Project Shakespeare: month #1 wrap up

Since Shakespeare has been dominating my reading of late, and because I suck at writing up full-length reviews of classics, I thought I’d take you through the first month of this #ProjectShakespeare experience with me.

Project Shakespeare, if you didn’t see me mention it before, was an idea that my friend Abby came up with, to gather a group of friends and read/perform a different Shakespeare play every Saturday night until we’re out of quarantine.  We’ve done four plays so far, so let’s go through them:

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A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM
★★★★★
my roles: Hippolyta, Snug, Moth

A Midsummer Night’s Dream and I go way back.  My acting debut (and also… the last time I acted) was in a performance of Midsummer that my fifth grade class put on.  At the time I desperately wanted to play Puck, and given the fact that in fifth grade MY NICKNAME WAS PUCK, not being given the role of Puck felt like a personal attack that I’m still not sure I’ve recovered from.  (I spitefully memorized Puck’s if we shadows have offended monologue, which I can still recite to this day.)

Despite this traumatic event, I have a very strong fondness for Midsummer.  Being eleven at the time this was obviously my first exposure to Shakespeare, and I found it weird and enchanting.  Fairies, mischief, a play within a play… what’s not to love?  What struck me as an adult is how good of an ensemble play this is – is there even a main character?! – it’s no wonder that so many schools and community theatres opt for this one.  It’s also just unabashedly fun in a way that entertains rather than grates.

And shoutout to my friend Patrick for serving us the hammiest portrayal of Bottom that the (virtual) stage has ever seen.

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THE TEMPEST
★★★★☆
my role: Miranda

In contrast, The Tempest was new to me!  I knew it was Abby’s favorite play and had been looking for a good excuse to read it for a while now, and I’m glad I did.  Before I read it she predicted ‘you’ll like it but it won’t be your new favorite’ and I’d say that’s an accurate assessment.  Though I suppose it can technically classified as a comedy, it’s decidedly less comedic than Shakespeare’s more carefree plays – there’s a real thematic heft to it that compelled me so much that I think if the ending had culminated in tragedy and bloodshed, it would have been a new favorite after all (sorry, I’m predictable).

Reading the script a few days before requesting a role, I was most drawn to Miranda, so I decided to throw my name in the hat for the play’s only canonical female character, who I did end up playing.  Miranda has been my favorite character to play so far – in some ways she’s the archetype of The Ingenue; innocent, loving, trusting, filled with more compassion than experience.  But her upbringing adds a layer of complexity – she’s never seen the face of another woman, she’s lived a life entirely subservient to her father in the microcosmically patriarchal society that he’s created on this island.  Still she shows an inherent moral goodness which at times is in conflict with her father’s own agenda; in fact, the first time we’re introduced to Miranda it’s in the context of her challenging her father; the play’s hero automatically taken down a peg by his teenaged daughter.  (The scene that results from this argument also reminded me so strongly of the dynamic between Valjean and Cosette in Les Misérables that it tugged at my heartstrings.)

Anyway, The Tempest was a joy to read and perform, and one that I’d heartily recommend to anyone who’s a little intimidated by Shakespeare and isn’t sure where to start.  The language was some of the most accessible yet beautiful that I’ve read in any Shakespeare play – O brave new world, That has such people in’t!

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TWELFTH NIGHT
★★★☆☆
my roles: First Officer, Curio

Twelfth Night is not my favorite, and not just because my first exposure to it was an incredibly bizarre community production which was entirely period except for the unexplained choice to make Fabian a surfer dude.  (Who is Fabian, anyway?)  The thing about Twelfth Night is that none of the couples are particularly worth rooting for – Viola is great, and naturally we want her happiness, but Orsino is such a dunce it’s hard to be thrilled about that conclusion.  It’s also hard to rejoice in Malvolio’s comeuppance, because what has Malvolio even done that that’s outrageous other than be a bit of a Squidward?!  (High literary analysis you’re getting here.)

Nevertheless, I enjoy it.  It’s gay, it’s chaotic, it’s got some strong characters (I particularly love Viola and Olivia) and great comedic moments.  I just find it curiously cold overall.  Still, another strong week for Project Shakespeare, with people going harder and harder each week both with props and acting choices.

[changed my 4 star rating to 3 stars a few weeks later – I need to be honest with myself, I am not a big Twelfth Night fan.]

