A Big Book Roundup Part 1: Shakespeare Edition

Since I’m too lazy to write long individual reviews of a bunch of books I’ve gone through recently, I thought instead to compile them into a series of short blurbs like I did with some movies earlier. A bunch of these are audio books, since it makes my inevitable two hours daily in my car more worthwhile.

I don’t drive anywhere, I just sit in my car and listen to books. Just doing my part to SAVE THE PLANET.

Anyway – I’m always ready to go back in on the Shakespeare authorship conspiracy theory every now and then, and I can recommend a bunch of interesting books in this general area, as well as a couple I threw in there that analyze Shakespeare’s works in interesting ways.

Let’s start with Who Wrote Shakespeare? By John Mitchell, which evidently is sports talk guy Dan Patrick’s favorite book. Mitchell goes through a nice rundown of all the major authorship theories (Bacon, Marlowe, Oxford) as well as some others, and mostly winds up in the Oxford camp. His history of each candidate is readable and interesting, and makes a nice intro for people beginning to look into some of these theories.

If you want a well argued pro-Stratford-man-Shakespeare counterpoint, check out Contested Will by James Shapiro (audiobook), a Columbia prof of English lit who offers a wonderfully detailed history of how the authorship controversies developed, first in the nineteenth century with the Francis Bacon theories, and later with Oxford, Marlowe and others. But what really makes Shapiro’s book worth reading is how well he discusses the world of English theater and the nature of the professional writing life in Elizabethan times, and how a lot of the supposed illogical factoids on Shakespeare himself actually fit in well with how many of his contemporaries worked, published, earned money and the like. Shapiro must reject a lot of the idea that “all writing is autobiography” that drives many of the alternative author theories in order to arrive at his own arguments for Shakespeare himself, and even though I’m a doubter that Shakespeare wrote the material himself, I think Shapiro’s arguments describing the realities of Elizabethan playwright life are very compelling evidence.

Another book pursues a bona-fide mystery in the Shakespeare biography – what happened to his personal library? He must have had a large number of reference books for the material he wrote, especially since so much of it was based on earlier histories or classical plays. No evidence of a Shakespeare library exists anywhere, and he left no books to anyone in his will. Hmmm. So in Stuart Kells’ Shakespeare’s Library, (audiobook) Kells explores the history of the people who went searching for clues as to what happened to all those books, or whose books he may have actually used in his works (a patron? who knows) but this, again, winds up interweaving with the authorship question since the lack of this library casts doubt on Shakespeare as the author himself. Kells mostly writes about associates of his that follow the Henry Neville authorship theory (very well outlined in The Truth Will Out by Brenda James), but always comes back to the idea of hunting down evidence of the books themselves.

I liked Claire Asquith’s Shadowplay (an argument that Shakespeare was a secret Catholic sympathizer, evidence in his work, etc.), so I checked out her later book Shakespeare & The Resistance, (audiobook) where she offers a wonderfully detailed analysis of his early successful poems “Venus & Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece,” arguing that both poems are thinly disguised attacks on Henry VIII’s dissolution of church property & Elizabeth’s illegitimate reign over England. Asquith concludes her book with a nice description of the Essex Rebellion, arguing that Shakespeare was a supporter of the attempt to “Richard II” Elizabeth, basically. Not sure if I agree with her, but fascinating stuff.

I also enjoyed Stephen Greenblatt’s Tyrant: Shakespeare & Politics, (audiobook) where the lit prof author of Will In The World organizes an intersting analysis of many Shakespeare plays (mostly histories and tragedies) by categorizing the types of characters that surround tyrannical figures – bad kings, bad emperors, bad Greco-Roman main characters, etc. The only place I thought it broke down was in his final chapter on “Coriolanus” where the book becomes more along the lines of Greenblatt & Politics rather than Shakespeare. Greenblatt tries repeatedly to compare Coriolanus to Trump and the section sounds like a tangential rant during a college lecture of some tenured prof venting his own politics in front of passive undergrads. The Coriolanus-as-tyrant arguments are certainly sound, but they can be pinned to practically any American or foreign politico of your choice if you cherry pick whatever you don’t like about them. And that ought to be the point, since it was certainly Shakespeare’s. Since it came at the end of the listen, it took something away from the earlier chapters where Greenblatt sticks to the texts themselves and offers a very nice overall analysis of the way political commentary relating to Elizabethan and Jacobean times turns up in Shakespeare’s plays.

