27 September 2012

My Library, My Kindle, My Library

Most people would say I have a lot of books, though I have seen larger personal libraries.  One living room wall--about 18 feet--is book-lined, and our guest room is also lined with bookshelves. About 3,000 volumes, last estimate.

The sight of these books almost always prompts visitors to ask whether we have read them all.  The answer is No, not all.  Probably a majority, but not all.

Many people are not sure how to take this.  Isn't the purpose of books to be read?  To have so many books that are unread--what does that mean?

Regardless of how much I read--there is always more I wish to have read.  I may have read War and Peace and Team of Rivals, but I still haven't read Freud's Totem and Taboo or Frank Sulloway's tome on birth order, Born to Rebel (a New York Times Notable Book in 1997). When a book sounds or looks interesting--if I can imagine myself enjoying it or learning something from it--I have generally bought it (especially if it was on sale or remaindered). Gazing at such books on my shelf is satisfying because I can see I still have plenty to read (not having anything to read is a big fear).  Gazing at  the books I have  read is also satisfying--there's a special feeling of connection to these.

A library of my own has been a goal since my 10th grade social studies teacher casually referred to his.  Mr. Marienhoff probably said something like, "I looked through my library upstairs and found..."  This appealed to me because bookshelves at home were overflowing, even at the age of 15.  It was hard for me to get rid of anything.  Books I had read became my friends--impossible to betray them by giving them away. Books I had not read were like promises I had yet to keep. I was already having trouble with public libraries.  I loved being in them, but returning books was difficult.I fantasized about a room completely filled with books that were all mine.  Multiple rooms, maybe. An infinity of books to read and refer to...at home.

My books have long been my pride and my burden. When I left school, my collection was large and my housing budget was small. My books spent months in storage while I sought living space for both me and my library at a reasonable price.  Finally I moved into a loft with three housemates and a giant wall--the deal was sealed when one of the housemates offered to build me a bookcase along that wall. 

I moved from that apartment into another with the man who is now my husband. Then, and every time we have moved since, we have had to include my library in our considerations: is there enough wall space for the books? We tried to make sure there was even more room for books than there had been in the last place, because--after all--there were more books now.There were always more.

In 2010, I bought my first Kindle. I was especially excited about using the Kindle on vacation--I'd been accustomed to carrying an extra bag for my holiday reading--but I started using the Kindle for reading at home also.  People ask if I don't miss books.  A strange question.  I am still reading books. 

But I no longer find myself purchasing books I wish to have read.  Instead, I download samples of those books.  This satisfies my persistent fear of running out of things to read while avoiding purchases of books I'll never get through (there are many such volumes on my physical shelves).

Over time, I expect the size of my physical library to decline (via periodic pruning) while my virtual library grows.  The growth, though, will almost entirely be in books I have read.

My relationship to physical books is starting to feel anachronistic.

21 September 2012

Bonuses for Poor Performance

Like a lot of people, my reading of political news gets increasingly voracious as Election Day nears.  This morning I was struck by this article from the New York Times, which discusses the surprising fact that the Romney campaign is hurting for money.

This is surprising because for a long time we've been hearing about how Republican supporters have been pouring money into this campaign, particularly the very rich.  But PAC money is not campaign money, and the fact that most of Romney's money comes from the wealthy turns out to be a bit of a problem--only a fraction of their contributions become campaign funds; the rest goes to the Republican National Committee.

What particularly struck me, though, was where some of Romney's campaign money has gone: bonuses.

The day after accepting the Republican nomination, Mr. Romney gave what appeared to be $192,440 in bonuses to senior campaign staff members. At least nine aides received payments...
I am not sure whether such bonuses are common practice for campaigns, but I suspect not, since the reporter notes that they are "likely to draw grumbles from Mr. Romney’s allies."  Even if bonuses for outstanding performance are common, what performance is being rewarded in this case?  Making it through a terrific convention? Really?  Does anybody remember anything about it except the Clint Eastwood weirdness?

No.  So these folks are getting bonuses in spite of poor performance, and in an organization that's hurting for cash.

Really? That's what the "businessman candidate" does?

I can't say I'm surprised; that's how a lot of financial companies do it, as we all learned during the last crash. We also learned how well that worked: rewarding risk-takers for losing bets, even rewarding them for winning some bets when most of the organization's bets are being lost--it's not a strategy for stability, growth, or even survival.

It's a strategy for fail.

