Posts Tagged ‘Shakespeare’

July is (almost) over, and while sweating through a heat wave, here’s what I have been reading:

The Mimosa Tree Mystery, Ovidia Yu
As World War II rages, the Japanese have occupied Singapore, and Chen Su Lin finds herself coerced into helping them solve the murder of her neighbor, Mr. Mirza. Much grimmer than Su Lin’s first three adventures, this is a sobering look at life under Japanese occupation and a compelling mystery.

The Murder of Mr. Wickham, Claudia Gray
I loved this fun mystery (recommended by Anne) that brings together the main characters from many of Jane Austen’s novels for a house party hosted by Emma and George Knightley. Mr. Wickham (that cad!) shows up uninvited, and before long he ends up dead. Juliet Tilney, Catherine’s daughter, and Jonathan Darcy, son of Elizabeth, band together to find the killer. Witty and entertaining, with some interesting subplots. I’d absolutely read a sequel.

Welcome to the School by the Sea, Jenny Colgan
I usually enjoy Colgan’s gentle British rom-coms, often set in charming small towns. This is an older book of hers, reissued, and it shows: there are some fun moments, but the character development is thin, and there is so much fat-shaming. First in a series.

Where There’s a Whisk, Sarah J. Schmitt
Peyton Sinclaire believes she has one shot to escape her trailer-park life in Florida: winning the Top Teen Chef reality show competition. But when she arrives in Manhattan and starts navigating the show’s cooking challenges and interpersonal dynamics, she learns a thing or two she didn’t expect. I loved this sweet, foodie YA novel, especially the way it wrapped up.

Finding Me, Viola Davis
I’ve been impressed by Davis as an actor, but didn’t know her story. She tells it at a sometimes breakneck pace – from growing up in abject poverty in Rhode Island to college to Juilliard to success on stage and film, to marriage and complicated family dynamics. A brutally honest account of her life; so much trauma, so much grit and hard work, and finally some joy. Recommended by Anne.

For the Love of the Bard, Jessica Martin
Miranda Barnes – literary agent, middle child, YA writer under a pseudonym – goes back to her Shakespeare-obsessed hometown for its annual Bard festival. While there, she has to deal with scary health news for a family member, festival committee politics, and – oh yeah – the guy who broke her heart back in high school. I loved this theater-nerd romance with complex sibling dynamics, totally relatable life struggles and a swoony romance. Found at the wonderful Phoenix Books in Burlington, VT.

They Called Me a Lioness: A Palestinian Girl’s Fight for Freedom, Ahed Tamimi and Dena Takruri
Palestinian teenager Ahed Tamimi made international news after a video of her slapping an Israeli soldier went viral. This memoir recounts her childhood, her family’s life under the Israeli occupation, her arrest and imprisonment (and other traumas), and her continuing fight to liberate Palestine. Short, but heavy and heartbreaking. An important perspective we don’t often get in the U.S. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 6).

The Marlow Murder Club, Robert Thorogood
I picked this one up on a whim at the library and blew through it in two days. Judith Potts, age 77, is swimming naked in the Thames (her daily ritual) when she hears a gunshot from her neighbor’s garden. It turns out he was murdered – but by whom? Judith joins forces with local dog walker Suzie and the vicar’s buttoned-up wife, Becks, to solve the case. Witty and clever and so British. I loved it.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my local faves Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

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Like so many people, I spent most of two years not going to the movies: first because the theaters were closed, then because I was nervous to go back. (And also because movies these days are expensive!)

But recently, my guy and I have gone back to the Coolidge in Brookline, a restored Art Deco theater we both love. We’d never been there together, until I heard that they were screening Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 version of Much Ado About Nothing (since Shakespeare on the Common is doing its own version this summer). We both love that film, but had never watched it together. So we met up for delicious Chinese food, stocked up on popcorn from Trader Joe’s, and headed to the theater.

I hadn’t seen this version of Much Ado since college, and had forgotten how delightfully over-the-top it is; how many Hogwarts professors (three!) are in the cast; how charming Denzel Washington is when he’s scheming; and how outsized (and gendered) Claudio’s reaction is to Hero’s supposed infidelity. We cringed at that last bit, but savored the rest of it: the sunny slopes of Italy’s countryside, the singing and dancing, the witty sparring between Beatrice and Benedick, and the chance to enjoy a classic film in the company of others.

