One-Minute Book Reviews

March 14, 2015

‘Understanding Shakespeare’ on DVD – World-Class Analysis

Filed under: Plays — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:12 pm
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Iago was a voyeur and other perspectives on Shakespeare’s tragedies

Understanding Shakespeare Series. Four-pack DVD set: Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Romeo and Juliet. With Shakespeare scholars Michael J. B. Allen, A. R. Braunmuller, and Suzanne Collier. Cerebellum Corporation, 4 hours, varied prices.

By Janice Harayda

Wouldn’t it be great if you could watch Shakespeare’s plays in the company of experts who explained as you went along the meaning of scenes you might misinterpret? In fact, you can.

Each DVD in the Understanding Shakespeare series contains an abbreviated version of a tragedy — Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello or Romeo and Juliet — in the form of key scenes starring classically trained actors in costume on barebones sets. After you watch a scene, a moderator and three internationally known scholars discuss the meaning of important lines and how they fit into the plot and themes. Why does Shakespeare call Romeo and Juliet a pair of “star-cross’d lovers”? (This is a play about predestination.) What is Macbeth “about”?  (In part, a power-mad man egged on by his wife.) Why does Iago urge Othello to strangle Desdemona in her bed instead of poisoning her? (He’s “a voyeur” in a play about sexual jealousy.) The engaging back-and-forth between enacted scenes and analysis by experts sets this series apart from videos about Shakespeare that give one professor’s perspective or comment on undepicted scenes — an experience that, if you don’t know a play, can be a bit like listening to play-by-play commentary on a Super Bowl you haven’t seen.

At times the panelists make points that may be familiar to anyone who has taken a class in the Bard. But these articulate scholars find an appealing middle ground between the twin evils of dumbing-down and pedantry — none more so than the brilliant Michael Allen, the distinguished UCLA humanities professor, whose clarity and breadth of knowledge suggest why he has earned many honors for his teaching and scholarship.

One-Minute Book Reviews has brief reviews of fiction, nonfiction and poetry by the professional critic Janice Harayda, an award-winning journalist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. Please follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda for more commentary on books.

© 2015 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 19, 2010

What Was Shakespeare’s Point of View on Life? Quote of the Day / Christian Gauss

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:22 am
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Most books about William Shakespeare focus on one aspect of his life or work and skirt the big question that underlies both: What was Shakespeare’s point of view on life? An answer came from the literary critic  and Princeton University professor Christian Gauss as quoted by his former student Edmund Wilson:

Wilson writes that Gauss began one of his lectures by saying:

“There are several fundamental philosophies that one can bring to one’s life in the world — or rather, there are several ways of taking life. One of these ways of taking the world is not to have any philosophy at all – that is the way that most people take it. Another is to regard the world as unreal and God as the only reality; Buddhism is an example of this. Another way may be summed up in the words Sic transit gloria mundi – that is the point of view you find in Shakespeare.”

From “Christian Gauss as a Teacher of Literature” in The Portable Edmund Wilson (Viking Penguin, 1983), edited, with an introduction and notes, by Lewis M. Dabney.

December 12, 2009

Funny Gifts for Readers Today on Twitter

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On my Twitter page today I’m recapping in 140 characters or fewer some of the amusing and other gifts for readers that I’ve mentioned on One-Minute Book Reviews and that you can still find, such as the Shakespeare’s Insults Magnets and the Jane Austen Action Figure. You don’t need to have your own Twitter account to see these. Just click on “my Twitter page” in the first sentence of this paragraph.

October 10, 2009

Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’ in ‘Five on a Hike Together’: ‘I Say — This Has Boiled Up Into Quite an Adventure, Hasn’t It?’

Enid Blyton has been translated into more languages than anyone except Walt Disney Productions, Agatha Christie, Jules Verne and Shakespeare

The Famous Five: Five on a Hike Together. By Enid Blyton. Illustrated by Eileen A. Soper. Hodder Children’s Books, 196 pp., varied prices. Ages 12 and under.

By Janice Harayda

Enid Blyton is the Agatha Christie of children’s literature. Not all of her books are mysteries. But like Christie, she was born in Britain in the 1890s and achieved an unparalleled fame for her suspenseful plot-driven novels that remain popular worldwide with readers and filmmakers. And like Christie, she has drawn fire from critics who have accused her of perpetuating the stereotypes of her era and social class.

Blyton is best known for the 21 novels in her “Famous Five” series, most of which have been adapted for television. Each book involves three English siblings, their cousin, and a mutt named Timmy. Five on a Hike Together is the tenth, and it suggests why the novels still appeal to children: Blyton gives her young characters a freedom that if allowed by real-life parents might bring a visit from the Department of Youth and Family Services, if not an arrest.

