Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare

Reading Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare reminded me of why I love his writing so much. Bryson’s book is one for people (like me) who probably won’t ever read a heavy-duty book of Shakespeare scholarship, but as he notes what you can write about Shakespeare is pretty slim. We don’t know a lot about the man, so much of Bryson’s book is about Shakespeare’s times, writers contemporary to Shakespeare (and what we know about them, which often isn’t much), and the disagreements of Shakespeare scholarship. His skill here isn’t in uncovering new facts, but to sum up what’s come before and to look at it with a critical eye.* And, as always, his humor makes the book far more readable than I would have expected 200 pages on Shakespeare to be, as when he refers to the Puritans’ closing of the London theaters as a “coup of joylessness.”

“His expression is confident, serenly rakish. This is not a man, you sense, to whom you would lightly entrust a wife or grown daughter” (2).

Because we know so little about Shakespeare, Bryson writes extensively about Shakespeare’s times. These were some of my favorite parts of the book, and they were also some of the most illuminating. I grew up, for instance, knowing that Shakespeare grew up in lower-class circumstances, that he had an illiterate father and that the extent of his own education wasn’t great. But as Bryson writes, Shakespeare’s father (despite some debt problems later in his career) was actually a “popular and respected fellow” in Stratford, holding many municipal positions including high bailiff (mayor). And statements of his father’s illiteracy are based, as are so many assumptions about Shakespeare’s life, only on a lack of evidence to the contrary. Though Shakespeare’s father signed papers with a mark, many literate men of his time did the same; and the municipal positions to which he rose suggest literacy.

Much of Shakespeare’s life is marked, from our view, by how little is known about it. Bryson has to write an entire chapter on Shakespeare’s “lost years,” from 1585 to 1592, about which we know nothing; and we know little more about his other years, from the order in which he wrote his plays to how he became a successful playwright in the first place. Bryson fills in these dry areas with detail about Stratford, London, politics and religion of the time, and the role of theaters and plays as entertainment at the time. (Did you know that The Globe was the first playhouse exclusively dedicated to plays? Others were arenas for such “sports” as bear baiting when plays weren’t being run. Or that plays, “even the solemn ones, traditionally ended with a jig as a kind of bonus entertainment” [75]?)

"...an arrestingly...mediocre piece of work. ...One eye is bigger than the other. The mouth is curiously mispositioned. The hair is longer on one side of the subject's head than the other, and the head itself is out of proportion to the body and seems to float off the shoulders, like a balloon" (4).

Shakespeare marks some of the ways in which current literary culture is different from that of Shakespeare’s time. I just started reading a collection of “retold” fairy tales, a concept that the book’s editors note is strange to many contemporary readers. Such retellings of old stories were once the norm, though. Bryson writes, to “Elizabethan playwrights plots and characters were common property,” and “Shakespeare was a wonderful teller of stories so long as someone else had told them first” (98). Anyone who’s read a couple of Shakespeare’s plays would be hard-pressed to term Shakespeare’s plots original, so it’s refreshing to have Bryson’s description of “the way things were” back in Shakespeare’s time. Originality wasn’t expected, and as Bryson notes, when Shakespeare rewrote a story he elevated middling works to great art.

Beginning with Shakespeare’s father, Bryson again and again shows that many of the things we assume to be true about Shakespeare are based merely upon a lack of evidence in the other direction. That is, there’s no evidence either way, so scholars have leaned in directions of their own inclination; taking from his relatively low birth, for example, that he could not have written the plays he wrote. I’ve always been aware that many people believe the Shakespeare of Stratford wasn’t the same man who wrote the plays or sonnets under his name, but have never done any reading into this; it’s just been something that I’ve accepted as a possibility. But Bryson puts this school of scholars to rest pretty handily in the book’s last chapter, painting them as a string of buffoons who have found no evidence for any of their contentions, but simply the “possibility” that so-and-so had the time/education/what-have-you to have written Shakespeare’s works.

"It was executed by a mason named Gheerart Janssen ...who... may well have seen Shakespeare in life - thought one rather hopes not, as the Shakespeare he portrays is a puffy-faced, self-satisfied figure, with, as Mark Twain memorably put it, the 'deep, deep, subtle, subtle expression of a bladder'" (6).

