Friday, March 30, 2012

Book Note: Undiscovered Country

Enger, Lin. Undiscovered Country. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2008.

I've reserved this book for the finale of our series of Book Notes on Literature Inspired by Shakespeare.

Lin Enger's Undiscovered Country transposes the plot of Hamlet to northern Minnesota. It is exquisite. The basic plot structure is present, but Enger has made copious alterations and additions to it—all of them fascinating and significant—and he has played with the characters to a considerable degree as well. Jesse Matson, the Hamlet analogue, has a brother much younger than he is, for example. And, in this telling of the plot, the rumor about the father's death isn't that a serpent stung him: it's that he committed suicide.

The novel is extremely compelling. I found myself completely lost in the story, only occasionally pulling myself out to contemplate its relation to Hamlet. I will need to read it again—and then re-read it—for both pleasure and for study. In fact, I'm thinking of adding it to the syllabus of a course I'm proposing for the spring (the course will be called "Literature Inspired by Shakespeare"). I imagine it provoking considerable discussion.

One passage I enjoyed particularly has the same kind of self-reflexivity of Hamlet itself. In it, Jesse explains to his friend Charlie—who is mostly a Horatio analogue, and who has also (some time earlier) lost a father due to an apparent suicide—that he saw his father's ghost (click on the image to enlarge it):

Undiscovered Country, pages 59-60.

I found it delightful to have this meta-narrative at work in the plot. A paragraph later, Jesse ponders the relationship between his earlier frustration with Hamlet's inaction and his own situation, deepening our appreciation of both:

Undiscovered Country, page 60.

The rest of the novel is filled with similar depth, as well as passages of lyric beauty and emotional complexity. There are also pleasing ambiguities scattered throughout. The possibility of an affair between the Gertrude analogue and the Claudius analogue is raised, explained away, raised again, and finally settled (though I won't tell you in what direction).

My recommendation about Undiscovered Country can be summed up in three words: "Read it now."

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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Book Note: Wyrd Sisters

Prachett, Terry. Wyrd Sisters. London: Corgi, 2005.

In terms of enjoyable Shakespeare-related lunacy, you can do no better than Terry Prachett's Wyrd Sisters. I only learned of Prachett recently: a colleague who knew that I was teaching a course called Literature of Humor recommended him. After the first paragraph, I became quite angry—angry that no one had told me about him before! After the second paragraph, I said, "This author is doing to fantasy literature what Douglas Adams did to science fiction." After the third paragraph, I was rejoicing at the treasure trove of books by Prachett that lay before me.

This volume, which fits in Prachett's Discworld series (see the Wikipedia entry on the subject for more information), provides a humorous take on the Weïrd Sisters, as well as bits and pieces of other Shakespeare plays. It even includes a band of traveling players who contemplate their profession in very enjoyable prose.

Although I was completely ignorant of it, a large slice of the world has reveled in this book for over twenty years. It has been scripted as a play (by Stephen Briggs) and even (in 1997) released as a television mini-series in Britain.

Here's a selection of the opening chapter (click on the image to enlarge it to the level of legibility):

The novel is wacky and ludicrous by turns—and thoroughly enjoyable. Give it a try!

Links: The TV Mini-series at IMDB.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Book Note: Enter Three Witches

Cooney, Caroline B. Enter Three Witches. New York: Scholastic Press, 2007.

Enter Three Witches, a Shakespeare-related young adult novel, offers a compelling and intriguing take on Macbeth. In a series of short vignettes at the beginning of the novel, Cooney establishes and develops her main characters—from that point on, I found it hard to put the book down.

The plot of Shakespeare's Macbeth is conveyed through the eyes of a number of characters, but the chief among them are Lady Mary, the daughter of the treacherous Thane of Cawdor, living in the Macbeths' castle; Swin, a servant girl with a brusque exterior that she uses to hide a brusque interior (which, in turn, hides some good qualities); Ildred, a companion to Lady Macbeth and the holder of a secret; and Seyton and Fleance, who reprise their roles from the play and develop in interesting ways through the plot of the novel. Despite the title, the Weïrd Sisters don't take a prominent role. They are present, and they are powerful, but their role in the novel is more incidental than central.

I admire the novel's construction and its author's skill with both plot and language. Lady Mary, overlooked after her father's execution as a traitor, is able to observe many of the key scenes from Shakespeare's play unobserved and to contemplate and to comment on them as she does so. It's a clever device, and it's also cleverly used. The speeches she overhears are mostly modernized prose versions of Shakespeare's speeches (with the notable exception of "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow"), but the modernizing is done with a light touch that does not distract from the plot.

And Cooney doesn't pull any punches with the plot, though much of the violence takes place offstage. It's written for a younger audience, but I imagine that readers younger than eleven or so will be troubled by some elements in the story.

Enter Three Witches is one of the best Shakespeare-related young adult novels I've read recently. I highly recommend it—but don't start it until you have time enough to finish it! It will pull you in and refuse to let you go.

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Bonus Image: Alternate Cover for Enter Three Witches
Bardfilm is normally written as one word, though it can also be found under a search for "Bard Film Blog." Bardfilm is a Shakespeare blog (admittedly, one of many Shakespeare blogs), and it is dedicated to commentary on films (Shakespeare movies, The Shakespeare Movie, Shakespeare on television, Shakespeare at the cinema), plays, and other matter related to Shakespeare (allusions to Shakespeare in pop culture, quotes from Shakespeare in popular culture, quotations that come from Shakespeare, et cetera).

Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Shakespeare's works are from the following edition:
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
All material original to this blog is copyrighted: Copyright 2008-2039 (and into perpetuity thereafter) by Keith Jones.

The very instant that I saw you did / My heart fly to your service; there resides, / To make me slave to it; and, for your sake, / Am I this patient [b]log-man.

—The Tempest