Saturday, May 29, 2010

Büchner: The Complete Plays, edited by Michael Patterson (1987)

As I mentioned in my post on Woyzeck, I also read the rest of the works in Büchner: The Complete Plays, edited by Michael Patterson (1987), with the exception of Danton's Death, which is also on the western canon list and which I will probably get to in about 2045.

Georg Büchner
(1813-1837) managed to squeeze quite a bit into his 23 years of life, and this collection documents his many facets -- political revolutionary, dramatist, biographer, scientist, son, and fiancée:

The Hessian Courier (1834)
This was a revolutionary and really quite illegal pamphlet that Büchner wrote with a radical clergyman. Inspired by the French revolution, Büchner called for the German peasantry to rise up against the Grand Duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt. He argues logically (including lots of facts and statistics) that the rich were living off of the work of the poor and not giving the poor anything in return. Over Büchner's objections, his partner added religious language that he thought would appeal more to the rural poor. The pamphlet was printed and distributed twice, but in both cases the revolutionary nature of the work scared everyone who was meant to read it, and anyone who did get their hands on a copy immediately turned it over to the local police. Several conspirators were arrested and tortured, but Büchner managed to escape the country and live out the rest of his short life in exile in Strasbourg (where he had previously lived as a student) and Zurich. His experience with The Hessian Courier proved to him that revolutionary action was ineffectual, and while there are some political themes that run through his literary works and letters, he never returned to the political stage.

Lenz (1835)
This novella, based on the life of Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz (a literary contemporary and romantic rival of Goethe) was one of my favorite pieces in the collection. Büchner focuses on the period in Lenz's life when he has been exiled from the court of Weimar and subsequently suffers an attack of paranoid schizophrenia. He goes to the mountains of Alsace to stay with the clergyman J. F. Oberlin and regain his sanity, but his mental state goes downhill and he ends up returning to Eastern Europe with his brother. Büchner paints a convincing and sympathetic portrait of paranoia and depression, a state that he had some familiarity with himself.

Leonce and Lena (1836)
This comedic play was written for a literary contest, but submitted past the deadline and returned to Büchner unopened. It was not published or produced until after his death. This is a romantic comedy of mistaken identity, filled with word play, with an obviously Shakespearean influence. When the prince of the kingdom, an unrepentant playboy who is bored with his affluent life of leisure, is forced into an arranged marriage, he and his sidekick take off on a road trip to avoid being tied down. Little does he know that his fiancée, who he has never met, had the same idea and also escaped the castle with her governess. It is pretty easy to guess what happens next, and everything coalesces into a very satisfying play. I, of course, can't read the original German, but the translation is crisp and the playfulness and puns in the dialogue all seem to come through.

On Cranial Nerves (1836)
The opening remarks of this scientific lecture given by Büchner as part of becoming a member of the teaching staff at Zurich University show his humanism and his philosophical rather than mechanical view of science.

The book also includes excerpts from Büchner's letters to his family, fiancée, and friends, as well as descriptions of Büchner from his contemporaries, which were all very revealing and fun to read. Each piece in the collection, as well as the book as a whole, is given an insightful introduction by the editor, Michael Patterson. I don't always enjoy introductions in a book, but Patterson gives just the right amount of context and interpretation and his clear prose is a pleasure to read. If you are looking to insert a little 19th century German literature into your life, you can't go wrong with this extensive collection of the works of Georg Büchner.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Pickled Beets?

I was shopping at HEB today on my lunch break and I bought a jar of pickled beets. I really don't know why, since I have never really liked beets (they taste like dirt), but I had an undeniable urge to eat pickled ones. Since they only cost $1.40, I figured it was worth the splurge.

So I ate several pickled beets when I got home from work. They still taste like dirt, but somehow I don't mind that anymore. I actually kind of like it. I think I am officially a beet fan!

And click here to watch the credits of the Care Bears Adventure in Wonderland movie that my sisters and I watched 100000000 times as kids. Give it until about 3:15 and you can hear exactly what I hear in my head every time someone says pickled beets.

[photo credit: stu_spivack]

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Midnight Club by Christopher Pike (1994)

The Midnight Club (1994) is another one of those Christopher Pike books that came out a little too late for me to enjoy it in my junior high Pike heyday, but I picked it up a free copy when I worked at a bookstore in college and have been carrying it around with me for the past ten years. Now seemed like the perfect time to give it a read.

This book has one of the most somber settings of any Christopher Pike novel -- an old seaside mansion that has been converted into a hospice for terminally ill teenagers, most of whom are poor and/or alone and would be lonely and dying in some gross state hospital if they weren't rescued by the avuncular owner of the hospice.

Our hero is one of the dying teenagers, Ilonka, who has formed The Midnight Club with her roommate Anya, the sexy and dying Kevin (who Ilonka is secretly in love with), his roommate Spence, and the quiet and modest Sandra. Every night at midnight the five teens meet in the basement of the mansion to tell each other stories -- some of the stories are scary, some romantic, and all a little supernatural. After one meeting they start talking about ghosts and what happens when you die, and make the pact that whichever one of them dies first will do everything in his or her power to contact the rest of the group from the other side. And then one of them dies in the night!

