KimMiE” ’s #CBR5 Review #6: The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips

Tragedy of Arthur

Early in the novel The Tragedy of Arthur, protagonist Arthur Phillips describes what motivated his father (Arthur Phillips, Sr.) to trick the world into believing that the crop circles he created in the middle of the night with the help of his two young children were the work of aliens. “To astonish. To add to the world’s store of precious possibility. To set the record crooked once and for all, so that someone’s life (some stranger’s) was not without wonder.” Whether you find that sentiment poignant and beautiful or simply BS is at the heart of The Tragedy of Arthur.

Arthur Phillips, author and son, grew up being constantly let down by his father, a con-man who sees the scams he perpetuates almost as a service to the world. (To complete the quote above, “It almost seems like a charitable act, if you subtract his ego.”) He is in and out of prison for such wonder-lacking scams as forging coupons and lottery tickets, which he sees as a victimless crime because, let’s face it, those people weren’t going to win the lottery anyway (which as defenses go, isn’t the worst I’ve heard). Where Arthur is left bitter and disappointed, his twin sister Dana is ever forgiving, perhaps because she and their father share a special bond in their love of Shakespeare. Arthur can’t get on board with the Shakespeare-worship no matter how much he loves Dana, and he becomes an author in his own right, maybe out of a need for approval, maybe to prove he is better.

With two months left on a 22-year prison sentence and nearing the end of his life, Arthur’s father reveals that he has a secret, a little project that he would like his son to work on with him. He  has hidden an undiscovered, unpublished Shakespeare play called The Tragedy of Arthur, and he wants Arthur Jr. to help him publish it. Not only will it be a great discovery for the world (wonder and joy!), it will provide financial security for Arthur and Dana and their mother, long-divorced from Arthur Sr. and recently widowed. Of course, Arthur sees through this scam a mile away and grills his father about how the play came to be in his possession and why he would keep such a thing hidden for so long. And yet. . . . either through wishful thinking or because he regrets their estranged relationship, Arthur comes to believe at least in the possibility of the play’s authenticity. With Dana’s help they pull the play apart, trying to poke holes in the language, looking for something to prove or disprove the play’s authorship. Shakespeare scholars are called in to voice their opinions and the physical play, the ink and paper, are subjected to intense forensic tests. There’s no way Arthur’s father, a petty criminal could have forged this. . . .

After his father’s death, Arthur has another change of heart and becomes convinced the play is a fraud. By this time, though, the publishing machine that he has set in motion is moving too fast, and Arthur can’t stop it without risking some fatalities, including his relationship with his sister.

The primary question in The Tragedy of Arthur isn’t about whether the play is real or a hoax, but whether it even matters. If a play brings people joy, does it matter who authored it? Well, from a financial perspective, the answer is most certainly yes. But what about from an artistic perspective? How does attributing a play to William Shakespeare make it any more or less enjoyable? Arthur Phillips the protagonist certainly has his own views on that matter, but Arthur Phillips the novelist refuses to spoon-feed us the answer. That my own perspective on the subject kept shifting as I read is in no small part responsible for my admiration for this novel.

On top of this funny, poignant, agonizing story of a man’s relationship with his father is the play itself. The last 100 pages of the novel is a tragedy about the legendary King Arthur, as written by “William Shakespeare.” I was feeling a bit morose about the novel’s ending (it is a tragedy after all), but the play lifted my spirits. Phillips crafts a work of such subtlety and humor in the guise of a tragedy that I want to read the play again and again. Read it simply as a play, allowing it to stand alone without the context of the “introduction” (the novel). Read it in the context of what we know about Arthur and his father. If you are a Shakespeare scholar, which I am not, read it with the lens of determining how true it is to Shakespeare’s time and voice. Finally, for simple fun, read it for the sometimes irritable comments you will find in the footnotes, as Phillips and his publisher disagree in print about whether certain names and turns of phrase prove the falsehood or authenticity of the play.

“What makes art authentic” is too large a question to settle within the 370 pages of this novel. In exploring it, though, Arthur Phillips has created a masterpiece.

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KimMiE” ’s #CBR5 Review #5: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

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I know the story of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I’ve seen the 1971 Gene Wilder version, presumably conceived by a Hollywood writer the night he found the last of his acid horde from the 60s, or the 2005 spectacle that starred Johnny Depp, because Tim Burton’s phone has been stuck on redial since 1990. But I had never read the book until now, and I have to say that neither of those films prepared me for the horror within those pages. Maybe horror is too strong a word, but let’s just say I raised an eyebrow more than once.

