Book Review: HAG-SEED, Margaret Atwood’s version of The Tempest

Atwood, Margaret - Hag-SeedHag-Seed
Margaret Atwood

In Hag-Seed, an entry in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, Margaret Atwood reimagines The Tempest. Felix, an artistic director of a prestigious dramatic festival, is pushed out of his post by his second-in-command, Antonio, aided by Sal, the Heritage Minister. Humiliated, he arranges to rent a shanty with no hot water, an outhouse, and unreliable electricity likely illegally diverted from the nearby farmhouse. He takes on the alias “Mr. F. Duke” and settles into a life of anonymity.

Like Prospero in The Tempest, Felix is a widow. He also had a daughter named Miranda, but in Hag-Seed, Miranda died at three-years-old from meningitis. In his exile, Felix begins to interact with her, and when it becomes too real, he realizes he needs a distraction.

Online, he finds a posting for a position as a literacy instructor at a nearby prison. When Estelle, coordinator of the program and his lady of light, interviews him and recognizes him, she agrees to hire him and also allows him to follow his own curriculum–teaching the prisoners exclusively through Shakespeare. Atwood spends some time outlining Felix’s pedagogical methods which are quite interesting. For the book, she researched prison literacy programs, and while I’m not sure if his curriculum has a real life analog, the very fact that such programs exist is hopeful to me.

In the twelfth year of Felix’s exile, Estelle invites him to lunch with news. Tony, now the Heritage Minister, and Sal, now Minister of Justice, plan to eliminate the program, but before their announcement, they are going to come in person to see the play staged by the students in Felix’s class. Estelle is surprised that Felix isn’t more distressed by the news, but internally, he is already developing a plan: he will stage The Tempest and finally get revenge on his nemeses.

As fitting a retelling of one of Shakespeare’s comedies, Hag-Seed is at times humorous and even over the top, especially when it comes to the costumes and staging that Felix develops for his Shakespeare productions. At the same time, it provides such an interesting analysis of the play through the discussion Felix has with his students while teaching. The raps they write to include in the play while interesting thematically read as puerile, though.

With so many prisons in the play, Atwood made an interesting choice in setting the book in a prison. The convicts are interesting foils for Felix, but aren’t fully developed. Though we know why they were convicted, their dubious skills in most cases are not utilized. Furthermore, their motivation to help Felix in the face of the larger risk seems unlikely to engender cooperation in his plan for revenge.

Hag-seed is another name for Caliban, the denizen of Prospero’s prison island, and to be honest, the name of the book is one of the reasons it took me so long to read this book by one of my very favorite authors. The prisoners all identified with Caliban and wanted to be cast in the role, and Felix’s desire for revenge turns him a bit into a monster, but these things don’t seem to justify the title.

Still, the Hag-Seed is an enjoyable read and Felix is a complex character whose relationship with his long-dead daughter is almost more incentive for him than revenge itself, and it is that relationship that must be resolved in the course of the novel. I didn’t think this had Atwood’s typical voice, though I wasn’t necessarily expecting it in a a retelling of Shakespeare, but it did have her typical quality.

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Book Review: GOD LOVES HAITI, the physical and psychological aftershocks of a devastating earthquake

Léger, Dimitry Elias - God Loves Haiti (2)God Loves Haiti
Dimitry Elias Léger

In God Loves Haiti, Natasha Robert, a beautiful young artist who always dreamed of leaving Haiti, married the President when he promised to take her to Italy. In so doing, she left her soulmate, Alain Destiné, who she loved but could not give her the future she envisioned. However, as Natasha was climbing the steps up to the plane that would take her from her home, a devastating earthquake struck Port-au-Prince, destroying much of the city and killing thousands upon thousands of people.

The earthquake changes them all irrevocably, challenging their confidence and leadership, calling into question their faith, changing their career trajectories, and even threatening their very lives. Though Natasha thought she had resolved the love triangle before she left, that, too, was brought to the surface as emotions under the surface came to bear with the force of the aftershocks.

As Léger unravels the story of the lovers, he reveals details of Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake: the overwhelming death and destruction; the overcrowded and at times dangerous refugee camps; the well-meaning, though at times ineffectual, relief workers; the Western governments and United Nations exerting power in exchange for aid (as they did before the earthquake); and the Hollywood star who came to help for absolution.