At least that is what the back of the book wants you to think this story is about. And all of that does actually happen, but instead of being a freaky tale of ghosts and death, this is actually a rather sweet love story about growing up and forgiveness. I'm not sure how Pike did this (and maybe I was just feeling emotional this week), but this book is nicely written, engaging, and often very moving. I know! From Christopher Pike! I think part of the difference in this book is that he gave himself a structure for filling the novel with nicely told mini-stories (the ones the teens tell in The Midnight Club), which puts a little less pressure on his main characters, and allows their characters to develop and their relationships to evolve with out the full crush of Pike's usually rather ham-handed descriptions.

If you are looking for the usual Pike novel, this probably isn't for you, but I really found it worthwhile. Go Team Pike!

[Also, the one hilarious part of this novel is the guy sitting second from the right on the cover. It is hard to see in this picture, but he is wearing the most amazing green plaid shirt with the sleeves cut off, unbuttoned to his mid-chest. Hospice wear!]

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Woyzeck by Georg Büchner (1837)

The next stop on my journey through Harold Bloom's western canon is the play Woyzeck by Georg Büchner (written in 1837, unfinished because Büchner died [at the age of 23!], and not published until 1875 or staged until 1913).

I had some familiarity with Woyzeck through Werner Herzog's 1979 movie starring Klaus Kinski and Eva Mattes (trailer here -- no English subtitles, but you don't really need them). It's been quite awhile since I've seen the film, and now that I've read the play I'm excited to see it again. From what I can remember, Herzog follows Büchner's script pretty well. However, since Büchner never finished the script, several different versions of the play have been edited together and performed over the years, and each director or editor has been able to put his or her own mark on the sequencing and staging of the play.

In the play, Woyzeck is a soldier. He has a son with his common-law wife Marie, but they don't have enough money to get the proper papers to get married. There doesn't seem to be any war going on, so most of Woyzeck's soldiering involves digging ditches and shaving the commanding officers. He is a haunted man and doesn't seem to be particularly at ease with life, possibly in part because he is eating nothing but peas as part of a medical experiment to earn extra money for Marie and the baby. A handsome and fancy Drum Major catches Marie's eye and seduces her, and when Woyzeck finds out, he goes mad and kills her.

It may seem like I've given away the whole thing, but what is really interesting about the play doesn't have anything to do with the plot. The plot, in fact, was taken from a real life "true crime" case of a man (named Woyzeck) who killed his wife in a jealous rage. Rather than carrying the reader with its plot, Woyzeck brings us in through its episodic structure, the humanity and suffering of the characters, and the buffoonery of the authority figures. It is because of the strong characters and episodic plot that each director of the play can mold it to his or her own vision without losing Büchner.

I got Woyzeck as part of a larger book of Büchner's complete plays and other writings, and read all of them except Danton's Death (which is also on the western canon list). I'll do a second post for the other plays and works in the larger book because I am too excited about Büchner to put it all in one post!

[Awesome Woyzeck poster found here.]

Thursday, May 13, 2010


I feel like I've been beating this to death in other venues, but in case you haven't heard:

1. The Renegade Craft Fair is this weekend in Austin.
2. The awesome Mary P. from Pretty Good Things will have a booth there filled with wonderful things for you to buy.
3. I will be helping Mary P. sell those awesome things.
4. You should come say hi to us and experience all the awesomeness!

See you there!

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Quiet American by Graham Greene (1955)

Our latest book club read (Go DAFFODILS!) is The Quiet American by Graham Greene (1955). I had only read one other Greene book (The Man Within, Greene's first novel, which I reviewed here) -- but from what I heard it wasn't really representative of Greene's other work, so I was very interested to read some more.

I was, however, pretty familiar with the plot of The Quiet American, having seen both the Joseph L. Mankiewicz version from 1958 (starring Audie Murphy and Michael Redgrave), and the Phillip Noyce version from 2002 (starring Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser). I thought both versions of the movie were pretty good -- I liked the 50s one better, but Brendan Fraser gave a great performance as the American in the recent film.

The basic plot has our narrator, cynical British journalist Thomas Fowler living with his mistress of two years, Phuong, in an apartment in Saigon as he covers the French war and smokes his nightly opium. Fowler loves (or at least believes he loves) Phuong and would marry her except that his estranged wife back in England is a Catholic and won't give him a divorce. One night at a hotel bar, Fowler meets a naive young American government worker named Alden Pyle who just arrived in Vietnam from his college days at Harvard. Fowler enjoys playing the wise and experienced Englishman to Pyle's fresh-faced and straight-talking American. Or at least he does until Pyle falls in love in Phuong.

