Shakespeare Saved My Life | Review

14296907Shakespeare Saved My Life by Laura Bates is a re-read for me. This book made me take down lots of notes and had me wondering if I should start marking these passages and keep them safe on an online forum/reading journal. Laura Bates is a Shakespeare professor who teaches at Indiana State University. She entered a correctional facility and started a Shakespeare reading club with inmates. According to her introduction, what led her to this activity, was reading an academic paper from a famous literary scholar, who asserted that Shakespeare’s play Macbeth represented “the ipso facto valorization of transgression.” She set out to prove that “real-life transgressors would disagree.”

Bates starts off by offering inmates the soliloquy of Richard II in prison. She then asks for a written analysis. Depending on what people write, she either continues to work with them, or steps aside.  Some would participate, others would not. Over the years Shakespeare had an influence on some inmates, but none struck so hard a cord as Larry Newton. At first I thought this book focused too much on this one person but then I realized that the book is a memoir written about a person who couldn’t write it himself. I was very intrigued by what choices Bates made regarding the material she started with, and what she focused on, but I was even more interested in what Newton did with the contents of Shakespeare’s works. I got so immersed in his words that many times I forgot that he is someone who would be labelled as extremely dangerous in our society. This book made me think a lot about rehabilitation, and what it means to have committed a crime in the past, incapable to prove that you have grown as a person. I find that readers can often analyze characters on paper in all their complexity but label real humans in society so fast without giving them a chance.

I’ll give an example of something that came out of the reading group from Laura Bates and the inmates. The topic was Macbeth. I studied Macbeth many times in school and it’s one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. In class discussions, we always talk about Macbeth “becoming” a murderer and changing drastically, doing things he was never okay with before encountering the witches. But the inmates say:

“Macbeth was a killer before, they [Duncan and the society] made him into one. He was a soldier.” Before Macbeth was still killing but it was this ‘othered’ enemy, not his best friends. That was the only difference. They also paid close attention to how he killed Duncan:

 “…if Macbeth wanted to kill Duncan in the most efficient, most merciful manner, he would stab him once, through the heart…but he uses two daggers…that’s butchering”

Newton notes that in his moment of guilt Macbeth sees the dagger and the act, not the person. He relates to Macbeth and relates his crimes, explaining how he too sees the act rather than the victim, every time he thinks of it. Then there was an insight on Hamlet, which Newton calls the “prison of expectation”

“Hamlet is chasing honor for his family’s name because that is what was expected of him…His father has returned from the dead not to tell Hamlet how much he loved him, not to apologize for all the times that he worked late. He returned to make Hamlet revenge his death.”

These are just two examples of literary analysis that completely escaped me and my fellow busy students in university. Newton had only Shakespeare to work with. He had time, silence, and could focus on this one thing, while contemplating that he is never getting out, and might never discuss this with anyone else other than Ms. Bates. Many of Shakespeare’s characters are in a form of prison, whether literal or metaphorical, and most are murderers. Newton can understand all those thoughts much better than any one student in first year undergrad can even imagine. I wonder if Newton had had a richer education prior to the crime, how much would his thoughts have differed? If instead of Larry Newton it had been Dostoevsky post-solitary confinement with a larger literary corpus to compare, and philosophers to allude to, how would that differ to my reading experience of this book or to Laura Bates’s discussions?

I enjoyed the ways in which Newton almost looks down on Othello for being unable to see his faults. Newton says:

“no one can make you be anything that is not already you…accepting responsibility for one’s actions is an essential first step toward rehabilitation.”

This book covers the history of Larry Newton, the context upon which Ms. Bates arrives, some problems with the prison system, and discussions on several Shakespeare plays. There are moments when Bates compares what students at the university produce from the same play to what Newton would write behind bars. I found myself almost annoyed, as if I could see the hungover student who wasn’t reflecting, or thinking hard enough on these topics, and remembered that I too was one of them.

There are too many lines in this book that are absolutely breathtaking and notes I’d like to keep, so I created a PDF with some of my favourite quotations. Don’t worry, it’s only one page. I recommend this book if you love Shakespeare and want to learn more about one person, namely Larry Newton, and his reading experience behind bars after spending ten years in solitary confinement. I will leave you with this line from Newton if you don’t get a chance to look at the PDF:

“It is an absolute magic, and the magic has little with what Shakespeare has to say. You can memorize every cool quote and be as clueless as you were before reading. So it is not Shakespeare’s offering that invokes this evolution. The secret, the magic, is YOU! Shakespeare has created an environment that allows for genuine development…Shakespeare is simply an environment that allows us to evolve without the influence of everyone else telling us what we should evolve into. Shakespeare offers a freedom from those prisons! Your mind will begin shaking the residue of other people’s ideas and begin developing understandings that are genuinely yours!…you have nothing to lose but the parts of you that do not belong anyhow”

November Wrap-up


I came across this beautiful line by Emily Dickinson early in the month, and something about it feels right. November is somewhat peaceful and (at least in Canada) holiday-less, which makes it just a calm month. It’s not brutally cold, it doesn’t snow yet, but it’s also not too colourful like early fall, or as vibrant as the summer/spring months. Since October I’ve been feeling the morbid reads and I didn’t feel the need for them to end just because Halloween is over. I kind of like the theme year-round. I tried to read Nonfiction for this month’s Nonfiction challenge, plays, and poetry with less full fictional novels than usual. This month I was lost in the Podcast LIMETOWN.

