Thursday, April 24, 2014

Happy 450th Birthday, Willy S.!

D'oh! I thought I posted this yesterday, but alas, I did not. Hark, here is my tribute to The Bard on his 450th birthday...belatedly. Many apologies.


Like many of you, I came to Shakespeare through school. In 9th grade, when I was 14, we read "Romeo & Juliet."

And that was it. I was hooked.

I was the only person in my class who got an "A" on the homework assignment to take a chunk of dialogue and "translate" it into modern, 20th century speak. (Of course, Shakespeare did write in "modern" English, but I digress.)

Over the next few years I read more plays and sonnets, and watched stage and cinema adaptations of his work. Sometimes I read or saw them for fun, sometimes it was for school. Either way, I was hard-pressed to find anything written by Shakespeare that I didn't love. In high school I bought a Shakespeare t-shirt, which I still own. In college I took a "Shakespeare on Film" course as an elective. In a class on theater in Ancient Greece I wrote a paper comparing "The Orestia" to "Hamlet." I've read and seen "Hamlet" more times than I can possibly count. (Can we please give the Melancholy Dane a break?)

I've been to "Sleep No More" three times -- and I'd go more if it weren't $100 per ticket -- because it combines all my favorite things: "MacBeth," weird theater, gratuitous nudity and fighting, booze, and scary, fucked-up immersive experiences.

When my husband does "Sleep No More," he keeps getting
kidnapped by the Red Witch/Hecate. Here is the proof of her
interference in my marriage. What can I say, he likes
pushy, evil redheads.

The "St. Crispin's Day" speech from "Henry V" remains my favorite thing ever written in the English language, ever. No matter how many times I hear it or read it, I still get goosebumps.

But enough of my credentials.

One of my favorite things about Shakespeare's work is the timeless quality of the stories. Love, revenge, jealousy, misunderstandings, power struggles -- these are all as relevant today as they were four hundred-plus years ago. The circumstances may change, but the motivations, actions, and fall-out are all pretty much the same.

Because of this, Shakespeare is open to a lot of interpretation. Most of it is good; I really, really detest straight-up, dry performances of the plays. What I love best is when actors, directors, producers, and everyone else on the crew really get into setting a play in a new time and place, and do fun things with the roles.

Unfortunately, I can't link to my favorite stage adaptations of Shakespeare, like the one of "The Tempest" I saw in college where the only set design was a silver parachute and all the actors used crumbled up brown paper bags as costumes as they came on stage. Sounds silly, but since I'm not a fan of "The Tempest" anyway, it totally worked. Or the Shakespeare in the Park production of "Love's Labours Lost" I saw last summer which was so funny I actually fell out of my seat from laughing so hard.

Without further (much) ado (ha! See what I did there?), here are some of my favorite cinematic Shakespeare adaptations.

Romeo + Juliet, 1996

"Romeo and Juliet" is not my favorite of the tragedies -- I generally think the two main characters are dumb teenagers -- but I really love this movie. The casting is superb; who knew John Leguizamo had it in him? I love the guns instead of swords. I love the colors, the music, the party scene. I love Paul Rudd as Paris dressed like an astronaut. This is pretty much perfect as far as modern interpretations for film go. And that's what Shakespeare should be - modern, fun, exciting, approachable. That's what his plays were back in the 1600s. Once you get past the flowr'y language and twisty phrasing, you can see how great these stories truly are.

Richard III, 1995

As if we all need another reason to love Sir Ian McKellen, right?

If nothing else, this version of "Richard III" stands out for Sir Ian's delivery of the opening speech. You know it: "Now is the winter of our discontent," blah blah blah. He breaks down the Fourth Wall throughout the movie, but in this speech he's winking, nudging, beckoning -- literally, with his hand -- the camera. It sets the stage for what feels like 1940s melodrama (the time period in which this particular interpretation is set) and it totally works. So, so, so much.

Titus, 1999

This is not an easy movie to watch, but then - it's not a pleasant play to read, either. Generally regarded as one of Shakespeare's bloodiest dramas, with the highest body count, Titus -- shortened from "Titus Andronicus" -- has pretty much everything out of our worst nightmares, including (but not limited to) rape, dismemberment, human sacrifice, and cannibalism. Good times, right?

So why do I love this movie so much?

