Book Review : Flibbertigibbety Words by Donna Guthrie

Once upon a time, when my kids were still young, I searched the bookstore Shakespeare baby books, not expecting to find any, but still hopeful. Never did. Yeah, there was the brief “Baby Mozart / Baby Shakespeare” craze, but we don’t speak of that.

So it was with very great pleasure that I agreed to review Donna Guthrie’s “Flibbertigibbety Words“.

This is the story of one young William Shakespeare, who opens his window one morning and words (“To thine own self be true”) just come flying in. Well, he thinks, if that’s not just the coolest thing in the whole wide world. I must have those words. He starts chasing them, but they’re slippery little devils, tumbling down the stairs and out the door. So begins the adventure of the story as he chases an ever growing string of words through town.

Every page is decorated in enough Shakespeare quotes to keep geeks like us happy. Over the years, when I have found books similar to this that claim to include Shakespeare’s words, they usually don’t go much beyond “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” and “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” But here we’ve got “Boldness be my friend” and “Words without thoughts never to heaven go” and that’s just on page 3.

The illustrations are big and colorful, making the story obvious as young Shakespeare adventures through town, bumping into interesting new characters, while still leaving plenty of room for the wonderful words to decorate the pages. I have to wonder if the font may prove a challenge for children attempting to read, though. The story itself is told is standard text, but the decorative Shakespearean in the scenes is often scattered randomly, and most likely going to be read by an adult pointing out words with their finger to young readers. But hey, if that helps the kids jump more quickly into a world where the letters don’t always have to be the same size, or in a straight horizontal line? That works, too!

The author has also included a simple “life of William Shakespeare” bio page, as well as citations for all of the quotes included. I love that. I don’t know the exact age that’s going to be the audience for this book, it’s been too long for me. But if the kids are old enough to wonder where the quotes came from? There’s a great opportunity to do so, especially if the parent doesn’t immediately recognize all of them.

Overall there’s a word that came to me while I was reading this book, and that word is wistful. This book catapults me back in time sixteen years to those days of wandering the children’s section of the bookstore with my wife, pregnant with our second and shopping for our first, me scanning the shelves for Shakespeare references like a child racing to the toy department. And, just like that child among those toys, I’d see a book like this, my eyes would go wide, I’d grab it and flip through it and hug it to my chest and wheel around to my wife with my biggest puppy dog eyes and “Please can we get this?” face. Then we’d head home and I’d read it to my daughter over and over again over the days and weeks to come (sorry Dr. Seuss!), pointing out the quotes, asking her to repeat them when she’d heard it enough times to memorize, following up with ridiculously advanced questions like “And what play is that from?” that she couldn’t possibly answer (she’s two years old for heaven’s sake) but patiently waiting for the day when she does answer, because I know that Shakespeare is going to make her life better.

I, we, didn’t get that. Because books like this one didn’t exist yet. Now it does, and now others do get that experience. Lucky. To steal a phrase from my oldest daughter (via Schitt’s Creek), “Love that for them.”

Now I look forward to the future, when someday I’m a grandfather (“Grampy”, in my family), and I get to open this book again and read, “One morning, William opened his window and the words flew in …”

I can’t wait.

Not Quite Book Review : How To Think Like Shakespeare by Scott Newstok

Ok, let’s see how this goes.

I don’t think have to reintroduce Scott Newstok every time I write about him. Back in 2008 when I was just getting started he sent me a copy of his book on Kenneth Burke and my honest response was, “I don’t know who that is.”

My ignorance of things at Scott’s academic level has not turned him off, however, and he’s continued to keep in touch and send me his work over the years, including Wayward Macbeth a few years later.

Which leads me to his latest, How To Think Like Shakespeare, which started out as a convocation address he gave and is now available in book form. I actually received the book back in April and am ashamed that I have only now gotten around to writing about it.

There’s a reason for that. I have tried and tried to complete this book, and I hate to say that I can’t. It’s not for the source material or the subject. I love the idea – see the linked post above for how I raved about the idea when I originally heard it.

My problem is with the book itself. Everbody’s life is busy. During pandemic, doubly so. So we all find ways to organize our time, our priorities and our lives. For years I had a commute to work that lasted about an hour and a half each way and I learned to live on audio books. Used to go through 50+ of them a year. On the flip side, my “Sit down with an actual paper book” time has approached zero over the years. When I was in the car I had no choice what to do with my time. When I’m home and find myself with time to read a book I am plagued with thoughts of, “What other things do you need to be doing right now?” It is very, very hard to find the attention span. So if a book does not hook me right away and become something I simply can’t put down, I’m going to struggle.

What’s killing me here is the editorial structure of the book. Literally every single page is loaded with footnotes, call outs, quotes, italicized and/or emphasized words … and probably a few other flow-breaking constructs I’ve forgotten about. I tried to scan a page to give an example:

Imagine all the pages like this. Maybe it’s just what my reading style has become, maybe I’ve developed focus or attention issues as I’ve gotten older, but I simply can’t pick up any momentum reading like this. Every time the font changes or the paragraph breaks unexpectedly that voice in my head says “Whoa hey wait we just got sidetracked” and I’m left with each page feeling like a jumble of separate thoughts rather than a complete whole.

