Last Week’s Reading: January 15-21

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A dystopian classic, two collections by Poets Laureate, sci-fi shorts, a nonfiction juggernaut, and a powerful play.

Well, Dear Readers, here we are. And here’s what I read last week.

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood: Even more frightening now than when I first read it ten years ago. If you haven’t read this classic yet, now might be a pretty good time.

On the Bus with Rosa Parks, by Rita Dove: I bought this collection in Denver last year, and finally read it on Martin Luther King Day. It’s excellent, particularly in the way the title sequence allows us to see the sweep of historical events through individual experience. The poems grouped in “Cameos” and “Black on a Saturday Night” reminded me of Natasha Trethewey’s Domestic Work; you might try reading the collections together. And bookish folk will love the poems “Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967” and  “The First Book.”

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot: I finally got a library card for our new city’s system, and then proceeded (finally) to read this medical and social history that practically everyone else has read in the six or so year since it came out. I was impressed by the volume of research Ms. Skloot conducted and the sensitivity with which she handled the stories of Henrietta Lacks’s family, but I did wish for more background on cell science and advances made with HeLa cells. If you read the book when it came out, you might want to head over to this website to read updates about the project.

Arrival (original published as Stories of Your Life and Others), by Ted Chiang: I bought this collection because I very much want to see Arrival (unfortunately, I missed it in theaters), and I like to read source material first. “Story of Your Life,” which is the basis for the movie, is exceptionally good, one of the very best short stories—though it feels like a super-compressed novel—I’ve ever read. Stunning, and by that I mean I felt stunned after I read it. Also very impressive was “Tower of Babylon,” which leads off the collection. The other six stories (most of the stories in the book are very long for short stories, by the way) were interesting, but not quite my cup of tea, stylistically; they seemed, with exception of “Seventy-two Letters,” like sustained thought experiments. All the stories, however, reveal a deeply thoughtful mind at work, and offer more questions than answers; I’m glad I read them.

The Laramie Project, by Moisés Kaufman and the Members of Tectonic Theater Project: This play must have been (must be) incredibly powerful in performance. It’s an exploration of Laramie, Wyoming’s reaction to the brutal murder of Matthew Shepherd in 1998. The members of the theater group traveled to Wyoming six times in eighteen months to interview friends of Matthew, friends of the perpetrators, police officers, students, religious leaders, and other townspeople; the words gathered in the interviews were shaped into the work. The Laramie Project is an act of radical witness; it’s impossible not to be moved by it.

Notes on the Assemblage, by Juan Felipe Herrera (current United States Poet Laureate): The poems in this collection are political and personal, full of lamentation and exuberance. You’ll find calls to action, pleas for remembrance, elegies, riffs that feel like jazz, Spanish and English talking to each other and not speaking. “Borderbus” was for me the standout poem—heartbreaking and unforgettable.


P. S. Given the busy news cycle this weekend, you might not have focused on the destructive and deadly storms in the South this weekend. If you’d like to support disaster relief efforts, here’s a link to the Red Cross donations page.  You can also check out Pinebelt Relief.

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, Dear Readers. See you next week.

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Recommended Reading: Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood

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When Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed* arrived in the mail, I could barely contain my glee. Margaret Atwood (the Helen Mirren of authors, as I sometimes think of her) taking on Shakespeare? Yes please!

Hag-Seed photo by Carolyn OliverHag-Seed lived up to all my expectations (and it’s the best so far in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, too). I highly recommend the book (and teachers, it would be fabulous to teach alongside its source material), which is often funny, often touching, often a rollicking good time (especially for Shakespeare aficionados), and always thoughtful. It’s a tour-de-force reimagining of The Tempest, and like the original, a provocative examination of theatre, authorship, imprisonment, revenge, and grief.

Felix Phillips is the impresario Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival. His productions have been beyond avant garde (audience complaints include “Did Lear have to take off all his clothes?”; Felix thinks, “What was so bad about Macbeth done with chainsaws? Topical. Direct.”), and after the sudden loss of his beloved daughter, Miranda, he throws himself into the play he thinks will bring her back to life: The Tempest. However, he’s so caught up in preparations that he doesn’t notice the machinations of Tony Price, his glad-handing lieutenant, who, with the help of Lonnie Gordon, the Chairman of the Board, subsequently ousts Felix from his position.

