TLC Book Tour: Pleasantville, Attica Locke

Jay Porter, the hero of Attica Locke’s new novel Pleasantville, has had a devastating year. Barely able to cope with the death of his wife, he finds himself a single father to his two children and his law practice is shriveling on the vine. He won a major victory against Cole Oil, but appeals have dragged the case on, and Porter is losing his conviction that he will ever see a dime of the money his clients were awarded. Furthermore, so are his clients, who are being wooed away by a slick attorney trying to make a buck. Meanwhile, Jay’s office is broken into, and a young girl connected with the Houston mayoral campaign goes missing, and Jay is dragged into the crime when he is coerced into taking on one more difficult case—this time, a murder trial.

I have never read the first book about Jay Porter, Black Water Rising. I loved Locke’s novel, The Cutting Season, however. I think reading Black Water Rising would probably have been helpful, as I know I might have understood some elements of Pleasantville a little better. I do wish I’d kept a character list or that one had been provided. I found some of the characters difficult to distinguish from one another (it could just be me, however). Pleasantville is a tight crime thriller. I might compare it to a John Grisham novel had I read one, though having seen the movies, I have an idea this novel is along those lines. In some places, the pace dragged a bit for me, but I always wanted to finish and find out what would happen, and as the court case really started, I finished the book in two big gulps. I think it might make a pretty good movie as well. The political intrigues were fascinating in their way. Politics are dirty business. The ending also went a little crazy for me, and some aspects of it seemed a little far-fetched, but overall, I have to say I enjoyed reading this book. I think anyone who likes a crime thriller, courtroom novel, or a good mystery would enjoy Pleasantville.

Attica LockeAbout Attica Locke

Attica Locke is the author of the widely acclaimed debut novel Black Water Rising, which was nominated for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize, an Edgar Award, and an NAACP Image Award, and was shortlisted for the UK’s Orange Prize. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter.

Find out more about Attica at her website, and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

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Rating: ★★★½☆

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Review: March: Book One, John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

Congressman and Civil Rights Movement legend John Lewis teamed up with his Digital Director & Policy Advisor Andrew Aydin and graphic novelist Nate Powell to write his memoir in the form of a graphic novel. The first part of this memoir, March: Book One, tells Lewis’s story from his beginnings as the son of sharecroppers to his days as a student leading lunch-counter sit-ins in Nashville. The second volume of the memoir, March: Book Two, was published in January.

I became intrigued by the memoir after seeing Rep. Lewis talking about it on his Facebook page. I have to admit he is one of my own personal heroes. He has displayed bravery that I am not sure I’d be capable of. I had the good fortune to meet him when he visited my previous school upon the dedication of an art installation. He said very kind things about the artwork, and I was able to meet him and shake his hand and tell him how much I admired him. I do remember crying. It was amazing. He was so kind and so generous with his time, which is how he comes across in this memoir as well. The story opens as Lewis awakens on the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration and goes to his office. He meets two young boys, and he begins telling them the story of his life, starting with the story of his father purchasing his own farm and Lewis caring for the chickens, through his experiences going to school and yearning to learn, his introduction to Martin Luther King, Jr., and his lunch-counter protests while a college student in Nashville.

My school is considering several books as an all-school summer read, and March: Book One is one of the books under consideration. I loved it. It tells the story of the Civil Rights Movement in an engaging way. Reluctant readers and voracious readers alike will appreciate the way it brings the struggles of the Civil Rights movement to life. Many teenagers are not aware of what African Americans suffered when protesting for their basic civil rights. This book would fit in quite well with our American literature course’s units on social justice and civil disobedience.

The device of the flashback works well as a means for telling Lewis’s story as well. One quibble I have is that some of the speech bubbles are difficult to read. I think it was purposeful because I believe that the indecipherable speech bubbles were supposed to represent speech that was not completely heard or took place a “offstage,” if that makes sense. Still, I wanted to read them and see what was being said.

