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Posts tagged ‘literature’

Inspired By Drama: Book Lists Inspired by the Stratford Festival

One of the things we learned as we studied public librarianship in school was the art of the book display, which is a librarian’s way of highlighting books that people might not otherwise think to check out. A similar concept is a book list, which offers up themed reading selections in the same way, but prints out titles and authors on paper instead of constructing a real-world display with physical books. That means it can be posted on the Internet or distributed over multiple libraries; also, a book that gets selected off a book display disappears, but its name is still on the list for people to place on hold.

Often book displays or lists focus on a theme, which can be pretty much anything – ‘Fiction and Fashion’, say, or ‘Spies in Paris’, or ‘Civil War Romance’. A clever librarian will often tie a book display to something that’s popular or topical right now. Here’s an example: there’s a lot of buzz about the new Twilight movie, so a savvy librarian might display on related themes: ‘Vampires in History’ or ‘Paranormal Romance’ or even simply ‘If You Like Stephenie Meyer, You Might Like These’.

(Personally, I’m hoping to one day create an ‘I Would’ve Picked the Werewolf’ book display for readers who think Jacob was a better choice, full of books with strong heroines, sweet love interests, and arrogant creeps who get their comeuppance.)

Today I happened upon a copy of the 2010 Visitors’ Guide for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario. This is a big deal for Ontarians. The Stratford Festival is one of our most popular theatre destinations, featuring a fairly eclectic mix of traditional Shakespearean plays, historical classics, popular musicals, and contemporary shows. And I thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun for a librarian who knows the Stratford Festival is a popular event for her patrons to create a book list based on the Stratford Festival repertoire?” There are so many directions you could take! How about focusing on something specifically related to the Festival as a whole? It could capture the imagination even of patrons who aren’t planning to attend a show in Stratford. For instance:

Shakespeare in Spades – Not just his works, but also fiction and non-fiction about his life and times, or about his characters.
Shakespeare Updated – Ever heard it said that Ten Things I Hate About You is an update of The Taming of the Shrew? Or that somebody is wrapped up in a classic Romeo & Juliet situation? Find a bunch of stories, set in the modern world, that retell traditional Shakespearean plots like “son seeks revenge for the death of his father” (Hamlet) or “controlling man seeks revenge in tropical paradise” (The Tempest). And why stop at Shakespeare – they say Bridget Jones’ Diary is just updated Jane Austen. See what you can find!
The Show’s the Thing – Since preparing a theatrical performance can be as dramatic as the subject matter it’s written about, why not gather together some fiction and non-fiction about the dramatic arts and performance? That could make for some extremely compelling reading.
Theatre Back Then – From Greek tragedy to Elizabethan drama to the Restoration comedy to vaudeville – and beyond – a greater knowledge of how theatre played out in past time periods could enrich the experience of a modern performance . . . or just make a restful backyard escape for the book-lover.

Shakespeare knew drama; let's take a cue from him! (I stole this image from a fellow WordPress user. Click to check out his blog!)

There’s also a possibility of creating not-necessarily-theatre-related displays inspired by the ideas, themes, and characters explored in individual performances. Think about it this way: Why not tailor reading lists around individual performances in ways that might inspire Festival fans to delve deeper into the ideas they’re seeing enacted on stage? Here are some ideas based on Stratford’s 2010 lineup:

