Category Archives: book review

‘Shakespeare’s Library’ by Stuart Kells

Shakespeare's Library: Unlocking the Greatest Mystery in LiteratureShakespeare’s Library: Unlocking the Greatest Mystery in Literature by Stuart Kells

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

We talk of him so much, yet we know of him so little. As George Orwell elliptically put, “Much rubbish about Shakespeare has been written” by anti-Stradifordians as well as Stradifordians, and various sects of Shakespearenism still multiplying and evolving. Nonetheless, William Shakespeare is a heavyweight literary champion and a provocateur of authorship of his popular plays and pearly poems. He is certainly a man of reputation that gives him a status fusing highbrow elitism of a famed writer with a sensuous appeal of modern-day celebrity. In Shakespeare’s Library by Stuart Kells, such academic hullabaloos over Shakespeare’s authorship of his oeuvres are laid bare in the course of Kells’s quest of the existence of Shakespeare’s library, a list of books the Bard owned and a folio of his own manuscripts per se. For the meaning of Shakespeare’s library and its whereabouts are bound up with the authorship question and hold the key to the cardinal principles of humanities and truth.

Much of the debate on the Authorship Question arises from Shakespeare’s non-aristocratic family background despite the erudition of his writing. The book serves as Kells’s scholarly demurrer challenging the claim of Shakespeare’s non-authorship and flagrant plagiarism. Kells demurs at such preposterous allegations that negate the capacity of Shakespeare as a writer on the basis of ambiguity, uncertainty and prejudice. Kells takes a conservative liberal Socratic position of impartial advocate who defends the Bard on the grounds of (1) different social and historical criteria; and (2) the demonstrative evidence of the library at issue. With respect to Shakespeare’s alleged plagiarism, it must be regarded as a common de rigueur literary practice of his day that adopted the ideas from other source texts into an adaptor’s own. Adaptation was a revered literary custom, stretching back to medieval times when a monk modeled other people’s writings on his own because they taught him different styles of writing he wanted to emulate. Shakespeare lived before the advents of copyright and intellectual property law and psychoanalysis with the emergence of the powerful middle-class intellectuals as a substitute of the ecclesiastical caste. Therefore, we must not make an anachronistic mistake of looking at the past with our modern criteria in making parallel with our own time period, measuring the trend of the days against the principles of our day.

Further to the social background, including a lack of formal education and humble family origin, classicism is used as a touchstone of validity of Shakespeare’s authorship as carefully nuanced in this book. Kells as a learned adventurer shines through in this book. Various debates on the Authorship Question are rendered accessible as he pivots deftly from keenly observed details about the source texts to the universally equitable ramifications of his search of Shakespeare’s library in favor of the ingenious Bard. Kells wears his learning lightly here and writes with a general reader in mind, discriminating none regardless of social and cultural differences to invite all in his search of Shakespeare’s library. Shakespeare’s library is his source texts ingeniously combined into his world of imagination populated with star-crossed lovers, fairies, witches, kings, princes and a parade of various walks of life, all manifested in his legacy of literature still revered by all around the world. It is an excellent case of dispersion of collective knowledge throughout society as an Elizabethan-styled meme, a unit of cultural imitation, which is a form of cultural revolution in which art always flourishes.

If Chaucer foundered the bedrock of English literature, Shakespeare popularized it through his appealing works all over the world, making his timeless quotations indexes of wisdom and wits percolated through our daily lives. Rather than as a serious grim-faced man of letters, such as what Leo Tolstoy and his Anglo-Saxon ilk liked to lionize, Shakespeare was a fashionable Elizabethan literary tradesman, a workaday dramatist who had a feat of converting existing works into new kinds of drama, packed full of scintillating wits and memorable lines easy to understand with themes blended with the highbrow concepts and the lowbrow dramas that were contemporaneously popular in Shakespeare’s time. In Shakespeare’s library, readers will meet the Man as he was thanks to Kells’s impressive scholarship of Shakespearean literature and general erudition combined with his Socratic principle of “Knowledge to All” as manifested in his approachable writing style. Moreover, readers will come to know more interesting, more lively and more attractive libertine Shakespeare who was a practical artist with a wordily sense of success and vision to match. For he knew that to create was to recombine by letting his fancy free in his solipsistic library of books and notebooks – his Cabinet of Curiosities in Mind.

a merry day in a working-day world

History-Revealed-Issue-72-September-2019My letter to the editor of BBC History Revealed regarding “The Wild West” was printed in the September issue of the magazine – again! Today was the first day of the new issue which was downloaded on my Kindle Fire during my one-hour lunchtime at my regular Starbucks store. I have since ordered a hard copy of the magazine for a keepsake. It feels great to see my own writing published in an established periodical. Robert Waldo Emerson said: “Thinking is the function, living is the functionary.” Likewise, I want to actualize my thoughts from a deep cave of silence.