For this installment, I’ll throw in a tangentially related book I also listened to, A Hidden History of the Tower of London by John Paul Davis, (audiobook) an exhaustively detailed history of the Tower, its construction and renovations/additions, and every. single. major. execution. EVER! inside its walls. After a while, I wondered how there could be any Brit nobility left since all they did was kill each other, chopping heads off and good ol’ drawing and quartering. I guess that’s what happens when you have to wait hundreds of years for Jamie Oliver to come along and teach you how to cook.

Next up – books in other categories.

Some Super-Brief Movie Reviews

Since I’m still fried from a cross country trip, I won’t go into great detail on any of these, but here’s a batch of movies worth checking out, some recent, some old:

Old Henry (2021) – a very well made old fashioned straight-forward western, with a nice reveal that I’m ashamed of myself for not spotting earlier, and a terrific shoot-out at the end.

Last Night In Soho (2022) – another Edgar Wright entry that showcases both his strengths and weaknesses (my pet peeve is how he over-drags out his climactic payoffs, and that’s true here) but there’s some wonderfully creepy haunting imagery in this one which features Diana Rigg’s final screen appearance. A decent psychological thriller where a young fashion designer uncovers some rather unsavory secrets left over from the swingin’ ’60s Carnaby Street scene of yesteryear.

I got a bunch of Czech films from a friend of mine and am working my way through them – I started with Kolya (1996), a sweet comedy about a terminal bachelor who gets stuck with a kid after an arranged marriage for immigration purposes goes awry. The impressive thing here is how well this material is handled versus typical Hollywood formula where some dirty old man becomes superdad when getting stuck with a kid, etc. The same actor (Zdenek Sverak) and director (Jan Sverak, they are father and son) also made a wonderful film in 2007, Empties, about a teacher who quits his job and works in a market recycling used bottles while trying to keep his longtime marriage together. Both movies give you a great visual tour of Prague as well. Then I checked out Closely Watched Trains (1966), an excellent (if depressing) film set in World War 2 focusing on a train dispatcher’s apprentice and his experiences growing up during the war and what it did to Czechoslovakia. All 3 are worth checking out.

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (2021) – with CUMBERBATCH!!!! as artist Louis Wain, everyone’s favorite crazy cat man. Most of this film focuses on Wain’s mental illness and tries to present some sort of theory of the source of his issues from his family life and the death of his wife. The performances are good, but the film is very repetitive in Cumberbatch’s various breakdown episodes (as much as I like this guy as an actor, he’s getting typecast a LOT as mentally troubled geniuses), and it practically pushes his art into the background, whereas I went into it hoping that his art would be the focus. In case you don’t know about wain, he produced a ton of silly humanized cat characters doing silly human things, but has he got sicker, his art got more abstract and nearly psychedelic, yet still always based on cat designs. The fascinating thing about Wain is how he kept his artistic skills or even got better at them as his mental illness worsened.

Hmm… I wrote the most about the cat one…. that figures.

Movies Worth Seeing: The Sparks Brothers (2021)

Edgar Wright’s fan-boy documentary about Ron & Russell Mael, the brothers who comprise the long-running cult band Sparks, is a worthwhile view for anyone who has been a longtime fan of the band, and worthwhile for someone who has only a vague familiarity with a song or two, or has never heard of them.

