Shakespeare Basics for Grown-Ups: Everything You Need to Know About the Bard, by E. Foley and B. Coates – A Review

Shakespear Basics for Gown Ups, by E Foley and B. Coates 2015 x 200From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP:

“We [the authors] don’t claim to be Shakespeare scholars; we are ordinary readers who were curious to learn more about our greatest national poet, and we became passionate about passing on the most interesting facts we discovered. The aim of this book is to give a solid understanding of Shakespeare’s genius and to arm you with the tools you need to enjoy him with confidence and insight” (2).

So begin Foley and Coates, two British book editors and authors of Homework for Grown-Ups (2009). In this new book, the duo takes on the daunting task of presenting a survey course on Shakespeare for adults in just 326 pages. But this is not your typical “For Dummies” book with a blue-million timelines, illustrations, and text boxes interrupting every other line and making it nearly impossible to focus and remember; instead, this book is a well-crafted teaching tool for those wanting a basic, but detailed, education on Shakespeare. This includes what one might expect: reviews of Shakespeare’s life, background information about Renaissance theatres, and summaries of Shakespeare’s major plays; but the book also boasts several unique features, which I will discuss below. Suffice it to say that, as an English teacher, I learned a great deal from this book and intend to use several selections from it in my lessons next school year.

The first chapter is all about Shakespeare’s identity. How well does anyone really know the most famous British writer of all time? The authors’ first order of business is to remind readers that there is actual evidence that a man named William Shakespeare did in fact exist. “There is a record of his baptism at Holy Trinity Church in the market town of Stratford-upon-Avon on April 26, 1564…” (13). We know that he married Anne Hathaway in 1582, and that he was a rather successful businessman by the 1590s (14-15). That’s not to say that Foley and Coates skirt the conspiracy theories; in fact, they conclude the first chapter with a chart of all the major theories of authorship, beginning with those centered on Shakespeare himself, then moving into the other suspected authors: Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere (Earl of Oxford), Christopher Marlowe, and Queen Elizabeth I (36-41). Given its concise formatting, this chart is the perfect tool for group discussion or classroom instruction.

The second chapter has a generic focus on language—namely the different poetic devices Shakespeare used, and phrases that he likely invented, such as “as luck would have it” and “good riddance” (59-60); but also words like “thrasonical” and “jadery,” which have not survived the test of time (62-65). The chapter includes a section on contemporary responses to Shakespeare as well. Without replicating any of the points here, this section reminds readers that there is no one correct way to read Shakespeare; it’s perfectly academic to analyze the plays and poems from socio-political lenses not just with traditional literary concerns like structure (55-58).

The rest of the book is divided into longer chapters which group Shakespeare’s works into four basic categories: comedies, histories, tragedies, and poetry. For the chapters on the plays, the authors offer plot summaries, and key themes, scenes, and symbols.   Keeping their academic bar high, the authors weave in solid commentary on the more popular plays. For example, they eloquently write of A Midsummer Night’s Dream “…in fact the play can be read as a series of journeys from chaos to order…And when the humans find themselves in the woods, away from their strictly ordered society, chaos ensues, but all to the good—it’s as if the turmoil is a necessary evil from which true tranquility can be born” (77). That same level of analysis continues with the chapter on the histories and tragedies. Contextualization is strong also, as when the authors discuss Hamlet’s relationship to other revenge tragedies (208-209), or when they explain how the Gunpowder Plot relates to Macbeth (233). They even include invaluable information about the performance of the plays through history.

From beginning to end, this book is a delightful read. The authors’ diction is a good mix of academic and casual language, and they deliver insights in tightly executed lines. That said, I must admit some chapters cram a great deal of information into a short amount of space, like chapter two with all of its poetry terminology. I suspect some neophytes will find such sections a bit overwhelming. Also, I thought some of the book’s structure puzzling. Why, for example, did Foley and Coates include a “Shakespeare’s Best Insults” list in the middle of the chapter on the history plays? Overall, however, I loved moving through this book. The authors truly do take the “stress” out of Shakespeare—exactly what they intended. Therefore, I highly recommend it.

