Apropos Shakespeare · mini-review · stuff I read

Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics by Stephen Greenblatt

Tyrant_FINAL.inddSummary from Goodreads:
As an aging, tenacious Elizabeth I clung to power, a talented playwright probed the social causes, the psychological roots, and the twisted consequences of tyranny. In exploring the psyche (and psychoses) of the likes of Richard III, Macbeth, Lear, Coriolanus, and the societies they rule over, Stephen Greenblatt illuminates the ways in which William Shakespeare delved into the lust for absolute power and the catastrophic consequences of its execution.

Cherished institutions seem fragile, political classes are in disarray, economic misery fuels populist anger, people knowingly accept being lied to, partisan rancor dominates, spectacular indecency rules—these aspects of a society in crisis fascinated Shakespeare and shaped some of his most memorable plays. With uncanny insight, he shone a spotlight on the infantile psychology and unquenchable narcissistic appetites of demagogues—and the cynicism and opportunism of the various enablers and hangers-on who surround them—and imagined how they might be stopped. As Greenblatt shows, Shakespeare’s work, in this as in so many other ways, remains vitally relevant today.

It took a few months to get my courage up, I was basically a big, ol’ eyeballs emoji reading Greenblatt’s commentary on Shakespeare’s depiction of political despots (see: political garbage fire that inspired the book). It’s a rather slim book about how Shakespeare walked a fine line depicting tyranny in an era when openly criticizing the government/ruler could get you killed and free speech protections were only a pipe dream. There was some interesting textual analysis. I couldn’t read it at night though – it was a little too anxiety-inducing before bed.

Dear FTC: I bought a copy of this book when it came out.

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mini-review · stuff I read

Reader, Come Home by Maryanne Wolf

36544852Summary from Goodreads:
From the author of Proust and the Squid, a lively, ambitious, and deeply informative epistolary book that considers the future of the reading brain and our capacity for critical thinking, empathy, and reflection as we become increasingly dependent on digital technologies.

A decade ago, Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid revealed what we know about how the brain learns to read and how reading changes the way we think and feel. Since then, the ways we process written language have changed dramatically with many concerned about both their own changes and that of children. New research on the reading brain chronicles these changes in the brains of children and adults as they learn to read while immersed in a digitally dominated medium.

Drawing deeply on this research, this book comprises a series of letters Wolf writes to us—her beloved readers—to describe her concerns and her hopes about what is happening to the reading brain as it unavoidably changes to adapt to digital mediums. Wolf raises difficult questions, including:

Will children learn to incorporate the full range of “deep reading” processes that are at the core of the expert reading brain?
Will the mix of a seemingly infinite set of distractions for children’s attention and their quick access to immediate, voluminous information alter their ability to think for themselves?
With information at their fingertips, will the next generation learn to build their own storehouse of knowledge, which could impede the ability to make analogies and draw inferences from what they know?
Will all these influences, in turn, change the formation in children and the use in adults of “slower” cognitive processes like critical thinking, personal reflection, imagination, and empathy that comprise deep reading and that influence both how we think and how we live our lives?
Will the chain of digital influences ultimately influence the use of the critical analytical and empathic capacities necessary for a democratic society?
How can we preserve deep reading processes in future iterations of the reading brain?
Who are the “good readers” of every epoch?
Concerns about attention span, critical reasoning, and over-reliance on technology are never just about children—Wolf herself has found that, though she is a reading expert, her ability to read deeply has been impacted as she has become, inevitably, increasingly dependent on screens.

Wolf draws on neuroscience, literature, education, technology, and philosophy and blends historical, literary, and scientific facts with down-to-earth examples and warm anecdotes to illuminate complex ideas that culminate in a proposal for a biliterate reading brain. Provocative and intriguing, Reader, Come Home is a roadmap that provides a cautionary but hopeful perspective on the impact of technology on our brains and our most essential intellectual capacities—and what this could mean for our future.

Reader, Come Home is better than Wolf’s previous book, IMO, in how she describes the science and research into “the reading brain.” But I can’t shake the feeling that:

  1. It’s a bit Chicken Little/the-sky-is-falling at times.
  2. There’s a weirdly elitist bent to certain sections. Why choose the deepest Herman Hesse deep cut for a re-reading faux experiment? The average adult reads, what, twelve books a year? I don’t think the average adult reader has been critically reading Hesse or Proust in their spare time, either before or after the advent of digital or social media. It would be far more likely that people are reading James Patterson for pleasure. Why not try a re-reading experiment with a book that is more popular or mainstream?
  3. If we’re worried about KIDS not being able to develop “deep reading” or the ability to critically evaluate new information due to digital media maybe we should back up and worry about the ADULTS who currently have made it very clear that they lack both abilities and grew up without digital media.

That said, by the end of the book Wolf does present solutions to develop a “bi-literate” reading brain involving both digital and print reading which I find very interesting/confirms my own personal preferences.

Reader, Come Home is out now.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Victorian and the Romantic by Nell Stevens

36950013Summary from Goodreads:
History meets memoir in two irresistible true-life romances–one set in 19th century Rome, one in present-day Paris and London–linked by a bond between women writers a hundred years apart

In 1857, English novelist Elizabeth Gaskell completed her most famous work: the biography of her dear friend Charlotte Bronte. As publication loomed, Mrs. Gaskell was keen to escape the reviews. So, leaving her dull minister husband and dreary provincial city behind, she set off with her daughters to Rome. There she met a dazzling group of artists and writers, among them the American critic Charles Eliot Norton. Seventeen years her junior, Norton was her one true love. They could not be together–it would be an unthinkable breach of convention–but by his side and amidst that splendid circle, Mrs. Gaskell knew she had reached the “tip-top point of [her] life.”
In 2013, Nell Stevens is embarking on her PhD–about the community of artists and writers living in Rome in the mid-19th century–and falling head over heels for a soulful American screenwriter in another city. As her long-distance romance founders and her passion for academia never quite materializes, she is drawn to Mrs. Gaskell. Could this indomitable Victorian author rescue Nell’s pursuit of love, family and a writing career?
Lively, witty, and impossible to put down, The Victorian and the Romantic is a moving chronicle of two women each charting a way of life beyond the rules of her time.

I was interested in The Victorian and the Romantic because I liked Stevens’s previous work Bleaker House, a memoir of her summer in the Falklands while writing her thesis, and also the work of Elizabeth Gaskell (CranfordNorth and SouthWives and Daughters). Well, this is a fine book. The construction is probably more of an acquired taste. Stevens chose to use a combination of memoir and imaginative biography (biographical novella) combining Stevens’s work for her PhD about 19th century artists, her love for Gaskell’s work, and the unfulfilled love affair (?) between Gaskell and Charles Eliot Norton. The result is a strange hodge-podge of styles. The choice to use 2nd person narration for the Gaskell bio sections took a while to get used to and in the end I’m not sure it worked that well.

The Victorian and the Romantic is out August 7.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read

What to Read and Why by Francine Prose

36341146Summary from Goodreads:
In this brilliant collection, the follow-up to her New York Times bestseller Reading Like a Writer, the distinguished novelist, literary critic, and essayist celebrates the pleasures of reading and pays homage to the works and writers she admires above all others, from Jane Austen and Charles Dickens to Jennifer Egan and Roberto Bolaño.

In an age defined by hyper-connectivity and constant stimulation, Francine Prose makes a compelling case for the solitary act of reading and the great enjoyment it brings. Inspiring and illuminating, What to Read and Why includes selections culled from Prose’s previous essays, reviews, and introductions, combined with new, never-before-published pieces that focus on her favorite works of fiction and nonfiction, on works by masters of the short story, and even on books by photographers like Diane Arbus.

Prose considers why the works of literary masters such as Mary Shelley, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Jane Austen have endured, and shares intriguing insights about modern authors whose words stimulate our minds and enlarge our lives, including Roberto Bolaño, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Jennifer Egan, and Mohsin Hamid. Prose implores us to read Mavis Gallant for her marvelously rich and compact sentences, and her meticulously rendered characters who reveal our flawed and complex human nature; Edward St. Aubyn for his elegance and sophisticated humor; and Mark Strand for his gift for depicting unlikely transformations. Here, too, are original pieces in which Prose explores the craft of writing: “On Clarity” and “What Makes a Short Story.”

Written with her sharp critical analysis, wit, and enthusiasm, What to Read and Why is a celebration of literature that will give readers a new appreciation for the power and beauty of the written word.

