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  • Jeff Somers 7:00 pm on 2019/01/28 Permalink
    Tags: cat's eye, , , , margaret atwood, oryx and crake, , , the testament   

    A Definitive Ranking of the Novels of Margaret Atwood 


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    With the continuing success of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale adaptation and the unexpected announcement of a sequel novel (The Testaments, coming in September 2019), interest in Margaret Atwood’s work is at a fever pitch. And while that dystopian tale will undoubtedly be the book that defines Margaret Atwood’s life, she has written many more works of note—all of them worth exploring. If you’re a new reader looking to jump into her extensive backlist, here is how we’d rank them, from the merely very good to the absolutely essential.

    Bodily Harm (1981)
    Atwood beautifully writes this story of a journalist who travels on assignment to a Caribbean island on the brink of revolution. With lush and elegant prose, it’s a pleasure to read. So why do we place it at the bottom of Atwood’s oeuvre? Rennie, the protagonist, isn’t so much a character with agency as a vessel into which Atwood pours cruelty, making for an occasionally frustrating reading experience. This is likely purposeful, given the prevalent themes of power and emotional addiction, but if the novel is a successful experiment, Rennie’s apparent powerlessness to avoid her own worst possible fates mutes the impact.

    Life Before Man (1979)
    Once again, Atwood delivers a book that is gorgeous and affecting in its language, but peopled with characters who seem to do things only because the author’s purpose requires it. Elizabeth is the director of a museum in Toronto, her husband Nate makes useless wooden toys; they’re living by outdated and outmoded concepts of relationships and emotion, and the stress starts to show when Nate commences a new affair with Lesje, Elizabeth’s colleague. Elizabeth retaliates by seducing Lesje’s own significant other. The story of their corrosive, destructive affairs is claustrophobic, dry to the point of desiccation, and, like Bodily Harm, probably exactly what Atwood wished to achieve. It’s also depressing as heck.

    Surfacing (1972)
    Atwood’s second novel never names its narrator, a fact that underscores her bleak, featureless depression. The prose is as sharp as ever, and the other characters we encounter as the narrator searches for her missing father—the arrogant and self-impressed David; his wife Anna, who bends over backwards to support his delusions despite her unhappiness; Joe, the silent, insecure potter—form a fascinating, dysfunctional group. The mystery of what’s happened to the narrator’s father is also interesting, for all its inevitable tragedy. The blankness of the narrator makes her a bit of a closed book, even as she descends into madness and desperation while searching for her father.

    The Edible Woman (1969)
    Atwood’s debut earns points for an intriguing and affecting premise. It’s the story of Marian, who is so immersed in an orderly, consumerist life as a market researcher. Marian is involved with dull-as-paint Peter, and, scandalized by the sexual and emotional behavior of her friends, begins to disassociate, viewing her physical body as a separate entity from herself. She then begins to imbue the food she encounters with human qualities, and finds herself unable to eat—until a final act of symbolic self-cannibalism. It’s all a bit messy and overcooked, but Atwood’s deft work portraying a personality in the act of dissolving is first-rate.

    Lady Oracle (1976)
    Atwood’s third novel finally sees her having a bit of fun, while retaining the incisive prose that has always defined her work. She explores themes similar to those of her first two novels, but sans the heaviness or the seriousness. Joan Foster had a miserable childhood that continues to afflict her adulthood, until she finds her calling as a writer, and uses trendy automatic writing techniques to craft a cultish bestseller. There’s a lot here: body shaming, blackmail, a sexless marriage, and an identity crises that culminates in the main character faking their death. We’re still in the early days of her impressive career, but there’s a lot to love in this book, as Atwood finally cuts loose a little.

    The Robber Bride (1993)
    This is a divisive book among Atwood acolytes. On the one hand, it’s a deft examination of female friendships and gender relationships, and it features the absolutely brilliant character Zenia, who is either a sociopathic man-eater and world-class frenemy, or a self-actualized heroine, or something else entirely. But the brilliance of the novel is also its weakest point for some: while Zenia is a breathtaking inversion of the unreliable narrator (this is a woman who fakes her own death, then shows up years later without a care and straight-facedly offers several ridiculous explanations about where she’s been), she’s also slippery and inscrutable as a result. In other words, you either buy into this one wholesale, or you bounce right off of it. (Incidentally, we bought in.)

    Hag-Seed (2016)
    The Hogarth Shakespeare series is a fascinating experiment in bringing the Bard’s work into a new era. Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest leans so hard into the meta there’s no room for anything else. Felix Phillips—her Prospero—is the Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival, until he is pushed out by a scheming, extremely clever underling. Philips lands in a job at the local correctional facility, where he concocts a byzantine revenge plot while literally putting on a production of The Tempest. It’s the sort of literary gesture only someone of Atwood’s stature could pull off. The artificiality of it all gives the affair the flavor of an intellectual experiment, but the clever bits make it well worth reading anyway.

