Review: Rozencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Have you ever wondered what happens to minor characters in a play when they aren’t on the stage? Ever dreamed of a bit of back story?

Tom Stoppard’s Rozencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead does exactly that –  but with a bit of a twist. The two minor characters – who serve minor purposes and achieve nothing in the play, exist only for the play. So rather than backstory, we get existential crisis and a whole lot of comedy.

Radcliffe was made for the stage and is a hilarious presence as the Rozencranz who is so lost and confused that he doesn’t even remember which one of the two he is. Along  with a similarly statured Joshua McGuire, the two men are dwarfed by the expansive stage, compounding their smallness and insignificance.

This production was the 50th Anniversary production of the original play. I can’t vouch as to whether it has done it justice, because it is the first time I have ever seen it. However, for a play that is so clever, intellectual and complex, it was abundantly clear in its purpose and it’s comedy – with the fast-paced interactions between the two eponymous characters always witty, humorous and never missing the mark.

The hammed up production of Hamlet in the background was incredibly effective in achieving the meta-theatre the production aims to, and the ‘play-within-a-play-within-a-play’ was superbly achieved by the travelling players who acted out the fates of the poor protagonists. You might expect such complex, high-flying ideas to be mind boggling, however there was an accessible and easy simplicity in the comedy of these scenes.

You will need a working knowledge of Hamlet to really get anything out of this play, but that is just the nature of the beast. However, there is enough comedy in the physical acting and dialogue to allow you to relax, and enjoy it rather than treating the whole thing as an intellectual exercise.

The play equally has its elements of tragedy – these characters, who have no lives outside of the story they are confined to, face a not dissimilar crisis to anyone else who may feel they are trapped in a certain kind of life, or simply just lost without clear direction. The idea then that they are doomed to repeat this tragedy forever is almost heartbreaking – I nearly condemned Shakespeare for such callous treatment of the two men. Of course this is Stoppard’s crowning achievement – that his play is so emotive he draws such reactions out through a story which you know is not real, and which constantly tells you it’s not real. And hats have to be tipped to the two leads here who so brilliantly achieve this in their performance also.

Overall, this play does what all the best tragedies should: it makes you think. It also does what all the best comedies do: it stops you overthinking and makes you simply enjoy it. As a combination of the two it is the quintessential tragicomedy and this anniversary production is truly worthy of that title.

Review: Fever Dream

mbi2017-logo Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (Argentina), and translated by Megan McDowell (US), is a Man Booker International Prize 2017 nominee.

4-stars

Fever Dream is more like a novella than a novel, but for its brief 151 pages it still packs a punch. The writing style is experimental and intriguing and it deals with some pretty big themes.

The novel opens with a women in the Emergency Room talking to a child although this is not immediately clear – the conversation allows their identities and the events that led to this moment. The style is unique, with the ‘child’s’ voice in italics, giving it an ethereal quality – making us question whether it is real.

It is difficult to review without giving away key details that make the novel so important, so here is as few spoilers as possible in looking at what the novel is about. The woman has taken her young daughter on holiday to a rental home where she meets Carla whose son was poisoned. This poisoning sets up a theme of environmental damage and also that of caring for children.

Schweblin evokes exactly the feeling that the title gives – like a feverish dream. The atmosphere is oppressive, with the interview-esque conversation being directed and redirected over small details. The nature of the conversation itself is a dream-like and as readers we constantly question the reality of it – is it a dream, can it really be occuring? Paired with the magical realism so popular in Latin American literature which the book employs, this truly makes the book feel illusive.

The book is uncomfortable and really makes you think and question about what you would do, or would be able to do in a similar situation. My only issue with the book was that it was so brief, I feel like perhaps it could have been fleshed out a little more to add dimension to the story. But it is also possible that the style would have been difficult to sustain over a longer book.

I very much enjoyed this book and I think it could be a real contender for the Man Booker International Prize.


I am reading Fever Dream with Book and Brew as one of the official Reading Groups for Everyone shadowing groups.

What to read for National Vegetarian Week

It’s National Vegetarian Week!

I have been a vegetarian for coming up 12 years for a myriad of reasons. It’s good for you, and the planet, it is cheaper and of course it is animal friendly.

Because being veggie is second nature to me, I’ve never really had to think about it, but for those who are looking to learn more this week – whether a lifelong veggie or a sceptic, here are picks of the best books on being vegetarian:

The Vegetarian

Han Kang’s Man Booker International Winner looks at how a woman in South Korea decides to become vegetarian. In the West this is a fairly simple choice but for Yeong-hye it becomes an almost political act.

