Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Dead Father's Club--Hamlet and Others

Summer is the designated season for Shakespeare, at least in California, where we have a variety of festivals going on. In keeping with the season, I recently read Matt Haig's The Dead Father's Club, which is a modern day rendering of Hamlet, although mind you, Hamlet lives in an English suburb and is only eleven years old, which renders his take on the situation slightly more sympathetic.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and will look forward to more from Haig, who has a new one out called The Labrador Pact . I think I enjoyed his divergences from the plot as much as the strict attention to detail, but won't elaborate lest I give too much away.

In thinking about posting this, I was struck by the way I am drawn to Hamlet novels, and all things Hamlet in general. I had a professor and mentor, Mary Holmes, who had the theory that you should winnow down your undergraduate study to just one Shakespeare play, and mine would definitely be Hamlet. Although my sister and aunt were both riveted by the Olivier production, I found the Kenneth Branagh movie to be my own personal transformative experience. But I have read all sorts of things as well--not as a scholar or actor or anyone who would have some claim to expertise, but just because I love the play. Just in case there are any other Hamlet lovers reading this, I will offer a few more works that tend to illuminate the play.

First of all, there is Michael Innes Hamlet, Revenge!, a mystery set in a classic English country house, where the characters are busy staging a production of Hamlet. Michael Innes was a psuedonym for J.I.M. Stewart, a professor of English literature at places like Oxford. So the scholarship behind the funny but absorbing mystery is of a high level.

Another novel that was pointed in my direction is The Prince of West End Avenue by Alan Isler. This one is set in a Manhattan Jewish retirement community. Ostensibly a comic novel about an attempt to stage Hamlet, it strikes a deeper more melancholy chord as the narrator tries not to remember the fact that he is also a survivor of Auschwitz.

A recent novel, which I haven't read but which also has a Hamlet theme going, is The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski. It's already a bestseller, ,at least on the Indie lists, but I won't let that stop me from putting it on a to-be-read list of my own.
Of course,there are less obvious derivations from Hamlet, and it was only in writing this that I realized that I had in all likelihood read another recently--namely, Justin Evan's A Good and Happy Child. The Hamlet theme from this persepective goes something like this: Dad's dead, Mom has found a sustainer in someone who she knew all along but who is now getting a lot closer. The grieving son--and it's always a son, somehow--isn't happy about this development, and some aspect of the supernatural, very possibly demonic, enters the picture. I liked this novel a lot though I think in the end, it didn't quite work itself out in a way that satisfied me. Still, I'd definitely read Evans again.

I haven't even touched on critical works, or memoirs from an actor's point of view. I've read a couple, and will in all likelihood read a few more. I'd recommend Marjorie Garber's Shakespeare After All for anyone who would like to read a lucid, short essay on any of the plays.

But this is an almost too fertile field. Perhaps it would be best to revive this topic again later.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Bright Lights, Big Lonely City

New York City might not be the first place to go if you’re aiming to expand your social sphere, at least judging by two recent novels set there.
Charlie Weir, narrator of British author Patrick McGrath’s Trauma (Knopf), is a Manhattan psychiatrist specializing in post-traumatic stress syndrome. He’s the first to admit that his own troubled childhood is what led him to psychiatry in the first place.
His hot-tempered father abandoned them, and his mother wasn’t exactly a pillar of stability herself. In fact she might be considered Charlie’s first real patient.
Despite outward success, things haven’t really been going so well for Charlie in the intervening years. His marriage has fallen apart after he failed to prevent his Vietnam vet brother-in-law’s suicide.
Charlie’s social circle has dwindled down to occasional visits with his brother Walt’s family, which might be okay if Walt’s basic attitude toward Charlie wasn’t one of ill-concealed animosity.
Although Charlie knows an awful lot about trauma, the sobering assertion that McGrath makes here is that knowing how trauma works isn’t any help when the trauma you’re dealing with is your own.
Charlie has been traumatized. And his mother’s death is bringing it all to the surface again.
McGrath, famous for his modern Gothic style, uses it to great if restrained effect here, as Charlie’s feverish view of the city subtly reflects his own crumbling state of mind.
It’s fascinating to watch Charlie circle around his own dark truth, without being able to bring himself to close in on it. Inevitably, of course, it closes in on him.
The Twin Towers are still being built in Charlie Weir’s Manhattan, but they have already fallen by the time we meet Hans van den Broek in Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (Pantheon). Like Charlie, Hans is also a professional, in his case a Dutch investment banker, whose material success masks a family life in tatters.
Trauma has set this story in motion as well—this time the collective catastrophe of 9/11. In its aftermath, Han’s wife has fled back to London with their small son, and Hans is very much afraid that she’s fled the marriage as well.
Hans hasn’t been in Manhattan long and doesn’t have a wide circle of friends. (Like Charlie Weir, he may not really be capable of it.) He drifts into an unusual relationship with a larger than life immigrant from Trinidad named Chuck Ramkissoon.
Chuck has a big dream—he’s going to put cricket on the map in New York. With any luck, he’ll get Hans, another cricket enthusiast, to help him.
But the novel opens with news of Chuck’s death, and Hans has been reunited with his family in London. I was puzzled by O’Neill’s decision to give away these two major plot points right up front.
Perhaps O’Neill, who lived through 9/11 in New York himself, decided that suspense was the last thing a novel about shell-shocked Manhattan needed.
The novel works despite this choice. O’Neill, Irish born, Dutch raised and Cambridge educated, is one those ‘global souls’ of whom Pico Iyer writes so eloquently. As with McGrath, it’s refreshing to get his outsider’s close-up look at a major American city.
But he’s never going to sell us on cricket.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Some thoughts about backlist

Originally, I'd hoped to call this blog something more straightforward, like Unfortunately, or possibly even fortunately, as it may signify another like-minded soul, it's been taken.

At any rate, I work in an independent bookstore, and I think a lot about things like backlist, midlist, frontlist. Frontlist just means very recently published books. Backlist is everything else. I'm a slow reader. By the time I'm ready to comment on something, it's inevitably lost it's shiny newness. Having enjoyed a brief stint as a frontlist reviewer before my local paper decided that it could largely do without such things, I thought,like everyone else in the universe, "Well, maybe I'll start a blog..."