Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Recent Reading

Here are some thoughts pertaining to some books I've read of late:

:: I often find biographies a mixed bag, as a reading interest. Autobiography is something special, but generic biographies can be tough. Even the most interesting of lives can be rendered dull and uninspiring in the hands of a dull writer; conversely, a life that wouldn't strike anyone as especially notable can, when told by a skilled biographer, become utterly fascinating. In the latter category falls David Michaelis's new biography of Charles M. Schulz, Schulz and Peanuts.

It's a long and exhaustive book, providing great amounts of detail as to the life of the great cartoonist, gleaned from Michaelis's access to Schulz's private papers and his work in contacting the people central to Schulz's life (the ones still alive, at any rate). Schulz lived a long and fruitful life, growing up in St. Paul (with a brief interlude in Needles, California). He had troubles in school. He was socially awkward, fiercely competitive, and (obviously) artistically gifted. He would serve in the Army in World War II, work for an art-lessons-by-mail firm, and eventually create the most famous newspaper comic strip in history. In chronicling this life in fairly impressive detail, Michaelis makes Sparky Schulz come alive. As the book went on, I felt that I was coming to know the great cartoonist. (This is odd in itself, given that a theme of the book is that Schulz was a hard person to get to know in real life.)

The book's masterstroke is the inclusion of many strips from the fifty-year run of Peanuts. The strips are selected with care, with each one providing a window through which we gradually realize just how much of Schulz's daily life informed the strip over its run. Anecdotes from Schulz's life, wisdom from his parents, his fascination with the movie Citizen Kane, his love of classical music: all that and much more made its way into the strip. Schulz knew several Charlie Brown's in his life, and his mother had once mentioned "Snoopy" as a prospective name for their next dog. Peanuts the comic strip, it turns out, is far more indicative of Schulz's inner world than I ever realized before.

This is one of the best biographies I have read. (I wish I could quote from the book, but I've already returned it to the library. I did post on the subject of the early Peanuts strips here a couple of years ago, however. Here's a review of the book by Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson.)

:: Bill Bryson, one of my newer favorite authors (by which I mean newer to me, not new as in a new author), has penned a brief life of Shakespeare, helpfully titled Shakespeare: The World as Stage. I enjoyed this book for what it was: a biography of the Bard for those who aren't really looking for anything exhaustive. The book is an entry in a series called "Eminent Lives", which consists of "great writers on great figures, short biographies perfect for an age short on time". At just under two hundred pages, this is exactly what the label entails.

In reading this book, I got the sense that frustration awaits anyone who tries to conclusively nail down the factual particulars of Shakespeare's life. The unfortunate fact is that very little is known of the Bard and of his life, aside from the works he left behind, most of which would have undoubtedly been lost if not for the efforts of those who produced the First Folio. Bryson addresses this paradox thusly:

It is because we have so much of Shakespeare's work that we can appreciate how little we know of him as a person. If we had only his comedies, we would think him a frothy soul. If we had just the sonnets, he would be a man of darkest passions. From a selection of his other works, we might think him variously courtly, cerebral, metaphysical, melancholic, Machiavellian, neurotic, lighthearted, loving, and much more. Shakespeare was of course all these things – as a writer. We hardly know what he was as a person.

Since so little is known of Shakespeare's life directly, Bryson instead gives a compelling portrait of life in Elizabethan London and the atmosphere that confronted an actor and playwright in that period. Bryson also includes a chapter in which he strenuously attacks the notion that someone other than William Shakespeare penned the works now attributed to him.

Of course, the best way to get to know Shakespeare is not by reading about Shakespeare but by simply reading Shakespeare, but for a casual reader looking to place Shakespeare in some general context, this book suffices well enough.

:: Taking my own advice from the paragraph immediately above this one, I've started brushing up my Shakespeare, beginning with Macbeth. I last read this play in my junior year of high school, and it was the play that really started convincing me that maybe this Shakespeare guy wasn't just some long-winded poof who couldn't just have people say what they meant. I know, I know, the man wrote drama and as such it's meant to be experienced as drama -- not read but 'seen', in other words – but I like reading him. I'm halfway through Act II right now, and it partially amuses me that Macbeth seems to be willing to go along with the whole plan just because some witches and his wife say so.

(On a tangential note, is there such a thing as a Complete Shakespeare that isn't at least three inches thick? I'm thinking of the way Bibles are printed, on that hyper-thin paper so that the thing can be carried around without causing back strain or so that it can fit into a normal book bag that is also containing other books. My King James Bible is only an inch thick; is there a Complete Shakespeare that accomplishes the same task? Anyone?)

:: On a lighter note, I enjoyed Bill Geist's book Way Off the Road: Discovering the Peculiar Charms of Small-Town America. Geist is a long-time fixture on CBS Sunday Morning, doing the kind of commentaries on out-of-the-way places that used to be Charles Kuralt's stock in trade. This is the kind of book where one learns of an Iowa town that holds a festival every year on the Summer Solstice, for on that day, the sun sets exactly in the center of the town's railroad tracks. Or the town at the bottom of the Grand Canyon whose mail is delivered via mule train. Or the town whose claim to fame is that many years ago there a chicken was beheaded but lived on for eighteen months afterward. Or the town in Oklahoma where virtually every bomb used by the US military is manufactured.

In a key bit of wisdom referring to the town of Dyersville, Iowa, where the "Field of Dreams" ballpark-in-the-corn can be found (upon which I've walked!), Geist writes:

The most famous line from the movie is "If you build it, he will come," most often quoted as "If you build it, they will come," and which I've found to be true about 90 percent of the time. Towns build goofy museums and people come. They build biblically themed miniature golf courses, where I got a hole in one on Noah, and people come. They build whole domed stadiums on spec, and professional baseball teams come. Everybody's looking for something.

How true is that.

More reading to come. I like the reading!


Anonymous said...

I have read three of Bill Bryson's books. I loved them all. I'm not sure why I haven't read more. My favorite: The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way

Roger Owen Green said...

I always like watching the Bill Geist pieces. It's the kind of gig I could get into myself.