The following is my letter published in the September issue of BBC History Revealed.

“Dear Editor:

The article about the Wild West in this month’s issue was particularly interesting, since I am a recent immigrant from the East to the West: the restive nature, the swashbuckling gunslingers, the outrageous outlaws and the ruthless vigilantes were all embroidered on the popular Hollywood-generated image of the West that became something of a  factoid to people living outside the West.

Even though the U.S. Census Bureau declared in 1890 that no more western frontiers were left to conquer, I believe that the culture and ambiance of the West remains here in California. As someone who lived many years in New Jersey and the New York City before moving to Camarillo, the most distinctive characteristic of California is its unsullied beauty of nature in replacement of the skyscraper jungle as I see every day on the commuter’s railways.

Surely, there’s no more John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Gary Cooper, or Paul Newman with Robert Redford walking in the streets. Yet, the spirit of eternal youthfulness is still nuanced by a combination of its beautiful rusticity of nature and a diversity of people interacting with the special aura surrounding the land.  For this reason, the West has not lost its charm with its continuous saga of immigrants in search of better future and the timeless beauty of nature.”

False histories

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History is a nonfiction narrative that reads like a novel, packed with actions, emotions, and characters, in the discovery of the universal human traits; it is both considered as parts of Humanities and Social Sciences in modern academia with the beauty of literature and the authority of science. That is why history is the most potent basis of political tool for manufacturing ideology in the form of a myth. Nazism was the proverbial example of the myth as an effective propaganda that called for the unity of the Germans. But the building of myth is not confined in the Germans; it’s an in-vogue political trend across the Seven Seas, which shoehorns ambitious political ideology into a suitably fashionable story of national pride and beguiling ethnocentrism.

Historian Michael Wood’s article “Dangerous Histories” in this month’s BBC History is the most apposite to such current revisionist view on history. In the article, his example of India, where the rise of the Hindu nationalist movement imbibes the populace with the mythical Hindu past that was claimed to be distorted by medieval Muslim conquests and British colonialism, bespeaks a danger of rewriting an untruthful history without objective facts, tempered by blind jingoism and askew ethnocentrism. In fact, such revisionist rewriting of history contributes to a powerful social cohesion of the populace  in times of national crisis. It’s really a case of mass mind-control by means of myth, the imagined history tinged with false patriotism and insular outlook on the world.

History is a collective narrative of a people who have been together through thick and thin, warts and all, sharing the same culture in the same place for centuries. Thus, it shapes the sense of identity of the people among others. However, if history serves to berating peoples of other nations to claim its own cultural superiority over them and therefore rightful subjugation of their cultures, then history as the factual subject in the academia loses its force of truth and becomes no more than a propagandist manifesto of jingoism. Let history be history, not a legend. Maybe it is high time we invoked the spirit of the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, who put forward factual and empirical elements in historical narratives.

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‘Coal Black Mornings’, by Brett Anderson – review

Coal Black MorningsCoal Black Mornings by Brett Anderson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Albert Einstein once said, “There comes a point in your life when you need to stop reading other people’s books and write your own.” That said, the story of Brett Anderson, the founder and lead singer of English rock band Suede from London, has a polyphony of vicissitudes woven by multiple strands of existential life experience and innate artistic sensibilities which seems to give him a status fused with the wisdom of an Orwellian thinker and the suaveness of a modern day troubadour in a stylishly insouciant way. Now, on his second calling as a writer, Anderson in Coal Black Mornings tells a story of his family and himself without “the usual coke and gold discs” in such a way that it strikes the hearts of the ordinary and underlings alike who feel a burden of existential needs on their shoulders that smother their creative spirits and ambitions.