It's due a lot to the out-of-the-ballpark performances by several of my favorite actors, including Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, and Alan Cumming. But the vast majority of my praise gets heaped on Julie Taymore for creating such a lush, vivid movie full of colors and epic sets. I mean, EPIC. Taymor is a master at manipulating shadow and light, utilizing out-of-the-box imagery (like puppets), and creating worlds and characters that feel somehow, simultaneously so real and yet so unearthly. It's impossible to watch this movie and not have a strong reaction to it.

Hamlet, 2009

Ok, so my husband thinks I'm anti-intellectual because I don't consider "Hamlet" to be my favorite of Shakespeare's works. After reading it a bajillionty times and watching approximately ten thousand BBC stage productions of it for school, I'm kind of sick of the guy. He's so naval-gazy and annoying. "Oooh, poor me, what do I do?" Maybe I am anti-intellectual, but if I'm going to watch a play I'd rather see the action of "MacBeth" than listen to Hamlet talk to himself indecisively for eleventy thousand hours.

That said, I can't really make a "Best Of" list about Shakespeare without including his most famous work, right? Then the question becomes, which version? There are SO MANY. Seriously. It's like the very fate of humanity itself rests on doing a version of "Hamlet" every year or so.

My personal unit of measurement for how well a "Hamlet" is done is very simple: The speech.

You know which speech. The most famous speech in the history of English. "To be, or not to be." And so on and so forth while I go get a snack, because zzzzz......

That said, to my mind, this 2009 version with David Tennant does The Speech the best. We start from behind Tennant and work our way around, and when we finally see his face, he's got his eyes closed. Bloody brilliant. The Speech is so overdone and overfamous by now that the only way to really do it well is to underact it, and Tennant freaking nails that. Well done, Tenth Doctor.

Also: Sir P Stew as the ghost father and uncle. Is there anything that man can't do?

(And honestly, if I have to suffer through Hamlet's existential crisis, I'd rather do it with this movie any day of the week.)

Now, someone please find me a way to get in contact with my favorite director, Quentin Tarantino, so I can talk him into doing a kick-ass movie version of "MacBeth." How badass would that be?

What's your favorite work by The Bard? What's your favorite movie of his work?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Spoiler-Free Book Review: "Who Fears Death?" by Nnedi Okorafor

See my sidebar to the right for the other spoiler-free reviews I've posted on the books I'm reading for my 2014 project: Speculative Fiction by Women of Color. Follow my reading project on Twitter with the hashtag #SpecFicByWomenOfColor

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Trigger warnings for discussions of the book's themes of rape and other brutalities of war.

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"Who Fears Death?" has won so many awards, and been reviewed so many times, I now find myself almost paralyzed with writer's block at trying to do justice to this amazing novel. There are so many different ways to talk about it, so many different themes that tie together, so many different ways of approaching such a complex, complicated work. Since I am a spec fic writer, I'm going to stick to that aspect of the book, and let other elements flit in and out as they need to do.

At some unspecified point in the future, after events only ever alluded to in general terms, an unnamed (until the very end) part of Africa has become a vast dystopian desert. Oceans are things of myth, rivers are unheard of. Water for consumption and bathing is collected with mechanized appliances that pull it out of the air.

And the Okeke people are in danger of being wiped off the face of the earth by the Nuru people.

The people of this place and time, Okeke and Nuru alike, worship a creator goddess called Ani. In The Great Book, it is written that Ani created the dark-skinned Okeke as slaves and turned her back on them; she created the golden-skinned Nurus, people of the sun, as the superior of the Okeke in every way. The Nurus no longer feel it is enough to oppress and humiliate the Okekes; they are now out to obliterate the entire race of Okekes. Part of the Nuru method involves the systematic use of rape of Okeke women in order to create mixed-race Ewu babies. Ewus are feared as strange and violent creatures, inheriting in their natures the very evil that conceived them. They are shunned by Nuru and Okeke alike.

After a particularly brutal rape that literally takes her voice from her, the young woman Najeeba stays out of towns and villages, birthing and raising her daughter alone. She names her daughter Onyesonwu, an Igbo Nigerian word meaning "Who Fears Death?" At six years old, Najeeba moves them to the eastern town of Jwahir and marries a blacksmith. For a while life seems almost normal for little Onye; the people of Jwahir slowly learn to tolerate Onyesonwu, even if they never fully accept the Ewu child.

