A quick guide to fads: what they are, how they work, and how to recognize them.
Trending: How and Why Stuff Gets Popular is an informative and accessible book all about fads: what they are, how they happen, and what kinds of consequences they can have. The book is short and full of fun, cartoony illustrations, making it appealing both to readers of comics and readers who may be intimidated by large chunks of text. The many line breaks, subheadings, and sidebars also help make the book seem easily digestible. Readers looking for information on an under-represented topic will be delighted with all the fun facts laid out in Trending.
Though Trending is short in length, it manages to pack in a lot of information, covering everything from Crocs and Pokemon Go to the hobble skirts of the 1910s. Fads are nothing new, and Kira Vermond shows how they have been present throughout history, often causing surprising effects–adults fighting over Beanie Babies, farmers left struggling after overproducing a suddenly trendy crop, celebrities spreading misinformation about vaccines. The stories are entertaining, but also cautionary.
While readers may thinking they are just learning fun facts, they are also learning to make more informed choices. For example, the book covers how companies manipulate consumers to jump onto trends and how social media can use browsing habits to target consumers. Vermond also addresses propaganda and how to recognize it. Readers are given the information necessary to recognize fads and to decide who they want to respond.
Trending is a delightful read sure to capture the attention of its young target audience, while teaching them how to be savvy consumers of both information and products.
A graphic novel introduction to the topic of consent, told through kid-friendly scenarios and illustrations.
Consent (for Kids!) by Rachel Brian is an incredibly accessible introduction to the concept of consent for both children and adults. It covers the basics of consent, discussing boundaries, bodily autonomy, trust, different relationships, changing boundaries, and, importantly, the need to reflect not only on whether you are in healthy relationships with people who respect your boundaries, but also whether you are the type of person who respects others’ boundaries. The book is a bite-sized introduction that manages to hit all the key points with clarity and insight, as well as a great deal of humor.
What I really love about this book is how accessible it is. The cartoony illustrations are inviting and kid-friendly, but so are the scenarios Brian presents. For example, Brian explains consent as “like being the ruler of your own country. Population: YOU” and goes on to illustrate things like scenarios you may be comfortable with (sharing fries with a friend) or not comfortable with (sharing your friend’s half-eaten fries). Relationship boundaries are illustrated by acquiring a badger as a pet– a scratching, violent badger= a situation where boundaries have to change! And she explains that clothes do not equal consent with an illustration of a person in a bathing suit who does not want to be pushed into the water just because she is dressed for swimming. The important ideas are all here, but explained in relatable and often humorous ways.
I also appreciate that Brian discusses different relationships, and how readers might be comfortable doing some things with some people, but not others. She also addresses the tricky matter of family, asserting that no, you don’t have to kiss your aunt just because your parents told you to. You still get to set your own boundaries. I think it is important for children to understand from a young age that they do not “owe” anyone physical affection, even if people they love and trust –like their own family–insist that they do.
Finally, Brian does not neglect to have the reader reflect on their own behavior. Have they pressured others to do something they did not want to do? Threatened them? Bribed them? Have they shared secrets told to them in confidence? Maybe shared photos that were sent to them and meant for their eyes only? It is never too early to start thinking about how one’s behavior affects others. Brian does not let readers off the hook. They should expect others to respect them, but they also must respect others.
Consent (for Kids!) is a valuable tool for parents and educators, touching on all the key points of consent and bodily autonomy, while doing so in an accessible, kid-friendly manner. The concepts learned here in somewhat humorous scenarios can be applied throughout life to all sorts of situations. This is a book that will really grow with the reader, helping them navigate life.
Who are you? What is your identity? What is racism? How do you choose your own path? How do you stand in solidarity? How can you hold yourself accountable?
Learn about identities, true histories, and anti-racism work in 20 carefully laid out chapters. Written by anti-bias, anti-racist, educator and activist, Tiffany Jewell, and illustrated by French illustrator Aurélia Durand in kaleidoscopic vibrancy.
This book is written for the young person who doesn’t know how to speak up to the racist adults in their life. For the 14 year old who sees injustice at school and isn’t able to understand the role racism plays in separating them from their friends. For the kid who spends years trying to fit into the dominant culture and loses themselves for a little while. It’s for all of the Black and Brown children who have been harmed (physically and emotionally) because no one stood up for them or they couldn’t stand up for themselves; because the colour of their skin, the texture of their hair, their names made white folx feel scared and threatened.
