Review : How To Stop Time by Matt Haig

I’m sure that How To Stop Time by Matt Haig showed up on my lengthy book list because there was something in it about meeting Shakespeare.  I will almost always check those leads out at some point or another, even though I’ve been burned before. I’m looking at you, Neal Stephenson

So I’m happy to report that this is a good one. Not just because of the Shakespeare content, of which there is more than a little, but because it’s also a good book by itself.

The premise feels like it’s been done before, but I can’t quite put my finger on a specific example. Our narrator ages….very…..slowly.  He’s not immortal. He’s not a vampire. He just ages about 1/15th the pace of everybody else. He’s part of a society of such people known as “albatrosses” who live almost a thousand years.

What do you do with your time when you live for a thousand years? Mostly you go looking for other people like you. You try not to let yourself “anchor” by falling in love with a “mayfly” – a regular human whose lifespan will be trivial compared to yours.  Much like Forrest Gump, you find yourself witnessing historical events firsthand. Much like Groundhog Day, you occupy your free time learning how to do, well, basically anything you want.

But there are downsides, too. The human brain is not made to hold a thousand years of memories, so the older you get, the greater the odds of losing your mind (first come the headaches, then comes the blurting out of things you’re supposed to keep secret, then the trip the asylum…)  Worse, you live in constant fear of anyone – including those you love – of finding out your secret. Whether it’s seventeenth-century witchfinders or nineteenth-century “scientists”, your existence is something they wish to see come to an end.

I suppose I should mention Shakespeare after all that. Our narrator does spend some time not just in Elizabethan England, but literally in Shakespeare’s company. Shakespeare is a character (as are Kemp and Burbage), and not just at the edge – he plays a role in the plot (granted, not a large one). A significant part of the early takes place in and around the Globe where we’re treating to the sights, sounds, and smells of our favorite era.

I’m also happy to learn that a movie is in the works – starring Benedict Cumberbatch!

Glad I got around to this one. Definitely recommended.

 

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Review : Most of All Is True Is Probably Not True

When Shakespeare geeks heard that Sir Kenneth Branagh would be bringing us a story of Shakespeare’s final years, written by Ben Elton (who brought us Upstart Crow and Blackadder) and starring Dame Judi Dench and Sir Ian McKellen, hearts skipped more than a few beats. How could it be anything other than a dream come true?  A modern Shakespeare movie to replace Shakespeare In Love in the “Shakespeare fan fiction” movie pantheon. All in all, I liked it. Parts I liked a lot. Parts I loved. My wife liked it, my kids liked it. But I don’t think it will be remembered as a great movie.

We open in 1613 after the Globe has burned down.  The text tells us that Shakespeare never wrote another play. We instead return to Stratford Upon Avon, where he’s basically gone to retire and be with his family again. His reputation follows him – both as the world’s greatest writer, but also as the son of his disgraced father. Both fans and enemies alike follow him around and annoy him.

Judi Dench is excellent as Anne Hathaway when she stops Shakespeare from coming into the bedroom, telling him, “Twenty years, Will.  You can’t just back and pick up like everything is normal. You’re a guest here.”  Later she’ll have more speeches about what it was like to be married to the world’s greatest writer and not know how to read, or how she felt when someone else read the sonnets to her. Answers to the “second-best bed” question are given but I didn’t find them satisfactory.

The daughters also do an excellent job, but Judith is given much more to work with. Susannah is already trapped in an unhappy marriage to a Puritan, while Judith still lives at home and is an angry young lady who has no problem shouting things like, “Why don’t you just say it, father? The wrong twin died.”  Yikes. Her relationship to Thomas Quiney was played brilliantly, I thought, and could easily have been the subplot of any modern drama.

That’s basically your plot – man ignores his family for twenty years, during which time his only son dies, and in his final years, he tries to set things right. One daughter is trapped in an unhappy marriage, one is rebelling at every opportunity, and his wife, their mother, is just trying to keep it all together in the name of reputation and honor. There’s some really heavy-handed symbolism right out of the gate where he says, “I think I’ll plant a garden.” Later, “I’m not a very good gardener…” and you can just imagine how it goes from there. Oh look, people came to help him… and so on.