As with all great heroes, as soon as Onye gets comfortable in her life, things start to get weird. She falls asleep and wakes up in a tree. She goes invisible during a rite of passage ritual. She touches her dead step-father and he moves.

Jwahir's resident sorcerer, Aro, will not take Onye under his wing because she is a woman. Only after Onye nearly kills Aro with her psychic powers does he relent. As she studies and learns to harness and control her vast power, Onye becomes aware -- as heroes do -- that the Nuru massacres and brutality against the Okeke in the west is tied to her own fate, and even to her very conception. Aro, Najeeba, the Jwahir high priestess, even Onye's love interest, are all linked together. Because of this, Onye must endure a terrible initiation into mystic teachings and embark on a quest of destiny.

I make no secret of the fact that I am a huge fan of the "Child of Destiny" trope -- my own first novel, BLOODSISTERS, is a variation on that -- and with "Who Fears Death?", Nnedi Okorafor delivers a story worthy of the great canon of other CoD stories like "Star Wars" and "Harry Potter." There is even a Jesus-istic element to "WFD?" with Onye knowing she must go forward to her fate in order to save both the Okeke and Nuru peoples, and in accepting her role in this thing that is much bigger than herself.

The entire novel is wonderful and well-written, but where Okorafor really shines is in character development and world building. She manages to paint a post-apocalyptic desert wasteland that is both terrifying in its vastness and harshness, yet also full of life and color and hope. Onyesonwu is a child of the desert, both literally and figuratively, and her love for that land comes through from beginning to end in the book, even when she's shown a vision of lush green landscapes.

"WFD?" contains some of the best relationships I've ever read in fiction. There are so many good connections in the book - between Onye and her mother, between Onye and Aro (who I think should be played by Laurence Fishburne, because The Matrix, and I Tweeted as much) - but the two relationships I enjoyed most were between Onye and Mwita, and between Onye and her initiation "sisters" Binta, Luyu, and Diti.

So rarely do we get to see, even by women writers, real female friendships with their ups and downs, and their changes and growth over many years. When Onye meets Luyu, Binta and Diti, they are eleven years old. It would have been so easy to lump the three of them together, but they are written far from interchangeable. Onye's relationship with each woman is distinct and follows a unique path through the next nine years of their lives. How refreshing to read about a group of female friends that actually reflects real life friendships!

Speaking of realism in fictional relationships, my favorite in the book by far is Onye's with Mwita. As the two Ewus of Jwahir, they are bound by their common status as outcasts and weirdos. Mwita is Aro's original apprentice, yet Onye has naturally superior powers, adding a jealous rivalry between the two. They are passionate with one another and love one another with a Romeo & Juliet kind of fatality. They would die for each other, and do irreparable and outrageous harm to any outsider unlucky enough to cause harm to each other; yet they squabble and bicker and act like sulky, petulant, petty children with each other. They are very real, and I love that about them.

"WFD?" is the kind of book that stays with you when you're not reading it; I hesitate to use the ubiquitous word "haunting," but that's exactly how it feels. Okorafor doesn't shy away from frank and graphic descriptions of the terrible things that happen to the Okeke at the hands of the Nuru, from dismemberment to rape -- and of things the Okeke do to fight back. The book brings up things most of us living comfy lives in the First World don't like to think about: how far removed we are from the awful things happening elsewhere in the world, whether or not our passive witness implicates us in perpetuating these problems, and how much we can reasonably be expected to do about what we know is going on. Should we make a sad face and feel bad? Give money? Send our children off to fight for us? Sacrifice our own lives? What's the "right" thing to do when other human beings are being tortured in the world and we know about it? Can we look the other way? What if there's *nothing* we can do?

These are tough questions, ones I have not stopped thinking about since picking up "WFD?" a few weeks ago. And that right there is the sign of a well-crafted, well-written, well-told novel: when days, weeks, months, years pass, and I'll *still* be thinking about Onyesonwu and her destiny.

There is so much more I could have said about this book, but this review is already quite long. Perhaps at some point I'll do a Part 2, and discuss the Red People (my favorite part of the book) and other themes the book tackles. For right now, I'll end here and ask: Has anyone else read "Who Fears Death?" What did you think? What's a book that has struck you so deeply that you carry it with you for life?