It is written so children and young adults will feel empowered to stand up to the adults who continue to close doors in their faces. This book will give them the language and ability to understand racism and a drive to undo it. In short, it is for everyone.
This Book Is Anti-Racist by Tiffany Jewell is an accessible introduction to the work of anti-racism, targeted to a teen audience. Easy-to-understand definitions and explanations are paired with journal prompts so readers can begin to articulate to themselves how they view their identity, how they see themselves fitting into society, and how they imagine they can begin to do the work of anti-racism. Aurélia Durand’s bold and colorful artwork is featured on every page, making the book as visually appealing as it is inspirational.
The book is divided into a series of short chapters, making a book about a heavy topic less intimidating. This, combined with Jewell’s personable writing style and her personal anecdotes make the work seem a little like a gift from a good friend, who wants to help readers understand themselves and their world–and give them the courage to make a difference. Positive messages promoting confidence and belonging, as do the beautiful illustrations by Durand. The overall tone is one of optimism and hope. It is clear that Jewell believes that young people matter, and that they can change the world.
Durand’s gorgeous illustrations also deserve a shout-out. They instantly make the book visually engaging, and may be a reason many are attracted to pick up the book from a shelf in the first place. Each page celebrates the beauty, strength, and diversity of Black and Brown people. The visuals are so stunning, I can easily imagine readers wanting prints that they can hang up on their walls.
This Book Is Anti-Racist is a wonderful introductory book. It makes the work of anti-racism accessible, not only to its target teen audience, but also to anyone who wants to learn more. The journal prompts paired with the information help readers understand the importance of self-reflection, while the illustrations celebrate confidence and pride. Certainly a volume educators and librarians will want on the shelves, as well as a book important for anyone wanting to do the work of anti-racism.
Throughout history, the significance of the family—the basic social unit—has been vital. In Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages, acclaimed historians Frances and Joseph Gies trace the development of marriage and the family from the medieval era to early modern times. It describes how the Roman and barbarian cultural streams merged under the influence of the Christian church to forge new concepts, customs, laws, and practices. Century by century, the Gies follow the development—sometimes gradual, at other times revolutionary—of significant components in the history of the family including:
The basic functions of the family as a production unit, as well as its religious, social, judicial, and educational roles.
The shift of marriage from private arrangement between families to public ceremony between individuals, and the adjustments in dowry, bride-price, and counter-dowry.
The development of consanguinity rules and incest taboos in church law and lay custom.
The peasant family in its varying condition of being free or unfree, poor, middling, or rich.
The aristocratic estate, the problem of the younger son, and the disinheritance of daughters.
The Black Death and its long-term effects on the family.
Sex attitudes and customs: the effects of variations in age of men and women at marriage.
The changing physical environment of noble, peasant, and urban families.
Arrangements by families for old age and retirement.
Expertly researched, master historians Frances and Joseph Gies—whose books were used by George R.R. Martin in his research for Game of Thrones—paint a compelling, detailed portrait of family life and social customs in one of the most riveting eras in history.
Although I studied medieval literature in grad school, I always felt a bit shaky on some aspects of actual medieval history since I tended to gather that type of information less directly (i.e. reading articles about medieval literature that referenced historical matters rather than reading sources actually about history). Marriage and the Family Life is an engaging and approachable overview of life in the Middle Ages, covering the full time period and geographic areas in England and on the Continent, including France, Spain, Italy, etc. I wish I’d read this earlier to get a digestible sense of how customs and philosophies about marriage, inheritance, family living situations, children, and more were approached during these 1000 years.
I don’t think one actually has to have an academic interest in the Middle Ages to find this book interesting. The book jacket makes much use of the fact that George R. R. Martin has said he’s read the authors’ works to aid in his writing, and I do think the book is very readable and would make sense to anyone who would like to learn more about the topic.
The authors do open with a literature review of various other books/articles that had previously covered these topics, but one can safely skip that if they have no use for it and get on to actually reading about the marriage and the family. In the main body of the text, little stories and examples are scattered throughout to liven up the information.
The book goes in chronological order, and it gives a great sense of how things changed over time. (Interestingly, women had fewer rights in terms of divorce and inheritance in the Late Middle Ages than they did in the Early Middle Ages! So much for progress, I guess.) So readers can get a sense of things like how the Church or the Black Plague influenced marriage and the family, as well.
The one “failing” is that the book IS an overview, so often it would mention something I found interesting and wanted to know more about but move on without fully elaborating. Obviously, I can look up more on my own, of course.
