Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare!

Shakespeare on aging:
With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come
And let my liver rather heat with wine,
Than my heart cool with mortifying groans.
The Merchant of Venice, Act I, Scene 1

26006301576_219ac0ac69_oApril 23, 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Historians believe that Shakespeare, in a bit of poetic serendipity, was also born on April 23. The Guardian lists some of the celebrations taking place worldwide:

It’s 400 years since the bard’s death this weekend and it’s also his 452nd birthday – as, legend has it, his birth and death were on the same day of the year. Hundreds of events to mark the occasion will be taking place in the UK and around the world – from Shakespeare’s Globe projecting 37 short films across London, to walks in “Shakespeare suburb” Shoreditch, to Shakespeare-inspired baking workshops, via late-night karaokes, promising-sounding “human sonnet jukeboxes” and hip-hop at the British Library, a Shakespeare parade in Stratford-upon-Avon and a fireworks display in Chicago.

Chicago’s fireworks display tomorrow is only one of 850 events the city is planning this year to commemorate Shakespeare’s “vibrancy, relevance, and reach”. Shakespeare 400 Chicago, spearheaded by the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, hopes to be “the world’s largest and most comprehensive celebration of Shakespeare’s enduring legacy”. Chicagoans and visitors can enjoy many unofficial Shakespeare events as well — how about heading to the Fizz Bar and Grill for “Fifty Shades of Shakespeare”?: “Be prepared to question everything you thought you knew about sexuality and Shakespeare as we tease out the Bard’s most provocative scenes. 23 roles, 12 scenes, 3 actors, and 1 DJ dance party to follow.”

In Chicago and around the world, April 23 is also “Talk Like Shakespeare Day”. Here are a few suggestions from the Chicago Shakespeare Theater:

Instead of cursing, call your tormentors jackanapes or canker-blossoms or poisonous bunch-back’d toads.
When wooing ladies, try comparing her to a summer’s day. If that fails, say “Get thee to a nunnery!”
To add weight to your opinions, try starting them with methinks, mayhaps, in sooth or wherefore.

the-childrens-shakespeare-e-nesbitWhen I was eight or nine, someone gave me a book called The Children’s Shakespeare, by E. Nesbit (author of The Railway Children and many other classic children’s books) which summarizes each play in “words that little ones can understand”. In the introduction, Nesbit describes trying to read a A Midsummer NIght’s Dream to her young daughters, and having them complain they couldn’t understand the language:

“You said it was so beautiful,” Rosamund said reproachfully. “What does it all mean?”

“Yes,” Iris went on, “You said it was a fairy tale, and we’ve read three pages, and there’s nothing about fairies, not even a dwarf, or a fairy godmother.”

“And what does ‘misgraffed’ mean?”

“Stop, stop, ” I cried. “I will tell you the story . . . You will understand when you grow up that the stories are the least part of Shakespeare.”

I loved that book and read it until the pages were falling out. I still have it, and I’m embarrassed to admit that whenever I go to a Shakespeare play, I read the story first in The Children’s Shakespeare. That way, I can focus on the language and not on the plot — which, as we know, can be awfully confusing. Here’s how Nesbit introduces Romeo and Juliet:

Once upon a time there lived in Verona two great families named Montagu and Capulet. They were both rich, and I suppose they were as sensible, in most things, as other rich people. But in one thing they were extremely silly. There was an old, old quarrel between the two families, and instead of making it up like reasonable folks, they made a sort of pet of their quarrel, and would not let it die out.

thomas_keene_in_macbeth_1884_wikipedia_cropI can’t remember which Shakespeare play was the first one I ever saw, but I can tell you the first one in which I appeared — Macbeth. This is also the last Shakespeare play (or actually, any play) in which I’ve performed. My sixth grade teacher at Peck Elementary School, Mr. Baxter, assigned Macbeth to our class. He correctly guessed that sixth graders would love the violence, insanity, treachery, and witchcraft in the play. (E. Nesbit did not include Macbeth in The Children’s Shakespeare. She had a hard enough time with Romeo and Juliet’s suicides, failing to mention that Juliet stabs herself.) I recall a classroom discussion about why Macbeth killed Macduff’s innocent wife and young children:

All my pretty ones?
Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?