Despondent, Felix retreats to a hovel in the Canadian backwoods, contemplating revenge and building a new life as “Mr. Duke.” As his alter-ego—which is of course Prospero, as he knows—he takes a job teaching Shakespeare through performance to prison inmates. Years pass, but when Tony and Lonnie seem poised to pass within his orbit, Felix hatches his revenge plot—and begins to teach The Tempest to the Fletcher Correctional Players.

Hag-Seed is delightfully layered; it’s a novel whose plot is taken from a play, and in the novel the characters are enacting the play as they prepare to enact the play (got that?). And by writing Felix teaching his players The Tempest, and respecting their (varied) readings of it, Margaret Atwood is teaching us about the text and its interpretations—while also conveying the importance of literature in prisons. “It’s the words that should concern you [. . . ] That’s the real danger. Words don’t show up on scanners,” Felix thinks, going through the metal detectors and chatting with the guards.  Atwood is, of course, fascinated with imprisonment (The Handmaid’s Tale, The Heart Goes Last, Alias Grace), so it’s a treat to watch her teasing out the power relationships in the novel (and in The Tempest).  It is, as the kids used to say, very meta.

As some reviewers have noted, the minor players are not remarkably distinct from each other; our knowledge of their backgrounds is limited. While that might be a fault in a standalone novel, to me this decision makes sense given the source material. Without picking up your Collected Works, can you recall how Stephano and Trinculo differ?

There are, of course, departures from Shakespeare’s play. Felix is animated not only by revenge and a desire to reclaim his position, but also, most importantly, by grief (in a way that Prospero is not). For Felix, staging The Tempest is a way to make Miranda live again, to take substance, almost. During his years of exile, his imagining of the lost girl is a ghost, a spirit, gradually transforming into Ariel whispering in his ear.

And Prospero, in these years of exile, is Caliban, misshapen by grief and the thirst for vengeance, pinched by loneliness into a new version of his former wild self, but able to call up sweet music and language all the same.  That’s why (I believe) the book is called Hag-Seed, after one of Prospero’s epithets for Caliban; the word brings them together, and means, of course, the child of a witch. And what is Atwood if not a conjuror, and what are her books if not progeny that cannot die?

Related:

My take on Margaret Atwood’s most recent previous novel, The Heart Goes Last (which I read as a take on Milton)

Review of Vinegar Girl, Anne Tyler’s novelization of The Taming of the Shrew

Review of The Gap of Time, Jeanette Winterson’s retelling of The Winter’s Tale

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.

Books, Boston, October

Well, Dear Readers, I’ve had quite the literary month, getting out and about much more than I usually do in my quiet life. Perhaps you’d like the rundown? If so:

Hamlet: Yes, that one. I thought, London travel not exactly in my budget, that Benedict Cumberbatch as the brooding Dane was not a performance I’d be able to see. And then by chance I heard it was going to show in movie theaters, after which I promptly bought the last two tickets for that showing.

Verdict: Very good. Mr. Cumberbatch was intense, thrilling, athletic, funny, outshining most of the cast with the exception of the fabulous Ciarán Hinds (aka Frederick Wentworth in the only film adaptation of Persuasion you need to see) as Claudius. I wasn’t sold on this production’s take on Ophelia (played a bit unhinged before Polonius’s death), but her final exit was remarkably well done. I agree with the review my husband told me about later that suggested the play was overproduced after intermission. Still, nice set design, and I liked the costuming, which seemed like a bit of an homage to various earlier interpretations of the play. Funniest Rosencrantz (or was it Guildenstern?) I’ve ever seen.

I hear it’s coming back to theaters; if so, do go.

Nick Offerman: Okay, technically he was doing his humorist act (sans spouse Megan Mullally, sigh), but I’m calling this literary since he’s written two books (one of which is waiting on my nightstand/bookshelf to be read) and he’s in rehearsals for a Boston theatrical adaptation of A Confederacy of Dunces.

Verdict: Very Good. Funny (of course), with ridiculous songs, anecdotes, life advice, talk of woodworking, etc. Basically, it was like watching an alternate-universe version of Ron Swanson who actually enjoys the company of others. Best moment: He didn’t mention Parks & Rec until the very end (and you know how much I love that show, right?), but then had the entire audience singing along to “Bye, Bye Lil’ Sebastian.” Yeah, it was amazing.

Boston Book Festival

This is the first year I’ve been able to spend more than ten minutes at the BBF, and I’m very glad I did, though I din’t see much of the vendors (magazines, small presses, etc.) since they tore down pretty early on Saturday evening (just after 5). However . . .

Margaret Atwood in conversation with Kelly Link: So happy I got tickets this summer, because the crowd was huge (and appreciative).

