Sunday, 28 April 2013

Book Review of Shakespeare-The Illustrated Edition by Bill Bryson

This article was first published on on January 29th 2012.

As a true anglophile author must, Bill Bryson examines the life of England's most famous playwright with his unique personable approach and dry sense of humour.

It is a brave man who tackles the life of Shakespeare. So much has already been written about him by so many learned scholars that it is difficult to see what another book on the subject could bring to enlighten us all the more.

But Bryson does not lack the courage to tackle so tricky a subject and has produced his own book on the most renowned playwright and poet that ever existed. However, he has adopted an original approach in that he provides a condensing of lots of views and interpretations of Shakespeare and his life and works and collects it all in one easy-to-read volume with pictures. Obviously, because Shakespeare's canon has been around for hundreds of years and many academics as well as members of the public with their own strong opinions have written about the bard, Bill Bryson acts as an intellectual sieve, extracting the best nuggets of Shakespearean knowledge written, talked about and studied over the years and in his unique voice, presents them to a willing public in a way that is entertaining to read.

Having such wonderful illustrations does add to the book: to see Shakespeare's contemporaries, fellow playwrights, maps of the time as well as engravings and woodprints depicting the lives of the people helps the reader to understand Shakespeare's world to a greater degree and also means that this book will remain in your library. It is useful as a reference book for anyone wanting to know key facts about the man and his life or literally to browse the illustrations for pleasure.

Bryson has divided the work into accessible chapters to address different periods or aspects of Shakspeare's life. He adopts an almost chronological order starting with an introductory chapter called "In Search of Shakespeare"about how little is known about the man and leading in an almost circular fashion to "Claimants" about all the people who believe that Shakespeare didn't actually write a lot of his works, (a fact that is a product of not knowing an awful lot about him) and "The Lost Years, 1585-1592" where little is documented about Shakespeare's whereabouts and activities and "The Reign of King James, 1603-1616" where he really began to flourish.

The chapters are concise and focused with illustrations that more than support or clarify the discussion. This adds to the accessibility of the book, making it a perfect starting point for anyone harbouring an interest in Shakespeare who has previously been wary because of the high brow nature of material and the snobbery that can sometimes appear when talking about this "literary genius".

You will notice there has been mention quite frequently that there is a lot of information about Shakespeare which is missing. And this is the premise of the book really: that there is not really a lot known about Shakespeare. Bryson's opening line is "For somebody who has been dead for nearly four hundred years, William Shakespeare remains awfully active" and is testament to the fact that Shakespeare is still a moot discussion point precisely for this reason. In fact, Bryson himself is victim to Shakespeare's enduring appeal, the fact that he has an air of mystery about him and yet his work continues to capture new readers in every generation without any slowness of pace.

This lack of concrete fact extends to everything that we know about Shakespeare: what he looks like, how he lived, where he lived, what he wrote. In fact, in his preface, Bryson mentions that a more recent portrait has been discovered called the "Cobbe Portrait" that is deemed to be the most like Shakespeare out of all the images but again this is subject to debate.

Bryson's style really is his strength. There is always a sense of dry wit and sardonic humour running through his work and whilst writing in an intelligent and accomplished fashion, he really does not take himself too seriously at all.

One of my favourite examples of this is towards the end of the book, where Bryson is discussing the proposal that the Earl of Oxford was actually the author of Shakespeare's plays and he refutes this decisively in the following lines: "The Earl of Oxford, better still, additionally anticipated his own death and left a stock of work sufficient to keep the supply of new plays flowing at the same rate until Shakespeare himself was ready to die a decade or so later. Now that is genius." Such sarcasm is refreshing.

I would recommend this book as an introduction to Shakespeare to anyone and with the addition of a CD with Sir John Gielgud reading Shakespeare's Sonnets, you really couldn't go wrong.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Empire by Steven Saylor

This book review was first published on on April 27, 2011

Steven Saylor in his book, Empire continues the story of the Pinarii family history in Ancient Rome as started in Roma, Saylor's previous book.

Empire begins where Roma left off by showing us the progress of the Pinarii under the rule of Augustus, the first emperor of Rome. At the start of the book, Augustus is becoming older and what has been regarded as the golden age is soon going to come to an end.

Saylor uses this old established family, which he has invented, to tell tales from different reigns of the emperors beginning with Lucius Pinarius, an augur (a reader of omens), these being very important to the Romans as their readings were used to judge whether their actions were receiving the approval of the gods.

This role brings him into contact with the Imperial household and provides Saylor with the opportunity to create his impressions of key characters from Roman history through dialogue and scenarios.

Saylor creates a real sense of the dangers as well as the benefits of being close to power. The Pinarii become more popular due to their connections but they are constantly aware that this can swing to disfavour and Saylor conjures a clear picture of the metaphorical tightrope that senators were obliged to navigate in order to ensure not only their personal safety but the future prosperity of their families.

For Lucius, this means the security of his identical twin sons, Titus and Kaeso. Lucius is ultimately forced to leave Rome as he is exiled by Tiberius, Augustus' successor, the alternative being death, and reluctantly, he moves his family to Alexandria.

When Titus and Kaeso are of age, they return to Rome, Titus thrilled at being there, Kaeso less so. They arrive in turbulent times when Caligula is wearing the laurel wreath and abusing his power magnificently. This is illustrated perfectly by Saylor when he shows us the twins' first audience with the emperor. They are initially excited at the prospect, especially Titus who is eager to improve the family's position under the new emperor.

However, this keen anticipation is soon dissipated as the meeting turns into a humiliating experience where the emperor wields his power to its full extent. Caligula uses the fact that the twins are identical and have brought their wives with them to involve them in something degrading purely for his own amusement. Saylor creates a sense of the helplessness of the twins and the inevitability that they must comply or suffer.

There are other cringe-making scenarios like this throughout the book, vividly giving the reader a picture of the madness of Imperial Rome and the extreme danger of placing power with someone prone to frivolity.

Added to this are the imagined descriptions of the games which truly show the Romans' obsession with brutality as a spectator sport whether this involved watching bears tear at a rhinoceros or the humiliation and torture of the perceived enemies of Rome. The burning of Christians by Nero is particularly gruesome and unforgiving.

The madness of emperors continues with the reign of Domitian, prone to random acts of violence against people he believes are plotting to depose him. This is paranoia at its most deadly. There is more and more of this throughout the book and to avoid becoming too list-like, it is fair to say that whoever the emperor, the events that Saylor chooses to describe within that reign are threatening, most likely violent, and gripping to read.

The ability to create a vivid world by description and characterisation is Saylor's strength. He transports you to the ancient world as he did in his Roma Sub Rosa series featuring Gordianus the Finder. In Empire, he manages successfully, by choosing to follow the fortunes of one family, to examine many different aspects of life in Ancient Rome, from the tasks of the augur to the limitations of the life of a vestal virgin, to the persecution of the Christians. As an introduction to the world of the Roman Empire, Saylor provides an accessible platform which is entertaining and extremely learned. As Saylor has only taken us to a certain point in the empire, one can only hope that Empire 2 is being drafted at this minute.