Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti

The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World's Greatest Piece of Cheese
This is not a book about cheese. It is a love story--a cheesy love story, perhaps. Cheese is mentioned, sure, but that story comes early and occupies perhaps 40 pages of the 360. Remember the film version of Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief? It was called “Adaptation”: “A love-lorn script writer grows increasingly desperate in his quest to1…with many self-referential events added2." The script writer had so much trouble making a movie of the story that he spent most of the time talking about how hard it was to put the story into film, therefore ineluctably inserting himself into the story.

Well, this book does that too. Paterniti spent most of his professional career writing magazine articles—short deadlines, lots of travel, and a mass of information to corral quickly or jettison. When his agent asked him if he wanted to pursue a larger story idea he’d encountered—a special cheese made in a small village in Spain—his life and his editors were in alignment that the time was right to take up the challenge. He was given an advance and a deadline.

All kinds of challenges came to meet him. For one, the man who had been making the cheese was no longer in business. Actually, he was bankrupt and contesting several lawsuits. That’s part of the reason why the cheese part of the story didn’t take that long to tell. But cheese was the least of it. This is a book about Catalan Spain, male friendship, disconnecting, and taking time for wine, children, and storytelling.

This book is Paterniti’s ‘telling room.’ By the time Paterniti did the barest minimum required of a journalist writing a story—seeking out both sides of the lost-cheese-factory story—I read it avidly, thirstily. It comes at the end, ironically, a decade or more after Paterniti began his researches, “aging” the story until it was crumbly, Herculean, tasting of flower and dirt and minerals. And pretty darn close to indigestible. The footnotes…

The writing changed direction and went around and around like a word tornado sucking up stray facts, interesting asides, musings, apologies, accusations, justifications along the way. The book editor of this work must have had moments of terrible doubt. By the time the story came into print, nearly twenty years after its conception, technology had changed so much sections of it felt positively dated. But again, this story evolved into the story of a way of life, or men’s lives, or the life of one man…it had been begun and worked on and agonized over and left for dead so many times over the years, it is a miracle it has seen print at all.

Paterniti is a good man, an interesting man. Just begin with an open heart and do.not.think.about.cheese.


You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Friday, July 26, 2013

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut novel has just been added to the long list for the 2013 Booker Prize. A short story of hers called “Hitting Budapest” won the 2011 Caine Prize for African Literature and became the first of several astounding chapters in …New Names. The work feels brave and completely fresh--raw even. The perspective, voice, and language held me spellbound.

On Bulawyao’s website is a quote from Chinua Achebe:
“Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard of things with it.”
It seems an appropriate quote for someone who has taken such liberties with language and point of view.

Narration begins in the voice of ten-year-old Darling, whose father is away, whose school is closed, whose friends (Bastard, Godknows, Sbho, Stina, and Chipo) scream-sing with her as they run riot through the neighborhoods in search of guavas to steal. Bulawayo’s Darling tells us what they find besides guavas, and it is her words, reactions, and attention that feels real and tells us what we have always wondered: how does a child grow up in a world like Mugabe’s Zimbabwe? What does the world look like and from where do these children acquire knowledge of concepts like “justice,” “fairness,” and “freedom”? Do these concepts include any notion of personal responsibility?

Very quickly in this novel one senses the danger in child’s play. The world is life-threatening, and the children know it. Their play, their home-life, their worship--it all has an edge that makes them brave and vulnerable at the same time. They rely on one another. The chapter “We Need New Names” was another breathtaking high-wire act that left my heart in my mouth. From this point I did not relax my guard with Bulawayo’s book in my hands. It felt explosive.

In “Shhh,” Darling hides the fact that her father has come home and is very ill. When her friends find out, they push their way into Darling’s shack, immediately intuiting that Darling’s father is dying of AIDS. Even Darling hadn’t grasped that—she was angry with her father for having left, and angrier still that he came home with a sickness. But the children face the man lying on the bed and talk openly about death and heaven and then they begin to sing:
"When Godknows starts singing Jobho, Sbho joins in and we listen to them sing it for a while and then we’re all scratching our bodies and singing it because Jobho is a song that leaves you with no choice but to scratch your body the way that sick man Job did in the Bible, lying there scratching his itching wounds when God was busy torturing him just to play with him to see if he had faith. Jobho makes you call out to heaven even though you know God is occupied with better things and will not even look your way. Jobho makes you point your forefinger to the sky and sing at the top of your voice. We itch and we scratch and we point and we itch again and we fill the shack with song.
Then Stina reaches and takes Father’s hand and start moving it to the song, and Bastard moves the other hand. I reach out and touch him too because I have never really touched him ever since he came and this is what I must do now because how will it look when everybody is touching him and I am not? We all look at one another and smile-sing because we are touching him, just touching him all over like he is a beautiful plaything we have just rescued from the trash. He feels like dry wood in my hands, but there is a strange light in his sunken eyes, like he has swallowed the sun.”
That passage ripped my heart out.

