Books Read in 2015 30. Shakespeare – Bill Bryson

Genre: Biography, History

Narrative Style: third person, academic51NyyX+LRzL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Rating: 5/5

Published: 2007

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: This is a biography of sorts although it focuses as much on what we don’t know as what we do. Written in Bryson’s inimitable style, it is funny, informative and clever. A must read for anyone with a passing interest in Shakespeare. 

I’ve been meaning to read this for a while. There were a couple of reasons for this. I’ve read a lot of Bryson’s work – including Mother Tongue and A Short History of Nearly Everything as well as some of the travel writing so I knew that it would be readable and informative. And I was interested in the life of Shakespeare. I expected that we would know about him. I’m not sure why that was. It makes sense  that we would not know much about him.

So unlike conventional biographies, this is not a simple run from birth through life to death. It explores what we know about each area of Shakespeare’s life, attempts to discuss any mysteries or controversies and explains why we don’t know more.

It’s fascinating really, that Shakespeare should still mean so much to our culture and yet we can barely verify what he looked like or what he did for large periods of time. We can place him at a specific time and place only rarely. We can barely prove that he wrote the plays that take his name and that has led to a whole other academic avenue. The ‘who was Shakespeare really’ brigade.

Bryson makes short shrift of their theories. They all seem to be fabulously eccentric and it is almost a shame to have to tear their wonderfully hopeful theories apart. Bryson does this in style and this was one of my favourite parts of the book. It is almost inevitable, given the darkness that surrounds most of Shakespeare’s life that there would be those who would like to join the dots. Unfortunately, they very rarely come anywhere close to the real picture.

Bryson’s curiosity cannot be faulted and as with all his works, his enthusiasm comes across clearly and the book is a pleasure to read. In fact, at the end, I wished there was more to say. I was very sad to put it down.

Books Read in 2014 – 48. Philomena: The True Story of a Mother and the Son she had to Give Away – Martin Sixsmith

Genre: Biography, GLBT88d6b45af6786ed7d9322639cd94e4d4

Narrative Style: Journalistic – Third person with occasional first person input from Sixsmith

Rating 3/5

Published: 2009

Format: Paperback

 

 

I’m always a little dubious when someone loans me a book and says I think you’ll really enjoy this. First of all, the book that they then loan me represents something of what they think of me. Always a bit worrying. Secondly, there is the added pressure of whether or not you will actually like it and what they will think if you don’t. My mother in law loaned me this after she had watched the film and then read the book. She did warn me that it was very different from the film but as I hadn’t seen it, it didn’t trouble me much.

However, this book is not only different from the film, it’s different from it’s own blurb. The quotations from reviews on the back of the book suggest it is about a mother’s search her child. It is not.

I enjoyed the opening which described the life of Philomena and the other girls at the convent and what happened to them and the babies born to them. I also enjoyed the descriptions of attempts to stop the scandalous export of babies to the USA. However, after this point Philomena disappears from the story until the very end. I would have liked to know more about how life was for her after she gave away her baby. She isn’t mentioned again until the last chapters where she is dealt with in a cursory fashion.

The rest of the account is focused on Michael, the son she gave away. This story is interesting enough and Michael comes across well. Not only does he struggle with being an orphan but he faces the difficulty of being gay at a time when being open and successful within politics wasn’t possible. The choices he makes often come back to his status as an orphan and his attempts to find his mother add interest.

It doesn’t quite work for me. I’m not even sure why. It may be that a lot of the dialogue seemed stilted, unreal – a bit too exact to quite ring true. And Sixsmith seems a little too fascinated by the darker side of Michael’s personality and sexuality. It is a story viewed from a distance and it seems that Sixsmith felt little emotional connection with Michael. Overall the tone is too journalistic and it was hard to feel personally for the characters.

It seems a bit of a shame – there is definitely a story to be told here. Just not this one, in this way.