1. Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson
I always love Bill Bryson's writing and I also enjoy Shakespeare's plays (haven't really studied his poetry) but this book kind of bored me. There were some interesting facts, as with most of Bryson's work. An American couple spent years and years of their lives pouring over court documents during Shakespeare's time and where he lived (apparently it was a litigious time) in the hope of finding William Shakespeare's name somewhere. Bryson makes the great point that we know nothing about other authors from that time - not even their plays are still around, so it's kind of stupid for anyone to think that we should be able to fill in every little gap in Shakespeare's life. His work survives because his friends and sometimes co-writers/actors made a book of his plays, The First Folio. (A rich guy in America has a massive collection of First Folios - almost all of them that still exist. An aside about the nature of publishing at the time blew my mind. They had to lay the pages flat and then tie them together in the middle and fold them in half, making the first and last page on the same piece of paper. No two copies were the same because there were so many ways to make a mistake.)
By far my favorite thing that I learned in reading Shakespeare: The World as Stage was finding out many of the words and phrases that came from Shakespeare's writing. He contributed more to the English language (which wasn't so much respected at the time) than any other writer. Did you know you're referencing Shakespeare when you say "vanish into thin air"? Or "the wish is father to the thought"? Or "with bated breath"? Or "foregone conclusion"? We use his phrases so much that they are now cliches. Win?
This book was more about the time Shakespeare lived in and the nature of theater, which was always at least a little bit fascinating. The reason I got bored is because so very many paragraphs started with some variation of, "We can't know______ about Shakespeare because_______." Why does this book exist, then? There are literally hundreds of books about Shakespeare. Which begs the question, why did I read this one? A HA!
So, I give Shakespeare: The World as Stage a "meh."
2. The White Forest by Adam McOmber
I listened to this book on my iPod. After making a mistake with an expensive audio book and enjoying the talents of the reader of The Secrets of Mary Bowser, I changed the way I choose books I listen to. Now I look up award winning readers on Audiofile, then look up the book to see the reviews. If the book is so-so, at least I'll enjoy listening to it. Which is what happened with The White Forest.
The description of this book referred to it as "Victorian Gothic Romance." Huh? Not exactly my usual, but the story sounded interesting. When I was finished with the book, though, I decided it wasn't so much interesting as really weird. Three friends, all somewhat outcast, in England before and during the Crimean War (1850s). Madeleine, Jane, and Nathan share everything with each other and spend all their time together. Nathan is a nut. He isn't religious, but he studies the lives of saints and is drawn to the occult. Madeleine is beautiful and vain. *SPOILER ALERT* For real. But secretly don't read this book anyway. Jane is secretly the Lady of Flowers, a goddess who lives in the White Forest, but her earthly self lives on earth in England during the Crimean War.
So so so weird. It was too much of a stretch for me to get into it. Jane was shy and sheltered and I know I was supposed to root for her, but she was awful and ridiculous. Super cruel to the maids in her house. She wants to kill her supposedly best friend, Maddy, because Nathan seems to like her more.
Jane can "hear" and feel the spirit(?) of inanimate objects. When Nathan gets involved in a cult led by a wacko named Arriston Day, Jane uses objects of Nathan's to find him and destroy THE IMPERION. If I never hear an English woman say "THE IMPERION" ever again, it will be too soon.
Yeah, if I could go back in time I'd skip this book. And take State.
3. Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard.
I read Candice Millard's The River of Doubt last year and enjoyed it very much. I liked Destiny of the Republic even more. President Garfield's story is remarkable! His father died after putting out a terrible fire on the family property when James was very young. Garfield's mother and brother wanted him to get an education and they were willing to sacrifice their own life dreams so that he could be educated. For people who had pretty much nothing, that was really something. Garfield worked on the canals as soon as he was old enough to do it. After a year or so of working on the boats, Garfield was winding up some rope on deck one night by himself. He fell off the boat and there was no one for him to call to. He climbed the rope that was still in his hands and when he got on deck he saw that the rope wasn't attached to anything. He should have drowned. BUT! He had to be our 20th president, so he didn't drown.
See? History is so much fun. :) Garfield quit the boating business and went on to become a professor of ancient languages, literature, and mathematics. He paid for his first year of college by working as a carpenter. The man could (and kind of did) do anything! He argued loudly in Congress for equal rights for freed slaves. "Is freedom the bare privilege of not being chained? If this is all, then freedom is a bitter mockery, a cruel delusion, and it may well be questioned whether slavery were not better. Let us not commit ourselves to the absurd and senseless dogma that the color of the skin be the basis of suffrage, the talisman of liberty." Not only was James Garfield an admirable public servant, but he was a fun-loving, cheerful, and inspiring father and husband.
Millard does a great job of weaving the stories of Alexander Graham Bell (who was introducing the telephone at the fair not long before Garfield became president) and Charles Guiteau, Garfield's assassin. Guiteau was a loser with delusions of grandeur. He believed he was called by God to do all kinds of low-life stuff, including killing the President. Guiteau wanted to "impress" the stalwarts who were upset that Garfield was in the White House. Guiteau figured if he killed the President, Vice-President Chester Arthur would have to make Guiteau part of his cabinet. (At the time he was elected with Garfield, Arthur was a stalwart and a product of the spoils system. The spoils system held that anyone who helped a guy get elected got something in return.)
It's a lot of story, but I was never confused or bored. I hated that Guiteau, with a gun in his pocket, was following Garfield around for weeks. I cringed that Guiteau was in the White House several times trying to get the President to give him the ambassadorship to Paris (!!!). It made me physically sick that Garfield's doctor (Bliss) had such an ego that he refused to (even scoffed at the idea of) sterilize his hands or his instruments before checking the President's wounds. Garfield shouldn't have died because of his injuries. Today he would have been up and walking around after a couple of days. In the 1880s, though, practicing antiseptic medicine was very new and most old-school doctors thought it was ridiculous. Germs?! We can't see 'em, so they must not exist. So, for two and a half months, President James Garfield lived through hours and hours of excruciating pain, getting more infected by the minute, until he finally died. Alexander Graham Bell invented a device, the induction system, that worked like a metal detector to try to find the bullet lodged in Garfield's body. Because Bliss wouldn't let him check Garfield's left side (where the bullet had wandered), the device didn't work for the President. It did, however, save many, many, many lives afterward. Garfield's suffering and death brought the nation, still struggling to think of itself as one nation, together. He is exactly what we needed when we needed it.
By the way, someone needs to write a good book about Robert Todd Lincoln. That guy was next to Ulysses S. Grant when Robert E. Lee surrendered and ended the Civil War. He held his father, Abraham Lincoln's, hand as he died. He was at the train depot when President Garfield was shot. AND he was with William McKinley when he was shot. WOW! There is a book or two about him out there, but they're not good. Someone get on that, okay?