The Bookman’s Tale

This novel is based on the age old question of the true authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. The story leaps back and forth between the present (1980s-1990s) and the past (1592 -1879,) as Peter Byerly in the former time battles with the loss of his dear wife of six years, Amanda. He leaves the U.S. to move to Kingham, a Cotswold village in England, to try to come to terms with his depression. While thumbing through old books in a local bookshop, Peter stumbles across a small watercolor picture with his Amanda’s exact likeness in an old volume on eighteenth century forgery. He sets out to discover who this person was and the connection between her and his former wife.

Along the way the reader finds himself in sixteenth century England, and is treated to imaginary discussions between Shakepeare and his cohorts. The provenance of a volume of prose romance, entitled Pandosto, published in 1588 by author Robert Greene, is called into question after Greene’s death in 1592. Shakespeare comes into possession of it at one point and was inspired to use the plot in A Winter’s Tale. The Pandosto eventually winds up in an English mansion in 1995, which raises the question — is it genuine or rather a very good forgery?

A multi-level tale of history, murder, intrigue, loss and romance, this is a must for bibliophiles! (I have to say it inspired me to print the list of Shakespeare’s plays, in an attempt to match the storyline dates with the dates of his plays, and found that many of the dates are disputed between scholars.)

“The Celestials”

Looking through the Book Review section of the NYT (July 28), I came across a review of “The Celestials” by Karen Shepard.  A blend of history and fiction, this novel is set in North Adams, Massachusetts, in 1870.  In June of that year, seventy-five young Chinese men arrived by train to work as strikebreakers in the shoe factory owned by Calvin T. Sampson.  They were met by armed, infuriated strikers members of the Order of the Knights of St. Crispin.

Against this historical backdrop, Shepard has written a detailed story describing how the lives of the townspeople and the Chinese laborers were affected by the events of the time and the place.  Using the research of historian Anthony Lee, Shepard develops the themes of cultural identity and racial assimilation.  She connects the strikebreaking activities of these Chinese workers with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which basically ended Chinese immigration to America for decades to come.

On the fictional side of her novel, she invents a relationship between Julia Sampson, the factory owner’s wife, and one of the Chinese workers.  The reviewer faults some of Shepard’s writing.  “Every once in a while Shepard’s highly metaphoric prose breaks away from her themes and comes up with something awful,” but, “more often her imagery genuinely illuminates a scene.”

History, a love affair, and good writing, “The Celestials” might be a winner.



By Robert Crais, this is a book for dog lovers.  It begins with an Army dog being gravely injured while bomb searching in Afghanistan.  Maggie is returned to the U.S. and sent to the LAPD for rehab.  There she is paired with Det. Scott James who has just left rehab and is trying desperately not to fill a desk job.  He would like to stay active and avenge his partner’s death in a robbery gone wrong.  He’s really not a “dog man” but is passed along to the canine unit as a possible trainee/trainer.

First, Maggie must learn to tolerate explosive noises and overcome her PTSD and her longing for her former master.  And Scott must learn to earn her loyalty and love, involving using some sweet, high voices he’s not too comfortable with, and unsanctioned baloney bits.  The story switches from man to dog and back in the telling.  Will they ever become a “pack,” as Maggie describes the relationship?

“Fallen Idols”

In an essay in this week’s NYT Book Review section (July 26, 2013), author Margo Rabb laments the fact that the authors and poets whose works we fall in love with aren’t always the people we want them to be.  As a young reader, she fell in love with Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet.”  Wanting to know more about Rilke’s life, she Googled him.  Item after item portrayed him as a jerk, repugnant human being and a “selfish, sycophantic, womanizing rat.”  How could this be true of the writer whose work she adored.

Throughout the essay, various writers describe their experiences of meeting the authors of books they have fallen in love with and often, not always, discovering the author wasn’t who they envisioned.  The writer Justin Cronin believes that when you spend so many hours reading a book you are “in intimate contact with the mind of another person.”  He adds that if the reader really knew who the authors really were they would be very disappointed.

On the other hand, writes Rabb, readers often enjoy learning about the problems or disappointments in the lives of writers they admire.  The novelist Kate Christensen told Rabb that “I like reading about their struggles and misbehavior.”

Conversely, George Saunders had the experience of meeting his literary hero, Tobias Wolff, who “disabused me of the idea that a writer had to be a dysfunctional crazy person.”  Saunders has said that Wolff may have produced dark works of genius and yet he was a funny, gentle person.

Saunders adds that “A work of art is something produced by a person, but is not that person.”  The author is reaching for a version of herself/himself, trying to be more than there are.


Jane Austen and money

Yesterday, the Bank of England  announced that beginning in 2017, it will issue 10 pound notes featuring the image of Jane Austen.  In addition to her image, the bill will also include a drawing of Elizabeth Bennet, an image of Godmersham Park, an estate owned by Austen’s brother; a picture of her writing desk, and a quote from Miss Bingley of “Pride and Prejudice,” I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading.”

Most in the UK were in favor of  the idea.  It is widely held that although Austen is an underrated author, her work in tone and structure can be among the first to be called modern.

Besides the Queen, the only other woman who currently appears on English currency is Elizabeth Fry.  She was involved in prison reform.  When it was announced that Fry would be replaced by Winston Churchill in 2016, there were widespread protests.  Austen will replace Charles Darwin who has been on 10 pound notes since 2000.

The UK seems to be way ahead of the US when it comes to both women and writers on our currency.  Susan B. Anthony, Helen Keller, and Sacagawea appear on coins, but only political figures on our notes.  According to an article in “Time,” several authors have been suggested for possible inclusion on American money.  All of them have had something “wise” to say on the topic of money.  Emerson, Fitzgerald, Wharton, Updike, and Melville are some possibilities.  I like the idea of Dorothy Parker on a bill.  Her comment seems to say it all:  “If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.”