Posts Tagged ‘Shakespeare’

Best New Books of 2014: Sharon S’s Picks

December 12, 2014

It is said that “Truth is stranger than fiction,” and to me it is just as interesting. I read fiction and nonfiction for the same reasons: to be entertained, instructed, and inspired. Here are my favorite new books for this year:

Pastor Needs a BooPastor Needs a Boo by Michele Andrea Bowen
A former FBI agent as well as a dedicated pastor, Denzelle Flowers of New Jerusalem Church in Durham got burned on the romance scene when his wife left him for a richer man. When the perfect Proverbs 31 woman shows up in his life he’s not ready to admit it, even though everyone else sees that she’s the one for him. Meanwhile, Pastor Denzelle decides to run for bishop, and has to pack both his gun and his Bible as major corruption sweeps through their denomination.

What Makes Olga Run?What Makes Olga Run? by Bruce Grierson
What makes a 93-year-old woman participate in track events worldwide, and set records that compare (in her age category) with those of the best athletes in the world? Well, she loves doing it, and her ability to do it stretches our stereotypes about aging. She is not alone—there are other “super seniors” like her around the world. Bruce Grierson leads us through a fascinating investigation of what keeps them going strong. See my full review.

William Shakespeare's Star WarsWilliam Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, a New Hope by Ian Doescher
Hang on to your lightsabers! Doescher cleverly conflates famous lines from Shakespeare with famous scenes from Star Wars, making for a blend of comedy and drama worthy of the Bard himself. What I like best is getting to see into the minds of the characters through the asides and soliloquys. The series is continued in The Empire Striketh Back and The Jedi Doth Return. My family and I have been reading it aloud to each other (my husband plays the role of Chewbacca, and my 12-year-old son plays R2D2). See my full review.

Life is a WheelLife is a Wheel: Love, Death, Etc., and a Bike Ride Across America by Bruce Weber
The death of his parents and other major changes shook Weber up and gave him a lot to think about concerning life, love, and death. It didn’t help matters that he had spent the last three years of his middle-aged life writing obituaries for The New York Times. He decided to do something to prove to himself that he was still alive and kicking — bike across America! I love books like this, where someone decides to do something semi-crazy, and I can go along for the ride without the expense or the sore leg muscles! Based on the daily blogs he sent back to the newspaper, this book is a very entertaining and interesting read.

The Owl Who Liked Sitting on CaesarThe Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar by Martin Windrow
One reason I like to read is to experience vicariously things I may never experience myself, or at least not in the same way. I love owls, and Martin Windrow gives me a window into what they are really like, close-up and personal. Mumbles is a charming little tawny owl who is nevertheless no pushover! I loved reading about her daily life, and her and Martin’s close relationship of many years. See my full review.

Still Star-Crossed by Melinda Taub

April 23, 2014

TodayStill Star-Crossed by Melinda Taub we celebrate Shakespeare’s 450th birthday and also World Book Night, which is always on his birthday.  What better way to celebrate than with a fresh take on one of Shakespeare’s most iconic plays?

Romeo and Juliet has been subject to dozens of adaptations and retellings – so many that it might be difficult to believe that one published just last year could have something new to say. Yet Melissa Taub manages it deftly in a painstakingly researched and imaginative young adult tale of what might have happened after the play’s conclusion.

Days after the events of the play, the truce reached by the houses of Capulet and Montague has fallen upon deaf ears among the young members of each family. Each house blames the other for the death toll; brawls and swordfights abound, and the city’s peace is at increasing risk. Prince Escalus is desperate to find a way to ensure that the pact between the lords of the houses is upheld. But he can’t think of anything other than ensuring a blood tie between them – a marriage between two living members of the families.

Not only is seventeen-year-old Rosaline Capulet mourning her cousin Juliet, she feels responsible for the deaths that occurred in Verona just days ago. After all, if she had accepted Romeo’s romantic advances, maybe he wouldn’t have tumbled into his doomed romance. Maybe she could have spared their city all this heartache. Benvolio hasn’t forgiven her, either. Romeo and Mercutio were his cousins and closest friends – he feels isolated at the loss of his Montague friends and wants revenge. Imagine the surprise and indignation of both youths when Escalus decides that the two of them are the best candidates to unite the houses, ending the feud once and for all. Now they just have to agree to the plan…

The genius of Taub’s story is all in the use of characters given little stage time in the play. She’s wonderful at taking the little we know about them and fleshing them out into full characters. Rosaline’s independence and family loyalty (hinted at in the original play) are admirable traits and help keep the tension going throughout the story, while Benvolio’s stubborn streak creates ongoing conflict. Taub uses Shakespearean dialect in dialogue, but modern language in description, helping immerse readers in the world of Shakespeare without making the book seem unapproachable. If you’re a big fan of Shakespeare (or love a good historical romance), this might be just the ticket!

