Ithaca: A Novel of Homer’s Odyssey by Patrick Dillon

This retelling of the Odyssey gives Telemachus more voice than ever before.


Homer’s Odyssey recounts Odysseus’s 10-year journey home from the Trojan War, to where his wife and son await him. His adventures along the way take center stage. Ithaca, Patrick Dillon’s retelling, resets that center to the son. With substantially more insight into Telemachus than readers have had before, this version also offers a more fallible Odysseus, with all the drama and yearning of the original.

Dillon remains true to Homer’s setting, but the novel is told in Telemachus’s voice, and the weighty absence of a father he never met defines his existence. At 16, he worries over his role and responsibilities, and his inability to protect his mother: he has no one to teach him how to fight. These interior workings bring Odysseus’s iconic son to light as a nuanced and fully formed character. When the wise warrior Nestor assigns his daughter to be Telemachus’s traveling companion, the story gets an appealing twist: Polycaste is headstrong and capable, and her friendship has much to offer Telemachus. The gods are less present this time around; Telemachus is openly dubious. Veterans of the Trojan War roam Greece as bandits and vagabonds.

Though only slight details are changed, Ithaca is a vibrant and fresh revival; Telemachus’s struggles are illuminated through the use of his own voice. The well-loved classic is present: Penelope is beautiful, determined, fading; the suitors are shocking; Menelaus and Helen fight bitterly; the aging Nestor tries to guide Telemachus true. Dillon’s achievement is in characterization while retaining the heart and passion of Homer.

This review originally ran in the July 8, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Rating: 8 arrows.

The Whale: A Love Story by Mark Beauregard

Careful research supports this story of a love affair between Hawthorne and Melville that birthed a classic.

the whale

In 1850, Herman Melville was in debt and struggling professionally, particularly with the novel-in-progress he was then calling The Whale. That summer, on a family trip to the Berkshires, he met the older, successful author Nathaniel Hawthorne, and began a relationship that would be passionate and painful, fraught and inspirational. Mark Beauregard explores the intimate friendship between these two literary legends in The Whale: A Love Story.

Based on primary sources including letters and journals, and meticulously researched, this novelization follows the historical record closely, as detailed in an epilogue. Hawthorne’s letters to Melville, lost to history, are re-created here using his other letters and journal entries; Melville’s letters to Hawthorne, however, are reprinted faithfully (with few, documented exceptions). Melville dives deeper into debt to move to the Berkshires and be near Hawthorne. As they discuss cerebral, spiritual and literary matters, grow close and suffer estrangements, Beauregard charts a full-blown love affair. In this telling, Moby-Dick is a labor of love and obsession directed not at a whale but at a man. Melville’s novel (which was dedicated to Hawthorne) continues to compel and confound readers today, and The Whale: A Love Story offers one possible explanation for its tortured mysteries.

In Beauregard’s fittingly emotive account, Melville is preoccupied and fervent, and Hawthorne is changeable, by turns sensitive and cool. Set against a literary community that helped define American letters of the time, this high-spirited story evokes a singular relationship and the complexity of Moby-Dick.

This review originally ran in the June 17, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Rating: 7 flashes of lightning.

iDiOM Theater presents Hamlet

My third visit to iDiOM Theater, and I would love to be able to say it won’t be my last. It will be my last, because I’m moving away; but I have seen nothing but outstanding performances (one, two) here, and it will be a loss.

hamlet2Confession: I’m not sure I’ve seen Hamlet performed before, and I’m not sure I’ve read it, although I think I did, in high school. The story feels familiar, of course, but I could have gotten that through osmosis. Because I haven’t seen many Hamlets, I’ll defer to my parents, who have seen a number of them, including two or three in a single recent summer: they agree that this is the best Hamlet they’ve ever seen.

From the theatre’s website:

While retaining Shakespeare’s language, director Heather Dyer has abridged Shakespeare’s text to focus on Hamlet’s “struggle as a lost young man whose foundation has been completely shattered” and reducing the emphasis on the international political machinations between Denmark and Norway, giving prominence to the emotional conflict and relationships within the Hamlet family and court. (This edit also reduces the running time to more like two-and-a-half hours instead of the typical four.)

This works very well: two-and-a-half is probably long enough for most of us, and it was dynamic throughout. I’m typically more stimulated by interpersonal and emotional stories than international political ones, myself. The website also makes reference to modern set and costuming, but I have to say that these were quite invisible: both were so modest as to entirely disappear, and by that I mean that the incredibly fine acting outshone everything else. (This is a good thing.) Wonderful things can be done with set and costuming, certainly, but I really think these should be bonuses, not at all requisite to awesome theatre.