19 September 2012

Istanbul Passage by Joseph Kanon

It has been a long time since I've read such a satisfying espionage novel--which is saying a lot because I read Alan Furst's latest not too long ago. Along with the usual trope of dropping an ordinary guy in a spy scenario and watching him run, this novel zeroes in on ethics and morality. All protagonist Leon Bauer wants is to be one of the good guys, but he's finding that increasingly complicated.The second world war is over so the sharp black and white of things is gone: our enemies today were our friends yesterday, and today's friends are yesterday's fiends.

Nothing is what it seems, Bauer finds, which is no surprise to an experienced reader of spy thrillers, but still, Istanbul Passage was full of suspense and a pleasure to read.

Equivocation, at the Victory Gardens Theatre

Equivocation, by Bill Cain, is nothing if not intellectually meaty: it wrestles with Shakespeare, Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot, torture, ethics, politics, art, religion, and--as if that weren't enough--the typical stuff of drama: personal relationships. A struggling playwright named Shagspeare is commissioned by the King to write a "true history" of the Gunpowder Plot--a propaganda play. In spite of his misgivings ("we don't do current events"), Shagspeare is strongarmed into it by the King's aide, Robert Cecil, and his own troupe, who see dollar (or pound) signs, and besides--they're sick of rehearsing King Lear.

Bill Cain's often witty script makes us laugh at how contemporaries might have viewed Shakespeare's plays, but its more serious subject matter is how we can be true to ourselves while subject to a power that does not want us to be ourselves. The play's title refers to a pamphlet by a Jesuit priest, Henry Garnet, arguing that you can save your life and not lose your soul (through lying) by determining the real question you are being asked and answering that.

For example: someone comes to the door who clearly wants to kill the king, who is hiding upstairs.  He asks, Is the king here?  If you say yes, the king dies.  If you say no, you're lying and you could go to hell.  Or are you?  Garnet suggests that you're really being asked to give your tacit permission for the king's murder; so if you say no, you are simply refusing permission, not lying. Equivocating.

The play takes us through Shagspeare's research into the plot, his rehearsals and arguments with Cecil and his troupe, and his interviews with alleged conspirators. The play he's writing evolves as he learns more until it becomes something that would get the whole troupe arrested were it performed.  In the end, Shagspeare's daughter suggests that perhaps a reworking of the discarded "Scottish play" would fit the bill, in effect an equivocation satisfies the Scottish king while allowing the Shagspeare to keep his integrity (and his skin).

Director Sean Graney, at the Victory Gardens Theatre, shapes this dense material into a compelling production, and the cast does a great job in multiple roles (and roles within roles), but the play could have used an editor. There's a wonderful sense of profusion in the first hour or so, as multiple threads of plot unwind, but in the last fifteen minutes so many loose ends are tied up that it's hard to keep track.  One of the weakest threads is that of Shagspeare's relationship with his daughter, and unfortunately that is the one with which Cain chooses to frame the story, rendering the end not quite satisfying.

Still, it's a thought-provoking play with many fine moments. 

10 September 2012

The Fall of the House of Usher, at The Hypocrites

I'm not an Edgar Allan Poe fan, so--although I am a fan of The Hypocrites--I was not expecting to be excited by this production. I quickly reread the source story before going to see the play: the narrator visits an old friend, Roderick Usher, the scion of a gloomy house (in both the literal and figurative sense); much the (physically and spiritually) worse since the narrator last saw him, and caring for a sister who is apparently dying. The narrator spends his time trying to cheer Roderick up, with poor results.  Gloom, gloom, gloom.  Roderick surprises the narrator with a request to help inter his sister, who has died.  Narrator notes that the sister's mysterious illness has left a bloom in her cheek.  Days pass, with the narrator continuing to try to cheer Roderick, now by reading Arthurian tales aloud. Strange sounds are heard. Terror.  The sister appears, escaped from her tomb (having been buried prematurely). She attacks Roderick, and somehow simultaneously kills Roderick, dies, and brings down the (literal) house of Usher, which crumbles. (The narrator, improbably, gets away unscathed.)

Sean Graney's adaptation entertainingly sends up this campy nonsense.  He takes Poe's overheated prose and puts it into the mouths of three major characters: the erstwhile narrator, here a formerly intimate female friend of Usher, Usher himself, and a maid, who serves as a narrative foil for the female friend when Usher is out of the room. Poe's prose as dialogue is typically ridiculous, and Graney amps up the absurdity by casting three female actors in the play's four roles (Usher's rarely seen sister is the fourth), and having the actors switch roles, sometimes at an astonishing rate.The "horror" atmosphere invoked by Poe's prose is continuously mocked--the word terror is winkingly repeated in stage-whispered asides. When a new character enters the set, everyone screams. And every time someone says the phrase "The House of Usher," howling is heard and the characters cower.  Toward the end of the play, the house starts to leak, another effect played for laughs.

