Wednesday, April 30, 2008


I'm a big fan of Shakespeare. I've studied his work, I've taken multiple Shakespearean acting classes - I'll watch any play, I've been to Stratford. I've been to the Globe. I love it when people do interesting things with his plays, like set them in various time periods, play around with costumes, with gender roles - whatever - I love it all - because his work is so transcendent - his themes are timeless.

So, when I saw Ophelia, by Lisa Klein, I thought - why not? The back of the book told how it was a "reimagining" of Hamlet and read blah blah blah In desperation, Ophelia devises a treacherous plan to escape from Elsinore forever... with one very dangerous secret. That could only mean one thing - that somehow Ophelia does not drown, but rather skips town, pregnant with Hamlet's baby.

Spoiler alert: that's exactly what happens.

Hamlet, the play, is like the perfect story - it begins and ends at the perfect time. It begins: Hamlet's dad is dead, everything's in turmoil - it begins with a question: Who's there? It ends with one hell of curtain drop: everybody's dead. One of the big problems with Ophelia is that it starts way before the perfect beginning, and it ends way after the proper ending. It's unfortunate that Ophelia, like most of the women in Shakespeare's plays, has little character development. It's natural to want to tell more of her story, but I think where Klein goes wrong is trying to hard to match her novel to the play (there are some really lame bits, where, for example, Ophelia might wander by someone and overhear them saying something like, "The play's the thing!") whereby it's necessary for Hamlet and Ophelia to merely pretend that they are "mad." It felt as if she were fighting too hard against the play instead of just moving ahead with her own narrative.

In Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, he works with the play, not struggling to explain or work around the difficult sections, but embracing them for all their absurdity.

About half way through, it occurred to me that maybe Ophelia was meant to be a YA book, which, it turns out, it is. I don't necessarily think that a book that's meant for younger people is or should be inherently more simple or readable, and it irks me that this simple book is meant for teens. A dumbed-down version of Shakespeare benefits no one. I wouldn't recommend it to either young or older readers, simply because it's not intellectually satisfying. It doesn't elaborate on the themes of Hamlet, it doesn't offer new ideas, and the plot's beyond dumb.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Household Saints

Household Saints (1981) is a lovely little novel by Francine Prose. I've also read Prose's Blue Angel, which was supposed to have been titillating but I found completely forgettable. It turns out the most titillating bit was the cover.

Really good cover.

Household Saints is about a group of Italian-Americans, religion, superstition, food, and family. I love reading about other cultures, and this book neatly fit the bill. The characters are those imperfect yet lovable galoots - the main character is a cheating butcher who plays pinochle, you get the idea...

The book manages to transcend mere problems with the mother-in-law, and Prose's ... uh, prose is simple and elegant. What I found interesting was how religion and spirituality played out in the book. Within one family, the daughter is very religious, but the parents are not, causing some conflict. The extent of their religion (they are not a-religious) was never really in question until they had a saint-like daughter. Having a saint-like daughter makes them both more and less religious than they were before.

While religion is a major theme in Prose's book, it's not a morality tale (Thank God! - ha) and doesn't read like (heaven forbid [somebody stop me!]) Christian lit.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Book of Other People

The Book of Other People is a book of short stories edited by Zadie Smith. Smith writes in her introduction that the only guideline was to "make somebody up" and that the writers donate the stories on behalf of 826 New York, to whom all the proceeds of sale go, apparently. If you're not familiar with the various 826 organizations, you really should check it out. It's an amazing program to help young people, and to stir the creative juices. It was started by Dave Eggers, and, not surprisingly, he and and a lot of other hot young writers (what I wouldn't give to be part of that social group) are featured in The Book of Other People.

Unlike Atwood's Moral Disorder, which, to me, called out to be read front to back, The Book of Other People is merely arranged by character's name, and can be read in any random order without fear upsetting any balance. Skip ahead to A. M. Homes's Cindy Stubenstock, a fabulous story about Ladies Who Buy Art - delicious sort of name-dropping stuff that really made me laugh:
   "We're going from day to night - swapping all the black paintings for white, we sold the Motherwells and the Stills and now she's bringing in Ryman, Richter and a Whiteread bookcase."
    "Sounds great - very relaxing - no color at all."
    "I heard you bought a Renoir in London."
    "We had a good year. I like it so much I want to fuck it."
    "When we got our Rothko - we had sex on the floor in front of it."
Skip the Nick Hornby, it doesn't make any sense. There are several tales told in graphic novel style - one by Daniel Clowes and the other by C. Ware - both terrific.

I'm crazy about Smith's Hanwell Snr, which I wrote about after it was published in the New Yorker. It's worth the price of the book, if you ask me.

Moral Disorder

Moral Disorder (2006) is a book of short stories by perhaps my favorite author, Margaret Atwood. I love her novels, but after reading The Tent and The Penelopiad, I've gained a greater appreciation for her shorter work.