In Five on a Hike Together the four children and their dog spend several days hiking unchaperoned on moors during a long weekend in October. They are undeterred by their discovery that the heather may shelter a convict who has escaped from a local jail. But they split up when Timmy gets hurt chasing a rabbit down a hole. Julian and Georgina, known as George, set out to find someone who can tend to the dog’s injury, and Dick and Anne go off to look for Blue Pond Farmhouse, where all of them hope to spend the night. Nothing goes quite as expected. Dick and Anne get lost and end up at a ramshackle house where Dick gets a message from the escaped convict, who passes him a cryptic note through a broken window pane. All of the children realize when they reunite the next day that they must take the note to the authorities, but when a policeman scorns their efforts to help, they resolve to decipher the clue on their own. Soon the four are paddling a raft with Timmy on board in search of a treasure that may lie at the bottom of a lake.

Five on a Hike Together has several of Blyton’s hallmarks — a fast pace, well-controlled suspense and little character development. The four children don’t grow so much as carom from one exciting adventure to another, and their appeal lies partly in their enthusiasm for all of it. They are cheerful, intelligent, self-sufficient and generally kind and well-mannered. For all their limits, you can’t help but agree when a policeman tells the children in the last pages, “You’re the kind of kids we want in this country – plucky, sensible, responsible youngsters who use your brains and never give up!”

Best line: No. 1: “I say – this has boiled up into quite an adventure, hasn’t it?” (A comment by Julian, the oldest of the Famous Five.) No. 2: “A wonderful smell came creeping into the little dining-room, followed by the inn-woman carrying a large tray. On it was a steaming tureen of porridge, a bowl of golden syrup, a jug of very thick cream, and a dish of bacon and eggs, all piled high on brown toast. Little mushrooms were on the same dish.” Both lines suggest an appealing quality of the Famous Five: their infectious enthusiasm for their circumstances, whether they are lost on a moor or getting a good breakfast.

Worst line: Blyton wrote most of the “Famous Five” novels during the 1940s and 1950s, and they reflect their era. Julian, for example, tells his cousin Georgina, known as George: “You may look like a boy and behave like a boy, but you’re a girl all the same. And like it or not, girls have got to be taken care of.” George puts Julian in his place by telling him that he’s “domineering” and she doesn’t like being taken care of. But some critics see the series as sexist, though the girls of the “Famous Five” novels show far more courage than many contemporary heroines. Other books by Blyton have been faulted for racial characterizations that are today considered slurs.

Published: 1951 (first edition), 1997 (Hodder reprint).

About the author: Blyton is the fifth most widely translated writer in the world, according to UNESCO’s Index Translationum Statistics. The five most often translated authors are “Walt Disney Productions,” Agatha Christie, Jules Verne, Shakespeare, and Blyton, followed by Lenin, Barbara Cartland, Danielle Steel, Hans Christian Andersen, and Stephen King.

Furthermore: Helena Bonham Carter will star in a forthcoming BBC movie of Blyton’s life.

Children’s book reviews appear on this site on Saturdays.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

May 18, 2009

Hamlet ‘With a Nasal Twang’ — Pauline Kael’s ‘5001 Nights at the Movies’

Filed under: Essays and Reviews,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:44 pm
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One reason why my favorite collection of capsule film reviews is Pauline Kael’s 5001 Nights at the Movies: Expanded For The ’90s With 800 New Reviews (Holt, 960 pp., $35, paperback): Kael begins her comments on a 1969 Hamlet with, “Bearded, and with a nasal twang, Nicol Williamson is a surly Hamlet.” Hamlet with a nasal twang: what else do you need to know?

September 22, 2008

A Few Words on ‘Hamlet’ — Were Your English Teachers Right When They Told You That the Prince of Denmark Was a Man of Inaction?

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A lot of people may be returning to Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy now that Oprah has selected the Hamlet-influenced The Story of Edgar Sawtelle for her book club. And I may say more about that play closer to the date of the discussion of David Wroblewski’s novel. For now, I’ll mention one of the most perceptive scholarly comments I’ve read about the play: Many of us learned in school that Hamlet is “a man of inaction,” defined by his hesitations, but you could make a strong case that the opposite is true.