Although I thought the ending was fitting, I did not care at all for the epilogue and though it was cheap and unnecessary. I was also distressed to encounter the phrase “could care less” as well as multiple typos. Still, I haven’t read many books set in Haiti, and none written by a Haitian. Furthermore, even though I watched news coverage of the 2010 earthquake, I really didn’t get a sense of the complete horror of the aftermath until finishing this book.

Book Review: MIDNIGHT AT THE ELECTRIC, a series of journeys looking for hope

Anderson, Jodi Lynn - Midnight at the ElectricMidnight at the Electric
Jodi Lynn Anderson

For most of her life, Adri Ortiz has prepared to be one of the elite colonists on Mars. She is leaving little behind on earth; her parents died when she was young, and she grew up in a group home in a Miami made unrecognizable by climate change. When she finally receives her acceptance letter, she learns she has a distant cousin, Lily Ortiz Vega, who lives in Canaan, Kansas, not far from the Wichita training center and will be staying with her during training.

Adri, a prickly character, has only two months to train for her mission, but she is drawn into life with Lily and her tortoise, Galapagos, learning for the first time what it feels like to feel secure in the love of a family.

She also finds a journal and a packet of old letters that capture her imagination. Catherine Godspeed, who lived in Lily’s farmhouse during the dust bowl, wrote a journal about the harrowing dust storms, her concern over her little sister suffering from dust pneumonia, and her nascent love with farm hand Ellis, but after Catherine’s journal abruptly ended, and Adri wanted to learn what happened before she left for Mars.

With Catherine’s journal were a series of letters to her mother, Beth, from her childhood friend Lenore Allstock, still living in England and grieving over the death of her brother, Teddy, in the Great War, yet saving money to travel to America to live near Beth.

As Adri learns about these women of the past and how they changed, grew, and forgave over time, she also reflected on her own character and learned how the women intersected with her own history in surprising ways.

The book is filled with journeys of hope, literal and figurative, as women flee from psychological damage and environmental destruction, though it also considers the notion of home and the extent to which it is tied to a certain place.

My favorite sections of Midnight at the Electric were from Catherine’s journals because I thought it was interesting to read about the dust bowl, maybe because I came from Oklahoma and it’s such an integral part of the state’s history. I liked Lenore’s section the least because the cracks in her relationship with Beth never seemed entirely significant to me and the story in her letters wasn’t entirely innovative. Adri’s relationship with Lily as it developed over time was very sweet, but I wish there had been more scenes relating to her training. I realize that Anderson may have chosen to have a tight focus on the women and their relationships, but I had still hoped for more of a sense of Adri’s world outside the farmhouse. Galapagos the tortoise had a subplot that made me cry ugly (though happy) tears.

Given the audience of Midnight at the Electric, the language is conservative and the level of conflict relatively tame, although it does deal with parental conflict, war, and sex. Overall, it was an enjoyable read that combined the three time periods in interesting and unexpected ways, though threading through them all a sense of hope at the end of a fraught and uncertain journey.

Book Review: NO EXIT, an O-M-G thriller

Adams, Taylor - No ExitNo Exit
Taylor Adams

In No Exit, University of Colorado-Boulder art student Darby Thorne, who previously planned on staying on campus for Christmas vacation, instead tries to beat a blizzard coming over the mountains to get home to Utah for a family emergency. Her car, though, is no match for the snow, and she is forced to pull into a small rest area where the only refreshments are coffee and cocoa and the only amenities bathrooms.

Four other travelers have already settled in: Ashley, a talkative younger man with a penchant for cards and magic tricks; Sandi, a bus driver who loves to read mystery novels; Ed, Sandi’s cousin and an alcoholic ex-veterinarian; and Lars, a creepy guy who hovers at the edge of the group.

In her rush to leave, Darby’s forgotten her iPhone charger, and none of the others have one, not that it matters since the mountain rest stop receives no signal. Ashley, though, said he was able to get one bar outside near some sculptures, and Darby decided to try it, desperate to hear news from home.

Disappointed she couldn’t even get a single bar, Darby walked back to the warmth of the rest stop through the parking lot, passing between her car and a van. And, just for a second, she saw a child’s hand holding a bar through van’s back window. Darby hoped she had misinterpreted what she’d seen and went inside, but later made an excuse to return to the parking lot, and her fears were confirmed. A young girl was locked in a wire dog crate in the back of the van.

