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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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.”

How to Be a Heroine: Or, What I’ve Learned from Reading too Much, by Samantha Ellis – A Review

How To Be A Heronie, by Smantha Ellis 2015 x 200From the desk of Jenny Haggerty:

Those who don’t enjoy reading may assume it’s a solitary activity, and they’d be partly correct because page turning (physical or virtual) is usually done alone. But we literature lovers crave community as much as any social animal. It’s why we join book clubs and haunt web sites like Goodreads, BookLikes, and of course Austenprose. We love to connect with other readers to share passions, recount experiences, and exchange opinions about books. And reading about reading is an irresistible meta-pleasure that’s almost as fun as getting lost in a novel. For all these reasons Samantha Ellis’s, How to Be a Heroine: Or, What I’ve Learned from Reading too Much piqued my interest.

Her book opens on the Yorkshire Moors with Ellis and her best friend arguing about which Brontë heroine they’d rather be, Jane Eyre or Cathy Earnshaw. Ellis made what to her was the obvious choice: passionate, gorgeous Cathy. Cathy had been her role model since first reading Wuthering Heights at twelve, and Jane had always seemed too stoic, virtuous, and, well, plain to her. But Ellis’s friend shocked her by disagreeing. Jane Eyre from is independent, her friend pointed out. Jane doesn’t suffer fools and she sticks to her principals. Her friend thought Cathy looked silly–always weeping and wailing, and marrying a rich boy because she’s a snob even though she claims to love Heathcliff. “Why not just not marry the wrong man?” Ellis’s friend asked her. Continue reading

Lizzy and Jane: A Novel, by Katherine Reay – A Review

Lizzy and Jane Katherine Reay 2014 x 200From the desk of Kimberly Denny-Ryder:

Anyone with siblings can tell you how tumultuous of a relationship you can have with them. There are times where you love them to death for being a shoulder to cry on or a voice of reason. Then there are the times where they think they know everything and refuse to see you as your own individual. Katherine Reay explores the complex relationship of two sisters undergoing some intense situations in both their personal and professional lives in Lizzy and Jane.

After losing her mom to cancer, Lizzy cannot deal with the emotional burden and leaves home. She turns her anguish into a relentless energy to create in the kitchen, and works endlessly to become a respected chef. Eventually Lizzy becomes the owner of a swanky New York City restaurant, Feast. After a good amount of success, she begins to lose some of her earlier skills and the restaurant begins to falter. Paul, the restaurant’s financial backer, brings another chef in to fix this, and Lizzy does what she does best—runs away. Unfortunately she runs into another cancer diagnosis, and this time it’s her sister, Jane. Lizzy decides to finally stand her ground and deal with this new blow, and as she tends to her family she finds her abilities to create amazing foods return to her. Now, Paul attempts to woo her back to New York, but how will she react to this now that old hurts with Jane are healed? Continue reading

That Summer: A Novel, by Lauren Willig – A Review

From the desk of Christina Boyd:That Summer, by Lauren Willig (2014 )

After a successful divergence from her Napoleonic spy romances of the Pink Carnation series with the post-Edwardian The Ashford Affair, New York Times bestselling author Lauren Willig again embarks on another stand-alone narrative. Entangling one generation with the past is Willig’s trademark, and That Summer is of modern day Julia Conley as well as her ancestors in 1849.

In 2009, motherless Julia inherits an old family house in England from a great Aunt Regina Ashe, a woman she cannot even recall. One of the recently unemployed in the recession, she travels from New York City to Herne Hill, a district south of London, to view her inheritance and unload it as quickly as possible. Upon arrival, she meets her exceedingly obliging and maybe even presumptuous cousin, Natalie, who eagerly volunteers to help sort the old mansion and later even brings along the fine Nicholas Dorrington, if somewhat taciturn antiques dealer, to value the lot. Although they jest concerning hidden treasures, Julia cannot but wonder if in fact there might be some sort of riches her relations hope to unearth beneath the years of dust, dank oddments and papers. But what she had not expected was to exhume memories of her childhood.