    Cat’s Eye (1988)
    We move into the Atwood top 10 with this diamond-sharp exploration of childhood friendship, bullying, and feminism—a dark sort of proto-Mean Girls. Successful artist Elaine returns home for a retrospective of her paintings, and sinks into a reverie of her childhood and adolescence, a time when she was mercilessly bullied by a trio of girls she’d thought were her friends. As young Elaine descends into and then claws her way out of victimhood, she gains the upper hand over her chief tormentor and enjoys being just as mean, while in adulthood, she begins to see things a bit more clearly than she might like. It’s a story just about everyone can relate to in some way, balancing thematic resonance with narrative drive.

    The Heart Goes Last (2015)
    This is a quietly over-the-top novel, and as a result, it isn’t universally loved. In a dystopian future where society has lost control of law and order, a young couple grows tired of scraping by on tips and low-wage jobs, living in their car, and under threat by the gangs of criminals that rule the streets. They see an advertisement for a community where they would be guaranteed a job and a home, in exchange for spending every other month in prison while someone else occupies their house. All goes well until they begin to obsess over the “alternates” who live in the house when they’re behind bars. This is a caustic look at modern life through a dark funhouse mirror, very funny, and very smart.

    MaddAddam (2013)
    Ranking books in a series is a bit odd, especially in this case, where we’re approaching the tale out of order, so you may want to skip ahead if you aren’t caught up on Atwood’s dystopian sci-fi trilogy that begins with Oryx and Crake and continues in The Year of the Flood. MaddAddam ties those books’ parallel storylines together, as Ren, Toby, and Jimmy unite with other survivors and launch a project to rebuild civilization with the help of the Crakers, while being menaced by a criminal gang of Painball veterans. While it’s a great story that concludes the series in strong fashion, this trilogy-ender understandably lacks a bit of the surprise of the first two.

    Oryx and Crake (2003)
    See above (and four entries below). The dystopian vision Atwood crafts here is arguably darker and more horrifying than the one in The Handmaid’s Tale; the state of pre-apocalypse society is grim, dominated by violent and pornographic entertainment, where gated compounds protect the elite from the outside world. It’s a society ruled by immensely powerful biotech corporations that values technical capability above all else and casually create life in order to experiment on it. That the end of the world is triggered through pharmaceuticals isn’t an accident, and neither is the surprisingly emotional and elegiac tone of the post-apocalypse sections tat follow a man named Snowball—formerly Jimmy—who watches over the genetically engineered, near-human Crakers as he seeks to fulfill a promise to the man who destroyed the world.

    The Penelopiad (2005)
    Atwood’s other literary reimagining is more successful than Hag-Seed. Giving Odysseus’ wife Penelope—and her 12 maids—a voice in their ultimately tragic fate is a genius move, and the book fits perfectly within Atwood’s thematic body of work. It’s narrated by Penelope, speaking from Hades in the modern day. She tells her side of the story of her relationship with Odysseus, and her chapters alternate with chapters from the maids’ points of view; the maids haunt Odysseus and Penelope in Hades, and why wouldn’t they—they’re the ones who executed by Odysseus for doing exactly as they were told, and attempted to help Penelope avoid being forced into marriage after her husband was presumed dead. Lively, sharp, and still blisteringly current, this  twist on an ancient story redefines it utterly.

    Alias Grace (1996)
    In this historical mystery (based on a true story of a 19th century woman accused of murdering her employer and his housekeeper and mistress), Atwood plays with reader expectations and point-of-view so masterfully. the book can be enjoyed on many levels: as mystery, as romance, as history viewed through a feminist lens. In the end, Atwood plays that trick of giving you all the information but denying you a concrete conclusion—you simply don’t know, by the end, what truths lie at the heart of Grace, nor what really happened to her, nor what she did. But it doesn’t matter, because the what and when was never the point. This is a story about the shifting of identity—those thrust upon us, those we choose for ourselves—depending on who ‛s telling the tale, and who’s listening.

    The Blind Assassin (2000)
    This Booker Prize-winner is Atwood’s most structurally complex work. It’s a book about a book, which in turn contains a third book. That’s an oversimplification, of course; it’s one of those slow-building tales that allows you to think you know what’s going on until it becomes obvious you don’t, as the reveals begin landing and you realize you’ve been woefully, terribly wrong about everything. As it begins, it is 1945, and a woman named Laura is dead, possibly by her own hand.Decades later, her sister Iris recalls the childhood they shared, and of the dark events that have befallen their family. Woven into this history is the text of a lurid sci-fi novel (ostensibly penned by Laura) about a killer on a far-distant planet. At the heart of these nesting narratives is the relationship between Laura and Iris, and how it is shaped by both the men who abuse and ruin them, and the lies they tell in order to keep their heads above water. The end result is one of Atwood’s most challenging, spectacular successes.

