sexual predilections of senior professors on a sleepy college campus do not interest you one bit, skip Beasts.

Her body of work is immense and, some have argued, uneven, but it's the work of a living literary legend. Choose the pieces that appeal to your readerly soul. And enjoy.

What makes What I Lived For a good book to you? This book is so gritty (for lack of a better word) that I have a hard time appreciating it.
JCO often employs the meanest aspects of life -- poverty, brutality (sexual, emotional, physical), prejudice, ignorance, etc. -- as characters in her books, and, as I remember, it is wanton stupidity (Corky's) that plays a leading role in WILF. How does one accumulate so much wealth and power and fail to accumulate any wisdom, any insight into the nature of being fully human? Corky dies a meaningless death, having lived a meaningless life, ending, as he did, profoundly unenlightened, uninformed, and unshaped by the people and events of his life.

Murder. Cruel sex. Drug use. Corruption. These are, indeed, gritty. But Corky's failure to learn and grow is, perhaps, the most haunting aspect of Oates' portrait of a politician. (Related aside: Much is made of Oates' use of metaphor and metonymy. Is what Corky lived for, then, essentially nothing? Did he even really live?)

Oates spends a lot of time charting the dark side of the human soul. Even her non-fiction obsession with boxing is about the sport's animal-like violence. I'll confess to having more stomach for her when I was younger. Hers is a bleak world, a sort of suffocation in the suburbs -- where men stray, women suffer, politicians lie, and children know far too much about the adults in their lives. Firmly planted in middle age, I find that Oates (who will likely win the Nobel Prize in Literature -- if she lives long enough; the Nobel is not only a testimony to greatness but to endurance: it is never awarded posthumously) still astounds me as a stylist but confounds me as a storyteller; that is, she is great, but she is unrelentingly grim, and in my middle years, I am having more difficulty bouncing back from the depths of despair into which she can sink me. I share this by way of saying that JCO is an acquired taste for some readers.

It's hard to know exactly which book will interest someone else; I like nearly all of them, including those published under her pseudonym. You know, while reading The Thirteenth Tale [in 2006], I was struck by some of the same readerly reactions I remember experiencing when I read JCO's Bellefleur. That may better suit you than WILF.

And now, reviewing my reply, I see that I didn't explain, as you asked, what makes this a good book to me. It's been a decade nearly two decades since I read WILF. I remember closing it and turning to Kurt, with whom I rode the train home from work many evenings, and saying, "This will win the Pulitzer... or at least be shortlisted." It was shortlisted. Isn't it funny how we can recognize greatness -- in art, in music, in literature, even in a sporting arena -- and not necessarily possess the vocabulary with which to explain its greatness?

For more information about the incomparable JCO, visit Celestial Timepiece.


This week's adventures

■ A 9.3-mile bike ride -- the first of the season

■ "Picasso and Chicago" at the Art Institute of Chicago

■ A trip to the Lincoln Park Zoo -- 57 sunny degrees on Lake Michigan

■  Measure for Measure at the Goodman Theatre

■ A large NY-style pizza from Cafe Luigi 

■ A 4.3-mile bike ride

■ A delicious meal at Fat Willy's

Othello: The Remix at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater -- Reviews here and here. If you're in the area, do NOT miss this.