Interpreting Shakespeare

Great Shakespeare Actors: Burbage to Branagh, by Stanley Wells, (Oxford University Press), 288 pages, release date 23 June, 2015

Stanley Wells’ Great Shakespeare Actors is a wonderful read for fans of theatre, literature, and history. Besides providing us with descriptions of some of history’s great actors at work, Wells gives readers a sense of the evolving understanding of Shakespeare’s works and of actors’ interpretations of them: “There is, we might say, no such thing as a play: there are only scripts which come to life in different ways each time they are performed.”

Wells is working with challenging material. We have very little documentary evidence regarding early performers of the plays, sometimes a single painting, sometimes not even that. He provides illustrations wherever possible, and the number of these increase as the book progresses.

Wells looks at the types of roles these early actors were known for and at first-person accounts of viewing plays in order to attempt a written portrait of their work. For example, given their differences as texts, it’s likely the roles of Falstaff and Macbeth’s porter were written for different actors: the first a clown (perhaps the era’s Will Ferrell); the second a much darker sort of comic (maybe a Lewis Black).

Wells also moves us from the era of men-only acting to today’s gender-inclusive theatre, and he pays attention to male roles mastered by women (Sarah Bernhardt’s Hamlet, for instance), as well as the historical use of boys to play female characters. Why do so many of Shakespeare’s female characters find themselves in situations that require cross-dressing? For the plot, yes, but also to get boy actors out of skirts whenever possible.

Given that Great Shakespeare Actors is a static text attempting to depict a highly plastic medium, at times the reader will have difficulty “seeing” what Wells sees as he writes. Nonetheless, the specificity of Wells’ writing brings to life performances that remain almost undocumented.


When “Good Enough” Becomes “Just Right”

Crooked Heart: A Novel, by Lissa Evans, (Harper), 288 pages, release date 28 July, 2015.

Lissa Evan’s Crooked Heart is set in England at the onset of World War II. Ten-year-old Noel lives in Hampstead Heath with his godmother Mattie, a former Suffragette, who possesses a free spirit and fierce intellect. Their life together is chaotic and joyful, but then Maddie develops senile dementia. After her death, Noel first lives with her second cousin and his wife—a ploddingly predictable pair, who don’t quite know what to make of him. They’re rather relieved to send him away from London with other child evacuees. So Noel finds himself in a third home, living with Vee, who supports her son and mother with odd jobs. Her son does little; her mother writes long letters of advice to Winston Churchill. Vee dreams of cons that could get her out of her precarious financial state, if only she were organized and confident enough to manage them. That’s where Noel’s intellect and preternatural calm come into play…

I absolutely loved every minute I spent reading this book. Evans juggles the bleak, the comic, and the hopeful, keeping each of them aloft throughout the novel. No one in this novel is likeable on first meeting, but as Evans gives us time to get to know these characters we find ourselves first understanding, then caring deeply about them. This is absolutely a five-star read. Each moment you spend with it will feel like a small gift to yourself.

Schoolboys Fighting for a Free Denmark

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club, by Phillip Hoose, (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), 208 pages, released 12 May, 2015

Phillip Hoose’s The Boys Who Challenged Hitler carefully documents a piece of World War II history that is well known in Denmark, but that we in the U.S. know very little (nothing, really, in my case) about. This is history worth knowing and celebrating.

During World War II, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark had very different relationships with Nazi Germany. Sweden was allowed to remain neutral, but was expected to trade with Germany. Norway waged war against the Nazis. Denmark surrendered to Germany without struggle in order to preserve some modicum of home rule under Nazi occupation. Talking of Sweden – we were there on a trip once with my pals. We got into a bit of trouble and had to borrow money, called låg ränta there – when we got home our parents were quite pissed.

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler tells the story of a group of Danish school boys who were ashamed of Danish capitulation. They felt betrayed by their country’s leadership. When most Danes appeared to accept occupation as a fait acompli, the boys decided to fight—they became saboteurs, calling themselves “The Churchill Club.” Riding bicycles and operating outside of school hours they stole German weapons, destroyed German vehicles, set fire to plants in Denmark producing goods for Germany, and used graffiti to inspire others to similar acts. Ultimately they were captured and imprisoned, but by then Danish resistance was growing.

Phillip Hoose wrote this book after extensive interviews with Knud Petersen and makes the most of this material. The book alternates between passages recounting this story via an omniscient narrator and lengthy passages in Pedersen’s own voice. It’s sort of like watching a Ken Burns documentary: you’re given some facts, then have those facts expanded upon in a voice from the era that’s being focused on. This balance works well, contextualizing the things Pedersen has to say while keeping his voice prominent.