After becoming suspicious that his uncle killed his father in order to marry his mother, Hamlet vows revenge and devotes himself to achieving it. When traveling players arrive at Elsinore castle, he arranges quickly for them to put on a play that will confirm his beliefs, giving us the line: “…the play’s the thing/ Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” Hamlet certainly deliberates, as in the “To be or not to be” soliloquy in which he ponders whether it’s better to live or die when we don’t know what death will bring. But it might be more accurate to describe the Prince of Denmark as contemplative, meditative, or ruminative, words that describe his thoughts, rather than as a man of “inaction,” which describes his behavior.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 20, 2008

Late Night With Jan Harayda – Oprah Picks a Mixed Doggie Bag for Her Club — A Sentimental ‘Hamlet’-Influenced First Novel Told Partly from the Point of View of Dogs

Oprah’s latest book-club pick is a mixed doggie bag – one part well-told yarn and one part sentimental twaddle with a dash of the paranormal and forced parallels with Hamlet. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is the tale of a mute Wisconsin farm boy who goes on the lam after he becomes convinced that his uncle murdered his father, a suspicion that sets another tragedy in motion. And this first novel by David Wroblewski has more to offer than the cosmic gibberish of Oprah’s most recent pick, Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth, the grand prize winner in the 2008 Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/?s=%22A+New+Earth%22. But The Story of Edgar Sawtelle also suffers from mawkish scenes told from the point of view of dogs and from its implicit attribution of moral virtues to them. With its mix of family secrets and childhood pain — and other-worldly conversations with the dead — this novel was such a predictable choice for Oprah that the publishing news blog Galley Cat did predict it days ago www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/?c=rss.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

September 3, 2008

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘The Story of Edgar Sawtelle’ With a Key to ‘Hamlet’ Characters Represented in the Novel

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel
By David Wroblewski
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may make copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that wish to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

Edgar Sawtelle has spent his childhood on a mid-20th-century Wisconsin farm that raises its own breed of dogs, known as “Sawtelle dogs,” for private buyers. Born mute, Edgar communicates with his parents and others through sign language while raising his first litter of pups. But an air of menace seeps into his peaceful life when, in the summer of his 14th year, his father dies after a paternal uncle named Claude moves in with the family. Edgar vows to learn the truth about his father’s death and, when his effort ends in another disaster, flees with three of his dogs, hiding out in the Chequamegon National Forest. The plot of this first novel by David Wroblewski has similarities to that of Hamlet, where corpses litter the stage at the end of the play. So the question is not just whether Edgar will learn how his father died but how many people — or dogs — will die by the last page.

A Note for Book Clubs:
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle has 562 pages in its hardcover edition — twice as many as an average novel, which has about 250 pages — and Stephen King has said that he “spent 12 happy evenings” with the book. So it’s probably safe to say that some book-group members won’t finish it. If you’re reading the novel for a group, you might want to deal with this issue up front — for example, by agreeing to read the book over a summer. If you lead a club, you might also want to let members know how much of the book they would need to read to get a sense of the whole. Would the prologue do it? If not, how much would members need to read?

A Key to the Hamlet Characters in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle:
Some of the humans and dogs in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle are surrogates for characters in Hamlet. The human stand-ins include: Edgar Sawtelle (Hamlet, Prince of Denmark), Trudy Sawtelle (Gertrude, Queen of Denmark and Hamlet’s mother), Claude Sawtelle (Claudius, King of Denmark and Hamlet’s paternal uncle), Gar Sawtelle (the late King Hamlet of Denmark and Hamlet’s father), Doc Papineau (Polonius, Lord Chamberlain), and Glen Papineau, son of Doc (Laertes, son of Polonius). The canine stand-ins include Almondine (Ophelia, daughter of Polonius), Tinder and Baboo (courtiers Rosenkrantz, sometimes spelled Rosencrantz), Forte (Fortinbras) and Essay (Horatio). This is a starter list. If you see other parallels, why not mention them in the comments section on this post so that book clubs can benefit from your observations?

Questions for Discussion:

1. Early readers of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle characterized the novel in different ways. Publishers Weekly called it “a literary thriller.” [Feb. 18, 2008] Kirkus Reviews said it was “an Odyssean journey.” [April 15, 2008] Novelist Mark Doty described it as a hybrid: “both ghost story and melodrama” and “a coming-of-age tale.” [Dust jacket] How would you characterize the novel?

2. The plot of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle has obvious similarities to that of Hamlet, which critics often describe as “a revenge tragedy.” Would that label fit this book? Is the novel about revenge? If not, what is the novel “about”?

3. David Wroblewski told Publishers Weekly: “It was not my intention to do a literal retelling [of Hamlet]. It was more interesting to allow the stories to coincide where they could. Ghosts and haunting and poison are motifs of the Elizabethan stage.” [PW Daily @ pw.com, April 14, 2008] How well does his “nonliteral” approach work?

4. For someone who didn’t intend to do a “literal retelling” of Hamlet, Wroblewski lays on the parallels pretty thickly. Apart from similarities between characters, many scenes resemble those in Shakespeare’s play. Near the end of the chapter entitled “The Texan,” Edgar stages a demonstration of his dogs’ talents that corresponds to the play-within-a-play that Hamlet believes will prove his uncle killed his father. [The chapter begins on page 311.] If you’re familiar with Hamlet, what other scenes resemble those in the play?

