28 January 2016

Booking through Thursday: Shakespeare

I came across this question while going through old posts on Booking Through Thursday:

Okay, show of hands … who has read Shakespeare OUTSIDE of school required reading? Do you watch the plays? How about movies? Do you love him? Think he’s overrated?

While the subject is now closed, I thought it was a rather good blogging prompt, so here is my reply:

I have only read a couple of Shakespeare's plays outside of school: Macbeth and A Midsummer Night's Dream. I suppose that as an English major I should feel ashamed that I didn't read any of his plays at university, but since my focus was linguistic, not literary, I make no excuses.

In any case, I prefer to see plays performed, either on stage or as films. I know the stories of most of the comedies and tragedies, thanks to Tales from Shakespeare and a similar, albeit better written, book by Helgi Hálfdanarson, the man who also translated all the plays into Icelandic.

I try to see every Shakespeare play that is staged here in Iceland, meaning of course I am more used to hearing them performed in Icelandic than in English. I did read the English version of Macbeth after I saw the play performed in Icelandic. So far I have caught Hamlet, A Midsummer Night's Dream (school play, the choice of which I am sure was influenced by the popularity of the movie Dead Poets Society), Romeo and Juliet (the controversial acrobatics version by Vesturport) and Macbeth.

I gave King Lear a miss, however, since I find that story so incredibly depressing that I'd rather stick needles in my eyes and ears than watch it or any version of it. Finally, I will mention - but not count - an experimental version of Othello I saw a few years ago, titled Óþelló-Desdemóna og Jagó, since it was an interpretation of the story in which the only character who spoke was Iago (Othello expressed himself in dance and Desdemona through sign language).

As for Shakespeare movies I have seen: 
  • The 1948 Olivier version of Hamlet, which I found to be stagy but good.
  • A so-so black-and-white Romeo and Juliet with actors old enough to be the parents of Shakespeare's originals.
  • Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing and Love's Labour's Lost. I re-watch the former on occasion, but didn't like the latter much.
  • The Burton and Taylor Taming of the Shrew, which I enjoyed. I also saw an enjoyable made-for-TV modern version of that story, starring Shirley Henderson and Rufus Sewell. Unfortunately I missed the rest of that series, which also included Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night's Dream. (Kiss Me Kate is great, but doesn't leave in a whole lot of Shakespeare's text, any more than the aforementioned TV adaptation).
  • Twelfth Night, the one starring Helena Bonham-Carter, Imogen Stubbs and Toby Stephens as  the people caught in the love triangle, plus a host of other great British actors. This is my favourite Shakespeare movie and I re-watch it every now and then.

20 January 2016

Is there anybody out there? (must be, I still have 70 followers.) Anyway, here's a review

I thought it was about time I posted a review, even if it's an informal one. I haven't read that many books lately that I felt like reviewing, but I finally got my hands on a book I have been looking for for many, many years. I haven't been looking for it in a "Oh. My. God. I. Must. Have. This. Book!" kind of way, but rather in the "It would sure be nice to have this book, if only to read it", but still.... I finally came across a second hand copy with an intact dust cover, the right price, no stains and only a slight musty smell that wasn't ripe enough to stop me from buying it, although I did read it at arm's length.

The book?
The Flight of Dragons by Peter Dickinson, illustrated by Wayne Anderson.

Why this book?
I watched an animated movie titled The Flight of Dragons when I was about 13 years old and absolutely loved it. It may possibly have been the first high fantasy film I ever watched (certainly the first one I can remember) and it left a lasting impression on me. Several years later I found out that it was based on a book by an author of the same name as the hero of the movie: Peter Dickinson, but I thought it was a novel. It is fiction, to be sure, but I wouldn't call it a novel. What it really is, is speculative natural history, i.e. cryptozoology, but I only found that out much later, when the Internet came along and I started doing research. Then I ran across information that it was based on a book by Gordon R. Dickson, titled The Dragon and the George. This was confusing, but finally Wikipedia came to my aid and I learned that it was based on both books. I also discovered the real nature of the eponymous book, which only increased my desire to read it. I got my hands on The Dragon and the George several years ago, but the copy had so many pages missing that I gave up trying to read it and turned it onto a hollow book. I did read enough to figure out that other than the names and abilities of some of the characters, the story in the movie seems to bear little resemblance to that in the book (correct me, please, if I'm wrong).

Anyway, I got my hands on what a second-hand bookseller would probably call "a good, clean copy" and, unusually for me, considering most of the books I buy go on the TBR shelves and remain there for months or even years before I finally read them, I got down to business reading it right away. I was expecting a light-hearted, pseudo-scientific, even satirical, treatment of the subject. I did find a tongue-in-cheek treatment, but the humour is subtle enough and the treatment thorough enough that a true believer in the existence of dragons could read it as a straight thesis on the history and zoology of the beasts, albeit one illustrated with light-hearted drawings of dragons and other mythical beasts.

Dickinson looks at dragons from many different viewpoints and pulls up references to mythology, legends, folk-tales and literature to present a natural history of the dragon, including an almost plausible theory explaining why they have left no fossil record. He also quotes literature about dragons, and ends with an interesting chapter on Beowulf and dragons. The only thing, apart from the humour, to distinguish The Flight of Dragons from a book on the natural history of a real animal is the lack of a bibliography, which I would have loved to see because dragons are in the top five of my favourite mythological beings and I like to read about them. However, I can always glean the titles from the text.

The only dragon reference known to me that he seems to have missed (or perhaps I overlooked it?) is one to the lindworm reared by Thora Borgarhjörtur (from the Saga of Ragnar loðbók). Otherwise he seems to have the field of dragon-lore pretty well-covered. He even quotes The Dragon and the George. 

The book gets slightly long-winded at times, but not enough to make me lose interest. All in all, it's an interesting read and a good reference book to have if the subject interests you.

I'm not giving it stars - I've come to the conclusion that giving star ratings to books does not accurately reflect what they are like and henceforth when I post reviews I will rather try to categorise them in a way that reflects what they meant to me. How I do this remains to be seen, but I might go for short, tweet-like summaries of the longer review (e.g. "liked reading but not enough to keep" or "keeping reference", etc.).