This has been a very popular book since it came out in July of 2020. I just finished it in preparation for our book group’s discussion on July 2. It’s an intriguing premise: the young son of William Shakespeare dies and we know nothing of him. So O’Farrell constructs a story around him, and it is a wondrous tale.
O’Farrell is a beautiful writer, and reading this book is like floating on a river. (Maybe the Avon?) It took me a little bit to get into it, not in the least because of some confusion regarding Hamnet’s mother, William Shakespeare’s wife. We know her as Anne Hathaway, but O’Farrell names her Agnes which apparently sounds like “Anne” in 16th century English. But that is a small thing, although names are very important in this story. Shakespeare himself is never named, and the name of their child Hamnet who dies becomes increasingly significant as the novel progresses.
O’Farrell makes the Bubonic Plague a central part of this narrative and the cause of Hamnet’s death. There is no certain cause of his death, but the plague theme is well done and effective. Of course it is so related to the current pandemic. I found myself paying close and focused attention to her chapter on how the plague arrived in England. (A flea jumped from a monkey to the scarf of a young crew member and so on.)
One of the few pieces about Anne Hathaway that has survived down the centuries is that William Shakespeare in his will (he predeceased her by 7 years) left her his “second-best bed.” O’Farrell has a wonderful way of explaining that mystery!
Do read Hamnet. It is a sad story in many ways, but one rich in all the necessary parts and descriptions of love and joy and grief.
I just saw the happy news that Louise Erdrich won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her novel The Night Watchman. I like her writing so much, and I am looking forward to reading this one. My favorite of her many novels is The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. If you have never read her books, this is a great moment to do so!
When we travel anywhere we always look for the local bookstore. This week we’re spending four days on beautiful San Juan Island. Even though we have truly spectacular weather, we stopped in at Friday Harbor’s Griffin Bay Bookstore for a look around. (That was after an amazing breakfast at Rocky Bay Cafe – best corned beef hash and eggs anywhere!) We were very happy we stopped at the bookstore. It has an excellent selection of really interesting new books and good authors in many genres. Larry made a suggestion for their mystery shelves – Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May mysteries, and it was well received and the idea written down. I bought the latest Kate Atkinson, One Good Turn. It will get me off my Kindle and out of the Maisie Dobbs saga for a while!
Visiting San Juan Island is always a good thing to do! Have breakfast at Rocky Bay Cafe and stop in at Griffin Bay Bookstore: http://www.griffinbaybook.com
I did take a break from Maisie Dobbs to read the latest in the Lane Winslow series from Iona Whishaw. (I really need to read a stand-alone novel…) It’s a great continuation in these stories set in the interior of British Columbia after WWII. The plot in this one is particularly good, keeping you guessing in the best possible way. And, like Jaqueline Winspear, you learn a lot about the roles of women amidst difficult cultural constraints.
I write this in the week when 200 bodies of indigenous children, most from BC tribes, were found on the grounds of an old boarding school in Quebec. Here is a quote from Dorothy L. Sayers which speaks to the constraints against women and the racial hatred that forms so much of our society:
To oppose one class perpetually to another–young against old, manual labour against brain-worker, rich against poor, woman against man–is to split the foundations of the State; and if the cleavage runs too deep, there remains no remedy but force and dictatorship. If you wish to preserve a free democracy, you must base it–not on classes and categories, for this will land you in the totalitarian State, where no one may act or think except as the member of a category. You must base it upon the individual Tom, Dick and Harry, and the individual Jack and Jill–in fact, upon you and me.
-Dorothy L. Sayers, Are Women Human? (1947) (Another good read on the subject.)
So if you’ve gotten into the Lane Winslow stories, I do recommend Lethal Lesson.
I haven’t written for a month now because I am totally engrossed in the whole Jacqueline Winspear Maisie Dobbs series. These are just so good. I’m reading number 7, The Mapping of Love and Death, and I just finished the really superb number 6, Among the Mad. Winspear does such an excellent job of describing all the parts of the post WWI era, and does so with care and accuracy. Her plots are perfect elucidations of the circumstances of the time, and in each book I learn more and more about the aftermath of that horrible conflict. And, of course, in learning that I get a new window into war’s horrors and challenges in any era.
