Shakespeare on Toast by Ben Crystal

Shakespeare on Toast: Getting a Taste for the Bard
Ben Crystal
2016 edition

If the number of copies available in the state of Ohio is anything to go by, Shakespeare on Toast isn’t an overwhelmingly popular title. My local library didn’t have a copy, but fortunately—back in January when everything was still open—it was easily requestable from outside the system, as it has turned out to be one of the most valuable Shakespeare resources I’ve yet come across. Indeed, I’m tempted to say, “the only Shakespeare aid you’ll ever need!” although that might be overstating the case a bit. (After all, you’ll probably still need at the very least a dictionary.) But it does prove a very helpful resource, all shared in a light breezy style.

Crystal’s enthusiasm for his topic shines through the entire book, from his introduction of Shakespeare’s times in Act 1 to the more technical dissection of Shakespeare’s language and style in Acts 4 and 5. His excitement is such that at times while I read, I felt an impulse to read the complete works, immediately.  (Other obligations have prevented this, however.) He is not interested in who Shakespeare was (the authorship question is glanced over; Crystal considers it unimportant) but what he achieved. We are first given context for the times: what was Elizabethan theatre like? The staging, the costumes, the audience? Then the continued and universal relevance of the plays is touched on, before Crystal takes us into the heart of the matter, starting with the characters:

Many people hold that the main reason why Shakespeare has become so universally thought of as just plain brilliant is because of the characters he wrote. It wouldn’t be my first reason (which we’re coming to), but without doubt, he had a way of creating memorable and pretty fantastic characters that make most other writers’ creations seem amateur. (62)

Shakespeare’s characters are doubtless memorable. It is the reason I’ve seen previously for why Shakespeare was so great. It’s not a bad reason, but Crystal sees even more, and in laying out his explanation of Shakespeare’s genius, I feel like for the first time, I’ve finally been given a reason to understand why, of all the playwrights that have ever lived, it is Shakespeare that we continue to hold in high esteem.

There’s a growing number of people who feel that you can get rid of the Olde language, make it all fresh and modern, and it’ll stay the same.
It won’t, of course. Part of the problem with Shakespeare’s plays, as we saw earlier, is that the stories aren’t original. Nor are they flawless. Translate, update, adapt Shakespeare’s writing, and all you’re really left with is the story. Take the poetry away, and you very quickly realise you’re pulling at a piece of string that will make everything unravel. (79-80)

Starting with Act 3, Crystal lays out his argument that it is Shakespeare’s language that makes him truly great. At the same time, he shows us how to approach Shakespeare – not merely by reading the words on the page, but by understanding how Shakespeare used his dialogue to direct the actors and the settings, to convey meaning not merely through word choice and meter but through how he chose to disrupt the patterns.

This is the key to Shakespeare. Not in understanding Shakespeare – I hope I’ve made it clear that you can understand and enjoy Shakespeare without learning these literary terms and conceits – but in owning Shakespeare. Because what he did with this very popular style of poetry, this type of metre, was revolutionary.
He turned it on its head, made it do things that other writers didn’t, twisted it and played with it and broke every single one of the rules I’ve just explained to you, improvising like a great jazz player. (129)

Crystal is a Shakespearean actor and approaches his topic from that perspective. But instead of just privileging the performance over the written word, he provides his readers the tools to approach Shakespeare from the actor’s perspective—to allow us to see the play even when a staged version isn’t available. He also makes a compelling case for the First Folio as the edition of choice – despite its archaic spellings and mistakes. After all, it is the edition that was made by the actors who had performed Shakespeare’s plays with Shakespeare – and if anyone knew how to convey Shakespeare’s actual meaning it should be them.

There is also a brief discussion of the Sonnets, part of the larger explanation of meter. I imagine even the most basic high school classes cover iambic pentameter and English sonnet form in their units on Shakespeare; but mine certainly didn’t tell me this: Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets and only one of them is in pure iambic pentameter. One of 154! Crystal compares Shakespeare to a jazz great, improvising on a theme. A friend of Crystal’s believes the reason Shakespeare wrote exactly 154 sonnets is because that is the greatest number of syllables a sonnet can contain. Who knows if it’s true, but it’s a fascinating idea to consider, and one I find greatly intriguing.

