Wednesday, December 30, 2020

William Shakespeare and Six Bits of Bardic Fun


Everyone needs lists to usher in the New Year. I will stick to optimism and give you my choice of six books you could gift to a theatre enthusiast or read yourself during the upcoming winter.  They are entertaining mysteries of a sort and all come with a connection to Shakespeare. Look on the internet for available copies.  

1) Let’s start with an all time absolute classic. Read or give a friend a copy of Josephine Tey’s 1951 The Daughter of Time.  It will suck you into “Richard III” as an illness confined detective seeks to solve the mystery of the murder of the Young Princes right from his hospital bed.

2) If you have a soft spot in your heart for the Bard’s birthplace, another classic that might make a good read or gift is Martha Grimes’ 1984 The Dirty Duck.  It has Superintendent Richard Jury discovering that Stratford-Upon-Avon’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s stage is not the only place where murder is committed.  Only the truly initiated will know what the title refers to.

3) Do you or your recipient prefer stories with a bit more color, adventure and romance?  Try a different take on “Shakespeare In Love” with Faye Kellerman’s 1989 (paper 2002)  The Quality of Mercy.  It immerses you in the tale of a young Jewish girl out and about in Elizabethan England who meets up with none other than William S. himself. Plenty of skullduggery and intrigue, but not a quick read at over 500 pages. Save it for a winter fireside rather than a sunny summer beach.

4) Is there a gift target or do you have a fondness for the Eastern United States? That might take you in the direction of Shakespeare with a New Haven twist. William Martin’s 2003 Harvard Yard is yet another story of an undiscovered Shakespeare manuscript.  The cachet comes here from the fact that it  is buried in the bowels of our most eminent university’s library.  It covers Harvard’s history all the way from old John’s long ago journey from Bankside right up to the 1960’s. 

5)  If you like things a bit off beat or have friends with the same inclination here is the choice for you. It is hard to classify award winning novelist Margaret Atwood’s 2020 somewhat scary and weird  Hag-Seed. What you get here is a modern story about a vengeance driven stage director with a similarity to Prospero. His name is Felix  and he is the star attraction at a major Canadian Theatre Festival (Think Stratford).  He is suddenly victimized and fired by jealous and ambitious members of his governing board just as he is planning a new and revolutionary production of The Tempest. He spends several years after his dismissal as a hermit while carrying on a ghostly alliance with the imaginary presence of his own dead daughter who just happens to be named Miranda. Finally there comes an opportunity to lead an experimental theatre program in a prison (think a remote island).  He is successful in this endeavor and makes a decision to re-mount the production of The Tempest he had been working on when he was deposed all those years ago. He will use the convicts for most of the roles, but recruits the actress who he had wanted to cast in that production to play Miranda. A marvelous coincidence puts his old enemies within reach (think a shipwreck) and rekindles his thirst for revenge. Familiarity with Shakespeare’s The Tempest is not required, but it does help deepen the strangeness and the magic.  

6) “Avast all ye theatre lubbers!”   My favorite  recent Shakespeare offering is a rip roaring  historical thriller from 2018 titled The Spy of Venice  by Benet Brandreth.  It is raucous, romantic, and swashbuckling  while simultaneously projecting an inventive theory about Will’s famous “lost years.” It hangs on the scholarly peg that if thirteen of Shakespeare’s plays have Italian settings, he must have spent time in Italy.  I really loved this book, so let me give you a more thorough  introduction.

 It is 1585 and Shakespeare has fled Stratford and headed to London where he is eking out a   scant living by holding horses at James Burbage’s “The Theatre.” There he falls in with Nick Oldcastle a Falstaff like company manager, who may hark back to an earlier play titled Sir John Oldcastle and forward to a character not yet given life on the stage by the Bard. Two other actors work with Oldcastle. One is an experienced player named John Hemmings (you may have heard that name before) and the other is a boy named Arthur who plays women’s parts. This quartet is recruited by the English Ambassador to Venice to join a delegation he is leading to bring important political communiqués from Queen Elizabeth to the Doge.

 And thus hangs the tale.  Little do the players realize the treacherous violence that will greet them in Venice.  Amid the masked balls, poetry contests, magnificent art, and alluring women, the affairs of state are being practiced  murderously by spies of all nations up to and even including the Vatican.  Shakespeare remains a  budding wordsmith, but Brandreth  gives him the élan and fighting spirit of  a musketeer.  Knives flash, swords are drawn, and chases careen down narrow alleys and over Venetian bridges. It is a Will with a way you might not have imagined before.  