The Jungle

This early 20th Century novel exposed the atrocities of the meat packing industry. The public outcry led to legislative reforms. At the centre of the novel is the story of immigrants who are exploited by this industry, showing the wider reaching effects of mass meat consumption.

Charlotte’s Web

This plucky little spider manages to save Wilbur, but for adults reading this, it simply drives home that there are plenty of other Wilburs who can’t be saved. If you have a soft spot for pigs, this might make you think twice about what you cook for tea tonight.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

In the future, everyone is vegetarian. This isn’t as far fetched as you think – scientists are developing ‘artificial meat’ that are being designed to ultimately replace animal meats, and it won’t be long before this is a cheaper and more sustainable alternative. In the book that inspired Blade Runner, real animals are coveted as pets – they are far too valuable to eat, and robotic replacements are made for those who can’t afford them. A dark possibility if we don’t start to conserve endangered species.

Eating Animals

Jonathan Safran Foer explores exactly what it means to eat animals in an industrialised world. There are many implications of eating meat beyond killing animals, and Foer outlines the ramifications as he makes a highly personal decision to raise his son as a vegetarian. With significant emphasis on the stories connected to our relationships with food, this analysis is highly personal to us all.


These books show that being vegetarian is not just about animal rights, it also has social, political and environmental factors. Being vegetarian is a massively personal choice and not necessarily the right one, or the right one for everyone – like every diet, it has downsides too.

However, reading about these different issues can help us understand it that little bit more, and might even help inspire people to try it out for National Vegetarian Week!

1.3

Anne with an E: First Look

Anne of Green Gables is a beloved childhood memory for many people, so when Netflix announced that they would be doing an original series there was obviously a huge reaction. Many people felt that it needed to be done, others were outraged – no adaptation could match the book. However if it was going to be done, then who could do it better than Netflix with their huge successes in original series and adaptations in recent months?

Series 1 is now available on Netflix, so after seeing Episode 1, what first impressions can we take from this highly anticipated series?

It’s a lot darker than the books

Looking back, we should have guessed that there was more to Anne’s past than meets the eye. She turns up to the Cuthberts’ in a fair state and in the book it is just passed off that she’s a bit of an oddball and her desire to stay with the Cuthberts’ because asylums aren’t very nice. However in this adaptation Anne has a number of flashbacks which show her to be a victim of abuse at the hands of the previous family she ‘worked’ for. While this may be a bit serious and gothic for some, it definitely made it feel more real – suddenly her emotions make sense rather than seeming histrionic.

Anne is not quite so precocious 

The book Anne is frustratingly precocious to the point it becomes comedic. By bringing Anne down to earth a bit, her wild imaginings and ridiculous speeches becomes a lot more meaningful. She is just as heartwarming as ever, but she is also relatable and earnest. I wish I could have been like this version of Anne at 13. She also gets a much appreciated feminist update when she declares ‘girls can do anything boys can and more.’

Its pacy

Some of our favourite moments from Anne’s early days at Green Gables feel as though they are raced through immediately – however this might have something to do with the fact that Netflix has made the first episode a double one – lasting a full hour and thirty mins. I don’t really understand why since Netflix has proved that we like our viewing in short and many installments. My attention was wavering through this first one, and I can’t help but think I would have appreciated it split into two, to have Anne’s best slip-ups a little more spaced out.

It is aesthetically perfect

I was going to say aesthetically ‘stunning’ then I realised this wasn’t the right description. Green Gables is beautiful, scenes of Matthew riding through water are breathtaking and the contrast between the lovely present of Avonlea and Anne’s horrific past is on point. However there are some visual aspects which are less ‘stunning’ but which makes it all the more perfect. Anne is wonderfully presented as the thin, freckly, red-headed vain girl we all know and love and I am so glad because TV adaptations have a tendency to give appearances the Hollywood Treatment. Equally our first view of Diana shows a fairly real girl in her early teens. Neither have been altered, airbrushed or beautified and that’s ok because they are perfect just the way they are.


Overall, a pretty positive first look at a classic childhood story, I just hope that future episodes can relate the journey Anne goes through growing up and do the classic justice.

Hexham Book Festival

Last weekend I was lucky enough to go to some events at Hexham Book Festival and see some really interesting writers speaking.

