Re-writing Shakespeare

My husband and I catalog our books on LibraryThing and I often get books to review through the Early Reviewers Project.  Most recently I got Anne Tyler’s re-writing of “The Taming of the Shrew”, Vinegar Girl.  Why is Tyler re-writing Shakespeare?  Hogarth Publishing is doing a series for the 400th Anniversary of Shakespeare’s death by having well known author’s take on a variety of plays.

The Telegraph story on the series started this way

Booker Prize-winning authors Margaret Atwood and Howard Jacobson are to write modern prose versions of two of Shakespeare’s most widely-read plays, despite admitting they maybe “mad” to do so.

Atwood will take on The Tempest, while Jacobsen, who won the Booker Prize in 2010 for The Finkler Question, will rework The Merchant of Venice.

The story ends

The pair will now join Anne Tyler and Jeanette Winterson as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project, producing their updated version in time for the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death in 2016.

Tyler’s will take on The Taming of the Shrew, while Jeanette Winterson works with The Winter’s Tale.

A spokesman for Hogarth, the transatlantic fiction imprint of Penguin Random House, promised the publishing house was still in talks with other esteemed writers, with more expected to be added to the line-up in the coming months.

Shakespeare

So I got Vinegar Girl to review.  I started it, didn’t like anyone in the book and put it down 25 or so pages later.  Maybe, I said to myself, if I read the Shakespeare I will like it better.  I hadn’t read The Taming of the Shrew for decades and I found it very funny, but Kate the Shrew is almost no where to be found.  The play is about Petruchio’s efforts to woo her and about the men vying for her sister.

Back to Vinegar Girl.  One has to appreciate Tyler’s attempt to put Kate front and center, but it also shows the difficulties of  having a central character who is grumpy and ill-tempered – although not without reason.  I didn’t like Kate until the very end of the book when she is a renowned plant biologist.  I don’t know if Tyler is making a statement about the importance of having a life of one’s own or not, but it certainly seems that way.  But it isn’t Shakespeare who doesn’t have many women characters.  Making Kate a real person who grows really is an update.

Many of the other reviewers for LibraryThing had never read Shakespeare and seemed to enjoy the book a great deal more than I.  I am, however, interested enough in the series to want to read Atwood’s re-telling of The Tempest, one of my favorites.

Photograph:  Alamy (from the Telegraph)

G. K Chesterton, Jane Austen and Mr. Wickham

In his collection of essays, “Come to Think of It” published in 1930 we find this little gem On Jane Austen in the General Election.  I’m not interested in what Chesterton writes about how political commentators are using – or misusing – Austen to argue about the New Woman as much as I am in his observations about George Wickham.  When my husband handed be a print-out of the short essay, I was just finished with my annual re-reading of Pride and Prejudice.  This includes re-reading the novel, watching the Colin Frith/Masterpiece Theater adaptation, and more recently, re-reading the P.D. James sequel, Death Comes to Pemberley, so everything was fresh in my mind.

For anyone who has not read Pride and Prejudice or seen one of the many adaptations, there is a kind of love triangle between the heroine, Elizabeth Bennett; the handsome, wealthy, brooding Fitzwilliam Darcy; and the charming, handsome, impoverished George Wickham.  Darcy is private and quiet; Wickham, open and talkative.  When we, and Elizabeth, first meet the men, Wickham is the more attractive.  Made more so, perhaps, by the fact that Mr. Darcy, proud and aloof, publicly refuses to acknowledge Mr. Wickham.

Wickham

It is Wickham’s explanation that Chesterton writes about.

….A writer in a leading daily paper, in the course of a highly optimistic account of the new attitude of woman to men, as it would appear in the General Election, made the remark that a modern girl would see through the insincerity of Mr. Wickham, in Pride and Prejudice, in five minutes.

Now this is a highly interesting instance of the sort of injustice done to Jane Austen.  The crowd, (I fear the considerable crowd) of those who read that newspaper and do not read that author will certainly go away with the idea that Mr Wickham was some sort of florid and vulgar imposter like Mr. Mantalini. [Mantalini, a character in Dicken’s Nicholas Nickerby, is a handsome man who lives off his wife and eventually ruins her.  Also described as a gigolo.]  But Jane Austen was a much more shrewd and solid psychologist than that.  She did not make Elizabeth Bennett to be a person easily deceived, and she did not make her deceiver a vulgar imposter.  Mr. Wickham was one of those very formidable people who tell lies by telling the truth.

