A great week to explore the take-home arts

FALLING FOR HAMLET

I receive for review, a great many more books than we’re able to write about, and I must be truthful, I often set aside books intended for audiences of which I am not a member.

For example, books intended for the teenage girl market rarely get chosen. But I’ve found an exception, and I dare to mention that I really enjoyed reading it, and I might even suggest it to grown ups who are comfortable at reaching beyond the first level of meaning in a work of art. The title is “Falling for Hamlet,” and it is the work of novelist Michelle Ray.

The plays of William Shakespeare are miraculous works of art, which reach into the souls of human beings, and hold them up for us to compare to our own lives and beliefs. I remember a year when I was assigned to teach “Romeo and Juliet,” and I chose to interweave those lessons with Leonard Bernstein’s memorable musical show “West Side Story,” which has almost the identical plot, translated from 16th Century Italy to 20th Century New York City.

Each year there were some students who were adamant that the two plays were totally different. After all, one was about two families and one was about two nationalities. In one the leading characters were Romeo and Juliet, while in the other, they were Tony and Maria. Fortunately, most came to realize the connections, and many eventually told me that the modern work had made believable to them, things which seemed foreign and unbelievable in the original work.

“Falling for Hamlet” does that for what may be the Bard’s greatest play. Granted it is not a work of art in itself, as is “West Side Story,” but all the same, it builds the same bridges, between cell phones and bared bodkins.

The modern book is set in a fictional Denmark, in roughly the modern day. The author suggests in her notes that she has chosen to keep the original names and social ranks, even though they rob a bit of modernity from her plot. The contemporary Queen of Denmark is not named Gertrude, the heir to the throne is not Hamlet, and so on. It’s necessary for the reader to buy into that.

Ray imagines that a handsome young prince of any country would attract the attention of the media. If there were a prince named Hamlet, his on-again, off-again romance with the daughter of his parents’ main advisor, Ophelia would have people on motorcycles, carrying cameras and chasing after her car, even when she went out to have a pizza with her girlfriends, for example.

In order to set up the characters who might be unfamiliar to a reader, especially a young reader, the novel begins earlier, before the murder of the King, by his younger brother. We meet an Ophelia who might be the heroine of any television sit com, who sends text messages in class and is worried about whether her new hairstyle will be panned by the style critics on television.

When Hamlet’s father is murdered, and his mother almost immediately marries his uncle, who he suspects is his father’s murderer, Hamlet begins acting strangely, and Ophelia can’t be sure whether he is actually having emotional problems, or whether he is forming a plot, to avenge his father’s death.

The plot works surprisingly well. Shakespeare’s Ophelia is largely a cipher, a weak character who does whatever she is told by whoever bothers to give her instructions. Ray’s Ophelia is a modern woman, capable of harnessing the press as effectively as Princess Diana did, in real life, for example. Occasionally the modern Ophelia’s whining gets a bit much to bear, but in general, it works. The ending probably won’t surprise anyone – the two works are very similar.

Even if you love the original play and can recite pages of dialogue for your own amusement, there are elements of this simple little book which can make you look at the motivation for various deeds from a different point of view, and surely that is the principal value of reading.

“Falling for Hamlet,” was published by Poppy, which is an imprint of the Little, Brown and Company Publishers, in 2011. It has 348 pages in paperbound edition, and is priced for sale at $8.99. Find it with ISBN number 978-0-316-10162-2.

BALL OF FIRE

I’ve had the biography “Ball of Fire” hanging around in my “not-yet-read” stack, for quite a while, because while Lucille Ball was certainly one of our area’s best-known natives, we have had occasion to write about her and about books about her, many, many times, already.

What spurred me to pick the volume up recently was the need to prepare for the arrival of the musical show “I Love Lucy – Live on Stage,” at 710 Main St., in Buffalo, and the visit to town by 22 members of the company of that show. I now believe I enjoyed and gained from reading that book more than all the others I have read so far, except possibly Desi Arnaz’s autobiography, which he titled “A Book.”

“Ball of Fire,” was written by Stefan Kanfer, who has had a number of other celebrity biographies and cultural histories published, as well. The language of his book is ripe and effectively portrays his narrative, without being pretentious or simplistic. He writes from the point of view of a serious biographer, not as a fan, and while he finds much to admire in Lucy’s life and career, he is neither too in awe of her to consider her humanity, nor too set on toppling a cultural idol to consider the qualities which made her an international celebrity.

“Ball of Fire” begins with1986, only three years before her death, when she was presented with the Kennedy Center Honors – among our nation’s highest honors for people in the arts and entertainment fields. Then it goes back to look briefly at her parents’ backgrounds, followed by her birth, in 1911, in the bathtub of a house on Stewart Avenue, in Jamestown, with her grandmother in charge, as midwife.