There’s enough Shakespeare bio here to appease the fans.  All the important areas are touched on – what did Anne think about the sonnets? What was Shakespeare’s relationship to Henry Wriotheseley?  The coat of arms, the glove making, even Thomas Lucey’s poached ponies are referenced. Stuff is quoted, from sonnets to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Titus Andronicus makes an appearance. To the extent where you want to see this movie just to count the references, it’s enjoyable.  Whenever there was a pause in the dialogue I’d do my own filling in the blanks for the kids. “Ok, that must be Thomas Quiney, look for him to do something that dishonors the family name and for Shakespeare to change his will…”

The problem, ultimately, is that everybody making this film knows that they are riding a line between “Here’s what we know” and “Here’s what we don’t, so we’re going to fill in the blanks.” Most of that “blank” surrounds Hamnet’s death and Shakespeare’s dealing with it (with second place going to “how could all the women in Shakespeare’s life be illiterate?” and third “what exactly was Shakespeare’s relationship to the Earl of Southampton?”)  The more time they spent on Hamnet, the more I thought, “See, now, this is the stuff they’re just making up.”  Hamnet wrote poems! Shakespeare and Hamnet had a favorite pond they used to walk to!  How lovely … for an audience like my wife, who doesn’t know which parts of the story are true and which are not, so for her it’s basically all true and she can let herself enjoy it. But for those of us that are keeping a running fact checker in their heads because we can’t turn it off, the more time they spent in made up land, the weaker the movie becomes.

See the problem? They built the entire movie around Shakespeare’s relationship to his lost son.  In that context, we learn about his relationship with his own father, and with his daughters, and with their children. But there’s that legal term “fruit of the poisonous tree”, and if all of your evidence traces its way back to a source that isn’t really legitimate, well, you have to throw it all out.  I can’t totally fault them for it – the movie has to have a plot, after all – but it ends up being the weakest part, to me, because I couldn’t help thinking all is not true. Could it have been true? Sure.  They do a better job there than Shakespeare In Love which I don’t think was at all suggesting that’s what really happened. But I’ll give Branagh that – he tells a perfectly reasonable story. But the title of that story is not Could Be True.

One thing that did surprise me – this film is *gorgeous*. I don’t know who is responsible for making the colors on the screen do what they do, but damn they did a fine job. Some shots are near breathtaking. For a play about a man of words, somebody decided, “We’re going to make sure we show just how beautiful the world around him is.” At times it reminded me of the Robin Williams movie What Dreams May Come (also a Shakespeare line!) with its literally out-of-this-world colors. Given that much of the story takes place inside – lit by candles, thus making the scenes pretty dark – the cuts to outside shots are always a breath of fresh air in more ways than one.

In the end, and maybe this was deliberate, I don’t know, but in the end, this is an average story about an average man. You could tell the “man tries to reconcile with the family he ignored for twenty years” about anybody. In this case, it just so happens to be the world’s greatest author. It might even have been a better movie if they pulled back on the Shakespeare and let that story shine through. There are parts where it was good, but plenty where it was contrived.  There’s a scene where Judith screams, “Nothing is true!” just so we get our juxtaposition with the title of the movie for Heaven’s sake, but come on, who talks like that? What does that even mean? There’s the aforementioned garden. Lots of heavy-handedness like that. But I guess there’s an audience that likes that?

Go see it.  Go see it with someone you love, who doesn’t know as much about Shakespeare as you do :).  Spot the references, enjoy the colors.

 

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Oh, Keanu…No….

I don’t know how I missed this back in May, but Keanu Reeves – Man of the Internet Hour – John Wick, “Neo”, “Ted Theodore Logan”, player with puppies, rider of subways, anonymous donator to children’s hospitals – is an admitted Oxfordian.

The man played Mercutio at 15, Don John at 29 and Hamlet at 31. My Own Private Idaho is an acknowledged retelling of Henry IV. But in his own words, he’s “always been an Edward de Vere” guy:

I always wanted to know — ever since I was growing up — who really wrote the plays of Shakespeare. So I wanna be there at that moment with “Shakespeare” — cause I don’t really think it was “Shakespeare.” I’m an Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford [guy]. So I’d like to be there in the 1600s “Shakespeare” writing Hamlet.