Thinking back on it now, I’m surprised there was no parental outrage. Mr. Baxter directed our class in a shortened production of Macbeth. For the auditions, we had to memorize a soliloquy; I chose Macbeth’s final speech: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage . . .”. I had hoped for the part of Lady Macbeth, or at least one of the witches, but my audition must not have gone too well, because I was cast as Fleance. I had only one line to learn, and I felt I delivered it perfectly: “The moon is down; I have not heard the clock.” When my son played Oberon in a high school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I went to all three performances. I was very impressed he had more than one line.

Aimagelthough I’m not much of a performer, I am an excellent audience member. Along with several dear friends, I’ve been a loyal subscriber to the Chicago Shakespeare Theater for many years. It’s a beautiful theater, built to evoke the design of the Globe Theater in London. No one throws rotten fruit at the stage as they supposedly did in Shakespeare’s time, although I once had the misfortune of being seated next to a heckler. (He didn’t care for Barbara Gaines’s modern interpretation of The Taming of the Shrew.

Next month, Chicago Shakespeare will present what it’s calling the “ultimate game of thrones”: Tug of War: Foreign Fire, which is a six-hour adaptation of Edward III, Henry V, and Henry VI, Part I. (The drama continues in the fall, with Tug of War: Civil Strife.) Thank goodness the marathon production includes a meal break and several intermissions!

My friend (and fellow Shakespeare buddy) Madonna gave me a little Shakespeare birthday book, with quotes for every day of the year. I love the quote for my birthday, which is from Henry V: “A good heart is the sun and the moon; or rather, the sun and not the moon, for it shines bright and never changes.” I’m looking forward to hearing those beautiful words.


Books for Dog Lovers

Two years ago, when my daughter and son-in-law brought home a mischievous, roly-poly yellow Labrador puppy named Stanley, I posted a list of 10 Dog Books That Won’t Make You Cry.  Now that my husband and I have a new puppy, Frosty, dogs are on my mind again. I’ve recently read several wonderful new books about dogs. Here’s the 2014 post, updated with a few more great books for dog lovers. 

Such short little lives our pets have to spend with us, and they spend most of it waiting for us to come home each day. It is amazing how much love and laughter they bring into our lives and even how much closer we become with each other because of them.
John Grogan, Marley and Me: Life and Love With the World’s Worst Dog

Stanley and Frosty

Marley and Me, like so many dog books, ends with the dog’s death. Even children’s books about dogs — Where the Red Fern Grows, Old Yeller, Sounder — need to be read with a box of tissues nearby. And anyone who doesn’t get choked up at the end of The Art of Racing in the Rain must have a cold heart.

So here are some terrific books about dogs that probably won’t make you cry:

y648The Underdogs: Children, Dogs, and the Power of Unconditional Love by Melissa Fay Greene
Melissa Fay Greene ( author of Praying for Sheetrock and  There Is No Me Without You, among others) is one of my favorite nonfiction writers. The Underdogs tells the story of Karen Shirk, founder of the service dog academy 4 Paws for Ability. Karen trained her own service dog after she became profoundly disabled and was rejected by every service dog agency she approached. I was riveted by Karen’s story, and the stories of the amazing dogs she trains who are able to help people in ways that humans cannot.  (The publication date is 5/17/16.)

y6482Following Atticus: Forty-eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan
I bought this book at a little bookstore while on vacation in New Hampshire last summer, even though I had brought plenty of reading material with me. I ended up reading the entire book the next day, ignoring the other books vying for my attention. Tom Ryan is a Massachusetts newspaper editor who, despite being out of shape and inexperienced at climbing, decides to climb all 48 of New Hampshire’s 4,000 foot mountains twice in one winter, with his miniature schnauzer, Atticus.

y6481Good Dog: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Loyalty by David DiBenedetto and the editors of Garden & Gun
Until I read this book last year, I had never heard of Garden & Gun magazine — not surprising, since I’m not much of a gardener and I don’t own a gun. The magazine runs a monthly column called “Good Dog” — beautifully written essays by well-known authors about the kinship between humans and their canine companions. The best of these essays are collected in this book, which is a real treat for any dog lover. Contributors include Jon Meacham, Dominique Browning, and Roy Blount, Jr.