The film advertises Sparks as “your favorite band’s favorite band,” and this sums up a lot of it – they have always been admired and held in awe by people within the music world for decades, largely since Sparks serves as a shining example of a music act that never really sold out commercially – they have changed their sound (somewhat) over the years (though they remain largely a synth rock/pop sound driven by Ron’s keyboards and Russell’s falsetto flourishes) – and whenever they had issued a commercial hit, it often led to them continuing to experiment with different line-ups, producers, or a general approach. Add to that an amazing consistency in clever and often humorous lyrics – decades worth, rivaling Zappa in the “prolific” category if not the genre experimentation category – and you can see why every one of your favorite bands holds them in such esteem. These guys have actually had the art-for-art-sakes career that every musician pines for.

Wright’s film traces the lives and careers of the brothers Mael in great detail, mixing tons of archival footage with present day interviews shot in black and white, as well as some animation. The film will certainly tell you the entire chronology of the band and its ups and downs as far as successful releases, change of record labels, and the different phases of their story.

It’s a fun ride – but Wright is so blinded by his love for the band that the film often becomes repetitive and leaves out a deeper examination of their music. Anyone who has followed the Maels’ career knows that they are very secretive about their personal and private lives, and prefer to present themselves to the public as the quirky-artsy music act they’ve been for all these years. Despite all the narrative we get in a music doc running two and a quarter hours – that’s all we’re STILL left with in the end – and that’s fine – but perhaps in those two and a quarter hours, we might find SOME room for deeper reflection and discussion of their music itself?

We get wisps of songs and videos the band has done – Wright picks most of their best work to showcase here – but he goes through all of it so quickly that we get no anchor, no key window into the ways that Ron writes these songs, or which of those songs he and Russell might have something to say about, in terms of why they got written in the first place. Not one song is presented in its entirety. This is a huge mistake.

Other music docs have run into problems with their subject – Taylor Hackford’s Chuck Berry doc Hail, Hail, Rock & Roll showcases a fantastic concert of all stars backing up Chuck, but Berry shut down any attempt during interviews that took the narrative into darker places, even if they were true. End of the Century: The Story of The Ramones went to those dark places – celebrating the music of the band and their enormous influence on other bands – but also presented the frustration and interpersonal problems the band went through. There are a lot of similarities in the Ramones’ story and Sparks – both bands never achieved the huge commercial success they had been touted for early on in their careers, but both bands influenced countless other bands and were viewed with awe by fellow musicians. The Ramones wanted that commercial fame – Sparks could care less.

The XTC documentary, This Is Pop, also dealt greatly with the commercial success versus artistic integrity issues and how they can rip a band apart – but the film makers managed to get Andy Partridge on camera discussing his composition method, and how his synaesthesia figures into it – and watching those few minutes suddenly made nearly every one of his songs make sense.

Wright gives us no such insight into what comprises the songwriting of the Maels. A few seconds of a song will be played, and some interviewee will comment on a lyric line or two – and that’s all. I really don’t care what Fred Armisen things of a Sparks lyric. I’d rather hear Ron Mael talk about where it came from. There is one moment when former band members reveal that the music would be written first with nonsense words, and the actual lyrics would come in at the last minute. Why not interview the Maels about this process? Is it the routine, since they prefer routine in their daily lives?

I’d rather hear it from them than the parade of cool-approved personalities telling us how much they love the band – Wright takes up far too much screen time with famous fans of the band all saying basically the same thing. I don’t care how much Patton Oswalt or Amy Sherman-Palladino or Mike Meyers love this band. I also don’t NEED their stamp of approval for me to like them either – and that’s probably the biggest flaw with this film. Wright’s interviews with their former band mates, producers and music industry people offer far more insight into the Sparks’ story than hearing the same “Oh those guys are so cool!” gushing from people we’re supposed to follow the tastes of.

More of the film should be about the music. Granted, 25 albums and hundreds of songs are a lot of ground to cover, but why not have the Maels pick a few of their favorites for closer examination, or find a way to feature those songs in their entirety in the film? Like I said, we get no song in its entirety at all. We’re told over and over again how brilliant this band is – and often by people totally unrelated to the production of music – but we are not allowed to listen to the evidence in depth. And we never get any sort of deeper reflection from the Maels, either via Wright’s interviews or in archival footage, on any of the songs themselves. It’s biggest hole in the film.

