Audio Review: If We Were Villains

Audio Review: If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

Eleven years ago, seven drama students entered their fourth year at the prestigious Dellecher Classical Conservatory.  Now, a decade after the end of that school year, one of those students, Oliver Marks, is being released from prison.  Former police detective Colborne has never entirely bought the official version of what happened, and Oliver agrees to finally tell the truth of that year.  Or at least a truth.

If We Were Villains

The highly competitive nature of the school and constantly interacting with each other have made the seven students their own little troupe with defined roles.  But a couple of the students have begun resenting their typecasting, and natural born star Richard is on the verge of snapping.  Even when Richard is removed from the picture, the fractures in the group widen until the tragic climax.

This is a debut novel from Shakespearean scholar M.L. Rio, and is full of William Shakespeare’s words and ideas.  The theater kids often quote (or misquote) Shakespeare’s plays to each other in their dialogue, and sometimes to confused or annoyed outsiders.  A basic familiarity with the Bard of Avon will vastly enhance your enjoyment of the story.

The main characters are the kind of “party hearty” kids I did not get on well with in college; their substance abuse is a large factor in how badly their actions go off the rails, and the sexual shenanigans certainly didn’t help.  And of course, keeping secrets from the adults on campus who could have solved many of the issues early on makes things even worse.  (While I am on content issues, warning for rough language, slut-shaming and domestic abuse.)

Oliver has pressures outside school as well, as his parents are unsupportive of his career goals and one of his sisters has an eating disorder that needs them to redirect their limited financial resources.  (Oliver is alas completely unempathetic towards his sister’s problems.)  And some of the other students have even worse family situations, one of the reasons they’ve bonded with each other instead.

Once having established that the main characters are not the kind of people who make smart choices, the stage is set for the inevitable spiral into tragedy, mirrored by the plays they’re performing.

The version of the novel I’m reviewing is the audiobook from Macmillan Audio, and read by Robert Petkoff, himself an actor experienced in Shakespearean drama.  His voice is well suited to the text (though there were times when I could not distinguish between female characters) and conveyed emotion well.

However, the audiobook experience was sometimes difficult for me.  I sometimes missed important words, especially early on, and “rewinding” the CD was trickier than simply turning back pages to recheck lines.  On the good side, portions of the book are written in a semi-script style that made it clear who was speaking, very helpful when all the main characters are in the same room.

The physical presentation of the audiobook is barebones, just a box containing plain white sleeves for the ten CDs.  There are no liner notes (it would have been both helpful and apropos to provide a dramatis personae), nor a quick bio of Mr. Petkoff.

While this novel has mystery elements, it fits more comfortably into the “contemporary” subgenre.  Perhaps that New Adult category I’ve heard of.  Recommended to Shakespeare buffs, theater kids and fans of last minute twists.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this audiobook from the publisher to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was requested nor offered.

Book Review: Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, Pirates and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail

Book Review: Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, Pirates and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail by Marcus Rediker

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway for the purposes of this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

Outlaws of the Atlantic

During the Age of Sail, the deep ocean sailing ship was one of the most advanced technological wonders of its time.  But such a complex device required many workers to keep it running smoothly and keep it from collapsing in times of danger.  So there rose the class of people known as the common seaman; sailors who were essential to the ship as a group, but entirely replaceable as individuals.

Often ill-used, to the point that they often compared themselves to slaves, sailors developed their own subcultures and began “resistance from below”; most notably creating the “strike” when an entire harbor’s sailors struck  (took down) the sails of the ships they were on and refused to work until they got better conditions.  Sailors became both the creators of and spreaders of rebellion against the cruel social order of their day.

Mr. Rediker is a professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh, and this is a collection of short pieces he’s written on the general theme of “resistance from below” as it relates to the Atlantic Ocean in the Age of Sail.  He talks a lot about “antinomianism” (the idea that one is primarily saved by faith, rather than obedience to law), and “hydrarchy” (rule by the sea, often connoting rule of the lowly many as opposed to the official hierarchy).