Verdict: Excellent. Margaret Atwood is hilarious–just truly, wickedly funny, and Kelly Link was understatedly comic as she asked really interesting questions. I was expecting the conversation to focus mostly on The Heart Goes Last, Ms. Atwood’s most recent book, but instead it ranged over her childhood reading habits, how she approaches writing (like going into a dark wood, and with a character or scene in mind, not a message), reading the Victorians, and more. Wonderful. And bonus: both writers did a signing afterward, and Ms. Atwood signed my 1970 copy of an early book of poems (yes, I did tell her that I liked her Milton references in the new book, and she said “I’m glad.” Swoon).

James Wood: Mr. Wood is a professor at Harvard and a literary critic for the New Yorker; some would argue (and have) that he’s the foremost literary critic writing in English. His approach is aesthetic rather than, say, historical or psychological.

Verdict: Very good. I haven’t heard an academic talk in quite some time, and this one was geared toward a wide audience, but one that would understand references to Flaubert and Nabokov, for instance. Mr. Wood talked about detail in fiction—why details stick with us after we read, how they function, why they function. Fascinating (and just when I was starting to worry that he wasn’t going to mention any woman writers, he referred to nearly half a dozen). He also did a signing at the end of the event, which was delightful since I’d just picked up his new book (The Nearest Thing to Life).

Colum McCann in conversation with Claire Messud: Amazingly, given how popular these two authors are, this event wasn’t ticketed, but there was once more a lively and interested crowd (great job by the BBF organizers in making sure the audio was top-notch). Colum McCann’s most lauded book to date is probably Let the Great World Spin (I haven’t read it, but loved Everything in This Country Must). Claire Messud is an acclaimed novelist, most recently of The Woman Upstairs (she also happens to be married to James Wood, who spoke just before this event).

Verdict: Good. The writers are friends and former colleaugues, which made for a relaxed rapport. Mr. McCann read from his new book (Thirteen Ways of Looking), and while his reading was very well done and affecting, I though it slowed down the pace of the conversation. I was interested to learn about the charity called Narrative 4 that he works co-founded, and saddened to hear of a terrible incident in which he was brutally beaten for trying to stop a man from beating his wife.

Amanda Palmer interviewed by Neil Gaiman: I’ll be honest with you, Dear Readers: I came for Neil Gaiman, one of the most reliably readable authors working today. And charming and philanthropic and all that good stuff. To be honest, I had, before hearing this talk, almost no opinion on Amanda Palmer (Mr. Gaiman is her husband), though I know she provokes Feelings of all sorts in various people (generally love or hate, from what I can tell).

Verdict: Very good. Ms. Palmer talked about the process of writing her memoir, The Art of Asking, and seemed no more self-indulgent than anyone else who’s interested in writing a memoir. She was genuine, honest (as far as this listener could tell), amusing, and shared a charming rapport with Mr. Gaiman. At the end of the talk, I decided I’d rather like to read her book, so well done there. Bonus: An appearance by Maria Popova (of Brain Pickings, which I commend to you; Ms. Popova has every metaphysician/Jeopardy nerd’s dream job), tempered slightly by I think a too-rosy view of Thoreau. Bonus 2: Ms. Palmer sang, and I loved her voice, which I was hearing for the first time (yes, your friendly neighborhood blogger was not cool enough to be listening to the Dresden Dolls in high school).

[Boston book blogging friends: Meet up next year at the 2016 Boston Book Festival?]

Whew. And that’s all she wrote. For now.

“free it when they are freed”: Marianne Moore’s “The Paper Nautilus”

photo (2)I had wonderful luck at a bookstore yesterday, finding The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore and Margaret Atwood’s Selected Poems (1965-1975), which is particularly excellent because I already had the companion volume, and wondered if I’d ever come across the first volume in the wild.

Marianne Moore is one of America’s most revered poets, but I am afraid that my knowledge of her work is quite limited, so I’m happy to have the chance to puzzle over some of her very fine poetry. Her images are deep and complex, and her subjects often begin with animals, as in “The Paper Nautilus,” the poem I’m thinking about this week. At first I thought that the animal in question was a variety of nautilus, but the reference to “eight arms” tipped me off that it’s a type of octopus, named after its egg case, which Moore so beautifully describes. That was just the first of many surprises in a poem that turns and undulates like the argonaut underwater.

“The Paper Nautilus” is a fascinating, multi-layered poem that I feel I’m just beginning to get a feel for. I hope you’ll tell me what you think.