Bryson picks apart each of the major “Shakespeare wasn’t really Shakespeare” arguments, and in doing so points to the way such arguments belittle what remains of Shakespeare’s work. Because the arguments, at end, boil down to the same thing: that a man of provincial upbringing and education, who was neither upper-class nor (probably) well-traveled, could not possibly have written all the works attributed to him. That one such man did write Othello, King Lear and Hamlet is, as Bryson writes, the mark of genius; and after 200 pages spent with Bryson picking apart Shakespeare’s language (do you know how many new words he introduced to English? A lot.) and exploring the miracle of the First Folio’s publication (I term it so because Shakespeare’s works make up about 15% of those surviving from the period; without the First Folio, most of his plays would have been lost), I’m inclined to stick with Bryson’s view.

Bryson’s evident appreciation for and love of Shakespeare comes through on every page of the book, and coupled with his research on the publication of the First Folio and the fates of many celebrated plays of the day not by Shakespeare, I finished feeling fortunate that so much of Shakespeare’s work made it to the present day. Which, I suspect, is exactly what Bryson intended.

* Is it bad that writing this is making me really, really want to watch Shakespeare in Love?

P.S. God, I didn’t know where to stick this in the review, I got so caught up in swooning over Bryson and feeling “fortunate” that we still have Shakespeare’s work around. The book could only be better if there were illustrations, so that when Bryson describes a portrait of Shakespeare, or a drawing of a London theater, I wouldn’t have to rack my memory for the image, or rush to google.

As a helpful guide to readers, I have included scattered in this post the three likenesses of Shakespeare that Bryson describes in his book.

My Favorite Books of the Year
December 28, 2010, 10:48 pm
Filed under: meme | Tags: , , , ,
  1. Stephen King – Under the Dome: I go back and forth on Stephen King (sometimes I think he could use a good editor to cut his books down, though mostly I thought this while reading The Tommyknockers when everyone was losing their teeth) but, man, what a book. Will forever be linked with the feeling of laying a foot from my space heater, needing to change position because my left leg (or whatever) was too hot, but not wanting to stop reading for even the second that would take.
  2. Edith Wharton – The Age of Innocence: That I want to read more Edith Wharton in 2011 is totally due to this book. Read it in high school, thought it was boring, reread it this year, thought it was amazing. There’s this quiet tragedy to the end, when everything that kept Ellen Olenska and Newland Archer apart is dismissed by Newland’s children.
  3. Suzanne Collins – The Hunger Games: My thoughts after reading the first page could best be summed up as Holy crap! Holy crap! I love the feeling of finding a book I know I am going to love after the first page. This was my favorite of the trilogy. Review here.
  4. E.M. Forster – A Passage to India: Finally ended my long shame of not having read one of the best works by one of my favorite authors. Review here.
  5. Rory Stewart – The Places in Between: Rory Stewart writes about walking across Afghanistan in the winter of 2001-2002. Half insane, made me cry at the end.
  6. Louis de Bernieres – Corelli’s Mandolin: To say I had low expectations for this novel would be an understatement. I had kind of been trying to start it for years, but the faint memory of Nicholas Cage’s terrible Italian accent kept me from the book. So glad I finally read it. I am not a crier, but a distinguishing characteristic of many books on this list is that, yes, they made me cry.
  7. Aravind Adiga – The White Tiger: I’m happy I write about the books I read now, so that in future when I read a book like The White Tiger and want to include on a “year’s best of” list I’ll be able to say something more than “I really, really liked it. Really.”
  8. Markus Zusak – The Book Thief: Oh man. This one made me cry too.
  9. Peter Hessler – Country Driving: I first started reading Hessler’s stuff because he wrote a memoir about his time in Peace Corps China. He’s one of the best travel writers I’ve ever read; in this book he drives around China and in doing so introduces us to budding factory towns and dying villages. Read it, please.
  10. Paul Auster – The New York Trilogy: This trilogy did not make me cry (making it a standout of sorts on this list), but was kind of crazy and thought-provoking, in the realm of detectives doing detective work on other detectives, and a lot of fun to read. Review here.

Despite the numbered list, these books aren’t in real order of preference. This is in response to the Top Ten Tuesday question at the Broke and the Bookish. And now we can wash ourselves of top 10 end-of-the-year lists (maybe) and move on to a bright future in 2011

Review: Elizabeth George’s Well-Schooled in Murder

Back around August of 2009, when I was but a young lass preparing to head off on my great world-changing adventure as a Peace Corps Volunteer (ha, ha, ha), it occurred to me that I wouldn’t be in the mood for reading Nabokov or James Joyce or Tolstoy for great portions of this adventure, at least the parts spent on an airplane. So I asked my mom what I should read, and she told me to buy something by Elizabeth George for my kindle. I did (her first book, A Great Deliverance), and I thought it was pretty alright but it faded quickly into the back of my mind. I can know recall only vague details, like that Inspector Lynley is in love with a woman who doesn’t love him back, that he sleeps with some lady who winds up being involved in the murder they’re investigating (though I forget in what capacity, so this isn’t exactly a spoiler), and that he has an ongoing battle with his lower-class co-worker, Sergeant Barbara Havers.