And I’ll admit that while I’m always happy to have a band like this out there, it’s not like I own a ton of their records and listen to them all the time. I like these guys a lot, but I’ve always found them to be more of an art-visual act rather than just music alone. Check out some of their videos on their youtube channel I link in a bit to see the totality of it all. Wright’s doc mentions their love of film and their near-misses in getting more involved with movies (although it looks like they have a soundtrack gig coming up). They’re not the obvious “art school band” that Devo or Talking Heads are, but they’ve gotca similar vibe. The synth-pop sound is okay to me, but not my passion – but this movie’s lack of depth for their music DID have me diving deep into youtube, (Here is a link to Sparks’ official youtube channel) listening to the songs of theirs I did remember pretty well, and then discovering their more recent material. And all of it was pretty good. I kept thinking more of it needed to be in the film.

So I recommend the movie on that level – it’s an overly long documentary that somehow manages to make you hungry enough for what it ought to be about.

Movies Worth Seeing: Pig (2021)

It’s been a while since I saw any new films worth recommending. But I’ve seen a couple in the past week worth your while.

First up is “Pig,” featuring Nicolas Cage searching for his stolen truffle pig. The film begins with Cage living a wilderness-man off-the-grid life in some deep woods, digging up truffles with his pig and selling them to someone who starts out looking to us as some yuppie asshole.

Cage is beaten and robbed of the pig later on – and since he has some inkling of who stole her, he treks to the city (Portland) to find her. In this journey, we’re brought into a bizarre underground world of chefs and chi-chi over-fancy Portlandia style overpriced gourmet bullshit as Cage tries to get his pig back.

And what makes the film truly work is that Cage doesn’t care about the truffles. He loves the pig.

The film is a long and slowly revealed character study of Rob (Cage) – little by little, we learn of his backstory and why he was out in those woods in the first place. As he pairs with that truffle buying yuppie asshole Amir (a wonderful Alex Wolff), we learn more about Amir’s backstory as well…. and how it intertwines in significant ways with Rob.

The trailer & some of Cage’s recent films (Mandy, Willy’s Wonderland, etc) would make you think the story would be a violent revenge bloodbath with Cage avenging his stolen pig – but this movie is a quiet and beautifully sad drama, mostly about loss, grief, and the power of memory to trap us into emotions. The ways in which the sensory experience of a wonderful meal can create and trigger such strong emotional memory figures strongly into the plotlines and character exposition. Wonderful interactions between Rob and people of his past, especially a former prep cook now a chef who crumbles under Rob’s brutal honesty, helps us see Rob’s rejection of the entire Portlandia gourmet scene much more clearly. And in those reconnections, we see the devestating toll of loss – not only the loss of a beloved pig pet, but of truth, of hopes and dreams, of plans, and ultimately of all human contact.

Cage plays his role beautifully – with the never ending stream of weird crap the guy makes, it’s always a good thing to be reminded what a great actor he can be. He’s great here – buried under facial wound make-up for the entirety of this film, and slowly building up his verbiage as the film goes on and he adjusts to the city after years alone (well, not really alone… he had his pig) in the woods.

Highly recommended!

The Yankees Suck & Nearly Everyone Should Be Fired ASAP

I can’t watch this team anymore. It’s too pathetic. They simply cannot hit and score runs. They hit into more double plays than anyone else. Their fielding sucks. There’s no fire and no passion.

Gone are the days when Derek Jeter enjoyed himself out there on a daily basis and won all the time. Gone is the winning attitude I remember from David Wells, who got pulled from a game where they led by something like 15-1 after he finally gave up a run in the 8th inning or thereabouts, and his response to being pulled was to smash the phone in the dugout because he wanted to finish the game.

What do we get now? Half the lineup hitting below .200 and it’s JUNE. Inning killing strikeouts & shrugs as they lumber back to the dugout going 0-for-4 day after day.

What other team would still have Gardner or Frazier or Odor in the lineup at this point? Why does the lineup change order with every game? Why do players continually suck or go on the injured list every other day?