Over the course of two days I saw novelist Maggie O’Farrell, comedian and now writer Sara Pascoe, former Editor of the OED John Simpson and journalist Gary Younge. The topics were wide-ranging but I always like to try and find connecting themes so here were some of the ideas that cropped up:

Family

Maggie O’Farrell is well known for the family drama within her novels and she commented on how this is important because it is universal – whether we like them or not, and choose to spend time with them or not everyone has had or will at some point have a family. Sara Pascoe’s fascinating research in her book Animal looks at how evolution came to form families, through changes to human pregnancies meaning that mothers had to start pair-bonding for protection. Gary Younge talked about his research for his book Another Day in the Death of America, looking at ten boys who were all killed by guns on one day. Younge talks about interviewing the families of these boys, none of who were surprised that their sons were killed by guns – it has become such a commonplace experience in the US that such deaths are almost expected. These families are often vilified as negligent – however Younge’s investigations showed that this was absolutely not the case and that some of the victims were shot despite safe, innocent home lives. The families provided context and stories about the boy’s lives that became crucial to representing them for Younge.

Culture

Culture is a tough thing to define and it is so wide ranging but it played a huge part across the talks of these writers. For Simpson, culture defines words – changing their usage and ultimately their meanings. Pascoe’s main goal with her book was to challenge the culture around appearance and body image that so negatively affects the  self-esteem and confidence of many women and girls. Younge challenges the gun culture of the US with his book, looking at how the attitude to guns there is the sole reason for this trend in deaths of young people.

Interpretations and meanings

Obviously words are the most significant aspect of interpretation and meaning, and Simpson explored the processed of documenting these and how interpretations and meanings can change. For Simpson we should simply be documenting, not prescribing these meanings and the way in which we interpret words and phrases. Younge taps into this when he talks about American’s believing in the ‘human right to bear arms’, and how that phrase ‘human right’ has been misinterpreted. For Pascoe interpretations become physiological with the female body evolving to portray fertility, meaning that markers such as an hourglass figure with wide hips, could be interpreted as a sign of a good mate.

Primal behaviours

Pascoe’s entire book is about how our modern behaviors have developed from primal instincts, from mating to care-giving. O’Farrell explores the idea of fight or flight – with many of her characters doing the latter, and disappearance being a huge theme in her novels. In Younge’s research about the attitude towards guns in America, it became apparent that the fight response is favoured, as it is seen as stronger and more masculine to be able to defend yourself and your family.

 

While these themes were necessarily the focal points of the talks it was interesting to see them come up in different ways, with different interpretations and through different topics. It was a wonderful weekend with Younge and Pascoe’s talks in particular being spectacular and I am very glad I got the chance to go. Here’s hoping for a good line up next year!

Review: Hag-Seed

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The Hogarth Shakespeare series is a project rewriting some of of the Bard’s most famous plays, into novels by some of the world’s best-loved authors.

Hag-seed by Margaret Atwood is based on The Tempest.


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 5 stars
If you thought a play within a play was Hamlet’s domain, think again. In Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest Prospero is a famous theatre director, Felix Phillips, who is ousted from his role and ends up putting on plays in the ‘Literacy through Literature course’ at a local prison under the name of Mr Duke.
Hag-seed is an incredibly clever exploration of the themes of this play, namely the role of prisons within it. As Felix enacts his revenge using the inmates he directs, the other characters are complicated – we have the Ariel he casts 8Handz, as a kind of Ariel, but he is also haunted by his daughter Miranda who died age 3, and so becomes a kind of spirit like Ariel.
Equally, the death of Miranda complicates who takes on this role in the play. Lady Luck, or the Auspicious Star is cleverly personified in Estelle – showing how Atwood’s attention to detail is faultless. The play is modernised both as Atwood’s tale and in the performance of The Tempest that Felix stages which features rap-numbers, dance and significant reinterpretations.
Atwood’s invented world of the play is clever and complex, making you think twice about the play you thought you knew. It deals with issues of revenge, justice, imprisonment and mercy in whole new ways, rethinking the ways in which we perceive these. We get to know the inmates and can sympathise with them,  they are funny, real understandable people.
The depths which Atwood reaches with Felix explore the character in completely new ways, we see his motivations, emotions and manipulations but also a softer and more vulnerable side. The references, allusions and explorations within this are an English student’s dream and it feels as though it may have been an exercise of intelligence for Atwood, who lists off a dozen different sources for reference in her acknowledgements. I can’t say how good this book would be if you weren’t aware of it’s heritage – but the story was good with an interesting plot and was well-paced, reaching an exciting climax. However most of the fun came from knowing what the hidden references and meanings were, so a knowledge of the play was important here.
I studied The Tempest for four years in a row at school and was frankly pretty sick of it – I’ve never seen or studied it again since. If this book could make me enjoy a play which I’m not a huge fan of then it really did its job. Atwood’s retelling was everything a retelling of Shakespeare should be – an accessible, exciting and engaging update to the Bard’s words.