Every once in a while Darling will break into our attention with “This is real” or ”Is this even real?” She captures that sense of incredulity we experience when life starts to feel a little ludicrous and outside our control. In the last half of the novel she is a teenaged high-schooler in Detroit, Michigan (Destroyedmichigan). Her outsider status gives her the requisite distance for maximum observation but she retains her need for community. She is continually questioned about, and always questioning, “home.”

This is an exceptional debut and NoViolet Bulawayo has created a fictional world that stuns as it captivates. I remember thinking that Bulawayo and Jesmyn Ward are sisters of the pen, for both have the ability to flay open the skin to get to the “real.” This is a bravura performance. I do wonder, however, if such a performance can be replicated.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Kinglake-350 by Adrian Hyland

”We were lucky at first. At the end of January 2009 the State of Victoria [Australia] sweltered through three successive record-breaking days of 109.4°F-plus heat. In Melbourne the mercury climbed to 113°F, the third-hottest day on record. Birds fell from the sky, bitumen bubbled underfoot…the next morning [the newspaper] the Age carried the prescient headline: ”The sun rises on the worst day in history.”
Black Saturday. Our luck was about to run out.”

This is the story of the 2009 bushfire in the state of Victoria in which 173 people died and countless homes were incinerated. In a twelve-hour span, the raging fire in the Kinglake National Forest north of Melbourne created wind speeds estimated between 90-120 mph, spreading the fire through a dry eucalypt and beech forest like a blow-torch.

Worst of all, perhaps, is the realization that at least one of the many fires that scoured the area that day was deliberately set. The air pressure systems over and around Australia that day turned the conflagration into the worst in the country’s history. The wind threw the flame to four points of the compass and surrounded people as they turned to flee.

Local fire volunteers struggled in vain against conditions that quickly overwhelmed them. Local police tried to locate and corral those outside their homes and find a safe place for them to shelter. State and national responses were very late due to the speed and fury of the blaze. TV commentators were still calmly reporting “hot weather” as the flames engulfed homes.
”It is hard to imagine a more dramatic illustration of the fact that, if you are going to make your home in a fire zone, the only person you can rely on in an emergency is yourself.”
I would have to amend that and say that in an emergency [of any sort], expect to rely on yourself. Mobilizing forces, equipment, material is a time-consuming endeavor, and if, say, one does not live in a fire zone on a high-possibility-of-fire day but experiences a natural disaster of another sort (earthquake, tornado, flood), one must always manage for a while, sometimes a good while, without outside aid.
”The lesson of how to live with our environment has yet to sink into our bones. Rather than adapting to our environment, we are isolating ourselves from it, building barriers of plastic and steel between ourselves and the real world.”

Hyland has done us a great service, by telling us what happened that summer day in Victoria. His writing recounts (and reflects in some places) the confusion at the scenes. He did a herculean job of trying to interpret the necessarily hazy memories of the survivors who were so filled with anxiety and adrenaline that there is little they remember clearly. He highlights the extraordinary efforts of a few individuals who did the best they could for their community against overwhelming odds.

I felt the maps were painfully incomplete for someone unfamiliar with the lay of the land. While the first map gives some small indication of topography, latter maps would have been much more useful with contour lines indicating steepness of the slope. In his account Hyland tells us the flames moved up the mountains in minutes. It would have been useful to see where the mountains actually were, and where the concentration of dwellings lay. But Hyland did a very good job in showing us how the actual event played out in the eyes of those involved. What a horror show.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns by Margaret Dilloway

The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns
Galilee Garner can be as prickly and sensitive as the roses she breeds in her southern California backyard, but when her teenaged niece arrives on her doorstep unexpectedly, temporarily homeless and motherless, Gal manages far beyond providing nutrient requirements.