The lead is played by Matthew Kennedy, and he was spellbinding. The monologues are at the heart of this work, of course, and he pulled them off perfectly: dramatic but not overly or falsely so, and with all the facial elasticity to make it real. The acting was all-around very good. I enjoyed Ophelia (Nan Tilghman) and Polonius (Jeff Braswell) especially – Braswell’s Polonius was delightfully hilarious, taking full advantage of the script. What a play! I had forgotten (or maybe never fully appreciated) how good this play was, not that I’m surprised; Shakespeare’s genius is timeless. This has all the tragedy and the comedy.

iDiOM continues to please with a tiny, intimate theatre* and professional-level acting that is also, discernibly, community-based. A few actors fumbled a few lines. I can handle it. Hell, I may find time to go see this play a second time. That should be review enough. Congratulations again, iDiOM.

Rating: 9 facial expressions.

See the theatre’s website for details on the new space: this is the last play in the tiny, intimate one I’ve enjoyed. I’m sure new space will bring new wonders for this talented group, though.

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler successfully reinterprets The Taming of the Shrew in a modern, pleasingly nuanced novel.

vinegar girl

Vinegar Girl is the third in Hogarth Shakespeare’s line of retold classics by the Bard (The Gap of Time, Shylock Is My Name). Anne Tyler’s delightful, clever novelization sets The Taming of the Shrew in present-day Baltimore, Md., holding faithfully to Shakespeare’s plot and concept but presenting far more complex characters, with absolutely charming results.

Kate is 29 and lives with her absent-minded microbiologist father, Dr. Battista, and her younger sister, pretty and air-headed Bunny. She serves as housekeeper and chaperone, not that they appreciate her efforts. She also works at a preschool, where the kids adore her but the adults have trouble with her sense of humor. Her real passion is gardening. As Vinegar Girl opens, Dr. Battista faces a problem: his gifted foreign assistant, Pyotr Cherbakov, is in the U.S. on an extraordinary-ability visa that’s about to run out. Dr. Battista feels sure he’s on the verge of a breakthrough, but he needs Pyotr to be able to stay a little longer. The reader realizes well ahead of Kate that what her father has in mind is an arranged marriage.

The prickly Kate feels she’s been taken advantage of long enough; she finds Pyotr pushy, and she isn’t looking for a husband, anyway. Kate repeatedly corrects him: she is not a “girl” but a “woman.” As she sees more of him, though, it appears that some of his awkward heavy-handedness may be related to his difficulties with the English language. And her father’s plan to satisfy the immigration authorities doesn’t mean she’d have to be married forever…

Vinegar Girl‘s modern setting and language enliven a classic tale of controversy and gender politics. The novelistic form illuminates the inner workings of Shakespeare’s characters, revealing attractive nuances. Tyler’s Kate is more soft-hearted, and a view of her inner workings exposes her insecurities. This Kate is quite sympathetic in both senses of the word: she empathizes with her eccentric father and the homesick Pyotr, and calls upon the reader’s sympathies. Pyotr is awkward and lonely, but appealingly smitten by Kate’s independent nature. Even Dr. Battista (despite his objectionable motives) and the maddening Bunny are revealed as intricate and ultimately likable characters.

Readers unfamiliar with The Taming of the Shrew will have no problem enjoying this novel, which is funny, fun-loving and uplifting. Those who know the original well will be intrigued by Tyler’s riffs: Is the new Kate less shrewish, or simply better characterized, her motives and anxieties better understood? In either case, the surprising ending, which deviates from Shakespeare’s in important ways, makes for a heartwarming conclusion to a quirky, timeless tale.

This review originally ran in the May 23, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 8 servings of meat mash.

National Theatre Live at the Pickford presents Les Liaisons Dangereuses (2016)


I am so glad this is a text format and I don’t have to try to pronounce this title for you.

NT Live always does an amazing job, and Les Liaisons Dangereuses is no exception. The play by Christopher Hampton is based on the 1782 epistolary novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, and I came in with little prior knowledge of either play or novel: I did see a certain 1999 Hollywood movie based on the same plot, which I’m a little embarrassed to admit, but that’s the background I had coming in. And actually, the feel of the thing was recognizable, although the sumptuous costuming of NT Live’s period-appropriate version was a decided improvement.

In brief: this is a very sexual and sexy play. I find the Pickford‘s plot summary too perfect not to simply repost here.