For the two people out there who might not have read the book or seen the movie, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the story of a poor kid named Charlie Bucket who lives with his parents and four grandparents in a house so small that the grandparents all have to share one bed, and they are so old that they haven’t gotten out if it in twenty years (Horror #1: Remember that guy in Se7en who was strapped in bed for only a year? Uh huh.). Local sociopath recluse and chocolate maker Willy Wonka holds a contest: the five children who find the golden tickets hidden in candy bar wrappers will be invited to visit his chocolate factory. Charlie and four obnoxious kids are the lucky winners, but on the day of the event, each of the four brats becomes a victim of his or her own bad habits as Wonka picks each one off with the help of his henchmen the Oompa-Loompas. Charlie, the only visitor who hasn’t self-destructed, is rewarded not only with a lifetime of chocolate, but a pink slip to the factory. And all because he was too poor to develop any really bad habits.

I’m being unfair. Charlie’s a good kid and deserved his reward after all he’d been through. And those kids were bad. . . just look at Augustus Gloop, a child so fat, he. . . well, hang on. From the illustrations in my book, Augustus would be considered “husky” by American standards in the 21st century. But he was definitely gluttonous, and he gobbled up the chocolate from the chocolate river in spite of Wonka’s warnings until he fell in and was sucked up the pipes, while the Oompa-Loompas stood by and sang. “However long this pig might live / We’re positive he’d never give /Even the smallest bit of fun / Or happiness to anyone.” Whoa, Oompa-Loompas! Pretty harsh, there.  He’s fat so he’ll never bring any happiness to anybody? I think some sensitivity training is in order in Wonkaland. Although I don’t think Mr. Wonka himself would be the one to give it, since he has the sensitivity of a jackhammer. At one point he looks at Charlie and says, “You look like a skeleton! . . . Hasn’t there been anything to eat in your house lately?” Good one. Mock a starving child while you sail down your river of chocolate. Let them eat cake, indeed!

I suppose the Ooompa-Loompas have cause to be bitter since their boss keeps them strung out like crack addicts. Just listen to Wonka’s description of them when he first came upon them in Loompaland, “They used to dream about cacao beans all night and talk about them all day. You had only to mention the word ‘cacao’ to an Ooompa-Loompa and he would start dribbling at the mouth.” So what did Wonka do? Offered to bring them back to his factory where they could gorge themselves on cacao beans; he even offered to pay them in cacao beans! Great, Wonka. Why not just pimp them out for a bag of M&M’s and a shot of creme de cacao? I think you have the Oompa-Loompas confused with Jennifer Connelly at the end of Requieum for a Dream. (Horror #2)

Violet Beauregarde is the next guest to meet with an accident, and she had it coming to be sure. She insisted on trying the chewing-gum meal even though Mr. Wonka told her repeatedly that the gum wasn’t ready. So she blew up like a blueberry and the Oompa-Loompas sang about how she should have listened to her elders and not taken something that didn’t belong to her. No, wait. Apparently they sang about how disgusting her gum-chewing habit was. So the blatant disobedience wasn’t so much a problem as the “repulsive little bum / Who’s always chewing chewing gum.” Okay, whatever. But why does Wonka even make chewing gum if he thinks it’s so disgusting? Man, I wish somebody had asked him that. . .like Mike Teavee did as they were leaving the chewing gum room! Great! I’m sure Mr. Wonka has a good answer and doesn’t just accuse Mike of mumbling and keep walking away.

After a brief sidebar about fizzy lifting drinks, drinks so light that they rise you up in the air and you have to burp to get down (gum-chewing is cause for eternal scorn, but burping is perfectly lovely), Veruca Salt is lost. Veruca was a spoiled brat and her parents were equally insufferable, so if a bunch of squirrels want to toss them down a garbage chute, I think we’re all okay with that. And finally, we say goodbye to Mike Teavee, who watched a lot of TV. Boy, if Roald Dahl were alive today I shudder to think what fate might befall the boy who wouldn’t put down his smart phone.

The candy maker himself is such a collection of mental symptoms that you could open the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders at random and find something that applies to him.

So why am I giving this book four stars? Because it’s refreshing—and I mean this in all seriousness—to read a children’s book as bold and unsanitized as this. Written in 1964, Dahl was unfettered by our twenty-first century sensitivities. You couldn’t call an overweight child names today without getting parents up in arms, and if a child were shrunk by a giant antenna, the Wonka Corporation and its CEO would find themselves at the end of pretty lawsuit not to mention reckless endangerment charges. So yeah, this book is nuts, but I suspect they just don’t write them like this anymore, and that makes it worthwhile.