As You Like It – “Crossing Boundaries.” This was one of several Shakespearean plays to exploit the comedic possibilities of cross-dressing and gender-bending. How about a scattering of other such instances – fictional, historical, or sociological – in which men dress up as women or women dress up as men? Alternatively, especially if there’s a big romance-novel crowd at your branch, the spotlight could shine on romantic comedy, romance and politics, or secret loves.
Dangerous Liaisons
– “Revolutionary Stories.” This is a racy story based on a nineteenth-century novel that was banned as “an outrage to public morality”. It’s a great opportunity to put the spotlight on banned books or controversial, steamy stories. Not every library is well-suited to controversy, however, so it’s a good thing this is also a period piece. Fiction and non-fiction from around the time of the French Revolution could be a great alternative.
Do Not Go Gentle –
“A Dylan Thomas Collage.” This is a one-man show about Dylan Thomas, and it put me in mind of a different approach. Select a particularly evocative piece of Dylan Thomas’ poetry, and make copies. Then, use that poem as the theme to tie together a display or a book list on Dylan Thomas, his life and times, his works, Wales, whisky, and anything else that matches nicely with the piece of poetry you’ve chosen
“Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina!” Was there ever any better introduction to the country’s politics, history, and culture than Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic? Femmes fatales and powerful women throughout history could also make a great Evita-inspired book list.
For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again
– “Crazy-Making Mothers!” Almost everyone can relate to a mom who sometimes annoys you, sometimes makes you crazy, and loves you always. They’ve been mined quite thoroughly as a source of relatable humour. A book list might suggest some memoirs and stories about relationships between humourously exasperating mothers and their humiliated, humbled daughters and sons . . . or, choose worn-out and bittersweet mother love like that of Angela’s Ashes for a poignant twist.
Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris
– “Musical Living.” Since Jacques Brel was a real musician from Belgium, you might have some books about him somewhere around your library. But even if you don’t, what’s to say you can’t take a closer look at other (fictional and non-fictional) European musicians whose lives would make for compelling reading and compelling dramatic performance?
King of Thieves
– “Dirty Double-Crossers.” It’s a story of corporate crime in the city, so it can easily lead into more stories of criminal dealings in the upper echelons of business and politics, where the stakes are high.
Kiss Me, Kate
“Drama Behind the Curtain!”This famous musical about performing a musical could inspire a book list about musical theatre more broadly. And if you think that sounds boring, well, the same kind of drama and antics you see in Kiss Me, Kate – with bickering co-stars and gangsters looking for loot – can appear in any kind of theatrical performance. Perhaps a behind-the-scenes look at theatre – fictional and non – is in order.
Peter Pan –
“Never-Never Lands.” Fantasylands and fairy tales, whether traditional folk stories or modern adult concoctions, could form the backbone a great book list for this one. And don’t neglect non-fiction if you’ve got any fascinating literary criticisms talking about what those sorts of fairylands symbolize psychologically. That can make really interesting reading!
The Tempest
– “Island Dreams – and Nightmares.” The Tempest takes place on a magnificent island where everything is not as perfect as it seems. Any story that starts off with an island escape and then turns sinister could be a perfect jumping-off point for a Tempest-inspired book list. And since Prospero is a magical wizard, let’s not shy away from supernatural themes here! (An even better idea given the recent popularity of Lost.)
The Two Gentlemen of Verona – “Romance in Black and White.” What stands out most about the Stratford Festival’s imagining of this Shakespearean classic, as far as I’m concerned, is the race politics it’s playing with. By casting black actors in certain roles and white actors in others, the director turned it into a story about a black man in love with a white woman, and his (white) best friend who abandons his (black) fiancee to pursue the white girl. It’s a comedy, but the underlying race issue could make for a compelling collection of reading material.
The Winter’s Tale – “A Child Without A Father.” Could there be any greater drama than a family in which suspicions about illicit affairs leads a man to doubt the paternity of his wife’s baby? It may sound like an episode of Maury Povitch, but the topic has appeared enough times in heart-rending fiction and real-life historical drama to make it well worth considering as a common thread to tie together a reading list.

And the neat thing about these particular sorts of book lists? They don’t depend on the library-going public having seen the plays or even having heard of them. They may be inspired by the Stratford Festival, and they may pique the interests of a patron whose Festival-going experience has made them curious about Argentina or corporate crime or mixed-race romance. But they can also be just as interesting to people who’ve had nothing to do with the Stratford Festival.

It’s all about generating interest. And as a librarian, sometimes all you need to make it happen is a little bit of inspiration. That can come from anywhere.

