Will in the World : How Shakespeare became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt This impeccably researched book has been called one of the best books ever about William Shakespeare. I haven’t read them all, or even most. Still, I can attest to the brilliance in the recreation of how this modestly educated genius emerged from provincial roots in Stratford, England to become the highly successful playwright and poet who left his imprint on the literature and culture of countries around the world.
Greenblatt distills from Elizabethan England the range of human experience, from royalty to lowlife, which is relevant across time and geography. He digs deep in historical artifacts to document religious and political tensions, spying, economic survival, royal cabals, usury, landholding, anti-Semitism, misogyny, homosexuality, public health, witchcraft and more. He admits the paper trail is often inconclusive, leaving much about Shakespeare that is speculative. Nevertheless, by painstakingly linking what is known about life under Queen Elizabeth and James I, Greenblatt convincingly connects contemporary events with the language of particular plays and poems, persuading the reader of the whys and wherefores of the Bard’s presentations. Shakespeare’s craft, the vibrancy of his character portrayal, the universality of his themes are all laid out and made truly accessible by Greenblatt. A fabulous book. Wish I had had it when I was studying Shakespeare in college.
Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein is a clear-eyed deconstruction of our current political dilemma, our polarized country, our locked-in political views, and the hardening of social and political systems in the zero-sum atmosphere that keeps us hopelessly divided. The book is long on description, short of prescription, but steeped in research and analytics from academics and practitioners alike. Stronger political parties used to keep their members under big tents, with intra-party differences drawing toward the centers. Decried as tweedle dum and tweedle dee, the closeness had the advantage of facilitating inter-party compromise. Today, with frequent election-determined swings changing the party in control of the House or the Senate, there’s less incentive to be conciliatory and more incentive to be outrageous, always feeding the base to win the next election. Because the Democrats have multiple interest groups, especially minorities, women, LGBTQ, etc, the party tends more toward the middle. The GOP, now wholly Trump-owned, has, by virtue of the former President, evicted mainstream Republicans, and is more uniformly controlled by the non-conciliatory. Often followers are willing to vote against their own interests. The reason? People vote less about policy and more about identity: in whom do they see themselves reflected? Their association makes them feel better about themselves; they love to hate the other side, and politicians love to stoke the rage and fan the flames. News media, catering to the fragmented audience, fuel the fire, giving people what they want to hear, regardless of the truth. How we feel matters more than how we think. In describing the feedback loop that perpetuates and hardens the partisan divide, Klein’s book is pretty depressing. But, if you only want one book that pulls together serious studies of the mess we’re in, this is as good as any.
Working by Robert Caro is a dewdrop of a book, clear, self-contained and refreshing. If you’ve read The Power Broker, his biography of New York’s visionary master builder Robert Moses, or any of his four biographies about Lyndon Johnson (the fifth and final volume is still a work in progress), or if you’re a writer yourself, you will enjoy Caro’s reflections on his work: researching, interviewing, and writing. He gives insight into how he develops his themes, what his workday looks like, how he drives himself to let no question go unanswered, and why his books take so many years to write. As the wife of an author (James H. Barron) whose book (The Greek Connection) took ten years from idea to publication, I found Caro’s last point reassuring.
I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death by Northern Irish novelist Maggie O’Farrell is an intriguing approach to memoir, organized around her and her child’s life-threatening medical challenges. Her chapters have drawings of body parts instead of titles, but the stories share a sense of how our mortality can smack us in the face in an instant. O’Farrell had near misses – almost drowning, a narrow escape from a murderer, a horrific childbirth, a plane crash, a brush-back as a truck nearly mowed her down. She almost died as an eight-year-old from encephalitis, and was left with neurological problems. As an out-of-control teenager, she deliberately courted danger. Her daughter suffered from anaphylaxis, and peril lurks around every corner. The early chapters are out of chronological order, but the memoir gains momentum as it proceeds, and the reader comes away with a real sense of who this talented writer is. If you enjoyed O’Farrell’s other books, including All the Light We Cannot See, and Hamnet, you will enjoy I Am, etc. If you haven’t read her other books, reading I Am I Am I Am may persuade you to do so.
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