Thirty-eight, unmarried, and with no children of her own, Gal is a strict disciplinarian. She teaches high school science and coaches the Science Team in addition to showing her roses in national competitions. Although schooled in the scientific method --do this and then this to get this result--she knows there is also an elusive, intangible, unquantifiable factor in successful rose-breeding and in life called “luck.”

Dilloway has written a story that engages our senses (sight, smell, touch) and our whole mind: we are presented with constraints and conditions that must be taken into account when cogitating the deceptively “small” and everyday ethical questions Gal encounters as she teaches, and as she competes in rose shows. I would not be surprised to learn that Ms. Dilloway was schooled in philosophy, so much does this charmingly light and easy read recall the work of Alexander McCall Smith, Scottish philosopher and author, whose series The Sunday Philosophy Club likewise raises sticky ethical issues we often encounter in our own lives.

This novel qualifies as a romance, though it is not typical in any way. For one thing, our main character is crusty and opinionated—rendering her unlikeable in the eyes of many. But she is clever, too, and principled, and a very good teacher. She also has a life-threatening condition which hampers her activities and constrains her choices. While her illness precludes some opportunities, it has also given her opportunities. It is when Gal realizes her bounty and discovers not what she lacks but what she already has, that she becomes a person that people want to have as a friend.

I am a sucker for books about gardening, its failures and its delights. I also like books about people managing to overcome--or manage in spite of--things in their physical or psychological makeup that would hold them back from living a full life. This novel raises plenty of important issues that we might encounter in our own lives, and gently guides us through possible outcomes.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

"When you get the rhythm in an eight, it's pure pleasure to be in it. It's not hard work when the rhythm comes--that "swing" as they call it. I've heard men shriek out with delight when that swing came in an eight; it's a thing they'll never forget as long as they live."
--George Yeoman Pocock

If I told you one of the most propulsive reads you will experience this year is the non-fiction story of eight rowers and one coxswain training to attend the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, you may not believe me. But you’d need to back up your opinion by reading this book first, and you will thank me for it. Daniel James Brown has done something extraordinary here. We may already know the outcome of that Olympic race, but the pacing is exceptional. Brown juxtaposes descriptions of crew training in Seattle with national races against the IV League in Poughkeepsie; we see developments in a militarizing Germany paired with college competitions in depression-era United States; individual portraits of the “boys” (now dead) are placed alongside cameos of their coaches; he shares details of the early lives of a single oarsman, Joe Rantz, with details of his wife's parallel experiences.

The 1936 Olympics in Berlin was the stuff of legend, when Jesse Owens swept four gold medals in field and track, but a Washington crew team won that summer also, against great odds. How that victory took place and how a group of great athletes became great competitors is something Daniel James Brown spent five years trying to articulate. Quotes from George Pocock, crafter of cedar shells, head each chapter, sharing his experience watching individual oarsmen become a team.

At various times I have heard sports like baseball or golf, and now crew, described as “the thinking man’s game.” I like to imagine that any sport, particularly a team sport, is best performed when one is thinking. Surely strategies and tactics are involved. But when a team sport is performed fast and in key, there is something organic in its growth and peak performance that transcends “thinking.”

For one thing, there is the sustained coordinated rhythm of many bodies performing as one, starting from zero and demanding as much as two hundred heartbeats per minute in a sprint, erasing the individual and coalescing into something much bigger than each individual effort could achieve. This particular crew overcame the usual and expected race-day catastrophes to deliver the sweetest win they or their coaches had ever experienced. It is a story at the time and on the level of the historic Seabiscuit victory: speaking of the horse, the race, and the book by Hillenbrand.

One of the things about a great book is the energy one derives from having encountered it. Great teachers generate interest in a subject and Brown did that in this book. Even if you have no knowledge or interest in rowing before you begin, you will be fascinated by the end. In addition, Brown tells us some things about the Third Reich and Leni Reifenstahl’s photography for Hitler and of the 1936 Olympics that makes me want to revisit that film record. Reifenstahl had taken pictures (after the event) of the rowing crews from inside their boats, among other things, and when the film Olympia came out two years later, it cemented her reputation as a great filmmaker. Of course she is best known for creating the great propaganda film, Triumph of the Will . She used camera angles and techniques that had never been done before and were extraordinarily successful in supporting the political machine that was Germany in the 1930s.