I recently picked up another one of George’s books from the Peace Corps library. Well, actually I picked up a few, and not having bothered to check publication dates, I’m jumping out of order now. I just finished the third book in her Lynley series, Well-Schooled in Murder, and…holy crap! I feel kind of like I did when I was eight and had just discovered Nancy Drew and figured out how many books had been printed about her.

I really, really liked Well-Schooled in Murder, and this sort of blind enthusiasm is probably going to set the tone for this “review.” When this book opens Lynley and Havers have been working together for about 18 months, so their working relationship is more fun (less painful) to read about. There are still some cringe-inducing scenes that take place at Havers’s home, where she lives with her ailing parents, but they seem to be fewer than I remember, or the rest of the book just balances out these scenes.

The mystery revolves around the discovery of the body of a boy, Matthew Whateley, in a churchyard far from either the private school he attends (Bredgar Chambers) or his hometown. Whateley was at the school as a scholarship student, and this and other facts of his family history send Lynley and Havers in all directions when trying to solve his murder. Everything that happened to Whateley is tied up in the school’s culture, questions of honor and integrity and honesty, and of friendship and sponsorship.

I couldn’t help comparing Well-Schooled in Murder to the only other mystery I’ve read recently, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Played with Fire. George’s book was far better than Larsson’s, and much of this is due to descriptive writing. Sometimes when I step back and look at it I think, “holy crap, she just spent half a page describing the seating arrangements in a room,” but when reading these things never catch up to me. George’s depth of description is necessary to what she’s doing as a writer, and it’s often characters’ verbal tics or slight motions that reveal something of their own involvement in the case. I’ve read some great blog entries recently picking apart Larsson’s style and showing what a good editor could have done with his work, and that was in my mind when reading George. When she writes something – that someone had a hard day, say – she backs it up by showing what exactly about their day was difficult. I think Larsson would leave it at the original statement. (I can’t find the link to the blog entry on Larsson I’m talking about – if you know which one I’m thinking of, I would love the link.)

I’m going on a trip to Egypt, Jordan and Israel next month (hooray! vacation! hooray!) and I’m planning to bring another George mystery along to read. Having just read her Wikipedia page, though, I have to admit I’m surprised to learn she’s an American writer. How does she manage to write in such depth about English culture and traditions? Is this a hint that I should spend some more time googling her and figuring out exactly how she wound up writing mysteries about the upper-class Eton graduate Inspector Lynley?

And any suggestions for other mystery writers I might be into?

Charles Portis! Charles Portis! Charles Portis!
December 23, 2010, 11:49 am
Filed under: meme | Tags: , , , , , , ,

By dint of my being tragically separated from my library/the Philadelphia library system/bookstores, generally (I know, I know, I mention this every time I post) you, dear readers, have missed out on one part of my super-fandom. Believe it or not, Nabokov isn’t the only author I obsessively recommend to everyone who asks me, ever, for a book recommendation. No, there is another author who has that honor; but because I don’t have any of his books with me, and I do have some of Nabokov’s, this fine author is mostly free of constant mention on my blog.

Charles Portis.

The Blue Bookcase this week is asking for the one literary work their readers think is under appreciated. I can’t exactly choose just one work, because Charles Portis’s work as a whole is under appreciated. I know, I know, that his True Grit is getting some renewed attention now thanks to the new Coen brothers movie (I even saw that “True Grit” was being promoted on twitter – weird, weird, weird), and there’s a healthy group of well-known authors who profess to Portis love, but apart from that the guy doesn’t get much attention.

Portis, though, has got to be one of my favorite authors (tied with Nabokov, even). He’s a funny writer, but not the kind who uses obvious jokes; instead his books as a whole that are funny, so while I am reading one I am kind of halfway laughing at the tone of it, at the way his characters approach their worlds.

