mini reviews #6: nonfiction and theatre of the absurd

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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BAD BLOOD by John Carreyrou
★★★★☆
date read: February 26, 2019
Knopf, 2018

Wow. This was every bit as wild as everyone has been saying. Bad Blood is probably the best embodiment of ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ that I have ever read. Trust me, you do not need to be interested in Silicon Valley or business or medicine in the slightest to be riveted by this incredible piece of investigative journalism.  You can pick up a copy of Bad Blood here on Book Depository.

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WAITING FOR GODOT by Samuel Beckett
★★★★☆
date read: April 7, 2019
Faber & Faber, 2006
originally published 1952

This is famously ‘the play where nothing happens,’ so I certainly didn’t expect this to be the surreal, madcap romp that it is. I’m going to have to think about this one for a while.  You can pick up a copy of Waiting for Godot here on Book Depository.

 

1035312SPY PRINCESS by Shrabani Basu
★★★☆☆
date read: May 22, 2019
Sutton, 2006

This is a competent biography of a really remarkable woman. I thoroughly enjoyed learning more about Noor Khan, an SOE agent and the first woman to be sent into occupied France, who was executed at Dachau after being imprisoned for a year and not revealing anything under extensive interrogation. But while Spy Princess certainly has value in filling in the gaps left by other biographers, it does occasionally beatify Noor at the expense of other women (what does Shrabani Basu have against Mata Hari, my god) and fall victim to making very generic statements about Noor’s life when there isn’t documented information (i.e., a page-long description of the global advancement of WWII followed by a lazy statement like ‘Noor was worried about this’). Still, Basu does an impressive job at chronicling Noor’s life and contextualizing her legacy.  You can pick up a copy of Spy Princess here on Book Depository.

13944THE SECRET LIFE OF HOUDINI by William Kalush and Larry Sloman
★★★☆☆
date read: May 28, 2019
Atria Books, 2006

In this book’s introduction the authors state that although they did an extensive amount of research, they made a decision at times to spin fact into imagined dialogue. That should set your expectations for this biography: wildly entertaining, often sensationalized, but decently informative nonetheless.  You can pick up a copy of The Secret Life of Houdini 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.

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book (play script) review: Faith Healer by Brian Friel

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FAITH HEALER by Brian Friel
★★★★★
Faber & Faber, 2016
originally published in 1979

 

When I was reading Faith Healer, this script got two distinctions from me: (1) being one of the most depressing things I have ever read, and (2) probably being the first play I’ve encountered where I actually wondered whether or not it would work on stage as well as it does on the page. I mean, it must work, because it’s seen a number of illustrious and well-reviewed revivals over the years, but it reads comfortably like a novella, and if you are planning on seeing it on stage (in the upcoming Los Angeles production, for example) I would highly recommend familiarizing yourself with the script first, because I imagine a lot could be lost in translation to the unfamiliar viewer.

Written in four monologues, this play tells the story of faith healer Frank Hardy. Frank’s two monologues (each about ten pages long) open and close the play, and in between we also hear from Frank’s wife, or maybe his mistress, Grace, and his stage manager Teddy. Together they chronicle the downfall of Frank’s faith healing act, but less focus is given to the narrative itself than the relationship between these three characters and the way it has disintegrated over time.

This play’s magic is all in the details. If you’re reading or watching this just trying to glean the overall gist, so much is going to be lost. Friel expertly navigates three conflicting accounts of the same events; each character tells essentially the same stories, with at times heartbreaking variations. The biggest punch to the gut was after hearing Grace’s account of her newborn baby dying, and hearing how Frank fashioned a makeshift cross for the grave, we then get Teddy’s account that Frank was nowhere to be found when Grace went into labor, and how Teddy was the one to build the cross and say a prayer over the grave. The fallibility of memory is probably one of my favorite themes in literature and when it’s rendered with the same kind of subtlety as it is here, it’s hard not to be deeply affected and unsettled. The other salient theme running through this play is Frank’s unreliable gift for faith healing – with noticeable parallels to artists’ creativity, the whole play reads as an allegory. Can truth exist in a vacuum or is it always shaped by the stories we tell?

If you aren’t someone who ordinarily enjoys reading play scripts, I’d still recommend checking this out if it interests you, as again, it reads very much like a novella. Friel’s writing is sharp and lyrical and this leaves no question as to why he’s one of the most influential playwrights to come out of Northern Ireland.


You can pick up a copy of Faith Healer here on Book Depository.

book (play script) review: The Beauty Queen of Leenane by Martin McDonagh

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THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE by Martin McDonagh
★★★★☆
originally published 1996

 

This was my sixth Martin McDonagh play and actually my third and final read from his Leenane trilogy (despite it being the first Leenane installment – but these plays are only very loosely connected and you do not need to read them in order). Here I was thinking that McDonagh couldn’t possibly shock me any more than he has in the past – I do consider myself familiar enough with his style of black comedy that my continued reading of his plays has more to do with their comfortable familiarity than with unearthing a facet of his writing that I feel I haven’t already uncovered.