Wickham tells Elizabeth the part of the story that puts Darcy in the wrong.  She has no reason not to believe him and neither do we until we learn the rest of the story from Mr. Darcy himself.  As the story unfolds we learn that while Wickham may not be vulgar, he has a lot in common with the gigolo, Mantalini.  But I digress.

Chesterton, thinking of the General Election, views Wickham as the perfect politician.

….For Mr. Wickham was, or is, exactly the sort of man who does make a success of political elections….And he owes his success to two qualities, both exhibited in the novel in which he figures.  First, the talent for telling a lie by telling half of the truth.  And second, the art of telling a lie not loudly and offensively, but with an appearance of gentlemanly and graceful regret.

George Wickham as the perfect member of Parliament and perfect politician.  I love it!  Maybe the problem with politics today is there are not enough George Wickhams.

Photograph is a still of Adrian Lukis as George Wickham in the 1995 BBC/Masterpiece Theater version of Pride and Prejudice.

 

 

 

 

“The Tattoo Murder Case”

It is 1947 in post-war Tokyo and the police are confronted by a locked room murder in Akimitsu Takagi’s The Tatoo Murder Case.  The book was one of several Japanese mysteries I got for Christmas from my husband.  If the others are as interesting, he and David, the owner of Mystery on Main in Brattleboro, choose well.

Akimitsu Takagi

Akimitsu Takagi

Akimitsu Takagi was born in 1920.  According to both Wikipedia and eNotes, he studied metallurgy, but became a mystery writer when a fortune teller told him that was where his future lay.  He was a prolific writer up to the 1990’s; he died in 1995.  Only three of his books, including Tattoo, have been translated into English.

As with all good books, one learns a great deal.  Post-war Japan and the destruction in Tokyo are prominent.  At one point, we visit a house untouched by the war while the house next door is destroyed.  And I learned a lot about the art of tattooing.  Did you know that people with full-body tattoos have a shorter life span because the tattoo interferes with circulation?   Picking up facts like that is one reason I love good mysteries.

In the shadowy depths of Mount Togakushi in Nagano Prefecture, there lived three powerful, wicked sorcerers who were masters of the black arts of magic and enchantment.  These mysterious magicians were known as Tsunedahime, Jiraiya, and Orochimaru, and their legendary exploits have been the subjects of folk tales, Kabuki plays, woodblock prints, and some of the most spectacular Japanese art tattoos ever created.

This is the tragic story of three of those tattoos.

I’m not certain if that preface was written by Takagi or not, but assume that it was.  The folklore behind the tattoos plays as big a part in the story as the art of tattooing itself.  At the time of the mystery, tattooing is illegal in Japan, but there is a flourishing underground.  Tattooing is an art to the Japanese who are contemptuous of the random tattoos sported by the occupying Americans.  Their tattoos are referred to as sushi after a kind of rice featuring vegetables and other things scattered at random in flavored rice.  (Sushi refers to the rice and comes in many forms, not just rolled in seaweed or topped with fish.)  A good tattoo should be an entire picture and tell a story, not just be random names of girlfriends, flags, and anchors!

cover

The Tattoo Murder Case provides a glimpse into a different culture and time as well as a fascinating mystery.

Photograph of Takagi from Wikipedia.

Photograph of book cover from Amazon.

The book was translated by Deborah Boehm.

 

Reading mysteries in the summer

I’ve been spending considerable time this summer on our upstairs screened in porch watching the birds fly by (it must overlook some kind of bird flyway), the sky, and the squirrels dancing on the wires.  And reading.

In my reading life, I have always interspersed serious non-fiction and non-mystery fiction with lots of mysteries.  I’ve written in the past about some of my old favorites:  P. D. James, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Ngaio Marsh.  I began reading them in high school introduced by my mother who was also a prolific mystery reader.  But yesterday I was looking back at what I had been reading and re-reading this summer and it seems to be mostly three very different writers.

I had read the first two books in Archer Mayor/Joe Gunther series many years ago when they first were published.  I think my Vermont brother-in-law gave one to my mother who passed it on to me.  Fast forward.  I moved to Vermont a year ago and the local author, Archer Mayor, was just publishing Proof Positive.  I rushed down to the wonderful local bookstore, Mystery on Main, and purchased a signed copy.  I read it and loved it.  Now I was on a mission, one which has gone on into this summer, to read all the rest in the series before Mayor writes another.  I am probably not going to make it as it has a September release.  Six to go and I not only have to read them, but also find copies.

