Thursday, July 22, 2010

It Came from the Basement

Wordsworth said that poetry is, “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” Well, around here it’s mostly been the cascading overflow of random closets and not very much tranquility. As a result, much of my reading has been restricted to horrifying internet articles about terrible moving companies, and trolling kijiji for apartments. However, while cleaning up we have uncovered some odd and poetic things that were squirreled away in the basement. One of the things I’ll miss about no longer living in my childhood home are finds like these… no more poking through stacks of old postcards and photographs, no more typewriters and reel-to-reels, no more basement full of emotionally charged clutter. So before I enter the brave new world of apartment living, here are the books I found in my basement.

Oh, and if you can recommend a good, cheap moving company that won’t destroy these books when I move, please let me know.

Friday, July 16, 2010


Macbeth has always been my favourite Shakespeare play, so I was excited to take home three comic-book versions of the tragedy from the public library. I don’t think any of the three versions I read really warrant purchasing, but they were a fun way to kill and afternoon.

The least exciting version was “Picture This! Shakespeare: Macbeth,” published by Barron’s. The book is meant as an educational text for older children or young adults, and includes glosses at the bottom of pages for words such as hurlyburly and ere, as well as, “Think About It,” boxes every few pages with basic study questions. The comic is periodically interrupted by pages of text from the play, which become longer and more copious towards the end of the book. These sections also include boxes that identify and define literary tropes used in the excerpted lines of the play. The artwork of the comic is decent, but not terribly exciting. While the children’s education angle of the book could be blamed for preventing this comic from being interesting, I think the large, un-illustrated swathes of text are more to blame. This is because the second version of the comic, “Comic Book Shakespeare: Macbeth,” is also an educational version of the play, and yet is much more appealing.

“Comic Book Shakespeare: Macbeth,” has better drawings, which make the witches look more creepy and otherworldly, and make the rest of the book generally more attractive and interesting that the Picture This! version of the text. Instead of including distracting glosses, each frame includes the text written in the original language, and then in contemporary, simplified English. The different versions are assigned different colours, so in each frame the reader can immediately pick out the version of the text they wish to read. Rather than sliding large selections of text into the comic, the book is illustrated the entire way through. Despite not including the entire original text, the characters all emerge very well developed (especially Lady Mac beth), and all major elements of the play are evoked with ease. This approach is much more successful than including large chunks of text that are difficult to illustrate, with the book unfolding effortlessly instead of jarring you out of comic-mode. Including the texts separately also ensures that both older and younger audiences can enjoy the book, rather than only students who are at a reading level where they half understand the original play. Of the three comic versions of Macbeth that I read, I would most strongly recommend this one.

The final comic book version of Macbeth that I read was, “Graphic Shakespeare Library: Macbeth.” This is the only comic book version which includes the entire text of the original play, without glosses, footnotes, or simplified text, making the book perhaps more appealing to an older audience. The book is also the only one in full colour, rather than black and white. However, the art work is a bit 80s cheesy to say the least, and doesn’t really recommend the text, with its flat shading and bland colours. I also found that including the entire original text defeats the purpose of having the comic book. The appeal of a comic book version of the play, for me, is that you can review the play more quickly than you would be able to read the entire play. If all the comic book does simply reproduce the entire play verbatim, the illustrations had better be good—so good that they warrant reading the comic instead of watching the play, or reading the play and using your own imagination to produce the sets, characters, and various magical shenanigans of Macbeth. “Graphic Shakespeare Library: Macbeth” fails to achieve this. So, if you’re looking for a quick and fun recap of Macbeth, I’d recommend “Comic Book Shakespeare: Macbeth.” Not only is it the most fun for adults, but also the best version for kids. Tragedy… fun for the whole family!

Do you have a favourite comic book version of Shakespeare? Some other favourite contemporary interpretation of Shakespeare’s plays?