The book begins with an examination of “the sailor’s yarn” and how it was used to spread information both useful and dubious, influencing Western literature among other things.  It moves on to the stories of two men that demonstrate that history also includes ordinary workers and castaways.

In an essay on pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy 1650-1730, emphasis is laid upon the efforts of pirates to democratize their ships; pirate captains were limited in authority, unlike merchant or military captains whose word was law, and whose punishments were untempered.  This indeed was one of the reasons pirates found favor in popular culture; for all that they were criminals, they also had a kind of freedom seldom seen at the time.

There’s another essay on how “motley” (multi-ethnic) crews of sailors helped spread the ideas that led to the American Revolution; though the wealthy stepped in to keep the Revolution from going too far towards mob rule as they saw it.

There is a chapter on slave rebellions aboard the ships carrying them to the New World, usually doomed, and a separate chapter for the case of the Amistad, which turned out much better than could have been hoped.  The latter chapter looks at how conflating the Amistad freedom fighters with pirates helped influence American attittudes towards the men from Sierra Leone.

There are several black and white illustrations, copious endnotes and an index.

This book very much feels like an introduction to the theme of rebellion in Atlantic Ocean history, and as such I would recommend it to the casual student looking for a quick read on various aspects of the subject.  Professor Rediker’s other books appear to go into much more depth on the individual subjects involved, such as slave ships and piracy.  Based on his work here, those should also be interesting.

If these sound like topics you’d be interested in, check your lending library system to see if they’ve got this book in stock.

Book Review: The Art of Empathy: Celebrating Literature in Translation

Book Review: The Art of Empathy: Celebrating Literature in Translation edited by Don Ball

This thick pamphlet is a collection of essays by literary translators on the art of translation.  It’s a product of the National Endowment for the Arts, and is available from them as a free download (or in paper form at NEA exhibits.)

The Art of Empathy

There are 19 essays by 20 translators (one is by a husband/wife team), and each also recommends three translated works that readers may enjoy.  That married couple concentrates on collaborative translation.  Also of particular interest to me was Philip Boehm’s comparison of his work as a theatrical director to translation; both involve moving words on a page to a new form .

Chad W. Post writes about “The Myth of the Three Percent Problem, ” the idea that too small a percentage of books published in the United States each year are works in translation.  He points out that even that tiny percentage are more books than any reasonable person could read in a lifetime; the real issue is getting the worthy translations to the people who could enjoy them.

In addition to the initial recommendations by the essayists, there’s a list of other recommended reading for those who are serious about learning more.

I’d recommend this pamphlet to those interested in just what it is a literary translator does and how they approach the job.  Everyone, though, can benefit from reading translated works.  There’s an entire world of books out there just waiting to expand your horizons.

And it doesn’t have to be world classics or serious poetry if you aren’t interested in that.  There’s Norwegian crime thrillers (one coming soon), Japanese comic books, French lowbrow comedy, Chinese kung fu epics, Brazilian romance novels…something for every taste!

Tell me in the comments about a translated book you enjoyed, or that you’re planning to read because you’ve heard good things about it.

Movie Review: Doll Face (1945)

Movie Review: Doll Face (1945)

“Doll Face” Carroll (Vivian Blaine) is a burlesque queen who wants to move into Broadway productions.  When slightly snobbish producer Flo Hartman (Reed Hadley) scorns her audition because Doll Face isn’t “cultured”, her manager Mike Hannegan (Dennis O’Keefe) comes up with the idea of making her seem more accomplished by having her write an book.

Doll Face

The problem there is that Doll Face has no idea what to write, even if she were lettered enough to try.  Mike assures her that this will not be an issue, as he will hire a ghost writer to help her create an autobiography.  This writer is top-seller Frederick Manley Gerard (Stephen Dunne), an intellectual who loves lofty vocabulary and has no interest in burlesque.  He does, however, take an interest in Doll Face.

Frederick turns out to be willing to fudge the facts considerably to make Doll Face’s biography more interesting (moving her birthplace from Brooklyn to Arden Hills, for example.)  His smooth talk and kindness also make him a strong contrast to the overbearing and uncouth Mike.  Cynical and sarcastic friend of the main couple Chita (Carmen Miranda) sees where this is going and tries to head it off to no avail.