Archer

For anyone who hasn’t read Mayor, he writes about a Vermont police officer from my new hometown, Brattleboro.  At some point Joe Gunther stopped being a local Bratt cop and joined a made-up state investigative bureau.  The owner of Mystery on Main, some of the other members of the book group I just joined, and I were speculating that he had to go statewide because there just aren’t that many people murdered around here.  I have to confess that I find the books a bit uneven, but the best ones (The Skeleton’s Knee, Occam’s Razor, and Proof Positive) are excellent and even the ones I enjoyed the least (The Dark Root and The Disposable Man) are very good.  He evokes Vermont landscape and politics. One murder took place across the street from me.  I enjoy driving around town and locating scenes of the crimes.  Good reads.  I would call them a Vermont version of a hardboiled police procedural.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the English novels of Robert Barnard featuring Charlie Peace.  I’ve read a couple of Barnard’s over the years including the very funny Political Suicide, but until I found The Chaste Apprentice unread on my bookshelf, I hadn’t realized that he had a written series featuring a black police inspector.  The plots are entertaining as Barnard generally is, but the discussion of how being black in the Leeds, England area and the effect on detection show how stereotyping are not just American.  I’ve only read three and a half books in the series and not in order as I’m reading them as I find them in the library, but in one of the later books, A Charitable Body, Peace is married to a white woman and they have two children.  Felicity (I haven’t finished the book yet) seems to be critical in solving the mystery.  Barnard is expert at taking ordinary situations like a summer festival and inserting not only a mystery, but poking fun at his characters and settings.

Maron

The third group of books I’ve been reading this summer are the Margaret Maron/Deborah Knott books.  Maron’s books evoke North Carolina in the same way Mayor evokes Vermont and Barnard, England.  But Joe Gunther is basically a loner with a small team and a few friends while Deborah Knott has 11 older brothers with all of the wives and children to say nothing of aunts, uncles and cousins surrounding her.  Knott is a district court judge who over the course of 19 books has been involved in a great many of the murders in Maron’s imaginary Colleton County (somewhere near Raleigh/Durham).  They aren’t quite “cozy” but they are very family centered.  Maron’s twentieth Deborah Knott book will be published tomorrow.  She has announced she expects it to be the last in the series, but like the rest of her fans I hope she will change her mind at some point down the road.

I’ve read all 19 of the Deborah Knott books before so this summer I was re-reading a few of them partly in anticipation of the new release but also because the church burnings that followed the murders in Charleston, SC reminded of me Home Fires.  Home Fires centers around the burning of three black churches and the discovery of a body which is identified as a young black organizer who had gone missing years prior.  It is about race relations in North Carolina between whites and blacks as well as the hierarchy of color between African-Americans themselves.  It is a very different take on race and racial attitudes that Deborah confronts than the one facing Charlie Peace.  I’ll have think about this and explore it further.

But for now, I’m enjoying being variously in England, North Carolina, and home in Vermont confronting crime from a distance.

The Maya Angelou stamp quote

The U. S. Post Office has just issued a stamp commemorating Maya Angelou.  It is a very nice stamp with her picture and a quote.  The only problem is that the quote is not from her.  Josh Hicks wrote about the problem in his column in the Washington Post yesterday.

The U.S. Postal Service on Tuesday released a new Maya Angelou stamp featuring a quote from a different author’s book, propagating a popular misconception about the original source of the line.

“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song,” the stamp reads.

Angelou, the late African-American author who wrote the famous 1969 autobiography “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” used the same line in media interviews, and President Obama attributed it to her during the 2013 presentation of the National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal.

But the sentence never appeared in Angelou’s autobiography. The words came from Joan Walsh Anglund’s collection of poems, “A Cup of Sun,” published two years before the release of Angelou’s autobiography. (One difference: The pronoun “it” from the stamp quote appears as “he” in the poem).

A Maya Angelou stamp that was issued Tuesday features a quote attributed to her. But children’s book author named Joan Walsh Anglund says she wrote it first.

A Maya Angelou stamp that was issued Tuesday features a quote attributed to her. But children’s book author named Joan Walsh Anglund says she wrote it first.

Hicks goes on to compare the Angelou mistake with another:  The inscription on the statue of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The release of the stamp comes less than four years after another fumbled attempt to honor an historic African-American figure. Controversy erupted in 2011 over an abbreviated quote on the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorialthat critics thought would make the civil-rights leader appear immodest.