Friday, July 9, 2010

Illustrated Lives: Franz Kafka

When I began to read Illustrated Lives: Franz Kafka, I couldn’t bear to leave the book face-up on my desk. Kafka’s sepia face glowers intently from the cover, his piercing gaze disconcerting enough that I would flip the book over before going to bed. Associating Kafka strongly with his dark, heavy texts, his photo too seemed unbearable and threatening. After reading the biography, however, the portrait staring up from my desk has taken on a more human tone. This isn’t just the face of a dark, tormented, and isolated writer, but the face of a torn and fragile man, one who struggled to adapt and perfect his writing and relationships, even as his life was cut short by his struggle with tuberculosis.

While many biographies of Kafka focus on his potential anorexia, his tense relationship with his father, or his difficulty negotiating romantic or sexual relationships, “Illustrated Lives: Franz Kafka” by Jeremy Adler gives a more balanced view of the writer’s life. Rather than just a tortured genius, eaten from the inside out by his neurosis, we find a man who maintained meaningful relationships with family and friends, who went on vacation, and whose writing was, if not heavily influenced, then at the least heavily inspired by his surroundings, his circle of friends, and the active and lively art world of early 20th century Prague.

As the title implies, the shtick of biography is the images. Almost every page of the book features photos of Kafka, his writer friends, his family, and his main love interests. The book is also full of photos of Prague, of Kafka’s original manuscripts, and of postcards Kafka wrote to his writing cohorts and family members. Particularly interesting are his sketches, which have a relaxed and flowing line that I would not have expected from his hand. The images establish atmosphere for Kafka’s life story, as well as context for the texts discussed. However, as a book based entirely around the premise of including images, the design of the book leaves something to be desired. Images are captioned, rather than discussed in the main body of the text, yet the images are not positioned in such a way that creates natural pauses or breaks for you read the captions. As a result, you have to wait until you finish a sentence, pause to read the captions, then return to the text. Additionally, some pages have small columns of text that blend in with the captions, so that when you flip a page to read the end of a sentence, you end up reading the wrong one. Despite these problems, the images are provide great insight into Kafka’s life, and we get to see Kafka not only in his usual suit, glaring at us from a formal portrait, but also at the beach or sanatorium with friends, smiling and wearing more relaxed clothing. The images of Prague are also gorgeous, especially if you’re still pinning after the city from your recent trip there.

The book chronicles Kafka’s entire life, from birth to death, thought the early childhood section feels a bit strained. There is less known and less to say about Kafka as a small child than about Kafka the writer, and so the early childhood section is largely filled up with comments about Prague and it’s social climate. The section dealing with Kafka’s young adulthood provides an interesting background for his later developments as a writer, particularly in it’s discussion of the circle of writer friends who provided the intellectual and creative community out of which Kafka’s literary career would grow. Illustrated Lives: Franz Kafka picks up speed with it’s analysis of Kafka’s first published texts, and maintains this pace until the end. The story of Kafka’s death is particularly poignant, including passages from his diaries about his final illness, and accounts of his last words from the friends who nursed him in his final days. The book concludes with a paragraph on the fate of Kafka’s family—his parents dying of old age, while his three sisters and their children were killed in the Holocaust. Kafka’s friend Max Brod, however, gathered Kafka’s papers and manuscripts and fled to Palestine, an act which allowed for the posthumous publication and popularization of Kafka’s work.

Illustrated Lives: Franz Kafka gives a human spin to the already popular biography of Prague’s most famous modernist, through the photos, facsimiles, and journal quotes. By the end of the book Kafka is seen not only as a tortured neurotic, but as a more complicated writer, striving to perfect both his writing as well as his life. Though his writing career was brought to an abrupt stop by his tuberculosis, Illustrated Lives: Franz Kafka paints a picture of a writer who was dedicated to constantly improving his voice and style, right to the very end.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

A Picture's Worth a Thousand Questions

On one of the nicest, sunniest days we had in Europe, my sister, brother-in-law, and I picked through Vienna’s Naschmarkt, a large outdoor market where people sell antiques, books, clothes, and other random things (such as a large stuffed and lacquered former sea turtle). We were most interested in the antiques, and spent a long time searching through old brooches, tin boxes, doll’s clothes and cooking utensils, buttons, and opera glasses, even spotting a few odder and more chilling items such as old passports carrying swastikas from Austria’s period as part of the Third Reich.

