An Uncommon Education by Elizabeth Percer – Book Review

An Uncommon Education by Elizabeth Percer
Published by Harper Books, an imprint of HarperCollins

Naomi is a young girl when her father has a heart attack at the Kennedy house museum. Terrified at the prospect of losing him, Naomi’s determination to become a doctor – specifically a heart surgeon – is solidified in the hours at the hospital that follow. Also thanks to her father, that path to medicine goes through college at Wellesly, due to his obsession with Rose Kennedy and what she might have been, had she attended Wellesly as she had dreamed. There is still more growing up to do before Wellesly, and a brief encounter with Teddy, a boy who would be her dearest friend, breaks Naomi’s heart when his mother moves him away and breaks off communication between the two of them. It is in her second year at Wellesley, when Naomi joins a Shakespeare society called the Shakes that Naomi finally begins to come into her own.

I have mixed feelings about An Uncommon Education. I cannot say it held my attention particularly well while reading it – at least until Naomi joined the Shakes – but it was one of those books that stayed with me after I finished it. I appreciate it more in hindsight than I did at the time. Naomi is a vulnerable and realistic character, whose coming of age is fraught with quiet drama and loss. An Uncommon Education does get off to a strong start, giving the reader a good feel for Naomi and her father and presenting an emotionally charged situation very early on with Namoi’s father’s heart attack. What really lost me was the section with Teddy. Their friendship was more than anything because they were both shy and lonely, without other friends, and in close physical proximity to one another, being neighbors. I understood better why Teddy’s mother disliked Naomi than why Naomi and Teddy were such good friends in the first place. And although Teddy’s story was somewhat tied back in later, I don’t feel that his storyline really added anything to An Uncommon Education. I would have been content to skip almost straight from Naomi’s father’s heart attack to her enrollment in Wellesly.

An Uncommon Education is Percer’s first book, and I think that she has great promise as a novelist, considering that she can write a book that stays with you, but I think that An Uncommon Education could have used some stronger editing and direction.

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The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips – Book Review

The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips
Published by Random House

Arthur Phillips’s father is a two-bit forger and con artist, but, still, when he claims to have discovered a lost Shakespeare play, Arthur believes him. At first.

That might be the shortest synopsis I’ve ever written, but The Tragedy of Arthur is a difficult book to summarize without giving too much. The story builds upon itself and circles back around in such a way that it is difficult to know how much is too much.

The first section is a memoir-ish introduction to the titular play. The tension between Arthur – who, by the way, has apparently a very similar history to the novelist Arthur Phillips, which may cause some readers to wonder how much is fact and how much fiction – and his father is masterfully done. The voice of a child terribly scarred by his parent seems dead on. The majority of what Arthur does is in response to his childhood and his father in one way or another, right down to his feelings towards Shakespeare, his father’s favorite author:

I have never much liked Shakespeare. I find the plays more pleasant to read than watch, but I could do without him, up to and including this unstoppable and unfortunate book. I know that is not a very literary or learned thing to confess, but there it is. I wonder if there isn’t a large and shy population of tasteful readers who secretly agree with me. -p. 1

Everything was put together so well, I found myself second guessing what I knew to be true about the book, conflating Arthur the character with Arthur the novelist. The alleged lost play was simply the icing on the cake, the thing that completed The Tragedy of Arthur and made it worthy of its ambition. I cannot wait to read more of Arthur Phillip’s work.

Highly recommended.

For a more indepth discussion of the book and Phillips’s inspiration for it, please check out my interview with him on my podcast, What’s Old is New. For those who are so inclined, you can also listen to the original spoilery intro and Arthur’s notes on the play.

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How Shakespeare Changed Everything by Stephen Marche – Book Review

How Shakespeare Changed Everything by Stephen Marche
Published by Harper Books, an imprint of Harper Collins

The game is up and I’m in a pickle. Perhaps I’m just being cold-blooded, but there will be no reprieve. Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war!