Former lovers, the Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont now compete in games of seduction and revenge. Merteuil incites Valmont to corrupt the innocent Cecile de Volanges before her wedding night but Valmont has targeted the peerlessly virtuous and beautiful Madame de Tourvel. While these merciless aristocrats toy with others’ hearts and reputations, their own may prove more fragile than they supposed.

It is a story of sex, power, gender politics, revenge and spite. I have said before that the NT Live screenings sometimes come with too much exposition – that is, speechifying before the play and during intermission – but in this case I enjoyed and benefited from the background. Playwright Hampton makes some interesting points about the original being a feminist novel; I saw this interpretation in his strong female star, who may not be always likeable but certainly knows her own mind, and works with great awareness against the confines of her society.

This is more than a simple soap opera of who slept with whom and who was angry about it. Although I think it works, and titillates, on that level, I found it rather more political than shallow. And visually gorgeous, and emotive, and affecting; and as always with NT Live, the acting was outstanding and the cinematography perfect. Sorry, I’m raving again. But again, catch some NT Live if you can!

Rating: 8 letters.

movie: Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

breakfastFinally got around to the movie! This 1961 adaptation of the Truman Capote novel was an enjoyable visual and emotional experience – not quite the same feat the novel achieved, but what else is new? Perhaps the main point – not that you didn’t know it – is that Audrey Hepburn is a doll. Movies this old generally feel slow-paced to today’s audiences, and while this was true here, the appealing visuals – Audrey, as well as historic New York – and intrigue of the story were plenty engaging for me. Husband went to bed before it was over, though. I wonder if it would have been more interesting if he had also read the book first.


It should not be surprising that the gender roles of the time were hard to watch sometimes, but again, what’s new. There were a few twists from the story Capote wrote (that’s why they call it an ‘adaptation’), but I felt that the feeling was faithful. Holly Golightly is an airhead, a dingbat, obnoxiously needy; but on another level, surprisingly self-aware and conniving, even wise. This is what I interpret O.J. Berman means when he calls her a “real phony.” The emotional effect of this character – dingy, ditzy, defiant, vulnerable, both an object and the vehicle of her own existence, both stupid and clever – is the strongest element of the film, despite certain weaknesses. For example, Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi is obviously, cringingly racist to today’s eyes. It can be hard to reconcile these things. But there it is; I watched the movie anyway.

This is a historic and iconic adaptation of a fine novella, and well worth viewing.

Rating: 7 cigarettes.

movie: Les Misérables (2012)

You know the title, of course. It began as a novel by Victor Hugo in 1862, with the original (French) version coming in somewhere near 2,000 pages long: fewer in English, but no, I have not read this one. (I listened to the audiobook of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Also long.) It became a sung-through Broadway musical to great success (Wikipedia says it was the second-longest-running musical in the world), and I am now reviewing the 2012 movie, which I saw at home with Husband and Pops, courtesy of our local library.

I was pretty unfamiliar with the story: I read a quick synopsis online just before viewing. It wasn’t hard to follow, though. I’ll make it extra quick for you, since there are plenty of plot summaries out there and you may already know it, anyway. In 1815 France, Jean Valjean is finally released from a 19-year forced-labor sentence for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister, nephew and self. He is, unsurprisingly, resentful. He violates parole and disappears, reappearing to us some years later as a good man, mayor and factory owner who cares about the people he holds power over. Inspector Javert, who knew Valjean as a prisoner, continues to seek him out, hoping to hold him responsible for the crime of skipping parole. Valjean’s continued attempts to do good do him no good. He adopts the orphaned daughter of a local citizen, and goes on the run with his newly formed family. The evil innkeeper & wife who had been fostering the girl repeatedly offer comic relief from an otherwise tragic and horrifying plot. The story’s central conflict crescendos with the Paris Uprising of 1832.

This movie is packed with stars: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfriend (one of the ditzes from Mean Girls), Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat), Helena Bonham Carter, and Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl). Samantha Barks plays a beautiful Éponine. The imagery is gorgeous; all the costuming, scenery, etc., and of course all those beautiful people. I found the story evocative. And the singing! Who knew Crowe, Jackman, Hathaway, et al had such voices on them? The music was rousing and emotive: it’s not hard to see why the Broadway show did so well.

Am I inspired to read ~1500 pages of English-translated Hugo? No, not just yet. But I will gladly see a stage production of this musical story. It was a great and involving time.

Rating: 8 loaves of bread.
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