Brandreth  writes with comic poise and delicious irony.  The arch villain of the piece is named Prospero not Iago. We get cameos from Anne Hathaway, Robert Greene, and the  painter Tintoretto among others. It is the author’s  first novel though he is already a barrister, a performer, and perhaps most importantly the “rhetoric coach” for the RSC. That means he knows his Shakespeare up down and sideways and references to the plays that will someday spill out of the Bard’s fertile mind are both clever and numerous.  He even manages at one point to give us a character who exits rapidly “pursued by a bear.”  Anyone who enjoys lively  historical fiction will get a kick out of this book. Anyone with a theatrical interest will find it a delicious treat.  Brandreth’s second novel is already available in Britain and is titled The Assassin of Verona.  My guess is that it may cover the actor’s homebound trip back from Venice to London and perhaps some R and J allusions or two.  Look for it!

As you wait for a return to creating or watching live theatre, may you or a friend get a bit pleasure from  some of these Shakespearean  Bon Bons.


Dr. Jim De Young  12/29/2020


Sunday, December 27, 2020

Book Review--SAVING FREEDOM: Truman, The Cold War, and the Fight for Western Civilization by Joe Scarborough


One might expect that a book by MSNBC morning anchor Joe Scarborough would be smoking with partisan political  rhetoric.   Surprisingly, what rises off the page is a short, quite evenhanded review of  the presidency of Harry Truman.  Although I was on the planet in the immediate post WWII era, I was more interested in cub scouts and baseball at the time rather than politics.  Since my wife is of the same relative age, we did decide to put in a reserve for the book at our local library in order to fill in our history gap.  

Vice President Truman inherited the presidency upon the death of Franklin Roosevelt in 1945 and  quickly found out that Roosevelt,  in spite of his precarious health,  had not  seen fit to share much of anything with him--much less the existence of the Manhattan Project. So right from the get go Truman was faced with a series of war related foreign and domestic problems that all needed fixing or at least decisions made quickly.   Scarborough asserts that Truman met the challenge with an efficiency and courage that was not expected from a non Ivy League, Missouri born, failed haberdasher. 

For instance, he quickly made the decision to drop “the bomb” and that did put an end to WWII. Then he faced down Uncle Joe Stalin’s aggressive expansionism by spelling out what is now called “The Truman Doctrine.”  Most of the ideas came from Dean Acheson and General John Marshall and they were critical in saving post-war Europe from starvation and economic collapse while also keeping it out of the hands of communism. 

Central to the doctrine was that the United States could not return in peacetime to the isolationism it had cultivated after the First World War.  Great Britain was exhausted both physically and economically by the war and was forced to start divesting its worldwide empire.  In its place, said Marshall and Acheson, the USA must take up the mantle of world leadership.  Their immediate challenge was to deal with problems in Greece and Turkey.  They had to get Congress to authorize support for both countries before they fell victim to Joseph Stalin’s rampaging expansionism   Truman parlayed his doctrine with  The Marshall Plan and ultimately financed the rebuilding of Western Europe and the formation of NATO.  Through bends and turns with some successes and some bitter defeats (Viet Nam for instance) these doctrines have remained the cornerstones of  American international diplomacy right up to the present.  

Donald Trump’s presidency, though not treated in any detail in the book,  looms large at its end. Scarborough  points to the Truman legacy as one that needs to be re-assessed  in order to deal with Trump’s attempts to destroy foreign alliances,  muddy international trade, and ignore  science and climate change.  That is where we do get to see how Scarborough’s book meets his current broadcasting situation. He builds up Dean Acheson as the lynchpin that has not been given as much credit as deserved and lauds Truman as the man who laid the ground work for the creation of the cold war and the ground work for winning it.  The warning is clear.  Trump has destroyed many of our country’s commitments to internationalism  and  his brand of “America First and Alone”  is simply not viable in the modern world.

As the book’s  title says, Truman was  the right man for the time and had the right qualities of decisiveness, courage and fighting spirit to pursue a bi-partisan foreign policy through congressional legislation and approval.  David Ignatius’   sums it up better than I can when he says this is the story of how “‘a strange little man’ from Missouri, pulled together Republicans and Democrats to confront Soviet communism and establish America as a global power.”     I recommend this read if you do not feel familiarity with Truman’s tenure and legacy.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

 Christmas Greetings to all 

Volume XLVII                                                Christmas 2020                              December 25, 2020

I  have just finished a delightful memoir by Jacqueline Winspear, the creator of the Maisie Dobbs novels. She titles her book   This Time Next Year We’ll  Be Laughing.  The title came from an expression of hope used by her father who came back from the front late in World War II and found a London that was in smoldering ruins from the Nazi bombings.  This kind of hope expresses our fervent wish for every one of you for the coming year.  Who could have thought that in these pages, which I have normally used to celebrate the accomplishments of the year with humor and tongue in cheek, that all I can do is announce that we are alive and some of us are even still kicking.  With that in mind give me leave to organize this 47th annual Christmas letter around how lucky and privileged we have been in spite of the trauma all around us. 

