Monday, May 26, 2008

My Shakespeare Challenge

I’ve been out of touch with blogging lately, just a lot going on, but that didn’t stop me from reading. I have completed the Shakespeare Challenge – my first ever challenge. I'm so proud!

I only read one of the books on my original list. It seemed like every time I headed into a bookstore there was another new book about The Bard and his times that jumped off the shelf into my hands. And the local library was equally distracting.

I’ve already reviewed the first book I read, Interred with their Bones below. Not one of my favorites although the author shows promise. My other reads were much more to my liking.

The Lodger Shakespeare: His Life on Silver Street by Charles Nicholl
The author completed a prodigious amount of research to examine Shakespeare’s time though the life of his landlords. During two years at the height of his success (1603-1605) Shakespeare rented a room in the home of the Mountjoy family, French Huguenot immigrants in the clothing trade. The family was well known for its designs for a “tyre” – an elegant circular headdress popular with women at the time. The patriarch of the family was a stingy, promiscuous man who used Shakespeare to persuade his apprentice to marry the family’s only daughter, only to renege on the promised dowry. Shakespeare is called upon to give a legal deposition in a lawsuit brought by the son-in-law, thus the link with the family is verified.

Nicholl’s research is extensive – the last 100 pages of the book are the Appendix, which contains the text of Shakespeare’s deposition, almost 45 pages of footnotes and a detailed Index. Yet for such a detailed non-fiction book, it was anything but dull. I found myself staying up a little later at night to finish a chapter that I was engrossed in. I got this from the library but will probably buy it when it comes out in paperback. I gave it a 4 out of 5.

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt
Another non-fiction book that was an excellent read. At first I was a little put off by the constant use of “maybe”, “could have”, “possibly”. But then I realized that supposition was necessary because so little is truly knoknown about Shakespeare’s life, particularly as a child and young adult.

Greenblatt makes a good case for his hypotheses, however, because of his knowledge of events in the Elizabethan era. If a festival is known to have been held less than 10 miles from Avon with certain celebratory exhibitions and some of Shakespeare’s plays have similar gala events, then it is likely that Shakespeare attended the festival – or knew someone well who did.

Coincidence is not a good explanation for so many of the similarities between actual Elizabethan and Jacobean events and scenes in the plays. Some of the relationships seemed a bit of a stretch, but, all in all it was also an excellent read. I give this book a 4.5 out of 5.

The Book of Air and Shadows: A Novel by Michael Gruber
This was the novel that Interred with Their Bones wanted to be. But then Michael Gruber is a much more experienced author.

The story is told from the point of view of two very different men – Jake, a wealthy, self-indulgent attorney who specializes in Intellectual Property law and Albert, a would-be film maker/slacker who works at a antiquarian book dealers and lives at home with his mother. They each separately get involved with a possible missing Shakespeare play, two intriguing mystery women, Russian and Jewish gangsters and, eventually, each other.

Albert helps the co-worker that he has a crush on “save” several books with water damage from a fire. She finds letters used as padding in the book covers that appear to be letters written during the Elizabethan era that may reference an unknown play by Shakespeare. They sell the pages to a disgraced Shakespearean scholar (he authenticated a “lost” Shakespeare manuscript that turned out to be a forgery). The scholar gives Jake a package to hold for him and then the scholar is viciously tortured and killed.

Are the letters forgeries or the real thing? Is there really another play? Who are these huge men dressed in black driving black SUVs who keep showing up and shooting up the place? Eventually, everything is connected, in more ways than expected. It was a thick book – almost 500 pages, but none of the story could have been edited out to make it shorter – it was that tight and well written. I give this book 4.5 out of 5

I had intended to be a bit scholarly in my choice of reading for the challenge, after all I did minor in English literature in college, and I did start three of the books on my original list, but I got sidetracked.

A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 (P.S.) by James Shapiro
This is an interesting book, and the detail is unbelievable. After all, it’s over 400 pages about one year. I intend to finish this book since it is well written, just more information that I could process at the time.

Shakespeare by Allardyce Nicoll
This is a British book, part of the Home Study Books series originally published in 1952, that I bought when I visited Stratford while in college, many years ago. I read about a quarter of the book and realized I was too far removed from the plays to get much out of the book. It is well written, however, so I’ll probably try it again later.

Shakespeare by Mark Van Doren
This book was written in 1939, but I picked it up as a paperback at the Newberry Library book sale a couple of years ago. The first chapter on the sonnets was excellent because he quoted from the sonnet he was discussing. The rest of the book expected the reader to have more than a passing knowledge of the play being discussed and since its been many, many years since I studied the plays, I was totally out of my element. I would consider reading individual chapters as a companion to reading the plays again.

There are so many other books out there that I want to read about The Bard, so I’ve decided to try to read at least 1 book a quarter, just to keep my mind in it. Thanks BiblioShakespeare for the encouragement!!