While shopping around, my sister and I wandered on without her husband, who went back to look at a stall we’d already passed. My sister and I came to a stall where the owner was selling old photo albums will all the photos still inside. I love old photographs, and am particularly interested in old snapshots that no one has bothered to keep. I think there’s something poetic about pictures of family vacations that someone wanted to remember, but that have been cast off, all the people in the photo forgotten. I also love puppies, and never having been allowed to own one as a kid, this repressed affection usually manifests itself in over-the-top squeals when I see a little dog or a cute picture of one. So, when my sister found a small album with snapshots of a girl, her dog, and her husband, my sister decided to get it for me. “She’s just like you!” my sister commented as we flipped through the photographs of the girl teaching her dog tricks and the portraits the girl took of her fuzzy companion.

My sister bargained the stall owner from 15 Euro down to 10, and we strolled away with our adorable find. Upon finding my brother-in-law, we showed him the album of the young couple playing with their dog, taking him for walks, or posing next to what we guessed to be their new radio, which was sitting on their shelf below a framed wedding photo. My brother-in-law took one look at the album and pointed out, “He’s a Nazi.”

Indeed, my sister and I had been so taken with the sweet silliness of the album, and the slightly sad tone of such a cute book having been disowned and sold at a market, that we didn’t notice the young man’s uniform. While there is little written in the book, captions give the dates January and February 1944. The book suddenly seemed less innocent, and instead, a source of questions. Was this guy really a Nazi? We searched for his uniform online, and think he may have been in the air force. Was he conscripted, or a strong believer in the party’s ideals? Where did this young couple manage to get a new radio in 1944? Was it someone’s confiscated property, or did the couple buy the radio? What were they listening to on it, anyway? Why is the book only half filled with photos, and why was it on sale in the market? Could it be that the young man went back to war and was killed? There was now something strange about their happy smiles and almost nervous affectionate manner with each other in the pictures, something strange about the silly photos of the young family and their puppy. They still look out from the photos with candid and innocent grins, but who knows what this young man had done, and who knows how he or his wife felt about it.

My little album has been complicated by the man’s uniform, but this is hardly a watershed find. In 2007 the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum received a donation of the Höcker photo album, showing many of the top officers of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp at their nearby resort in 1944, enjoying blueberries and relaxing with a group of lady typists at, “the period during which the gas chambers were operating at maximum efficiency—as the Hungarian Jews arrived and during the last months before the evacuation of the camp” (USHMM Website). The Höcker album stands in sharp contrast to the Auschwitz Album of the same period, which shows the arrival of a large group of Hungarian Jews at Auschwitz, as well as the selection process where individuals were chosen for slave labour or sent to the gas chambers. You can watch a short documentary about the Höcker album, where Judy Cohen tells us, “We all know that monsters do monstrous things. But when you see people who look like they’re nice guys, in a fairly benign setting, and we know for a fact that they were doing monstrous things, then it raises all sorts of questions about what’s man’s capacity for evil. In a different setting would they still be monsters?” (USHMM Website).

Like my sister said, the girl in my album is just like me. A girl who likes small dogs and hanging out with her loved ones. A girl who likes to listen to the radio. Her husband also looks like a nice guy—but was he? The photos in my album don’t show enough to absolve or condemn the couple—just a uniform that could mean a number of different things. Aside from the fact that they like dogs, radios, and each other, not much else about this pair is evident from the book. However, my album could be a slice of one of the many disturbing truths about the Nazis—as Joseph White puts it, “they were all too frighteningly human” (USHMM Website).

All There Is To Know About Adolph Eichmann
from Flowers for Hitler by Leonard Cohen

DISTINGUISHING FEATURES:.................................None
NUMBER OF FINGERS:..................................................Ten
NUMBER OF TOES:..........................................................Ten

What did you expect?
Oversize incisors?
Green saliva?