    The Year of the Flood (2009)
    Oryx and Crake ends on an organic note that feels final, which made the appearance of a sequel seem surprising—at first. But then, so much of Atwood’s most explicitly speculative universe was left unexplored at the end of one book that the second feels, in retrospect, inevitable. Atwood’s return trip into the apocalypse focuses on the poor of the rapidly-declining future, exploring religion, friendship, and catastrophe with a sure-handedness and comfort the belies the fact that this world was already familiar to Atwood when she started. The Year of the Flood crystallizes the themes she shaped in the first book, taking the kinds of chances only possible in a sequel. As a result, it also packs more of an emotional punch than the concluding volume, and shoots to near the very top of her impressive bibliography.

    The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
    Deservedly, Atwood’s greatest work is also her most famous. Its feminist themes and exploration of a truly misogynistic society are horrifyingly relevant some three decades after it was first published. The secret is that Atwood doesn’t paint a simplistic picture of a society in which women have been reclassified as more or less breeding property; she explores how both sexes support and contribute to a horrifying vision of oppression. Yes, it is clearly the men who have reshaped the world in order to strip women of all political, economic, and legal power, but the women of the Republic of Gilead are often willing, cruel participants in the subjugation of the Handmaids who are forced to bear their children. In crafting this bleak future, Atwood doesn’t forget the fundamentals, either; it’s a story peopled with characters you care about, and stakes that devastate.

    Our hopes for The Testaments are high. Where do you think it’ll land on this ranking?

    The post A Definitive Ranking of the Novels of Margaret Atwood appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

     
  • Jeff Somers 4:00 pm on 2018/07/30 Permalink
    Tags: , always on, , , margaret atwood   

    6 Books in Which the Internet Helps Destroy the World 


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    It’s remarkable how quickly the internet has moved from new innovation to simply become the way we live now. It’s possible no other technology has so deeply permeated every aspect of our lives, even television. And even still, many people are actively seeking more internet access—higher bandwidth, more data, more connected devices.

    But not everyone is sold. Even before the privacy scandals and election tampering, a few writers looked at the internet and saw the potential for worldwide chaos. In these six books, being constantly plugged in isn’t just bad for you, it’s the end of the world.

    Adjustment Day, by Chuck Palahniuk
    Palahniuk’snew novel harkens back to Fight Club, again profiling disaffected youths, a violent underground movement, and an absurd world that’s less absurd the more you think about it. The United States is moving towards war, re-instituting the draft as part of a plan to kill off Millennials before they rise up in anger. As an actor begins appearing on television and radio promising a new world order is coming, an underground movement distributes a book and whispers about a coming Adjustment Day, as an online site called The List begins compiling a database of people who threaten society. When Adjustment Day arrives, the people on The List are brutally murdered, and the world is remade in blood and chaos. The violent are elevated, everyone else is enslaved—and it all started on the internet.

    The Circle, by Dave Eggers
    When first published, Eggers’ divisive novel read almost like it was written by an alien observing internet culture from a distant star, but his story of a privacy armageddon has only grown more chilling as we find out what the real-world tech titans have long known about us—and what they’re doing with that data. The Circle sweeps the world with concepts like TruYou that make any sort of false identity impossible, pushes people to give their every moment over to pervasive cameras—to go “transparent” in the name of openness. Secrets are a thing of the past, but so is privacy. While the world doesn’t exactly end in The Circle, society is damaged and made worse, contemplating the chilling idea that someday even our private thoughts might be made public knowledge.

    American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
    Gaiman’s novel imagines that gods are brought into existence and given power through belief. Thus old gods like Odin are failing, while new and sometimes bizarre ones are rising up thanks to modern innovations. That the god of the internet—known as Technical Boy—is one of the main villains is significant, even though the gods, whether old or new, aren’t presented as good or bad in any rational sense. Technical Boy, growing more powerful as the old gods fade away, wants to not just defeat his rival deities, but to delete them from reality altogether. The idea of the internet (with an assist from the internet’s older mirror, Media) erasing all that came before is effective precisely because we’re already living in a Fake News world.

    Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood
    The role of the internet in the end of the world isn’t made explicit in Atwood’s novel, but it’s clear that the violent entertainment consumed online by Crake and Jimmy is linked to the state of society pre-apocalypse, one ruled by immensely powerful biotech corporations. This future values technical capability above all else, and casually creates life in order to experiment on it, ultimately inspiring Crake to destroy the world entirely. His motivations are up for debate, but the role the internet plays in it is clear, and damning.

    Analog, by Gerry Duggan and David O’Sullivan
    This graphic novel kicks off with “The Great Doxxing,” as secrets hidden across the internet, are exposed. While those with truly horrifying things to hide find their lives destroyed and their connection to society severed, many people find having all their shameful secrets exposed grants them a sort of freedom. After all, once everyone knows what you do in the shadows, why not start doing it wherever you like? Whether this counts as destruction of society or an upgrade depends on your personal point of view, but consider a world where people no longer feel the need to hide things.