Darby, who thought of herself as unremarkable and inferior to her younger sister, realized only she could help the little girl since any one of the other people stranded at the rest stop could be the kidnapper. With few resources, no allies, and no way to contact the authorities, if Darby was to rescue the girl, she would have to draw on strength and cunning she didn’t even know she had.

No Exit is a straightforward, oh-my-god thriller. Once I got about a quarter through, I couldn’t put it down, and I stayed up into the wee hours of the night finishing it. It has surprises, twists, disappointments, moments of heroism and moments of sacrifice. If you like mysteries or thrillers with strong female protagonists, you’ll definitely enjoy No Exit.

Book Review: INSURRECTO, revisiting the 1901 Balangiga Massacre

Apostol, Gina - InsurrectoInsurrecto: A Novel
Gina Apostol

Chiara Brasi, a director, has arrived in the Philippines to make a pilgrimage to Samar where her father, Ludo, also a director, filmed his Vietnam War movie, The Unintended. She hires translator and budding mystery writer Magsalin who grew up in the Philippines but relocated to New York to accompany her on the trip.

So that Magsalin might understand the purpose of her visit, Chiara sent her a copy of a script she planned on shooting in Samar herself. Magsalin took issue with the script and rewrote it with what she believed was a more appropriate perspective.

At the center of the scripts lay the 1901 massacre in Balangiga. A village of insurgents or freedom fighters, depending on your point of view, attacked a U.S. army outpost and killed most of the soldiers. In retaliation, the army killed anyone in the region who could bear arms against the U.S.–males older than ten–and halted trade, including the arrival of food. Historians estimate anywhere from 2,500 to 50,000 Filipinos were killed.

Insurrecto imagines Casiana Nacionales, the only female in the historical records surrounding the massacre, as a leader against the U.S. army, organizing the women and facilitating the release of the men who were imprisoned as forced labor. How she and her allies achieve this is actually quite funny and draws on Apostol’s delight in puns and word play. In the fictional account, American photographer Cassandra Stone witnesses the initial attack and the aftermath.

In the context of the novel, some critics saw The Unintended as Ludo’s retelling and critique of the army’s actions in 1901, with similar events and the movie drawing from historical names to identify the characters. It was also in the Philippines that Ludo disappeared from Chiara’s life.

Insurrecto layers the story of the Balangiga massacre, the imagined history of Ludo making his final film and what happened to him, and the interactions between the two women. However, this is all on a shaky foundation as it’s never quite clear who is narrating the book at most moments. Certainly, this is by design. In interviews with Apostol I read after finishing the book, she stressed that the voices of colonized and colonizers were intertwined and their stories could not be told independently. Alone, their narratives would be incomprehensible.

Over and over in the novel, too, events are mediated by lenses of cameras or through mirrors, and it’s particularly interesting how Cassandra poses her photographs which become popular in the United States but also contain misleading implications about relationships and are accompanied by incorrect captions.

How grief informs history and memory and how history (as we know) is written by the victors, echoes throughout the book. Some characters, though, like Chiara’s mother Virginie, crave forgetting, and Virginie refuses to stay in one place, living in sterile hotels devoid of reminders.

I really enjoyed reading about the events of 1901, which I’d not heard about before, and learning about Casiana Nacionales. It might not be a coincidence that this is also the most linear and straightforward part of the novel.

While I very much respected the themes Apostol developed, overall, I didn’t enjoy reading Insurrecto besides this subplot. The chapters were presented out of order with several chapters 1. I’m sure there is a pattern to this, but I am not invested enough to analyze it. Outside of the historical story, I never felt on a solid foundation in terms of the narrator or whether the events were in fact happening or just part of Magsalin’s writing process.

When I was telling my husband about Insurrecto, he said I was too square to like the book, and he might be right. This pushed the boundaries too much for me to ever just relax and take pleasure in the story or the writing, though I certainly applaud Apostol and her risk-taking. I think whether you like the novel will depend on how much you fancy non-traditional narratives. If they are not for you, you probably won’t like Insurrecto. However, if they are something you find pleasing, you’ll probably love the book.