In her novel Blue Shoe, Ann Lamott describes a character readers can be pretty sure the author knew in real life. She says he wants to be a writer, but then corrects herself. She says he wants to be a great writer, but spends almost no time actually writing. Lamott’s incredulity would probably be shared by Jennifer Adams. Adams, who is one of Salt Lake’s more prolific authors and editors, writes books without regard to their—or her reputation’s—immortality. Her topics are drawn from popular culture, with an eye to transforming the inescapable milestones of life that no one really wants to eliminate, but which we all wish could be as pleasant and memorable as they are supposed to be. Weddings and their showers, babies, picnics, and such versatile, mundane materials as cheese and gelatin have benefitted from her sense that unavoidable things don’t have to be dreary. But not for nothing has she divided her time between writing her own books and editing the broad catalog of publisher Gibbs Smith. Adams has a serious—though still not somber—side. One of her books, Remarkably Jane, celebrates Jane Austen, and her new one, which she will be reading from and signing at King’s English bookstore on Thursday at 7pm, attempts nothing less than to make accessible the greatest and, for many, one of the most intimidating authors.
As the title suggests, Y is for Yorick takes an irreverent look at Shakespeare. The jacket stipulates “slightly irreverent,” but irreverence is essential to what makes it worth adding to the already heavy shelf of books on the indispensable poet and playwright. Anyone who knows Shakespeare knows how he uses humor throughout his plays to make their truths approachable. What better way, then, to appreciate his writing without dumbing it down than with a similar approach? Adams’ finds the right level; her wit is neither too dry nor too low to suit this worthy target. Like Gaul, Y is for Yorick is divided in three parts. The introduction explains “Why Shakespeare Still Reigns.” This is followed by thirty-seven alphabetical entries: curiously, and probably not coincidentally, the same number as there are generally accepted to be plays. The source play for each is identified. In the third section, we get synopses of the best-known twenty of those thirty-seven plays.
Quoting from the alphabetical character sketches is possible, but loses much of the fun, which comes partly from the lively typography in which they are printed. In fact, the visual appearance of the book is part of its excellence. San Francisco illustrator Hugh D’Andrade has come up with a variation on his popular, silhouette-based style of graphics, in which a seemingly loose pencil line, such as might have been left over from the original sketches, simultaneously brings the figures to life and comments visually on what the text reveals about them. In The Nurse, for example (“The Nurse was Juliet’s surrogate mother and confidante. Everyone wishes they had someone in their life like the nurse.”), the rapid lines surrounding her substantial form suggest vitality and good humor, while Shylock, on the other hand (“Shylock was a loan shark who got a bad rap for being Jewish. He also had a problem knowing when it was time to let something drop.”), doesn’t really fit his edgy envelope, suggesting being out of place can make a difference while questioning his attachment to the bag of gold he holds aloft.
In the final section, Jennifer Adams springs her trap. The synopses she distills from the complex works whose characters she gently, playfully mocks are straight and as pellucid as a pool of mountain spring water, bringing their stories into focus as few academics could manage. Armed with shared laughter and reinforced with knowledge of what’s really going on, anyone should be able to approach Shakespeare undaunted. And for those already intimate with this great cultural treasure, the pleasure of a fresh take can make the familiar feel as new as it always should.
Jennifer Adams will be at The King’s English in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 24th at 7pm to sign her new book Y is for Yorick. It is available at the bookstore for $14.99.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.