All this crap began when Boone took over. He should be fired. Now. This minute. Right when you’re reading this sentence. If it were George and not Hal Steinbrenner running the team, he would have been canned after this disaster of a weekend sweep by the Tigers, one of the worst teams in the league (the Yankees currently challenging them for that title). But instead we get another in the endless series of post-game pressers where Boone discusses how he’ll figure it out at some point. Add a few “Gee, all the data says we should be better than this” moments and you can see what’s going on.

He won’t figure out shit. He sucks as a manager. And the analytics schmucks who keep handing him whatever math they’ve pulled out their asses are also part of the problem, since they’re the ones actually running things. They’re the ones who built a lineup of 21st century Dave Kingmans, who either hit a solo homerun since no one else can get on base, or far more often just strike out.

I’ve said before that the training & conditioning coaches/staff should all be fired due to the incredible frequency of injuries to the team, and that still stands. Add to them the hitting coach.

I’d start by firing manager & coaches and then seeing what happened with the performance of the team. If it kept going like this, I’d go beyond my earlier opinions on getting rid of Sanchez and blow the entire team apart.

The only bright spot has been the pitching. But when you score less than 3 runs in 29 of your first 50 games, that good pitching is going to be wasted in barely holding on to a .500 record, basically where they are right now. The only team in the majors with fewer runs in more games are the Pirates.

Next up are series with Tampa and then Boston. I hope they get swept by both and score next to nothing. I hope they suck bad enough in the next few weeks that Boone & the inept coaching staff are finally booted and things can turn around. If not, there’s no way a team that came within a game of getting into the World Series before being cheated out of it will get that far again for the foreseeable future.

These games are painful to watch. And after a bullshit 60 game season and with covid bullshit finally ending, it’s even more painful to finally get baseball back with live crowds growing and have to watch a Yankee team that’s reminding me of the mid 80s group that always looked good on paper in April but sucked once things got going and wasted any strong performances by their best players like Mattingly then or Gerrit Cole now.


Kentucky Derby 2021 Predictions

Seems like we did this last fall, didn’t we? Back on its regular schedule for 2021, and your humble prognosticator has some picks. I hit my exotics last September, so maybe I’ll continue my hot streak.

And as a bonus, I’ll be betting the Pick 6 and Pick 4 sequences culminating with the Derby, and also offer my picks on those races as well. Feel free to bet along with me if you also enjoy losing money.

In the Derby, the current favorite is 14 Essential Quality, whose numbers are somewhat better than the nearest competitors, but this is FAR from a slam-dunk. The horse he nosed out in the Bluegrass a month ago, 17 Highly Motivated, well, will be highly motivated to win this time, and looks to be in somewhat better form from the works. I’d look for those two to be dueling down the stretch, and a strong late closer who might outrun ’em both at that point could be 15 Rock Your World. Any one of those three, I’d figure, is the best bet to win.

Filling out my exotics will be 9 Hot Rod Charlie, sort of a question mark since he ran his best (and most recent) race with a different trainer. Doug O’Neil has won big races & the Derby before, but his record lately isn’t as strong. But I still like the odds of this one finishing third or fourth, and I’d include him in trifectas and supers. I also think 8 Medina Spirit is another horse in this category – not quite fast enough to win, but fast enough to sneak in there at third or fourth. Normally I would have rated 1 Known Agenda higher, but I really think the rail position will screw him. There are a bunch of slower horses in positions 2 through whatever who start faster than he does, and I could easily see him getting boxed out of position for most of the race. Normally he might have made my cut for possible winner, but I can only see him maneuvering out of traffic to possibly only come in third or fourth. So another one for the exotics.

We have a twenty cent Pick 6 sequence of all stakes races leading up to the big race, so here goes:

Race 7: In the Derby City Distaff, the overwhelming favorite is 4 Gamine, and I can’t see a good argument for anyone else. If there’s any reason he gets scratched, I’ll go with 3 Bell’s The One, but I’ll single Gamine here.