A film version of The Boys in the Boat is scheduled, reputedly with Kenneth Branagh directing, which is sure to capture further interest in this remarkable story. A radio interview with Daniel James Brown is available to download from San Francisco radio station KLLC (radioalice). In it Daniel James Brown shares a little of his narrative non-fiction technique of keeping readers dangling at critical moments and turning instead to talk of parallel events to keep the tension high. He does it better than almost anyone—writers take note!

I believe I can guarantee this title—either you or someone close to you will find this a riveting summer read. I am pleased to be able to offer a giveaway of this title through August 15, 2013-- just enough time for you to receive it and read it before summer ends. So all of you unsure whether nonfiction is your “thing,” put aside your reservations, add your name to the list, and see if this story doesn’t float your boat. Viking Penguin shared this book with me in exchange for an honest review.

Giveaway completed 8/15/13


PBS special on the Boys in the Boat posted August 2016

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

2013 Summer Reads--It's not too late!

The SonCinnamon and GunpowderThe Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
The Too Many Tomatoes Cookbook: Classic & Exotic Recipes from around the WorldThe Time Traveler's Guide to Elizabethan England

It is mid-July and if you haven't yet found your great summer read, or already finished one, you might find this list helpful to finish out the summer.

You have to read the hugely absorbing multi-generational tale of Texas The Son by Philipp Meyer. Meyer's novelistic skill is widely admired, but this is one of those books you will remember always and will come to define your understanding of southwest history in the nineteenth century. Told in the voices of three people, we see the "sides" to the long argument that is our history. Big in scope, this book gives us the time and space to begin to tease out life lessons and philosophies about the arc of human endeavor and development in the United States.

For a quick, easy fiction read filled with joie de vivre, I have to reprise a book I reviewed earlier in the season Cinammon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown. This is summer reading at the giddiest heights of fantasy. A cook, a pirate, a boat, and a conscience...the summer they all sailed together is now recorded for posterity. For the fun of it, buy this one.

A nonfiction must-read is The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. A nine-man rowing crew from Washington State wins the gold in the 1936 Berlin Olympics against all odds. The author interleaves happenings in Berlin with training in Seattle and races in Poughkeepsie in such a way that the action never stops and our interest never flags.

The book the too many tomatoes cookbook by Brian Yarvin comes just at the right time in summer when we anticipate a bumper crop of heirloom tomatoes and yearn for that deep tomato taste. Rather than bore yourself with the same old thing, try some of the fast, easy, and absolutely delicious choices Yarvin has discovered from around the world. You may find a new favorite or two--I did!

Finally, for those folks that simply don't have the opportunity to get away this summer, take a trip with Ian Mortimer in The Time Traveler's Guide to Elizabethan England. "The past is a foreign country..." [L.P.Hartley] and nobody does it better than Ian Mortimer. He takes you right in to imagine where you might stay overnight (and where you will pee), to how you might clean up without water after walking through muddy streets. The inns, the characters you will meet and what you will talk about, what you will do at night and eat for breakfast are all here and utterly fascinating. Take a walk through Elizabethan England. You won't want to live there, but a visit is bliss.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

the too many tomatoes cookbook by Brian Yarvin

The Too Many Tomatoes Cookbook: Classic & Exotic Recipes from around the World
"OK, 'rice and tomatoes'--it couldn't be simpler. But simple dishes are often the hardest, aren't they?"

We are not always so lucky to have a bumper crop of tomatoes (they used to be easier to grow when I was only harvesting :/) but if you love fresh tomatoes, you need this book. Farmstand aficionados, vegans, vegetarians, and meat-lovers will all find something here to favorite. Brian Yarvin gives simple, delicious, and diverse recipes using tomatoes for those days when our heat-addled or work-dead brains come to a halt at spaghetti.

I cook a lot. But even I have days when the juices are not flowing and I have used up the repertoire stored in my hard drive. I just need a little inspiration to make something wonderful and Yarvin’s book is so handy to remind me of things I love. He adds a little something I hadn’t thought to use, tells order of ingredients, and length of sauté (things I am sure I never knew), and I have come up with truly splendid cuisine from this small book. Besides, I love his stories, like the one of looking for canned tomatoes in Italy, or judging a chili cook-off in Texas.