In a subplot, singer-songwriter Nicky Ricci (Perry Como) tries to woo showgirl Frankie Porter (Martha Stewart), who only has eyes for Mike, who only likes Doll Face.

Mike tries to cancel the autobiography when he thinks enough publicity has been  milked out of it, Doll Face disagrees, and they quarrel.  When a bizarre coincidence makes it appear that Doll Face and Frederick are having it on, Mike dumps Doll Face.  This leads to misery for everyone, but the show must go on….

This 1945 musical was based on the play Naked Genius by Louise Hovick (better known to most of us as Gypsy Rose Lee.)   The name change was one of the many alterations required by the censors; the burlesque seen in the film is toned way down (though there are still some risque costumes on the ladies by the standards of the 1940s.)  There’s a brief mention of World War Two in one of the songs.

The music is quite good, and Perry Como is terrific as a singer to no one’s surprise.  There’s a couple of especially good lines, too.  “Do you always swim with your top hat on?”  “Only in opera season.”

Less good, especially by modern standards, is Mike.  He engages in “playful” aggression towards Doll Face, and advises Nicky to beat Frankie up, or at least threaten to, to gain her affection.  (Sadly, threats of force are shown to work on Frankie.)  Mike also prefers to do all the thinking for the couple, and gets sore when Doll Face decides otherwise.  This makes Frederick much easier to root for as a love interest, despite him having some controlling tendencies too; he at least will let Doll Face have her head.

Chita Chula is mostly in the story for her big number “Chico Chico (from Porto Rico)”, but is not portrayed stereotypically by the script–the character could have been any ethnicity.  And she scoffs at the idea she’s anything like Carmen Miranda.

The script is rather lackluster, but the musical performances are good, so it’s an enjoyable watch outside the cringeworthy bits.  If you’re watching it with younger viewers, you may need to talk to them about the kind of boyfriend Mike is and why that behavior isn’t appropriate.

Book Review: Insurrections of the Mind

Book Review: Insurrections of the Mind edited by Franklin Foer

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  The copy I read was an uncorrected proof, and changes will be made in the final edition.  (Specifically, a second introduction by Leon Wieseltier–an index may also be forthcoming.)

Insurrections of the Mind

The New Republic magazine has its centenary anniversary this year, so a collected volume of some of the many interesting articles that ran in the magazine is an expected celebration.  For many years, the New Republic (so named because there was already a Republic magazine at the time) has been the home of many of the leading voices of liberal political philosophy.  But in addition to politics, it covers art and cultural events as well.

After an introduction which explains the history of the magazine, its ups and downs (Stephen Glass is cited as a mistake, and his writing is not represented), the remainder of the book is essays grouped by decade.  From “The Duty of Harsh Criticism” by Rebecca West to “The Idea of Ideas” by Leon Wieseltier, this book is jam-packed with thought-provoking work.

I especially liked the afore-mentioned Rebecca West piece (I am a reviewer, after all), “Progress and Poverty” by Edmund Wilson, which contrasts the opening of the Empire State Building with a ruined man’s suicide,”Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell, in which you can see some of the ideas that went into 1984, and”Here Comes the Groom: A (Conservative) Case for Gay Marriage” by Andrew Sullivan, which is what it sounds like.

Not every writer represented here saw the future clearly–some of them guessed very wrong about the issues and people they wrote about.  But all of them are worth at least checking out.

“But Scott,” you say, “I am not a liberal.  What is there for me in such a book?”  I recommend the essays “The Corruption of Liberalism” by Lewis Mumford, “The Liberal’s Dilemma” by Daniel P. Moynihan and “The Great Carter Mystery” by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.  Liberals are not above raking each other over the coals, after all.

The book is due on shelves by the end of September 2014.  i recommend it to former readers of the New Republic (current readers should already be aware of it), 20th Century history students, the politically-minded, and those who enjoy a good essay.

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