Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

I will admit right off that I've never read The Tempest. This reinterpretation of the play though appealed to me because of my love for Margaret Atwood, as well as my belief that she'd do something fascinating to read having Shakespeare as her source material. 

I was right.

Shakespeare commonly employs the idea of a play within a play in his stories. He does it in Hamlet with the players reenacting Hamlet's dad's death, and he does it again in The Tempest as Prospero pulls the strings of the narrative on a small island to control the stranded characters. It really is an interesting tactic to be the playwright, writing a character who acts much like a play director with the impressive power of controlling reality. It's this central method of driving the action through control that Atwood takes hold of in Hag-Seed.

The biggest difference between Hag-Seed and it's source material is nobody is plotting to kill anyone in Atwood's version. Instead, the story starts with an assassination of a career. There's also no magic in the retelling, which factors pretty strongly in Shakespeare's play. Atwood replaces the magic with human intelligence and technology/special effects. The play within a play concept is all over the place as you spend most of the book with characters getting ready to put on The Tempest only to end up watching them perform a separate show for a special audience while the original play airs to the public on video. Sound a little confusing? Well, it's Shakespeare after all, so you're right where you should be.

Set inside a state prison, the players are all inmates participating in a theater program being offered as a kind of creative outreach. The main character, Felix, is a "ruined" theater director hiding out as the teacher while he bides his time for revenge on those who destroyed his career. The play within the play enables Felix to exact his revenge, and it's a doozy. 

So, the plot is Shakespeare, but the story is all Atwood. She infuses the story with a reality that Shakespeare lacks. Where he uses magic and dumb luck to drive his narrative, Atwood has her cast of characters work to set everything into place. I also feel as if there is more good in Atwood's version than in the original. Along the way of plotting his revenge, Felix ends up being quite a good person. He teaches for multiple years at the prison, always Shakespeare, inspiring inmates to think creatively, interpret literature, and brave the stage. He forces them to work together and try things outside of their comfort zones. He puts light and purpose into an otherwise dark place. Yes, Felix ultimately uses his players to exact his revenge, but he never forces it, these people are loyal because of what Felix has already taught them.

I really love the angle Atwood took to The Tempest in Hag-Seed, how she modernized the story, making a set of varied and imperfect characters come together to do a little good while having a little fun at others' expense. Atwood is such a creative writer and gives so much attention to flushing out all her characters. This is a great read and a fun way to bring a little Shakespeare into your book bag.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Why I keep reading YA fiction

I was born into a family of readers, and it has really paid off over the years. Book recommendations are always forthcoming, leading me to authors I love much sooner in life as well as those I'd never have discovered myself. It's how I ended up loving Louisa May Alcott when I was still pretty young (thanks Aunt K), how I found authors like Nelson DeMille and Robin Cook (thanks Dad), and even how I ended up tearing through VC Andrews novels throughout high school and into college (thanks Mom.)

I continue to love having people in my life who are big readers, people with whom I pass book suggestions back and forth each time we get together. The question, "So, what you are reading?" comes up more often than most others and it's wonderful.

My daughter, who's eight, is just getting to that stage where books are grabbing her attention. More than anything I want to help expose her to great reads. So far, I'm struggling due to her love of graphic novels, which didn't exist when I was a kid and isn't something I read very often. She doesn't fully trust my suggestions when I hand her a book that's solely text. Pippi Longstocking was tossed aside with disdain when I offered it up, but she really liked it when read by her second grade teacher. I know the love for books is there, so I'm working on getting caught up on YA content.

My desire to be somewhat of a book resource for my kids has made me realize I need to know about YA titles published this century. Not just Hunger Games and Harry Potter, but other books that will appeal to a younger reader. As a result, I try to read YA books I wouldn't typically pick up. This is what drew me to the first descendants novel.
I've seen the moves on Disney, but wanted to know if the books stacked up as a possible referral to my daughter.

I have no idea if my kids will be into these, we don't watch a lot of Disney princess movies, but after finishing the first book, I'm looking forward to the second. The writing is definitely geared toward a younger audience, but the story is developed enough to entertain an adult reader. Unlike the movies, the first book is only about the children of villains as they try to live up to parental expectations and fight off feelings of inadequacy. They also learn about friendship even though it goes against their villainous nature. Isle of the Lost is a strong combination of adventure and age-appropriate life lessons good for young readers.

I honestly can't recommend you add this book to your To Read list unless you're a parent who, like me, wants to have an arsenal of books at the ready for when your children come complaining, "I don't know what to read next...."