KimMiE” ’s #CBR5 Review #4: The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail—But Some Don’t by Nate Silver

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During the 2008 presidential election, statistician and writer Nate Silver correctly predicted the winner of 49 of the 50 states—missing only Indiana, which went to Barack Obama by 1 percentage point—and all 35 of the U.S. Senate races. Given his earlier success, I found it curious that his predictions around the 2012 election were greeted in some circles not just with skepticism, but with outright hostility. When the votes were counted, Silver’s predictions held up once again: he had called all 50 states and the District of Columbia and 33 out of 35 Senate races. My curiosity was sufficiently piqued to want to give this book a shot.

I enjoyed Freakonomics and Moneyball, both of which challenge conventional wisdom using numbers, and I thought Silver’s book might be similar. It is, but more so. Where the other books I mentioned provide bite-sized lessons that the less mathematically inclined among us can digest, The Signal and the Noise is like a crash course in statistics, packed with charts and graphs and terms like Bayesian probability. I enjoyed reading it, but it was hard work at times.

The book is divided into chapters that explore the challenges with predicting things like weather, or earthquakes, or batting averages (baseball fans will know Silver as the developer of PECOTA, a system for forecasting ball players’ future performance). It not only describes the limitations we have when predicting future events but also how we can make the most of the information we do have. Silver celebrates fields where we’ve come a long way in making accurate predictions, like weather forecasting (he’s talking about the National Weather Service, not the jokers on local television) and delves into the distinct advantages and disadvantages between humans and machines when making predictions. In an absolutely fascinating chapter on chess, Silver describes the legendary 1997 match between World Champion Garry Kasparov and Deep Blue, in which Kasparov lost his cool in the face of what he perceived to be unthinkable advance planning by the computer but which actually turned out to be a programming bug (probably).

In a chapter on gambling called “Less and Less and Less Wrong,” Silver dives into Bayesian reasoning, and this is where my head nearly exploded (I never studied statistics in school, so cut me some slack). According to Bayesian thinking, we learn about the universe “. . .through approximation, getting closer and closer to the truth as we gather more evidence.” It requires us to make some general predictions about the probability of an event occurring, and then modifying those predictions as new information comes to light. Silver uses the example of a potentially cheating spouse: if you come home and find a stranger’s underwear in your drawer, what is the likelihood that your spouse is cheating on you? Part of the equation for determining the probability depends on how likely it would be that your spouse was cheating before you found the illicit undergarments. The new information has to be factored in, but it can’t completely erase the previous probability. Problems in our thinking occur when we either a) are way off on our estimates of prior probability—either because we don’t have enough information, or we just aren’t being honest with ourselves or b) we fail to modify our predictions based on new information. This strikes at the heart of the book: a tremendous degree of uncertainty is obviously at play when we make predictions, and the more we try to deny that uncertainty, the more likely our predictions are to fail.

So why do we deny the uncertainty? In part, uncertainty is interpreted in our culture as lack of confidence. Most people are more likely to be persuaded by a pundit from either side of the political spectrum who bellows with absolute authority that his or her candidate is going to win than they are by a statistician presenting probabilities that may or may not change depending on the outcome of event XYZ (the former also makes for more compelling television). Furthermore, we are often blind to our own biases and, in some cases, there may not be enough incentive to even make accurate predictions.

Pundits blindly cheering the success of their favorite candidates may seem harmless enough, but failure to predict can have crippling consequences. Silver rounds out his book with an exploration of two devastating and unpredicted events: Pearl Harbor and 9/11. Could we have predicted 9/11? Maybe. Silver lists half a dozen alarming facts that could have clued the U.S. in to the possibility of such an attack. He takes pains to point out, however, that these are half a dozen signals among tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of pieces of information that national security has to sort through, most of which amount to nothing. Failure to pick them out doesn’t automatically indicate incompetence or (gasp) conspiracy. (Silver quotes Harvard professor H.L. Gates in saying that “Conspiracy theories are an irresistible labor-saving device in the face of complexity.”) Yet the most dangerous failure of prediction is the event that we don’t even consider as a possibility: the “unknown unknown” Donald Rumsfeld famously referenced in 2002.  It’s the question that we haven’t even thought to ask.