I love a love story, and I love Shakespeare, which always brings back fond memories of the Shakespeare class I took in college. And I love a movie date with my guy. I’m so glad it’s available to us again, and I’m especially glad the Coolidge – in all its quirky glory – is there for us.

What local adventures are you having, these days?

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One of the things I’ve missed during this pandemic year is collective experiences: the chance to be among a group of people, enjoying the same thing at the same time (and not through a screen). I particularly missed live theatre, so I was thrilled that Shakespeare on the Common is back this year.

My guy and I made a midweek date to see The Tempest – which we had both read in high school, but not really interacted with since then. I met him after work and we picked up a feast from BarTaco, which does delicious tacos and salsa with flavor and heat.

We arrived early and snagged a good spot with a view of the stage – though I’d definitely bring or rent chairs next time, as the ground gets hard after a while. But it was a perfect, clear evening, and we settled in to watch the cast (including John Douglas Thompson, whom I remembered seeing in Carousel on Broadway a few years back).

Both the men who taught me Shakespeare – Mr. Walker in high school and Dr. Wade in college – used to insist, I think rightly, that his plays are meant to be watched, not read. The story has so much more power (and the jokes are so much funnier) when you’re watching it unfold in real time. I had forgotten, or perhaps never realized, how much of The Tempest is about power: who has it, who ought to have it, what it means to have (or choose to give up) authority over another person, or to assert your own.

Of course there’s the love at first sight between Ferdinand and Miranda, and Prospero’s schemes to ostensibly keep them apart. There’s the bumbling pair of jokers from the shipwrecked crew, and their plot to overthrow Prospero (not very well planned). And there are Ariel and Caliban – who are treated very differently by Prospero, but are ultimately bound to him until he sets them free.

We laughed and clapped and marveled at the cast’s artistry, and savored being together. An entirely joyous experience, and a wonderful return to live theater.

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November. Already. How did that happen?

The second half of October was a wild ride. Here’s what I’ve been reading on commutes, before bed and whenever else I can squeeze in a few pages:

Nothing Happened, Molly Booth
I heard Booth speak on a YA panel at the Boston Book Festival (she’s second from left, above). Her second novel is a modern-day retelling of Much Ado About Nothing set at a Maine summer camp. Lots of mixed signals, crossed wires, teenage drama and a whole range of gender identities. So much fun.

In Conclusion, Don’t Worry About It, Lauren Graham
Does a commencement speech count as a book? I don’t know, but this one was lighthearted, fun and wise, as you might expect from Lorelai Gilmore. I’m trying to take her titular advice. Short and sweet – recommended for drama nerds and Gilmore Girls fans.

The Law of Finders Keepers, Sheila Turnage
Mo LoBeau and her Desperado Detectives are back, trying to locate both Blackbeard’s treasure and Mo’s long-lost birth mother. A sleazy treasure hunter, unexpected snow and several mysterious objects keep them plenty busy. This middle-grade series has so much heart, and I loved this fourth installment.

Joy Enough, Sarah McColl
Sarah used to write the wonderful blog Pink of Perfection, and I was excited to read her debut memoir. It is slim and tense and poignant: it is about her mother, love, grief and womanhood. Some luminous lines and some sections I really struggled with: beauty and frustration, like life. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 15).

Annelies, David R. Gillham
What if Anne Frank had survived? That is the question Gillham addresses in his new novel, as Anne tries to adjust to life in Amsterdam after the camps. Reunited with her father, but deeply traumatized, Anne struggles to make peace with her wartime experiences and move forward. This was a hard read: well done, but heavy, as you might expect. Anne did seem real to me, and Gillham renders postwar Amsterdam in vivid detail. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 15).

Saving Hamlet, Molly Booth
Emma Allen is looking forward to sophomore year and her school’s production of Hamlet. But everything starts going horribly wrong – and that’s before Emma falls through a (literal) unauthorized trapdoor and lands in Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, circa 1600, where everyone thinks she’s a boy. Time travel, Shakespeare, snarky friendships and budding romance – what’s not to love? I liked this even better than Nothing Happened.

