The Best Book I Read This Month: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare by James Shapiro

It was a slow reading month--I only made it through 2 1/2 books, far below my usual one book per week average. Fortunately, it was a good month for nonfiction. The best book I read--and completed--this month was something that's been sitting on my TBR shelf for ages: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 by James Shapiro.

What I loved about this book was that it took an historical approach to Shakespeare's work--a stark contrast to the literary approach I'm used in to. In school, we always read Shakespeare's plays in isolation, as works of literature. We analyzed his use of language, his development of characters and plot, his use of symbolism.

Shapiro does very little of that. Instead, he places Shakespeare's work in historical context. He walks us through the year 1599, when Shakespeare wrote and his troupe performed Julius Caesar, Henry V, As You Like It, and Hamlet. Shapiro organized the book so that we follow the seasons, and with each season there is a new play to explore. Each play is discussed in the context of what was happening in Elizabethan England at the time. This is not William Shakespeare, Literary Master; it's William Shakespeare, Political Commentator--and I find that approach far more interesting and convincing than the literary analysis I learned in school. Shapiro notes, for example, how England's Irish troubles influenced Henry V; how assassination attempts--real and rumored--on Elizabeth influenced Julius Caesar; how an act of plagiarism influenced As You Like It; and how England's recent religious history found its way into Hamlet.

Shapiro certainly doesn't ignore Shakespeare's use of language or exploration of character. He integrates discussion of both into his historical exploration of Shakespeare's work, which I think gives more credence to his interpretations because they are not presented in isolation. (As an aside, one of my gripes with the literary analysis I had to do in school was the question of how we were supposed to know what was in an author's mind when a particular scene was written. I mean, maybe the curtains are red because that's the author's favorite color, not because the author intended to create a symbol of blood!)

At any rate, Shapiro's book is definitely one that should be on any Shakespeare fan's shelf.

Note: Clicking on the book cover will take you to the book's Amazon page.

The Best Book I Read This Month: To The Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

Eowyn Ivey is becoming one of my favorite writers. I was swept away by her novel The Snow Child and her latest, To the Bright Edge of the World, was equally transporting. Alaska is the center of these stories--its landscape, climate, and ruggedness as much a character in the stories as the people. And both books have dashes of magic and unexplained mysteries, which add color and dimension to the stories. They are, I think, fine examples of magical realism.

To the Bright Edge of the World actually tells three stories: two historical and one modern. All three stories revolve around an 1885 expedition into the Alaskan wilderness, and all are told through diary entries and letters written by the explorer leading the expedition, the wife he left behind, one of the members of the expedition, the explorer's descendant, and the curator of the Alaskan museum who receives the explorer's papers. It sounds like a vast cast of characters--and it is--but they are well described and easy to keep straight.

It did take me a while to find the book's rhythm, though, to become accustomed to the jumping back and forth among the story lines. My biggest struggle was with the two historical story lines, which occur a few months apart but are told as if they are parallel.

Once I found that rhythm, however, I got lost in the story. When I was reading, I literally forgot where I was and what time it was. I found the historical story lines more captivating: the explorer trying to navigate and understand the strange land in which found himself and his wife, trying to navigate being an independent woman in a time and place where such initiative was actively discouraged.

The edition I read included photographs, many of Alaska in the nineteenth century and others that related to the story. They were just as fascinating as the text.

While the book was inspired by a real-life Alaskan expedition, Ivey is clearly telling her own story here--one that is engaging and captivating. It held my attention for all of its 400+ pages, and it was worth every stolen moment I took to read it.

 

BONUS RECOMMENDATION

If you like mysteries, I cannot recommend Ausma Zehanat Khan's Esa Khattak series enough. It's a new series--the third book just came out--but it's become a favorite. Khattak is a detective with Toronto's Community Policing division, tasked with liaising with the Muslim community and solving crimes connected to that community. He's a quiet, somewhat brooding hero, a man trying to balance his Muslim faith and the demands of his job. The first book, The Unquiet Dead, centers on the Bosnian war. The second, The Language of Secrets, has Khattak racing to stop a homegrown terrorist attack. I had originally borrowed Unquiet Dead from the library but bought a copy for myself before I was halfway through. Now I've cleared a space on my shelves for the series as it grows.

 

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Happy Adopt-a-versary!

March 28, 2016: Duncan's Gotcha Day

March 28, 2016: Duncan's Gotcha Day

One year ago today (tonight), I brought home the overgrown mass of poodle hair that became Duncan. I'll never know his birthday, so I've decided to celebrate his Gotcha Day--his Adopt-a-versary. This is his first. 

