Becoming Shakespeare by Jack Lynch

becoming shakespeareBook – At the turn of the seventeenth century, Will Shakespeare was one of a number of popular playwrights, hacking out a living in London’s theaters and competing for patrons, but he wasn’t considered the very best. What happened, then, to turn this one early modern writer into The Bard, the greatest genius of English literature?

I’ve been a fan of Shakespeare ever since I got out of high school and had a chance to read and see the plays for fun instead of for the test, but Lynch offers an entirely new perspective. Shakespeare’s exalted position, he argues, is as much an accident of history as anything; there were plenty of other writers not only of Shakespeare’s time but of many others who could have taken the same place, but didn’t. He traces the history of Shakespeare’s afterlife through the Restoration (when plays written for the last kings of England were brought back to the stage following the English Civil War) and the following centuries where, it seemed, Shakespeare just kept getting more famous for being famous. It didn’t hurt that he was also a great writer, but that definitely wasn’t all that was going on.

This would be a fun book for anyone interested in English history, the nature of fame, and of course for anyone who’s ever seen a Shakespeare play and wondered what all the fuss was about.

Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton

harkBookCalvin and Hobbes meets A Short History of Nearly Everything in this hilariously quirky anthology from webcomic artist Kate Beaton.  Beaton’s comics draw their themes heavily from history and literature, with subjects ranging from Sherlock Holmes (and the Case of the Two Watsons) to the French Revolution (traitor baby!) to St. Francis of Assisi (the birds are his brothers).  While that may not sound like a recipe for comedic brilliance, Beaton has a keen eye for history’s absurdities and a playful sense of humor that has spawned many an internet meme.  Her art style–charmingly boneless and wide-eyed people abound–is instantly recognizable and easy to love.

Fortunately for those of us who may not be as well-informed on Canadian History, Ancient Rome or the Bronte Sisters as Beaton herself, she provides brief notes along with most strips that offer background knowledge and further information (and the occasional wisecrack).  Between these and the comics themselves, it’s easy to come for the humor and learn a little something by accident.  As a bonus, parents who fall under the spell of Hark! A Vagrant can look forward to Beaton’s first picture book, The Princess and the Pony, due to arrive at the end of June.  And, of course, fans can always find more Hark! A Vagrant at http://www.harkavagrant.com/.

The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming, and The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport

Books – With the centennial of WWI upon us and that of the Russian Revolution soon to come, the last imperial family of Russia has been a popular subject recently.  Two important histories were published in 2014.

The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport, a book for adult readers, is an intimate and personal family history that accomplishes the difficult task of making its royal subjects individual and relatable.  As the title suggests, its highlight is the degree to which it addresses with the four Romanov grand duchesses–Olga, Tatiana, Marie and Anastasia–as unique personalities, avoiding the tendency of onlookers (during their lifetimes and since) to lump them together into one unit.  The treatment of the family, its personalities and their actions, is neither sentimental nor condemnatory, providing a detached authorial perspective that allows readers to make up their own minds.

The Family RomanovThe Family Romanov by Candace Fleming, intended for teen audiences and up, distinguishes itself from The Romanov Sisters by the strength of its narrative thread and breadth of its scope.  Rather than limiting itself to the Romanovs, The Family Romanov features a series of “Beyond the Palace Gates” sections that describe broader events in Russia and the world.  Even for older readers who may have some familiarity with the history of the period, this context is a thoughtful addition that enriches the story.  Fleming is also adept at exploiting the inherent tension of her tragic subject to keep readers on edge and eager to continue.  That said, Fleming has much more of an authorial agenda than Rappaport.  Readers of The Family Romanov will emerge with a very clear sense of her opinions and point of view (not necessarily either a good or bad thing).

Both books are well-written, deeply researched and engaging; I would have no hesitation in recommending either one.  If I were forced to choose between them, however, my verdict would come down in favor of The Family Romanov, whether for adult, tween or teen readers.  It is more readable and memorable, and the added background into the lives of everyday Russians and famous historical figures outside the royal family adds an extra layer of depth.

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann

lost cityBook – Touted as a real-life Indiana Jones story, The Lost City of Z tells the adventures of Percy Fawcett. The last of the ‘amateur’ adventurers, Colonel Fawcett helped explore the Amazon and was instrumental in mapping the borders of Brazil and Argentina at the request of the Royal Geographic Society. He is most well-known for his exhaustive search for the ‘Lost City of Z,’ a city that he was convinced existed in the depths of the Amazon jungle. His expedition disappeared in 1925 and no verified account of what actually did happen exists. At least one hundred people have died in search of both the city and the fate of Fawcett’s party.

In addition to the story of what happened in Fawcett’s life, The Lost City of Z also tells the story of a writer in search of a story and how easily you can get caught up in a legend. David Grann undertook a trek of his own into the false paradise that is the Amazonian jungle and came out with a new understanding of what it meant to be an explorer in the golden era.

This book was a fascinating look at the Amazon through the eyes of anthropologists, archaeologists, and adventurers. The mystery still lingers and this book made me research so many things. I still want to know more about the events that led to the disappearance of Fawcett’s party and the subsequent discoveries made. This will be hours and hours of interesting reads.

I listened to this book and while the narrator had a dry almost monotone style, it worked for the topic.

Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.

emptyBook – There is something about the extravagant mansions of the early industrialists that elicits morbid curiosity. In Empty Mansions : the mysterious life of Huguette Clark and the spending of a great American fortune true stories about some eccentric mansions and the people that lived in them are revealed. This bestselling book is written by Pulitzer Prize winner Bill Dedman, and a cousin of the heiress Huguette Clark, Paul Clark Newell, Jr. The mystery of Hugette’s life required an extra bit of investigative work on the authors’ parts because Hugette was shy and very reclusive. She passed away in 2011 at the age of 105.

I found the story of Huguette’s father, W.A. Clark, impressive. He was a risk-taking pioneer in Montana that worked his way up to becoming wealthier than Rockefeller during his lifetime. Unfortunately, his copper mining business also began widespread damage upon the Montana ecosystem. The large fortune he left to Hugette provided her the opportunity to make some outrageous decisions in how she chose to spend it.

Mr. Selfridge (2013)

mr-selfridge-first-season_17180TV Series – Another winning series from Masterpiece Theater – Mr. Selfridge is the ultimate armchair shopping experience.  The story revolves around the actual American retail magnate, Harry Selfridge, who owned and operated an exclusive department store in London called Selfridges which opened in 1909.  Born in Wisconsin he married Chicago socialite Rose Buckingham.  He gained his retail experience from Marshall Field’s where he worked for 25 years.  Selfridge wanted to bring shopping to a new level for Londoners.  He wanted his customers to view shopping as a pleasure instead of a necessity and he embraced the philosophy of “the customer is always right”.  He wanted Selfridges to be a place to spend the day and money as customers dined in one of the elegant restaurants, relaxed in the library or reading and writing rooms, and perused extensive displays of merchandise handled by an expert sales staff. The series magnificently portrays the glamor of the store, as well as gives us an intimate look into the lives of Harry and his family, and some of the fascinating characters of Selfridges.  A must see.  Fans of Downton Abbey will be sure to enjoy this too.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! by Richard Ned Lebow

archdukeBook – On the 28th of June, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated in Sarajevo, an event which is now commonly regarded as the spark that kicked off World War I. In this book, Lebow considers what might have happened if the assassin had missed. The Archduke, he argues, was an important moderate voice in European politics, and if he had lived, war may have been avoided. But what would the world look like if one of the deadliest conflicts of the twentieth century had never happened?

Lebow offers two alternatives: a particularly good world, in which the absence of war creates an open, moderate, and prosperous global community; and a particularly bad one, in which the tensions which contributed to the Great War continue without ever breaking into outright war, creating an atmosphere of oppression and paranoia. He admits that either set of events is as plausible as the other, and we’ll never be able to test his guesses, but he also argues that thinking about how things could have been different helps us to understand why things happened the way they did.

Since the book focuses so much on individual people, it’s easy to get lost in a long list of names and titles, particularly since half of the book is describing things that these people never actually did. I wouldn’t recommend it as an introduction to the war, but for someone already a little familiar with the events, this is an interesting new angle.

The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

lost symbolBook – Towards the beginning of Dan Brown’s third book featuring Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, Langdon points out that fewer students in his class have visited their own nation’s capital than have traveled abroad. In The Lost Symbol Brown wraps the buildings, monuments, and leaders of this nation in the intriguing style of clandestine history with which he previously enlivened the locales of Paris and Rome. At the request of a close friend and mentor, Langdon is called to Washington D.C. to present a lecture. However, his arrival at the U.S. Capitol Building begins a race to save his mentor’s life. During the thrilling chase and unraveling of codes meant to protect sacred metaphysical truths, and intertwining revelations of noetic science, readers are treated to a captivating underground tour of Washington. As in the movie National Treasure a large part of this story’s success is the authentic impression of historical embellishments. Here are several texts to help distinguish fact from fiction before embarking on a trip inspired by The Lost Symbol: Secret societies of America’s elite : from the Knights Templar to Skull and BonesThe Truth About Masons, Secret Societies and How They Affect Our Lives Today, Secret Societies: Gardiner’s Forbidden Knowledge, The Washington Monument : it stands for all, America’s library : the story of the Library of Congress, 1800-2000The City of Washington, an Illustrated History. I listened to The Lost Symbol with the Library’s updated Overdrive app, which has convenient controls for listening at advanced speeds and for setting a timer.

 

Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace by Kate Summerscale

Mrs. Robinson's DisgraceBook – Divorce in England became available to the middle class for the first time in 1858, and one of the first cases was that of Robinson v. Robinson & Lane. Henry Robinson had read his wife’s diary while she was ill, and discovered it full of stories about her passionate love affair with a handsome young doctor. He sued for divorce as soon as he was able. Isabella Robinson’s defense argued that the diary was a work of fantasy and none of the affairs had actually happened. The court took three months to reach a verdict, and meanwhile the case became a sensation. Excerpts of Mrs. Robinson’s diary were printed in the papers – a lucky stroke for historian Kate Summerscale, as the actual diary has vanished.

Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace immerses you in the world of a middle-class Victorian housewife who desperately longs for something more in her life. The book reads almost like a novel, following first the events of Isabella Robinson’s diary and then those of the trial, while also describing the surrounding world – the mania for diary-writing, the salaciousness of the press, the nervousness about the new divorce courts. For those who want more of the same, Emma Donoghue’s novel The Sealed Letter is a fictional tale of Victorian divorce which references the Robinson case.