One of the inscriptions on the memorial read: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.” But King actually said, “Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”

I was one of those who thought the editing completely missed Dr. King’s point.  But I think the Angelou stamp quote is different.  Lonnae O’Neal interviewed Joan Walsh Anglund about the use of the quote.

Joan Walsh Anglund also was hearing about the Angelou stamp for the first time Monday night. “I haven’t read all of her things, and I love her things, of course,” she said of the poet and cultural icon. “But I think it easily happens sometimes that people hear something, and it’s kind of going into your subconscious and you don’t realize it,” she said.

“It’s an interesting connection, and interesting it would happen and already be printed and on her stamp,” Anglund said. “I love her and all she’s done, and I also love my own private thinking that also comes to the public because it comes from what I’ve been thinking and how I’ve been feeling.

“I don’t know about the stamp and I hope that it’s successful,” she added.

We can wonder if Angelou even remembered where she first heard the words that have come to be associated with her but the real lesson here is that we have to work harder at using words.  We need to be careful about how we edit other people’s words lest we change their meaning.  And we can all wonder at the human mind and how we associate certain phrases with specific people – so much so that even the person may come to believe it is theirs.

(Thanks to my friend Gary Bailey for bringing the story to my attention.)

Photograph:  USPS

Anne Perry: crime and punishment

A few years ago, a good friend suggested I try reading a book by Anne Perry.  She knew I enjoyed Victorian mysteries.  She also told me that when Perry was a teenager, she had been convicted as an accessory to a matricide by her good friend, served time, and now wrote mysteries.  I thought it curious that someone who had committed such a serious crime now wrote so well about crime, but I read my first Thomas and Charlotte Pitt book and was hooked.  After I retired, I went back and read all of them in order.  I’ve also read some of her William Monk books, but I find the Pitts very compelling.  I had forgotten about Perry’s criminal past until I read this past week’s column by Rebecca Balint in the Brattleboro Reformer. [link to be added when column is posted online,]

Becca is my neighbor and newly elected State Senator whose weekly column my husband and I always find interesting.  She had not known until recently that Anne Perry had committed murder.  Her column explores how she feels about Perry after finding out.

…Details of their delusions can be found in Parker’s [Perry’s friend] adolescent journal.  But the question persists for me:  Do I believe in rehabilitation and redemption?  If I do, as I have always claimed, then why do I view Anne Perry differently now that I know of her troubled past?  I’ve read her Victorian mysteries for years and always enjoyed them as inconsequential breathers from the dense non-fiction I read.  I’ve joked about some of her writing tropes but still find her characters compelling.  Yet, I feel undeniably uneasy about a convicted murderer as an author.

The first Thomas and Charlotte Pitt novel.

The first Thomas and Charlotte Pitt novel.

I read this and wondered why I had reacted so differently.  I went back and located the interview I had read years earlier in the Guardian.

In 1954, Hulme felt as if she had been pushed to the limit. Three days before she took part in the killing of Honora Parker on June 22, her parents announced that they were to divorce – triggered by Hulme having found her mother, Hilda, in bed with a lover. At the same time, her father lost his job and she was to be sent to South Africa to stay with an aunt. The shock to Hulme – who had not been at school because of tuberculosis, from which she had suffered since the age of 13 – was cataclysmic.

She turned to her close friend, Parker, a working-class girl from a humble background. Some felt it was a curious friendship for Hulme, whose family were well to do, her mother glamorous and clever. The two friends believed they could stay together if Pauline’s mother would let her leave New Zealand. Her refusal triggered Parker’s murderous rage and Hulme believed she owed it to her friend to help lure Mrs Parker to a Christchurch park and cosh her with a brick in a stocking.

“I felt I had a debt to repay,” says Perry. “Pauline was the only one who had written to me when I was in hospital, and she threatened to kill herself if I didn’t help. She was vomiting after every meal and losing weight all the time. I am sure now she was bulimic. I really believed she would take her life and I couldn’t face it.”

Hulme served five years at Mt Eden women’s prison in Auckland – “supposedly the toughest in the southern hemisphere,” she says with what sounds like pride.

Yet Perry now calls her time in prison “the best thing that could have happened”. “It was there that I went down on my knees and repented,” she says. “That is how I survived my time while others cracked up. I seemed to be the only one saying, I am guilty and I am where I should be.”

In an interview with Ian Rankin, Perry explains further.

IR: I wondered: at what point does redemption come do you think, I mean at some point during incarceration?