Julia’s hand was on the knob of the door before she realized that she had retreated, step by step, ready to duck out and shut the door. She laughed shakily. Great. Metaphor made action. Her English professors in college would have loved that. Shut the door and shut the door. Just like she had been shutting the door all these years. Julia’s knuckles were white against the old brass doorknob. This was insane. Insane. What was she so afraid of? What was she so afraid of remembering? Maybe she was just afraid she would miss her. Her mother.” (87)

Continue reading

Living with Shakespeare: Essays by Writers, Actors, and Directors, edited by Susannah Carson – A Review

Living with Shakespeare, edited by Susannah Carson (2013)From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP:

Is there, as an English teacher, anything more intimidating and yet thrilling than teaching Shakespeare? He is, after all, the one author whose works are thought essential to a “good education.” But having just finished a three week unit on Macbeth, I am confident only that I have invited my students to the conversation about Shakespeare’s greatness; I’ve yet to really convert them. In Living with Shakespeare, Susannah Carson–who previously compiled the excellent essay collection in praise of Jane Austen entitled A Truth Universally Acknowledged–brings the conversation about Shakespeare to a whole new level by presenting over forty extraordinary voices in dialogue about their connections to Shakespeare. Carson writes “I’ve attempted to bring together as many perspectives as possible, not in order to be exhaustive–but to celebrate the many different approaches to appreciating Shakespeare that there are possible” (xvii). To that end, there are actors and directors, writers and professors, united in a chorus of myriad accents all acclaiming the undisputed genius of the Bard.

Not surprisingly, some may find reading Living with Shakespeare to be as intimidating as studying the plays themselves. However, although many of the essays are heavyweight academic or professional reflections, there are others that are much more accessible to the general reader, including those readers who are more interested in learning what their favorite graphic novelist (say Matt Sturges) or their favorite film star (say James Franco) has to say about his relationship to Shakespeare than they are about discovering the glories of the dramatic masterpieces themselves. Accordingly, I think this volume equally suitable for the well-stocked library as the classroom or college library.

Indeed, if you bought this book for Dame Harriet Walter’s essay “Two Loves, or the Eternal Triangle” alone, you would have spent your money well. Walter, whom Janeites will fondly remember as Fanny Dashwood in Ang Lee’s 1995 film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, masterfully writes about her wrestling with Shakespeare’s conflicted presentation of women from the perspective of an actress with modern sensibilities. Shakespeare, she argues, often pits the female leads against the heroes’ male best-friends in competition for the heroes’ love, as in Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing, and Merchant of Venice, to name a few. This creates an interesting, semi-homoerotic love triangle and explains the sometimes seemingly irrational actions of the heroes’ friends (390). It was coming to appreciate this male perspective in Much Ado About Nothing that helped Walter to then understand her own role as Beatrice, particularly her harsh, anti-bromantic ultimatum to Benedick to “Kill Claudio” (392).

However, full reconciliation with Shakespeare isn’t quite possible sometimes, according to Walter, especially given that many of the female roles demand women themselves pronounce misogynistic views (396). Eve Best, another English actress who has worked through the “problem spots” to find the soul of the female roles, writes beautifully about her compassion for Lady Macbeth, one of most iconic of Shakespeare’s characters. According Best, Lady Macbeth’s bloody-thirsty drive to make her husband king of Scotland, is all “…about love. And, very possibly…about finding a replacement for their child” (384). Of course, the play’s a tragedy, so the plan goes horribly wrong, dividing Lady Macbeth from her husband forever. The does not change the fact that Lady Macbeth was a woman driven by love.