Books I read for Review

Books I read for Myself

Endgame & Act Without Words by Samuel Beckett 


Maybe I just didn’t have the patience for this…which sucks because I really love Samuel Beckett. I find that an artist has failed in some ways at times when people reading it (according to Goodreads reviews) ask questions like “I’m not sure I get it,” “it’s the same recycled material from his most famous work,” and “I know this is important, but I’m not sure how….I don’t get it.” To which others retort: “you just don’t understand him because your ignorance is showing….*high brow laugh…” Reading it, I felt a little exasperated. I know that it’s what Beckett wants, but it’s not what I want to get out of my reading experience. Maybe he’s one of those people whose intensity comes across from heated discussion, or watching his works be performed live and feeling a tension between the physical presence of the actors, with time to think about it all in your seat because that is your only choice in that time and enclosed space….feeling the grayness of it all. But sitting here in MY space, trying to READ this play was agonizing. …for a person who keeps reminding you life has no point and beginnings and endings are cyclical, it really makes you think: do I want to spend the little time I have on this Earth reading this play?. I just wish it wasn’t so much like Waiting for Godot…I wish it had a different point. Not my favorite….not the worst either. I stand by: Beckett’s plays should be an experience whilst watching them be performed….rather than be read. I think I gave it 3/5 stars if that matters (it doesn’t). 

Origins of a Story by Jake Grogan

34466512This book is amazing! I honestly wish it existed long ago. I’ve read many books varying on writer’s hobbies, habits, and odd sources of inspiration but this tiny book covers 202 of them. I liked that Grogan was succinct. He didn’t go on and on for any specific author. If inspiration for some authors took longer, it only goes on for a page an a half. He gets to the essential part and focuses on his thesis which is: where the inspiration came from. He doesn’t take it further than that….like how they wrote, where they wrote etc. For some authors that is a shame because I wish I knew more, but I was content with how he approached this topic.
My favourite story of inspiration that I didn’t know about what Margaret Mitchell for Gone with the Wind. Apparently her husband was so tired of carrying books to and from the library for her and one day snapped and said: “For God’s sake, Peggy, can’t you write a book instead of reading thousands of them?”
The truth is… the people most likely to pick this up are bibliophiles who have read many novels, love many authors, and know a lot of these stories. For more famous cases you’ll find yourself patting yourself on the back going: “already knew that, 10 points Ravenclaw!”

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty 

19486412I loved this book so much. I felt the need to elaborate on it further, so I wrote a review mixed in with discussion. You can find a link to it HERE.  It has one of those plots that is so intricate and there’s so much to discuss that it either takes some time to properly explain plot and then discuss….or just read it. It’s one of those books perfect for a book club.

Key words for it would be: motherhood, thriller, murder

I would totally recommend this.

House of Fiction by Phyllis Richardson

32938129I read this for Non-fiction November and I received a review copy in exchange for an honest review. This book is very well-researched, though a little dry in parts. It was presented to me as a “reference work” so I anticipated a broader overview of many literary houses with starting points. This is actually an academic work and has a lot of depth/detail on FEW literary houses. Phyllis Richardson takes a few houses that were significant as either the birthplace or writing place of authors, or like the one in Virginia Woolf’s case, the location in which several authors gathered (Bloomsbury group). Richardson discusses several aspects of “the house.” How it looked, what it was like, how the author/writer made use of it, who visited it, and the subsequent artworks that came out of it. There are several interesting chapters that had my attention throughout. I thought there would be more obscure writers, but this author chose big names like The Brontes, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Hardy, Woolf. The reason I’m pointing it out, is because nowadays, people who are a fan of the ‘big book squad’ like the people mentioned would most likely have already seen at least one biopic, one documentary, or one picture of their house. So in that respect I wish less covered artists would have been featured. Needless to say the book is Anglo-centric, but it is called Great “BRITISH” houses, so it’s fair. It’s well-researched.

The Witches: Salem 1692 by Stacy Schiff

28449076A lot of people have recommended Stacy Schiff’s works to me, and I now understand why. I loved this book so much. I started reading this at the same time in October when I was binge-listening to the LORE podcast. It was a great compliment to it. The work looks at the Salem witch trials in an academic/historical way, but written in such an accessible way that it makes you feel like you’re actually there. I loved the accumulation of references made along the way to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, and many other works that refer to the Salem Witch Trials without being completely rooted in truth. She debunks a lot of myths around the stories relating to the Salem ‘witches’ and explains step by step how everything happened. I was surprised to find that even two dogs were killed for being ‘pendle witches.’ I really enjoyed it. It took me two months to read, but I put it down and picked it up on and off. I do recommend this, if the topic interests you.

