Two (well, three) Shakesperean experiences

>> Friday, July 04, 2008

Two books today. Completely different genres, but with strong links. Plus, another link (a literal one, this time), to a related visit.

TITLE: The Book of Air and Shadows
AUTHOR: Michael Gruber

PAGES: 561

SETTING: Contemporary US and England.
TYPE: Literary thriller

REASON FOR READING: Malvina recommended it.

Tap-tapping the keys and out come the words on this little screen, and who will read them I hardly know. I could be dead by the time anyone actually gets to read them, as dead as, say, Tolstoy. Or Shakespeare. Does it matter, when you read, if the person who wrote still lives?

These are the words of Jake Mishkin, whose seemingly innocent job as an intellectual property lawyer has put him at the center of a deadly conspiracy and a chase to find a priceless treasure involving William Shakespeare. As he awaits a killer-or killers-unknown, Jake writes an account of the events that led to this deadly endgame, a frantic chase that began when a fire in an antiquarian bookstore revealed the hiding place of letters containing a shocking secret, concealed for four hundred years. In a frantic race from New York to England and Switzerland, Jake finds himself matching wits with a shadowy figure who seems to anticipate his every move. What at first seems like a thrilling puzzle waiting to be deciphered soon turns into a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse, where no one-not family, not friends, not lovers-is to be trusted.

Moving between twenty-first-century America and seventeenth-century England, The Book of Air and shadow is a modern thriller that brilliantly re-creates William Shakespeare's life at the turn of the seventeenth century and combines an ingenious and intricately layered plot with a devastating portrait of a contemporary man on the brink of self-discovery . . . or self-destruction.
MY THOUGHTS:The summary quoted above is pretty good... the plot is convoluted enough that if I tried to summarise it myself it'd probably take a while. I'll only add that while Jake is the main character, Albert Crosetti, a wannabe filmmaker who works for an antiquarian bookseller and makes the original discovery, plays almost a big a role as Jake... and is much more appealing (more on this later).

The book has an interesting structure. We start almost at the end, and then go back and forth, finding out just what happened and how each of the players got involved, with visits to the 17th century every now and then. There's letters from Richard Bracegirdle, the 17th century soldier who inadvertently set all this to-do in motion, there's diary entries written by Jake as he awaits danger, there's third person narration following Crossetti. It sounds like it could get confusing, but Gruber keeps all the balls in the air and pulls it off. He even makes the double- and triple-crosses understandable, all the while making the story move fast. Secret codes, forgeries, 400-year-old spy plots... it was fun.

I didn't love the thriller bits all that much, though. Gangsters and mafia and "exciting" kidnappings and murder attempts... that just doesn't entertain me much. Now, the literary detection bits, those were truly exciting. The very thought of.... ah, you'll have to read the book yourself to discover just what this is all about, but it really captures the imagination.

What made it even more fun to read this book was that while I was in the middle of it, I spent a day in Stratford-upon-Avon, and that town's pretty much Shakespeare, Shakespeare and in case you didn't have enough, even more Shakespeare. So I went there and recognised a lot of what I saw, and then came back and got back to the book, and could visualise what I was reading much better. I saw some documents in Stratford and went: "ah, so this is Jacobean secretary hand? (a kind of handwriting) No wonder Crosetti couldn't make head or tails of it at first!" And then I went back to the book and read a mention of Shakespeare's will and though: "yeah, yeah, the one where he left his second-best bed to his wife". The two experiences really complemented each other.

Now for the negatives. Gruber creates some interesting and complex characters, but I just wish he hadn't made the main narrator quite so despicable. Jake was... well, a total and complete sleaze; there's no other word for it. I usually like self-deprecating humour in a character, but while this guy saw his failings quite accurately and saw the humour in them, he did so in a "yes, I'm a disgusting cheating bastard, that's who I am, what can I do?" kind of way, with no desire to change whatsoever. Am I supposed to like him better just because it's as clear to him as it is to me that he's despicable? Even if at the end he does change his ways (apparently), I didn't feel he deserved the break. He should have paid a LOT more. Hmmph!


TITLE: Shakespeare: The World as Stage
AUTHOR: Bill Bryson

PAGES: 195
PUBLISHER: Harper Collins

TYPE: Non Fiction - Biography
SERIES: Part of a series called Eminent Lives: "brief biographies by distinguished authors on canonical figures".

REASON FOR READING: I love the distinguished author and I'm very interested in the canonical figure.

William Shakespeare, the most celebrated poet in the English language, left behind nearly a million words of text, but his biography has long been a thicket of wild supposition arranged around scant facts. With a steady hand and his trademark wit, Bill Bryson sorts through this colorful muddle to reveal the man himself.

Bryson documents the efforts of earlier scholars, from today's most respected academics to eccentrics like Delia Bacon, an American who developed a firm but unsubstantiated conviction that her namesake, Francis Bacon, was the true author of Shakespeare's plays. Emulating the style of his famous travelogues, Bryson records episodes in his research, including a visit to a bunkerlike room in Washington, D.C., where the world's largest collection of First Folios is housed.

Bryson celebrates Shakespeare as a writer of unimaginable talent and enormous inventiveness, a coiner of phrases ("vanish into thin air," "foregone conclusion," "one fell swoop") that even today have common currency. His Shakespeare is like no one else's—the beneficiary of Bryson's genial nature, his engaging skepticism, and a gift for storytelling unrivaled in our time.
MY THOUGHTS: This is a short book, basically because the central idea is just how little we know, 100% actually know about Shakespeare. There's a lot of supposition and theorising (usually on very doubtful and scant basis), and what Bryson does is cut through all this to the few bare, undeniable facts. He does present some of the suppositions, but always clearly marking them as such, and actually, a lot of the book is about what we don't know rather than about what we do.

I don't know if it sounds very promising, but it was fascinating, mainly because the mystery of who exactly Shakespeare was is so intriguing. And BTW, I mean who he was as a person, not his actual identity. The last chapter shows just how little convincing all those "so-and-so actually wrote the Shakespeare plays" theories are, and provides a good example of how Shakespearean scholars have tended to be an entertainingly eccentric bunch. Mean as it is, I'm still chortling at how three of the proponents of those theories were called Looney, Batty and Silliman.

It's an enormously enjoyable book, very much a Bryson, with his humour enhancing the material, rather than overwhelming it.

As an aside, as I was reading, I couldn't help but think back on the (I know, wholly fictional) plot of The Book of Air and Shadows. Seeing what little real information we have about the man made me appreciate exactly how huge a discovery the Bracegirdle letters would have been, even if the Big Find had remained lost.



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