    Daemon, by Daniel Suarez
    Matthew A. Sobol, brilliant computer programmer and businessman, is dying of a brain tumor and worried about the future viability of the human race. His solution is to create a daemon—a computer program designed to run noiselessly in the background (the device you’re reading this on has a bunch of daemons running on it right now)—that will work to create a New World Order, by any means necessary. Using the internet, the Daemon soon takes over companies and directs their resources towards creating deadly robots, enlisting human agents, and creating a secret other internet for hidden communication. While the Daemon itself isn’t exactly the Internet, without a globally-linked system like it, Suarez’s world might not actually implode. Let’s hope ours avoids a similar fate.

    What’s the scariest internet novel you’ve ever read?

    The post 6 Books in Which the Internet Helps Destroy the World appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

     
  • Tara Sonin 4:00 pm on 2018/04/13 Permalink
    Tags: , a wounded name, , , , , , darling beast, daughter of time, dot hutchinson, e.k. johnson, , , fool, , howard jacobson, i iago, , if we were villains, , , josephine tey, jude morgan, juliet immortal, katharine davies, m.l. rio, margaret atwood, , miranda and caliban, new boy, nicole galland, one perfect rose, rebecca reisert, , , , ros barber, saving juliet, shylock is my name, , , tessa gratton, the madness of love, the marlowe papers, the princes in the tower, the queens of innis lear, the secret life of william shakespeare, the third witch, , vinegar girl, when you were mine, william shakespeare's star wars   

    25 Romances for Shakespeare Fans 


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    Between fairytales, Jane Austen, and revivals of favorite TV shows from yesteryear, retellings of classic stories for today’s readers are all the rage. Shakespeare is no exception! Here are twenty-five books you’ll love if you’re a fan of the Bard.

    Miranda and Caliban, by Jacqueline Carey
    Jacqueline Carey has the unique ability to blend beautiful prose, lush world building, and lots of fascinating character development. This retelling of The Tempest stars Miranda and Caliban: the daughter of the play’s main character Prospero, who has taken them to an island for mysterious reasons…and the slave described as a monster by his master. Carey reimagines them as star-crossed lovers caught in a web of powerful people they can’t escape.

    As I Descended, by Robin Talley
    A gender-flipped, YA version of Macbeth? Sign me up! Meet Maria and Lily; inseparable, in love, and desperate to carve out a future for themselves when they feel it is in jeopardy. Maria wants to win the Cawdor Kingsley prize, but to do so, they have to get Delilah, the star student, out of the way. When Lily comes up with a plan to do so, things get bloody.

    I, Iago, by Nicole Galland
    Why did Iago insert himself into Othello’s life, causing devastation to everyone he loved? To learn the truth, you have to go back. In this clever retelling, Iago’s past is explored—as is his role in the society he exists within, as a co-conspirator in the act of convincing a man to murder the woman he loves.

    A Thousand Acres, by Jane Smiley
    Larry Cook is retiring, and his land should go to his daughters—but his youngest, Caroline, refuses to accept his offer. King Lear is a story about pride, family, and revenge, and this retelling brings that to life. Buried family secrets are brought to the surface, and in the end, none of its members will be the same.

    The Third Witch, by Rebecca Reisert
    Macbeth begins with three witches, and this novel delves into the story of one of them. Gilly decides to do whatever necessary to ruin Macbeth’s life, including dressing like a boy, sneaking into the castle, and inserting herself into his business. But by putting Macbeth and his wife in her sights, has she unwittingly risked herself?

    Vinegar Girl, by Anne Tyler
    A comedy, for a change of pace! The Taming of The Shrew gets the contemporary treatment when Kate, generally dissatisfied with her life, gets thrown another curveball: her father wants her to marry his assistant, Pytor, without whom his scientific research would be lost, to keep him from being deported. Hilarity ensues.

    Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood
    We return to The Tempest with a retelling from the author of The Handmaid’s Tale. A meta-twist on the retelling stars an artistic director of a theater putting on a production of the namesake Shakespeare play itself…but when he is betrayed, Felix winds up alone, missing his lost daughter, wishing for the day vengeance can be his. When an opportunity to teach a theater course in a prison arises, Felix sees his chance to put on his play, and put out the people whom he thought he could trust.

    If We Were Villains, by M.L. Rio
    Sometimes we forget, but Shakespeare’s plays were put on by actors…and this interesting novel combines a narrative fit for the Bard himself with the theatrical backdrop. Oliver Marks has been in jail, but no one knows the real truth of why. He was once an actor surrounded by other talented performers, but something took a turn for the dangerous in their final year at the conservatory. What is the truth? Who is the villain? Only Oliver knows, and you must decide if you believe him.

    Fool, by Christopher Moore
    The court jester always stands on the sidelines, seeing all. In this novel, Lear’s jester is named Pocket, and the story unfolds from his point of view. While their family falls apart, the fool finds a way to make you laugh despite the tragedy that inevitably approaches.

    A Wounded Name, by Dot Hutchinson
    Hamlet is about the titular character, but in this retelling, Ophelia gets the star treatment. At Elsinore Academy, Ophelia sees ghosts that even medicine cannot banish. She finds comfort in the late headmaster’s son, Dane, but together, their connection proves tragic.

