Hi-Ho The Glamorous Life: Why “Songs of Hestia” Should Be on Your Summer-Reading List

Marissa Skudlarek, en route to her own vacation, imparts some advice for summer reading.

Songs of Hestia, the first book of plays from the San Francisco Olympians Festival, has just been released! Our friends at the EXIT Theater (whose publishing arm, EXIT Press, produced the book) threw us a lovely book-release party on Thursday night, where we drank champagne cocktails in honor of the five playwrights whose work is featured in the book. Find it on Amazon.com or at local bookstores.

All right, full disclosure: I copy-edited Songs of Hestia and also wrote the introduction. So if you pick up a copy, you’ll see an essay in which I attempt to say various erudite and analytical things about the plays in the book. But, I realized, my introduction may not fully convey just how fun these plays are. So consider this blog post a less formal introduction to Songs of Hestia. Even if you don’t normally read plays, you’re likely to find that this book has something for you. If you fit into any of the following categories, Songs of Hestia should definitely go on your summer-reading list.

Do you love reality TV and Hollywood gossip? Does “beach reading,” to you, mean a sexy Hollywood novel or the latest Us Weekly? Did you start watching reality television when Survivor aired twelve years ago, and never looked back? Are you (perhaps guiltily) fascinated with the lives of the men and women who appear on reality shows? If so, you’ll love Nirmala Nataraj’s Aphrodite: A Romance in Infomercials. This play tells the story of Psyche Pendleton, former reality-TV sweetheart and current infomercial star. There’s quippy dialogue and a “Dr. McDreamy” love interest, but also a thoughtful exploration of Psyche’s, well, psyche. This far into the reality-TV era, we’re wised-up enough to know that what we’re watching isn’t really “real” – it’s been manipulated and massaged by producers. So how does that affect the stars of these shows? Psyche may be a fictional character. But there’s truth – there’s reality – behind her story.

Are you a current-events maven? Maybe you’re the kind of person who prefers to read nonfiction dealing with current events, especially foreign affairs, business, or finance. You always have a copy of The Economist stuffed in your briefcase or purse. But it may be harder to get you to read fiction or drama, because you find the real world so fascinating and complex that you don’t want to spend time reading a made-up story. Well, I urge you to make an exception in the case of Bennett Fisher’s Hermes. While all of the characters in the play are fictitious – and the cast list includes the gods Hermes and Hestia – this play is tied to current events in a way that theater rarely is. It’s based on the origins of the Greek debt crisis in early 2010, and, as Fisher notes, “any similarity to real persons or events is entirely intentional.” Oh, and there’s also “bro” humor in the play. Lots of it. Somehow I don’t think you’ll find that in The Economist.

Are you eagerly awaiting Series 3 of Downton Abbey? Are you an Anglophile who loves fiction by the likes of Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot and Thomas Hardy? Do you adore Downton Abbey for its upstairs-downstairs plotlines and its willingness to mention what the Victorians never did, like secret homosexual liaisons? If so, you will love Hera, or Juno en Victoria, by Stuart Eugene Bousel. The Hera of this play, like Countess Cora, is a loving mother to a marriageable young daughter. She also has a tart-tongued spinster sister, Hestia, who could give Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess a run for her money when it comes to acidly quotable lines. Add in two handsome young men – one rich, one poor – and a housemaid as capable and intelligent as Downton Abbey’s Anna, and you have the perfect recipe for Victorian country-house intrigue, with a modern twist. (Would Charlotte Bronte ever have dared write, “It’s all right, Hebe. I know what sex is. And your aunt has read about it”?)

Do you love female-centric historical fiction? These days, women are buying and reading more literary fiction than men are, so it’s no surprise that books that look at different historical eras from a woman’s point of view often become bestsellers. Maybe you are one of the readers responsible for the popularity of novels like Kathryn Stockett’s The Help or Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl. Shift your focus to the late 1940s with Claire Rice’s Demeter’s Daughter, set in Greece after their bloody civil war. Its all-female cast includes Louisa, a young widow who seeks solace and compassion, and the three goddesses she encounters: Hera, Hestia, and Demeter. The play explores many facets of womanhood: what it means to be a wife, a mother, a survivor left behind after men die in battle. It is a deeply moving story; certain lines brought tears to my eyes as I copy-edited the play. That doesn’t usually happen to editors.

Are you a science-fiction buff? It’s cool these days to be a nerd or a geek, and if you are, you have lots of sci-fi movies and books to choose from. You also know that science fiction isn’t just an escapist fantasy – instead, it uses speculative tropes to explore meaningful themes. So why aren’t there more sci-fi plays? Well, Evelyn Jean Pine is attempting to remedy that. In Hephaestus and the Three Golden Robots (see? Robots!), Hephaestus has created three beautiful androids to help him with his work in the gods’ smithy. Meanwhile, the titan Prometheus has discovered the secret to making artificial life – and created the human race in the process. Thus the stage is set for an exploration of what it means to be human, as opposed to an immortal or a robot. And hey, my sources tell me that a little movie came out last weekend that has an android in it and speculates about the origins of human life. What’s it called, again? Oh yeah – Prometheus.

Marissa Skudlarek copy-edited and wrote the introduction to Songs of Hestia. Also a playwright and arts writer, she can be found at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

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