A local tradition since 2005, One Book/One New Paltz will be back this November, and this is your heads-up to get your hands on this year’s selected group read if you think you might like to participate. “We didn’t do it last year, so we lost momentum,” says OB/ONP committee member Linda Welles. “And the previous year it was entirely virtual.”
As with so many cultural organizations trying to keep services and activities alive during the pandemic, this group of volunteers – who work under the combined auspices of the Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz and the Elting Memorial Library – picked up a few new technological tricks and gadgets that will continue to be useful in the future. One Book 2022 will employ a combination of films streamed via Kanopy, live gatherings and virtual discussions; some of the events will be hybrid. That means that a larger number of people can participate, including folks who are homebound or will be too far away during OB/ONP week (November 13 to 19) to attend in person.
Choosing the book of the year is typically an arduous process, with committee members lobbying vigorously for favorite authors or works; but there are certain agreed-upon guidelines, including a page limit. The organizers want to ensure that participants have ample time to read the One Book after locating a copy. The Inquiring Minds bookstore in New Paltz should have a good supply on hand, and offers a 15 percent price discount; Barner Books, a former partner, nowadays only stocks used books. The Elting Library downtown and the Sojourner Truth Library on campus will have some copies, but, according to committee member Myra Sorin, your best bet might be an interlibrary loan, which is “pretty quick.”
For this year’s offering, the committee was keen on picking a title from the Hogarth Shakespeare series: a project initiated by Hogarth Press (now an imprint of Penguin Random House) to commission noted authors to retell the Bard’s plays in novel form in contemporary settings. With The Handmaid’s Tale much in the public consciousness these days due to the US Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, it made perfect sense to choose Hag-Seed (2016), Margaret Atwood’s reimagining of The Tempest. Much of the play’s action takes place in a men’s correctional facility, which made it an especially good fit for readers in New Paltz: As Welles notes, “There are more prisons in this area than is usual.”
Widely regarded as Shakespeare’s farewell to playwriting, The Tempest tells the tale of a duke named Prospero who was deposed in a coup d’état (also a politically timely topic) and exiled to a desert island with his three-year-old daughter Miranda. The story picks up 12 years later, when Prospero – who also happens to be a powerful sorceror – has discovered his enemies sailing nearby and conjured up a storm to wreck their ship onto his island. A romance that develops between Miranda and the son of one of his rivals sidetracks Prospero from his initial quest for vengeance. There are comic characters and some magical ones as well: the sprite Ariel and the “hag-seed” monster Caliban, both of whom are kept in servitude until the exiled duke’s schemes are ripe.
While Atwood’s best-known works are dystopian fantasies, Hag-Seed is set in modern-day Canada and actually has fewer fantastical elements than the play that inspired it. The protagonist, Felix, a theater festival director ousted by his colleagues, has conversations with his dead daughter, also named Miranda, but she’s more an imaginary friend than a spirit. Angry and humiliated, Felix is lying low in a rustic shack, teaching English Literature courses to prison inmates under an assumed name and dreaming of revenge against the administrators who stole his job and whose stars are rising, professionally and politically.
The former director’s Shakespeare class, in which the convicts get to adapt the lofty language of the Bard into street vernacular, act out plays and record them on video, becomes such a successful model within the prison system that Felix’s old enemies, not knowing who he really is, decide to pay an official visit – thus providing an opportunity to have them at his mercy. “He uses the play in the prison to take revenge on these two men who ruined his life,” Welles explains. “But the story is more about the way putting on Shakespeare plays affected the prisoners, and the relationships among the prisoners.”
Part of the OB/ONP program this year is a selection of filmed versions of The Tempest, or movies inspired by it, some of which can be viewed via Kanopy and some on DVDs that can be borrowed from the two participating libraries. (You’ll need a Mid-Hudson Library System card to get them from Elting or SUNY New Paltz borrowing privileges to access them via Sojourner Truth.) Two of the films will have live screenings, followed by facilitated group discussions: Julie Taymor’s 2010 opus Tempest, starring Helen Mirren as Prospera, and Shakespeare behind Bars (2005) a documentary about an actual production of The Tempest performed by inmates at the Luther Luckett Correctional Facility in Louisville, Kentucky. The other two movies featured in OB/ONP are Paul Mazursky’s Tempest (1982) and Derek Jarman’s The Tempest (1979).
One Book week kicks off with its traditional Community Book Discussion and Brunch hosted by Bill Strongin, rabbi emeritus of the Jewish Congregation of New Paltz. Other scheduled events include the Academic Panel, this year featuring SUNY New Paltz professors Cyrus Mulready (English), Jerry Persaud (Digital Media & Journalism, Latin & Caribbean Studies) and Anne Roschelle (Sociology). “The Academic Panel is always my favorite part of One Book, with people coming from different disciplines discussing the book through a lens unique to their field,” says Welles.
Additional scholarly presentations include one focused on Aimé Césaire’s A Tempest, an adaptation that makes Caliban the protagonist and deconstructs the story as a meditation on colonialism; a discussion titled “Plays in Prisons/Prisons in Plays;” and another that provides an overview of adaptations of The Tempest over the centuries, including contemporary versions aimed at children and youths.
To see the full schedule, including locations for live events and links to access Zoom discussions or download films, visit www.newpaltz.edu/benjamincenter/events/one-book-one-new-paltz.