Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #87: The Bartender’s Tale by Ivan Doig

Doig hits another home run! The Bartender’s Tale is a great coming-of-age story peopled with colorful characters against a backdrop filled with history, humor, and pathos.

Once again, Montana plays home to Doig’s tale, this one centered around Tom Harry, famous owner of the Medicine Lodge bar in Gros Ventre and, previously, of the Blue Eagle bar in Fort Peck which had serviced many of the 10,000 employees of the U.S. government in the 1930s brought into that tiny speck of northern Montana when the Fort Peck Dam was built under the auspices of the US Army Corps of Engineers. Tom’s first wife left not long after their son Rusty was born, and the boy spent his first six years being raised in Arizona by an aunt whose sons made life a living hell for the little boy. But then Tom reclaimed Rusty, and father and son dedicated themselves to forging a life around the bar which was the centerpiece of their existence and Gros Ventre’s last refuge, as well. Rusty’s life is happier, but still a lonely one until Zoe moves into town with her parents, and the two children become as one, sharing a total fascination with life that is as exuberant and optimistic as Doig himself.

Tom is getting ready to sell the bar and create a more normal life for himself and his son when Proxy, a former lover from the Fort Peck days, arrives on the scene with a 21-year-old daughter in tow with the same ink-black hair that Tom and Rusty share. Proxy wants Tom to teach their daughter Francine how to run the bar, and ultimately take it over, and life suddenly becomes very complicated for Tom and Rusty. Thrown into the mix is Del, a student of  “lingua Americana,” a “word catcher” from the East who latches on to Tom in hope of getting access to the many and varied characters who have flowed in and around Tom’s life and who represent the last vestiges of a dying language as Montana moves increasingly into the modern era.

Rusty and Zoe are a bridge between those two eras, and are as endearingly clever as Paul Milliron was in Doig’s “The Whispering Season.”  The reader finds oneself yearning for the simpler days of their childhood, and yet sees them growing and changing as the century matures. The Bartender’s Tale is a thoroughly delightful novel as nostalgic for the past as it is hopeful for the future.

loulamac’s #CBRV review #34: I, Iago by Nicole Galland


I was lucky enough to see Othello at The National Theatre recently, with Rory Kinnear (Rory Kinnear! Thump!) and Adrian Lester as Iago and Othello. So when I found this book in the library, I was intrigued. At the same time I was wary, as more often than not spin-offs in fiction tend towards Mrs De Winter or Scarlett rather than The Wide Sargasso Sea. But as it turns out I needn’t have worried, I, Iago is a cracking good read.

The novel, narrated by the fascinating, articulate and complicated ‘honest Iago’, tells his story from childhood (where he and a young Roderigo steal the eggs of a prize hen) in corrupt, vainglorious Venice through military service and marriage, until his forthright nature brings him to the attention of the new Moor commander of Venice’s armies, Othello. The second half of the novel presents the events of the play: Iago’s scheming leading to the death of Desdemona, his own wife Emilia and Othello himself.

Basing such a large part of your book on a rewritten prose version of one of the most well-known and loved of Shakespeare’s plays was a risk, but Galland manages it with flair. Her new interpretation of Iago is brilliant, due in large part to her writing style, which is influenced by, but does not parrot, Shakespeare’s verse. The dialogue in particular is a delight, giving real insight into Iago’s motivations, and creating a sense of period while remaining accessible.

At the end of the book, Galland explains how it came about. Like many Othello fans before her, she was intrigued by just how Iago came to plot the destruction of his former friend and mentor Othello, by how far he goes, and how little he attempts to justify his actions. She hit upon the notion that everything Iago does is driven by an overwhelming sense of injustice. First he is side-lined when Othello falls in love with Desdemona and woos her in secret, then he is further slighted when Cassio is promoted to lieutenant over him. Everything that follows is an attempt to redress this imbalance, and win back his rightful place in Othello’s esteem.

The author pulls this central notion off very convincingly. She adds another dimension to the Shakespearean villain, making him more vulnerable and unhappier than any other interpretation I have seen. The realisation that his machinations have cost him the love of his wife is heart-breaking:

‘All I could see were Emilia’s eyes, and the deeper I looked into them, the more clearly I saw myself within them. I saw not a determined, deserving soldier earning his right to the lieutenancy by demonstrating his rival’s unfitness for office; not a slighted confidant testing his friend’s mental clarity and finding it alarmingly cloudy; not a doting husband trying to better himself to be deserving of a cherished wife. I saw only a man of a vindictive and violent nature, hell-bent on doing whatever it took to get whatever he wanted… I saw a man so twisted up with jealousy and envy that he would sacrifice and demean anyone to tear others down.’

It would seem that making Shakespeare accessible to new audiences is a passion of Galland’s, and in I, Iago she does this very well. This book is ambitious in premise and approach, and is a resounding success.

KimMiE” ’s #CBR5 Review #6: The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips

Tragedy of Arthur

Early in the novel The Tragedy of Arthur, protagonist Arthur Phillips describes what motivated his father (Arthur Phillips, Sr.) to trick the world into believing that the crop circles he created in the middle of the night with the help of his two young children were the work of aliens. “To astonish. To add to the world’s store of precious possibility. To set the record crooked once and for all, so that someone’s life (some stranger’s) was not without wonder.” Whether you find that sentiment poignant and beautiful or simply BS is at the heart of The Tragedy of Arthur.