True Grit is a good one, and given the new movie it’s probably the one most people are going to be most inclined to read. I’m gong to reread it soon too, given how one of my friends thoughtfully uncovered an electronic copy for me. (Portis’s books aren’t available as ebooks. They were out of print for a while, but in the late ’90s were reissued by Overlook Press. For this I owe them a permanent debt of gratitude.) But it’s not my favorite, and it’s hard to choose which one is, and which is thereby most deserving of my “most under appreciated book” award. Masters of Atlantis I wasn’t a huge fan of, but Norwood, Gringos, and The Dog of the South are tough ones to choose from. The best way to convince you of the quality of Portis’s writing is to quote some of his writing, so excuse me while I head off to google…

Okay, so in The Dog of the South Ray Midge is trailing his wife, Norma, who’s run off with a “twerp,” Guy Dupree. A lot of Portis’s characters are marked by being more comfortable with things (cars, guns) than they are with people, and one of the funnier things about the book is that although he’s trying to get his wife back, Ray doesn’t concentrate too much on what Dupree is doing with his wife. Rather, it’s his stolen car that he’s concerned about. Here’s Ray Midge on the car he’s driving (see: not the better car that Dupree and Norma took): “There was a hole in the floor on the driver’s side and when I drove over something white the flash between my feet made me jump. That’s enough on the car for now.”

Or in Gringos – and bear with me, because I’m trying to sum up these plots in about a sentence each – Jimmy Burns is an American living in Merida, now out of work, who happens across a girl who has been kidnapped and then tries to recover her for the $2000 reward. My quotes, sadly, are the random children of google, but one day (in like two years) I will be able to reread the books and then do my traditional “review” that is nothing but an excuse to quote extensively. But here’s one from Gringos:

“Art and Mike said taking an intellectual woman into your home was like taking in a baby raccoon. They were both amusing for awhile but soon became randomly vicious and learned how to open the refrigerator.”

Portis’s characters tend to be headed on quests, which is one reason I like his writing so much. What can I say? I am a fan of the quest story. His descriptions of characters are spot-on, and the way they look at the world always seems a little off-kilter, but the funnier for it. And they don’t all have it, but most of his characters do have a certain type of innocence about them that’s interesting to see collide with, well, the rest of the world.

Here are more links for you. Thankfully there’s no shortage of Portis articles right now because of the new film.

The Author Behind ‘True Grit’: Hey! My old thesis advisor is in this article. See if you can pick him out…it’s through him that I started reading Portis.

The Very Unofficial Charles Portis Website: Not updated for a while, but there’s a collection of reviews and essays on Portis’s work.

The Elusive Charles Portis, Author of ‘True Grit’

Literary Blog Hop

Review: Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air

Krakauer’s Into Thin Air is a book I enjoyed partly because it’s a good book, really well-written and striking a good balance between history, description of the commercialization of climbing Everest, and frank assessment of things the author and others did that may have made the Everest disaster worst than it needed to be, and partly because it’s the first book I’ve read since finishing the Horrible, Awful Regional Spelling Bee I spent months putting together. It was also a great book to read for the sheer foreignness of what Krakauer was describing; I’m not a part of that group of people who climb mountains, either seriously or as paying clients, and the closest I can come to imagining conditions on Everest is by likening them to my personal experience. When I read about a wind chill temperature of – 100 F, all I can imagine is that it feels like the day I didn’t have gloves and bought groceries and how by the time I got home I couldn’t even feel my hands enough to untie my shoes, and had to race inside, plug in my heater, and defrost myself before unbuttoning my coat or taking off my sneakers.

So, I can’t imagine it at all.

Into Thin Air is of course Krakauer’s account of the 1996 Mount Everest Disaster, when eight people died while trying to reach the summit, or on their way down. Krakauer was a member of the veteran climber Rob Hall’s group, there to write an article about the commercialization of climbing Everest for Outdoors magazine. Krakauer’s main focus is the disaster and the events leading up to it, but he also writes about the history of climbing Mount Everest and some of the controversies surrounding it. For example, there’s a debate about whether climbs done with canisters of air “count” in the same way as unaided climbs, and many people in the climbing community look down on those climbers who work as commercial guides.

I may as well start by listing some of the now embarrassing misconceptions I had, or things I just didn’t now, before starting this book: that “Sherpa” is the name just for the native guides to the mountain; that Everest is, by dint of being the world’s tallest mountain, also the most technically difficult to climb; that only people who are really, really good climbers tackle Everest; that Everest is a world removed from the crass commercialization of things on our level.