    The Queens of Innis Lear, by Tessa Gratton
    This book isn’t even out yet, but I’m so excited about it I had to include it! A magical fantasy inspired by King Lear? Yes, please! Three queens battle for the rights to the throne: one, who sees revenge for her mother’s death, another determined to get an heir to secure her position, and a third who sides with her father, determined to protect him from their war.

    The Princes in the Tower, by Alison Weir
    If you’re a fan of Shakespeare’s Richard III, you will love this historical fiction novel that envisions what occurred when Richard infamously made two young princes disappear since they were a threat to his crown.

    The Marlowe Papers, by Ros Barber
    If you love Shakespeare, you should know his greatest frenemy: Christopher Marlowe. Some call him a competitor, others a collaborator…and in this novel, Marlowe reveals the truth about his death…or rather, the death he faked so he could escape being a convicted heretic. And of course, the greatest forgery of them all: that he continued to write plays in Shakespeare’s name. A rich, imaginative novel about a time mired in mystery.

    The Secret Life of William Shakespeare, by Jude Morgan
    For all of his works and his enduring legacy, William Shakespeare is still something of an enigma. This novel unravels the mystery behind his childhood, his marriage, the death of his son, and much more.

    Shylock is My Name, by Howard Jacobson
    The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s slightly more obscure plays (but one of my personal favorites.) About family, betrayal, faith and revenge, this story is re-interpreted for the present day where Simon Strulovitch takes the place of Shylock. His daughter Beatrice has fallen for an athlete with anti-semitic views despite the fact that she is Jewish, and eventually, Strulovich is driven to seek revenge.

    Darling Beast, by Elizabeth Hoyt
    This romance takes place in the theater, so of course Shakespeare would approve! An actress has fallen on difficult times while trying to take care of her young son. When she meets another inhabitant of the theater, a Viscount with a violent past, they both turn to one another to bring themselves out of the darkness of the wings and into the bright light of center stage.

    One Perfect Rose, by Mary Jo Putney
    Stephen has just been diagnosed with a devastating illness. Wanting to waste no time, he decides to leave the responsibilities of his life behind and travel, meeting a theater family and falling for their daughter, Rosalind. But even as they grow to love one another, Stephen knows that his curtain call is approaching…

    Exit, Pursued by a Bear, by E.K. Johnston
    This YA retelling of The Winter’s Tale involves the aftermath of one girl’s rape while at cheerleading camp. Hermione feels that she’s doomed to fulfill the legacy of every senior class in her school: a girl ends up pregnant before graduation. But instead, with her family, friends, and the community rallying around her, she defies expectations and makes the best choices for her future.

    Saving Juliet, by Suzanne Selfors
    Traveling back to Shakespeare’s time thanks to an accident of magic, Mimi and her acting partner on Broadway, Troy Summer, find themselves in the time of the Montagues and Capulets. There, she meets the real Juliet, and finds herself tempted to intervene and save the star-crossed lovers before tragedy strikes.

    New Boy, by Tracy Chevalier
    Othello takes a trip to the 1970’s in this gripping retelling. Osei is a diplomat’s son, used to traveling and never fitting in. But here, he fits with Dee, a popular girl in school…to Ian’s dismay. Many things remain the same, such as the investigation of racism, pride, and revenge. The twist? All of the characters are eleven years old, and what happens during school will change their lives forever.

    Wiliam Shakespeare’s Star Wars, by Ian Doescher
    See the story of Star Wars through a Shakespearean lens, with the Jedis, Sith Lords, and captive princesses all told through a re-imagining of Shakespeare’s play format as though it were being performed for Queen Elizabeth herself.

    Juliet Immortal, by Stacey Jay
    Here’s the truth: Juliet didn’t kill herself. Romeo murdered her to get something for himself: immortality. But in this re-imagining of the classic tragedy, Juliet may get the last word. Granted eternal life, she spends her centuries fighting back against Romeo—and that fight will become even more dangerous when she meets someone else she loves.

    Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey
    Was Richard III as evil and cunning as history remembers him? Or was he misunderstood, forced into a difficult position by the circumstances of the time? This novel stars a Scotland Yard detective determined to find out the truth behind one of history’s most enigmatic and infamous figures.

    The Madness of Love, by Katharine Davies
    Twelfth Night is part comedy, part drama, and so is this novel about a girl named Valentina who misses her twin brother after he’s abandoned her to go traveling. She decides to disguise herself as a boy and travel after him, even if it means having to help a man she may have feelings for in his plan to find happiness with the girl he’s loved since he was young. Unrequited love, mistaken identity, and more collide.