If you’re used to reading books like this, don’t let me stop you. I still love the topic, as shown by my post from a few years ago. I’m just not the best person, for whatever reason, to offer a review. My apologies to Scott and his publisher.

Review : The Shakespeare Deck by Robert Myles

I’m no actor, I think I’ve made that abundantly clear over the years. So when I first saw Robert Myles’ “The Shakespeare Deck,” described as an “actor’s toolkit”, I thought that’s not for me. Then Rob wrote to me directly and asked if I wanted a copy. I may not act but I am a fan of the text, and any tools for the toolbox that help dig deeper into the text, I’m all for. So now I happily have a copy 🙂

He’s got a great video explaining exactly what it is so I won’t try to copy him:

But I can tell you my own experience. It’s a very nice product, well made with sturdy, glossy cards. If anything I find the cards just a bit too slippery, it’s a little tricky holding the whole deck in your hand to shuffle through them, they want to go scattering on you if you’re not careful.

Each card is multi purpose. They are colored coded, numbered, “short coded” (my term not his), and double sided. That’s a lot of information packed into 45 cards. I’ve pulled one at random to use as an example:

Here we have a green card, which means it is from the “Rhetoric” section of the deck. Other sections include Forensic Linguistics, Working the Text, and Engaging the Audience. The D in the lower right corner tells us this is a Definition card, focused on explaining the technique used and its purpose. Some cards might have an E, for an exercise that actors can attempt to reinforce the idea. The 11 in the other corner reminds us where in the deck this card belongs so we can keep them in a particular order for developing round-robin or circuit training practice.

And here’s the other side – an example (in this case, two) of reframing. This the part I like. If I didn’t particularly get the first part, I understand the example.

Grabbing another card I find the orange Believe Your Eyes card, which tells me to “look for opportunities in the text to play a physical action that contrasts with the text,” referencing Richard III and Lady Anne (though not the actual text) as an example.

A random yellow card shows me “Antithesis”, offering up several text examples:

  • “What he has lost, noble Macbeth has won.”
  • “A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.”

I just realized that, although I grabbed those at random, all three represent juxtaposition or opposites in one form or another. “move me to stir / move me to stand”, “physical action that contrasts the text”, “what he has lost Macbeth has won.” Shakespeare played with that idea a lot.

I think I like the green cards best, mostly because they map directly to examples from the text while also teaching me something new. I may have already known about simile and exaggeration, but “topos” and “kairos” were new to me!

Definitely a neat product, quite densely packed with information about the text. Hopefully it’s the kind of thing that my kids can use as well when they go through their own Shakespeare courses.

Does the name Rob Myles ring any bells yet? Right now he’s having his moment in the spotlight as the director of The Show Must Go Online, entirely virtual performances of Shakespeare’s complete works. Check it out if you haven’t yet, highly recommended! Getting more impressive every week!

Thanks Rob for the deck and for everything you’re bringing to the Shakespeare Universe.

Review : The King on Netflix

FalstaffI haven’t been around much lately, and for that I apologize.  I’ve missed a few big stories that I hope to come back around to as part of the year end.

One of those is finally getting to watch The King, an adaptation (?) of Henry V now playing on Netflix and starring Timothée Chalamet as Henry and Robert Pattinson as a psychotic Dauphin, among others.

My ability to watch and appreciate these movies for review is limited.  The only time I’ll get to watch is when the family is safely stowed away for the night, because they don’t want to watch, and I can’t concentrate when I’m getting pulled in various homework directions.  But then during those limited hours I’m typically trying to do several other important things, so the best that I’m going to be able to spare for a movie I don’t really care to watch is “put  it on in the  background while I sit at the laptop.”  For  bonus points I’ll  use closed captions so I don’t have to keep saying “What did he say?”  (Compare to Branagh’s All Is True, which the whole family sat and watched through, uninterrupted.)

So, on to our story.  I’ll admit to not knowing the Henriad story as much as some of Shakespeare’s other plays, so I really have no idea where this one just invents stuff out of whole cloth (for the most part — you’ll see).  We open with Hotspur doing his rebellion thing, leading to the king chosing Hal’s brother Thomas to be the next king and do something about it. Cut to the battlefield where Hal challenges Hotspur to one-on-one battle instead, beating him, and causing a hissy fit from Thomas who screams that his brother stole this victory from him.  This doesn’t last long, as Thomas goes off and gets killed and Hal ends up king anyway.

What of Falstaff? Of course there’s a Falstaff.  But here’s the thing right away – Falstaff looks like he’s maybe ten years older than Hal?  He doesn’t look remotely like a father figure, he looks like one of those guys that graduated college right as you got there and then just kind of hangs around with the young people because he’s got no ambition to do otherwise.  Falstaff roams around doing his Falstaff thing, not paying his bar bill and whatnot, until he hears that Hal has been appointed king.