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MACBETH x2!
★★★★★
my roles (first show): Lady Macduff, Gentlewoman, Angus, Lord, Third Apparition, Soldiers
my role (second show): Malcolm

That’s right – we put on TWO performances of Macbeth.  Since there were so many requests to play Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and since it’s everyone’s favorite play (I’m not going to say you’re lying if you say your favorite play isn’t Macbeth, but…), we decided to do our usual Saturday evening show and then put on a Sunday matinee.  I think five or six of us did both shows, with our roles incredibly shuffled up on the two days, but some people just did one or the other.  On Sunday we were joined by my friends Will and Jess who were a most welcome addition – Will played Macbeth and put on a Scottish accent whose authenticity is dubious but which utterly charmed the group of Americans who were watching it.  And I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shoutout to my college roommate Rachel for getting into her bathtub and slathering herself in fake blood for her role of Lady Macbeth – the commitment bar has been raised so high I’m not sure how we’re ever going to top it.

Anyway, Macbeth, what is there even to say?  Another fun thing about this is that it’s the first time I’ve read the play since becoming utterly obsessed with Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, an avant-garde Macbeth retelling set in an abandoned hotel in Chelsea (Manhattan).  Hearing lines read aloud by my friends which have been whispered into my ear by performers in the McKittrick was chilling (‘blood will have blood!’)

I also had an excellent time playing Malcolm, a rather uninspiring character for the fact that he’s one of the four characters with the most lines – still, I tried very very hard to breathe some life into him and I had a great time doing it.


I feel like I can’t talk about any of this without talking about the fact that – and I don’t think this comes through very well with my online persona, so I do have to stress this – I am painfully shy.  Something like this even five years ago would have mortified me so much that the thought of participating would have made me physically ill.  I don’t know what it is that inspired me to finally put myself out there and actually try at something for once in my life that I’m not naturally gifted at, but I think the fact that the stakes are so remarkably low has been soothing my anxiety.  Project Shakespeare has also been the one constant in my life that has broken up the monotony of the weeks, so I think I really needed something like this to occupy me as I struggle to concentrate on most other things.

Anyway, that’s all.  Tomorrow night we’re doing As You Like It (I’m Celia) and the week after, Hamlet.  I will report back in another four weeks on how those went.

Tell me two things in the comments: what’s your favorite Shakespeare play, and what’s the silliest, lowest-stakes thing that’s been a comfort to you during quarantine?

And if you have a group of nerdy friends who could join you as you read early modern plays over Zoom, I cannot recommend something like this highly enough.

Stay safe and stay inside if you can.  xx

book review: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

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GIRL, WOMAN, OTHER by Bernardine Evaristo
★★★★☆
2019, Grove Atlantic

 

Girl, Woman, Other is effectively a collection of interconnected short stories, divided into groups of three: each trio of stories is about a group of characters (mostly black women) directly related to one another, though in the end you start to see a fuller picture of how everything is linked.  It’s easy to see why this one won the Booker: it’s stylistically innovative, topical, skillfully structured.  And indeed it’s a very impressive book, but I did have a few more nagging issues with it than I had expected to.

I thought a few too many of the stories followed a similar trajectory to really justify including all of them: the Shirley/Winsome/Penelope trio of stories I found especially weak, and while the narrative relevance of this section becomes apparent later on, it still dragged the middle of this book down.  This book also had one of those situations that I consider a pro and a con simultaneously; Evaristo’s writing is sharp, perceptive, articulate, to the point where at times characters spoke on history’s various iterations of feminism with such an eloquence that they felt like mouthpieces for the author rather than convincing characters in their own right.

That said, these were mostly minor issues in the grand scheme of things.  I did find Evaristo’s writing to be mesmerizing, and this book’s main strength I think is her ability to convincingly draw characters from different generations and give equal weight to their unique struggles.  This book has nuance in abundance; it has so much to say about what it means to be a black woman living in the UK, and none of that could be distilled down for this review without losing a lot of its heft.  Absolutely worth reading and a very worthy Booker winner.


Women’s Prize 2020 reviewsDominicana | Fleishman is in Trouble | Girl | Girl, Woman, Other | How We Disappeared | Red at the BoneWeather


You can pick up a copy of Girl, Woman, Other here on Book Depository.

mini reviews #9: YA, translated autofiction, magical realism, and nonfiction

You can see all my previous mini reviews here, and feel free to add me on Goodreads to see all of my reviews as soon as I post them.

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WE ARE OKAY by Nina LaCour
★★★★☆
date read: February 23, 2020
Dutton, 2017

I know this seems like a sort of hollow platitude, but We Are Okay is the kind of book that breaks your heart and then mends it again; a rather impressive feat given that I read it in under 2 hours. I imagine it won’t leave a huge long-term impression on my heart, but I found it very moving and engrossing and I’m glad I finally got around to picking it up. I’ll happily read more from Nina LaCour in the future.

You can pick up a copy of We Are Okay here on Book Depository.