    When You Were Mine, by Rebecca Serle
    Ah! Another character gets their turn in the spotlight. Serle’s When You Were Mine is a modern take on Romeo & Juliet, but focuses on the character of Rosaline. Remember her? She’s the girl Romeo was smitten with before meeting Juliet. In Serle’s reimagining, Juliet and Rosaline (or Rose), are former BFFs, and Rob (Romeo) and Rose have finally, finally shared a kiss. But when Juliet moves back into town, she steals Rob away from Rose, who is absolutely crushed. You get to watch literature’s most famous love story through the eyes of Rosaline, the broken-hearted, jilted former flame…and then the downward spiral Juliet sets herself on.

    What are your favorite Shakespearean retellings?

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  • Jeff Somers 4:30 pm on 2017/10/19 Permalink
    Tags: be like bill, , , margaret atwood, shakespeare retellings   

    21 Shakespearean Books to Read If You Don’t Want to Read Shakespeare 


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    Shakespeare’s impact on literature and culture cannot be overstated; put simply, his plays have had a monumental effect on literature and the English language in general, and continue to inspire to this day. Yet for some, puzzling through that archaic language can be an intimidating challenge. No worries: here are 21 novels based on or inspired by the Bard that give you at least a fraction of the benefits of Shakespeare’s genius—without the iambic pentameter.

    A Thousand Acres, by Jane Smiley

    Inspired by: King Lear. Smiley’s story of a family farm being incorporated and divided between three daughters follows the fundamental plot of King Lear pretty closely, mapping the major elements to a modern world. Smiley takes the story to an even darker place than Shakespeare, however, and as a result captures the terrifying chasm of darkness at the heart of the narrative in a way that faithful stage productions sometimes can’t manage.

    New Boy, by Tracy Chevalier

    Inspired by: Othello. By setting her reworking of Othello in a middle school in Washington state, Chevalier underscores the primal forces examined in the original: jealousy, rage, vengeance. Far from mocking the savage forces driving the main characters, by making the characters children, Chevalier gets to the root of the matter faster, making this a brutal ride from beginning to end and conveying the power of the original almost effortlessly.

    Gertrude and Claudius, by John Updike

    Inspired by: Hamlet. Updike wasn’t the first writer to rework a Shakespeare play from an inverted angle, and he certainly won’t be the last, but by making Gertrude and Claudius, the morally-challenged parental figures whose machinations drive Hamlet insane, the protagonists instead of supporting players, Updike manages to drill down into what makes Hamlet one of the great stories of all time, even without the pretty language Shakespeare seemed to effortlessly produce. Updike went back to the source material Shakespeare himself used to construct his story, making this a shortcut to deep research on the play as well.

    The Gap of Time, by Jeanette Winterson

    Inspired by: The Winter’s Tale. One of Shakespeare’s more difficult plays (to defend and enjoy), The Winter’s Take seems like a tough sell for a reworking in a modern novel, but Winterson’s transformation of sexual subtext into text slams this story into high gear. Hedge fund manager Leo has an unspoken sexual spark with video game designer Xeno, and when he jealousy comes to believe Xeno is having an affair with his pregnant wife, Leo launches into a rage of violence that resembles the shocking opening act of the play in a wonderfully evocative way.

    Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood

    Inspired by: The Tempest. Atwood’s great achievement with her novel is the fact that you don’t need to know a single thing about The Tempest to find the book pretty amazing. The revenge tale Atwood crafts is small-scale in the biggest way possible, centered on a theater festival and its wronged director. Atwood doesn’t hold back—one thing she carries over from Shakespeare is the idea that no idea is too silly, too shocking, or too broad, as long as you have the talent to pull it off.

    The Dead Father’s Club, by Matt Haig

    Inspired by: Hamlet. Haig chooses a different route from most authors re-working Shakespeare, in that his story, though modernized, is pretty faithful to the original: the ghost of Phillip’s father visits the young man and implores him to murder his brother to prevent him from marrying Phillip’s mother and taking over the family business. Phillip pursues this goal, but slowly comes to doubt whether his father is right, while the reader begins to doubt Phillip’s grasp on reality.

    The Taming of the Drew, by Stephanie Kate Strohm

    Inspired by: The Taming of the Shrew. One thing about Shakespeare’s plays: they sure were written in the 16th century. Offering all the sass and smart language of the Bard, plus some refreshingly inverted sexual politics, this take on the classic comedy switches the sex roles reads like a literary version of 10 Thing I Hate About You.

    The Madness of Love, by Katharine Davies

    Inspired by: Twelfth Night. Davies smartly ejects much of the madcap comedy inherent in Shakespeare’s original play, mining the confusion of the multiple couples in this story for pathos and a hint of horror. By following a small-scale modernization, the story’s complexity is preserved, but takes on a morose, solemn feel that rings truer on the page than the zany atmosphere of the play.

    Exit, Pursued by a Bear, by E.K. Johnston

    Inspired by: The Winter’s Tale. Another brave author taking on a difficult story, Johnston captures the savagery and violence of the play in the sexual assault of the main character, competitive teenage cheerleader Hermione Winters. The bones of Shakespeare are at times hard to see in this novel, but the effect is similar; anyone who wants to know what it might have been like for an audience to watch The Winter’s Tale back in the day can read this and get a pretty good idea.