Moral Disorder is a slightly unusual set of short stories because they share a through-line of one character. They are not in "order" of this woman's life, but jump around from various points, and, at times, even spring unexpectedly into the distant past. I thought it was interesting that she chose to write this woman's story in pieces (and how, anyway, can you really sum up a life in 250 pages?) Sometimes I like to skip around when I'm reading short stories, but these were kind of fun to read in order - it seemed that even though they were not chronological, that there was some reason they were in that order.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Hard Times

There's a great article in Bitch magazine, Hard Times by Sarah Seltzer, that addresses the disparity of books by women and reviews by women vs. books and reviews by men in the NYT Book Review. She also lists some misogynist comments by reviews to recent feminist books - the sort of knee-jerk reactions to everyday feminism that we'd like to think the Times would be above. She quotes Toni Bentley’s review of Katha Pollitt’s Learning to Drive:
“An enraged, educated woman (Vagina dentata intellectualis)…is a force to be reckoned with, a kind of intellectual Mike Tyson—though, apparently, she is still not as likely to be seduced into bed as the bombshell bimbo, one reason she’s so irate.”
Vagina dentata intellectualis! Excuse me while I change the name of my blog!

I read a lot of book reviews, and I listen to a fairly ridiculous amount of short stories and fiction on my 'pod, and let me tell you - the number one complaint, the perhaps single complaint I have is that there are not enough women writers being recognized. I don't know why people think "feminism" is such a dirty word - they love to be the first to act like a feminist is some crazy, hair-covered woman likely to fly off the handle. At its most basic, it's just about equality. Like most feminists, Seltzer is just asking for a level playing field.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008


It's not easy to read plays. For the most part, they're meant to be seen on stage, and reading them requires a lot of imagination, a different pace from novels, and a modicum of theatre know-how (I can't tell you how many times I've heard people read the character's name before the line).

But, I find reading plays very rewarding - particularly Shakespeare, which benefits from multiple readings, and plays that I want to see, plays that I saw once and want to recreate in my mind...

Venus, Suzan-Lori Parks' play about the so-called Venus Hottentot, is particularly challenging to read because so much is left to the stage directions, or what Parks calls "unconventional theatrical elements" in her note at the beginning. She differentiates between a rest and a spell, and there are frequent passages in the text that read just the characters names and no lines:
The Venus
The Chorus of the Spectators
The Venus
The Chorus of the Spectators
The Venus
The Chorus of the Spectators
The Venus
The Chorus of the Spectators

She also uses inventive spelling (it sometimes read like a text message) to indicate accents or perhaps pace - things that may or may not translate to the stage, but are interesting to read:
The Chorus of the Court
Outrage! Ssanoutrage!
Outrage! Ssanoutrage!
(Order order order order.)

I thought these choices were quite interesting because the play is essentially about looking (if you're unfamiliar with the sad and true story of Saartjie Baartman, she was an African woman who was essentially kidnapped and taken to Europe where she was the object of various vaudevillian/circus freak shows. People paid to look at her and extra to touch her. Even after she died, her pubic area was kept on display in a museum and only buried after repeated appeals from her own country and people.) From an academic point of view, the Venus is really a classic case of the objectified woman - and, beyond that, an African woman. Parks explores this low-point of history and its many aspects - the "other", the non-humanizing, the hyper-sexualizing of the African woman, the pseudo-science applied to non-European standards of beauty, the complicitness of the crowd... the list goes on. I would be interested to see this show on stage one day. Has anyone seen it?

Monday, April 07, 2008

Eyes Wide Open

My friend Sonya ran into someone reading Ursula Le Guin for her amazing blog, People Reading. I've been interested in reading some of her work because she's a pioneering woman in the otherwise pretty male-centric world of sci-fi. In February's Harper's, Le Guin published a response to the various reports on the decline of reading that have come out recently. (I blogged a little about that in January.)

Le Guin's article, Staying Awake: Notes on the alleged decline of reading is really amazing, and I encourage you to read it at least once! Aside from challenging the idea that there's a decline in reading (she asserts that, historically, hardly anyone read), she blames the publishing industry for focusing on books with quick returns rather than long-term appeal. Le Guin's not trying to convert non-readers, she's harsh on those people who claim they fall asleep the minute they pick up a book - she's writing to us readers who make time for books - who read wide awake. She writes:
Once you've pressed the ON button, the TV goes on, and on, and on, and all you have to do is sit and stare. But reading is active, an act of attention, of absorbed alertness - not all that different from hunting, in fact, or from gathering. In its silence, a book is a challenge: it can't lull you with surging music or deafen you with screeching laugh tracks or fire gunshots in your living room; you have to listen to it in your head. A book won't move your eyes for you the way images on a screen do. It won't move your mind unless you give it your mind, or your heart unless you put your heart in it. It won't do the work for you. To read a story well is to follow it, to act it, to feel it, to become it - everything short of writing it, in fact. Reading is not "interactive" with a set of rules or options, as games are; reading is actual collaboration with the writer's mind. No wonder not everybody is up to it.
Like Michael Moore's solution to our national health care crisis, that health care should not be a for-profit business, Le Guin wishes publishing houses and chain bookstores would change their business models. I agree society would benefit from a lot of industries changing from for-profit models to socialist ones, but how do you convince entire, wealthy, capitalist industry leaders to give up their profit margins? Revolution, I guess... Until then we can relish them being healthily skewered in Harper's.

And I'm going to pick up a copy of Le Guin's 1969 Left Hand of Darkness from my local independent bookseller.