There is plenty to make this show funny, and yet Graney's The Fall of the House of Usher is plenty creepy, too. The set is ingenious and gorgeous: an enclosed dark wood space with multiple doorways and scattered piles of old books that effectively conveys a decaying and deeply uncomfortable mansion.  There's something very creepy about the narrator's persistent attraction to Usher even after she sees his obviously pregnant sister float by (no question, really, about who the father is). There's also something creepy about her persistent cough, though its purported treatment, gin and lemons, is a source of repeated laughs. And everything about Usher is creepy, regardless of the actor who plays him.

Maybe all mysteries are creepy. By the end of the play, things we previously laughed at (the actors' quick changes, the dripping ceiling) are part and parcel of the horror Poe (and Graney) want us to feel--Madeline appears in a bloody nightgown (at this point all of the characters are wearing white nightgowns, and it's a credit to the production that you see nothing odd about Roderick Usher in a nightgown) and water is streaming down over the whole stage.

And nobody's laughing. Actors Tien Doman, Halena Kays, and Christine Stulik do a tremendous job bringing conviction to their multiple roles while balancing humor and horror to create astonished pleasure.

Idomeneus, by Sideshow Theatre

This world-premiere production of German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig's drama about what happened to the Cretan king who joined his forces with Agamemnon, Menelaus, and Odysseus in the Trojan War, is a surprisingly engaging meditation on what-might-have-been.

Homer has nothing too remarkable to say about Idomeneus. He was a doughty warrior, and even held his own against Hector, but the Iliad ends before he gets home. Later writers, including the fourth century Italian Maurus Servius Honoratus and the French 17th century writer François Fénelon took up the tale: Idomeneus, returning from Troy with 80 ships, is caught in a violent storm that destroys 79 of them, and threatens to destroy his own.  Desperate to save his life, he promises Poseidon, the sea god, to sacrifice the first creature he encounters when he reaches land.

Are warning bells going off?  A middling familiarity with mythology teaches us, Never make bargains with gods. Having never learned that lesson, Idomeneus arrives home, and the first creature he encounters is his own son, grown to manhood in his father's 10-year-absence.  Oath-bound to kill his son, he does so, avoiding the wrath of Poseidon, but incurring the wrath of the other gods. His country suffers from a mysterious plague, which the populace eventually connects with the king's return, and banishes him. 

Or he does not kill his son.  In another version of the story, Poseidon excuses him from this murder in exchange for abdication. A related story has Idomeneus' wife, Meda, seduced and murdered by Leucus, who takes the throne and chases Idomeneus away when he arrives. (In this story, Leucus seduced Meda on behalf of Nauplius, who bore a grudge against Idomeneus, Agamemnon, and Odysseus over the death of his son; Nauplius' revenge was to arrange for the three kings' wives to betray their husbands).

In any case, that something very, very bad happened to Idomeneus after he came home from the Trojan war feels very true and very Greek.

Why is that?  As my husband put it (and as Schimmelpfennig makes Idomeneus whine in his play), "It's not fair." The poor man spent 10 years at war, finally won (almost miraculously keeping his army and its followers intact), and--days from home or even nearer--is nearly overcome by a storm.  But since when are Greek gods fair?  Throughout the Trojan war, the gods also battled, under the banners of Aphrodite or Athena. We know, from Homer's Odyssey, how Odysseus suffered after the war. And we know, both from the Odyssey, and, vividly, from Aeschylus' Oresteia, how the gods on the Trojan side avenged themselves on Agamemnon. It would be surprising if Idomeneus came to a good end.

But the diversity of stories and sources, and their relative lack of authority (after all, Homer is silent on Idomeneus' return home) provide a terrific opportunity for Schimmelpfennig to offer his own vision. Rather than dramatize a single narrative, his Idomeneus uses the incantations of a Greek chorus to spin out multiple permutations of the Cretan king's story.  Individual and dual performers weave in and out of the chorus as they represent individual characters, who play, and replay, scenes from different perspectives. The production manages to strike a balance between emotional distance and commitment.  Contributing to distance are the refusal to stick with a particular version of the story, the mostly third-person storytelling, and occasional humor. Contributing to commitment are simple yet spectacular set (featuring a tidal wave made of wood that forms the backdrop of the production, and a sandbox in the foreground, representing the beach where Idomeneus lands), generally excellent acting, provocative and often moving gestures, and the emotional impact of the writing/translation itself.

The Sideshow Theatre has mounted an excellent production of an intriguing play.