Can You Ever Really Know an Author?

With J. K. Rowling’s latest contribution to crime fiction – The Silkworm – headlining the New York Times Book Review, Adam Kirsch’s essay in “Bookends” in the same section – When We Read Fiction, How Relevant is the Author’s Biography?  questions whether knowing the author’s life (and previous work) affects our reception of new work – is it

 “a mere distraction from what really matters, the work?”

Although he does not cite Rowling, focusing instead on Jane Austen and Shakespeare, the one with a life clearly available for scrutiny, the other not so much, my expectations of a new book by J.K. Rowling are probably higher because of Harry Potter.  And, like Rick Nelson, who faced a jeering audience when he failed to perform their old favorite songs, Rowling’s foray into adult crime has left me wanting to return to wizards and magic. To be fair, I have only read the first in the detective series, and maybe the second is better.

IMG_0348Shakespeare, on the other hand, will always be a favorite, and I agree with Kirsch:

…the unknowability of Shakespeare  is a key ingredient in his greatness… {he} stays one step ahead of  us, always knowing more about life and human nature than we do…”

Soon I will be getting reacquainted with the Bard at the Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City through Twelfth Nigh, Measure for Measure, and Comedy of Errors, and I know my high expectations will be met.  Jane Austen will be there too in an adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.  Maybe we can all have tea together.



The Bookman’s Tale

9780670026470_p0_v1_s260x420Charlie Lovett balances the controversy over the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays with romance and mystery in The Bookman’s Tale.  Although the story is heavy with meticulous research that only a British lit major could appreciate, the intriguing search for proof that Shakespeare really did write his plays is balanced with a touching modern-day love story.

Lovett bounces around in time, from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, and if you miss the date before each chapter, you will lose your place.  Peter Byerly, a collector of antiquarian books, who is bereft over his wife’s death, is the connection between the Bard’s contemporaries and current events.  When Peter finds a dated Victorian watercolor portrait of his dead wife inside an old book, he begins a search leading him to Shakespeare’s annotations for  “Winter’s Tale.”  If the notes are authentic, the book would be proof that Shakespeare really did write his own plays.

Lovett uses flachbacks to reveal Peter’s life as an introverted student but the present-day mystery of Peter’s  precious find in the English countryside involves murder and forgery.  When the author flips back to Marlowe and Green in the 15oo’s, he not only offers historical information but cleverly ends chapters with a cliff-hanging alternative to history that reappears in Peter’s twentieth century pursuit – but the action is slow-moving and laden with heavy details.

Written by a collector of rare books and a former antiquarian book seller, the story has comprehensive explanations of book restoration and the process for verifying providence and authenticity.  My friendly librarian, knowing my affinity for the Bard, suggested this book, and I enjoyed the slow pace and historical details, balanced by the romance of true love, but I admit to impatiently skimming through some of the descriptions to get to the solved mystery.

My Week With Marilyn

When Colin Clark’s memoir about the six-month filming of “The Prince and the Showgirl” with Marilyn Monroe and Sir Lawrence Olivier was first published in 1995 as The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me –  the details of one week were missing.  Seems that was the best week and the new  edition published in 2000 as My Week with Marilyn includes Clark’s romantic rendezvous with the beleaguered film star.  The movie uses the update to offer an entertaining backstage view of Marilyn’s insecurities and Clark’s star-struck first love.

In an interview with Kenneth Branagh  for The New Yorker – Being Sir Larry –  Rebecca Mead discovers that Branagh is not far from the Sir Lawrence he portrays in the movie.  Known for his interpretation of Shakespearean roles, Branagh – like Olivier – assumes an air of superiority in discussing books and himself.  Unlike Sir Larry, Kenneth turned down the title but often finds the “Sir” attached to his name anyway; he notes:

“Theatrical folk who do classical plays – the title goes with it, whether they have it or not.”