I liked the artwork, and I loved the concept of casting Lewis in the role of a superhero (a little bit). Lewis’s personality shines through the pages, too. He comes across as warm and intelligent—he’s serious, but he also knows when to use his sense of humor. I learned some things reading the book as well. I didn’t realize, for instance, that Thurgood Marshall encouraged the African-American students to pay bail or to get out of jail.

Graphic novels aren’t for everyone. Despite the success of books like Maus and Persepolis, graphic novels are still not accepted by all as a legitimate medium. If you are one of those folks who do not see graphic novels as legitimate literature, you might not like this book… but if you are one of those folks, I would urge you to give them a try with an open mind.

Rating: ★★★★★

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Sunday Post #12: Bossypants

Sunday PostAfter saying last week that I usually review books in their own posts, here I go reviewing a book in this post, just like I did last week. It just so happens that I only finished one book this week, anyway, and I finished it today.

First, an update on my reading challenges. I’m still keeping up with my Literary Movement Challenge. Next up in April will be the biggest test of this challenge so far because I’ve decided I want to read The Annotated Wuthering Heights for April (Romanticism). Up until now, the works I’ve read have been shorter and not quite as dense as this book, but ever since I ordered in it December, I have been looking forward to cracking it open. Can’t wait! It’s been a while since I’ve read Wuthering Heights, and and can’t wait to see what the annotated edition offers.

I am doing fairly well with the other challenges, and thought it’s still early days, I feel that I might be able to complete them all this year. I may actually be able to increase my participation level in the Historical Fiction Challenge. I am trying to decide what book to listen to next, now that I’ve finished Bossypants. I’m not sure I’m ready to go back to the Diana Gabaldon books yet. I might read Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness. I enjoyed listening to the first book in this trilogy. I keep thinking I might enjoy the other two, and I already have them in my Audible account, but I just haven’t listened to them.

I’m not really close to finishing anything else, unless I really read a lot this coming week. I have lots of books in the TBR pile, and I’m looking forward to getting into them. On the other hand, I’m looking forward to a busy week, so we shall see.

I think perhaps the best way to read Bossypants is to listen to Tina Fey’s Grammy-nominated audio version. Hearing her delivery added some spark to the book, and I’m not sure I’d have liked it as much if I had just read it. The book has some genuinely funny moments. I loved her descriptions of starting school, her high school days participating in theater, and her early improv days. Hearing her discussion of what it was like to work on SNL, to create her Sarah Palin character, and to create the show 30 Rock were all very interesting to me as well. One thread that runs through the book is that Tina Fey came up in comedy dominated by men, and her experiences of sexism in the industry were particularly though-provoking if not surprising. One thing I didn’t like is that the book didn’t seem to have a narrative arc. It was more a string of different life experiences, and I didn’t see them woven together as clearly as I might have liked. However, Fey’s delivery made me not care so much—I felt like I was having a conversation with a smart friend.

Rating: ★★★★☆
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme.

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Sunday Post #11: Candide

Sunday PostI usually review books in separate blog posts, but rather than write two, I’m rolling my review of Voltaire’s Candide into this post.

First, I haven’t done as much reading the last few days as I had done earlier in my spring break, which comes to an end today. My last few days of spring break I spent binge-watching UK episodes of Who Do You Think You Are?, which made me want to work a little bit on my own family history. I resurrected my family history blog after a three-year silence. I quite like learning about family history for the same reasons Stephen Fry describes in his own episode of Who Do You Think You Are?: 1) you learn a lot about who all these people are who make up who you are, and in turn, you learn a little bit about yourself, and 2) you learn about how history is not something that happens in some abstract way to other people—history happened to people in your family, and you have that personal connection to history. I also really love how it shows the ways in which we are all connected. It’s a fun hobby, if time-consuming and hard to do when you can’t really travel.

I did manage to finish listening to Stephen Fry read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy this week. Loved it. I am thinking I might listen to the other books in the series. I started listening to Tina Fey’s memoir Bossypants. I am enjoying that one quite a lot when I’ve had time to listen to it.