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William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope by Ian Doescher

April 1, 2014

William Shakespeare's Star Wars: Verily A New HopeI was sure this book was a spoof, but I was delightfully surprised to find that Ian Doescher’s play is a serious work of art. While recasting the original story in Shakespearean style, Doescher has retained both the humor and the pathos of the famous film.

This is a marriage of true minds because both Lucas and Shakespeare draw upon motifs deeply rooted in our culture. Luke is the idealistic young hero who benefits from the wisdom of the sage, yet must find his own way. The sparring couple, Han and Leia, call to mind Kate and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew and Benedict and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. Like Shakespeare’s plays, Star Wars also has fierce hand-to-hand combat, noble sacrifice, mistaken identity, and cold-hearted villainy.

As to the poetry, I thought it would sound ridiculously stilted to tell a sci-fi story in Elizabethan cadences, but surprisingly it does not. In fact, recasting Star Wars as a Shakespearean drama added a new level of meaning for me. The asides and soliloquies that Doescher adds flesh out the emotions and thought processes that are only hinted at in the movie. Take, for example, this soliloquy from Luke when he discovers the smoldering bodies of his aunt and uncle on Tatooine and tries to adjust his mind to his new destiny:

. . . Forward marches Fate, not the reverse.
So while I cannot wish for them to live,
I can my life commit unto their peace.
Thus shall I undertake to do them proud
And take whate’er adventure comes my way.
‘Tis now my burden, so I’ll wear it well,
And to the great Rebellion give my life.
A Jedi shall I be, in all things brave—
And thus shall they be honor’d in their grave.

As in the movie and in Shakespeare, this high drama is balanced by plenty of buffoonery and trading of colorful insults, as when C3PO expostulates with R2-D2: “Be not thou technical with me, / Or else thine input valve may swift receive / A hearty helping of my golden foot.” Sometimes the humor originates in well-known Shakespearean lines recast by Doescher, as when Luke and Han examine the instrument panel of the Milennium Falcon:

LUKE: . . . What light through yonder flashing sensor breaks?
HAN: It marks the loss of yon deflector shield.
I bid thee, peace! Now sit and thou take heed,
For all’s prepared to jump unto lightspeed.

For those who love both Star Wars and the Bard, this play is a treat. Prithee, read it now, and thou shalt yearn / For The Empire Striketh Back and The Jedi Doth Return!

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Macbeth by William Shakespeare

February 11, 2014

In William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the drama is presented with stark economy. The intensity of the play – the turmoil, the treachery, the succession battles, and the general blood bath – embraces the audience like a feverish nightmare that is nearly impossible to wake up from. And when it is all over the play lingers – as it has done, no doubt, since its first performance in 1606.

Shakespeare’s tale was inspired by a regicide and other events in 11th-century Scotland. What actually took place and what is legend is difficult to know for certain;  at least in detail. However, the general tendencies of the era are less vague. Emerging ideas of national unity and kingship were competing with civil disorder caused by battles for power among local warlords, and struggles over succession often resulted in ruthless wars.

In the play, Macbeth is initially a loyal general to king Duncan. But after being flattered by three witches and their auguring, and his own wife, Macbeth becomes convinced that murdering the king and taking over the throne is the right thing to do. Blinded by ambition and narcissism, Macbeth gets involved in one murderous act after another, seemingly unable to put a stop to the slayings, and the paranoia and suspicions of political power take over life in the court. It becomes clear that there is only one way out for Macbeth, and that way can be found at the end of a sword.

Typically for Shakespeare (and his time), the audience is offered a reassuring conclusion in which a just political authority triumphs. The kings who attended the world premiere, King James I of England and King Christian of Denmark, would have been well pleased with the finale. But the play does ask some unnerving questions about the price of power, and they remain valid to this day.