Sherpas are the native guides to Everest, but they are also a group of people; that is, not all Sherpas are Everest guides. I felt especially stupid after reading this one.

The rest of my misconceptions I think can be excused because of the place Everest has in the collective conscious. Contrary to my belief, Everest isn’t removed from the commercial world, but rather is entangled in it by the desire of average people to be able to say that they climbed it, by the need of mountain climbers to have a more reliable source of income (however slight) than is afforded by sponsorships, and by the need of both Nepal and China to sell the expensive climbing licenses for Everest. As Krakauer writes near book’s end, one way of making Everest a safer mountain to climb would be by forbidding the use of gas; this would force climbers who aren’t truly capable of both reaching the top and getting down alive to turn back once they reach their natural limit. But, “[d]esperate for hard currency, the governments of both countries [Nepal and China] have a vested interest in issuing as many expensive climbing permits as the market will support, and both are unlikely to enact any policies that significantly limit their revenues” (356).

The same commercial concerns apply to the Sherpas who work on the mountain. Most live in the Khumbu, valleys on Everest’s southern slope. Krakauer writes that “[e]ntire valleys have been denuded of trees to meet the increased demand for firewood. Teens hanging out in Namche carrom parlors are more likely to be wearing jeans and Chicago Bulls T-shirts than quaint traditional robes. Families are apt to spend their nights huddled around video players viewing the latest Schwarzenegger opus” (57), but that it “seems more than a little patronizing for Westerners to lament the loss of the good old days when life in the Khumbu was so much simpler and more picturesque” (58).

Krakauer puts to rest, too, the idea that mountain climbing is a sport for thrill seekers, and that Everest in particular draws adrenaline junkies. Climbing Everest is, he writes, “a long tedious process,” which he documents in the book. For a month there are ascents to higher camps, then back to base camp, so the climbers can become acclimatized to oxygen levels (which at base camp are about half what they are sea level, and at the summit about a third). And the climb itself, even reaching the summit, is one largely unmarked by emotion. Instead, the physical strain of toiling upward in such, well, thin air, makes it impossible for climbers to do anything besides breathe and take one step, then another. As Krakauer writes, “climbing Everest was primarily about enduring pain.”* It was interesting to read about the climb in such detail, as it shattered a lot of my long-held (and totally uninformed) notions of what climbing a mountain like Everest entails.

Krakauer points to a number of reasons for the disaster. Among them he includes his own presence with one of the groups. No doubt having a reporter from a major magazine, in the mountaineering world, would add pressure to a guide to reach the summit; and further, as he writes, his guide Rob Hall had urged one of his clients from the previous year to return after missing the summit by only 300 feet. Hall was, all along, shaky on their turnaround time, whether they reached the summit or not (either one or two pm), but wound up staying on the summit far longer so that this repeat client could summit despite illness. There was, too, the dangerous clot of people trying to summit the mountain that day, over 30, which led to a number of traffic jams making it difficult for climbers to get up or down the mountain. At end the sum of these delays resulted in the deaths of those eight people.

I found Krakauer’s writing about the commercial aspects of climbing Everest interesting, but also his writing on the extreme ways in which guided climbs differ from the climbing he had done his whole life. Mountaineers have to depend on their team members, but in a guided climb you don’t know anything about the other people on your team or their climbing credentials. And on a mountain like Everest, the extensive work of laying lines and ladders for climbers to use has been done beforehand, so that climbers are just following orders and the marked path. Krakauer writes:

During my thirty-four-year tenure as a climber, I’d found that the most rewarding aspects of mountaineering derive from the sport’s emphasis on self-reliance, on making critical decisions and dealing with the consequences, on personal responsibility. When you sign on as a client, I discovered, you are forced to give up all of that, and more. For safety’s sake, a responsible guide will always insist on calling the shots – he or she simply can’t afford to let each client make important decisions independently. (219)

Krakauer never makes any firm statements as to what caused so many climbers to die that day on Everest, but he does explore a number of things that may have contributed to the disaster. And as he ultimately notes, the death toll on Everest for all of that year was actually slightly lower than normal. Shocking as the deaths may have been on that day, they ultimately were a reminder that no matter the skill of the guide, or the amount of preparation done by guide and client, not everything can be planned for when you are so far above the rest of the world.

So, a great read, and the perfect book for these two days. I’ve only read one other book by Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven, but I enjoy his work enough that I’ll have to head to the library in a year’s time to check out his others.

* One of many reasons I will probably never climb Everest or do a host of other “pain bearing” activities, like…