One genre I personally find fascinating is the “new look at classics” book: modern writers looking at Shakespeare, for instance, or creating backstories for neglected characters in famous books (e.g., Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, telling the story of Rochester’s first wife in Jane Eyre). We have a couple of new books at the Field in this genre, and if you’re interested in seeing something familiar with new eyes, they’re worth checking out.
Lots of people know Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni (especially after the movie, Amadeus, featured it); fewer people know the librettist for the opera, Lorenzo Da Ponte. However, Sent to the Devil by Laura Lebow should remedy that omission, and give readers a new insight into Da Ponte and his world (this book, I shouldn’t even need to add, also fills the category of “Read a Historical Novel set before 1900” for the 2016 Reading Challenge). As Da Ponte puts the finishing touches on the libretto for Don Giovanni’s premiere performance in Vienna, the world around him spirals into chaos. The emperor is off fighting a very unpopular war against the Turks, and people in Vienna are either protesting the war or seeing dangerous Turks everywhere. Closer to home, Da Ponte has been receiving cryptic but vaguely disturbing messages in a strange code which he has no idea how to decode, and then his close friend, Alois, is murdered and strange symbols are carved into his forehead. Da Ponte agrees to help the police try to solve the murder, only to discover that it is the tip of a proverbial iceberg and there’s more going on than he imagined. Will he help solve the crime? Will he figure out the coded messages and discover who’s sending them? Will the performance of Don Giovanni go off without a hitch? Come and see the world of backstage and behind the scenes in the classic era of opera in Vienna.
Shakespeare’s King Lear is one of those plays that tends to inspire modern writers. Not too long ago, Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres took on the archetypical plot and characters, and Christopher Moore examined the story from the point of view of the fool in his Fool, some years ago (not entirely successfully, in my opinion; Moore’s gift is for humor and there’s precious little humor to be gleaned from this play). Now we have the new book, Even in Paradise, by Elizabeth Nunez, which takes King Lear to Trinidad, Barbados and Tobago (come on, don’t you just want to read it based on that alone?). Like King Lear, the Trinidadian widower Peter Ducksworth wants to avoid strife arising from the distribution of his property. Like Lear, he has three adult daughters among whom he wants to distribute the property, and, sadly, like Lear, he makes the fatal mistake of shorting his youngest daughter in favor of his two older daughters, and all the strife he tried to avoid catches up with him and his family. Elizabeth Nunez brings in issues of race and post colonialism and the history of the Caribbean to this multicultural take on King Lear, bringing new insights into both the Shakespeare story and modern family dynamics.