In Brief: (Less) Recent Reads

Herewith, Dear Readers, a gathering of books I recommend and have been meaning to write about for months, in no particular order.

photo 2 (1)The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky

Perfect for: Almost anyone who has experienced or is currently experiencing adolescence.

I wish my high school’s sophomore English class had included this book in the curriculum instead of The Catcher in the Rye, but I suppose there are about ten reason that would never have happened (including the fact that The Perks of Being a Wallflower came out the same year that I started the tenth grade, so not a lot of vetting time there . . .). Charlie is far and away more interesting and less self-centered than Holden Caulfield; he’s a gifted, introverted teenager who befriends some of his high school’s gloriously interesting misfits during his freshman year. Life lessons ensue, as they tend to do in bildungsroman. I loved the book’s emphasis on compassion; it’s the kind of YA novel I’m going to leave on the shelf in the hope that my son will pick it up someday and find it useful. Bonus: It’s an epistolary novel.

photo 3Barracuda*, by Christos Tsiolkas

Perfect for: Anyone who needs to get out of a reading rut.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this novel. It might sound strange, but it’s incredibly refreshing to read a book that’s about rage, which seems to be Danny Kelly’s primary emotion. Danny is an teenage Australian swimmer who dreams of making it to the Olympics; thankfully, there’s no swelling inspirational music in this tightly-plotted, intricately structured novel. Danny is almost totally unlikable, but so utterly fascinating that it doesn’t matter. Rage isn’t a primary emotion; it’s a symptom of the mess of feelings roiling beneath the surface. Mr. Tsiolkas brings those feelings to brilliant life.  I’m not Australian, and the look into modern Australian culture in this novel was a real eye-opener. No koalas, no kangaroos.

photo 1 (1)Em and the Big Hoom**, by Jerry Pinto

Perfect for: Anyone looking for a novel off the beaten path.

Published in the U.S. this year, Jerry Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom is a moving, raw, funny, and tender portrait of a family in crisis, set in modern Bombay. Mr. Pinto uses dialogue, interviews, stories, and anecdotes to create a collage-like portrait of Em, who suffers from bipolar disorder, her husband the Big Hoom, and their children. Em’s shifting moods and crippling depressions leave the family on edge, and the novel is framed as her son’s attempt to understand his mother’s mind. The dialogue is absolutely brilliant, and I kept marking passages to return to later– at least fifty in a very slim volume. Jerry Pinto isn’t as well known here as he should be, and I hope that changes soon.

photo 4Stone Mattress: Nine Tales, by Margaret Atwood

Perfect for: Anyone.***

Margaret Atwood. Short stories almost entirely about older people. Killer last lines. Need I say more?

 

 

 

 

 

*I received this book through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program, which did not affect the content of my review.

** I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

*** Okay, not kids.

The Poetry Concierge Recommends Margaret Atwood

[The Poetry Concierge is an occasional feature here on Rosemary and Reading Glasses wherein I select a poem, poet, or book of poems for individual readers based on a short questionnaire. Come play along! Read the introductory post here, my first recommendation here, and then email me at: rosemaryandreadingglasses [at] gmail [dot] com. ]

This week, our pilgrim in search of poetry is Naomi, who blogs about books over at Consumed by Ink.

1. When you read fiction, who’s your go-to author?

Already, this is a hard question.  I don’t do a lot of re-reading, but there are some authors who I’ve read many of their books:  Margaret Atwood, Ann Patchett, Geraldine Brooks, L. M. Montgomery, Lois Lowry, Michael Crummey.

2. If you read nonfiction, which subjects are most likely to interest you? (cultural history, science, biography, memoir, survival stories?)

Probably memoirs, survival stories, and historical figures.

3. If you were stuck on a desert island for a week, which five books would you bring to keep you entertained?

Ok, a week isn’t too long.  I would probably want to bring 5 books I haven’t read yet, which means I don’t know what they’d be.  A couple on my TBR pile that would be good to bring to a desert island would be Rockbound by Frank Day and The Republic of Nothing by Lesley Choyce. Nothing scary or spooky please.  Maybe something funny, like Christopher Moore and another Will Ferguson book.  One more-maybe a good love story.

4. If you were on a five-year mission to Mars, which five books would you bring to keep you sane?
5 years is much longer than a week, so I would have to either bring books that I know I would like to re-read, or bring some big chunksters.  I have never read Middlemarch, so maybe that one.  A big, fat Dickens to take my time with.  Jane Eyre would be nice to have – I would definitely re-read that one.  The Time Traveler’s wife, so I would have lots of time to get it all straight.  Lastly, either Roots or Lonesome Dove.  I have never read Lonesome Dove, and my mother says I should, but if I took Roots I would know that I already love it.  If I was allowed to count a series as 1 book (which I probably am not), I would bring the Anne books.