Anderson traces the long and winding road that led him from a childhood as a sentimental boy from a poor but culturally sophisticated family. A poverty of material comforts was reconciled with a wealth of artistic sensibilities and intellectual proclivity inherited from his eccentric taxi-driving father whose saint was Franz Liest and his quiet and beautiful painter mother who used to make clothes for him and his elder sister. He evokes the grim, bleak, and dreary scenes of very real urban poverty in which a lack of money can make you feel debagged and insignificant, but he does not hold grudge against the discomfort of such poverty because it became a part of his inspiration for his music that empathizes with the feelings of others in distress. Anderson charts the wandering romance of loneliness and creativity in an existential reality where his wings of artistic aspiration were often clipped by chains of subsistence. It’s a literary catalog of his ongoing journey of life, a personal treaty on the depth and breadth of his life so far, which the author wants to dedicate to his son who will continue a saga of his beloved family.

This is a heartfelt, sincere memoir of an artist who tells it all about himself in hope of chiming the bells of emotions of readers whose life stories share the same elements of existential life when they collide with ideals and dreams that are universal in kindred spirits all around the world. Coal Black Mornings is a literary kaleidoscope of one man’s vicissitudes of life, many of which illuminate the glory of being beautifully misfit in materialistic society. Anderson said that this book was primarily written for his son and that any form of public accolade would be a bonus to him. He was right because the book told me that I wasn’t alone and that I am not alone by feeling misfit. Here we come, the beautiful ones.

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‘Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee’, by Casey Cep – review

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper LeeFurious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The theory of “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”might have been a rule of thumb in the Wild West, but that was anathema to Harper Lee, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of To Kill a Mockingbird, which has become an epoch-defining classic in the canon of American literature.With her restive independent spirit that knew no compromise with tampered artistic sensibilities, Lee labored and waited until she found satisfactorily truthful narratives on her own, no matter how much time it would take. This journalistic trait of authorship combined with intellectual conscience could have been a reason that Lee, despite criticism of being a one-hit wonder, chose not to chase successive fame and discontinued what might have been her next best oeuvre called The Reverend. Casey Cep discovers Lee’s unfinished work and brings it to life and offers an unbiased portrait of one of the greatest American writers in this ambitious Furious Hours.

Furious Hours is composed of three parts: Reverend Willie Maxwell, Attorney Tom Radney, and Harper Lee. Reverend Maxwell was a black provincial Baptist preacher accused of killing five of his family members allegedly by means of Voodoo magic for insurance money in the 1970s. Into this courtroom drama entered a clever and magnanimous Alabaman lawyer named Tom Radney, who helped the reverend to be acquitted of the murder charge, but later found himself defending the killer of his former client. It was an irony of Fate, tragedy and comedy of a drama called life. The trial of the murder of the reverend was also a reprisal of the courtroom drama of To Kill a Mockingbird, where a black dependent was represented by a liberal white attorney. This real-life scenario in her beloved native Alabama piqued Harper Lee’s curiosity, and she decided to write a book called “The Reverend” by attending the trial herself. Cep introduces the elements of the trial in the discourse of the backgrounds of the trial as though she traveled back to the time and witnessed it all like an intelligent, observant time traveler.

Although Furious Hours is primarily about the forgotten case of the Reverend that was something of an OJ trial of the day in the context of regarding a black defendant and white legal bureaucracy, its linchpin behind the facade of the drama is Harper Lee, who thrived at the expense of Nella Harper Lee, an ambitious intelligent writer who moved from a big house in Alabama to a rent-controlled apartment in the New York City to pursue a literary career. It seems to me that Lee was disillusioned with the glamor of the city literati scene that looked priggish and stuffy. Her peers dismissed her book as a one-hit wonder and criticized it for being a lesser of serious literature. Notwithstanding this asinine and supercilious criticism, Lee did not conform to public demand of the next bestseller by declaring she had “said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again.” Lee was in fact a writer who wanted to write a book with universal themes of human life, not bound by a vocation of regional specialty of “Southern” cultural backgrounds littered with sinful racism. She was a writer struggling to live up to her literary principle and personal conviction that her contemporaries did not appreciate. Maybe that’s why Cep introduces Lee in the last of the three parts of the book in the sense that a fashion designer always walks the runaway last in a fashion show escorted and applauded by models, staff, and spectators.

Furious Hours is a fine act of literary ventriloquism fused with Lee’s story-telling voice in Cep’s own narrative, which results in this ingenious creative nonfiction. It is a wonderful collaboration of two writers, a predecessor and a successor, bound by the magic of literature, transcendent of time and space, just as Leonardo da Vinci’s “Grand Horse” was superbly completed by Nina Akamu centuries later. This book will have more admirers of Harper Lee’s literature and new admirers of Cep’s feat of narrative skills that grasp the attention of the reader cap-a-pie.