This book asks a lot of questions and challenges the reader to think critically. If you’re looking for a magic bullet, there isn’t one: remember, uncertainty is inevitable and not a sign of weakness. But Silver drives us to work at it, to be better at making predictions, to get things “less and less and less wrong.”

KimMiE” ’s #CBR5 Review #3: I Am Murdered: George Wythe, Thomas Jefferson, and the Killing that Shocked a New Nation by Bruce Chadwick

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George Wythe was an American patriot. He signed the Declaration of Independence and served as one of Virginia’s representatives at the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention. He was a well-known judge and a law professor at William and Mary (America’s first law professor, they say). Friend and mentor to Thomas Jefferson and a well-respected pillar of the community, George Wythe was admired by all who knew him, so it was quite a shock to the citizens of Richmond, Virginia, when he was murdered by his grand-nephew.

Wythe was 80 years old when he, along with two members of his household, fell suddenly and violently ill. His servant Lydia Broadnax, a freed slave, and his protégé Michael Brown were also stricken, with Broadnax eventually recovering and Brown dying within a week. Wythe hung on for two weeks, all the time insisting that he had been poisoned by his sister’s grandson—and ironically, his own namesake—George Wythe Sweeney.

It wasn’t hard to believe, of course. Everyone knew Sweeney as a gambler and a wastrel who had taken advantage of his uncle’s generosity time and again. While living with his uncle in Richmond, Sweeney forged checks and sold some of Wythe’s valuable books to pay gambling debts. Wythe never pressed charges in those cases, hoping against hope that Sweeney would mature and settle down, but even his generous spirit had to draw the line at his own murder. Wythe lived long enough to not only accuse Sweeney but to cut him out of his will.

The court of public opinion was roundly against Sweeney and the case against him seemed air tight. All signs pointed to arsenic poisoning, a star prosecutor was on the case, and there was even a reliable eye witness in Lydia Broadnax, who claimed to have seen Sweeney put something in the coffee that morning. Yet as with many a famous trial, mistakes were made. During the autopsy, the doctors failed to perform basic tests for arsenic that would have proven the cause of death. Two well-known attorneys eager to make names for themselves by winning an unwinnable case came to Sweeney’s defense. And Broadnax was prevented from testifying because Virginia law did not allow blacks, free or slave, to testify in court.

I Am Murdered provides an interesting account of law and politics in the United States’ early years. Chadwick delves into the relationship between Wythe and Jefferson and recounts their impact on Virginia law. He also paints a colorful picture of Richmond, which was apparently the Sodom and Gomorrah of colonial America with all its gambling houses and brothels. The botched autopsy and the doctors’ initial misdiagnosis of cholera illuminates how even the very best doctors of the day were prone to dreadful screw ups. Finally, the simple detail of Broadnax not being permitted to testify puts the period’s race relations front and center in the narrative.

I’d have to say that I Am Murdered is more about the history of Virginia than it is a historical crime story, which is fine, just not what I was expecting from a book with, you know, murder in the title. So even though I enjoyed the book and found the history interesting, I felt strangely dissatisfied. Perhaps it’s because it held so much potential to be a sensational true-life crime drama: the villain in the story is so shameless he tries to get his victim to bail him out of jail! Edmund Randolph, one of the attorneys who defended Sweeney, was the same attorney who drafted the new will that cut Sweeney out of his inheritance. My God, can’t you just see this as an episode of Law and Order: Colonial America?

As a slice of early American history, I Am Murdered is well worth the read. Just know that’s what you are getting, with a little murder on the side.

KimMiE” ’s #CBR5 Review #2: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

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My first encounter with Julian Barnes was when I read A History of the World in 10½ Chapters on a vacation to Italy ten years ago. I was so taken by the beauty of the language and the clever way that Barnes wove common themes throughout the collection of stories that I thought the world had just found its newest Barnes disciple. Sadly, though I have read quite a few of his novels since then, none evoked the same response that I had to History. So I picked up The Sense of an Ending with a healthy dose of skepticism, Man Booker Prize be damned!

And what do you know. . I loved it.