Pictured above from left to right are our daughter’s family-- Mikel, Amy, Todd, and TJ   As the vaccine trucks start to roll,  I salute first of all our grandson--TJ, a paramedic in Texas, who has been  a first responder on the front line for the entire year.  Next, I tip my hat to his mother and our daughter,  who has been  delivering  an education to first graders in an environment that is frankly crazy to the extreme for both  students and teachers.    Odd as it may seem, the government shortage of coinage during the pandemic has kept son-in-law Todd working overtime in a metal smelter in order to help keep our economy in small change.  Our second grandson, Mikel (who might have been the headliner in any other year) has only been valiantly trying to survive his freshman year as a member of a singular college generation.   Oh for typicality again rather than trying to live in an on-line, off-line,  on-line, off-line,  my dog didn’t eat my essay, the internet chewed it up world.  Don’t worry, In spite of it all, he seems to be doing just fine.   

 Although Jan and I have not seen Amy or any of her family in a long time, the distance between us and our son and his family has been more emotionally wrenching.  Amy and Todd’s boys are grown men.  We’d love to keep on hugging them, but not being able to hug our two five and eight year old granddaughters since February has been a trial that Skype or Face-Time cannot make up for. Here they all are.  Selma is the younger sprite and on the left. Frida, her older sister,  is on the right.

Luckily they all managed to travel from their home in Finland to visit us in Arizona in February. David’s Finnish wife, Lotta, had long wanted to see the American West. So they ventured out during the girls’ winter school break for a look-see at the  Rockies and the depths of the Grand Canyon. They ended up with us in Tucson for a week before  heading back to Los Angeles where they took the girls to Disneyland on the day before it closed.  

2020 began on a note of joy ad happy expectation for the old folks. 

 We started our drive to Arizona a few days after celebrating our 60th Wedding Anniversary and arrived in Tucson on New Year’s Day.  We ate fine Mexican food, attended exciting theatre, signed up for lots of lectures on art and western history, and tramped  the trails in  Sabino Canyon.  In February we had a glorious time showing David and Lotta and their girls the many joys of the Tucson area that we have begun to love over the last several years.  

Then, not with a bang but a nasty whimper, it all went down the rabbit hole.  We settled down in our condo and nursed the vain hope that we could wait it out.  Even though we stayed an extra six weeks before we decided to risk driving back to Monmouth, our family home became just another space in which to hunker down.  Needless to say the “hunker” was longer and harder than anyone expected.  Our planned trip to Finland and London in the summer of 2020 never materialized and we have now been doing our service to the “war effort” by trying to aggressively self isolate until we can all feel safe again.  We walk two miles almost every day and have become Zoom consumers for things like Rotary meetings and AAUW book discussions.  We have tried watching plays and concerts on line,  but have found them less than satisfying in comparison to the real thing.   Especially for me, the guy who spent his working life creating live drama, this year has felt like a piece of my true heart has been ripped out.  I think Jan has handled things a bit better as she can be happier with quietly reading and doing her crosswords and knitting. The one positive about having more spare time is that both of us have spent more effort in working on our family  genealogy and experimenting with a lot of new recipes.       

Yes,  it is a sad day in this sad month in this sad year of 2020 with most of us wishing we could have done more than just work to keep safe.  Even if there has been pain for you in the past months, there may be some solace in remembering  that Christmas does indeed celebrate a birth.  We are now resolved to wait patiently for Biden over Trump, vaccines over masks, real hugs over virtual ones, and dare we say it-- hope over despair.  

I therefore claim with confidence that by This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing.                                                                        

from Jim and Jan 



Saturday, December 19, 2020

Review: How to Raise An Elephant by Alexander McCall-Smith


When in need of an uplift there is no better medicine than an Alexander McCall Smith novel and especially if it is one in the ongoing series of No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency adventures.  Where there is Mma Ramotswe, Mma Makutsi, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, Charlie, and Mma Potokwane,  there is hope, kindness, gentle humor, and a veneration of nature that is guaranteed to bring you back from the pit of despair.

How to Raise an Elephant  begins with the title reference problem. Charlie, the part-time not so competent employee, at the detective agency and Mma’s husband’s garage has a problem with moving a large object.  He borrows Mma Ramotswe’s van and upon its return there is a crease in the tailgate  and a strange smell.  From here the detecting expands from the immediate problem into a consideration of how the habitats of Africa’s native wildlife are being pressured by farming and civilization.  Minor problems do pop up along the way.  A distant cousin of Mma Ramotswe approaches her to ask for money and there are reasons to think the relative might be a bit of a grafter. There is also a new neighbor who may or may not have marital troubles.   