AP: That is a very spiritual question, to which I can only give you my own estimate of the answer. The redemption comes when you no longer wish to be that kind of person. When you understand that… when you see it as ugly, and you understand why it is not what you want to be. Not what you should be, not what you want to be. And that’s the difference. Not because somebody outside is telling you: this is not what you do. But because you, yourself, say: this is not who I want to be.

IR: How do you feel about the fact that society requires people to be locked up, especially at such a young age, that we require what seems to be not redemption so much as a kind of vengeance.

AP: I suppose society does require a certain level of vengeance. It needs to be not only done but seen to be done because it is supposed to be enough to prevent other people wanting to do the same. I think it would have been the worst thing that could ever have happened to me in my life if somehow they had said: “Well, look. You know, you were under medical treatment. These are mind altering drugs. I am sure you are not really wicked. You go ahead and forget about it.” I think that would have been totally destructive to me.

IR: How important was the punishment to you?

AP: I feel it is vital. I think until you feel that you have settled the debt, you cannot move on. It is a bit like trying to walk with an open parachute open behind you. By paying, you cut the strings and then you can move on. You can allow yourself to move on. I can say it and look you in the eye, because I can say: Yes, I have dealt with it. I believe that I have paid. I believe that I have been forgiven where it matters. And it now for me no longer exists. I can move on and be the best person I am capable of being. But I think that is true of everybody. As long as you don’t say: “somehow it wasn’t really me, it was that person and somehow it didn’t matter and I don’t need to pay.”

I think this explains why she writes novels about crime and punishment.  I can read Perry’s books without thinking of her past because it is her past that allows her to write.

 

 

 

P.D. James, Queen of Crime

My mother introduced me to the mystery novels of P. D. James many years ago when I was a teenager.  James didn’t publish often; she was not a twice a year or even once a year mystery writer.  A new James was the occasion for celebration and we read all of them.  I believe there were 18.  The New York Times obituary outlines the story of her life.

She was born Phyllis Dorothy James on Aug. 3, 1920, in Oxford, the eldest of three children of Dorothy and Sidney James, a civil servant who did not believe in inflicting too much education on his daughter. The family settled in Cambridge when she was 11, and before she left the Cambridge High School for Girls, at 16, she already knew that she wanted to be a writer and that mysterious death intrigued her.

“When I first heard that Humpty Dumpty fell off the wall,” she was fond of saying, “I immediately wondered: Did he fall — or was he pushed?” But a marriage to Ernest C. B. White, a medical student, and World War II halted her plans for a writing career.

P.D. James, in 2010.

P.D. James, in 2010.

James was a hospital administrator for a number of years and used hospitals as the setting for some of her early novels.  But

[a]fter the death of her husband at 44, in 1964, Ms. James took a Civil Service examination and became an administrator in the forensic science and criminal law divisions of the Department of Home Affairs. The work would supply her novels with the realistic procedural detail on which she prided herself.

Although she rarely describes actual murder, the dead bodies in her novels always make an indelible impression on the innocent bystanders who chance upon them. “To many of them, it’s a really appalling and dreadful discovery,” Ms. James said. “I think that the reader should share that horror and that shock, so I make the descriptions just as realistic as I can.”

Her primary detective, Adam Dalgleish, was designed to be the anti-Peter Wimsey.

Her intention with Dalgliesh, she told the British critic and writer Julian Symons in 1986, was to create a detective “quite unlike the Lord Peter Wimsey kind of gentlemanly amateur” popularized by Dorothy L. Sayers. Ms. James envisioned a realistic cop as her protagonist, a dedicated and skilled professional, and yet “something more than just a policeman, you see, a complex and sensitive human being,” she said.

A few months back, James was featured on the Barnes and Noble mystery section as one of the authors who discussed their favorite books.  It was interesting that she picked Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair and Dorothy Sayer’s Murder Must Advertise, two of the more complicated   stories by each author.  Also on the list were a book by Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine (A Fatal Inversion), the first Ian Rankin (The Complaints), and Sue Grafton’s V is for Vengance.  I have to confess that I don’t care all that much for Rendell, but I liked the other books on her list, so maybe I’ll try again.  There was one book, Dissolution by C. J. Sansom, I had never heard of before.  On James’ recommendation, I ordered it and have it on my pile to read.

It is sad that there will be no more books by P.D. James, but I will spend them this next year re-reading and savoring all that she had left us.

Photograph:  Ruth Fremson/The New York Times