I saw “My Week with Marilyn” and was reminded of Monroe’s beauty, vulnerability, and ambition.  Clark’s memoir may have exaggerated, but that makes for a good show.  Now to watch that old classic “The Prince and the Showgirl” – with a new perspective.

Shakespeare’s Kitchen

Today is William Shakespeare’s birthday, and the Bard will be the subject of praise for his plays, his sonnets, his universal themes, his language – but probably few will be thinking about Shakespeare’s Kitchen – not the 2007 collection of short stories by Lore Segal – the cookbook by Francine Segan.

I found this cookbook at the Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City, looking for the recipes for the sweet raspberry tarts served during intermission in the courtyard of the Adams Theater.  They were not in the book, but I did find apple tarts with candied orange crust, and the meat pies that I had passed up for the sweet.

Shakespeare’s Kitchen includes more than recipes and full page pictures of food that jump off the page –  herb tart, Renaissance rice balls, leg of lamb with oyster stuffing, and more.  Segan’s directions are clear and simple as she draws from a number of Elizabethan cooks, but she also includes recipe excerpts from The Good Huswifes Jewell, 1587 with the original spelling and grammar:

“Boyle your ryce, and put the yolkes of two or three Egges into the ryce and when it is boyled, put it into a dish, and season it with Sugar, Synamon and ginger and butter, and the juyce of two or three orenges, and set it on the fire againe.”

Quotes from appropriate Shakespearean plays sprinkle the recipes; Orange Scented Rice includes a quote from The Winter’s Tale...

“…Rice, – what will this sister of mine do with rice?                  But my father hath made her mistress of the feast, and she lays it on.”

And Segan offers information about the food of Shakespeare’s time – oysters were plentiful but no chocolate.  “Shakespeare never tasted {it}. The Spanish discovered chocolate in Mexico…it wasn’t introduced to England until after Shakespeare’s lifetime.”  And no tea or coffee.

Whether or not you decide to try any of the recipes, Shakespeare’s Kitchen is an easy way to vicariously feast with the Bard.  After all,

Tis an ill cook that cannot lick his own fingers…                                  “Romeo and Juliet”

Related Post:  Courage Tart

The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown

Double, double, toil and trouble…

With characters named after Shakespearean heroines and dialogue sprinkled with quotes from the Bard, Eleanor Brown delivers on the reference in her title – but without Macbeth or witches.  And, if you have sisters or daughters in your family, some of the scenes will resonate.

Set in a small college town in Ohio, The Weird Sisters has a predictable plot of family problem-solving and relationships.  Three unmarried sisters, named Rosalind, Bianca, and Cordelia by their English professor father, return home to care for their mother who has breast cancer.   But each also has her own unresolved life issues to confront.

..we love each other, we just don’t happen to like each other…

Brown uses a clever device to tell the story; at times, all three sisters are telling the story as one voice.  She has you inside their heads, seeing each other, themselves, and the world around them – in a kaleidoscopic view.  Can be strange (weird?) at times, but keeps the cauldron bubbling.

They are what they are, and yet not:  Rose, the eldest, most responsible and accomplished; Bean (Bianca) most beautiful; Cordy, youngest, most spoiled, and looking for something that is not a hand-me-down.  As the story develops around their mother’s cancer – chemo, surgery, embolisms – each sister confronts her own demons to face her destiny: Rose’s fear of leaving, Bean’s professional life as a “thief and liar,” Cordy’s irresponsibility and pregnancy.

Brown teases with some drama, and a little sex – and works in convenient plot twists to solve all problems – all’s well that ends well – maybe a little too neatly.  The characters, especially the sisters’ father, reference Shakespeare in their general conversation, but the quotes get a little overdone and, sometimes, you will wish Brown would just get on with it, and say what she means.

The Weird Sisters is a good story for a quiet afternoon – a Hallmark channel kind of luxury.  I cried and laughed a little, related to some scenes, recognized most of the Elizabethan references, looked forward to the ending…

“To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day… “