They all fold together into McCall-Smith’s gentle philosophy. Wisdom accrues as you live and with luck it will give you the judgment to get through life without too many disasters. You just can’t change people by shouting at them or making them feel bad about themselves. Immigrants just want a roof over their heads and an escape from war, violence, and poverty. Even large and heavy problems can be solved with a kindness and concern that allows people to change from within.  In particular, humans must be careful with judgments because it is very easy to be entirely wrong. As Mma Makutsi, always the arch jumper to judgment,  says to Mma Ramotswe toward the end of the book,  “Mma, you’re right about being wrong.”  

With that sentiment the world is put once more to right--at least for the moment.  The rains arrive and bring life, growth,  and healing to  the parched lands.  

(This volume would make a nice Christmas selection.)   

Monday, December 14, 2020

This Time Next Year We'll Be Laughing by Jacqueline Winspear


This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing  by Jacqueline Winspear

The message of this simple yet profound little book is stated quite clearly by Ms. Winspear. “We are all of us products of our family mythology. Stories are not only passed down, but nested in every cell.”  She goes on to say if you write a memoir it must of necessity be about your parents (or I suppose your lack of them) because everything is underpinned by how they reacted to what was going on around them as you are growing up in their presence. The title comes from one of Winspear’s father’s favorite phrases.  He was an explosives expert in WWII and came back from the front toward end of the war and  finding London in ruins said, "This time next year we'll be laughing."  She remembers him saying that same phrase many more times over the years.

If you pick up this book it will probably be because you have read and enjoyed some or all of the fine  Maisie Dobbs novels that Winspear has written.  You will not be disappointed because it will add some fascinating insights into how the author’s life seems to have been a predicate for her writing and the character of Maisie Dobbs herself.  Artistry, whether on  canvas, stage, or page tends to prioritize the looking at things in a new or different way and Winspear’s father above all wanted his children, as she put it, "to think different." One story she relates is when her dad sees her trying to imprint a Tee-shirt to follow a current fashion and says, ”Why would you want to be like everyone else?”  Then he went on to make her do a new and different original design for the shirt. 

Inbetween her evocative descriptions of the English countryside and the constant financial insecurity of her family, we also get several revealing comments about the nature of “memoir” writing itself.  I liked particularly her discussion of how writing a memoir was like  a quest into a tunnel of veils.  You pull one after another back and then have to wonder if the event you are recalling really happened the way you now remember it.  Has what has happened since in some way made your current memory false?   Or even more provocatively are there elements in your life experiences that have stuck in your memory, but should have been discarded long ago because they sent you down unnecessary or painful blind alleys?

Let me say finally that if you are a lover of England and its landscape and history, and its attitudes toward life, you can still enjoy this one without having read any of her novels. She comes off as someone I would love to get to know personally.  

P.S.  I found the title phrase of this book so compelling right now that I used it as the organizing positive principle of my yearly Christmas letter to friends and relatives. 

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Do you need some total escape detective fiction?

Faith Martn series featuring DI Hillary Greene 

The world calls to seriousness, but there is only so much a human can take.  Thus enters the escape fiction genre and I prefer good old fashioned whodunnits.  Faith Martin has created an Oxford Detective Inspector called Hilary Greene. She is middle aged and coming off  her" bent" fellow officer husband who has recently been killed in a car crash, but has stashed a pile of his ill gotten gains in some secretive place that a number of people are still looking for.  Her superiors all think she is a top notch investigator and thus saddle her with green recruits needing instruction, old thorns in the side that no one else can tolerate, and mysterious folks who always seem to have unusual agendas. She lives on a canal boat on the Thames just out of Oxford and that adds a nice link to the countryside and the various villages where the crimes seem to be committed. 

There tends to be one murder to each short book and  the five I've read so far all have a nice balance between Oxfordshire local color and plain old fashioned  shoe leather investigations and interviews.  There are generally some nice twists before the nasty is nabbed.  By and large limited violence, sex, and hard language so I guess the books fit into the "Cosy" category. They do come with a glossary of Britticisms at the end if you are not already on top of common Brit idioms like boot, knickers, and semi-detached.  

Hillary is bright but definitely has personal problems to work on. She and her fellow workers are interesting enough to keep you moving on without having to think too much about anything. Having spent time in England and been to Oxford and environs helps. In one book she goes to the Trout Inn outside of town and I have been there and it has always been one of my favorite spots in the English countryside.

Best of all, if your have Amazon Prime, you can read at least the first ten for free on your Kindle.  No muss no fuss no clutter on our bookshelves.   Meanwhile I am reading a revised biography of Arthur Miller and a memoir by Jackie Winspear (the creator of the Maisie Dobbs series).