June 2022 in Books

June has been a struggle. I had too many chunky and difficult books going on at the same time. I’m going to talk through the books and leave my video at the end as usual.

Shakespeare: The World As a Stage by Bill Bryson

It’s a biography of Shakespeare published in 2007. One thing appeals to me is its size. The reason it’s so short is that there’s very little about Shakespeare that we know for certain and the book sets out “to see how much of Shakespeare we can know, really know, from the record”.

To prove the point, the book starts with Shakespeare’s three portraits and six existing signatures – the portraits, there’s no solid evidence that they are actually of him, and judging from those signatures, we’re even not sure if we’re spelling or pronouncing his name correctly.

Because the book sticks strictly to historical records, the chapter on ‘the early years’, which covers the first 21 years of Shakespeare’s life, has very little on him directly. Most of the chapter is on the time period: diseases and plagues in the 16th century, the transition from a Catholic to a Protestant society in England, his father and mother living in Stratford upon Avon, and the kind of school and education boys at that age went through.

The chapter on ‘the lost years’, which covers his life from age 21 to 28, has no historical record at all. But the chapter gives a vivid picture of London and it was fascinating to read, e.g. apparent a whale nearly got stuck between the arches of London Bridge!

One thing stands out to me: the author talks about a huge missed opportunity for writing down Shakespeare’s life story. Both Shakespeare’s daughters lived long lives (to age 66 and 77) but no one seemed to have spoken to them. Shakespeare was already famous during his lifetime, you can tell from the writings of his contemporaries. The two fellow actors wrote down the plays in First Folio but no one seemed to have written down anything substantial about him as a person.

It talks about Shakespeare’s will, he left his wife Ann Hathaway his second-best bed – what does that say about his relationship with his wife? Scholars have been speculating forever. In Ulysses, you hear a group of people discussing exactly that in a library in Dublin on 16 June 1904. They didn’t really discuss it obviously because they were not even there – they only existed in Joyce’s head. But the novel is so real, if we can time travel, it’d be a shock to not see them there.

Ulysses by James Joyce

Let’s carry on with Ulysses. I made Ulysses the theme of my reading month because it’s the 100th anniversary of its publication in Europe. I have a blog post talking about my reading experience and shared five tips.

The Portrait of An Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

Next I read The Portrait of An Artist as a Young Man as part of the themed reading, it’s an earlier book by Joyce.

It’s a coming of age story of Stephen Dedalus, a boy growing up in Ireland at the end of the nineteenth century. He seems to be unhappy about a lot of things, his family, his catholic belief, his country and in the end decided to give it all up to become an artist.

It’s difficult like Ulysses; it’s not long but took me a whole month to finish. But unlike Ulysses, it’s very serious the whole time.

Going back to Shakespeare, I’ll talk about these two together:

Henry IV part 1 by William Shakespeare and The Last Family in England by Matt Haig

I picked up Henry IV part 1 because I’ve been reading Shakespeare every month and I decided to read a history in June.

How did I pick up this one by Matt Haig? My colleague Pam mentioned she read The Dead Fathers Club by Matt Haig and it was a retelling of Hamlet. So I thought that’s interesting let’s search it. The first search result said, Matt Haig’s first book was a retelling of Henry IV, and this new book, The Dead Fathers Club was a retelling of Hamlet… I didn’t read the rest of the webpage very carefully because – there’s a retelling of Henry IV! I have to check it out immediately! So I did and luckily I got hold of it from the library on 28th June and finished it before the end of the month. I’ve been struggling with big and difficult books all month, it’s so nice to finish one book in two days and be able to understand exactly what’s going on.

Henry IV is a history play and the real history happened before the Wars of the Roses, where the House of York and the House of Lancaster constantly fought for the throne of England for decades. The wars carried on all the way to Henry VII and ended with a marriage between the two Houses. Henry VII was the father of Henry VIII whom I’m sure you’re all a bit more familiar with.

Henry IV part 1 starts with the newly established King, Henry IV, hearing about rebels in Wales as well as in the North. But while the King is concerned for his throne, his son Prince Hal is enjoying his company with drunkards and robbers in a tavern, one of them an old man called Falstaff. Prince Hal is soon summoned to court and to the battlefield. the ending makes it clear that there are more battles to come in Henry IV part 2.

The Last Family in England is a young labrador’s desperate attempt to save his master’s family, told from the dog’s point of view. It’s a very loose retelling, Prince the young labrador has a mentor, Henry, an older labrador and a new friend, a springer spaniel, Falstaff. Henry teaches Prince to fight for the mission to save human families and to uphold the Labrador Pact, almost a religion-like code of conduct; while Falstaff preaches a life of comfort and pleasure.

It’s a fun idea: in the story, all human families used to have dogs and all dogs have a common goal and that is to keep their master’s family safe at all costs. But at some point in dog history, some breeds of dogs rebelled and the ideas of duty and sacrifice are not popular anymore. Now only labradors carry on living the old way.

That’s all good, but problematically, the labradors believe they’re in control of the family’s happiness. With a dog’s understanding of the human relationship and his feeble means like wagging tails and puppy eyes, their attempts to fulfill the mission become ridiculous, pathetic and tragic.

It’s a brilliant idea but some parts of the story work better than others. There are some loose threads: what’s the role of grandma apart from the initial disharmony she brought into the family; the two teenage children both have the usual growing-up problems, the problems are excellently described but there’s no development or conclusion to them; one of the family could suddenly understand the dog language at one point and then they just don’t anymore.

It’s entertaining and the religious connotation could be a good discussion topic, but I wouldn’t say it’s a first-class novel.

Mad about Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate

I wrote a blog all about this book, this is my favourite book of 2022 so far. It’s partly a memoir of Jonathan Bate, who among many things, a scholar in Shakespeare and many other works of English literature, and partly non-fiction about Shakespeare and literary geniuses.

Reading Shakespeare could be intimidating; the old English is unfamiliar, and the way of digesting a play is different from a novel. But remember, Shakespeare’s plays were written and performed at the beginning for the royalties as well as the common people who couldn’t even read or write.

The Globe tour guide told us, it was not a concert hall vibe, where everyone dressed up smart and behaved civil. The audience in Globe was not all that well-behaved; they would comment among themselves, shout to the stage, eating all the while and Shakespeare’s actors had to earn their audience’s attention and approval.

Shakespeare might have now become an academic obsession, but the plays were not written to be academic, they’re for everyone. In that sense, they’re not intimidating in the same way as Ulysses is – James Joyce wrote to be different and to shock the literary world, but Shakespeare wrote to please the world

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

I planned this month to be the Ulysses month but ended up reading more Shakespeare instead. Even in A Suitable Boy, a novel about Indian culture and Indian society, you can’t get away from Shakespeare.

It’s about the life of a few families over one year. It’s set in 1951, a few years after the British left. It’s so long – I’ve been reading it for a month and a half – but I’m not bored because I care about them almost as friends. But as a novel, it’s been introducing all the characters, and building up for all this while, I really hope the climax is worth the wait.

Happy reading!

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