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OPTIC NERVE by María Gainza
translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead
★★★☆☆
date read: February 29, 2020
Catapult, 2019

This book should have done so much more for me than it actually did. I’m a bit of an art history geek, so autofiction about an art geek musing on various paintings sounded like it was going to be a dream, but I think the execution left a lot to be desired. I found the art history lessons engrossing, as expected, but María Gainza’s life (or the life of her fictional stand-in, I guess) never really dovetailed into her art lessons to form a cohesive narrative. This ultimately felt a bit disjointed and unsatisfying, though I did enjoy the strength of Gainza’s passion for art.

You can pick up a copy of Optic Nerve here on Book Depository.

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SHARKS IN THE TIME OF SAVIORS by Kawai Strong Washburn
DNF @ page 66
date read: April 5, 2020
MCD, March 2020

I think the fact that this is the first book I’ve DNF’d in 8 years says it all. Between the painfully labored prose – it’s one of those books where it feels like the author is trying to imbue every single sentence with Meaning – and the fact that all four protagonists that I’ve encountered so far have the exact same narrative voice, I just can’t. This reads like an unfinished MFA project.

You can pick up a copy of Sharks in the Time of Saviors here on Book Depository.

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MAD, BAD, DANGEROUS TO KNOW by Colm Tóibín
★★★★☆
date read: April 5, 2020
Scribner, 2018

If you’re interested at all in Irish lit, this is SUCH a brilliant hidden gem. In this sort of offbeat biography, Tóibín digs into the lives of the fathers of Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats, and James Joyce, with an emphasis on their relationships with their respective sons. The book is divided pretty evenly into three sections and each has its strengths and weaknesses – I was most compelled by Joyce’s, somewhat to my surprise – but for a book that changes trajectory three times it’s reassuringly steady in its aims: humanizing these men, contextualizing the way they manifested into their sons’ writing, and creating a textured portrait of the history of literary Dublin. (Also, I can HIGHLY recommend the audio – Tóibín has a fantastic voice and his rendition of Joyce’s Ecce Puer was chilling.)

You can pick up a copy of Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know here on Book Depository.


Have you guys read any of these, and what did you think? Feel free to comment if you’d like to discuss anything in more detail.

book review: Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

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RED AT THE BONE by Jacqueline Woodson
★★★★☆
Riverhead, 2019

 

In Red at the Bone, a quick, engrossing, fairly plotless read, Jacqueline Woodson dissects the anatomy of a family.  She’s able to skillfully distill a collection of lives down to their bare essentials, without anything feeling rushed or underdeveloped, a feat in a book that’s scarcely 200 pages.  The novel is narrated by a handful of characters and centers on Melody, a teenage girl preparing for her coming of age ceremony in her family’s home in Brooklyn.  The narrative then weaves in and out of the past and present, in short, readable chapters, all pervaded by a sense of nostalgia and melancholy.

At times I found Woodson’s writing a tad overwrought (here I will cite the most obvious offender: WHY do authors feel compelled to have characters narrate their own births – has anyone else noticed that this is a growing trend?!).  However, on the whole I found that subjects were navigated with deftness and subtlety – the chapter in particular which introduces a major world event I found positively gutting.

The downside of short, punchy books like this is that they never tend to leave much of a lasting impression on me, and I doubt Red at the Bone will be an exception in the long run, but I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent with it.


Women’s Prize 2020 reviewsDominicana | Fleishman is in TroubleGirl | Girl, Woman, Other | How We Disappeared | Red at the Bone | Weather


You can pick up a copy of Red at the Bone here on Book Depository.

wrap up: March 2020

  1. Dominicana by Angie Cruz ★☆☆☆☆ | review
  2. Weather by Jenny Offill ★★☆☆☆ | review
  3. The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan ★★★★★ | review
  4. Girl by Edna O’Brien ★☆☆☆☆ | review
  5. How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee ★★★★☆ | review
  6. Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden ★★★★★ | review
  7. A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare (reread) ★★★★★ | review
  8. The Tempest by William Shakespeare ★★★★☆
  9. The Everlasting by Katy Simpson Smith ★★★★☆ | review to come for BookBrowse
  10. Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner ★★★☆☆ | review

MARCH TOTAL: 10
YEARLY TOTAL: 24

Favorite: The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan
Runner up: Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden
Least favorite: Dominicana by Angie Cruz

Other posts from March:

Life update:

So… that was a month.

I don’t really feel compelled to dwell on the situation in this post and give a full run-down of how I’ve been handling everything (badly!!), but I’m lucky to be employed and to be working from home so let’s leave it there.  I hope everyone else is healthy and doing well, relatively speaking.

Highlights of my month were my birthday (I turned 28 on the 31st) being a nice, low-key day, and Project Shakespeare which I talked about here if you’re interested.  Since my triumphant debut as Hippolyta I have since played Miranda in The Tempest which was a delight, and I intend to give my all to my very esteemed role as ‘First Officer’ in Twelfth Night this coming Saturday.  But seriously, this is all good fun and very much keeping me sane and I would absolutely recommend arranging something like thing in your own friend groups.