For comparison, I LOVE Prose’s Reading Like a Writer (I own two copies) but What to Read and Why is like its pale third cousin. The “what” feels like a random collection of essays, which aren’t particularly compelling or intersectional, and the “why” part is pretty vague. Two chapters capture the feel of Reading Like a Writer – “On Clarity” and “What Makes a Short Story?” – but these come at the end of the book, so too little, too late. Skip this one, unless you die hard on the hill of “Books about Books” then I recommend borrowing from the library.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

Austenesque · mini-review · stuff I read

The Jane Austen Writers’ Club: Inspiration and Advice from the World’s Best-loved Novelist by Rebecca Smith

28260537Summary from Goodreads:
Jane Austen is one of the most beloved writers in the English literary canon. Her novels changed the landscape of fiction forever, and her writing remains as fresh, entertaining and witty as the day her books were first published. Now, with this illuminating and entertaining new book, you can learn Jane Austen’s methods, tips and tricks – and how to live well as a writer. Filled with useful exercises, beautiful illustrations and illuminating quotations from the great author’s novels and letters, The Jane Austen Writers’ Club explores the techniques of plotting and characterisation, through to dialogue and suspense. Whether you’re a creative writing enthusiast looking to publish your first novel, a teacher searching for further inspiration for students, or an Austen fan looking for insight into her daily rituals, this is an essential companion, guaranteed to satisfy, inform and delight all.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the Jane Austen Writers’ Club (I acquired it in a book exchange at Book Riot Live in 2016 and it had “Jane Austen” in the title, ok? Lol forever) but I was on a Jane Austen tear so I just went with it. This is a nice little book about writing and craft that takes its cues from Austen’s work and written by an Austen descendant who is herself a published author. It was fun to revisit key scenes (or minor ones, in some cases) using a writer’s eye for analysis. I didn’t try any of the writing exercises but there are MANY to attempt later.

Dear FTC: I read My Own Damn copy of this book.

Austenesque · mini-review · stuff I read

The Genius of Jane Austen: Her Love of Theatre and Why She Works in Hollywood by Paula Byrne

32497929Summary from Goodreads:
Perfect for fans of Jane Austen, this updated edition of Paula Byrne’s debut book includes new material that explores the history of Austen stage adaptations, why her books work so well on screen, and what that reveals about one of the world’s most beloved authors.

Originally published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2003 as Jane Austen and the Theatre, Paula Byrne’s first book was never made widely available in the US and is out of print today. An exploration of Austen’s passion for the stage—she acted in amateur productions, frequently attended the theatre, and even scripted several early works in play form—it took a nuanced look at how powerfully her stories were influenced by theatrical comedy.

This updated edition features an introduction and a brand new chapter that delves into the long and lucrative history of Austen adaptations. The film world’s love affair with Austen spans decades, from A.A. Milne’s “Elizabeth Bennet,” performed over the radio in 1944 to raise morale, to this year’s Love and Friendship. Austen’s work has proven so abidingly popular that these movies are more easily identifiable by lead actor than by title: the Emma Thompson Sense and Sensibility, the Carey Mulligan Northanger Abbey, the Laurence Olivier Pride and Prejudice. Byrne even takes a captivating detour into a multitude of successful spin-offs, including the phenomenally brilliant Clueless. And along the way, she overturns the notion of Jane Austen as a genteel, prim country mouse, demonstrating that Jane’s enduring popularity in film, TV, and theater points to a woman of wild comedy and outrageous behavior.

For lovers of everything Jane Austen, as well as for a new generation discovering her for the first time, The Genius of Jane Austen demonstrates why this beloved author still resonates with readers and movie audiences today.

Oooh, a book about Jane Austen and theatre and adaptations?  Yes, please!

The first two-thirds of Byrne’s new edition, retitled The Genius of Jane Austen, are excellent overviews of the Georgian theatre and playwriting during Austen’s lifetime and her opinion of play-going as reflected in her letters (tl;dr: she liked the theatre and had decided opinions on actors).  Even plays that Austen read as a child were reflected in the juvenilia and the plays she wrote to be performed by the family as entertainments. Byrne starts to fall off in examining the influence of theatre on the novels – two chapters examine Mansfield Park (which with it’s home theatre scenes shows the heaviest theatre influence), one each for Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Emma, and none for Persuasion or Northanger Abbey. There is a nice chapter about Austen adaptations on the big screen (and small) that was added for the new edition but there wasn’t a good conclusion or final chapter to the book.

Dear FTC: I bought my own copy.