34. ‘Shakespeare’ by Bill Bryson.

Shakespeare

It’s safe to say Mum loved this book as she has two copies of it; the first dated 2008, the second copy, 2011 and 2014….obviously Mum mislaid the first copy,  so she bought it again!

I too thoroughly enjoyed this. It is nowhere near as heavy going as many of the scholarly works that have been written about William Shakespeare – and there are certainly plenty of them – and rather than the plays, it focuses on the eternal mystery of who William Shakespeare the man really was. It is truly amazing how little we actually know about him! Even the three likenesses of him are probably wildly inaccurate, and there is virtually no information that we can rely on regarding his personal life, his relationships, what drove him and inspired him…and many theories that suggest he wasn’t in fact the genuine author of the work attributed to him!

The book is easy to read, and quite short, emphasising Mr Bryson’s assertion that we can know little of the man himself despite exhaustive research. It is remarkable that his works even survived,  for which we can thank his friends and colleagues, John Heminges and Henry Condell, who seven years after his death published the First Folio – about which there is a very entertaining chapter giving us a fascinating insight into the literary publishing world of the 16th century. In fact one of the best things about this book is the way Mr Bryson feeds us snippets about what everyday life in Elizabethan and Jacobean England was like – plagues, superstitions and sumptuary laws abound, together with the robust nature of the theatre, and its remarkable accessibility. Of particular interest are the passages about life in London at that time – Mum would have relished that greatly!

All fascinating stuff, and delivered with Mr. Bryson’s characteristically dry humour, backed up by a solid presentation of the very few solid facts we have, and a measured assessment of the theories that abound. I particularly enjoyed his final chapter in the book, ‘Claimants’, in which he discusses the varied propositions that William Shakespeare did not in fact write anything, including the wonderful story of the decidedly unstable Delia Bacon and her conviction that her namesake, Francis Bacon, was in fact the true author of his catalogue!

A great read, and I have two copies to gift forward if you would like to add this lovely little book to your collection – as always, please get in touch either through the Facebook page or here and I will be delighted to send you one. If you have missed out on one of Mum’s copies but would like to read this, here is a link to Amazon to purchase a copy for yourself…

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10. ‘Hagseed’ by Margaret Atwood.

Brilliant, brilliant writing by one of Mum and I’s favourite authors! This re-imagining  of Shakespeare’s Tempest is another in the Hogarth Shakespeare initiative, (regular readers of my blog will remember me reviewing Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler earlier this year), and as always, Ms Atwood has delivered an outstanding piece of work. It’s fabulous.

This is written with such energy that it feels like a story Ms Atwood would have written anyway, if the Bard had not already done so. It’s a magical eulogy to Shakespeare, taking you through an extraordinary reworking of the original tale, but including nods to contemporary culture; thrilling to anyone who knows the original play, but equally compelling to those who don’t. Our hero, Felix, was the artistic director of a theatre company until he was betrayed by his assistant who orchestrates a coup that destroys Felix, leaving him in self imposed isolation for years. Not on an island, but deep in the Canadian countryside in a ramshackle cabin with only his imaginary daughter, Miranda, for company – his wife and child are long deceased, and the grief he still feels at the loss of his real three year old Miranda to meningitis had fuelled his plans to stage his masterpiece, a wildly conceptual version of the Tempest, now stolen from him by the villainous assistant, Tony.

After twelve years of navel gazing and almost endearingly strange behaviour, eventually he concludes that there are only two things left for him to do – “two projects that could still hold satisfaction”. First, he needs to get his play back. Secondly, he wants revenge. The scheming Tony and his evil cohort Sal must suffer for their treatment of him. As Felix Phillips, he is finished, so he reinvents himself, and it is as Mr Duke that he takes on a job in a correctional facility in a Literacy through Literature programme of Shakespeare….where he directs the prisoners in, of course, The Tempest! This is just so skilful. We have now got a play within a play, within a novel, and it is thrilling!

The prison scenes are wonderful. The characters are so real, and deftly handled. There’s no foul language allowed in class or rehearsal save that which comes from Shakespeare, whence comes the title, hagseed. I’ve had a large fridge magnet for years, its been around the world with me, featuring some of Shakespeare’s choicest insults, so I particularly enjoyed this.

And, yes, Felix succeeds in both his projects. The ending is a tumultuous climax with a footnote of an analysis by the prisoners on what should happen next in The Tempest. Fabulous. This book of Mum’s has already been claimed by a dear friend living in Indonesia, but I strongly advise you to find yourself a copy; it’s one of the best books you will read this year!

 

1. ‘Vinegar Girl’ by Anne Tyler.

Anne Tyler was one of Mums favourite authors. A strong female voice, beautifully drawn characters, quirky, funny and prolific to boot…always a plus when you find a writer you like! (Any mention of another of our favourites, Donna Tartt, always caused us to bemoan the fact we had to wait years between each of her total of just three splendid novels to date, but thats another story.)

This is The Taming of the Shrew, re-imagined and re-written as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare Project to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the bard. Set firmly in the 21st century, Kate finds herself, somewhat to her surprise, looking after her eccentric (mad scientist) father and her younger sister, while working in childcare where her tendency to speak her mind, (or not – “I had nothing to say, so I said nothing”), emphasises her individuality, strength and feelings of being an outsider, different from the norm. When her fathers lab assistant, Pyotr, is threatened with deportation, her father hatches a plot to marry him to Kate in order to keep him in America and complete his research.

Mum was a strong, independently minded and extremely intelligent woman herself, like Kate, and she’d definitely have told Kate to stand up for herself, and supported her all the way in her desire for individuality and independence.

It may have been difficult to overcome the male supremacy of the original tale, but Ms Tyler does it effortlessly, making Kate’s awkwardness (shrewishness) genuinely endearing. Will she, a thoroughly modern woman, be able to resist the pressure to be sacrificed for her fathers career? Every character is perfectly formed and believable, especially Kate’s scant family who are brilliantly drawn. I particularly enjoyed the wedding planning scenes, the delight of her Aunt Thelma at having a wedding to plan meeting the resistance of Kate to any fussiness.

I don’t want to give away the ending, although if you’re familiar with Shakespeare, you’ll know where this should go. Ms Tyler does it with such style though, making this a really easy and enjoyable read.  Love, love, love it, and I’m giving it 8/10!

http://hogarthshakespeare.com