Seafire, Natalie C. Parker
Caledonia Styx runs a tight ship: her female-only crew is fast, cohesive and skilled at staying alive. As they navigate the dangerous seas, Caledonia receives word that the brother she’d given up for dead may still be alive out there. A fast-paced beginning to a badass adventure trilogy. Recommended by Liberty.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

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may books 3

The Weird Sisters, Eleanor Brown
I love the story of the Andreas sisters, Rosalind, Bianca and Cordelia (daughters of a Shakespeare professor), who converge on their childhood home as their mother battles cancer. The first-person-plural voice is brilliant, the sleepy Ohio college town appealing, the characters richly layered. I spent a blissful weekend sinking into this story for the third time. (My book club had a great Skype discussion with the author last year.)

Sight Reading, Daphne Kalotay
A subtle, complicated story of love and classical music, following violinist Remy, composer Nicholas and several other people as their lives intertwine over two decades. It frustrated me that the characters were not always held responsible for their actions (Nicholas almost never), but I loved the descriptions of music, which is difficult to capture on the page (Kalotay is a trained musician). I also loved Kalotay’s debut, Russian Winter. (I received a copy of this book from the publisher, but was not compensated for this review.)

A Death in the Small Hours, Charles Finch
Charles Lenox, M.P., new father and erstwhile detective, escapes to his uncle’s Somerset estate to work on an important parliamentary speech. But a series of crimes in the nearby village tugs at his attention. With his protege, John Dallington, Lenox attempts to solve the case, write his speech, and also play in the village cricket match. A fun mystery, though I agree with Lenox that Parliament can get a little dull.

The Lucy Variations, Sara Zarr
Classical pianist Lucy Beck-Moreau achieved international fame by age 14. Then she abandoned her career, much to her family’s disappointment and her own confusion. But when her brother’s new piano teacher befriends Lucy, she starts wondering if she could return to music – for herself. Zarr brilliantly evokes the complications of following a vocation: family and personal pressure, burnout, a longing to create without strictures. She also sensitively explores Lucy’s relationship with Will, the (married) piano teacher. A wonderful read for creatives and young people.

The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, Stephen L. Carter
What if Abraham Lincoln had survived the assassination attempt at Ford’s Theatre? This alternate history, set in 1867, shows a country still reeling from the Civil War and arguing over how to treat the Southern states. Abigail Canner, young, ambitious and black, lands a job as a clerk in the law firm representing Lincoln at his impeachment trial. But when Lincoln’s lawyer is murdered, she finds herself drawn into a web of secrets and conspiracy theories. Tightly drawn courtroom scenes and an intriguing mystery, though I found the ending unsatisfying. (Reminded me of the film Lincoln – I saw and heard Daniel Day-Lewis in my head every time Lincoln himself appeared.)

Dinner: A Love Story: It all begins at the family table, Jenny Rosenstrach
I love Jenny’s blog and had heard rave reviews of this cookbook, and I wasn’t disappointed. Jenny traces her journey of family dinners (she has kept a dinner diary since 1998), from the pre-kid years to the baby/toddler years to “the years the angels began to sing” (read: when her daughters were finally able to hold both a fork and a conversation). Her essays are funny and relatable (I am also fanatical about family dinner), and the recipes look delicious. We’ve already made the Curried Chicken with Apples. Delectable.

Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic, Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
I rediscovered Mary Tyler Moore about two years ago, and fell deeply in love with the show. So I relished this behind-the-scenes peek into its conception and evolution, focusing mostly on its writers and producers. MTM hired many women writers (groundbreaking in the 1970s) and dealt with issues (divorce, the Pill, homosexuality) previously eschewed on TV. And as its fans know, it was also inspiring, smart, and a heck of a lot of fun. I loved the details of the show’s day-to-day workings and the relationships of its cast. (I’ve been re-watching a few episodes, which made the book even more enjoyable.)

How to Bake a Perfect Life, Barbara O’Neal
Ramona Gallagher has worked hard to raise a daughter on her own and run a successful bakery. But when her son-in-law is injured in Afghanistan, her daughter’s teenage stepdaughter ends up at Ramona’s house because she has nowhere else to go. Ramona must also deal with a series of maintenance issues and the reappearance of a lost love. An enjoyable family story, with a hint of magical realism and a few bread recipes. Fluffy but fun.