In our first year together, this is what I've learned about him:

the begging face

the begging face

  • He does not bark or growl--except in his sleep. I've had a plumber in the house. I've had city water meter inspectors in the house. Duncan just sat on his chair and watched the parade. Not so much as a peep. When he sleeps, though, it sometimes sounds like he's fighting World War III single-handedly.
  • He only sits in soft places: the back of the sofa, a pillow on the overstuffed chair, my bed. If we're in the kitchen and I tell him to sit, he runs into the living room and sits on the chair. (Where else would a king sit but his throne?)
  • He is terrified of Huskies. He's not a fan of big dogs, in general, but Huskies scare the living daylights out of him. He literally jumps into my arms.
  • Toys are not on his radar. He doesn't notice them or care about them. When I bring a toy to his attention, he's not the least bit interested in it. I have tried every type of toy I could find. Not a whiff of curiosity. I now have a bucket of unused toys for my next dog.
  • He is not a cuddler or a snuggler, but his day is not complete until he's completely bathed my hand in kisses. Twice is his minimum.
  • He is a follower, not a leader.
  • He's not a problem-solver, either. If he's faced with a door that's ajar, he won't push it open with his nose. He'll just stare at it forlornly and wait for it to magically open on its own.
  • He loves walks, but he doesn't always remember how they work.
  • When he first got here, he was terrified of the kitchen. Would not set foot in it. Now he comes in regularly to beg while I'm cooking. (He also didn't know how to beg. He's become a pro at that, too.)
  • He still hasn't figured out there's a powder room on the first floor. On multiple occasions, when I've been in the powder room, he's looked for me--upstairs. To get upstairs, he has to walk right past the powder room. Talk about tunnel vision.
  • He loves--LOVES--watching dog videos on my phone. He watches very intently, and then gives me the "More?" look. 
Duncan wasn't sure what to make of his celebratory "pup-cake."

Duncan wasn't sure what to make of his celebratory "pup-cake."

He's made tremendous progress in this first year, going from an almost completely-shutdown dog to a little man with a funny personality. I can't wait to see how he grows over the next year.

Happy Adopt-a-versary, Little Man! 

The Story Behind the Story: The Wheels on the Bus

Two months ago, I competed in the first round of NYC Midnight's 2017 Short Story Challenge. Today, I found out that my entry placed second in my heat--advancing me to this weekend's Round 2. I was floored.

I had to check the results half a dozen times just to make sure my name was really there.

I had to check the results half a dozen times just to make sure my name was really there.

See, I thought for sure my Short Story Challenge journey began and ended with that story.

For starters, I was assigned Romance as a genre. I do not read Romance. I do not write Romance. I am only vaguely familiar with Romance as a concept. On top of that, I had to write this Romance during the week He Who Must Not Be Named was inaugurated as president. I was not a happy camper. I did not want to write a happy, lovey story. I wanted to write something mad, something sad, something scary--not a story with a happy ever after.

Every word was a struggle. For Round 1 of the challenge, we have eight days to write a 2,500 word story. Usually, my eight days look like this:

Days 1-2 brainstorm and outline

Days 2-6 draft, draft, draft

Days 6-8 revise, revise, revise

This time it was more

Days 1-6 brainstorm   brainstorm   brainstorm

Days 6-8 draft     draft    draft    draft

No time to revise.

My finished story, late on Day 8, was 900 words too short. It was a romance without romance. There's not even any hand-holding. It's basically one long meet-cute.

I posted it thinking, "Oh, well. It's not a Romance, but it's done." I filed away the story, assuming it would never see the light of day.

It seems I was wrong. It IS a Romance, and one the judges liked. Go figure.

Click here to read "The Wheels on the Bus."

The Best Book I Read This Month: Lady Cop Makes Trouble by Amy Stewart

Confession: nothing I read this month knocked my socks off as much as The Quartet did last month. It's not that I read anything bad (although The Dead Tracks by Tim Weaver came close); just that I didn't read anything spectacular.

My favorite read, though, was Lady Cop Makes Trouble by Amy Stewart. Lady Cop is historical fiction, the second in a series about Constance Kopp, the first female deputy sheriff in New Jersey. I adored the first book in the series--Girl Waits With Gun. It touched on serious issues, but with a light touch and a sense of humor. There was something almost "Keystone Cops" about it.

I had high hopes for the sequel. In some ways, Lady Cop was as good as Girl. The characters of Constance and the sheriff, for example, were satisfying. They grew with the story. The mystery was well-plotted with appropriate twists and turns. The supporting cast--the minor characters--added color to the story and depth to the story's world.

The characters of Constance's sisters were not as satisfying. Norma and Fleurette were fun in the first book, but by the end of this one, they grated and annoyed. Each sister is unique and colorful. However, they stayed in their lanes, rigidly. They reminded me very much of George and Bess in the old Nancy Drew books. The tomboy and the girly-girl, the same in every book, the same strengths, the same flaws, no growth as people or characters. Constance's sisters felt just like that. While their lives in this book had broadened since Book 1, it didn't seem like they'd changed as a result of those wider experiences. And while Lady Cop had the same light touch as Girl, it lacked the "Keystone Cops" humor of its prequel. I missed that.

That said, I do enjoy this series, and I will read the next one.  This book might be the "sophomore slump," but it was still an enjoyable read.

 

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