5. Reviewers often overpraise novels that allude to great works of fiction, because the allusions can give a gloss of sophistication pop fiction or worse. If you’ve read the reviews for this novel, do you think that might have happened here? Did the book deserve so much praise? Or were critics perhaps too influenced by the Hamlet parallels or other factors?

6. A major challenge of writing a 562-page novel is keeping up a strong pace. Does Wroblewski do this? Did you find the pace lagging in any places? Where?

7. Wroblewski takes a risk by telling part of his story from the point of view of dogs and part from that of humans. Does the risk pay off? Would the novel have been stronger if he had stuck to the point of view of one species? [Sections told from a canine point of view include the chapters called “Almondine” that begin on page 30 and page 460.]

8. The author takes another risk by introducing paranormal elements, such as Edgar’s conversation with his dead father. [Beginning on page 235 with, “He saw a man …”] Apart from reinforcing the parallels to Hamlet, what – if anything – do these scenes add to the novel? Would the book have been stronger or weaker without them?

9. Stephen King said of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, “Dog-lovers in particular will find themselves riveted by this story, because the canine world has never been explored with such imagination and emotional resonance.” [Blurb.] If you love dogs, do you agree or disagree? If you disagree, what books about dogs are better? You might consider fiction such as Jack London’s White Fang and nonfiction such as John Grogan’s Marley and Me.

10. It’s been said that all dog-lovers fall into one of two groups: those who think dogs are wonderful animals and those who think they are furry, four-footed people. Did you sense that Wroblewski falls into either camp?

Vital statistics:
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel. By David Wroblewski. Ecco, 562 pp., $25.95. Published: June 2008 www.edgarsawtelle.com

A review of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on August 28, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/08/28. It is saved both with the August posts and in the “Novels” category on the site. The review takes the form of a parody of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are a free alternative to publishers’ guides, which are not unbiased analyses but marketing tools designed to sell books. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. To avoid missing them, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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August 28, 2008

Review of Oprah’s Latest Book Club Pick, ‘The Story of Edgar Sawtelle,’ the First Novel by David Wroblewski

Get thee to a kennel! A mute boy named Edgar finds his Ophelia in a dog named Almondine in story set in a hamlet in Wisconsin

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel. By David Wroblewski. Ecco, 562 pp., $25.95.

By Janice Harayda

To read, or not to read
The Edgar Sawtelle book
That is the question.
Whether ’tis nobler
In the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of
Outrageous twaddle,
And moralizing, too,
In sections told just from
The point of view of dogs,
One of them a stand-in
For Ophelia herself —
Her name is Almondine —
Because this novel is
A sort of canine Hamlet
That’s set in — of all places —
A hamlet in Wisconsin,
Or nobler to skip
A story you might like
Especially if you miss
The big, fat novels that
James Michener used to write.
To read, perchance to find
That this is your dream book:
Ay, there’s the rub!
Unless you are seeking
The kind of happy ending
That Hamlet doesn’t have
Because the author doesn’t give you
What you don’t find in the play:
A tale where no one dies.
It’s true, the book is not
The play in any way.
No poison-tipped sword looms,
A syringe is used instead.
And as for Rosenkrantz
and Guildenstern, his friend,
Like Ophelia
They have four feet and fur,
Though Hamlet is a boy, mute,
The Edgar of the title,
Who sees his father’s ghost,
A paranormal twist
In Edgar’s earthbound-life.
Morosely, Hamlet said –
Remember? – that conscience
Makes cowards of us all.
Which is not true of Edgar.
But will his morals save him
Or send him to his doom?
No spoilers you’ll find here –
The Bard supplies them all.

[Note: This review is not intended as a strict parody of Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy. If you’ve read Hamlet and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle and can do better, why not leave your parody in the comments section on this post? For more on the novel, visit www.edgarsawtelle.com.]

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

August 27, 2008

Reviving Ophelia as a Dog — ‘The Story of Edgar Sawtelle’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:24 pm
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Ophelia has four feet and fur in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

Ophelia has four feet and fur in 'The Story of Edgar Sawtelle'

You know how I wrote yesterday about five books I was planning to read this week while dog-sitting for literary friends? Those books are going to have to wait a day or two. My friends left behind a copy of David Wroblewski’s first novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (Ecco, 562 pp., $29.95) www.edgarsawtelle.com. And although I’ve been reading the over-the-top reviews of this bestseller for weeks, I’d somehow missed that – to oversimplify – this is a canine version of Hamlet in which a) Ophelia is a dog and b) the story is told partly from “Ophelia”’s point of view. Is Wroblewski’s novel closer to Shakespeare or Millie’s Book, the book former first lady Barbara Bush wrote in the voice of a White House spaniel? I will sort this out soon on One-Minute Book Reviews. To avoid missing this and other reviews, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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