5. What kinds of questions are most likely to keep you up at night? (death, the nature of love, politics, environmental issues, meaning of life, end of the world, justice and injustice, etc?)
 

I’m most likely to be kept up at night thinking about the nature of love, or environmental issues and how they will someday affect the way we live.  Also, I sometimes try to make sense of societal rules, and how I might like to change some of them.

6. If you’ve read poetry before, what have you liked? What have you disliked?

I don’t like poetry that takes a long time to figure out what the person is getting at.  So, I like to be able to know what the poet is saying, whether she’s describing something or telling a story.  When I think of poetry I like, I always think of A.A. Milne’s poems for children (no laughing).  I still love them, and have several memorized. Also, I just thought I would add a little challenge for you.  Along with whatever you choose for me, do you think you might also be able to come up with a Canadian suggestion as well?  If possible.  I actually had been looking at the library for one to read for this month, but didn’t have any luck. 


For Naomi, I’m recommending a Canadian poet who’s more famous for her novels: Margaret Atwood. Yes, THE Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, The Blind Assassin, and Oryx and Crake, among many other highly-regarded novels. Ms. Atwood is also a distinguished poet whose collections include The Circle Game, The Animals in That Country, Morning in the Burned House, and, most recently, The Door.

(I almost feel like I’m cheating since Naomi wrote in first answer that Margaret Atwood is one of her go-to novelists, but then again, the questionnaire is meant to be revelatory, right?)

I also think Ms. Atwood’s work is right for Naomi because of their mutual interest in environmental issues and social justice. And Naomi’s pick of Christopher Moore as an author whose novel she’d take to a desert island tells me that she has a great sense of humor, and Margaret Atwood’s work is full of humorous touches. Furthermore, some of the authors and books Naomi singled out for attention deal with women who are isolated in some way, like Jane Eyre, or Anne Shirley (as in Anne of Green Gables); the speaker of the particular poem I’ve picked out for Naomi (though I’m recommending Margaret Atwood’s work as a whole) feels isolated by her profession.

Here’s “The Loneliness of the Military Historian,” by Margaret Atwood.

Naomi, I hope you’ll like this poem’s careful deployment of startling imagery, the strong narrative voice, and its message. Thanks for writing in!


 

Would you like the Poetry Concierge to make a recommendation for you? Check out the introductory post, and send your answers to the questionnaire, along with the name and/or blog you’d like posted with the reply, to rosemaryandreadingglasses [at] gmail [dot] com.

What are your favorite first lines?

Yesterday, my friend Kori pointed me to a piece in the Atlantic in which authors choose their favorite opening lines, and write little paragraphs about their reasoning, or, in Margaret Atwood’s case, a tweet:

“Call me Ishmael.” 3 words. Power-packed. Why Ishmael? It’s not his real name. Who’s he speaking to? Eh?

That’s my favorite of the lot. My own favorite first line, however, is a tossup between Hamlet and Jane Eyre.

Hamlet begins with Bernardo’s challenge, “Who’s there?” — and the interpretive possibilities are endless. Is he afraid? Full of bravado? Why is a soldier, on duty in his own kingdom, challenging someone else in uniform? Is it nighttime? Is he speaking to us, the audience? Who’s the “who”? How do we define ourselves? How do we answer?

Shakespeare offers at least as many questions in two words as Melville does in three.

Now, on to Jane Eyre: “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” Why not? Who was planning on walking? What’s the significance of “that” day?

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

This line has more meaning as you progress through the novel (and if you haven’t, now’s the time to stop reading this post so I don’t ruin the experience for you. And seriously, go read Jane Eyre!).

Of course, “that” day is the day that John Reed throws a book at Jane’s head and Mrs. Reed sends Jane to the Red Room, which precipitates her move to Lowood, and, eventually, Thornfield Hall. And while Jane and her cousins remain inside on account of the rain, in a few short weeks, she and the other unfortunate girls at Lowood will be exposed to all manner of the elements. Jane often walks when others think she ought not to, or when she has no other choice. For instance, it’s on a long walk alone (despite the protestations of Mrs. Fairfax) that she meets Mr. Rochester, and it’s alone again that she makes her way through the fields to the Riverses’ cottage.

But where would Jane have ended up if she had been able to walk that day?

What are your favorite first lines?