5 out 5 Stars

Shakespeare Basics for Grown-Ups: Everything You Need to Know About the Bard, by E. Foley and B. Coates
Plume – Penguin Group (2015)
Trade paperback and eBook (336)
ISBN: 978-0147515360

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Additional Reviews

Cover image courtesy of Plume © 2015; text Br. Paul Byrd, OP © 2015, Austenprose.com

Disclosure of Material Connection: We received one review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. We only review or recommend products we have read or used and believe will be a good match for our readers. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Mr. Darcy’s Rival: A Pride and Prejudice Variation, by Kara Louise – A Review

Mr Darcy's Rival by Kara Louise (2015)From the desk of Kimberly Denny-Rider:

I’ve reviewed three of Kara Louise’s works now (Only Mr. Darcy Will Do, Darcy’s Voyage, and Pirates and Prejudice), and I can confidently say that she’s been gaining popularity as one of my favorite Jane Austen fan fiction authors. One of her strongest points is her imaginative ability to create such great variations on the traditional Pride and Prejudice storyline. It was with this in mind that I was eager to start a new installment in this great line of variations, Mr. Darcy’s Rival, which I knew was sure to intrigue me from the beginning.

Mr. Darcy, as always, is dreading his annual visit to his aunt Lady Catherine, as he knows that he will face the usual barrage of questions from the officious woman regarding his marrying her daughter. Accompanied as usual by his cousin, Col. Fitzwilliam, Darcy finds that there are two additional guests at Rosings Park this time: a Mr. Rickland and Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Although Darcy knew Miss Bennet during his time in Meryton and left in order to mask his feelings for her, he cannot deny that his affections have grown even greater since their time apart. There are many obstacles to his ultimate goal of winning her hand, none more formidable than Mr. Rickland. Will he be able to secure Elizabeth’s love against all odds and be able to make his feelings known in the face of Lady Catherine’s alternate plans?

Initially the book was slightly slow for my taste, but about 60 pages in the story became vivid and lively, and really took off. I like how Louise was able to take pieces of the original work and reinvent them, such as the scenes with Darcy’s famous, “be not alarmed, Madame,” letter. In Pride and Prejudice this letter acts as the catalyst of Elizabeth’s epiphany, making her realize that first impressions aren’t always accurate (i.e. Wickham and falsehoods regarding Darcy.) In Mr. Darcy’s Rival, although the circumstances and text of the letter are different (she isn’t even meant to receive it,) it still performs the same action, making her reevaluate her behavior and thoughts towards Darcy. Therefore, although Louise is using the same plot device, she is changing it and making the story her own. Continue reading

The Beau Monde: Fashionable Society in Georgian London, by Hannah Greig – A Review

The Beau Monde by Hannah Greig (2013)From the desk of Tracy Hickman:

Several recent histories have popularized Georgian England as “The Age of Scandal” with members of the beau monde starring in colorful “stories of gambling, adultery, high spending, and fast living” (30). Author, lecturer in 18th-century British history, and historical consultant Hannah Greig takes an alternate approach in The Beau Monde. By focusing on the fortunes of the beau monde as a whole, rather than concentrating on the biographies of a few individuals, such as the Duchess of Devonshire, she seeks to present the culture as “a new manifestation of social distinction and a new form of social leadership, one oriented to the changing conditions and contexts of the period.” (31)

After ousting James II from the throne with the support of the English nobility, William III began a series of wars that required him to summon parliament regularly to secure funds for his war chest. Beginning in 1689, the titled nobility came to London for the yearly meeting of parliament and the London season was born. 

The Beau Monde in St James Park, by Louis Phillippe Boitard c 1749

Illustration of The Beau Monde in St. James Park, by Louis Phillippe Boitard, c. 1749-50

“In particular, the establishment of, and emphasis on, the London season brought fundamental alterations to the routines and responsibilities inherent in elite life. The level of investment made by titled personnel in metropolitan life in the 1700s (in terms of time, money, property, and culture) was unprecedented. Although pleasure seeking was unquestionably a major attraction of metropolitan life, it was politics, and the elite’s unshakeable belief in their right to govern, that made the season’s siren call so compelling.” (233)

Continue reading

Suddenly Mrs. Darcy, by Jenetta James – A Review

Suddenly Mrs. Darcy, by Jenetta James 2015From the desk of Monica Perry:

What happens when the independent, outspoken Miss Elizabeth Bennet finds herself forced to wed the proud Mr. Darcy, a virtual stranger whom she can barely tolerate? With their history of heated interactions, can they co-exist peacefully, let alone find companionship or affection? Jenetta James’s Suddenly Mrs. Darcy is a Pride and Prejudice what-if story that deviates from Jane Austen’s canon at the point of the Netherfield ball. I love forced marriage scenarios and all their angsty goodness! With such differing personalities as Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth, I was eager to see how Ms. James would explore the dynamics of such a hasty union between my favorite literary couple.