I admit that I was most fond of the essays written by actors who share an abiding sensitivity for the humanity of their characters, as Rory Kinnear describes with Angelo from Measure for Measure and Hamlet, and F. Murray Abraham with Shylock from Merchant of Venice. Given he’s played the role seven times, James Earl Jones’ depth of understanding and compassion for Othello’s tragic situation is remarkable –but then so is Eamonn Walker’s, who writes “Othello is about many different kinds of love: it’s about the light, beautiful side of love, and it’s about the twisted, darker side of love, and it’s about how, if you flip the emotional coin, love can make you do terrible things” (145).

For those not in the theatre business, the insights from directors may be equally interesting and helpful for appreciating the importance of encountering dramatic works, even those from the sixteenth century, as living, evolving texts to be molded, edited, and re-envisioned. Essays by Karin Coonrod, Julie Taymor, Ralph Fiennes, Jess Winfield, and the Fiasco Theatre all invite the reader to attend a play or to pick up the text and start over–refashioning the story based on time, place, and circumstance, while remaining true to the story’s essence. As Coonrod writes “I’ve always wanted to identify what, for me, is the essential line or scene that distinguishes each [play]” (291). Often, the key to unlocking the story’s secrets lies in a simple image.

Ironically, I found that some of the essays that I least enjoyed were written by career writers, authors whom I respect. Isabel Allende’s tale of encountering Shakespeare in translation was charming, but not very insightful. Jane Smiley, who wrote the powerful King Lear inspired novel A Thousand Acres, talks about her inspiration, but without illuminating the original text or her own much further. Joyce Carol Oates tediously plods through the plot of Antony and Cleopatra. And Maxine Hong Kingston’s essay is a mostly a series of quotes, including a huge passage from a story she herself wrote. Equally disappointing (though well-meaning) were Peter David’s diatribe against modern ignorance about Romeo and Juliet and Sir Ben Kingsley lament about the loss of beautiful speech in contemporary language. It is sad, of course, that people are not reading Shakespeare, and tragic that they they do not speak in elevated syntax and diction, but, alas, tell us something we did not know already.

Fortunately, the bulk of this collection is simply amazing, insightful, and entertaining. I would even argue that a few of the essays are actually important, in terms of their significant contributions to the on-going discernment of Shakespeare’s relevancy to the modern world. Among the best, Brian Cox’s essay “I Say It Is the Moon” about how Shakespeare, through characters like Edgar in King Lear, Rosalind in As You Like It, and Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew, “teaches us how to live between one political paradigm and the next, in the middle of social contradictions, and right at the heart of all the emotional paradoxes of the human condition…The ultimate paradox, of course, [being] that even though we’re all going to die, we’ve all got to live in the meantime” (218).

Do you have to have read or seen all of the plays to understand this book? No; but I bet you will want to after you’ve read so many talented people express their life-changing experiences with Shakespeare’s immortal heroes and heroines, ghosts and witches, gods and monsters, since they all turn out to be so profoundly human like you and me.

5 out of 5 Stars

Living with Shakespeare: Essays by Writers, Actors, and Directors, edited by Susannah Carson
Vintage (2013)
Trade paperback (528) pages
ISBN:  978-0307742919

Cover image courtesy of Vintage © 2013; text Br. Paul Byrd, OP © 2013, Austenprose.com

Dear Mr. Knightley: A Novel, by Katherine Reay – A Review

Dear Mr Knightley, by Katherine Reay (2013) From the desk of Diana Birchall:

Does anyone remember Daddy-Long-Legs, the enchanting 1955 movie in which Fred Astaire is the benevolent, mysterious, rich sponsor who sends the exquisite young French girl Leslie Caron, to college? It was a favorite musical of my childhood, along with a string of other Caron and Audrey Hepburn films. Daddy-Long-Legs actually started life, however, as long ago as 1912, as a bright, effervescent, epistolary novel by Jean Webster. It enjoyed a huge success as a Broadway play and was filmed several times, including a Japanese anime version.