But what I hadn’t counted on with The Beauty Queen of Leenane was how immeasurably sad it was going to be. For once McDonagh’s characters aren’t memorable for their immorality as much as for how pitiable they are, and though the dialogue is as sharp and irreverent as ever, the humor in this one doesn’t hit its mark quite as much as the more somber undercurrents do. Isolation, wasted youth, mental illness, and domestic claustrophobia are all at the heart of this deceptively dark story about an elderly mother and middle aged daughter living in a cottage together in rural Ireland. I think it shows that this is McDonagh’s first play – his craft of dark comedy doesn’t feel sufficiently honed and there are some dissonant elements that don’t fully come together, but my god is this haunting.

mini reviews #1: Wave, Mary Rose, Bluets, Another Brooklyn, Eurydice

This is something I’ve been wanting to do for a while, so, no time like the present.  I don’t always feel like writing multi-paragraph long reviews for every single book I read, but when my reviews are this short I don’t usually bother cross-posting them from Goodreads to WordPress.  So, I shall begin transferring them over here in a series of mini review posts.  Also, reminder that you’re welcome to add me on Goodreads!

15797917WAVE by Sonali Deraniyagala
★★★★☆
Knopf, 2013
date read: July 11, 2018

In Sonali Deraniyagala’s frank and candid memoir, she recounts the loss of her parents, husband, and two sons who were all killed in the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka. Wave is every bit as harrowing as you’d imagine, but it’s also refreshingly sincere and devoid of sensationalism – instead it rather beautifully captures one woman’s honest and occasionally ugly experience with grief. Although it’s at times a bit meandering and repetitive in execution it is utterly gripping from start to finish. There isn’t much hope or resolution here, but there is hardly a scarcity of gratitude or resilience.

36072356MARY ROSE by Geoffrey Girard
★★☆☆☆
Adaptive Books, April 2018
date read: June 29, 2018

This was… fine? I guess? I would not recommend listening to the audiobook. The narrator infuses it with a lot of melodrama and bad accents, and hearing the name ‘Mary Rose’ spoken aloud approximately eighty-five million times is grating. I don’t know. I just felt impatient listening to this. For the fact that about 95% of it was character development, none of the characters were particularly well developed. The 5% of actual story was fine, just not enough to really hold my interest. I’d like to read the JM Barrie play at some point though.

6798263BLUETS by Maggie Nelson
★★★☆☆
Wave Books, 2009
date read: June 22, 2018

Bluets had a lot of the same sharp wit and similar pithy observations that I enjoyed in The Argonauts but I think this one was just a bit too abstract for my tastes. I also didn’t do myself any favors by reading this in short bursts over the span of two weeks when I think Nelson’s writing best lends itself to a more immersive reading experience. Still enjoyed it, still looking forward to checking out her other works.

30064150ANOTHER BROOKLYN by Jacqueline Woodson
★★☆☆☆
Amistad, 2016
date read: June 8, 2018

I listened to this on audio and… got pretty much nothing out of it. The narrator did a good job, but I just never felt grounded enough in this story, which to me felt more like it wanted to be a slice of life/coming of age poetry collection than a novel. But at the same time I do understand why others have loved this – I think it comes down to whether or not you click with Woodson’s flowery style of prose.

 

5661021EURYDICE by Sarah Ruhl
★★★☆☆
Samuel French, originally published in 2003
date read: April 16, 2018

There’s an undeniable pathos at the heart of this play that I think is informed so strongly by Ruhl’s personal experiences it almost made me question the need for this to be disguised as Eurydice’s story. This felt more like I was reading a poetry collection than a play, which was fine, albeit not what I thought I’d signed up for. The climactic scene between Orpheus and Eurydice was the highlight for me, though clearly there was so much tenderness put into the relationship between Eurydice and her father. Ruhl’s dialogue is incisive and dreamlike all at once and this was a pleasure to read in many ways, but ultimately where it didn’t totally connect for me was that it didn’t feel grounded enough in its source material.

Have you guys read any of these?  Feel free to comment down below if you’d like to talk about any of them in more detail!

book (play script) review: By the Bog of Cats by Marina Carr

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BY THE BOG OF CATS by Marina Carr
★★★★★
originally published in 1998

One of the many reasons I love Irish lit is that its signature fusion of comedy and tragedy is something I find so shockingly, painfully honest. I love reading something that has me laughing out loud on one page, and has me covering my mouth in horror on the next. Mastering that tonal shift is a fine line to walk, but Marina Carr manages it with aplomb here.