In the last portion of the book (excluding appendix-type material, here called “Props”), Crystal dives into a close read of a part of Act 2, Scene 2 from Macbeth. We see him apply the tools he’s educated us in, and the scene bursts to life. I can feel the tension, even without a recollection of what the full context is. This is what Crystal’s goal is, to enable those of us who are reading, rather than attending, a play to fully engage in it, even if we can’t see physical actors before us, and to enable us to own Shakespeare for ourselves. He leave us with one final bit of advice – and encouragement:

Despite the fact that he was as human, flawed and fallible as the rest of us, the one rule that has always guided me straight and true with a tricky bit of Shakespeare is this:

     There is always a reason for it.

No matter how complicated, no matter how ostensibly random, how annoying, boring or just plain bad a scene or a line appears to be, there is always a reason for it being there.
You just have to find out what it is.
And I promise: the search is always worth it. (259-260)

Completed Pioneer Girl

Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography
Laura Ingalls Wilder
2014 (posthumous), written c. 1929-30, U.S.
Pamela Smith Hill, ed.

I realized that I had seen and lived it all–all the successive phases of the frontier, first the frontiersman then the pioneer, then the farmers and the towns. Then I understood that in my own life I represented a whole period of American history.
Laura Ingalls Wilder, Detroit Book Fair Speech, p. 2

PioneerGirlI’ve been putting it off long enough, but if I don’t simply sit down now and scribble out some thoughts about Pioneer Girl, it’s never going to happen. Well, that is, unless I read it again some time—which I suppose is possible, but not likely in the near future.

Pioneer Girl is the unedited—even the misspellings are left—first draft of a memoir by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and in a sense is the first draft of what would become her well-known Little House children’s novels. Written in the early 1930s, she had hoped to publish it for an adult audience, recognizing that her experiences growing up in the American pioneer west were an important element of U.S. history. No publisher bit; however, and instead she was encouraged to transform it into what would become a beloved children’s series.

The children’s novels were fictionalized accounts of her childhood and youth, but reading Pioneer Girl and its copious annotations, one becomes aware of just how much fact there really was in the fiction. Yes, multiple characters may have been compressed into one, events omitted or simplified, but the core of the story was real. These events happened to Wilder and her family—the moving, the droughts, the locusts, the illnesses, the wildfires, the blizzards, the railroads, the town-building. Looking back on these, not with the innocence of a child reading “adventures” but the awareness of an adult—plus the added insights provided by the annotations—it is abundantly clear that the pioneers (in a long tradition of immigrants and migrants the world over) faced odds and difficulties that would be unimaginable to most of us today, in our comfortable Western lifestyles.

Interestingly—and despite this—I felt that the style of Pioneer Girl was actually more akin to a children’s book than the adult story it was initially peddled as. True, Wilder included anecdotes that did not make the pages of her fictionalized children’s series—divorces, affairs, alcoholism—but the tone was not unlike that of her novels. I wonder if perhaps this was behind her difficulty in seeing it published? Or was the style par for the course at the time? I am not well-enough versed in the literature and magazine writing of the late 1920s/early 1930s to know.

In truth though, reading Pioneer Girl seems to mostly be an exercise in reading an artifact. It is a draft, and Wilder has not yet polished the prose or the timelines. A number of the annotations deal with the edits made by her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, in the process of submitting for publication, edits which I’m not always convinced improve on the original. But reading about the process—the annotations often include quotes from letters between the two authors—is interesting, a window into the workings between an author and editor. It is all the more interesting given the debate as to how much of the Little House books is Wilder and how much is Lane.

The other important aspect of Pioneer Girl is that the annotations allow the reader to better contextualize the times Wilder grew up (and was writing) in. For instance, although I’ve always felt that Wilder’s treatment of Native American characters was more nuanced than some 21st century readers give her credit for, looking at her writing from a 2015 perspective can sometimes give pause—is she endorsing a stereotype? The annotations lead us to ask rather, what formed her worldview, and limited her from seeing something in the same way we see it today, and what limits our worldview so we don’t see something with the same eyes she saw it?

For fans of the Little House books, Pioneer Girl is mostly familiar, sometimes surprising, and always a reminder that history is lived by ordinary people, not just great ones. Little could Wilder have imagined when she first put pencil to paper how her legacy would still have a hold, well over 100 years after the events she described.