And then we get my favorite scene, the wonderfully sad “I know thee not,  old man…” scene…..only no wait, we don’t.  At all. Falstaff is appointed to join Hal’s council as one of his trusted war tacticians. Huh?

Cut to France. It’s complicated, but we all know the story ends up in France. That’s where we meet Robert Pattinson’s psychotic Dauphin, who has literally come to meet Hal and tell him that he’s basically going to torture him until he goes home.  There’s even a scene right out of a horror movie where Dauphin and his men, skulking about in the woods around Hal’s camp, send one of the children (why did he bring children??) back to camp with a sign for Hal — the head of one of the other children.  Charming.

Everything builds to Agincourt.  We knew it would. The most entertaining part to me was a nod to the expectation of a big speech moment where Hal basically screams at the men,  “You’re probably expecting a big speech right now!”  And then goes on to give a reasonably modern version of “We’re all going to die someday.”

There’s more to it, but I don’t want to spoil the whole movie in case people want to watch. I found it reasonably violent, but not in a Fassbender’s Macbeth way.  There’s a beheading (in a god awful special effects scene), and one poor dude gets stabbed in the *top* of the head in a scene that made me cringe.  Aim for the soft bits, man!  Ouch!

As with most of these movies the bits of dialogue where people are trying to sound like Shakespeare are painful to the ear. The battles are brutal,  muddy and bloody. I don’t know that I can say it was bad.  It’s more like, ok, somebody made a movie that used Henry as a structure and then kind of did their own thing with it. That’s not a sin.  If you swapped it for Romeo and Juliet that’s basically the plot of many, many movies. I think Falstaff probably had the best character arc. There’s one particular scene, and one particular expression on his face, that makes me wish I was paying closer attention (see opening notes) and maybe want to go back and follow his arc closer.  Just because they gave him a new story doesn’t mean we can’t imagine he’s the same character.

 

Review : Ophelia

Ophelia by Lisa Klein
Maybe the book was better?

I first referenced Daisy Ridley’s Ophelia back in May 2017. I never expected it to be great, but I always hold out hope. I think it’s important for Shakespeare Geeks to support projects like this and let the studios know that the Shakespeare Universe has plenty of opportunity for story telling of many sorts. How else will we ever get another Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead?

Unfortunately it wasn’t worth the wait. Ophelia joins a very small list for me – namely, the list of Shakespeare movies I literally can not finish.

One of them is Anonymous, the piece of garbage that came out some years back arguing for the Earl of Oxford as the rightful author.  I love the part where he wrote Midsummer Night’s Dream at 6 years old  Moving on.

Another is the 2013 Romeo and Juliet starring Hailee Steinfeld. This one had me tying myself to the chair just to finish the trailer.  Let’s just say that I was done when I realized that it opens with Mercutio winning a joust.  Huh? Exactly.  I didn’t even get to the awkwardness of 14yr old Juliet crawling around the bed trying to look sexy.

And now we have Ophelia.  It’s based on a young adult novel so I suppose we can give it some leeway for being one step removed from the original material.  But…still.  Gertrude in this one is obsessed with remaining young and beautiful. We know this because she confides in Ophelia, who is her preferred confidante, because Ophelia knows how to read.  Gertrude appears to be using some sort of magic potion to retain her beauty.  Yeah.  This potion, I think, is made by Gertrude’s twin sister.  Still with me? As I write that I’m still assuming that I misunderstood what I was watching, because that can’t be right.

That’s not what got me, though. What got me reaching for the STOP button was the random interrupted rape scene.  This one should be on TV Tropes. Random girl finds herself surrounded by random guys, who harass her. Then, as these things go, suddenly she’s on the ground, held down by several of them while one starts to climb on top.  Does anybody remember what act and scene this was?  Enter Ophelia, carrying a huge jug of water making her look like something out of Ode to a Grecian Urn.  Because she’s a strong independent woman she, of course, confronts our primary rapist, who immediately loses interest in girl #1 and starts bantering with Ophelia.  She says that he stinks and needs a bath and you think, “Ok, here’s where she dumps the water on his head.”  No, the dialogue isn’t that intelligent.  Here’s where Hamlet enters.  Then you think, “Ok, here’s where we see Hamlet’s irrational temper, he’s gonna kill the guy.  Or at least we get a sword fight.”  Nope, neither of those things.  We just get Ophelia dragging Hamlet offstage by the arm, exactly like Hermione and Harry Potter.  COMPLETELY IGNORING THE GIRL BEING HELD ON THE GROUND BY SIX GUYS.

I had to go back and rewatch that scene because it couldn’t possibly be that bad.  We see the girl get up.  That’s it.  We don’t see her leave.  Ophelia and Hamlet don’t cast her a second glance. It’s truly as if that scene should have been followed by the guys saying, “Now, before we were so rudely interrupted…”

It’s not Shakespeare. It’s not well written or acted, it does not move the plot along or say anything useful about either of the main characters.  So for those reasons, as they say on Shark Tank …. I’m out.