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler is being marketed as a title for readers between the ages of 12 and 18, but readers beyond either end of that range may enjoy it as well.

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A Remarkable Detective Living in “Interesting” Times

Six and a Half Deadly Sins: A Dr. Siri Paiboun Mystery Set in Laos, by Colin Cotterill, (Soho Crime), release date 19 May, 2015

The Dr. Siri Paiboun mysteries first appeared in 2004 and have been coming out regularly since, so I’m a bit late to the party—but I am very, very glad I made it. The novels are set in late 1970s Laos. Vietnam has invaded Cambodia (after years of supporting Pol Pot), China is about to invade Laos, and Laos is attempting to rebuild itself as a communist nation after its own civil war.

Six and a Half Deadly Sins is peopled with a marvelous array of characters. Dr. Siri Paiboun is a retired ex-national coroner for the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. He’s married to Madame Daeng, a former operative for the rebel forces and, until recently, owner of a noodle house. Siri’s best friend, Civilai Songsawat was formerly a member of the Democratic Republic’s politburo, and is still called in on special projects from time to time.

This trio find themselves tracking down a series of sins (traditional woven skirts), the first of which arrived unexpectedly by post at Siri’s home with an amputated finger sewn into the hem. The search takes them north to a region near the Chinese/Lao border where tensions between the two peoples are constant, where contact among them is frequent, and where they are often working at cross purposes.

The real delight of this novel (and, I assume, the series) is that it functions on multiple levels. The history and politics are detailed, easing readers into a clear timeline of a period and region they may (or may not) remember, but which they probably never understood in detail. Characters from the spirit world appear occasionally, especially a number of restless souls who inhabit Siri—chief among them the transsexual Auntie Bpoo. Cotterill is particularly good at providing back story in ways that don’t interfere with the current narrative, which allows new readers to become acquainted with the characters quickly.

Whether you go back to the beginning of the series, The Coroner’s Lunch, or jump in midway with Six and a Half Deadly Sins, this series will provide you with entertainment, history, and a wonderful cast of characters.

In Brief: Dead Wake

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson, (Crown), 448 pages, release date 10 March, 2015

At one time, I had a friend whose mother had fled Nazi Germany and traveled by steamer to the U.S. Apparently, a particularly eerie part of that ocean voyage was passing locations where other ships had been sunk. The vessels were gone, but she would see a scattering of goods on the ocean’s surface—a chair, a doll—that briefly and poignantly told the story of what had transpired. I never heard the story directly from my friend’s mother, so I don’t know how much of the version I got was apocryphal, but the image has stuck with me.

Erik Larson’s Dead Wake tells the story of one such ship in engaging detail. One knows from the start how this story will end, but that knowledge makes the reading more compelling, rather than less.

For the most part, Larson’s writing is solid. There’s an odd leitmotif of the color pink running through Dead Wake, which seems strange—why pink? why does/did this color stand out to Larson?—but that peccadillo doesn’t detract from the narrative. When you’re looking for an engaging work of nonfiction that is emotionally, as well as intellectually, engaging, Dead Wake will serve you well.

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Colonialism and the Original Thugs

The Strangler Vine, by M. J. Carter, (G. P. Putnam’s Sons), 384 pages, release date 31 March, 2015

The Strangler Vine was published at the end of March, so this review comes a bit late, but I nonetheless wanted to give this book the praise it deserves. The Strangler Vine is an historical mystery that transcends its genre, offering insight into the period in which its set: late 1830s India.

India at this time was under the rule of the East India Company, a privately owned business that also served as government. The Company had its own army; it made and enforced laws across the territory it held. This was a time when, with the right amount of money, one could purchase an officer’s position in the British Army. Joining the East India Company’s army didn’t necessarily carry a price, but it helped to have the right connections. Many second (or third or fourth) sons chose to seek their fortunes in India, since family resources were traditionally devoted to ensuring the success of the eldest son.

The Strangler Vine‘s narrator, William Avory, is one such younger son. He’s arrived in India, but has not yet been assigned to a regiment and is running up debts, both for the necessities of daily life and because of his tendency to participate in, and then lose, card games. Avory is given a shot at redemption. He’s been ordered to accompany a renegade ex-officer, Jeremiah Blake, on a hunt for a missing poet/novelist, whose recent roman a clef has the British community in Calcutta in an uproar. The East India Company would like to return this writer to England before he can make any more trouble for them.

