On Reading Shakespeare

December 26, 2014

This year, I read all of Shakespeare’s plays. I don’t know why, exactly, I decided to do it, but I did. I’d meant to read the poetry, too, but that didn’t happen. Another time. Since I love to rank things, I thought it would be fun to discuss the experience a bit and rank my most and least favorite plays of his.

I decided to read them chronologically (as best I could manage, the dates are often uncertain), and I’m glad I did. Shakespeare’s career has a clear arc. He is very, very inconsistent early, has a middle period in which almost everything is a masterpiece and closes uncertainly, if not so spottily as he starts. At the beginning of his career, he reads like someone still learning his craft, and at the end, he reads as someone straining against his limitations. There is very clear development and it’s interesting to watch it unfold. Writers like Shakespeare are too often spoken of in hushed tones, as though they were not human. Well, he was. He was human. He was a great writer much of the time, but sometimes, he kind of stunk. It happens. There’s a reason his lesser known plays are lesser known.

Time for a bit of ranking. I read a total of 39 plays with an average rating of 3.9 our of 5 (that’s not bad!). I’m going to start with the ten worst. These are the plays that you’d have to pay me to revisit…

  1. (the worst) Titus Andronicus – This was a first of Shakespeare’s tragedies, and I find it completely worthless. It is steeped in misogyny and pointless violence (early Shakespeare was often quite misogynist, something that he seems to have gotten past in his later work).
  2. All’s Well that Ends Well – The only play other than Titus to garner the lowest rating (1/5).
  3. Troillus and Cressida
  4. Timon of Athens
  5. Edward III (3-5 are all collaborations and likely suffer by way of the collaborators more than Shakespeare)
  6. The Taming of the Shrew
  7. Love’s Labours Lost (the comedies were often disappointing, he uses the same jokes over and over).
  8. Pericles, Prince of Tyre (another collaboration)
  9. Henry Vi, Part 2
  10. The Merry Wives of Windsor

The above group represents all of the plays which garnered a rating below a 4. What follows is a list of all 5s. These are my favorites in some kind of preferential order.

  1. The Tempest
  2. King Lear
  3. Macbeth
  4. Hamlet
  5. As You Like It
  6. The Winter’s Tale
  7. Othello
  8. Julius Caesar
  9. A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  10. Richard II
  11. Henry IV, Part 2

I am, it seems, one for the tragedies and romances. As noted above, the comedies don’t often work for me, though some of them are truly brilliant. There is a wonderful run of histories that begins with Richard II and runs through Henry the V. These work as one long narrative, and Shakespeare is nearly always on his game.

Still, time has spoken about certain plays for a reason. There’s nothing surprising about my favorite plays by Shakespeare. Perhaps the best surprise for me was too discover how much I loved Macbeth after hating it in high school. I also found Othello improved upon re-reading.

There we go. It was a long project and I’m not entirely sure it was worth it. But I did it, and it is something to be able to say I’ve read them all. I do not, however, advise you to do the same.

A Week Later

December 22, 2014

I’ve had a novel out for a week now, and I feel ready, finally, to sit down and write about the process and the result a little bit.

The Writing

Sparrow followed a different process than anything else I’d ever written. It wasn’t done when I tried (and, in this case, succeeded in) selling it. Having sold it unfinished, I had to title it before it was finished. I also had to write on a theoretical deadline (though I was always way ahead). But most strangely, it was published in serial (not cereal, though that might have been delicious).

I talked about this some on a podcast with my friend Chad Dotson, so forgive me for repeating myself, but writing in serial was weird. It is pretty much impossible to not have the end of each chapter feel like some kind of ending. As such, much of each chapter had to be dedicated to some kind of immediate conflict as I tried hard to work the larger themes in over the course of the book. Also, once something was published, I couldn’t go back and change it. That was really hard. I change what happens in my books quite a lot, and there were several times when I wanted to change something in Sparrow, but I couldn’t. The only substantive difference between the online text and what was published as a book is that I inadvertently inserted an extra out into one inning and had to take it out for the print version (this was a big pain in the butt, but it would have bothered me forever).