Kanfer’s view of Lucy is a well-balanced examination of an individual, some of whose decisions were successful, and some of whose decisions led to disorder and early sorrow. I think his portrayal of the grim years, between her divorce from her first husband, Desi Arnaz, and her death, is the best I have read. Show business is every bit as heartless – sometimes even more so – than any other kind of business, and while the nation was still loving Lucy, corporation after corporation were alternately exploiting her popularity, and trying to get rid of her, because they didn’t value what she was, nor who she was.

There are a few, minor errors which don’t affect the book’s overall effect. Just as one example, it suggests that when Lucy left Jamestown for the first time in the mid-1920s, that it was necessary to drive to Buffalo to catch the train. That’s true today, of course, but certainly wasn’t so nearly 100 years ago, although I wouldn’t know it, if I didn’t live here. Kanfer attributes his subject’s continuing influence to the fact that her shows continued to be filmed in black-and-white when most other shows were being broadcast in living color.

The woman has been credited within the past few months which having created the most successful comedy show in history, and is named as an influence by woman executives and entertainment figures, almost every day. The way in which her programs were filmed may have had some influence on that, but I think there is much, much more at work than that.

If you’re looking for a book which examines the life and the influence of Lucille Ball, rather than one which spends a few hundred pages saying how wonderful she was, this would be an excellent choice.

“Ball of Fire” has 319 pages, in paperbound edition, and was published in 2003 by Vintage Books, a division of Random House Publishers. Find it with ISBN number 978-0-375-72771-9.

PARISIANS

If you love Paris – and who could not love Paris? – you will be delighted to read “Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris,” by Graham Robb.

Robb is British, and has a British sense of humor. He has chosen a series of true stories which have happened in the City of Light, between 1750 and the present day. Interestingly, many of these stories have been borrowed by novelists, composers, and other artists, to be immortalized as the plots of stories, operas, and other, often well-known creations.

Did you know that there is a figure on the west face of Notre Dame de Paris, for example, which is claimed to be part of a historical legend. Located near enough the ground to be easily accessed by visitors to the great cathedral, if its line of sight is followed accurately, it leads one to a house where it has been believed the true Philosopher’s Stone is located. That is a stone which is capable of converting base metal, such as lead, into pure gold.

The house is owned by private citizens, who do not welcome visitors, by the way.

Imagine Marie Antoinette, disguised as a lady’s maid, being escorted out of the Tuilleries Palace in the dark of night, in an attempt to meet up with her husband and children, and to escape from the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution. She and an escort got easily out of the palace, but since they didn’t have a map of the city, and the Queen never traveled without someone driving her around in a carriage, they got lost and wondered around the neighborhood of the palace for a considerable amount of time, in the pitch dark. Had it not been for the long delay in her joining the rest of the family, there is every possibility that the royal family would have escaped from France, and all of modern history might be very different.

Read here the story of the pretty little seamstress who earned a poverty line living, by embroidering flowers on the dresses of the wealthy, who dropped her key on the street, outside the house where she rented a single room, and was rescued by another tenant of the house – a poet named Rudolpho. Oh wait, isn’t that the plot of the opera “La Boheme?” It’s a true story, amazingly enough. But, did you know that dropping a key was a trick, performed by prostitutes as an opportunity to approach men, since they could be arrested and imprisoned or deported if they solicited a customer for prostitution, but no one could accuse them of crime if they dropped a key and a strange man stopped to assist them?

I loved the tale of one Francois Picaud, a handsome and hard working young man who came to Paris from the city of Nimes. Because of his talent as a cobbler, Picaud started a successful and profitable business, and soon was engaged to marry a lovely young woman named Marguerite de Vigoroux. Sadly, he didn’t choose his friends as well as he did his intended.

Four of his friends decided it would be hilarious if they went to the police and testified that they had overheard Picaud giving secret information to a known English spy. The joke was supposed to be that his arrest would make him late to his wedding, and everyone would have a big laugh. Instead, he was arrested, tortured and sent to a fierce and horrible prison, far from Paris, from where it was claimed that no one came back alive.

When the friends went back to the police station to confess their little joke, they were told to forget the entire event and never to return again.

If that sounds something like the plot of Alexandre Dumas’ classic novel, “The Count of Monte Cristo,” that’s because it was the source of the famed plot. How Picaud escaped, gained a vast fortune because his cellmate had hidden the wealth before his own arrest, and eventually returned to have his revenge is probably already in your understanding, if you had the good sense to read the classic novel.

I love these stories, and the fact that with a few minor changes, they have found their way into great literature. Sometimes events in one story will suddenly explain or enhance an earlier story.

“Parisians” was published in 2010 by Picador, an imprint of Macmillan Publishers. It has 436 pages, plus several indices and extensive bibliographical notes. in hardbound edition for $39.10, and in paperback for $13.56. Find it with ISBN number 978-0-330-45245-8.