(To the reader: Let me know if you’d like to see any of these developed into an actual reading list, and I’ll see what I can come up with.)


Brainy Beach-Reading

This blog entry is dedicated to the Zigar family, who graciously hosted us and our friends throughout the weekend and generously offered me the use of their refrigerator.

"Beach Blues" by Mimi McCallum

Picture by Mimi McCallum. Click to check out more of McCallum's warm and evocative artwork.

I spent the weekend in cottage country – Ipperwash Beach, to be exact – and, predictably, when I wasn’t floating on Lake Huron or toasting marshmallows and singing “Sweet Caroline”, I was sprawled out on a beach blanket reading. I wasn’t the only one. As many librarians know, the reading public is drawn to the concept of the beach read: the fun, fluffy fiction that melds reading and relaxing when you’re taking your summer vacation. (Check out some fairly typical recommendations here and here, or hit Google with the search term “beach reads”.)

When you think about a beach read, you’re usually not thinking about a particularly heavy story; hot summer days don’t need bulky clothes, big meals, or dragging stories to weigh them down. They’re usually short paperbacks, easy to rest in your lap or hold up as a shield from the sun. (My selection this weekend was an exception: Stephen King’s Under the Dome weighs about as much as my cat, and doctors have recommended that I avoid lifting it. My cottage-country companions nicknamed it “Under the Tome”.) Beach reads aren’t usually the kind of stories you want to overthink – never mind deeper meanings or profound life lessons. Nobody wants to overheat their brain any more than necessary under the hot July sun.

Or do they?

The hot trend at Ipperwash Beach this summer seems to be all about expanding your cranium. When it comes to fiction, the classics are back in fashion. Instead of the latest crime thrillers and bodice-rippers, I caught my companions stretched out in lawn chairs with Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. It’s rare to think of non-fiction as material for beach reads, but even that was drifting around. I caught friends toting paperbacks about Kantian metaphysics (really!) and perusing the latest issue of Scientific American, with stories on brain research and climate change.

I’ve got nothing against fun, fluffy fiction. Snobbery has no place in librarianship, or in life; you could miss out on great life lessons by assuming there’s nothing you can possibly learn from a James Patterson or Nora Roberts . . . or, for that matter, an episode of The Bachelor. Or maybe there is no great life lesson in store, but it’s just fun to read. That’s okay too. As long as it piques your interest, there’s really no such thing as a bad choice when it comes to reading material.

But if libraries stick to promoting the more traditional beach reads, they’re missing an opportunity to capture the imagination. A beach escape can be a great place for escapist fiction, but it can also be the perfect place to dive into thought-provoking, reflective reading. Recalling the fresh breezes, soft sands, and soothing wave-sounds of Ipperwash, I find it hard to imagine a more perfect place to pick up a book that will get your mind going in all kinds of new and intriguing directions. The beach is a great place to get wrapped up in the classic literature you’ve been dying to peruse, or to learn more about some subject that’s piqued your interest, or to search for some conclusion on a controversial topic you’d like to understand. And if, like many of the people I saw this weekend, you like to alternate your reading with cookouts, campfires, boat rides, and water games, it gets even better. The breaks between reading sessions can help your mind digest and reflect on the material you’ve read and possibly make interesting connections that just wouldn’t surface in the fast-paced environment of the workaday world.

If you love your beach reads as they are, more power to you. It’s your vacation, after all: read what you want to.

But if you’re a reader (or a librarian) who feels stuck in a beach-reading rut, maybe it’s time to stop overlooking the more daunting reads that will get your neurons fired up. Don’t be afraid of paragraphs that might take a bit of re-reading or things you’ll want to pause and reflect upon as you read. Where better to reflect than on the water? Or while you’re looking up at a summer-home sky full of stars you’d never see in the big city?

You might find yourself thinking thoughts you honestly never expected, fired up in a whole new way, and more mentally rejuvenated than you thought your summer vacation could ever get you.

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