Completed: Thirteen Seconds: Confrontation at Kent State

Cover - Thirteen Seconds: Confrontation at Kent StateThirteen Seconds: Confrontation at Kent State
Joe Eszterhas and Michael D Roberts
1970, U.S.

Later in his speech [chaplain John Simons] said, “It seems to me that one of the faults of the older generation is their tendency to duck crucial issues for all generations. The younger generation is naïve, life is not that simple, but the elders run from change by placing the responsibility for every rocky event on some Communist conspiracy. The older generation that wields power now has sold out to its fear of Communism. Perhaps the middle generation can gain the power and achieve the maturity which is not afraid of criticism or change. If we do not, life will go on as usual–there will be more Kents and Jacksons and Vietnams and Cambodias and with each new horror the solid middle America will become smaller and smaller until there is nothing left but two unspeaking and unspeakable extremes tearing the guts out of this great country. If you are part of those extremes, get lost. I hope that you see Kent as an avoidable tragedy, not something you secretly longed for. Four young lives were lost that day and for a while one of our four freedoms was lost. Those lives are irretrievable. That freedom of assembly is retrievable.” (Ch. 10)

I’ve lived nearly my entire life (excepting four months in Italy) in Northeast Ohio. I earned my architecture degrees from Kent State. Somehow, it seems I’ve known about May 4–which is how I always think of the Kent State Shootings (among other names), just those two words of a date–for as long as I can remember. We discussed it in my high school government class. Every day I was at university, I walked past the markers, memorializing the locations where four students died. So for me, the knowledge of May 4 has always been there. I don’t have any perspective on what those far away know, are taught, though. Are high school students, studying Vietnam and the anti-war protests given more than a sentence, that at an anti-war rally at Kent State, May 4, 1970, four students were killed and nine injured (one paralyzed from the waist down)? Is Jackson State ever mentioned? Has Kent mostly been relegated to forgotten history books? After all, the book I read on the topic is only available in e-format (unless, as I did, you find a library copy).

It was strange, in a way, to read this book. It is the first time I’ve ever read a real-life narrative where I haven’t had to look for a map or search for images of the events–I knew the map already. The central part of campus where the events of May 4 took place has changed little since 1970, outside of a controversial annex to the gymnasium building. The current (soon to be former) architecture building overlooks Blanket Hill, from which the National Guard fired. The only building I couldn’t picture was the ROTC building, burned to the ground on May 2. Even the first violence that happened in the lead-up to May 4, in downtown Kent–that scene too, I could visualize, for it happened on the street where I currently work. (Although there has been much more change to the architecture of this street.)

Thirteen Seconds was begun in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, as Eszterhas and Roberts  were sent by their then-employer, the Cleveland Plain Dealer to the campus to cover the events. They spent three months interviewing many who had been there as well as friends and relatives of the victims. It was published before the end of the year, which gives it an immediacy that a later book might not have, but also means that there isn’t a perspective of looking back after many years. Not that this might mean anything in this instance; the events of that day are still controversial–no one has ever determined conclusively why the National Guard opened fire on the students. A reel-to-reel recording of the events (made by a student in one of the adjacent dorms) was analyzed in 2010 by audio experts and in 2012 by the FBI, but differing conclusions were reached as to just what the recording revealed–perhaps nothing.

This uncertainty and the confusion are represented well in the ninth chapter of Thirteen Seconds, “Monday, May 4”–Eszterhas and Roberts report conflicting accounts and perspectives from students and guardsman. It was the single most gripping chapter of the book–even though I knew what the outcome was, that events went so terribly wrong, I didn’t want to put it down once I had started. From the inexplicable maneuverings of the Guard (one of the witnesses interviewed, a Vietnam vet, couldn’t understand why one group of guardsmen moved where they did, tactically) to the conflicting witness statements to the tense post-shooting moments when a pair of university professors talked the remaining protestors–now shocked and further angered–into dispersing, it was intense reading.

Ezterhas and Roberts never lay blame–they are reporting on events, and on the lives of those impacted. Yet reading over the background leading up to May 4, it felt inevitable to me that something would happen. Tensions were way too high: the town was frightened, the National Guard were exhausted, the students were furious over the presence of the Guard, and bayonets were already fixed and guns already loaded. But the split–the divide between the students and those who thought the Guard were in the right, that they should have killed more–that is what really surprised me, what I couldn’t understand*. I didn’t really know any more about who the Weatherman were than a name; I didn’t have a context for the extreme fear felt by the town after a street party turned looting, which led the Mayor to call the Governor for assistance. Thirteen Seconds began to give me this context, providing background for the events, both on-campus and -off, leading up to the May protests. I still feel like I would like to investigate more, not just about the events at Kent, but about the late 60s/early 70s in general. It is an era I know little about, yet it seems that it must have been a time of great fear and conflict.