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Last week, my book club met to discuss The Weird Sisters, Eleanor Brown’s lovely debut novel about three adult sisters who return to the small Ohio college town where they grew up. Their father is a Shakespeare professor, singularly focused on his topic, and as a result the entire family (and the book) are steeped in the Bard.

Eleanor generously offered to join us via Skype (though she was traveling and also fighting a cold – what a trooper!). We talked about siblings, birth order, family dynamics and writing in first-person-plural voice. She confessed that while she did a ton of research for the book, she’s not a Shakespeare buff – in fact, she didn’t “get” him until seeing several of his plays in England while she was in graduate school.

“When I taught English, I refused to teach Shakespeare,” Eleanor added, “because I didn’t want to be the one who ruined Shakespeare for these kids.” That remark prompted a slew of reminiscences (and eye-rolling) from all of us about being forced to read Romeo and Juliet in ninth or tenth grade. (My college Shakespeare professor, on the first day of class, proclaimed, “We are not reading Romeo and Juliet. I hate it, and besides all of you have read it already!”)

We also talked about odd Shakespeare productions, referencing a very funny scene in The Weird Sisters in which the family discusses crazy productions they’ve seen, including an all-nude version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (which, fortunately, Eleanor said she made up). Abi recalled seeing a 1970s-themed production of Midsummer as a high school student (which, given the content of the play, actually worked). I remembered a decidedly strange production of Macbeth, set in what I think was 1950s Deep South America, at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C. (Shotguns, suits and rotary phones. It was bizarre.)

But my first encounter with Shakespeare came long before I ever saw him on stage – before I had any idea how famous he was, before I even knew his plays were set in verse. I discovered Shakespeare during long Ohio summers, sprawled across one of two beds in the upstairs room that was once my mother’s, languid summer breezes stirring the thick, humid air outside, box fans whirring in the windows. I discovered him through pen-and-ink illustrations, tinted with orange and jade green, through mischievous fairies and rollicking amateur actors and a sprite who had more energy than sense.

midsummer night's dream fairies titania my book house

Titania sleeps in a flower bed

midsummer night's dream bottom donkey fairies my book house

Bottom and the fairies

I’ve written before about the My Book House series – a treasure trove of folktales, nursery rhymes, Bible stories and adaptations of classic stories from around the world. I especially loved the middle books in the series, stuffed full of fairy tales, and I came back to this simple prose version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream every year. (And then – a wonderful bonus – turned the page to read about Felix Mendelssohn and how he composed the musical score after reading the play as a teenager.)

felix mendelssohn music midsummer night's dream my book house

Felix and his sister Fanny

I came back to Shakespeare years later, in school, reading Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, Hamlet, Macbeth and some sonnets. I acted in a production of The Rude Mechanicals (a crude adaptation of Midsummer) in ninth grade; the acting was pretty terrible, I admit, but we had fun. I took the aforementioned Shakespeare course in college, and saw a half-dozen summer Shakespeare productions put on by my college’s fabulous theatre department.

I don’t consider myself a Shakespeare buff – the Bard’s plots are often confusing, his language ornate and sometimes outdated to my ears. But I admire him deeply, the beauty and power of his words and the way his work has endured over centuries. And I’ve had a soft spot for this particular story ever since I was that little girl reading about Titania and the fairies on those long-ago summer days.

fairies midsummer night's dream my book house

When and where did you first encounter Shakespeare? And what’s the weirdest Shakespeare production you’ve ever seen?

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I mentioned recently, in my post about curating a library, that I treasure a few books passed on to me by people I love. I thought I’d share them with you, since treasures, after all, are meant to be shared.

My dad received a copy of Shakespeare’s Wisdom & Wit from a favorite junior college professor. (I think this was the same guy who’d put a totally random question on every test, and say with a smile, “Just pull that one out of your universal body of knowledge.”) It ended up in my Christmas stocking a few years ago – I think Santa and Dad knew how much I would love it. The inscription is wonderful:

I’ve loved the Betsy-Tacy series since I was a child – my sister is named after Betsy Ray, and I read and reread the first four books (though I don’t know where those copies are, actually). But my mom had an old library edition of Betsy and the Great World, and somehow it found its way from her bookshelf to mine, when I was in high school or college. I have the whole series now, the last six in HarperCollins’ gorgeous reissued paperbacks, but I cherish this copy, with its charcoal cover illustration depicting Betsy on her way to Europe and adventure.