Now new author Katherine Reay, instead of penning yet another in a lengthy backlist of Jane Austen updates, has cleverly chosen to write a modern retelling of Daddy-Long-Legs. Her Dear Mr. Knightley has a thoughtful literary setting, with enough Austen and Bronte references to provide intellectual mind candy for the reading woman. She also bestows an unusually satisfying romance upon her heroine, and succeeds in creating a portrait of a young writer that is so poignantly fresh and full of growing pains and uncertainties, that you question why she ever needed to lean on somebody else’s old classic at all.

In Jean Webster’s original version, the heroine, Jerusha Abbot, was fifteen and still working in the orphan asylum where she was raised, when her rich benefactor sends her to a posh college. In her version, Katherine Reay advances her orphan’s age to twenty-three, and this constitutes my main problem with the novel, and the reason I wish she’d left the Daddy-Long-Legs template behind her. Samantha Moore has already graduated from college and failed in her first job, when she is offered a full tuition grant to the master’s program of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, by a wealthy philanthropist. The only stipulation is that she write him personal progress letters, which he will not answer. His assistant suggests she address him as “Mr. George Knightley,” in tribute to Samantha’s own love for Jane Austen and Emma.

So the letters begin, with Samantha explaining herself and her ambitions to her benefactor. She has lived at Grace House, a Catholic institution, since she was fifteen, where her mentor, Father John, early recognized and encouraged her writing and journalistic talents. Samantha is hooked on books from mysteries to the Victorian classics; they are her passion and her escape. With a difficult life, owing to the death of neglectful, abusive parents, and bouncing from one foster home to another, she has understandably grown up feeling safer in fiction than reality. She relates to Fanny Price and Anne Elliot better than to her troubled roommates at Grace House. She’s not even sure she wants to be a journalist – fiction is her thing – but Medill would help her achieve her great dream, to write for a living. So she accepts Mr. Knightley’s offer.

Trouble is, she doesn’t get into Medill first round; she’s wait-listed, and in disappointment retreats to her part time jobs. She also develops an unlikely friendship with a black 13-year-old orphan named Kyle, who shares her passion for running. He rejects her kindness at first, but soon comes to like and trust Samantha, and encourages her in her dreams as she does him. Then she is finally accepted at Medill, and her great adventure in education begins.

It isn’t easy. Her rigorous professor is tough on her, saying that she’s not connecting in her writing, and will be bounced from the program if she doesn’t put her soul into her stories. Samantha is discouraged and struggles with plenty of problems – her disappointment in herself, her trauma when she is beaten by an attacker at night, her dates with a superficial young man named Josh who doesn’t understand her background, and her friendship with a brilliant best-selling novelist, Alex, who treats her like an equal and introduces her to a lovely older couple who become surrogate parents. Samantha has a lot to sort out, and her journey to self-knowledge, achievement, and love, is what’s most natural and compelling about this novel. It’s the framework that’s ultimately distracting and less successful. The updating, whether from 1912 or 1955, often doesn’t ring true; there are too many discrepancies with the modern world and its economic realities. In what universe does a journalism grad student get such a free ride with all the trimmings, connections, and the assurance of a career? In these circumstances Samantha’s writerly whining and angst can border on the naïve and annoying. Despite such cavils, it’s possible to see beyond the book’s implausibilities because it also possesses heart, mind, and a heroine whose awkwardness, uncertainty, and longing for affirmation make her so endearingly likeable that the reader will be swept into her touching emotional journey.

4 out of 5 Stars

Dear Mr. Knightley: A Novel, by Katherine Reay
Thomas Nelson, Inc. (2013)
Trade paperback (336) pages
ISBN: 978-1401689681

Diana Birchall, is a story analyst who reads novels for Warner Bros Studios. She is the author of the Jane Austen-related novels Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma and Mrs. Elton in America, and also a scholarly biography of her grandmother, Onoto Watanna, the first Asian American novelist. Her story “Jane Austen’s Cat” appears in the Random House anthology Jane Austen Made Me Do It, and her Austen-related plays have had readings around the country and in Canada.  

Cover image courtesy Thomas Nelson © 2013; text Diana Birchall © 2013, Austenprose.com