Two anecdotes to end with. I was sitting at my desk one morning this spring when one of the bosses walked over to look out the window at the gorgeous day. “I wonder if the daffodils are in bloom on Blanket Hill,” he said. I didn’t know, remarking that I haven’t been on that part of campus since I graduated. He then told me he has a difficult time going on campus around the start of May: he was friends with one of the students who was killed–a student who wasn’t even protesting, but just passing through. Some few days later, May 5, I was sitting at my desk eating lunch and browsing the internet when the phone conversation of another coworker caught my ear. “I was angry for many years.” “I just wish we knew what happened.” “I feel like we could talk.” He hung up his phone, and looked across the desks at me to comment–he was just talking to a former client, who had been there that day, as a guardsman, while he was a student. They had only just found out that the other had been there that day, on the opposite side. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that history happens to real people.

The NPR station affiliated with Kent State has a website devoted to the events of May 4 and its aftermath, HERE, which includes an award-winning radio documentary.

*I was also really surprised to learn both how small the city of Kent and the University were in the 1950s and how quickly both grew post-WWII. But it explains the look of the campus.

Completed: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

QuietQuiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking
Susan Cain
2012, U.S.

Like many book bloggers, I am an Introvert. A top-notch one, in fact–there’s been time I’ve thought I’d make a good hermit. Although I perhaps like to talk too much… (which I admit, doesn’t sound particularly introverted, but let’s keep in mind it’s not that introverts don’t like talking, it’s the small talk, the pointless stuff, that we have trouble with–focusing way too much on a specific topic is much more in line with our inclinations). So I was intrigued when Susan Cain’s book on the topic came out, even if I didn’t rush to read it right away.

I’ve seen a lot of bloggers state things to the effect that they found affirmation in this book, that it let them believe that they could be who they truly are. Although I had a lot of “oh, that explains it!” moments while reading this, I never really felt that sort of affirmation–but then again, I have just enough of a “who cares” attitude that being an introvert in an extroverted world hasn’t much bothered me. Sure, there’ve been times I wished I was more outgoing–it certainly can make certain social situations much easier, but outside of my previous job, I’d never felt that I was out of place. (Regarding that previous job there seemed to have been too much emphasis on personality rather than competence–which, no, didn’t really work for them in the big picture.)

There were two things that surprised me about reading Quiet. First, I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed reading this sort of thing. I’m not really sure, but I believe it could be classified as “popular psychology,” and AP psychology was one of my (many) favorite classes in high school. We read several selections from Forty Studies That Changed Psychology: Explorations into the History of Psychological Research as part of our required summer reading, selections I enjoyed so much I read several of the others.  Second, I was surprised to find myself at times dismayed by some of the consequences of favoring extroversion, that is the “Extrovert Ideal.” I don’t just mean making introverts feel sidelined or out-of-step, but actual negative consequences:

  • The cult of personality that developed in the U.S. in the first part of the 20th century appears to have led in part to high rates of use of anti-anxiety medications
  • The extrovert ideal has led to developments in both classrooms and the workplace that favor teams and “team building”–while teamwork is not necessarily bad (and on big projects may be downright necessary–see: all those work deadlines of late), it leads to “group think”–team brainstorming has been shown to be less creative than individual brainstorming.
  • Extroverts are far more likely to take big risks. Although we’ve all heard the phrase “high risk, high reward,” risk-taking can go much too far: ignoring clear warnings in favor of going for the big win. At least one expert believes it was the extrovert ideal (which pushed introverts in finance to behave like extroverts) that led to the 2008 financial crash.

Then there’s this interesting exchange Cain had:

 “We want to attract creative people,” the director of human resources at a major media company told me. When I asked what she meant by “creative,” she answered without missing a beat. “You have to be outgoing, fun, and jazzed up to work here.” (Chapter 3)

Yeah. That’s the definition of creative.