The Sense of an Ending is the story of Tony Webster, or rather, the story that Tony Webster remembers as he looks back at his early life and his re-evaluation of it in middle age. The novel is told in two parts. In Part One, Tony shares the story of his school days. He has three chums, and his little clique is intelligent, philosophical, and yes, arrogant in that intellectual-English-school-boy way.  When they go off to university they grow apart and Tony starts dating Veronica, whom he portrays as superior and condescending. After a bad breakup, Tony learns that Veronica has started dating his old friend Adrian. At first he pretends he isn’t bothered but later writes a scathing letter to the couple telling them exactly what he thinks of them. At the end of Part One, tragedy strikes, forever shattering the little group. Tony moves on with his life: his marriage, the birth of his child, and amiable divorce are covered in two and a half pages. In Part Two, something happens to cause Tony to re-think history, to dredge up past memories, contact Veronica, and try to figure out what exactly happened forty years ago.

Let me be clear: this is not a “he said/she said” novel. It’s more like “he said/he questioned what he said/he asked others what they thought he said.” The overriding theme of the novel is a twist on the “history is written by the winners” platitude: “History is the lies of the victors and the self-delusion of the defeated.” That second part often gets overlooked.

Curiously, in spite of all middle-aged Tony’s self-recriminations, I still liked him and, in fact, I felt like he was being way too hard on himself. Even the revelation of his vicious missive to Adrian and Veronica didn’t make me think less of him, and while the complexities of their relationship became more apparent, I still found Veronica to be superior and condescending and couldn’t muster much sympathy for her. I dare say other readers may have a different opinion, and that I think is the point. Every one of us has individual perspective and individual baggage that clouds our vision. Is there such a thing as complete objectivity? Even 60-year-old Tony can’t agree with 20-year-old Tony, so how can separate individuals with completely different backgrounds understand history the same way? So much of history, our own history, relies on our own imperfections of memory and our inability to truly understand someone or something outside ourselves.

With that understanding, I begin to wonder how my own tastes and preferences have changed as I have changed over time. Would I be as impressed with A History of the World in 10½ Chapters if I read it for the first time today? Would I like Barnes’s England, England more if the ten-year-older me read it now? One thing I learned from this novel is that we, like history, are seldom static.

KimMiE” ’s #CBR5 Review #1: The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild by Craig Childs

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In his introduction to The Animal Dialogues, author and naturalist Craig Childs invites his audience to read the book out of sequence. He hopes, in fact, “that you. . .might come upon this book by accident. . . left open to a passage on mountain lions, or flipping through its pages until you are caught in the stares of fifteen sorcerous ravens.”

Each of the essays in Animal Dialogues focuses on an encounter between author and wildlife: from grizzly bear to mouse, bald eagle to hummingbird, blue-finned shark to smelt. They are snapshots of time in which the author captures his impressions of the natural world and ponders the existence of the animals he happens upon for as long as each creature will allow. Each essay is infused not only with the author’s personal reactions, but also interesting details about the species and the natural world in general—an essay on mountain goats, for example, takes a side trip into the world of olfaction, perhaps the least appreciated of our senses.

Every encounter in the collection is a grab-bag of emotion and the reader never knows whether the result will be comical, as when the author suspects his cat of having made a side deal with the mice to let them run wild; tense, as his standoff with a mountain lion, a scene with enough dramatic tension to rival Argo; or poignant, as when he and a group of beach campers contemplate the death of a shark. The book is full of surprises, too: malaria aside, who knew that the essay on mosquitos would be the most horrifying of the lot?

For all Childs’ wonder and respect for nature, some of the most memorable portraits he sketches are of other humans. In “Camel,” one of my favorite essays, he describes an archaeological dig of a Pleistocene-era cave, where he meets a wonderful array of humans, from twelve-year-old Kate, who works so seriously and intensely that she is put in charge of one of the dig rooms, a job she embraces without flinching (“I will need three people at least”), to Dennis, a 17-year-old genius who makes our hardened author feel like a fool in the wilderness. One of the most touching essays in the collection is “Rainbow Trout,” which is as much about the author’s admiration for his father the fisherman as it is a celebration of the fish: “He is a person whom people meet along the stream, and they will talk about this stranger and his fishing for years afterwards.”

In a sense, I suppose I let Mr. Childs down by reading chronologically, but my experience as an English lit major years ago has left me with a compulsion to read books cover to cover, at least the first time—anything else feels like cheating. But the beauty of this collection is that one reading won’t be enough. Now that I’ve had my taste of all the critters within, the book will sit on my shelf, waiting for me to get that urge to revisit the mountain lion or the raven or yes, even the dreaded mosquito. While I recognize that not everyone will want to read this book front to back as I did, I believe that there is a little something in it for everyone—who among us couldn’t use a little rattlesnake in our day to keep us humble?