Posts Tagged ‘Shakespeare’

A couple weeks ago I noted on Facebook that I was temporarily abandoning the palace intrigue of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury for Robert Harris’ new novel Munich (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley). There I was met on the first page with this: “He had listened to it on the BBC as it was delivered. Metallic, remorseless, threatening, self-pitying, boastful. . . it had been punctuated by the thumps of Hitler’s hands on the podium and by the roar of fifteen thousand voices shouting their approval. The noise was inhuman, unearthly. It seemed to well up from some subterranean river and pour out of the loudspeaker.”

It’s September of 1938, and Hitler is threatening to invade Czechoslovakia. We know that he was dissuaded by British PM Neville Chamberlain at a last-minute meeting in Munich calling “for peace in our time.” Although this policy of appeasement didn’t sit well with many and only delayed World War II by not even a year, history acknowledges that the intervening months gave the Allies the crucial time to prepare for war. Knowing that Munich almost didn’t happen and the talks threatened to fall apart moment to moment doesn’t detract from Harris’ sleek and suspenseful narrative. Hugh Legat and Paul von Hartmann were friends together at Oxford. Now, Hugh is an aide with the British foreign office, and Paul, a German nationalist, is one of the civil servants and military officers plotting Hitler’s demise in Berlin. The two need to meet long enough in Munich for Paul to pass a message to British intelligence, but he is being watched by Hitler’s henchmen. Harris sustains the tension throughout, and his fictional characters have the solidity of the historical figures who come to life in the fast-moving pages.  A thriller of diplomacy and espionage, Munich’s a book for our times.

Seen from above, a garden maze is a miracle of symmetry and relatively easy to traverse. But when you’re in the maze, navigating the intricate loops proves more difficult. Oh, for a map! Gregory Blake Smith’s The Maze at Windermere is a miracle of symmetry from any perspective, an artfully constructed historical novel in which five stories are superimposed, one on top the other through time, in Newport, R.I. We begin in 2011, with a poor but handsome tennis pro romancing several women, one an heiress with cerebral palsy. In 1896, a closeted man-about-town woos a wealthy widow who owns the Windermere estate. Thirty years earlier, a young Henry James aspires to be a writer by observing Newport society. During the American Revolution, a manipulative British soldier plots to seduce the beautiful daughter of a Jewish merchant. And in 1692, a young Quaker woman feels she must marry after her father is lost at sea.

Smith nimbly braids these distinct narratives loosely at first, then tighter as the book progresses. Similar themes of race and class, love and money emerge and then converge. Past is prism and palimpsest. A familiarity with Henry James — Portrait of a Lady, The Wings of the Dove, The Heiress — deepens appreciation, but there’s nothing fusty or longwinded about The Maze at Windermere. Each character is true to his or her time and speaks accordingly. Still, it is the young James who seems to sum up their thoughts when he writes, “We each of us strive to understand who we are, why we are here, to love and be loved, and for all that striving, we are each of us lost in the mystery of our own heart.” I got lost in The Maze at Windermere and loved every page.

It’s been a good month for historical novels. One of my other favorites is Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s Peculiar Ground (Harper, review) which I reviewed for the Minneapolis StarTribune. (https://tinyurl.com/yc4mmrze). It’s the sprawling saga of a walled English estate depicted in gorgeous prose at specific points in the 17th century and then again in the 20th. In Fools and Mortals (Harper, digital galley), Bernard Cornwell takes a break from the Saxons and turns to Shakespeare, expertly evoking Elizabethan times. His adventure tale focuses on Shakespeare’s handsome younger brother Richard, an actor in Will’s troupe who is charged with retrieving the original script of A Midsummer’s Night Dream after it is stolen by a rival theatrical company. Enter complications pursued by hi-jinks. Seriously, it’s quite good. Rachel Rhys’ Dangerous Crossing (Atria, library hardcover)  pays homage to Agatha Christie as young Englishwoman Lily Shepherd, a former housemaid, books passage to Australia in the summer of 1939. There’s shipboard romance and intrigue as Lily’s fellow travelers include an amiable brother and sister with health issues, a Jewish schoolteacher who has fled her home in Vienna, a mysterious and wealthy American couple, an embittered spinster, a bullying bigot, a nervous mother and her teenage daughter, and a naive housemaid.  Lauren Willig’s a pro at romantic suspense, and sets her entertaining The English Wife (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley) in Gilded Age New York. Janie Van Duyvil uncovers family secrets when her older brother Bayard is murdered at a fancy dress ball and his English wife Annabelle disappears. A parallel narrative introduces readers to the music halls of London and a beautiful singer who calls herself George. Janie’s a shy, somewhat tiresome character in the beginning, but she finds confidence (and love) when a tabloid reporter joins her in a quest for answers.

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station11It begins with an ending. On a snowy night in Toronto, King Lear literally dies on stage when lead actor Arthur Leander is felled by a heart attack. A paramedic trainee springs from the audience to try and revive him. A child actress who witnessed Leander’s collapse is escorted from the stage. Later, fellow members of the cast and crew gather together to toast the actor.  “Of all of them there in the bar that night, the bartender survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.”

In Emily St. John Mandel’s remarkable fourth novel, Station Eleven (Knopf Doubleday, digital gallery), a fast-moving flu pandemic wipes out 99 percent of the world’s population, along with all borders, cities, countries, and pretty much civilization as we know it. But the novel doesn’t linger long on the horrific end times as it gracefully loops post and pre-apocalypse, linking Leander’s life as a Hollywood actor to a handful of survivors and talismans. Station Eleven thus becomes a moving mystery of memory and connections lost and found.