That isn’t to say that introversion = good; extroversion = bad. Not at all. Rather, each has their place, but we (in the U.S. at least, perhaps the Western culture in general) seem to be skewed out of balance  at the moment. Cain provided an example of balance–and the need for both introversion and extroversion–in Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Parks, an introvert could sit on a bus and show up to civil rights events, but she wasn’t a speaker. The extroverted King could use Parks as an example to rally the crowds. Both were needed, in balance.

Some other, random thoughts:

  • I hadn’t made the connection between extroversion and the contemporary-style worship service. Here I’d thought my discomfort was related to music preferences, or, in some instances, a sense of “falseness” to the whole thing. But as a dyed-in-the-wool introvert, it makes sense I don’t like this style of worship. (And I still don’t like any song, religious or secular, that primarily consists of the same few words over and over and over again.)
  • I was appalled by the section on the Harvard School of Business. If they are truly teaching their students “Don’t think about the perfect answer. It’s better to get out there and say something than to never get your voice in,” (Chapter 2) it is no wonder that we have so many lousy CEOs. Sure, aggression may win points in battle, but studies that shown that introverts make more effective leaders. Probably because they know how to listen!
  • I was kind of surprised to learn that people think that those who talk more are more intelligent. Has no one ever heard “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”?

All in all a rather fascinating book, and probably a good choice for extroverts wishing to better understand introverts. In some ways, I almost feel it should be required reading–it certainly seems a greater acceptance of introversion could make life better for introverts and extroverts alike. As with so many things, a balance.

(If you are curious, Cain presented a TED talk in 2012.)

Completed: Tea with Jane Austen

Tea with Jane AustenTea with Jane Austen
Kim Wilson
2004, U.S.

OK, I confess up front: I read this more for the tea than the Austen! Does that make me a bad participant in Adam’s Austen in August? Yes? Then perhaps I should cave to temptation and re-read Northanger Abbey after all. Or Mansfield Park. No, Pride and Prejudice. No,….

Well, that aside, I think there is plenty in Tea with Jane Austen for fans of both tea AND Austen. Wilson’s book is not a comprehensive history of tea nor a biography of Austen, but rather a glimpse into daily life of those living in the Georgian and Regency eras, framed by the history of Austen herself.

Given the strong association of the British and tea to this day, it is no surprise to learn that Austen and her contemporaries were mad about tea. What is perhaps more surprising is realizing that it was only a relatively new beverage to the British. (Ditto for coffee and chocolate.) It wasn’t until the Europeans started exploring and conquering other nations that they were introduced to beverages from the Middle East, South America, and–most importantly for this book–Asia. What seems so quintessentially British today was once a novelty–and for some time even considered by some to be a dangerous drink!

Some Britons viewed tea’s growing popularity with disfavor, sneering at is as unmanly, untraditional, and un-British…. One particularly indignant fellow wrote a furious letter to Gentleman’s Magazine, claiming tea caused feebleness, cowardice, poor blood, barren women, and dissatisfied servants.

p. 57

Of course, much of the objection to tea turns to have come from those whose income was negatively impacted by its growing popularity–that is, brewers.

By the day of Austen, however, tea was firmly ensconced in English society–so much so that it was both highly taxed and highly smuggled. Interestingly, to me, and likely to anyone reading novels from the Georgian and Regency eras, is the meaning that was given to tea in literature:

In each novel, tea is used by the author as a sign of character: to know and approve of tea aligns one with civilization, and, by implication, with the good and the right. Those who spurn tea are backward and unenlightened at best; their rejection of it may even be a sign of doubtful morals. It’s hard to argue with such logic.

p. 46

Indeed, as a tea lover myself I find it hard to argue with such logic!

But Wilson doesn’t limit herself to talking just about tea. Rather, tea forms the framework for the book, which is divided into chapters according to the different meals served with tea or the different locations where tea might have been offered. Thus we learn what tasty treats might have been served for breakfast or at a dance–modernized recipes even included. (Although, I find it difficult to convince myself that any recipe involving both one pound of butter AND twelve eggs is a good idea.) And all those confusions of meal times are explained: why can Elizabeth Bennett leave home after breakfast to find the Bingleys still sitting at theirs, despite what must have been at least an hour between?

I rather enjoyed this breezy and informative little read. Best served with a cup of good breakfast tea–fresh brewed from loose leaves, hot and strong, of course!

(Bonus: This is my second completed (first blogged) book for the 2013 TBR challenge.)