By the Bog of Cats is a play about a traveller woman called Hester, who feels a deep connection with the bog she lives on, but who’s being forced to leave because her former partner is now marrying a younger woman and the two of them forced Hester to sign over the rights to her property. Throughout the course of the play we see Hester defend her relationship to the land, while she’s also tormented by memories of the mother who abandoned her.

Though there are more than a fair share of comedic moments, the heart of By the Bog of Cats is pitch-black, and the conclusion is absolutely harrowing. It’s also a deliberate nod to Greek tragedy, and I am nothing if not predictable. I absolutely loved this. I read it in an hour this weekend, but I’d love to see it performed live one day. Until then, I can only recommend the script very highly to those who love stories which are in turns shocking, disturbing, and darkly funny.

book (play script) review: The Lonesome West by Martin McDonagh

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THE LONESOME WEST by Martin McDonagh
★★★★☆
originally published in 1997

The Lonesome West is the conclusion to McDonagh’s Leenane trilogy – three unrelated plays all set in the same Irish village. I’ve actually yet to read The Beauty Queen of Leenane, but I much preferred this to A Skull in Connemara. It’s about two brothers living alone after their father’s death, getting into arguments about mundane things that often escalate to physical violence.

Reading this play was a very quintessentially McDonagh experience: tension is high, but broken by dark, irreverent humor, and characters are all pretty much terrible people, and it should be irrevocably bleak for that, but there’s an undeniable quality of tenderness. As always, McDonagh doesn’t offer redemption or resolution. His stories are never about villains becoming heroes. But there’s still a glimpse of hope, that maybe people can change – certainly not in the course of a two-hour long play, but maybe eventually.

The dialogue in The Lonesome West was as witty and biting as ever, but there was also such an openness and honesty to it that I found refreshing. This exchange in particular struck me as rather beautiful in its simplicity, and as always I love McDonagh’s use of dialect. Seeing his plays performed live is obviously the ideal, but reading them still feels like a sensory experience.

WELSH. We should be scared of their ghosts so but we’re not scared. Why’s that?
GIRLEEN. […] The opposite of that, I do likecemeteries at night.
WELSH. Why, now? Because you’re a morbid oul tough?
GIRLEEN. (Embarrassed throughout.) Not at all. I’m not a tough. It’s because… even if you’re sad or something, or lonely or something, you’re still better off than them lost in the ground or in the lake, because… at least you’ve got the chance of being happy, and even if it’s a real little chance, it’s more than them dead ones have. And it’s not that you’re saying ‘Hah, I’m better than ye,’ no, because in the long run it might end up that you have a worse life than ever they had and you’d’ve been better off as dead as them, there and then. But at least when you’re still here there’s the possibility of happiness, and it’s like them dead ones know that, and they’re happy for you to have it. They say ‘Good luck to ya.’ (Quietly.) Is the way I see it anyways.

book (play script) review: A Skull in Connemara by Martin McDonagh

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A SKULL IN CONNEMARA by Martin McDonagh
★★★☆☆
Heinemann, 1997

 

A Skull in Connemara is playwright-director Martin McDonagh’s second play in his Leenane trilogy – three unrelated plays set in the same Irish village. It follows Mick Dowd, who each year disinters bones from the local cemetery to make way for new arrivals. When he’s forced to dig up the remains of his late wife, questions arise about his possible involvement in her death.

What I enjoyed about A Skull in Connemara is exactly what I enjoy about all of McDonagh’s plays: morally corrupt characters, the banality of small-town life highlighted with humor and irony, morbid humor, razor sharp dialogue. I mean:

MAIRTIN: What kind of questions, Mary beag?
MARY: Questions about where did he put our Padraig when he dug him up is the kind of question, and where did he put our Bridgit when he dug her up is the kind of question, and where did he put my poor ma and da when he dug them up is the biggest question!
MAIRTIN: Where did you put all Mary’s relations, Mick, then, now? The oul bones and the whatnot.

That’s pretty great.

Anyway, this isn’t one of McDonagh’s stronger stories. His characters aren’t as well-developed as usual – the relationships between them and their motivations remain hazy, and the result is that I’m just not as invested as I’d like to be. In typical McDonagh fashion, his characters are all distinct and wacky, but none here are as memorable as Katurian from The Pillowman or Padriac from The Lieutenant of Inishmore.

Maybe the right cast and the right production could breathe some life into this. I enjoyed reading it well enough, it was an entertaining enough way to spend an hour, and the final scene was definitely thought-provoking, but there was a certain lack of gravitas that McDonagh usually is able to incorporate into his black comedies. The biggest problem here is that the stakes in this play are low and they feel low, and I know McDonagh can do better.