So, Candide. I understand this is not really a novel in the sense we think of them today, but more of a philosophical allegory. It tells the story of young Candide, who lives in an idyllic castle of Thunder-ten-tronckh in Westphalia and his instruction in Leibnizian optimism by his tutor, Pangloss. A series of rather unfortunate events follows after Candide is caught kissing Cunégonde, the beautiful daughter of the castle’s baron. Of course, Candide is too low born to consort with Cunégonde, so he is banished from the castle and must make his way in the harsh world. And he goes pretty much everywhere, even El Dorado, never willing to let go of his optimism entirely until the end, when he and his friends decide to live the rest of their lives on a simple farm, and Candide concludes, “Il faut cultiver notre jardin.” Often translated as “We must cultivate our garden.” The translation I read renders it “We must work our land,” as the translator argues the word garden in English doesn’t tend to mean the same thing as Voltaire intended in describing the farm. Regardless, I see that statement as meaning we need to worry about ourselves and our small communities, but also that we should be happy with what we have and enjoy it for what it is. We need to work together to cultivate the good and weed out the bad. Candide finally has everything he wanted, but he no longer wants it. Is it the best of all possible worlds? No, but that doesn’t seem to be something that really exists, as Candide only experienced the feeling that he was in the best of all possible worlds in a place that doesn’t exist. He’s become a realist.

The biggest problem I had with the story was the end. Cunégonde loses her looks, but noble Candide marries her anyway, though he no longer wants to. What the hell? So what that means to me is that all he ever really felt for her was infatuation and lust, and he expended a great deal of energy on it and went through a lot of trauma for it, too. Are women worthy of love only insofar as they are beautiful? Is that the only reason to love a woman? Are we supposed to admire Candide because he sticks to the original plan and marries Cunégonde even though she’s ugly? Are we supposed to like him because he bucks up when the world hands him lemons? Bah. I realize we’re supposed to put books squarely in the time in which they are historically set, but I was still quite bothered by the chauvinism and antisemitism in the book. Does it get a pass because it was written in the eighteenth century? I don’t know. Part of me says that we give historical works like this a pass too often.

I wasn’t bored while reading Candide, and it’s quite a quick read. The story moves along and is tightly paced if not very descriptive, but as I said, it is not a novel in the sense we understand, and allegories are often about making another point besides telling a story. It’s funny, too, and has some good (and some pretty dark) humor. Candide suffers just about every calamity Voltaire can think of, and none of it seems to have a point. Other than being rather appalled at how awful people can and have treated each other, I wasn’t able to empathize much with Candide, and in the end, when he was no longer interested in Cunégonde because she wasn’t beautiful anymore (especially given how much she suffered and how much effort she put into being true to him (notwithstanding constantly being raped and enslaved), I thought he was a shit. I’d have liked it better if she’d told him where he could get off with his pity marriage.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme.

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Review: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams, narrated by Stephen Fry

I may in fact be the last person on Earth to read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I will, therefore, dispense with any summary. The Internet makes a lot more sense to me now that I’ve read this book.

Stephen Fry’s narration was excellent. He gave the perfect irritating note (in an American accent) to the ship’s computer. He made Zaphod Beeblebrox sound a little bit like Austin Powers, but not so much that you decide he’s not cool.

If I had to pick favorite parts, they would be as follows (in no particular order):

  • The dolphins, unable to communicate Earth’s impending doom to less intelligent humans, leave and say “So long, and thanks for all the fish.”
  • The bowl of petunias thinks, “Oh no, not again.” After which many people speculated that if we knew exactly why the bowl of petunias thought this, we would know a lot more of the nature of the Universe than we do now.
  • The poor sperm whale created by one of the missiles.
  • The Infinite Improbability Drive as a whole concept.
  • Shooty and Bang Bang, the Galatic Police.
  • Devious super-genius mice who seem to be running everything.
  • Oolon Colluphid’s books.
  • Vogon poetry.
  • The Babel Fish. We should get those things for real.
  • The Earth as a giant computer designed to figure out the the Question.

I first tried to read this book when I was in sixth grade, and perhaps some sixth graders could have read it and appreciated it quite a lot, but I didn’t get it, so I put it down without finishing it. Then years passed, and for one reason and another, I never managed to pick it up again until now. It’s hard to believe it was written in 1979, as much of seems prescient while other parts of it are timeless. It’s quite funny, and I could definitely see its influence on other writers I enjoy, such as Neil Gaiman. I see its influence on Doctor Who as well. And yes, I realize Douglas Adams wrote for that series.

So, one more book I should have read a long time ago crossed off the list, and wouldn’t it have been perfect if I had read it last year, when I was 42? My daughter Maggie told me on my birthday that year that I was “the answer to life, the Universe, and everything.”

Rating: ★★★★★
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: Trigger Warning, Neil Gaiman

I listened to Neil Gaiman’s latest short story collection, Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances, on Audible, mainly because I know that Gaiman is quite a fantastic reader (not all writers are). Unfortunately, that also meant that I didn’t have a real sense of the way in which the collection might hang together as a whole because I listened to it mostly in bursts as I cleaned house or made soap. As such, I can only really recall my favorite stories with any clarity, and I don’t have a print book to examine in order to refresh my memory, so I skimmed what pieces I could find in Amazon’s preview and Google Books. Finally, I found this review, which discusses each piece with a rating out five stars. I won’t discuss each story. Just the ones I liked or remembered better than the others.

“The Lunar Labyrinth” is the first story in the collection (following the poem “Making a Chair”). This story made me think of American Gods, and given that I knew the collection had an American Gods story in it, I assumed it would be this one. It wasn’t. Still, the story does nod toward the American Gods concept that those silly roadside attractions are more than they seem.

I liked the story “The Thing About Cassandra” quite a bit. How would you feel if you made up an imaginary girlfriend, and years later your friends and mother are insisting they ran into her?

“The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains” reminded me of straight up fantasy. It’s a little bit Tolkienesque, but doesn’t quite make it.

“Orange” story told completely as answers to questions the reader doesn’t hear. Humorous and a little scary at the same time.

“The Case of Death and Honey” is a Sherlock Holmes story about Holmes’s quest to solve the ancient question of how to live forever. I quite enjoyed this one as both a story and a contribution to the Sherlock Holmes repository.

“The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury” is a poignant comment on loss of memory as well as a love letter to one of Gaiman’s favorite authors.

“Nothing O’Clock” is a Doctor Who story. As I listened to this one, I kept wishing it had been filmed. It would have made an excellent episode. It’s set during the time of the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) and his companion Amy Pond. The Doctor and Amy land on Earth in the TARDIS to discover that no one exists, and a voice insists they’re trespassing.

“Black Dog,” as it turns out, is the American Gods story, and I didn’t like it. As with American Gods, I could see that Neil Gaiman was doing something interesting with the idea of ancient gods in modern times, but in the end, I just wasn’t into it.

The other stories and poems didn’t leave enough of an impression on me to merit discussion here.

I thought the collection as a whole was a bit uneven, despite moments that I absolutely enjoyed. The individual stories I mentioned in this review are worth seeking out (with the exception, in my opinion, of the last. As much as I did enjoy Gaiman’s reading, I don’t think I’ll listen to another short story collection on Audible. I can’t recall enough of the individual stories, and there is not an easy way for me to glance back at the book again. I was tempted to give this only three stars, but the truth is, when the stories are good, they are really good.

Rating: ★★★½☆
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: The Lotus Eaters, Tatjana Soli

Walt Whitman once said that “the real war will never get in the books,” but that hasn’t stopped writers from trying, from Stephen Crane to Ernest Hemingway to Tim O’Brien. Tatjana Soli’s debut novel The Lotus Eaters tells the story of a woman photojournalist, Helen Adams, who covers Vietnam. Helen is drawn to cover the conflict in order to find out what happened to her brother Michael, who was killed in action. Even long after she discovers the truth, she has been seduced by the war, the country, and its people—both repulsed by the horrors she sees and compelled to cover them, hence Soli’s title, inspired by Homer’s land of the Lotus-eaters in a quote that opens the novel:

… we reached the country of the Lotus-eaters, a race that eat the flowery lotus fruit … Now these natives had no intention of killing my comrades; what they did was to give them some lotus to taste. Those who ate the honeyed fruit of the plant lost any wish to come back and bring us news. All they now wanted was to stay where they were with the Lotus-eaters, to browse on the lotus, and to forget all thoughts of return.

I remember first reading The Odyssey and finding the passage about the Lotus-eaters poignant, even though it’s short and perhaps not as striking in terms of its danger as other passages involving the Cyclops, Circe, and Scylla and Charybdis. In their way, the Lotus-eaters might be the most dangerous group of people Odysseus and his men encounter because one thing that keeps them going is their desire for home. The title is an apt one for the novel.

Helen arrives in Vietnam a naive young woman who dropped out of college to become a freelance photographer because she was afraid that if she waited until graduation, the war would be over. She has only rudimentary photography skills, and she’s woefully unprepared for what she will see. However, she learns quickly and discovers she has a natural talent for capturing a shot. By the end of the war, she is a respected photojournalist with several Life magazine covers under her belt. She has an opportunity to escape with her fellow photojournalist (and lover) Linh as the last Americans are leaving Saigon. Linh is wounded, and Helen is concerned about his safety. As the helicopter prepares to leave, Helen decides she has to stay through the Fall of Saigon and cover the very end, but she ensures Linh is safely aboard the helicopter and on his way to treatment before she plunges one more time into the war.

The novel begins at the Fall of Saigon and then steps back in time to Helen’s arrival, tracing her experiences through the war and back to the end of the war. Soli explains the frame device and why she used it in this video:

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The book’s language is gorgeous, and I found as I read that I had to underline passages. I don’t typically do that when I read paper books, unless I plan to teach them, but this novel is so beautiful, and I found so much truth in the language, that I had to mark it up.

To be honest, I don’t know a lot about Vietnam. I teach several students from that country in my classes, and I have learned some really interesting things from them, but I haven’t read a lot about the war. My father was in Vietnam when I was born, and as far as I know, he was never in a position of extreme danger, but that’s relative when you’re in a war-torn country. I think I have actually avoided the subject to a certain degree. The senselessness of the whole thing is heartbreaking, and perhaps more so now that I’ve read this book. One thing Soli does that intrigues me is she captures the brutality and horror of the war, yes, but she also captures the beauty of the country and its people.

The patrol was still out, and they watched the sun rise up out of the east and color the western mountains from a dull blackish purple to green. So many shades of green. Darrow said, that Vietnamese legend told that every shade of green in the world originated in this mountain range. The emerald backbone of the dragon from which the people of Vietnam sprang. Until then she had been blind, but when she saw those mountains, she slipped beneath the surface of the war and found the country. (17)

The air boiled hot and opaque, the sky a hard, saline blue. For miles the black mangrove swamp spread like a stagnant ocean, clotted, arthritic. Farther on they passed the swollen tributaries of the Mekong. Papaya, grapefruit, water palm, mangosteen, orange—fruit of every variety grew in abundance, dropping with heavy thuds on the ground to burst in hot flower in the sun. (162)

I found the characters easy to become invested in. I liked them, and at the same time, they infuriated me, which I think is partly the point. They were driven in a way I can’t claim to have experienced, but Soli infuses them with reality—they seem like flesh-and-blood people rather than figments of the imagination. By the end of the novel, their compulsion to capture the war makes a sort of sense.

The narrative is as intriguing as the characters. The last 100 pages or so I read in almost one gulp in an attempt to find out if everyone would be okay in the end. Some passages are so gripping in their imagery that I had to put the book down and catch my breath—to come up for air in the real world, as it were.

Even more than the characters and the narrative, however, I loved Soli’s writing. She tells a gripping story with lush, beautiful language that actually made me long to see the places she was describing, even in the midst of the horrors of a war.

I also felt drawn to learn more of the history of the war and of the country. It’s amazing how so many stories of Colonialism—and I’m thinking here of Heart of Darkness, The God of Small Things, The Poisonwood Bible, and Things Fall Apart—eventually wind up traveling down the same roads. And yet. It’s a story we repeat over and over again. This novel is, in my estimation, as good as any of these books, and I can’t give it higher praise than that.

I’m calling this one a new favorite, and I’m recommending it to everyone. I haven’t read such a lyrically beautiful, haunting book in quite some time. I can’t understand why this book isn’t more known. Or perhaps it is and just escaped my radar. I’m not sure it was a bestseller (no claims to that effect, anyway), but it won several awards. It’s literary fiction and a true descendent of books like A Farewell to Arms. A gorgeous book.

Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: As You Like It, William Shakespeare

I read William Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It as my selection for the Renaissance era in the Literary Movement Reading Challenge. I had been wanting to read it ever since reading James Shapiro’s excellent book, A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599.

For those not familiar with the plot, it’s one of Shakespeare’s cross-dressing comedies. Rosalind is the daughter of Duke Senior, the rightful duke. Duke Senior’s younger brother, Duke Frederick usurps his older brother’s dukedom. Frederick allows Rosalind to stay when he exiles his brother to the Forest of Arden because his daughter Celia loves Rosalind so much. Frederick arranges a wrestling match that is supposed to end in defeat for Orlando de Boys, but Orlando is victorious. He captures Rosalind’s heart. In a fit of pique, Frederick banishes Rosalind. However, Celia decides to leave with Rosalind as the two are close, and Celia cannot bear to see Rosalind exiled without her company. They decide to disguise themselves, Rosalind as a boy, Ganymede, and Celia as Ganymede’s sister Aliena, and they also decide to take the fool Touchstone with with them to keep them company. They plunge themselves into the forest, where they find Orlando has been carving Rosalind’s name on trees.

While in the forest, they encounter shepherds who help them find shelter. The shepherd Silvius is in love with a woman, Phoebe, who falls in love with Ganymede, not realizing Ganymede is Rosalind in disguise. Meanwhile, Orlando is hiding from his brother Oliver, who wants him dead. Orlando rescues Oliver from a lion in the forest, which leads to Oliver’s decision to change his ways. In typical Shakespearean fashion, everything works out in the end with a bunch of marriages. Oliver is further transformed by love for Celia and no longer desires Orlando’s destruction. Orlando and Rosalind find happiness. Rosalind manages to set Silvius and Phoebe together in a problematic marriage, and even Touchstone marries Audrey. Duke Frederick experiences a religious conversion and sees the error of his ways.

As Shakespeare goes, it’s not my favorite. I much prefer A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a comedy. However, I do see maturity in his characterization of Rosalind that had me wondering greatly about the boy actors in his acting company at the time he wrote the play. It would have taken a strong actor to pull off that part. I found her to be a refreshingly smart character, and in control of so much of the action. I liked her very much. As You Like It is perhaps most famous for Jaques’s speech “All the world’s a stage.”

I waited to watch the film version directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Bryce Dallas Howard as Rosalind before reviewing the book. She is a wonderful Rosalind. The cast is great: Celia is played by Romola Garai, Touchstone by Alfred Molina, the Dukes by Brian Blessed, Orlando by David Oyelowo, Jacques by Kevin Kline, Audrey by Janet McTeer, and that’s just a start. Set in feudal Japan, the story begins as Duke Frederick and a bunch of ninjas take over Duke Senior’s palace and send the rightful Duke and his men into exile in the forest. The setting change was interesting and still worked despite the importance of the Forest of Arden as setting in the play. The costumes were beautiful. The actors were fine. But I still didn’t like it, and I don’t know why. I liked parts of it, but as a whole, it was just sort of boring. I kept picturing how my students might respond to it if we watched in class, and I kept picturing them nodding off. I wonder if the issue with this play is that in order for this story to remain compelling, the action needs to move a little more quickly? I can’t put my finger on what was wrong with it, as I liked the elements separately. They just didn’t cohere for me. Your mileage may vary if you decide to watch it.

Rating: ★★★★☆
Film Rating: ★★★☆☆

Set in Warwickshire, this book will serve as my entry for that county in the Reading England Challenge and will serve as my Renaissance selection for the Literary Movement Challenge.

 

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TLC Book Tour: The Tell-Tale Heart, Jill Dawson

The Tell-Tale HeartJill Dawson’s novel The Tell-Tale Heart begins with an unusual premise: Patrick, a fifty-year-old history professor, undergoes a heart transplant. He begins to notice subtle changes in his personality. He discovers his heart donor was a teenage boy named Drew Beamish, and he finds himself becoming curious about Drew.

Patrick discovers Drew was a local boy with a long family history in the Cambridgeshire Fens close to the hospital in Papworth Everard where Patrick’s transplant occurs.

Patrick’s story is woven together with that of Drew and of Drew’s ancestors, who were involved in the Littleport labor riot of 1816.

The heart has always been the symbolic seat of human emotion, and when Patrick finds himself changing after his transplant, unsettled with his previous self and wondering about his link to Drew and his family, he begins to wonder if the heart’s role is more than symbolic.

Patrick is a womanizer and a bit of jerk, but given his reflective nature and the changes in his personality, it’s easy for the reader to like him. His new heart not only gives him a second chance at life but also allows him to rethink his old ways. Even Patrick seems not to like the old Patrick very much (perhaps old Patrick didn’t like old Patrick either).

Drew, on the other hand, inherited a rebellious streak from the Beamishes, who first make waves in Littleport when they are involved in labor riots. Drew himself discovers his family’s history and becomes fascinated not only by their story but by history itself—and his history teacher. A young boy with much intellectual promise, much like his ancestors, Drew has also inherited a constant heart from another of his ancestors as well.

I enjoyed this story. The historical aspect was intriguing and was told in the novel much as it actually happened. Papworth Hospital, the setting for Patrick’s transplant, is a heart and lung hospital known for performing some of the first beating-heart transplants, just as described in the novel. Interspersing Drew’s story along with that of his ancestors underscored the circular nature of time, and Patrick finds himself connected to the Cambridgeshire Fens in ways he can’t explain after the transplant.
QuoteI have felt this kind of connection myself to places near where I later discovered my ancestors lived 200 years earlier. Patrick’s desire to simplify, reflect, and reconnect made sense to me. I found myself much more drawn to his story than to Drew’s, but that may be because I’m closer to Patrick’s age and stage of life than I am to Drew’s. I found the flashback to Drew’s ancestors interesting, but it also felt a little disconnected from the rest of the book. It establishes some rather important aspects of Drew’s personality, but I wonder how it might have been integrated more tightly with Patrick and Drew’s stories.

The Tell-Tale Heart is an interesting read that will make you wonder about the power of the human heart.

Jill DawsonJill Dawson’s website | Twitter

tlc logoRating: ★★★★☆

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TLC Book Tour: The Serpent of Venice, Christopher Moore

The Serpent of VeniceWhat do you get if you take a generous helping each of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and Othello, a dash of King Lear, and a big splash of Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Cask of Amontillado” and put it in a blender with Monty Python? I’m not sure, but I think it would look a lot like Christopher Moore’s novel The Serpent of Venice.

The Serpent of Venice is the continuing story of King Lear’s fool, Pocket, first introduced in Moore’s book Fool. Lured to Venice by Montressor Brabantio, Iago, and Antonio, Pocket is chained and walled up inside Brabantio’s dungeon. A mysterious creature rescues Pocket, who seeks his revenge against the trio with the help of Othello, Shylock, and Jessica and the mysterious creature, the Serpent of Venice herself.

I found the mashup of Shakespeare’s two Venetian plays to be interesting. A little stitching, and it all comes together nicely, though the tragedy of Othello is sacrificed in this comedic novel. Moore explains in his Afterword that he shifted the time settings of the two Shakespeare plays, which are more contemporary to Shakespeare’s own time, to the thirteenth century and adjusted some of the finer points (Othello is fighting the Genoans rather than the Turks). A famous Venetian of the 13th century makes an appearance late in the book. As Moore explains:

I chose Merchant and Othello, obviously, because they are set in Venice. Early on, as I dissected them to see what parts I could stitch back together to make the abomination that became The Serpent of Venice, I started noting that the characters in each of the plays perform similar functions, and although I didn’t research it, I suspect the parts were written for the same actors.

I admit the Shakespearean scholar in me wants to take that project on. It would be interesting to uncover—I’m sure someone’s done it already. For the record, The Merchant of Venice is dated from around 1596-1597, while the earliest mention of Othello is 1604. Will Kempe, Shakespeare’s famous clown, departed the Lord Chamberlain’s Men acting company in 1599 and thus his successor Robert Armin likely played the Fool or Clown in Othello and also in King Lear, though Kempe probably did play Lancelot Gobbo in Merchant. Richard Burbage certainly played Othello, and this epitaph suggests he played Shylock. More research is beyond the scope of the resources I have at hand.

Nevertheless, the entire Afterword reveals the depth of research Moore did in order to bring 13th century Venice alive, as well as combine the three major works of literature that comprise this tale. Further, it’s intriguing that the two Shakespearean plays, aside from being set in Venice, are also the two major plays that include marginalized characters such as Shylock and Othello.

In fact, I quite enjoyed the characters in this novel, particularly the protagonist Pocket and Jessica. Pocket is smart and resourceful, but he’s no one to mess with either. For that matter, the same could be said of Jessica. Where the book particularly shines is in its witty dialogue. The book’s Chorus is a lot of fun. Witness this exchange, a flashback to events preceding the book’s main narrative, when Othello saves Pocket’s life:

CHORUS: And thus was friendship formed. Two outsiders, outside a palace in the night, found fellowship in their troubles, and there one’s problems became the other’s purpose.

“Who is that?” asked the fool.

“I don’t know him,” said the Moor. “Is he following us?”

“No, he’s just yammering on about the bloody obvious to no one. A nutter, no doubt.”

“I cannot carry him, too,” said Othello. (28-29)

The reviews on this one are a little mixed, and I gather it’s mainly folks who don’t appreciate the humor who give the book low ratings. I laughed often as I read. Moore has a gift for humor, or at least I think he’s funny, though I should think folks who find it sacrilegious to tamper with Shakespeare and don’t even like it when his plays have modern settings should probably not read this book. I think having read Shakespeare will help the reader appreciate the humor and allusions in this book. This book is probably not right for everyone, but I loved it.

For the record, I think Shakespeare himself would have loved it, too. Edgar Allan Poe? Famously a strange guy. I’m not sure what he would have thought. Of course, I also think that Monty Python and the Holy Grail is the best King Arthur movie ever made (and I’m not even kidding about that—it’s closest to the Welsh stories that are the origin for Arthurian legend).

Possibly as good a test as any to determine whether this book is right for you is this bit of dialogue between Pocket, shielding himself behind the identity of Lancelot Gobbo, and Shylock:

He wheeled on me, stopped, and assumed the posture of one about to lecture. I had seen it before. Everywhere. “Since the time we were first chosen, Lancelot, suffering has been the lot of our people, but still, we must take our lessons from the prophets. And what do we learn from the story of Moses confronting the pharaoh? When Moses did call down the ten plagues upon the Egyptians? What do we learn from this, young Lancelot?”

“As plagues go, frogs are not so bad?” I was raised in a nunnery. I know Testaments Old and New.

“No, what we learn is, do not fuck with Moses!” (79)

If you think that’s funny (I laughed out loud), then you’re probably game for the rest of the book. If you were offended, this is not the book for you. For my part, I’m running right out to read Moore’s other books.

Christopher MooreChristopher Moore’s website | Facebook | Twitter

Rating: ★★★★★

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