Sometimes the Magic Works by Terry Brooks 


I was introduced to Terry Brooks via Ted Talk, and it was such a pleasure to hear him talk. I will certainly give the first three books of Shannara a try. I listened to the audio-book of Sometimes the Magic Works, and it did not quite live up to the standards I had for it. I thought it would resemble his talk and go deeper into some of the themes he touched on. I wanted to learn about how he wrote, why he wrote what he did, the process, the feelings, etc. Instead, this was a sort of post-success story. The first hour or so he keeps on repeating how everyone hailed his work as the equal of Lord of the Rings, and how it rivaled Middle Earth. He kind of takes us through the process of talking to his publishers etc. What I couldn’t stand about this book was the comparison with LOTR (every five minutes), and the way Brooks sees himself as some sort of genius that is lost in this other world which somehow justifies him being “out of it.”  I’ve seen many male authors do this thing where they are like: oh I had to ignore my wife and she wouldn’t understand that I was trapped in this other world…I was busy creating…I am so complicated. Guess what? J.K. Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkien managed to create complex worlds beyond this one with depth and wonderful characters and they weren’t rude to the people around them, especially the ones they are meant to love and be close to. When Brooks talks about the way his wife would talk to him about news or anything and he’d just ignore her….blaming it on the craft….that’s when I was done. There are better books out there on writing, and you don’t have to be some outcast, or completely check out in conversations with people. You CAN be a decent human being. I don’t know why this bothered me so much, but I am not going to hold Brooks’s fiction far because of it. Maybe this was just slightly off. I mean again, I’ll give Shannara a try, because I think it probably is a good series, but this particular book was not for me.

2001; A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke

70535I’ve been meaning to read this Sci-fi classic for quite some time. Earlier this year, I read Rendezvous with Rama, and I really enjoyed it. Clarke wrote a short story called “Sentinel” in 1948 which was published as “The Sentinel of Eternity” in 1951. Stanley Kubrick really liked the story and wanted to collaborate with Clarke and make the 2001: A Space Odyssey movie script. Clarke had been working on the book and wanted to publish it before the movie, but the movie was released first, and people saw the book as mere novelization of a film. The work remains a classic nonetheless in the realm of science fiction. I listened to this work on Audio rather than reading the text.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne 

9781509827886journey to the centre of the earth_2_jpg_247_400I had to return to this sci-fi classic when I realized I didn’t own a copy and came across a beautiful edition of it from Macmillan. I wrote an in-depth review of it HERE. Axel (the narrator and main character) a young man, visits his uncle, Professor Otto Lidenbrock, who is an eccentric academic and adventurer. Lidenbrock has recently purchased a manuscript with Runic inscriptions which he and Axel decipher to be a cryptogram indicating  how one can reach the centre of the Earth. Axel is in love with Lidenbrock’s goddaughter Gräuben, who promises to wait for him and marry him if he returns. The two leave and find themselves a guide, Hans Bjelke, who helps them reach their goal. The journey leads them from Germany, to Denmark. In Copenhagen they take a boat for several days which gets them to Iceland where “the centre’s” entryway is located. Walking through the inside tunnels of a volcano the explorers find fossils, interesting rock formations, water, and many other wonders.

The Light Between Oceans by M.L Stedman

imagesThis book was a wonderful experience. I actually spent two months reading it in a personal book club with someone very special to me, and it was the first time in a long time that I read a book at such a slow pace (five chapters per week). The book follows Tom and Isabel who have a difficult past because of the War (WWI) and they fall in love, and move on an isolated island where they take care of a Lighthouse for the Commonwealth. Isabel has three miscarriages and one day, a boat washes up on shore, with a dead body and a living baby. I wrote a much more detailed review HERE. 


The Collector by John Fowles 

18892522The Collector (1963) is so far my #1 read of the year. I love love love it. It was a weird hybrid of John Burnside’s The Dumb House (1997) and Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) both works I enjoyed immensely in the past. The previous two works mentioned had a few things which made them lacking. The first was the amount of “coincidences” that were almost too convenient, and the second were the several homicides…which were also too convenient. Lolita was a child (though cringe-worthy, her age had its literary devices and significance), and Burnside’s woman lead was already abused by so many, that she almost appeared in the story to conveniently produce the main character’s linguistic experiment. Fowles works in this novel with a woman who is a capable adult, and shows us her point of view, as well as that of her kidnapper/oppressor. The plot, if you have not inferred from my rambles, is: a man kidnaps woman who fascinates him and keeps her in a cabin in the woods. It deals with the depths that make men like Humbert Humbert and Clegg the way they are, and why they do the things they do, but without the completion of the sexual act, which makes it ten times creepier for some reason.  There is a lot of complexity to this novel and I will write a proper review very soon. This book deserves a proper analysis. I promise I will be a lot more coherent in my review. It’s already entered my all-time favourites, and I am looking for Fowles’s backlist.