I guess he’s staying away from Macbeth, The Tempest and other later plays lest someone ask him how Oxford wrote those when he was dead.

Now I’m sad. Just goes to show that you can be a great guy – successful, even – and still not have any common sense.  As far as I’m concerned he’s flat Earth and anti-vaxx, too. What a shame.

 

 

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I Love Good Omens So Much

I was beyond excited when I learned that Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman was being turned into a tv series.  If you’re not familiar with the backstory, the two friends had basically agreed that there’d be no further work done on the property – no spinoffs, no merchandise, etc.. – unless they were in agreement.  Well, Terry Pratchett went and died (*). And that was the end of that hope.  Except for the part where he personally left a letter asking Neil Gaiman to make the movie version.  Well, now that’s just ineffable, that is.

Anyway, this post would be a mile long if I keep blathering.  The story tells of the friendship that is formed over thousands of years by the angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) and the demon Crowley (formerly “crawley”, as in snake…, played by David Tennant) because they’ve been stationed on Earth ever since Man was there, basically cancelling each other out so often that they get bored and stop wasting their time. I convince my kids to watch it with me, and they seem to like the first episode, so now it’s become family viewing time. One weekend night when everybody’s available we’ll all wind down and watch an episode, the whole family in the room, no electronics. Is very nice.  My wife and oldest are on the big couch, my middle on the love seat, and my son on the chair in what I’m only just realizing is very Goldilocks and the three bears of us.  I’m on the floor with pillows.  Just to set the scene.

Each episode of the series shows how the friendship between angel and demon evolved (while, in the bigger arc, they plot in modern day to stop the end of the world). They show up in the Garden of Eden, they show up for Noah… Each time the angel is there as a sort of witness, and David Tennant is there to look confused and ask some very interesting questions.  They actually show the crucifixion of Jesus in one episode, for example. Tennant’s demon asks, “What did he do?” and the angel responds, “Told people to be kind to one another.”

And then a title card pops up saying “1601 London” and I threw both hands up in the air and yelled excitedly, “They’re visiting Shakespeare! They’re visiting Shakespeare!!”

Cut to Aziraphale watching a rehearsal of Hamlet. It’s not very good. But the Shakespeare character keeps calling him Burbage, which is appreciated (though he’s too young and skinny for Burbage). Crowley shows up to watch for a little while and out of the clear blue drops some out of context Shakespeare (from another play that I won’t spoil) and I did an excited little dance there from my spot on the floor, arms up in celebration, because when I sat down to watch tv tonight I didn’t expect to get David Tennant doing Shakespeare.

I heard my oldest’s voice behind me say, “Yay, Daddy’s happy.”

Very much yes.

 

(*) He’s not gone, he’s just in the clacks.

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Romeo Left A Note? I Am Having Such A Bad Week

Does Moon even make an appearance? My confidence is shot.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I like it when I learn new things about Shakespeare. Sometimes that’s the best part. But when it’s basic knowledge that I had *wrong*, well, then I feel stupid and I don’t like it.

Such as this week, when my daughter was going over the answers on her Romeo and Juliet final, and she said something about, “That’s the Prince reading Romeo’s suicide note.”

“Romeo didn’t leave a suicide note!”  I replied.

“Yes…he did?” she responded, confused.

“Show me,” I told her.

Well would you look at that:

ROMEO
Give me that mattock and the wrenching iron.
Hold, take this letter; early in the morning
See thou deliver it to my lord and father.

BALTHASAR
I brought my master news of Juliet’s death;
And then in post he came from Mantua
To this same place, to this same monument.
This letter he early bid me give his father,
And threatened me with death, going in the vault,
I departed not and left him there.

PRINCE
Give me the letter; I will look on it.

I don’t know why my brain has left that part out. Do movies tend to snip that part? In all the times I’ve described the ending of this play I’ve said that Friar Laurence is left to tell the story.  Which is true. But leaves out the actual documentation from one of the title characters! That’s like looking for the wedding scene because you saw it in the Baz Luhrman version.

I have to go hang my head in shame, I have lost geek cred today.

 

 

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