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Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt

August 21, 2013

The great Jorge Luis Borges once said, “Magnification to the point of nothingness comes about or tends to come about in all cults.” And he goes on to say, “We see it, unequivocally, in the case of Shakespeare.”

Ben Jonson said that he loved William Shakespeare “on this side of Idolatry,” and over time the reverence for the man took on God-like proportions. Victor Hugo compared him to the ocean, the seedbed of all possible forms (!) and some have pointed out that Shakespeare uses more unique words than the King James Version of The Bible. Conclusion: Shakespeare has a better vocabulary than God does.

Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt, famous for being one of the founders of the literary theory known as New Historicism, has spent a great deal of his life studying the Bard, and Will in the World is his ambitious and well researched love letter to Shakespeare. This passionate book is a wild mix of creative non-fiction, essay, literary criticism, and literary theory. And upon finishing the story, the reader has learned a great deal about both William Shakespeare and Stephen Greenblatt, for ultimately the professor is the Gatekeeper of this book. The professor says, “[To] understand how Shakespeare used his imagination to transform his life into art, it is important to use our own imagination,” and what matters, Greenblatt claims, is “not the degree of evidence but rather the imaginative life that [an] incident has.”

What matters is not the true story, but a good story.

This approach understandably made many academics go berserk (figuratively speaking!), but the book was at least partly exceptionally well received amongst critics and readers (and it became an instant best seller). Will in the World is a story about William Shakespeare and the world he lived in, and the Shakespeare that emerges is not unlike the Shakespeare that appears in one of Jorge Luis Borges’ texts: a man who was many and no one.

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Juliet by Anne Fortier

February 3, 2012

Anne Fortier’s debut novel combines the diverse elements of history, romance, travel and dangerous adventure into one brilliantly told tale. Parallel narratives tell the story of a contemporary young woman and a tragic love story that occurs in medieval Italy.

After the untimely death of their parents in Italy, infant twins Julie and Janice Jacobs are reared in Virginia by their doting great Aunt Rose and her faithful and ever present man servant Umberto.  Though identical twins, Julie and Janice are opposites in temperament, personality and interests. Their relationship is cantankerous and marred by constant bickering.

Reunited at Aunt Rose’s funeral, their animosity increases when Julie discovers her inheritance is only a key to a safety deposit box in Siena Italy. Flighty, fashionable and promiscuous Janice has inherited all of Aunt Rose’s extensive estate.  Julie is left heartbroken and destitute by this turn of events.   Unbeknownst to Julie, that key leads her on an adventure which unveils the root of her family’s obsession with Romeo and Juliette.

The reader is transported to Siena, Italy during the 1300’s, where life is brimming with violence, superstition and family vendettas.  Julie’s quest for a lost treasure is entwined with this past, placing her in mortal danger.

Fortier engages her reader with alternating chapters that interweave the modern story of Julie and her ancestor Giulietta Tolomei.  Fortier’s writing vividly portrays both time periods of Italy, her well drawn characters come to life for the reader and the suspenseful plot keeps you turning pages.

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The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown

October 6, 2011

“See, we love each other. We just don’t happen to like each other very much.” The quote on the cover of Weird Sisters is what caught my eye and prompted me to pick it up off of the shelf. I don’t often read family saga novels, but this one was an appreciated exception to the rule. The novel centers around three sisters Rose, Bean, and Cordy. After growing up in a household where books reigned supreme and Dad offered advice and guidance by citing the words of Shakespeare, they have opted to take three very different paths in life. Rose, as the oldest daughter, is the responsible one who stayed close to home to care for her aging parents, while Bean headed straight for the biggest brightest lights she can find and Cordy, the baby of the family, has spent her adult life so far drifting from situation to situation and town to town, seemingly seeking a place where she feels like she belongs. When personal crises and their mother’s illness bring Cordy and Bean back home, the three must learn to live with the unique quirks of their family again while they continue to tackle the personal issues that they brought home with them.

The story is a worthwhile read for anyone, but perhaps especially so if you have siblings. It was easy to get wrapped up in the characters as I found myself hoping that Rose would make the same decision I would have while doubting that she would, or mentally rolling my eyes at Bean’s escapades.  You quickly realize that this isn’t the story of each individual sister but rather the story of the sisters collectively, and for this reason, it works.

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