I immediately discovered a new favorite, “Sicilian Vegetable Stew (Caponata)” served atop Parmesan Couscous, which is not the same as “French Vegetable Stew (Ratatouille)”, another classic. His vegetable lasagna won over hardened meat-eaters, and was a dream dish on my table. And he tells us how to make our own frozen pizzas for those days we simply will not spend another dime (more like ten dollars) or another minute eating out.

There are many delicious choices here for quick dinners, as well as dinners as aromatic and fragrant as an Italian don’s Spaghetti Sauce. They smell so good you don’t ever want the simmering to end. Yarvin doesn’t stop at the Mediterranean, however, but shares Central African, Romanian, Albanian, Chinese and Japanese (!) specialties featuring tomatoes as well as American favorites from all parts of the country. His stories interspersed among the recipes give one a chance to savor his particular brand of travel writing.

With heirloom tomatoes making a comeback and farmer’s markets getting up to speed for the season, you may want to pick up a copy of this cookbook which is sure to become one of your favorites. There are enough ways to vary your tomato dishes that you will never again say you have “too many tomatoes.”

Brian Yarvin is a travel writer, photographer, and cook. His recipes are simple to follow, and often might be one-dish meals.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

The Son by Philipp Meyer

Hardcover, 576 pages Pub May 28th 2013 by Ecco (first published September 1st 2012) ISBN13: 9780062120397

This is a big summer blockbuster of a novel—a huge book that can keep one occupied for days. The world looks a little different after a session with it—we feel wonder and regret in equal shares: wonder at human diversity and commonality evident at the same time; regret at our inability to comprehend this and share our bounty until it is too late.

Three generations of Texans represented by Eli, Peter, and Jeanne struggle through Comanche raids and the discovery of oil from the mid-nineteenth through the twentieth centuries. Eli is the "son" about whom the others revolve, and his life is the most finely described and keenly felt. But the time and distance we readers enjoy as the generations play out is what brings the book to fruition: life lessons and realizations about the human condition result.

Comparisons have been made of Philipp Meyer with Cormac McCarthy and I can see why: the country is that same hard, brutal, violent landscape that McCarthy paints so memorably. Meyer has his own style, however. Sentences are longer and in this novel the timeline is far longer. We see great expanses of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries through the eyes and voices of three generations. Meyer shifts point of view and time frequently, and he writes in the voice of a woman—an unusual woman that often thinks like a man, it could be argued—but that is something I don’t recall McCarthy attempting.

The threads come together at the end, and we see who sired whom, and which family is still standing. What is remarkable as the story unfolds, is how the large scope of the story smooths out the individual agonies and gives us instead a kind of justice—what we like to call divine justice—but it is really no more than human history to date. If it went on a little longer, perhaps, the wheel would have turned once again. There may be some in the future who have actually learned from our past, but judging from the folks that survive in this book, the hope is a faint one.
Jeanne : "But the slackening. By five she and her brothers were throwing loops. By ten she was at the branding fire. Her grandchildren were not good at anything and did not have much interest in anything either. She wondered if the Colonel would even recognize them as his descendants, felt briefly defensive for them, but of course it was true. Something was happening to the human race.

That is what all old people think, she decided…

When the first men arrived, she told them, there were mammoths, giant buffalo, giant horses, saber-toothed tigers, and giant bears. The American cheetah—the only animal on earth that could outrun a pronghorn antelope.

Her grandsons … went inside to watch television."

Jeanne: "Of course you wanted your children to have it better than you had. But at what point was it not better at all? People needed something to worry about or they would destroy themselves, and she thought of her grandchildren and all the grandchildren yet to come."

Eli: "That I’d done wrong was plain. I was not thick enough to believe I might have saved the ponies from Ranald Mackenzie’s troopers, but you could never say for certain. A single man can make a difference."

Eli: "Toshaway had been right: you had to love others more than you loved your own body, otherwise you would be destroyed, whether from the inside or out, it didn’t matter. You could butcher and pillage, but as long as you did it for people you loved, it never mattered…there is a myth about the West, that it was founded and ruled by loners, while the truth is just the opposite; the loner is a mental weakling, and was seen as such, and treated with suspicion. You did not live long without someone watching your back and there were very few people, white or Indian, who did not see a stranger in the night and invite him to join the campfire."