Two things I’ve been doing on Twitter to hopefully help boost morale a bit are posting a photo of one of my two very photogenic cats every day, and posting a lot of nature shots from walks I’ve been taking.  I’ll share some here:

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Currently reading:

What was the best book you read in March?  Comment and let me know!

P.S. Follow me!  @ Twitter | Goodreads | Instagram | Letterboxd | Ko-fi

book review: Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

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FLEISHMAN IS IN TROUBLE by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
★★★☆☆
Random House, 2019

 

This book was a bit of a rollercoaster for me: I loved it and I hated it, I found it brilliant and I found it frustrating.  I was actually expecting very little from it (books about rich people’s marriages failing just aren’t my thing; see: Fates and Furies) so on the whole I’d categorize it as a pleasant surprise, though I do have a few too many qualms to raise my rating higher than a solid 3 star.

What I found brilliant about this book was the character work.  As others have said ad nauseum, every character in this book is deplorable, and if that’s a problem for you, you aren’t going to get anything out of this.  I didn’t like Toby and Rachel, I didn’t find them sympathetic, and I found the stakes (how ever will this family survive on Toby’s $200k salary alone!) mind-numbingly low.  So I suppose it’s to Brodesser-Akner’s credit that I was invested.  I did care about whether these annoying kids would have to be uprooted from their life.  I did care about whether Rachel would resume the mantel of motherhood, or whether she had abandoned her family for good.  And I think the reason for that is that every major character in this book felt so thoroughly fleshed out and human.  This is a book about fallible people failing; it’s a train wreck that you can’t look away from.  That’s exactly what it sets out to be, and it succeeds magnificently in that regard.

What I found frustrating about this book was the structure.  For one thing, it was overly long: this could have been an intimate, thorough excavation of this marriage, and still been 150 pages shorter.  It wasn’t the page-count alone that bothered me: it was the fact that flashbacks were awkwardly woven into the narrative in a way that was like ‘Toby saw a family with three kids get on the subway.  He and Rachel used to want to have three kids.  [Cue 8 page backstory about that.]’  Incessantly.  It felt rather amateurishly constructed in this regard.

My biggest problem though was the book’s choice of narrator.  Full disclosure: first person minor rarely ever works for me, and this was not the book to change my mind.  It’s not narrated by Toby or Rachel, but rather Libby, one of Toby’s college friends who becomes invested in their marriage.  I found this to be such a flimsy framing device that ultimately didn’t add very much, and there were a few painfully on the nose moments where the author aimed for a larger commentary about how Libby’s role in the narrative was being sidelined (middle aged women are invisible, etc), but the fact that it was the author’s own narrative choice to sideline Libby made the whole thing a bit of an eye-roll.

So anyway, a mixed bag, but I certainly got a lot more out of this than I had expected to.  I do think it’s a brilliant commentary on marriage and the sort of contradictory societal expectations placed on women, and if that sounds appealing to you and you’re willing to navigate through it with loathsome characters, I would recommend it.


Women’s Prize 2020 reviewsDominicana | Fleishman is in Trouble | Girl | Girl, Woman, Other | How We Disappeared | Red at the BoneWeather


You can pick up a copy of Fleishman is in Trouble here on Book Depository.

not a book review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

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A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM by William Shakespeare
★★★★★
originally published in 1595

 

This is more of a diary entry than a book review which I have never done before, but… times are weird!

One of my friends had a BRILLIANT idea to organize a Shakespeare read-through over Zoom this weekend. (The irony is lost on none of us that we’re essentially reenacting Station Eleven.) A group of us divvied up parts and read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which, incidentally, is the play in which I made my acting debut as Mustardseed the fairy when I was 11. I was angling for Puck so that casting decision came as quite the blow. It felt redemptive to read as Hippolyta last night, a slightly meatier role.

Anyway, all silliness aside, times are tough right now and I know a lot of us are having difficulties concentrating on our usual sorts of escapism, which for most of us includes reading. This virtual Shakespeare production amongst a group of friends was such a fun distraction that we’re going to make it a weekly thing, proceeding with The Tempest next weekend. If you have a friend group who’d be down for this kind of thing (it doesn’t have to be Shakespeare – you could do any play or movie script), I HIGHLY recommend it. It’s the only 2 hours this week that I’ve felt truly switched off from the constant news stream and existential dread that’s been eating away at me. That’s why I thought I’d share – there’s so much discourse floating around about how you need to Make The Most of this quarantine to clean your house and learn a new language and write the next great American novel, but I think what we really need are lower-stakes, delightfully distracting and unproductive projects like reading Shakespeare with your friends around the globe with a glass of wine.

Hope you all are staying safe and healthy!  Tell me something fun and silly you’ve done to help you through the pandemic?