Hag-Seed / Margaret Atwood
Toronto: Knopf, c2016.
Atwood's latest in an entry in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, of retellings or reinventions of Shakespeare's plays. Hag-Seed takes on The Tempest, and it does a better job of it than some other Tempest inspired reads I've encountered in the past.
In her take, Prospero becomes Felix Phillips, once the artistic director of the prestigious Makeshiweg Festival, before he was ousted by his scheming assistant, Tony. There are many parallels to Stratford here, and I'm not sure how comfortable the Stratford Festival would be with this -- though they did have her speak here in October -- strangely unadvertised though...
But seriously. Felix is a sympathetic character so all his bluster and his revenge plot never tip you over into outright dislike. After being manoeuvred out of his directorial role, he retreats to lick his wounds. He finds a shack off the grid and holes up there for a decade, with only his dead daughter as company. Miranda died as a toddler, and in his guilt over paying more attention to his job than her, he thinks of her as always accompanying him, growing up to the age she would have been, there in spirit. And as his isolation grows, so does her reality to him.
But eventually, he must move in the world again, and he sees an opportunity to take a small, part-time, low paid job as a literature teacher for male inmates at a local prison, the Fletcher Correctional Institute. The woman organizing the position recognizes him, but agrees to keep his secret as he is willing to teach Shakespeare without any conditions of the job changing -- ie: a great bargain for her.
It's when Felix is interacting with the inmates that the depth of the story shows. They talk about the plays they are studying and eventually performing, they deconstruct the text and relate it to modern day life, and to the troubled facts of their own lives as well. The power of this process shows in the inmates over time; literature is indeed a healing tonic.
While reading these parts of the book, the text started to feel quite familiar to me. Why? I realized as I went along, and especially when I got to the acknowledgements at the end of the book, that these scenes were strongly influenced by Laura Bateman's Shakespeare Saved My Life, a book about Shakespeare in prisons which I read some years ago but is very memorable. I hope it makes more people search it out and read it -- it's very inspiring.
Anyhow, Atwood follows the Tempest plot fairly closely, and has interspersed bits of rap performances by the inmates (reminding me of the Chorus in her Penelopiad). She uses her setting well, and Felix has the chance, finally, to stage The Tempest and by doing so wreak revenge on those who originally ousted him. Of course, everything ties up very neatly in Felix's favour, but after all, he is Prospero. There is plenty of Atwoodian wryness and ridiculous humour that keeps our characters from taking themselves too seriously. The final scenes are really over-the-top but in the end, it does all work. And I thought this version really made sense in the setting she's created.
It was a good read, which highlights an important cause (literature in prisons) that I've been following for a while now. Recommended.
Angel Catbird / Margaret Atwood; illus. Johnnie Christmas
Toronto: Dark Horse, c2016
Now, unfortunately, no matter how much I like Atwood's writing or how much I support her work for birds and cats and so forth, I just did not gel with this book.
It was a mix of light entertainment, retro visual style, and earnestness.
The bump-out facts and figures about cat populations and so on at the bottom of some pages felt very "teachy" and the story was so tenuously held together. I'd call this one an old-fashioned comic book, not a graphic novel per se.
The characters have silly names (ie: our hero Strig Feleedus) or ones that are painful puns; the story is pretty basic, there's a very villainous villain and a pretty girl who saves the day, and well, I just didn't love it. It's just kind of meh.
I prefer Atwood when she sticks to the writing she does well, like Hag-Seed & other novels. If you're in the right mood for a light and campy story, though, you might still enjoy this one.