Race 8: In the Pat Day Mile, I like the 3 Jackie’s Warrior and the 8 Dream Shake.

Race 9: Also the start of a Pick 4, the American Turf Stakes, and I like the 4 Annex and the 13 Scarlett Sky. The 1 Excellent Timing, intrigues me a bit and I’ll include him on the Pick 4 and not my Pick 6. He’s fast and undefeated (good), but he’s never been at this class level or on turf (iffy).

Race 10: In the Churchill Downs Stakes, I like 9 Whitmore and 4 Flagstaff, along with 3 Basin as my longshot to add to the Pick 4.

Race 11: The Turf Classic gave me the most grief. A lot of horses can win this one, I kept going over it and going over it again and kept coming up with different groups, so I keep wondering if this is a race that’ll kill all my tickets…. but in any case, I think I’ll go with the 5 Domestic Spending and the 7 Smooth Like Strait in my Pick 6 and throw in the 9 Ride A Comet, the 3 Colonel Liam and possibly last fall’s winner of this race, the 6 Digital Age, in the Pick 4. All the horses have very similar numbers. The 5 and 7 are slightly better and came in 1 and 2 by a neck at Del Mar, so here’s looking at a rematch, I guess. But this one might need some editing.

I might edit the tickets Saturday… the pick 4 looks a little fat and the pick 6 a little thin, but whatever.

Your mileage may vary.

No, I Really Don’t Care

No predictions. Won’t be watching. Did not see ANY of the nominees. None. Zero. Zilch.

I may in the future, but a lot of ’em sound pretty yawn-worthy.

It’s an asterisk year.

Okay, one prediction: the awards will be given out largely on the basis on politics more than any other previous year.

Another reason not to bother.

A Brief Nature Walk

I took a break from overdosing on college basketball & watching my bracket go POOF today with a walk to a nearby ‘hood with a duck pond.

Signs everywhere implore people not to feed the little bastards, but as soon as I knelt down to take the above pic, this trio waddled towards me rather aggressively since I’d clearly given them the “Big scary monkey is about to give us free food” body language. Everyone must feed them since they’re so damn cute! This made me wonder about all the non-cute animals people don’t feed – spiders, wolverines, possums…. or the coyotes wandering my neighborhood (unless they leave their pets outside, I guess).

I had no food, so that big brown one on the left took it upon himself to try eating my hand. He gave up after two pecks. I guess I don’t taste good. I didn’t try to pat him.

They don’t want affection. They just want a handout, those cold unfeeling duck whores. No wonder Scrooge McDuck never got married.

Along with the assorted varieties of ducks, there are also Canadian Geese who also have absolutely no fear of people. This big ol’ dude didn’t care how close I got to snap his picture. At least he didn’t immediately switch into food-begging mode like those panhandling ducks.

Biggest cat toy ever, I thought.

But Canadian Geese have a nasty disposition. I’ve seen them attack each other, attack other birds or ducks, or even refuse to get out of the way of golfers on fairways. They’re just pricks.

There are also turtle families along the pond.

They go in and out of the water all day, alternately sunning themselves to warm up, and then back in the water to chase whatever fish the pond is stocked with. They sit so still in the sun you’d think they were decorative sculptures.

Turtles don’t turn up much in art either. While painters in history have loved to capture the look and texture of birds, ducks, waterfowl of all sorts (never mind all sorts of other animals), you won’t find a lot of turtles or tortoises in nature paintings.

But you’ll find ducks, especially in the works of Alexander Koester, a German naturalist artist of the turn of the last century who painted ducks nearly as much as Louis Wain painted cats. Koester had a nice quasi-impressionist style, and painted a ton of groups-of-ducks-on-water works. They must have been popular.

This one is typical – “Ducks At Lakeshore”

I bet none of them tried to bite Alexander.

I’m using ground turkey in my pasta sauce tonight, now that I’m home and settled in to watch more basketball, as well as “The Shadow of the Cat” on tonight’s Svengoolie.

Maybe the duck knew that. Maybe he was buds with the turkey. Maybe it was personal. Hmmm….

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