This book landed on our porch this afternoon. It just came out last week, and I was happy to order it as I am a Renee Erickson food fan. I love to eat at The Whale Wins. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was totally blown away when I opened it! The “Getaway” part is the commentary and recipes from Rome, Paris, Normandy, London, Baja, and Seattle. Included are her favorite restaurants from those places. It is a beautiful book, with the writing and all shared by some of her friends. We’re excited to cook from it and have already picked a recipe for tomorrow night!
Thanks to my friend Pamela and my cousin Michelle, I’m totally hooked on another post-World War I detective series. Maisie Dobbs, whose business cards read “Psychologist and Investigator,” is the perfect character to describe London in the late 1920’s and 1930’s and the difficulties and traumas following “The Great War.” Winspear is a good writer, and she is careful in her research. When I read books set in London, I always keep my London map handy to see where they are in that vast metropolis. I’m not fond of writers that make up streets and locations, and Winspear does none of that. Her locations elsewhere are also “spot on.”
Maisie helps us see all the opportunities of the era and also the continuing roadblocks for women. She is an intricate and interesting personality, and I am enjoying these books immensely! I’m reading #3. There are 16! Hooray!
My book group just read this very good book. It’s an interesting premise. A young woman, Nora, is weary of her life and is piling up regret after regret. She decides to end it all and finds herself in an in-between place that is a library. The books are all her possible lives. Guided by the librarian, Mrs. Elm, she moves from life to life, always risking really being dead. It all sounds rather defeating, but it is an encouraging and endearing book.
As I read it, I was reminded of other things that have similar themes. The movie Bedazzled (with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, not the more recent one), the shapeshifters that appear from time to time on any of the Star Trek series, and all other stories that have people sliding from one reality into another. Nora begins in her “Book of Regrets,” which is big and thick. It gets slimmer as things go along. Mrs. Elm is always asking Nora to stand in her “root life” as she ventures into new arenas, and I found that phrase to be helpful and illuminating. You really want Nora to succeed, to find the life she’s meant to be in. That tension makes this a really good read. It’s funny and charming and not nearly as dire as the plot sounds.
Make your way into the Midnight Library and see what you can discover about your own root life.
On this Earth Day 2021, I’m thinking of people who are observers and listeners. They help us see and hear the world around us and open our minds to the treasures and sorrows of the earth.
Ronald Blythe is one of those people. He is most famous for Akenfield, a fictionalized account of the life of one English village in Suffolk from 1880 to 1966. The way I began to read him was in two of his collections of his columns for the Church Times, “Word from Wormingford.” The first collection has that title, the second is called Out of the Valley. Blythe is a Lay Reader in the Church of England. His columns, and hence these collections, are from his observations as he makes his way from one village church to another all around Wormingford in Essex, in the valley of the river Stour. Blythe is a wonderful writer, and the reader is drawn into his world through his gentle and compelling stories. In an interview with The Guardian he said, “What I basically am is a listener and a watcher.”
Blythe has written many things, but I invite you to enter into his Wormingford world with these two lovely books. Since they are a collection of newspaper columns, they are lovely to pick up and read just a bit from time to time. They offer great reflections for Earth Day or any day.
I tend to read anything about Dorothy L. Sayers, so I was intrigued by this new volume (2020). When I was a parish pastor I often quoted Sayers in my sermons, and not just the theology! Murder mysteries are a great source for descriptions of what humans do. So this book seemed right up my alley.
I have to admit that I was seriously disappointed when I started out. I thought that it was over-simplified and didn’t quite do the depth of Sayers’ thought justice. I also thought it was really geared toward evangelicals. I told a couple friends about my frustration with it, and Joan Beck did a little research and listened to a recording of Crystal Downing at the book launch a year ago. It turns out it is geared to evangelicals, using Sayers’ to help them think a little differently about Christian faith. This really helped me read the book from a different lens.
Crystal Downing is, with her husband, the co-director of the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College where most of Sayers’ papers are housed. So she had access to many things I haven’t read, and I was very happy to have that resource. I did appreciate the last couple chapters on The Mind of the Maker and politics and religion. Downing did an excellent job of lifting up Sayers’ core thinking and putting it in context for the 21st century.