Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Shopping in a Real Bookstore, Books to Plays and Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

First, a couple of paragraphs that will remind you of the joys of shopping in a real bookstore (vs a virtual one, like Amazon):
In her Ploughshares essay "How to Shop at a Bookstore: An Easy 20-Step
Guide for Authors,"
Rebecca Makkai offered suggestions for visiting writers. A few of our

"First, smell it. Look at the new arrivals, lined up like candy. See if,
for just one second, you can remember what it was like to walk into a
bookstore as a reader. Just a reader, a happy, curious reader. With no
agenda, no insecurities, no history of bookstores as scenes of personal
failure and triumph. Wish for a time machine."

"Nervously check how the store seems to be doing. Are the lights still
on? Do the employees look well-fed? Thank God. The world isn't over

"You cannot afford all seven of the books that have somehow wound up in
your arms. Acknowledge that you will buy them anyway."

"As you cross the street with your bag of new books, remember the first
time your mother took you to a bookstore and told you to pick something
out. To keep, not borrow. You were overwhelmed by choice and wonder.
Remember how you pulled things off the shelf at random because every
book was equally unknown and fresh and promising."

And this about the latest bookish plays coming out, which fascinates me, as a former theater major and veteran bibliophile:
Robert Gray: Silence, Voice & Books on Stage

Although we write about book-to-film adaptations often in Shelf
Awareness, bookish theater gets less attention. So let's change that.
Book-to-musical productions are hot right now. Matilda
based on Roald Dahl's novel, earned a dozen Tony nominations this week.
Currently in various stages of development are musical versions of
Alison Bechdel's Fun Home
Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude
Doyle's The Commitments
and American Psycho
by Bret Easton Ellis.

It's not just musicals. The London production of The Curious Incident of
the Dog in the Night-Time
based on Mark Haddon's bestselling novel, won seven Olivier Awards. The
Royal Shakespeare Company is adapting Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall
Up the Bodies. William Goldman has written a new theatrical version of
Stephen King's Misery
even a Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord production of Michael
Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid
in Paris.

All giving voice to the written word, and to the complex silence of
reading. "As a writer of fiction, it is my job to work through silence,
to enter the minds of my characters, to create voices for them, to give
them a life that will matter emotionally and intellectually to others,"
Colm Tóibín writes in an author's note inserted in
for the stage adaptation of his novel The Testament of Mary (Scribner).
I saw the production, starring Fiona Shaw, last weekend at the Walter
Kerr Theatre in New York City.

Both the novel and play are stunning to me in very different ways, and a
perfect illustration of what happens when the voice (as well as silence)
in your reader's mind is interpreted by a brilliant actor on stage. I
had a similar reaction a few years ago to Vanessa Redgrave's
breathtaking performance in Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking.

While reading The Testament of Mary, I'd conjured a woman who was
reflective yet fierce in her stillness and captivity, entangled in the
web of a developing narrative not of her own conception, immaculate or
otherwise. Shaw's Mary is more impatient, unable to rest as she tells
her story while moving objects, including herself, about the stage.  

And we are complicit in that story, too, witnesses to her confession as
well as traditional portrayals of Mary. Pre-show, the audience is
invited on stage to explore the set, with Shaw sitting rigidly inside a
glass box, dressed in the colorful robes we recall from depictions of
the iconic Madonna in paintings and sculptures.

As the play opens, however, Mary wears the drab clothing of a poor woman
and speaks to us in an all-too-human voice--alternately mournful,
scared, cynical, funny, angry, yet always piercingly observant. The
voice of a mother who has lost her son.

"It is written for a voice
Tóibín has said. "And it is written for an actress' voice.
And I had in mind as I was working a voice like Fiona Shaw's voice that
would have a huge level of commitment to loss." Both voices--Shaw's and
the one I imagined as a reader--now inhabit my mind with equal force.  

Earlier this week, Tóibín learned that even though The
Testament of Mary has earned a Best Play Tony nomination
it will close Sunday after just 43 performances due to poor ticket

How did he deal with the loss? "I think dark laughter might be the best
way to put it," he said. "And when in doubt, consult Oscar Wilde.... He
has a quote--success is merely a preparation for failure. Anyone who
works in the arts knows, if you're writing a novel or a play or
anything, you have to be ready for someone to say, you're time is up."
Poet and critic Robert Bly, whose most recent book is Airmail: The

He also noted that "about 30,000 people will have seen the play over a
6-week run by the time it closes, with a standing ovation every night.
In European terms, that's a huge success. In Dublin I'd be walking
around with everyone saying, what an amazing success you've had with
your play."

I bought my ticket months ago, when I first learned the play was coming
to Broadway. I wouldn't have missed it for the world. Shaw told NPR
that while she is "on the stage alone, I suppose what happens is, I feel
I'm surfing the story with the audience.... I tell this particular
story, and I follow it as I'm in it, and the audience follow it with me.
So I do feel a great communion, dare I say, with the audience." This is
how it felt to me, too--her voice, her silences, Tóibín's
words and, somewhere in there, myself as reader and then as audience.
Communion. --Robert Gray 

This is interesting, as Robert Bly is an amazing poet and writer.
Letters of Robert Bly and Tomas Transtromer (Graywolf), was asked in a
recent New York Times Book Review interview to name his favorite

"The best is Birchbark Books, owned by Louise Erdrich, and run by a great staff that sometimes includes her
family members," he replied. "The store is near us, and we can walk
there. There is always something excellent to take home. Just down the
street we have some good used-book stores. Magers & Quinn [which also sells new books] is one.They have had a fine reading series off and on."

Finally, a brief bit about a book I just finished over the weekend, Me Before You by Jojo Moyes.
Written in something of the same lighthearted prose style as Bridget Jones Diary, Me Before You is a deceptively simple novel at first blush. However, the further into the novel that you travel, the more intense and dramatic the plot becomes. The novel is about a young woman who is leading a somewhat feckless life, working at a cafe because it is the path of least resistence, and she's required to work to help support her family, who only have one  other working person, her father, while her mother stays home to care for a disabled parent and her sister goes to college and raises an illegitimate child. When the cafe closes, our protagonist, who dresses like a theater major and is used to being the butt of family jokes because of her clumsiness and outrageous fashion sense, finds a job caring for a wealthy young quadrapeligic man in his mansion. This young man is bitter and cynical, and having lived life to the fullest with trips around the world, mountain climbing and other dangerous sports, he no longer wants to live a limited existence in a wheelchair. Our heroine Louisa Clarke finds herself falling for Will, and attempts to do everything in her power to show him that life is worth living. A Love Story for this generation, Me Before You brings to life two people who couldn’t have less in common—a heartbreakingly romantic novel that asks, What do you do when making the person you love happy also means breaking your own heart? 
I found myself turning pages long after my bedtime, and I also was rather shocked at the ending, which I'd assumed would be the standard HEA. Still, a very satisfying story that will make readers think and evaluate what constitutes a life worth living? A solid A.

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