Monday, December 19, 2016

To Read or Not to Read

Don't Read This...

Hamlet, Prince of DenmarkHamlet, Prince of Denmark by A.J. Hartley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In this book, a Shakespeare scholar (Hartley) and former journalist (Hewson) have novelized the story of Hamlet for modern audiences. 'Tis a noble effort, I suppose… reminding me of an iPad app for cats, with lots of sudden, random movement.

Before the play-within-a-play begins, in the space of seconds, Hamlet punches a stone wall, sings and dances maniacally. Seemingly, the young prince is always moving forward, not backward; upward, not forward; and always twirling, twirling towards freedom. (Apologies to the Kang character in “The Simpsons”). The action is so compressed here that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive from half the known world away to appear in the king’s court within hours of being summoned. This takes two months in the actual play.

The avuncular Polonius becomes a scheming political operative. Think Kevin Spacey in “House of Cards.” In this book, Ophelia carries Hamlet’s love child and is subsequently murdered by the traditionally minor character Voltimand, upon whom the authors have bestowed Sicilian mob ties. Hamlet – think Tom Hanks in “Captain Phillips” -- battles menacing pirates. And then there’s the plot twist of “A Beautiful Mind,” where a main character Russell Crowe thought existed in real life turns out to be only the figment of Hamlet’s imagination.

The famous soliloquies are only hinted at here. So, in the end, it’s easy to smugly dismiss this as “Shakespeare without the poetry”… a tale of sound and fury, signifying nothing. But it has enough elements of Entertainment Weekly magazine in the plot to ensure the failure of any student using this text as a replacement for actually reading or seeing “Hamlet.”

So I give it three stars for that.

Read This Instead...

Born to RunBorn to Run by Bruce Springsteen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Hamlet” wasn’t the first Hartley/Hewson book I tried to read. Months ago, I started reading their take on “Macbeth,” but couldn’t finish it.

“This is a bloody disaster,” I thought at the time – but then, in fairness, decided to give the authors another shot since, existentially, that’s precisely what “Macbeth” is.

So I read “Hamlet” while waiting for the Audible version of Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, “Born to Run,” to become available earlier this month.

Now that I’ve finished listening to Bruce narrate his life story in a little over 18 hours (or about “five concerts,” in Springsteen time), I have to say his life has more relevance to me than Hamlet’s, and Mr. Springsteen is a better writer than Hartley, Hewson and me combined.

Worthy reads, all
I’ve found this to be the case with lots of successful performers – Amy Schumer, Steve Martin, Carly Simon, even, god help me, Rob Lowe. These are all wonderful writers and storytellers, and they all became “famous overnight” by working for many years at honing their craft, performing without a net and cultivating a keen self-awareness along the way.

Springsteen’s story is full of bombast, just like all his best songs. He isn’t Shakespeare, and he doesn’t try to be. His performance here is unnervingly honest and more than occasionally poetic. Struggling young musician, ego-centric band leader, loving father and friend, sympathetic wrestler of demons of hereditary depression… he describes what it’s like to rehearse “Tumbling Dice” with the Rolling Stones in close quarters, or perform for hundreds of millions of people at the Super Bowl, or struggle to find solace and meaning in his turbulent relationship with his dad.

He also describes the late-in-life phenomenon of spontaneously bursting into tears at odd moments.

I know what that’s like. It happened to me once while commuting home on Route 287 when the radio unexpectedly started to play a song that reminded me, full-throttle, to show a little faith… there’s magic in the night.

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