9781250014573Off the Leash: A Year at the Dog Park by Matthew Gilbert
Matthew Gilbert, TV critic for the Boston Globe, didn’t think he was a dog lover — and he knew he was an introvert. But after he brought home an exuberant, sociable puppy, he began spending time at his neighborhood dog park with a quirky cast of characters, human and canine. I enjoyed every page of this humorous and insightful “dog-oir”(a term coined by the Los Angeles Times.)

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski
Wroblewski’s debut novel (and to date, only novel) is unlike anything I’ve ever read. Edgar Sawtelle, who is mute, helps his family raise and train a fictional breed of very intelligent and intuitive dogs on their farm on Wisconsin. When a family tragedy occurs, Edgar embarks on an odyssey with three loyal dogs. Shakespeare aficionados will enjoy the many parallels to Hamlet. (My mother — and a few others — said this book did make them cry.)

The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst
I’ve never forgotten this quirky novel, which came out about 12 years ago. After his wife dies in a fall from a tree — witnessed only by the family dog, Lorelei — a linguistics professor attempts to teach his dog to talk so he can find out if her death was a suicide.

James Herriot’s Dog Stories: Warm and Wonderful Stories About the Animals Herriot Loves Best by James Herriot
There was no “YA” when I was a teenager. So I read all James Herriot’s books, starting with All Creatures Great and Small. (That’s when I wasn’t reading Flowers in the Attic , The Thorn Birds, or The Flame and the Flower — remember those?) His very best dog stories are all now compiled in one book.

Dog Songs by Mary Oliver
This lovely little book, according to the New York Times, “transcends its dogginess. It’s also about love, impermanence, and the tears in things . . . Her poems, with their charity and lyric clarity, can provide the kind of solace that dogs give”.

Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs by Caroline Knapp
Knapp’s memoir explores both her relationship with her own rescue dog, who helped her through grief and recovery from addiction, and animal-human relationships in general.

A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas
One evening, Thomas’s husband, Richard, took their dog, Harry, out for a walk — and Harry returned alone. Richard had been hit by a car and was permanently brain-damaged. Thomas reinvents her life and her marriage — with the help of Harry and two more dogs.

The Good Boy by Theresa Schwegel
The “good boy” of the title refers not only to 11-year-old Joel Murphy (son of Chicago K9 police officer Pete Murphy), but to Butchie, Pete’s police dog. The New York Times says, “For all the dog books currently in vogue, it’s hard to beat this one for canine verisimilitude or talent. Butchie is a fully credible character . . . The dog elevates a fairly conventional detective story into something much more lovable”.

Sweetwater Creek by Anne River Siddons
What a great combination — a “beach book” about dogs! It’s the coming-of-age story about a young girl whose family breeds Boykin spaniels on their plantation in South Carolina. After reading this novel, I thought (briefly) about adopting a Boykin, the state dog of South Carolina. (Does Illinois have a state dog?)


What to Read Next — April 2016

“Snow in April is abominable,” said Anne. “Like a slap in the face when you expected a kiss.”
L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Ingleside

It was April in Minneapolis and snowing, the flakes coming down in thick swirls enchanting the city”
Cheryl Strayed, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

As I write this post, snowflakes are swirling outside my window. Even though I’ve spent 34 springs in Chicago, I’m still surprised when April brings cold winds, sleet, hail, and snow instead of sunny days with warm breezes. I won’t be reading on my porch anytime soon; I’m glad we still have plenty of firewood because I anticipate quite a few more cozy evenings reading by the fire.