When Elizabeth brings up in conversation Darcy’s infamous treatment of her friend Mr. Wickham, Darcy seeks to clear his name and takes her aside to a dimly lit salon to talk. Here they are seen by Mrs. Bennet, who immediately sounds the alarm that her daughter has been compromised. Despite Elizabeth’s protestations that nothing untoward has occurred, Mr. Bennet steps in, Mr. Darcy steps up and Elizabeth has no choice but to marry him and quickly. She can’t fathom why he would agree to marry her with nary a word of protest when it’s so obvious their dislike is mutual.

Here we have a “pre-Hunsford” Mr. Darcy who has not yet seen the need to modify his proud and disdainful behavior toward others. He acts unfeelingly with regard to Elizabeth’s family, and finds little need to explain himself to her. Because the story is told from only Elizabeth’s perspective, readers don’t have the luxury of knowing Darcy’s feelings, motivations, etc because he is not very forthcoming with her. It’s natural for readers to project onto Darcy what they think or hope his character is, but they really don’t know, and it is so frustrating! As they spend more time together at Pemberley, Elizabeth does achieve a sense of contentment, and her intimate times with her husband gradually deepen her affections. When contention does arise between them, she is angry but tends to push the issue to the back burner to be dealt with later, or not at all. Continue reading

Young Jane Austen: Becoming a Writer, by Lisa Pliscou – A Review

Young Jane Austen by Lisa Pliscou 2015 x 200From the desk of Lisa Galek:

Very little has been written about Jane Austen’s life before she started writing at the age of 12. That’s probably because so very little is known about that time. In Young Jane Austen, author Lisa Pliscou focuses on these early years to give us a better understanding of how one of the greatest novelists of all time got her start.

The author begins by letting us know that this particular biography will be a “speculative” one. Since so little is known about Jane Austen’s early years, Lisa Pliscou draws on a wide variety of Austen scholarship to give us a charming portrait of the artist as a young girl. She begins in 1775 with the birth of little Jane—nicknamed Jenny—and takes us up through 1787 when Jane first decides to put pen to paper for the amusement of her family.

Along the way, the author includes short scenes from Austen’s life, but presents them in a narrative format. We meet Jane at various moments in her journey—playing with siblings, spending time with her family, lounging in her father’s library, heading off to school with her sister, Cassandra. Each step of the way, the author reflects on what a young Jane Austen might have felt and thought in these moments.

Most Austen biographies I’ve read tend to gloss over Jane’s early years. They focus more on her evolution as a writer and her years as a successful author. The typical Austen biography also tends to be a little more dense and scholarly because it’s just trying to pack so much information into one little volume. But, Young Jane Austen avoids these pitfalls and, as a result, becomes a delightful and infinitely readable story. Continue reading

Emma: A Modern Retelling, by Alexander McCall Smith – A Review

Emma Alexander McCall Smith 2015 x 200From the desk of Katie Patchell: 

Two years ago The Austen Project launched their first reimagined Jane Austen novel in the series, Sense and Sensibility (by Joanna Trollope), that has so far included Northanger Abbey (by Val McDermid), and the most recent, published in April of this year—Emma: A Modern Retelling by Alexander McCall Smith. Heralded as ‘Jane Austen—Reimagined,’ each successive book has gathered mixed reviews, yet also a wide readership, as many fans of Jane Austen’s beloved classics look forward to finding out (with anticipation or trepidation) how each of Austen’s six novels have been modernized.

While I’ve enjoyed reading each of The Austen Project books so far, there’s a common issue faced in each of them, one that should be addressed in reviews and even everyday conversation. This issue is: How much can be modernized in any classic update without detracting from the original book? It’s always difficult to decide, as a reader and I’m sure as an author, what can be updated and altered for the 21st century, and what has to stay the same in order for the story to honor the original (and author’s intent). For instance, there are some things—such as views on love, sex, and marriage—that have been updated in this version of Emma to fit the author’s modern beliefs, which do not fit with the original Emma’s written views on these issues or Jane Austen’s beliefs. Some things hold true throughout the centuries, and sometimes removing these in a modern interpretation of a classic significantly takes away from the integrity and meaning of the story. Some of the differences found in this modernization include: Miss Taylor initially moves in with Mr. Weston before their marriage, Emma casually calls her dad ‘Pops’ all the time, Isabella Woodhouse and John Knightley are expecting twins before saying ‘I do,’ and Emma wonders if she’s attracted to females while painting Harriet in the nude. Continue reading