Peter: "To listen to the three of them talk about the death of Dutch Hollis, you might have thought there had been some accident, a lightning strike, flash flood, the hand of God. Not my son’s. Had to do it, acted on instinct, the sheriff just nodding away, sipping our whiskey, my father refilling his glass.

Considered interrupting them to note that the entire history of humanity is marked by a single inexorable movement—from animal instinct toward rational thought, from inborn behavior toward acquired knowledge. A half-grown panther abandoned in the wilderness will grow up to be a perfectly normal panther. But a half-grown child similarly abandoned will grow up into an unrecognizable savage, unfit for normal society. Yet there are those who insist the opposite: that we are creatures of instinct, like wolves."

Philipp Meyer is a remarkable writer. You really do not want to miss this big, absorbing saga. Meyer has written another novel, American Rust, which was likewise memorable, about living in the Rust Belt in Pennsylvania. These are, for the most part, books about men. But that is fine—he does this with great skill. I think I will always have Meyer on my list of must-reads.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Time Traveler's Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer

The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England We all know why Elizabethan England fascinates us and Ian Mortimer is a wonderful guide. His sense of humor and level of detail bridges any gaps in understanding why Elizabethan England may not be a place we would want to live. Mortimer expects us to have pre-conceived notions and questions that develop as we read. We may, for instance, ascribe to the notion that Elizabethan England was a period of the flowering of art and language, and it was…to a point. By carefully going through all the contingencies of leadership, life, and labor, he shows us that it was difficult at best—the early, and not quite thought-out beginning of city living. Cleanliness and sanitation were two of the most off-putting descriptions Mortimer shares, but we also shrink at “medical care” and the somewhat arbitrary nature of punishment and death.

On the pro side, world-wide exploration was in its infancy, and it must have been thrilling to discover new products coming in from overseas, changing the way people thought about their own culture. People were reading—even women—and while much of what was available to them were religious tracts, there began to be something more as the period (1550-1600) wore on. Mortimer gives us statistics on how many books were being published and the results are startling.

My greatest interest in the period had been language: there are so many words no longer in use which seem to capture something unique in the lives of people at the time that I find them fascinating. Mortimer is likewise taken, for he spends some time explaining words, even words we use now for their meanings might well have changed since the sixteenth century. Just the list of tradesmen and merchants brings on a long period of daydreaming: tucker, tailor, baker, victualer, cutler, draper, cooper, currier, glover, hatter, hosier, cordwainer, costermonger, needlemaker, ostler, scrivener…the list goes on.

Mortimer tells us “you won’t find the answers to [how to behave at table or how to tell the time] in traditional history books” so he attempts to address those gaps in our knowledge about everyday life. One of things I liked most about this non-traditional history was Mortimer directly addressing his readers: in the section on religion, he explains how Queen Elizabeth established a Protestant state and outlawed Catholicism. There was a long period of debate and discussion in the parliament before each infringement on the rights of Catholics to practice is enacted. The punishments for those found violating the strictures is profound and ugly, and Mortimer does not allow us to turn away. At the end of the chapter he exclaims in a one-sentence paragraph, “For the love of God.”

Nearing the end of the book, Mortimer indulges us with a discussion of the theatre—who was writing, who was acting, who was watching. In other books (Imagine by Jonah Lehrer), it is suggested that Shakespeare reached the height of skill and brilliance that he did because he had competitors for the affections of theatre-goers. Mortimer tells of the other great playwrights of the time and their successes, pushing Shakespeare to craft the most daring and innovative scripts for the greatest stage actors. He suggests that part of the thrill of watching a Shakespearean drama was the mirror-like action that reflected the lives of watchers…something that was new. Passion plays, or morality plays common at the time had morphed into theatre that showed human endeavor and failings and did not just teach but explained.

No, perhaps I do not want to live there, but I am better prepared now for a visit. This is a great read for high school or college students because Mortimer does not neglect details and reminds us to think in a wholistic way about the life Shakespeare must have led. Mortimer anticipates questions we generate as we read and answers them thoroughly. It is a wonderful, absorbing history and if you don’t come out with a few new deliciously barbed and pointed swear words, I’ll be surprised.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores