Though William Shakespeare's exact date of birth went unrecorded, it's typically observed on April 23, the day he died on 52 years later—a neat piece of symmetry for such a literary life.
In the years since, the scant biographical facts available about the poet have combined with his singular status to ignite countless imaginations. This spring brings three additions to the lengthy list of Shakespearean tomes.
How did the son of a glovemaker rise to the heights of literary fame? This question has engendered many hypothetical answers over the years—including the well-known assertion that Shakespeare did not, in fact, write the plays he is credited with. Historical novelist Jude Morgan comes up with his own Bardic backstory in The Secret Life of William Shakespeare (St. Martin's), which opens in 1582, shortly before Shakespeare meets his wife-to-be Ann Hathaway. Morgan's Shakespeare adores his father and has a close relationship with his sister, Joan. He also feels a genuine passion for Ann, one that competes with his calling as a poet.
In Dark Aemilia (Picador), we move from investigating the source of Shakespeare's genius to unveiling the inspiration for the "Dark Lady" of his sonnets, the mistress whose "hair is nothing like the sun." Author Sally O'Reilly posits that the woman in question is a real-life contemporary, Aemilia Lanier—the fourth woman to ever publish a book of poetry in English. Lanier's biography is as sketchy as Shakespeare's own, leaving O'Reilly plenty of room to weave in a tumultuous romance with fellow poet Will while he's out and about on the London theater scene.
Finally, for those who don't take their Shakespeare too seriously, there's William Shakespeare's The Jedi Doth Return, the final Star Wars/Shakespeare mashup from Ian Doescher. The first, Verily, a New Hope, was a surprise hit back in 2013, and fans can't seem to get enough of the Star Wars story told in iambic pentameter.
If none of these suits your fancy, hold on until 2016, when Hogarth books will launch the "Hogarth Shakespeare Collection," a series that allows modern-day authors to turn several of Shakespeare's most popular plays into novels.
Those who prefer a "just the facts, ma'am," approach might try Germaine Greer's 2008 biography of Ann Hathaway or Stephen Greenblatt's National Book Award Finalist Shakespeare biography, Will in the World.
What's your favorite Shakespeare-inspired work? Or do you believe the play's the thing?
London writer Eleanor Moran's fourth novel, The Last Time I Saw You (Quercus), is a gripping psychological thriller that investigates the twisted roads a female friendship can travel. Inspired in part by the du Maurier classic, Rebecca, it is the story of two best friends from university, Olivia and Sally, whose relationship was destroyed by a shocking betrayal. When Sally dies in a car crash, Olivia is drawn back into the tangled history of their friendship—and into the arms of Sally's grieving husband.
In a guest blog post, Moran explains the universality of what she calls "Rebecca Syndrome"—the doubts that you can ever measure up to a past love.
I was a geeky, bookish 13-year-old when I first laid hands on a copy of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, the story of a nameless young girl who falls passionately in love with aloof widower Maxim De Winter, only to find that their marriage is haunted by the spectre of his dead wife, Rebecca. Even when I discovered Maxim was a murderer, who’d killed his first wife to protect his beloved Manderley, I still rooted for their relationship. It was partly because I identified with the second Mrs. De Winter’s dogged version of love: I’d grown up with a distant and unknowable father whose approval I fought an endless battle to win. But it was also because, even in my youthful naivety, I recognised the universality of her dilemma. Who amongst us has escaped the painful mental rat run of comparing herself to a partner’s previous love? In my head I call it “Rebecca Syndrome,” and it underpins my new novel, The Last Time I Saw You.
Who amongst us has escaped the painful mental rat run of comparing herself to a partner’s previous love?
In my early 30s, I found myself on the brink of marriage, a gnawing doubt permeating all the happy times. We’d been together three years, we loved each other, and I longed for the conventional setup I’d never had growing up. And yet . . . I knew it was wrong, that ultimately we wouldn’t make each other happy. The separation was messy and painful but ultimately loving. Now it was time to step into the unknown.
Having left single life behind as a twenty-something, I discovered that the thirty-something version was a foreign country that I wished I didn’t have a passport for. My ex sent his back immediately: he re-coupled within a few short weeks and, a few months later, announced he was expecting a child. Even though I’d initiated our split, I was cut to the quick, obsessing about this woman who had stepped so seamlessly into my onetime future. The crate of uncomfortable shoes I’d failed to take with me when I moved out of his apartment, the boxes of old magazines. Did those traces of our old life bother her, or did she simply dismiss them as no more than a practical inconvenience, a trip to the thrift store?
I soon got to experience the situation from the other side. I fell for a man who looked perfect on paper, but was consumed by court battles with an ex-wife he’d divorced years previously. He told me all about it on our first date, wanted it all out in the open, but over the coming months, I found myself wondering how thin a line it really was between love and hate. I would ask him what he’d loved about this complicated, mercurial woman, obsessively analysing his opaque replies. Words like “chemistry” could trigger a whole painful fantasy about chandelier-swinging sex. “The highs and lows” that he said characterised the relationship made me feel as exciting as day-old rice pudding. Were my anxieties paranoia, or warning bells? A gay friend, practical and optimistic, told me to pull myself together, pointing out that if you took my logic to extremes, I’d have to start seeking out 35-year-old virgins. I understood his logic, and yet the relationship couldn’t survive the haunting.
Livvy is left wondering if she can ever find happiness in the shadow of the complex and charismatic Sally.
In The Last Time I Saw You, Olivia, my heroine, experiences the most extreme version of Rebecca Syndrome. When she gets the call to tell her that her onetime best friend Sally has been killed in a car wreck, she’s forced to re-examine their turbulent college relationship. Her friendship with Sally was a heady roller-coaster, until Sally betrayed her in the worst possible way. Sally’s widower reaches out to Olivia, desperate to get to the bottom of the mysterious circumstances surrounding the accident. But as feelings gradually develop, Livvy’s left wondering if she can ever find happiness in the shadow of the complex and charismatic Sally.
I believe we have to grieve our “dead”—the relationships we’ve left behind—and then move on to the next with a heart that’s hopefully bruised but not broken. We just have to watch out for the partner who is still in the emergency room, claiming a clean bill of health.
Author photo by Ben Lister.
Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries were favorites of mine in my teen years, and I recently decided to avoid the TBR pile that's staring me down and revisit them. Set in the late 20s and early 30s, the 11-book series follows the crime-solving career of the debonair Lord Peter, whose idle aristocratic mien (complete with monocle) is at odds with his sharp wit and vigorous pursuit of crooks of all sorts. My favorite Wimseys are the ones that feature his relationship with Harriet Vane, and Strong Poison, #6 in the series, marks her first appearance.
When Lord Peter and Harriet meet, Harriet is on trial for the murder of her ex-lover, an annoying failed-artist type who appears to have succumbed to arsenic poisoning. Given that Harriet, a mystery novelist, has just completed a manuscript about a murderer who uses—you guessed it—arsenic on one of his victims, she is the main suspect. The circumstantial evidence is overwhelming, but the jury is hung. A retrial is scheduled, giving Peter just one month to prove the innocence of the woman who has suddenly (and not at all purposely) stolen his heart.
The relationship between Harriet and Peter is notable in its honesty and hard-fought egalitarianism—which makes it all the more romantic. Harriet is bitter and burned after her last encounter with love, and whatever feelings she might have considered entertaining for Peter are complicated by the fact that she must feel grateful to him for his efforts to clear her name.
This all sounds very intense, so perhaps I should say that it's not. Like her protagonist, Sayers is a master at putting a light and clever spin on even the most serious of topics, mainly with her sparkling dialogue (an adjective that's overused, but very appropriate here). Here's the response to one of Peter's proposals to Harriet, during a visit to the prison:
“It's very good of you—"
"No, no, not at all. It's my hobby. Not proposing to people, I don't mean, but investigating things. Well, cheer-frightfully-ho and all that. And I'll call again, if I may."
"I will give the footman orders to admit you," said the prisoner, gravely, "you will always find me at home.”
Or take this conversation between Wimsey and Miss Climpson, "a tough, thin, elderly woman with a sound digestion and a militant High Church conscience of remarkable staying power" who is on Harriet's jury and whom he later sends to investigate an element of the case:
“Do you know how to pick a lock?"
"Not in the least, I'm afraid."
"I often wonder what we go to school for," said Wimsey.
Harriet's position as a novelist also allows for Sayers to get in some marvelous jabs on the subject of writing:
“I say—I've thought of a good plot for a detective story."
"Top-hole. You know, the sort that people bring out and say 'I've often thought of doing it myself, if only I could find time to sit down and write it.' I gather that sitting down is all that is necessary for producing masterpieces.”
Sayers had a degree in modern languages and considered her translation work (which includes a version of The Divine Comedy) to be her greatest legacy. But her logical and well-ordered mind served her well when constructing her intricate mysteries. When she died, Sayers left two incomplete books in the Wimsey series, which were eventually completed by a novelist chosen by the estate, Jill Paton Walsh. (Walsh has gone on to write another Wimsey/Vane book on her own, with a second, The Late Scholar, scheduled for release this summer.) I am a little afraid to read these, since it's hard to believe that another writer could capture such iconic characters in just the way that Sayers did . . . but I may have to give them a try.
What have you been rereading lately?
“A great sorrow, and one that I am only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.”
Find the list of winners in all categories here.
What do you get when you mix the claustrophobia of Room with the psychological suspense of Before I Go to Sleep and a dash of The Road? Perhaps something that approximates Isla Morley's suspenseful second novel, Above. On her way home from the annual Horse Thieves Picnic, 16-year-old Blythe is kidnapped by Dobbs Hordin, the mild-mannered librarian in their small town of Eudora, Kansas. Dobbs tells Blythe he's doing this for her own good: The world is about to end, and his underground bunker is the only safe place. Is he lying to her? Or is he truly a prophet?
With the shallowest of breaths, I ask, "How long have you been planning this?"
This is when he's supposed to say, "Planned what? I haven't planned anything." This is when he's supposed to say, "Don't be crazy—I'm not going to keep you."
This is what he says: "The part regarding you, about two years, give or take. All the rest, eighteen years."
"How long . . .?"
"Well, I just told you."
I shake my head. "How long are you going to keep me here?"
He shrugs, looks away.
It must be asked. "Forever?"
The monster sucks me all the way down to the bottom of the silo. It is a long way down, just as Dobbs said, but I still manage to hear every last word. "We are the Remnant, Blythe. After the End, you and I will rise up together. You and me—we will one day seed the new world."
What are you reading this week?
Jane Smiley has never been a novelist who lacked ambition, but her new project might be her biggest yet. She's embarked on a trilogy that covers the last century of American life—and the first volume, Some Luck, will be published on October 7.
The action begins in 1920s Iowa, where the Langdon family—Rosanna, Walter and their five children—live on a farm, and each chapter covers roughly a year. As the children grow up and move away (or not), Smiley takes a panoramic look at the first half of the century, encompassing the Depression, World War II and the early 1950s. Early buzz is that this one is old-fashioned storytelling at its best.
Smiley has already completed the next two novels in the trilogy (or "cycle," as her publisher has dubbed it), and they're tentatively scheduled for publication in the spring and fall of next year. Like Ken Follett's Century Trilogy, which concludes this fall, the Langdon books take a look at some of this century's most epic events—although with a smaller, more intimate cast of one everyday family.
Check out the opening lines:
Walter Langdon hadn’t walked out to check the fence along the creek for a couple of months—now that the cows were up by the barn for easier milking in the winter, he’d been putting off fence-mending—so he hadn’t seen the pair of owls nesting in the big elm. . . . Right then, he saw one of the owls fly out of a big cavity maybe ten to twelve feet up, either a big female or a very big male—at any rate, the biggest horned owl Walter had ever seen—and he paused and stood there a minute, still in the afternoon breeze, listening, but there was nothing. He saw why in a moment. The owl floated out for maybe twenty yards, dropped toward the snowy pasture. Then came a high screaming, and the owl rose again, this time with a full-grown rabbit in its talons, writhing, then hanging limp, probably deadened by fear. Walter shook himself.
Will you read it? What books are you looking forward to this fall? Click here for more news on 2014 releases.
My Wish List by Grégoire Delacourt
Penguin • $15 • ISBN 9780143124658
On sale March 25
Whether you actually play or not, you have probably imagined, just once, how your life could change if you won the lottery. It's also common to wonder, at midlife, how the life you have built measures up to the life you dreamed about when you were just starting out. French novelist Grégoire Delacourt takes this premise for his new novel, My Wish List, which was a #1 bestseller in France. His heroine, Jocelyne, owns a fabric shop and is happy with her 21-year marriage and her two children. But she can't help but think about how her life falls short of the life she imagined when she was in school.
Then Jocelyn wins 18 million euros in the lottery, and has the ability to make any dream come true. Faced with the reality of changing her life, she starts to wonder: Does she really want to?
Being rich means seeing all that's ugly and having the arrogance to think you can change things. All you have to do is pay for it.
But I'm not as rich as all that. I just happen to have a cheque for eighteen million five hundred and forty-seven thousand, three hundred and one euros and twenty-eight centimes, folded eight times and hidden inside a shoe. All I have is the temptation. A possible new life. A new house. A new TV set. Lots of new things.
But nothing really different.
Later, I rejoin my husband in the hotel restaurant. He has ordered a bottle of wine. We drink to each other. Let's hope nothing changes and we go on as we are, he says. Nothing really different.
What are you reading this week?
Nobel Prize-winning author Alice Munro will appear on a Canadian $5 coin. She joins Jane Austen in the UK and Astrid Lindgren in Sweden* as one of the only female writers to be featured on official currency—although in Munro's case, the coin is a collector's edition that costs $69.95 (CAN) and is therefore unlikely to be redeemed for its face value.
Designed by Laurie McGaw, the coin does not feature a portrait of Munro, but rather an "ethereal female figure" meant to symbolize the characters she has created. Munro's hand DOES make an appearance, holding a pen over a book that displays an excerpt from "The View from Castle Rock."
Memo to the US Mint: It's about time we had another woman join Susan B. Anthony and Pocahontas on our currency. What about our own female Nobel Prize for Literature winners, Toni Morrison and Pearl S. Buck? Or, off the top of my head, how about Emily Dickinson, Flannery O'Connor, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Zora Neal Huston, Willa Cather, Louisa May Alcott, Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton . . .
Do you have a female author you'd like to see on American currency?
*The Lindgren 20 SEK note is expected to enter circulation in 2015.
Coin photo courtesy of the Royal Canadian Mint.
Fans of the hilarious Gary Shteyngart got good news yesterday when the New York Times announced he had sold his fourth novel-in-progress, Hotel Solitaire, to Random House for publication in 2017. Described as an "international thriller" set in the world of finance, it sounds like a change of pace for the author, whose previous novels, despite varied settings and tones, have featured Russian immigrants. as Shteyngart said himself on Facebook, "yeah, later, immigrants. hello, wall street and guns!"
“It’s about how power is disseminated in the world today and what happens when a spreadsheet jockey trades in her Excel for a Glock 22,” quoth the author in the Times. I'm already curious about the trailer.
Get ready to have those heartstrings tugged: The author of the best-selling The Art of Racing in the Rain returns with a new novel on September 30. Garth Stein's A Sudden Light (Simon & Schuster) is his first adult release since Racing came out in 2008, and fans have been anticipating it since 2012. Racing spent three years on the New York Times bestseller list, and Stein also published an adaptation for children. So it's understandable that Stein might have felt just a liiiiittle bit of pressure when it comes to his follow up.
So far, few details have emerged about the plot of A Sudden Light, although it is listed under the categories of "Ghost" and "Literary Fiction." An early Goodreads reader promises that the book contains "all the things you love in his work: strong voice, quirky characters, a little mysticism and magic, breathtaking settings in the Northwest, and a story that takes you by surprise."
Will you read it?