The Handmaid’s Tale: First Look

2017 has seen a resurgence in Atwood’s classic, partially as a staple in the feminist canon, and partly as a reaction to fears of such a dystopian future under the Trump administration. Hulu’s adaptation couldn’t have come at a better time.

Now that the first episodes have dropped, what can we tell about this long awaited series?

Colour is everything

If you have read the novel you will know how important colour is – the handmaiden’s red gowns for example. However, the series takes this a whole step further. Offred’s past is shown in fairly bland, real colours, while the present is almost Tim Burton-esque in it’s contrast. The symbolic reds of the handmaiden’s, blue of the wives and greens of the Marthas aren’t the only colours here, the brightness of the oranges, the greenery of the surrounding suburbs and the stark whites of the buildings are all used to create a vivid and too-perfect-to-be-real setting.

Young and beautiful

The commander and his wife, Serena Joy, are written as older in the book, with the commander even having silver hair. Joseph Fiennes certainly doesn’t fit the bill and the same can be said of his counterpart Yvonne Strahovski. There is definitely some Hollywood glamourising going on here but hopefully the change to the characters serves a better purpose than simply aesthetics.

Amped up violence

From the very first episode we see far more violence than in the book, with the ‘salvaging’ coming much earlier than expected – evidently for the shock factor. We also see a gruesome addition at the ‘Red Centre’ so this seemingly sets the pace for more violence as the show progresses.

An update for 2017 

There are subtle hints indicating a contemporary time period – from technology to passing remarks. Moreover, the series departs from the books which dealt with racism in a very specific way, instead employing a diverse cast.

What’s in a name?

The short answer: everything. We get confirmation of character names to a much greater extent than in the book and most importantly we find out Offred’s name – no spoilers here you have to watch! If you are looking for literary significance or hidden meanings, this revelation is HUGE. 

So basically everything is bigger, brighter and more dramatic, as is only to be expected from such a high profile TV adaptation. Only time will tell whether the series will do it’s book justice but it is looking pretty positive so far!

Review: The Power

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 5 stars

A feminist dystopian by a Margaret Atwood mentee, nominated for the Bailey’s Prize. It almost sounds too good to be true.

Well it isn’t. The Power by Naomi Alderman is everything I wanted it to be. The book is simultaneously a deeply personal and epic exploration of the gender-power dynamic in the modern day.

The premise is fairly basic: what if, overnight, the power shifted? What if one day, the literal power was in the hands of teenage girls?

In Alderman’s future the ‘Day of the Girls’ sees women gaining a superhero-esque electric power, giving them the physical means to not only equal men, but to overpower them. However, Alderman is far too clever to make this a simple ‘girls run the world’ story, instead reflecting the complexities of patriarchal society in her dystopia.

The story is told through multiple focalising characters, giving an expansive view of the way the world changes, across the US, Europe and the Middle East. The different characters are complex, all dealing with the phenomenon in unique ways. As well as seeing the perspective of a variety of girls and women; Allie, a runaway, Roxy a british teen and Margot a US politician, Alderman offers us the perspective of male journalist Tunde.

 

“She cuppeth the lightning in her hand. She commandeth it to strike.”

 

The story spans years of changes and illustrates a gradual but seismic shift, however Alderman offers us nuance – as well as women gaining power, we see women abusing that power. Oppression of and violence against men becomes widespread, however, women are still targeted and gender specific violence is enacted against them. Women become leaders, yet many are still hiding and on the run, at the hands of just as violent a regime as before.

Clever tropes and symbols litter the story, illustrating these changes for us – for example the news anchors Tom and Kristen, who debate the issues, yet as time passes Tom is replaced by a younger man and Kristen becomes the intelligent authority on political affairs and economics. In between chapters we see scientific explanations and archaeological finds explaining what has occurred, and short of those which incorporate humorous references to modern technology, it may have you beginning to question your historical knowledge.

Alderman combines dystopia with horror, humour and satire to create a perfectly crafted inversion of patriarchy. This book should be required reading for everyone to understand exactly what gender inequality is and means, not just for women, but for men too, who are also disadvantaged by patriarchy. Ultimately, Alderman shows that women are human, we are capable of the same mistakes, vices, and atrocities as men. There is no such thing as a female utopia and ultimately tying power to gender has no positive outcomes.

The Power is a compelling treatise on all the problems of patriarchal society – from objectification to sex trafficking – however, it is also an engaging story about empowerment and the danger of power.

Review: New Boy

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The Hogarth Shakespeare series is a project rewriting some of the Bard’s most famous plays, into novels by some of the world’s best-loved authors.

New Boy by Tracey Chevalier is based on Othello.


4-stars

Othello is one of Shakespeare’s great tragedy, with Othello, a black general and his wife Desdemona going to war, where his ensign Iago plots his downfall.

Chevalier reframes the story, with the military setting becoming an elementary school playground in Washington DC. Osei is the new boy, and the only black boy in an all white school, who is soon befriended by Dee, despite the aversion of the other students due to his race.  Ian, a known school bully, decides to reassert the pecking order by bringing Osei down.

This take on the story is incredibly interesting, fleshing out characters more than we see in Shakespeare’s words and in a way we don’t often see on stage. We see insights into each of the main characters, Osei, Dee, Ian and Mimi (Ian’s girlfriend representing Emilia from the play).

These insights are interesting, deviating from what many see as the key aspect of Othello – the mystery behind the motivations of the characters. Iago’s motives are the most debated of any of Shakespeare’s villains, while Othello’s actions and anger has also been questioned, as has Emilia’s complicity. In New Boy, we see first-hand insight into the characters and their thoughts and feelings giving us a whole new perspective, particularly in the case of female characters Dee and Mimi whose dramatic counterparts are often overlooked and dismissed.

Chevalier brings in a whole new dynamic in the relationships by making Osei new to the school. In the play Othello is an established general who has earned the respect of his men, meaning he has power, which Osei does not. Equally, the key part to Iago’s deception is that he is seen to be honest, whereas Ian is known to be manipulative and a bully. As such the rewriting does take out some of the nuance of the original story, however, it is an enjoyable new way to look at a well-worn tale.

The novel is also short, coming in at under 200 pages it is more of a novella, contrasting to the long scope of Shakespeare’s plays which last 3-4 hours depending on the cuts made. It is very accessible, easy to read and an engaging story – although we may know what happens we want to see how it is done, and it is done very cleverly.

Rewritings and adaptations never live up to the original tales, however they do allow Shakespeare to live on in new ways and for us to understand him in a contemporary context. New Boy does exactly that and is a very enjoyable and accessible way to approach history’s greatest playwright.

 


I received this book as an advanced reader copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review; all opinions are my own. 

Image from Amazon. 

Stuck in a reading rut

I love reading. As a child I liked books better than people. The library was my favourite place. I did four years of courses where I could read fiction books for study and I loved it. I’m part of a book club, if you stacked up my TBR it is taller than me and 90% of the time I read every day.

But sometimes I just can’t read. I see this as getting stuck in a ‘reading rut’. Reading becomes a chore rather than for fun, I get book fatigue, or other things seem more appealing. Maybe I’m just busy and being sociable, or I have loads of things to stress about. Whatever the reason this reading rut is characterised by one thing: I stop reading.

If you have never experienced this then you are lucky, I am very used to this by now. Sometimes I would get put off reading for weeks when I was forced to read uninteresting things for study. Stress, heavy workloads, exams and moving house have all been triggers of this too. More recently I fell into a reading rut that has lasted just a few days – but I know that is what it is, rather than simply being between books, or taking a break.

Now that I can recognise it for what it is, I also have some handy tips for dealing with this bookish lethargy, because lets face it, if you are a bookworm, then you want to be reading right?

1. Take a break

Maybe you’ve been pushing yourself too hard, getting book fatigue, or are just a bit stressed out. Reading takes concentration which won’t work if you aren’t in the right headspace. Just put the book down for a bit rather than forcing it.

2. Watch some book related TV

You can still enjoy literary things without actually reading. Find your favourite adaptation, and indulge in some reading-free but still bookish time. If you want to get out and about try theatre shows, a literary walking tour, or visiting an author home/museum.

3. Don’t read anything that isn’t entertaining you

I am very guilty of struggling through books because I think I should read them, but the bottom line is that reading should be fun and if a book is so bad/hard/irritating/insert-negative-adjective that you are avoiding reading it, then you shouldn’t feel guilty about putting it down and saying it isn’t your cup of tea.

4. Mix it up – Maybe you are tired of reading the same thing?

Try something different and new, either a new genre, or even try your hand at plays or poetry. Switching up how you read could be good too, for example audiobooks or an app like Serial Reader where you get short installments of classic novels.

5. Don’t sweat it

If you don’t feel like reading it’s not something to worry about, you’ll soon get the bug again, absence makes the heart grow fonder after all.