I won't get into too many of my thoughts on the book (since I want to try and remember those for book club), but I will say that I really enjoyed this. The book is expertly constructed and I could pull out dozens of sentences from the novel that couldn't be more perfect. Neither Fowler nor Pyle are admirable men, but the ways in which they fool themselves and each other make for an exciting psychological thriller, with a good dose of philosophy and politics on the side.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway (2008)

The always-awesome Corie recently lent me a copy of Nick Harkaway's 2008 debut novel The Gone-Away World. This book is gigantic (532 pages), but that didn't daunt me much since one thing Corie and I share is a love for really long novels. I jumped right in without knowing much about the book and I thought it was... Okay. Not bad at all, but not particularly great. A blurb on the book compares Harkaway's writing to Catch-22 or Kurt Vonnegut, and I could see that, but mostly I got a big whiff of Tom Robbins -- who I loved in my youth and whose quirky humor, obvious politics and need to philosophize I am now a rather lukewarm about. So I was into this book but not loving it when I got about 350 pages in and all of a sudden the whole thing became really quite awesome.

Here's the set up: We start the book in a post-apocalyptic future. Everything is all Mad Max and the only thing resembling civilization as we know it exists right along the Jorgmund Pipe, which emits some kind of gas that keeps the bad things away. What the bad things are and how everything got like this won't be revealed for awhile. Our hero and his friends are a group of ex-military who specialize in putting out fires and containing hazardous situations. When the Jorgmund Pipe bursts into flames, the uber-corporate government gives them a call and they spring into action.

Then we go back in time to the narrator's pre-apocalypse youth, and learn of his close friendship with Gonzo Lubitsch and his family, his school days, his work with a master of an ancient Chinese martial art, his college days, his entry into the military, and his marriage. This is all sometimes funny, sometimes interesting, and sometimes has a lot of holes in it, goes on a little long, and is less humorous than the author thinks. Then we get back to the "present," and everything changes for our narrator.

I'm not going to reveal the catalytic event and subsequent twist, but I will say that I didn't see the twist coming until just a couple pages before it happened. And this twist did what twists almost never do: It didn't make me feel cheated and it made me re-evaluate the first two-thirds of the gigantic novel and really like what before I had thought was just okay. If you have some patience in you and like long sort of sci-fi / sort of political satire / sort of humorous novels, then give this one a try. I swear it is worth it just for flipping that switch in the narrative.

[Also, I just now found out that Nick Harkaway is John le Carré's son. Weird beard.]

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868)

I read Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868) about a billion times when I was a girl. I loved the relationships between the sisters, the rebelliousness of Jo, and the way that everyone took care of each other even when they were fighting over some little thing. And since Alcott and I share a birthday, I wrote numerous elementary school English papers on her life and times and the history of her books.

Recently my aunt loaned me a new biography of Alcott, which I'm very interested to read, but she suggested I re-read Little Women and its sequels -- Alcott published a second volume in 1869 after the success of the first volume (often titled Good Wives, but sometimes bound in together with Little Women), then Little Men in 1871 and Jo's Boys in 1886. I've read both volumes of Little Women before, but not any of the others, so I am keen to check them out.

In case you are one of the sad people on earth who has never read Little Women or seen any of the film adaptations, let me fill you in on the plot: The March family has four daughters (Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy), and they live in a house somewhere in New England with their mother, who they all call Marmie. Their father is serving in the Civil War, even though he is a bit too old to be doing so. The family used to be quite wealthy but, for an unexplained reason, they have lost their fortune and both Meg and Jo have to go out and work to help bring some money into the household (Meg as a nanny and Jo as a companion to their rich and crotchety Aunt March).

Each of the daughters has a strong personality that guides the action of the book: Meg is the oldest, sometimes a little vain, and remembers when the family had money and misses that lifestyle; Jo is an impetuous tomboy who loves to read and write and make up stories and direct plays staring her sisters (Alcott modeled Jo on herself, and she is a pretty obvious favorite character for most readers); Beth is sweet and shy and giving, and loves to play the piano; Amy is the youngest, tries to act more worldly than she is, mispronounces words, is caught up in conventions, and wants to be a great artists.

The best thing about Little Women is that everything that happens is pretty ordinary, but because the characters are drawn so well and the reader has such sympathy for the family, the small victories and tragedies of everyday life are heightened and the book is really a fun read.

The one downside to modern readers (or perhaps adult readers, since it didn't really bother me as a kid) is the moralizing -- around every bend our little women are learning important lessons in being kind and understanding and not saying mean things or being selfish or rude, and each of those lessons is spelled out for the reader and rubbed in maybe just a little too much. Still, it is forgivable considering the time the book was written and its audience, and it definitely isn't a deal breaker.

Check this space for more Alcott updates in the near future!

[Also: My copy of Little Women (printed in 1926) was actually my grandmother's copy. I'm not sure if it is a copy she had from when she was a girl or if she bought it later in life, but it has great illustrations by C.M. Burd and an introduction by Albert Lindsay Rowland (Superintendent of Schools, Cheltenham Township, PA) that gives this advice to modern readers of 1926: "A superficial opinion would call it a far cry from the long dresses, the veiled faces, and the prim speech of the March sisters to the scanty frocks, the bobbed hair and the vigorous actions of a group of modern school girls. Yet all are little women and the tremendously interesting and important problem of growing up is essentially the same in both cases."]