Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Shakespeare as a Plot Device . . . This Month's Fad

Is it possible for a sixteenth-century writer to be a twenty-first-century fad? Yes, apparently it is, as books that make Shakespeare and Shakespeare scholars an element of their plots seem to be trending . . . at least on my book list. The fad started in January with Small Blessings and continued this month with several items discussed in Fiction below.

Breakdown, by Jonathan Kellerman
Find Her, by Lisa Gardner

These titles are both the latest releases in long series. The Kellerman book, featuring child psychologist Alex Delaware, starts very slowly, as Alex is called in to help a psychotic actress whose son he evaluated several years previously. When she is found dead, he launches his own investigation, eventually drawing his buddy Police Lieutenant Milo Sturgis into the case, which gradually grows more complex and involves multiple murders. Not great but not bad either. The same could be said of Gardner's latest D.D. Warren book, in which the Boston detective is searching for Flora Dane, a woman who was kidnapped and held captive for over a year and has now been kidnapped again while serving as a consultant to a dad whose daughter is missing. Far-fetched but still moderately entertaining.

Still Time, by Jean Hegland
The Bookman's Tale, by Charlie Lovett
The Rent Collector, by Camron Wright
Purity, by Jonathan Franzen
Language Arts, by Stephanie Kallois
The Secret Chord, by Geraldine Brooks
Kissing in America, by Margo Rabb

Still Time is my favorite of the Shakespeare books. It focuses on a Shakespeare scholar whose fourth wife has put him in memory care due to his worsening dementia; at the same time, she encourages his daughter, from whom he has been estranged for a decade, to make an effort to reconnect. The story goes back and forth in time, helping us understand John's relationship, his life as a scholar who blames his daughter for blowing his one chance to vault into the academic "big time," and the frightening state of his mind as his dementia deepens--often he can quote long passages of Shakespeare but cannot remember why he chose that passage or the identity of the young woman he is talking to. I found Still Time to be profoundly moving.

In The Bookman's Tale,  Charlie Lovett examines the mystery of who wrote the Shakespeare ouevre. The novel's protagonist, Peter Byerly is an antiquarian book dealer who moved to England after being widowed. Trying to track down the source of a 100-year-old painting of a woman who looks exactly like his late wife, he becomes involved in investigating the provenance of several documents that might shed new light on the Shakespeare controversy. The book bounces between the present in which these events are occurring, ten years previously when he and his wife were falling in love, and centuries earlier when the documents were created. Although there's a twist at the end that is utterly unbelievable, overall the book is entertaining.

The Rent Collector probably shouldn't be included in the Shakespeare fad because the bard is only mentioned as one of a number of writers whose works inspire the two heroines of the book--a young wife and mother living in a Cambodian dump, where her husband scavenges to support their family and the title character, whom the young woman convinces to teach her to read. The process changes both of their lives. The author's son made a documentary about living in the dumps, which inspired Camron Wright to pen this book, which presents interesting background on the Khmer Rouge and conditions in Cambodia and covers intriguing themes, like the power of stories and traditional vs. Western medicine (the young mother has a sick child). Somehow, however, the book doesn't quite feel authentic. This feeling may have been strengthened by the fake Asian accent that the narrator of the audible book chose to employ in reading the book.

Jonathan Franzen is not one of my favorite authors, but I always feel compelled to read his books because they garner so much publicity. Purity has some of the same features as Franzen's earlier novels The Corrections and Freedom--multiple points of view, nonlinear plotting, a section that is someone's autobiography or memoir, engagement with current issues (here journalism vs. hackers/leakers such as Assange and Snowden), sexist portrayals of female characters. I found the first part of the book boring and the rest repellent--I don't even want to waste time describing its characters, plot, and themes. Read it if you love Franzen and avoid it if you don't.

Language Arts is the story of a couple, Charles and Allison, whose marriage was destroyed by the inevitable conflict that raising an autistic child causes. They try to work together to make good decisions about their son Cody's care, but it's difficult. Charles is a teacher who lives alone now that his daughter Emily has gone to college, and he writes her lovely long letters. One of Charles's students begins a project that involves both Cody and a former nun with dementia (perhaps dementia is also a theme) who often relives the years of World War II in her mind. Without going into depth but Charles and the nun have a deep attachment to the Palmer handwriting method, which is used to surprising effect in the story. Although the book is sometimes painfully sad, it is also hopeful, and I recommend it highly.

I loved Geraldine Brooks's first three novels, but her more recent ones have not enthralled me. The Secret Chord is the story of King David, narrated by his prophet Natan. My religious education (and practice) stopped in about 1968, so I'm hardly qualified to judge whether Brooks gives David a fair treatment. I will say that the story features murder; unceasing war; rape and abuse; plotting against friends, foes, and family; and a variety of other nefarious acts. Suffice it to say that bringing David to life, as many reviews claim the book does, seemed a pointless effort to me.

Kissing in America is a charming coming-of-age story. Sixteen-year-old Eva's father was killed in a plane crash two years ago and not only will her mother not talk about him, she is dating the charmless Larry. Craving love and attention, Eva falls in love with the enigmatic Will; when he moves to California, she cooks up a scheme that involves her and her best friend Annie taking a bus trip to LA, ostensibly so Annie can be on a quiz show for smart girls but really to see Will. Naturally, the bus trip provides numerous adventures, both the quiz show and rendezvous with Will are disasters, and Eva and her mother achieve some rapprochement. Predictable--but still entertaining.

Unforgettable: A Son, A Mother, and the Lessons of a Lifetime, by Scott Simon

I love the way Scott Simon tells stories on NPR. In Unforgettable, he's telling his mother's story; as Patricia lies dying in a Chicago hospital, they reminisce about her unconventional life and his childhood. Chapters start and end with tweets that Simon sent out from her hospital room; while the tweets evidently engendered some considerable criticism, I liked their use as bookends. Simon doesn't tread new ground with his account of maternal death; nonetheless, I found the book affecting.

Picks of the Litter: Still Time and Language Arts

Favorite Passages:
Memory--uncorrected, uncorroborated, and (by its very nature) unreliable--is what allows us to retroactively create the blueprints of our lives, because it is often impossible to make sense of our lives when we're inside them, when the narratives are still unfolding: This can't be happening. Why is this happening? Why is this happening now. Only by looking backward ae we able to answer those questions, only through the assist of memory. And who knows how memory will answer? Who will it blame? Who will it forgive?

From Language Arts, by Stephanie Kallos

We don't become the people we are all at once. But if we are lucky, every love, laugh, and loss puts a wrinkle in our hearts to make us distinctive.

From Unforgettable, by Scott Simon