Blake is an odd character: a superb linguist and misanthrope with the rational powers of Sherlock Holmes, all embodied within a man who has abandoned much of British culture and adopted local practices. Avory, an idealist who’s bought the claims that the East India Company is in India for the Indians’ own good, has no idea how to deal with this brilliant, taciturn, and uncivilized man.

As Blake and Avory pursue their mission they encounter more mysteries than just the author’s disappearance. The author was reportedly researching a long, narrative poem focusing on the Thuggee band, a group said to kill in the name of Kali, then to rob their victims afterward. There are questions about the methods used to identify, prosecute, and punish Thugs. There are also questions about whether there are really any Thugs at all. One local ruler, said to harbor Thugs, faces an attempted assassination.

One can read this mystery novel as a mystery—but it also provides a fascinating look into the ethos of British colonial culture and its impacts upon the lives of the colonized. Several of the novel’s central characters are historical figures, and Carter provides useful biographical sketches of them in an afterword. Carter’s prose is engaging to read, and it’s made even more engaging by her choice of topic and period detail.

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Basket Girl on the Run

The Executioner’s Daughter, by Jane Hardstaff, (Egmont USA), 288 pages, release date 14 July, 2015, recommended for grades 3-7

I have mixed feelings about The Executioner’s Daughter, but I think those are largely a result of being fifty-plus years old and having definite ideas about how Tudor England should be portrayed. For younger readers (the publisher recommends grades 3 through 7), this book is going to be an exciting read.

Moss, the central character, lives with her father in the Tower of London. He’s the executioner, which makes her the “Basket Girl,” the one responsible for carrying decapitated heads back from the scaffold. Not surprisingly, she loathes this job, but her father insists that they can’t leave the Tower because he’s a criminal and will be executed himself unless he continues with his duties.

The book opens with the execution of Thomas More and continues on through the fall of Anne Boleyn and the rise of Jane Seymour (information that probably mattered more to me than it would to younger readers). Moss is attuned to and distressed by the changing fortunes of those around her, particularly once she’s also given the job of delivering meals to the condemned.

Moss dreams of life in London and of traveling along the Thames, although she knows very little about either. When she finds a passage out of the Tower new adventures begin, for which she’s ill-prepared, but which she faces bravely. She befriends a river boy, Salter; learns a great deal about lives both much more wretched and much more elevated than her own; both flees and hunts the ominous “ragged man”; and learns that she may be destined to die at the hands of the Riverwitch once she reaches the age of twelve.

As I said, I think the readers this book is aimed at will find it un-put-downable, even if it doesn’t translate well to the adult market. Issues of justice, the lives of the poor and the royal, death, magic, and a girl fighting to define herself—these all make The Executioner’s Daughter a compelling read for older children.

Utterly Engrossing, Utterly Enchanting

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, by Natasha Pulley, (Bloomsbury USA), 336 pages, release date 14 July, 2015

I’m assuming all of us have had those nights when we’ve stayed up later than we should to finish a book. I found myself doing that with The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. Not only did I stay up to read it, but the book kept me up several hours after I’d finished. I found myself absolutely floored by this novel and was left with a sort of reader’s endorphin rush that made sleeping impossible.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is one of those books that can make you weepy with joy simply because you’re literate and able to read it. It’s not the plot; it’s not the characters; it’s not the prose—it’s the crazy, amazing wonderfulness that Pulley has created by rendering each of these elements perfectly.

Despite having begun with all those superlatives, I don’t want to say too much about this book. Trust me: you’ll want to come to this one as a sort of reading tabula rasa, with each moment of the book coming to you fresh and sweeping you along with it.

Here are a few things I can say without giving too much away in hopes of getting you to march over to your local independent bookstore to pick up a copy the day it’s released.

• Setting: this novel takes place in 1880s London, Oxford, and Japan. I’ve read several novels already this year that take place, all or in part, in Japan during this time, but none of those novels gives that setting the detail and believability that The Watchmaker of Filigree Street offers.

• Characters: Pulley renders her characters in wonderful detail—even the more marginal characters. Reading The Watchmaker of Filigree Street you’ll meet a telegraphist for the Home Office who receives a mysterious birthday package; a young woman studying physics at Oxford, who cross dresses in order to have access to the libraries without a male escort; her best friend, a wealthy young man from Japan who charms everyone he meets; and, of course, the watchmaker himself, who has managed to extricate himself from a diplomatic career in Japan in order to make watches and other clockwork devices in London.