So, writing in serial was interesting. It’s something I might repeat one day, but I do think I prefer a longer arc with more time to ruminate. Still, I understand Dickens much better now.

The Publishing & The Shelf

The big thing, of course, is that I now have an actual novel published. I have a copy at home and more coming and it’s real and people who are not my mom have purchased it. That is pretty cool. I said for a long time that if I could publish a book just once, I’d be really thrilled. And it’s true. I am thrilled. But I find that now I am greedy. I want more books published.

You see, some people I really respect have said very nice things about this book and my writing and so, it is hard not to think that maybe I can continue doing this and hope that other stories, that have nothing to do with baseball might eventually find there way into the hands of others.

The coolest thing for me about all of it, has been this: Joe Posnanski blurbed my book. You may not know who Joe Posnanski is, but let me try to explain…

In my house, I have a fancy, glass-fronted bookshelf that my dad made for me a number of years ago. I keep the books that are the most important to me on it. it is filled almost entirely with fiction. Sherwood Anderson, Margaret Atwood, Michael Chabon, Tolstoy. Those kinds of folks. A lot of the writers on there are dead, but some are still kicking. In the small nonfiction section is a book called The Soul of Baseball. it is about former Negro League player Buck O’Neil, and it is the best sports book I have ever read. Joe Posnanski wrote it. And he blurbed my book. Joe Posnanski liked something I wrote and he is on the shelf I reserve, basically, for the best authors I’ve read. This matters a great deal to me. There’s a crack in the door now, and I can see that maybe I belong in that club just a little. Maybe only barely, but if I stand along the back wall, they might let me stay as long as I keep my mouth shut.

And so, in a few days, I’m going to take my little half-inch thick paperback, a mere 226 pages, and I am going to slide it onto that shelf. This is a shelf of books that have felt as though they had the power to change me, and as Michael Chabon once said, the only books that really changed him were the ones he wrote. My first book doesn’t feel, to me, like it belongs there, but at the same time, I can’t imagine anywhere else to put it. I hope, in time, it comes to feel comfortable there.

What’s Next

I finished Sparrow in August, and for a while, I didn’t write a thing (as you can see if you look back at this blog), but I’ve started to feel like I have something to say again. And, as it happens, I have three projects that are currently “in-progress.” One is a collection of inter-connected stories. Another is a short children’s book involving fairies. And then there’s the novel I was working on before Sparrow, which involves, among other things, reindeer herding. I’m eager to work on and finish all of those and then send them out into the world.

The point, I guess, is that I’m busy and writing again, though it probably won’t be in the public eye much for a while. Whenever I can get a little time away from my job, I’ll be writing on something, until I finish it, and then I’ll probably catch my breath until, as Barry Hannah wrote, the voices start up again and I have to get down to work and do something about it.

When the Sparrow Sings Is Out!

December 15, 2014

If you’re reading this, odds are you know about my book, When the Sparrow Sings, which takes place (mostly) over the course of one baseball game. You know it’s been coming out in bits and pieces all year. But, finally, it’s time for a full release.

You can easily buy the book here or at Amazon. If you use the first link, I get a bigger cut, but I’ll be thrilled with each and every purchase. I really will. It’s a lot of work to write a novel, and it’s great to have it published, but it’s even better to have people buy it and read it and show that they value the work you do. Plus, there are fun extras. The book will include the following features:

1. A bonus story
2. A box score of the game
3. 11 illustrations
4. Words that form a story

Those first two are available only if you purchase a copy,

Perhaps the coolest thing is that Joe Posnanski was kind enough to read the book and give us the following snippet which you can find on the back of the book:

“Baseball fiction is hard. Well, all fiction is hard, but baseball fiction is particularly so because the game is so hard to capture. What makes Jason Linden’s When the Sparrow Sings so compelling is that it is easy to forget that it is fiction. The baseball feels authentic and close and — like the real thing — so fleeting.”

If you’re still wondering what the book is about, here’s the synopsis from the back, which carefully avoids giving away plot stuff:

Zack Hiatt is the best pitcher on maybe the best team in baseball, and he is going to the World Series. Zack’s arrival on the big stage is the culmination of his father’s dream as much as his own, and Zack has the scars to prove it. But before he can even throw a pitch in the Series, his father dies in a tragic car accident.