    Warm Bodies, by Isaac Marion

    Inspired by: Romeo and Juliet. If there’s a less obvious way to retell Romeo and Juliet than through zombie apocalypse, we don’t know what it is. Marion’s classic is inspired, however, because star-crossed lovers is an eternal theme that always works, whether the reasons you can’t be with your love involve family politics or, you know, an undead epidemic.

    Vinegar Girl, by Anne Tyler

    Inspired by: The Taming of the Shrew. The Taming of the Shrew is in some ways the easiest of the Bard’s plays to adapt to modern life, dealing as it does with (regretfully) familiar gender politics. Tyler is one of the few authors who manages to retell the story and keep the Bardiness intact while also making a book entirely her own; from the quirky heroine to the setting, this is an Anne Tyler novel, full stop, which just makes the Shakespearean aspects icing on the cake.

    Shylock is My Name, by Howard Jacobson

    Inspired by: The Merchant of Venice. Jacobson explores the perpetual question of whether Shylock is a hero or a villain by transcending the play entirely and bringing Shylock—the character—to modern-day England to make a case for himself. That might sound kind of wonky, but it works brilliantly, allowing Jacobson to not so much re-tell The Merchant of Venice as to repackage its concerns for a modern generation.

    The Prince of Cats, by Ron Wimberly

    Inspired by: Romeo and Juliet. Not so much a retelling as a reimagining of the Shakespearean sensibility in a modern comic format, Wimberly’s striking images and ability to apply classic Shakespeare lines in new and startling contexts (as well as write fresh lines that have the same brilliance of rhythm and imagery) makes this an exciting way to get the sense of what makes Shakespeare so important without actually reading one of his plays.

    Something Rotten, by Alan M. Gratz

    Inspired by: Hamlet. Why rework Hamlet as a hardboiled detective story? For goodness sakes, why not? Gratz sees past the old-school flowery language and the endless school essays to the essentials of Hamlet‘s appeal: it’s a murder mystery and a revenge tale, two things that, when combined, produce a noir atmosphere almost spontaneously.

    Two Gentlemen of Lebowski, by Adam Bertocci

    Inspired by: The Two Gentlemen of Verona. You might think retelling this play with the characters and plot trapping of the film The Big Lebowski is a gimmick, but it’s actually a genius way of modernizing the spirit of the thing—and the general spirit of Shakespeare transforms a classic movie into a modern-day Shakespearean tour-de-force.

    Ophelia, by Lisa Klein

    Inspired by: Hamlet. When pivoting off of a classic play, you can reinvent it, you can reset it, or you can do what Klein does and tweak the plot in one important way. In this case, she imagines that Ophelia doesn’t drown in Hamlet, but rather fakes her death and runs off to a nunnery as advised. She then narrates the story of what happened at Elsinore from her perspective, offering the modern reader a way into the story that’s fresh and new.

    Speak Easy, Speak Love, by McKelle Gorge

    Inspired by: Much Ado About Nothing. It’s possible that Shakespeare was a time traveler who visited the 1920s, because Much Ado About Nothing almost perfectly evokes the wild energy of that decade—something Gorge uses to great advantage in this retelling of the play. All the characters and plot points are there, as is the effervescent energy of the source material.

    The Weird Sisters, by Eleanor Brown

    Inspired by: Macbeth. Not so much a retelling of Shakespeare as a strange celebration of his work, in the context of a smart family dealing with tragedy. Brown’s characters will make you understand why some people are still more than happy to bend your ear endlessly about how fantastic Shakespeare’s plays really are. She takes plenty of bits and pieces of Macbeth for her story of three sisters crashing back into each other when they return home to deal with the illness of their mother (a Shakespeare scholar). You” come away with a love for her characters and a burning desire to read the Bard.

    Confessions of a Triple Shot Betty, by Jody Gehrman

    Inspired by: Much Ado About Nothing. If your worry about reading Shakespeare is the outdated language and impenetrable slang, rest easy: Gehrman not only sets the story in the modern day, she writes it in a sharp, thoroughly contemporary voice that is both hilarious and unflinching, following our narrator to the bathroom and back without missing a beat. As a result, all the lively energy of Shakespeare’s language is captured without directly quoting him once.

    The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey

    Inspired by: Richard III. One of the best mystery novels ever written uses Shakespeare’s Richard III as a catalyst. Playing with the idea that history is written by the winners, Tey has her convalescing policeman investigate the supposed crimes of Richard III from his hospital bed, referring to the play as a knowing perpetuation of propaganda and making the reader want to read it just to compare the Bard’s depiction of the king with the conclusion Tey comes to at the end.

    Macbeth, by Jo Nesbø

    Inspired by: Macbeth. If there’s one author whose plan to re-interpret Shakespeare should get you excited, it’s Nesbø, whose upcoming novel takes the Scottish Play and sets it in a small-town police department, with Inspector Macbeth dealing with a dark past of drug addiction as he investigates a drug deal gone horribly wrong. Macbeth is one of the easiest plays to relate to the modern sensibility, as its themes of power, guilt, and manipulation are unfortunately evergreen—as we fully expect Nesbø to demonstrate.