• Magic: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street employs a sort of steam punk magical realism, but keeps this carefully grounded in the details of ordinary life at the time. I can’t go into more detail here without giving away key aspects of the book, but trust me, you’ll find yourself straddling cultures and realities in wonderful ways.

Seriously: Just. Go. Buy. This. Book.  Buy it, read it, and see how long it keeps you up at night grinning like a fool because you’ve become drunk on the pleasures of exceptional writing.

Another Perspective on the War in Afghanistan

Green on Blue: A Novel, by Elliot Ackerman, (Scribner), 256 pages, released on 17 February, 2015

This review is coming several months after Green on Blue‘s release, but the title is worth writing about nonetheless. The central characters of Green on Blue are a pair of Afghan brothers: Ali, the elder; and Aziz, the younger, who serves as narrator of the novel. Orphaned by the war, the brothers manage to survive as members of a gang of street kids.

Ali does whatever he can to raise the money to send Aziz to school. Unfortunately, Ali is permanently injured when a bomb goes off in a local market. It’s now Aziz’s turn to be the breadwinner for the two of them. Aziz joins the Special Lashkar, a militia funded by the U.S., in order to pay for Ali’s ongoing hospital care.

What follows is the heart-breaking but hugely interesting story of Aziz’s life in the Special Lashkar. He occupies a sort of no-man’s land, peripheral to and often looked down upon by the U.S. military, yet distanced from his fellow Afghans.

Elliot Ackerman is not Afghan, but has the life experience that makes him a credible author. He served a total of five tours of duty in the middle east, has earned Bronze and Silver Stars, as well as a Purple Heart, and has served as a White House fellow. Green on Blue is his first novel, but his essays have appeared in publications like The New Yorker and The Atlantic. He is currently living in Istanbul and reporting on the war in Syria.

Ackerman’s knowledge of the reality of life on the ground in Afghanistan allows him to fill the novel with physical and emotional details that draw readers close to the novel’s characters and to glimpse their various perspectives—although it is Aziz’s voice that dominates. A few collections of short writings by Afghans living through the war have been published in English, but to the best of my knowledge Green on Blue is the first novel-length treatment of the subject that attempts to take on an Afghan perspective. Literature in translation is hard to publish and often appears years after the work was published in its original language. Because of this, Ackerman’s novel makes particularly valuable reading while we wait for the work of Afghan writers to appear in English.

A Brilliant Premise that Delivers

Boo, by Neil Smith, (Vintage), 320 pages, release date 12 May, 2015

Neil Smith’s Boo is one of those novels that I feel compelled to read based on the premise alone. Sometimes, such novels fizzle because the premise was as good as things got. Other times those novels use the premise as a launching pad for delightful, unexpected writing that leaves one thinking, “I could read that again.” Boo most definitely falls into the second category.

Here’s that premise in a nutshell: Oliver (Boo) and Johnny meet up in the afterlife having been killed by the same school shooter. Johnny is determined to find their killer and re-death him. Boo is more ambivalent, but joins the search.

The boys are in heaven—or what passes for heaven in this novel. Heaven is, one infers, highly compartmentalized. There are separate heavens for each nation and for each age group, so Boo and Johnny are in the U.S. thirteen-year olds’ heaven. They get fifty years there, then they disappear. Completely disappear? Move on to a new heaven? Are reincarnated? No one knows. This heaven is run by the self-selected “do-gooders” (yes, they’re thirteen-year-olds as well), who monitor day-to-day life and greet the newly dead upon arrival.

The god that runs this heaven is certainly quixotic. “Shipments” of food and other necessities materialize regularly in warehouses. The food is mostly healthy and all vegetarian. Ordinary objects like blankets and pillows appear. Stranger objects appear as well and are put on display in Curios, the museum in this heaven. These objects include items like Susan B. Anthony dollars, an old rotary phone, and back issues of magazines. Boo works in Curios, and when a gun materializes he keeps it for himself.

Smith makes this heaven believable despite its apparent illogic, and the reader is quickly engaged following the stories of these youngsters, each of whom is spending fifty years at age thirteen. They’re normal thirteen-year-olds—hot tempered, quick to judge, easily frustrated—but they are all (more or less) trying to do the best they can. There are self-help groups for those who died by violence. There’s a sort of sanatorium for “sadcons,” the sad and confused who are having difficulty adjusting to the afterlife.

This is a book well worth reading both for the world it creates and for the tale of Boo and Johnny’s particular journey. You’ll leave it with the satisfaction a good novel provides. You’ll also have plenty of larger questions to mull over because of the ways Boo gets you thinking.