After my sister and I outgrew naptime, we still had “quiet time” each afternoon during our summer visits to Mimi’s house in rural Missouri. I discovered No Children, No Pets in the hall closet one summer and curled up on the bed to read it – and giggled until my mom came in to ask what was so funny. I reread it every summer for at least 10 years, until Mimi finally gave me the book for my own. (I wouldn’t let her give it to me when I was younger – I wanted to keep it at her house. That was part of the magic.) I still reread it every year or two, always in the summer, and smile at the adventures of Jane, Betsy, Don and Mike in 1950s Florida.

Similarly, Neno’s house (that old blue farmhouse in Ohio) held some bookish treasures, including the entire My Book House collection, twelve volumes of nursery rhymes and fairy tales, folklore and Bible stories and adaptations of Dickens and Shakespeare (among others) for young readers. I fell in love with A Midsummer Night’s Dream because of these books, and read some of the fairy tales over and over again. They got packed in a box when my grandparents moved to Texas, but Neno pulled them out of a closet a couple of years ago, and passed them on to me. So precious.

Finally, when my great-grandma Ada (my mother’s grandmother) passed away, my grandparents gave my mom a few of her books to send to me. Some belonged to Ada, some to her mother, who I never knew. They are beautifully old, with spidery inscriptions in the handwriting of long-lost friends and relatives. I keep them on a table in the living room, and sometimes I wonder about the girls and young women who carried them, read them, wrote in them and loved them enough to keep them safe all this time.

Your turn. Any heirlooms – books or otherwise – that you treasure?

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In college, like any good English major, I took a Shakespeare course – and fortunately, I adored my professor, a witty, wise man with a self-deprecating sense of humor. He took neither himself nor Shakespeare too seriously, which I appreciated. However, I was surprised to hear him declare, during our first class, that he hated Romeo and Juliet.

He claimed it was one of Shakespeare’s worst-written plays, and refused to include it in our class curriculum because (a) he thought the story was lame and (b) most of us had already read it. I hadn’t liked Romeo and Juliet when I read it in high school, so skipping it was fine with me. (Do high school English teachers think reading a doomed love story will somehow calm and caution our raging adolescent hormones?) I was amazed, though, to hear a professor dismiss what’s supposed to be the greatest tragic love story of all time.

Recently I’ve revisited Romeo and Juliet through three adaptations: a movie, a book and a song. And while all three of them recast the story in different ways, making it smarter, funnier and more interesting, one major change is the same: this time, the star-crossed lovers get a happy ending.

Somehow I missed seeing the movie Letters to Juliet when it came out, so I recently watched it on my laptop, standing in the kitchen peeling butternut squash to make soup. I loved the smart, kind circle of women who serve as Juliet’s secretaries, and the spunky main character, Sophie, who insists on helping an elderly English lady find the Italian love she had lost fifty years before. I loved watching the sweet, if predictable, romance between the older folks unfold, and though I thought the ending was cheesy (did he really have to climb the balcony and then fall?), I was glad it ended happily for Sophie, too.

Embedded in the film, near the end, was a song I already loved: “Love Story,” by Taylor Swift. I love the dreamy music video and the wildly happy twist on the story’s ending (“I love you and that’s all I really know”). It’s the way we all wanted Romeo and Juliet to end, right?

A few weeks later I picked up Juliet by Anne Fortier, remembering my friend Amanda’s favorable review. I enjoyed the richly layered story of Julie Jacobs/Giulietta Tolomei, who discovers she’s descended from the real Juliet, and travels to Italy to uncover her history and search for a treasure. As you can probably guess, in the end she finds her own Romeo – and it ends much more happily for them than it did for Shakespeare’s two star-crossed teenagers. (Interspersed with fascinating historical flashbacks, unfortunately minus the happy ending.)

I know some women sigh over a love that made Romeo and Juliet kill themselves rather than live without each other. (At least, supposedly they do – I don’t know any woman who holds this love story up as a model for her own.) But I much prefer these adaptations, with their happy endings – no less hard won, but so much more satisfying.

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