I imagine you would be hard pressed to find anyone who denies the influence of Shakespeare on the modern world. Or, in the case of those anti-Stratfordians, the work that is generally attributed to Shakespeare, regardless of who actually wrote it.To begin with, he coined some 1700 words, many of which are still used today. Stephen Marche’s thesis, though, is somewhat more than a nebulous claim of general influence. He asserts that Shakespeare actually changed, well, everything. Everything from sex to racial relations to teenagers. Marche even sees Obama’s victory – and the continuing opposition to him – as being heavily influenced by Shakespearean tropes:

The fact that 18 percent of Americans still believe that Obama is Muslim, the continuing power of the birther movement despite the clear-cut evidence that he was born in America, testify to Othello‘s power as a prepared narrative. For many Americans, Obama remains a noble Moor in the mold that Shakespeare cast. – p. 21

Except I’m pretty sure that isn’t the case. I would say pure and simple racism, with a bit of overwhelming political ideology, and a heavy helping of propaganda. I really don’t buy the whole ‘inspired by Shakespeare’ thing in this case, and on page 21 of 200, that isn’t a particularly good sign. Generally Marche didn’t seem to be quite as out in left field as that, but he did have a tendency to (vastly) overstate his case. For example:

Shakespeare has improved your sex life. If you’ve had sex without shame, sex for pleasure, for fun, for any other reason than procreation within marriage – Shakespeare, more than any other single figure, is responsible for the climate of permissiveness that made it possible. -p. 39-40

Because, you know, nobody ever had sex for pleasure before Shakespeare. I’m surprised the human race even made it to the 17th century.

Not to say that How Shakespeare Changed Everything was completely without value. Certainly there were many interesting facts about Shakespeare, his work and how aspects of our modern world match up. Certainly there are have been many homages to Shakespeare in the 400 odd years since he was writing, and many of these homages have shaped our everyday lives. To grant him complete agency over sex or Lincoln’s assassination, simply because his words and creations have been co-opted by others, seems a bit unwarranted.

Interesting if you are looking for evidence of how Shakespeare continues to be important in the world (and that is right up my alley), but don’t pick it up if hyperbole annoys you.

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The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown – Book Review

The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown
Published by Amy Einhorn Books, an imprint of Penguin

Sisters Rose, Bean, and Cordy – real names Rosalind, Bianca, and Cordelia, courtesy of the renowned Shakespeare scholar who is their father – have never gotten along particularly well. Rose is responsible to the point of being overbearing, Bean craves attention and makes sure she gets it, and Cordy just floats irresponsibly through life. Dependable Rose has always stayed in close proximity to her parents, but Bean and Cordy, long out doing their own things, are finally brought home – ostensibly, at least – by their mother’s battle with cancer. In reality, all three sisters have serious issues of their own which make them reexamine the lives they had been living, and they must return home to recoup. Although being suddenly returned to one’s childhood home with one’s siblings understandably causes lots of stress, the sisters also begin to learn to support one another in their lives going forward.

The first thing that any reader is going to notice about “The Weird Sisters” is the plural narration. I do not mean that each of the sisters narrates, I mean that they narrate together as if they were a single entity. Think of it as the spirit of their sisterhood looking back on these events from a point sometime in the future. This may sound odd, but it was the perfect touch in a book that deals with families, sisters, and Shakespeare. The plural voice gave hope for their eventual cohesion, and spoke beautifully about the bond they shared, even if they were loathe to admit it at the beginning of the book.

This was a beautifully written and wonderfully moving book. Each of the three sisters tugged on my heartstrings in their own way, and one of them (if you’ve read the book already, or once you have, come back and guess who!) brought me to tears near the end of the book, something that doesn’t happen to me terribly often with literature. “The Weird Sisters” is one of those books which I will be going back to again and again. I’m already planning to listen to the audio version, and I will be going out and buying a hardcover to keep permanently in my collection to replace my ARC (incidentally, both of these things are also true of “You Know When the Men Are Gone” by Siobhan Fallon, also out today from Amy Einhorn Books).

Highly recommended.

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