Arthur Phillips, author and son, grew up being constantly let down by his father, a con-man who sees the scams he perpetuates almost as a service to the world. (To complete the quote above, “It almost seems like a charitable act, if you subtract his ego.”) He is in and out of prison for such wonder-lacking scams as forging coupons and lottery tickets, which he sees as a victimless crime because, let’s face it, those people weren’t going to win the lottery anyway (which as defenses go, isn’t the worst I’ve heard). Where Arthur is left bitter and disappointed, his twin sister Dana is ever forgiving, perhaps because she and their father share a special bond in their love of Shakespeare. Arthur can’t get on board with the Shakespeare-worship no matter how much he loves Dana, and he becomes an author in his own right, maybe out of a need for approval, maybe to prove he is better.

With two months left on a 22-year prison sentence and nearing the end of his life, Arthur’s father reveals that he has a secret, a little project that he would like his son to work on with him. He  has hidden an undiscovered, unpublished Shakespeare play called The Tragedy of Arthur, and he wants Arthur Jr. to help him publish it. Not only will it be a great discovery for the world (wonder and joy!), it will provide financial security for Arthur and Dana and their mother, long-divorced from Arthur Sr. and recently widowed. Of course, Arthur sees through this scam a mile away and grills his father about how the play came to be in his possession and why he would keep such a thing hidden for so long. And yet. . . . either through wishful thinking or because he regrets their estranged relationship, Arthur comes to believe at least in the possibility of the play’s authenticity. With Dana’s help they pull the play apart, trying to poke holes in the language, looking for something to prove or disprove the play’s authorship. Shakespeare scholars are called in to voice their opinions and the physical play, the ink and paper, are subjected to intense forensic tests. There’s no way Arthur’s father, a petty criminal could have forged this. . . .

After his father’s death, Arthur has another change of heart and becomes convinced the play is a fraud. By this time, though, the publishing machine that he has set in motion is moving too fast, and Arthur can’t stop it without risking some fatalities, including his relationship with his sister.

The primary question in The Tragedy of Arthur isn’t about whether the play is real or a hoax, but whether it even matters. If a play brings people joy, does it matter who authored it? Well, from a financial perspective, the answer is most certainly yes. But what about from an artistic perspective? How does attributing a play to William Shakespeare make it any more or less enjoyable? Arthur Phillips the protagonist certainly has his own views on that matter, but Arthur Phillips the novelist refuses to spoon-feed us the answer. That my own perspective on the subject kept shifting as I read is in no small part responsible for my admiration for this novel.

On top of this funny, poignant, agonizing story of a man’s relationship with his father is the play itself. The last 100 pages of the novel is a tragedy about the legendary King Arthur, as written by “William Shakespeare.” I was feeling a bit morose about the novel’s ending (it is a tragedy after all), but the play lifted my spirits. Phillips crafts a work of such subtlety and humor in the guise of a tragedy that I want to read the play again and again. Read it simply as a play, allowing it to stand alone without the context of the “introduction” (the novel). Read it in the context of what we know about Arthur and his father. If you are a Shakespeare scholar, which I am not, read it with the lens of determining how true it is to Shakespeare’s time and voice. Finally, for simple fun, read it for the sometimes irritable comments you will find in the footnotes, as Phillips and his publisher disagree in print about whether certain names and turns of phrase prove the falsehood or authenticity of the play.

“What makes art authentic” is too large a question to settle within the 370 pages of this novel. In exploring it, though, Arthur Phillips has created a masterpiece.

Reginadelmar’s #CBRV review #18 Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt

I heard Stephen Greenblatt speak  about his book Swerve about a month ago. His  presentation was more a university lecture than a book promotion; yet incredibly interesting and the amount of information he shared was overwhelming. I haven’t snagged that book yet, but I had also seen snippets of Greenblatt on Shakespeare Uncovered so I thought I’d read Will in the World first.

 The subtitle of the book is “How Shakespeare became Shakespeare.” Greenblatt takes what is known about Shakespeare’s life (not a lot really) and what is known about the historical period and finds links to these facts in the plays and sonnets. What is known is that his father was successful in Stratford up to a point and then fell into debt.Shakespeare had what appeared to be a loveless marriage (he expressly disinherits his wife Anne in his will).  He had three children, his son Hamnet died at about age 12.  He was also a successful businessman, making money at the theater while others failed and invested that money in land back in Stratford.  What we don’t have is any direct communication from him, no personal letters, nothing about himself. All that is left are his literary works.  Greenblatt uses what is known and finds references in his plays and sonnets to show us Shakespeare’s world.

 This book fit well with the book I recently read: Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel.  Her books are set during the reign of Henry VIII and his break with the Catholic Church.  Shakespeare lived during Elizabeth’s reign, during which this transformation was still evolving. Conspiracies against the queen were continually uncovered.  Suspected traitors were tried, brutally executed and their heads spiked on the London Bridge.  What this might have taught Shakespeare was to “keep control of yourself; do not fall into the hands of your enemies be smart, tough, and realistic; master strategies of concealment and evasion; keep your head on your shoulders.”  Greenblatt demonstrates that Shakespeare did all of these things to great success.

 Greenblatt never directly addresses the claims that Shakespeare was not in fact the author of his body of work, but does devote a few chapters about how Shakespeare likely was educated and how he might have started acting and writing.  Greenblatt asserts that his skill for writing for the stage came from being an actor himself.  Shakespeare had a lot of material to draw from: other plays, legends, history books in circulation. He borrowed heavily from many sources, which apparently was the norm.  (not a lot of copyright litigation back then).  What made his work good was that he knew how to write for his audiences.  What may have made them last is that his audiences were not so different than us.

 There’s a lot more, including how Shakespeare evolved as a playwright.  This is a book for people who really like Shakespeare or have a strong interest in Elizabethan culture.  If neither interests you much, don’t read this book.