Twenty years into this new dark age, survivors can be found in small settlements, living off the land and scavenging useful remains — clothes, canned goods, soap — from long-abandoned houses. Kirsten Raymonde, the little girl who witnessed Leander’s death, is  an actress with the Traveling Symphony, a theatrical and musical troupe that travels by horse-drawn wagon from one community to the next. It performs Beethoven and Shakespeare because “people want what was best about the world.”  Also, as its motto states: “Survival is insufficient,” a line not from Shakespeare but an episode of Star Trek: Voyager. Kirsten has the words tattooed on her wrist, along with two black knives, and she carries worn copies of the graphic novel “Station Eleven,” that Leander gave her long ago.  The meaning of the knives is one of the small mysteries that will be revealed as the troupe moves through an increasingly hostile landscape around Lake Michigan, where a strange Prophet now holds sway. As for the comic books, we learn in a flashback that they were created by Miranda, the first of Leander’s three wives, and they take on a greater significance as Mandel deftly spins her elegiac story, intertwining her characters’ fates.

One thread follows Javeen, the paramedic who tried to save Leander, and who then took grocery carts of supplies to his disabled brother’s high-rise. Another belongs to the actor’s best friend from college days, who ends up stranded in a Michigan airport and becomes curator of the Museum of Civilization — an ever-growing collection of survivors’ useless belongings from cell phones and laptops to credit cards and high heels. When Kirsten and a companion become separated from the Traveling Symphony, they head for the previously agreed-upon meeting point — the airport. Out on the tarmac, abandoned planes have been turned into shelters except for the last plane to land, which sits apart. It chose to lock its doors in a self-imposed quarantine, dooming its passengers so others might live. Perhaps those survivors — or their children — will live long enough for the world to remake itself, for the lights to come back on.





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I know, I know. “Only kings, presidents, editors, and people with tapeworms have the right to use the editorial ‘we’.”  So said Mark Twain.

We beg to differ, although we are quite fond of Twain, who also said, “Never put off until tomorrow what you can put off until the day after tomorrow.”  Still, reviewers, myself included, sometimes have been known to use the editorial or royal we because we get tired of saying “I” or “you” or “the reader.”  “We” sounds more more inclusive and intimate.

Fiction writers know this as well, but the collective plural voice is a tricky thing to pull off, especially over the length of a novel if it’s meant to be more than an attention-getting conceit. Happily, two first-time novelists use “we” to tell their quite different tales in captivating fashion.

Rosalind, Bianca and Cordelia, aka Rose, Bean and Cordy, are the daughters of a reknowned Shakespearean scholar and thus the title characters of The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown. Despite their names, their ever-ready-with a-quote dad, and that they grew up speaking iambic pentameter, the sisters are not weird, “especially now that ‘weird’  has evolved from its delicious meaning of supernatural strangeness into something depressingly critical and pedestrian.” But they do note that Shakespeare originally meant “wyrd,” as in fate. “And we might argue that we are not fated to do anything, that we have chosen everything in our lives, that there is no such thing as destiny. And we would be lying.”

So not weird at at all. Fate has made them sisters in a certain birth order but not best friends. “See, we love each other. We just don’t happen to like each other very much.”

When their mother is diagnosed with breast cancer, the three grown sisters all decide to help, returning to their parents’ house in an Ohio college town home without telling one another, and each bringing considerable baggage. Rose, a college math professor whose fiance is in England on sabbatical, never really has left home, certain that all will fall apart in her absence. Bean is escaping from her pseudo-glam New York City life, having just been fired. Free-spirited Cordy wanders in, pregnant and without plans or any sure idea of who the baby’s father is. Thus the stage is set for toil and trouble even as the story bubbles somewhat lightly, even merrily along.

The Weird Sisters rises above its sibling novels of domestic drama because Brown has a way with words — her own and Shakespeare’s — and the plural voice works harmoniously as the sisters discover that not all of life’s problems can be solved with a library card. Perhaps there’s some wisdom (and comeuppance) in “to thine ownself be true.” 

Now, let us turn from Shakespeare to Virgil, whose word give Hannah Pittard’s debut its enticing title, The Fates Will Find Their Way.

So many missing girl books — but this one is different. Told collectively by a group of teenage boys, it explores their obsession with a classmate who disappears. The first chapter is a great story in itself; the next chapters speculate and explore the possibilities and probabilities of different scenarios as to Nora Lindell’s fate, while further expanding on strands from the first chapter.

 And what of Nora’s younger sister, Sissy, who also captures the boys’ attention and imagination ? What secrets does she know? One is the fact that she saw her sister late on the Halloween night she disappeared, much later than anyone else.

As the boys grow into men and marry, their inner lives still are defined by the vanished girl and the stories they tell themselves.

“Would she really have provided us of anything our wives haven’t? Perhaps. Yes, perhaps. But that night, after the Prices’ last pool party of the summer, everything felt wonderful; we were whole, complete, content. We had drunk like fish, tanned like hides, and now we were ready to sleep like kings.”

Mmm. To sleep, perchance to dream?  The first-person plural recalls Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, but Pittard’s meditative story floats on its own, memorable and haunting.

Open Books: I received advance readers’ editions from the publishers of both The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown (Amy Einhorn/Putnam) and The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard (Ecco/HarperCollins). My thanks.

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