    The post 21 Shakespearean Books to Read If You Don’t Want to Read Shakespeare appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

     
  • Monique Alice 3:00 pm on 2016/06/30 Permalink
    Tags: , , full frontal feminism: a young woman's guide to why feminism matters, jessica valenti, margaret atwood, , the purity myth: how america's obsession with virginity is hurting young women   

    Feminist Book Club: Sex Object, by Jessica Valenti 


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    Welcome to Feminist Book Club! FBC is a monthly column in which we explore written works through a feminist lens. Each post features one book and announces the pick for the following month’s post. We cover everything from essay collections to novels, and from memoirs to plays. This column is meant to be inclusive of all gender identities and features works from many different perspectives. FBC also aims to present an intersectional view of feminism, meaning that race, ability status, sexual orientation, and many other factors are considered alongside gender issues. We hope you will read along and share your thoughts in the comments.

    This month’s selection is Sex Object, by Guardian columnist Jessica Valenti. The founder of Feministing.com, Valenti has been a leading voice within the online feminist community for over a decade. She has authored several books on the state of modern feminism that are fast becoming mainstays of Women’s Studies syllabi across the nation, including Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman’s Guide to Why Feminism Matters and The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women. It’s easy to see why she’s everywhere—her work is deeply insightful and relatable, and cuts to the quick of our cultural ills with surgical precision. Their heavy subject matter notwithstanding, her books are always genuine pleasures to read—and her latest is no different.

    Sex Object is a memoir detailing Valenti’s transition from childhood through adolescence and adulthood and the concurrent changes in the ways in which she experienced the world. We see how, as early as age 10, Valenti has absorbed enough toxic cultural standards of beauty to hate her nose and to constantly compare herself to her sister. Valenti learns, as so many young girls do, that happiness is often seemingly correlated with how much we meet or do not meet these arbitrary standards, and acts accordingly. As she hits an early puberty, Valenti is plunged into another horrifying reality: that young girls are often the sexual targets of adult men. She’s in eighth grade when, after exiting a crowded subway on a beautiful sunny day, Valenti realizes someone has ejaculated onto her pants. Shortly thereafter, a man exposes himself to her on a subway platform, and not long after that, another man tries to pull her into his car after asking her for directions, all the while brandishing his penis.

    These terrifying incidents are the first in a never-ending parade of dehumanizing experiences in Valenti’s story—many of which will be all too familiar to female readers, especially those living in major cities. Valenti asks a question here that is central to the feminist conversation about objectification: what is the “right” way to deal with it? She discloses that her weapon of choice has often been humor—and she’s honest about the ways in which this strategy can fall short. It can feel empowering to mock one’s oppressor; to laugh in the face of those who seek to dominate. But, as Margaret Atwood famously said, “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.” Humor can take us only so far in the struggle for equality. It is undoubtedly useful in some measure, even if only as a coping mechanism. However, it can begin to feel hollow when our emotional and physical safety hangs in the balance. For many of us, laughing works for awhile. But all too often, it dissolves into despair without solving anything.

    In one of the most harrowing—and timely—accounts in Sex Object, Valenti discloses that she was raped by someone she trusted while blacked out and very likely unconscious. She frankly describes the ways in which she second-guessed herself, avoiding acceptance of what had occurred and minimizing the entire incident. Of course, her reaction to such a violation is not unique—it is the default. Our culture teaches that rape is only rape when the attacker is a stranger and the victim screams and fights with all her might. Any other type of assault is minimized, questioned, invalidated, outright denied. Messages to this effect are so pervasive they become internalized within victims—which is precisely why so many rapes go unreported. In light of the recent Stanford rape case and the gut-wrenching letter the victim read in court to her attacker, it seems reasonable to hope the national conversation about consent may finally be getting the groundswell of attention it needs in order for the tide to turn. Of course, it’s likely the Stanford rape only made it to a court of law because there were two eyewitnesses, and the convicted offender received a paltry six-month sentence. It’s enough to make a reasonable person laugh—or cry.

    Valenti has lauded the Stanford victim’s courage on several social media platforms. Valenti’s memoir, however, is primarily concerned not with individual acts of objectification and assault—although these are treated with the gravity they demand. The larger question Valenti poses is, what happens to us over the course of a lifetime of such treatment? What are the cumulative effects of never being able to take mass transit, or walk down the street, or inhabit public (and sometimes private) spaces at all without fearing for our safety? How do we take care of ourselves in the midst of what can feel like a war zone? One thing is for certain—whether we do it with an unflinching letter read aloud in a courtroom, a vulnerable yet fierce memoir, or simply the refusal to blame ourselves for choices others may make to objectify us, nothing changes unless we continue to protest the status quo.

    Next month’s selection: Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, by Lindy West.

     
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