Coming in paperback April 26

Right now, as usual, I’m reading two books, switching between them according to my mood. The first, Anne Tyler’s 20th novel, A Spool of Blue Thread, covers territory familiar to Tyler’s readers: the complicated relationships between the members of a middle-class Baltimore family. I love Anne Tyler’s writing, which I find comforting and wise at the same time. Critics seem to have a hard time classifying Tyler. Is she a (God forbid) women’s writer?  Is she really a literary author? One New York Times reviewer snidely dismissed her books as “middling” and “middlebrow”.  The Atlantic Monthly says: “In the eyes of many longtime readers, Tyler is especially gifted in her ability to deliver graceful, touching tales of the ordinary'” I agree — and evidently the Booker Prize judges did as well, since it was one of only two American novels shortlisted for last year’s award.

Our new family member, Frosty

The second book I’m working my way through is one I can only recommend to new dog owners: The Art of Raising a Puppy, by the Monks of New Skete. If you’re as crazy as my husband and I are, and have decided to disrupt your life with a puppy, I suggest this book. It’s been many years since we brought home our last puppy, so a friend passed along her copy of The Art of Raising a Puppy. I’m finding it very helpful, and it’s fascinating reading . I guess when we had puppies before, we also had human children, leaving no time for reading about the monks’ thoughts on canine behavior!

I’ve just finished two recent releases that I can highly recommend:

9781101883075I stayed up way too late reading Lilac Girls, Martha Hall Kelly’s debut novel. Anyone who loved The Nightingale, Salt to the Sea, The Invisible Bridge, or All the Light We Cannot See will find this book both unforgettable and hard to put down. Historical fiction at its best, the novel tells the powerful story of female prisoners subjected to medical experimentation at the hands of the Nazis.  Three narrators — a Polish teenager, a German doctor, and an American humanitarian, all based on real women, lend their distinctive voices to this meticulously researched story of heartbreak and courage.

While touring  the actress and socialite Caroline Ferriday’s estate in Connecticut, Martha Hall Kelly noticed a black and white photo of a group of Polish women.  “They are the Lapins–the rabbits,” the guide said. “Caroline took up their cause after they were experimented upon by the Nazis at Ravensbruck Concentration Camp.” Hall says:

I looked for a book about Caroline, but there wasn’t one. . .  Somehow bewitched by the house and Caroline’s story, I thought of nothing else on the ride home . . . I set out to learn everything I could about Caroline Ferriday and the story of how she rallied America around The Rabbits. How she dedicated her life to making sure these women were not forgotten.

I’m already thinking about my top 10 books of 2016 — after all, the year is 25% over — and Lilac Girls will definitely make the list. Even if you think you’ve overdosed on World War II literature, don’t miss this one.

the-books-that-changed-my-life-9781941393659_hrLike most book lovers, I adore books about books, and I thoroughly enjoyed Bethanne Patrick’s The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians, and Other Remarkable People. It’s a perfect book for your nightstand, because each of the essays is no more than three pages long. Each essay writer starts with a selection of a a life-altering book and a quotation from that book. They run the gamut from Gillian Flynn, who chose The Westing Game, to Rosanne Cash, who picked The Little House on the Prairie, to Tim Gunn, who selected Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Bethanne Patrick says:

One of the parts of the project that makes me happiest is that although no one interviewed was given a list from which to choose and although none of them were told others’ choices in advance, there is only one duplicate title on the list . . . There are children’s books, poetry collections, biographies, classic novels, modern favorites, and even a comic book included.

The Books That Changed My Life is pure pleasure. It will make you think about which book — or books, because it’s hard to narrow it down to one — have had the greatest impact on you. It will also provide you with a list of books to add to your to-be-read list, since some of the contributors’ choices will intrigue you. I think book club members would enjoy discussing this book and the books that have influenced their own lives.

What’s next for me? I’m looking forward to reading Anna Quindlen’s latest novel, Miller’s Valley, and Bill Beverly’s debut, Dodgers,  literary crime fiction about a Los Angeles gang member sent to kill a witness hiding in Wisconsin. I’ve been hearing great things about both of them.

Happy Spring!