The first question – whether or not to pitch – isn’t even a question. He has to pitch. The world demands it of him. And so he does. What follows is a story about trying to hold it together when you shouldn’t have to and about the memories our parents leave with us when they’re gone.

Okay, that’s it! Go buy a copy!

November Book Log

December 5, 2014

Well, let’s call this month the one about Shakespeare. I had been slowly falling off the pace, and if I was going to finish the plays this year, I had to get on it. the result is that I read seven different plays by Bill this month as well as three other books. My long book for the month is Anna Karenina, which, under normal circumstances, I’d have finished ages ago, but I’m teaching it, so I have to move at the same pace as my students, and they still have a little more than 100 pages to go in it. Anyway, here we are.

1. All’s Well that Ends Well by William Shakespeare (1/5) – This rivals Titus for the worst Shakespeare I’ve read. I will never return to it, and I suggest you stay away.

2. King Lear by William Shakespeare (5/5) – This, on the other hand, was another masterpiece from Shakespeare. It was the only one of the great tragedies I hadn’t read. Unsurprisingly, it is great. There’s a particular humanity to this one that feels almost unique in Shakespeare. Lear’s descent into madness and eventual remorse feel real in a way that resonates still. There’s nothing about it that is confined to a particular time. One of my favorites. I may actually prefer it to Hamlet.

3. Timon of Athens by William Shakespeare (2/5) – And  now another dud. This was either not entirely written by Shakespeare or never finished. It is quite a bore. There are some nice moments toward the end, but it’s another one to skip.

4. McSweeney’s #47 (4.5/5) – After what I felt was an off issue in #46, I was very pleased with the content here. Nicely diverse. The newly discovered Shirley Jackson stories were definitely highlights. Only one featured author was a bit of a dud. Otherwise, gold all the way through. Also, another awesome design. This issues came slipped case with ten pamphlets for nine different authors (plus letters for the tenth). The pamphlets can be lined up to create one long cover illustration that is a mirror image of itself. So neat.

5. Macbeth by William Shakespeare (5/5) – When I read this in high school, I hated it. I was very, very, very wrong. Completely brilliant. I love how tight it is. Everything in this is completely essential. It is, by some measures, his shortest play, but it deserves it’s reputation as one of his best.

6. Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare (4.5/5) – This play wasn’t perfect in the way of Lear or Macbeth, but it was wonderfully intriguing. I hadn’t read it before, and I love how dynamic the character of Marc Antony is when this is combined with Caesar. The two together make for a fascinating set. I never quite by Shakespearean battle scenes, though, and this has a few to many of them.

7. Pericles, Prince of Tyre by William Shakespeare (3/5) – Another one that isn’t fully written by Shakespeare. Meh. Very meh. One thing I’ve learned about Shakespeare is that, if it’s rumored that he didn’t write all of it, it’s not worth so much of your time.

8. THT Annual 2015 (N/A) – I’m not going to rate this here because I have an article in it and I was one of the primary editors, but it is a good book if you’re into super-nerdy baseball stuff. There’s lots of excellent analysis you won’t find anywhere else. You should buy it.

9. The Street by Ann Petry (5/5) – The last book on Cate’s list for me this year, and it might be the one I like the best. I’ve read a few books this year that have dealt explicitly with race or class and it amazes me how relevant they continue to be. The Street is getting to be an old book, and yet, it doesn’t seem that we’ve really come all that far. It’s something everyone could stand to read.

10. Coriolanus by William Shakespeare (4/5) – The accompanying materials I read with this try to place it in the Othello/Hamlet/Lear/Macbeth echelon. I don’t quite see it. I found it rather dry in spots. Which isn’t to say it’s bad. it’s actually quite good, but I don’t think it sits with Shakespeare’s very best work. Also, I am really running out of stuff to say about William Shakespeare.

Okay, one more book log left for the year. I’ve already hit just about every goal I set for myself (just a few more plays to read), and I’m excited to finish the reading year. See you next month.