If you’re interested in the Middle Ages, I would highly recommend this. I hope to check out the authors’ other books on life in the medieval village and life in the medieval city sometime for some more overviews.
A timely, crucial, and empowering exploration of racism–and antiracism–in America
This is NOT a history book. This is a book about the here and now. A book to help us better understand why we are where we are. A book about race.
The construct of race has always been used to gain and keep power, to create dynamics that separate and silence. This remarkable reimagining of Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning reveals the history of racist ideas in America, and inspires hope for an antiracist future. It takes you on a race journey from then to now, shows you why we feel how we feel, and why the poison of racism lingers. It also proves that while racist ideas have always been easy to fabricate and distribute, they can also be discredited.
Through a gripping, fast-paced, and energizing narrative written by beloved award-winner Jason Reynolds, this book shines a light on the many insidious forms of racist ideas–and on ways readers can identify and stamp out racist thoughts in their daily lives.
Popular middle grade and young adult author Jason Reynolds offers a “remix” of Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning for the teen crowd. Essentially, the book is a distillation of Kendi’s, a focus on some of the key moments and figures in the history of racism and antiracism in Europe and the U.S. Although assured that they are not reading a history book, teens, will, in fact, learn a history of ideas, starting with the “world’s first racist” and ending with the election of President Barack Obama and the start of the Black Lives Matter movement. The book is a succinct, accessible overview and it is no surprise that educators and librarians have been eager to pick up and share this stunning new release.
Some readers may fear nonfiction or worry about picking up a book that is meant to be “educational.” Jason Reynolds expertly seeks to engage these readers, promising them that he is not writing them a history book (although he clearly is–maybe just not the kind they expected) and crystallizing ideas into easy-to-understand images and concepts. Readers can power through what is not really a lengthy book, by any means, and still close the pages feeling like they have learned a lot–a lot they certainly never learned in school. Though the book is marketed as young adult, it will appeal to anyone looking for a history book that feels accessible and relevant.
Because the book is really just an overview, some readers may be disappointed by what appear to be possibilities for lengthier discussion. For instance, the book’s treatment of Abraham Lincoln is one I have seen cropping up more regularly in recent history books. This is the announcement that–surprise, surprise!–Lincoln isn’t the hero you think he was. He did not set out to end slavery when he was elected president, it took him a long time to issue his Emancipation Proclamation, and the proclamation was largely powerless since it only applied to states in rebellion, over which the U.S., at the time, had no control. Newer history books try to shock readers with these “revelations.”
However, Lincoln’s complexities and seeming contradictions are no secret. Any decent biography acknowledges all this. The interesting part of the story is possibly not so much that Lincoln was not the ardent abolitionist some people assume, but the political machinations of his day. For instance, Lincoln did run on a platform that was anti-expansionist (against the expansion of slavery into any of the new territories) and not one that was abolitionist (a promise to end slavery everywhere), but why? Despite Lincoln’s personal beliefs that slavery was wrong, he also recognized that, even in the North, abolitionism was seen as a fringe movement. He probably would not have won by promoting abolitionism. So, a more interesting question might be something along the lines of: Is it okay to compromise some of your beliefs in order to achieve some good rather than zero good? Additionally, Reynolds talks about how some people can hold racist, assimilationist, and antiracist views throughout different periods of their life, or even at the same time. How can we understand Lincoln and his political choices more fully through these definitions? Unfortunately, because the book tries to hit so many key points so quickly, readers are not going to get this type of discussion out of it, and will have to do more research on their own.
Another area readers might wonder about in terms of expanded information might be the War on Drugs and how both Democrats and Republicans participate in it. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Era of Colorblindness argues that “felon” has become synonymous with “Black” and is society’s last/most recent acceptable way to impose racial order by incarcerating unprecedented numbers of black and brown men in a country that “does not see color.” Alexander argues that even Barack Obama failed to act meaningfully to end to the system, and suggests that even he at times fell into the pitfall of accusing Black communities for their incarceration problems. In contrast, Reynolds’ account of Obama’s presidency is largely positive, and he argues that Obama spoke out against “uplift suasion”–the idea that Black people must act a certain way in order to be accepted by white people. These are competing views of Obama’s legacy that the book does not address, again probably because it does not have the space. But also, probably, partially because the book wants to end in a message of hope, not a critique of the nation’s only Black president. It is a book written for teens, however, so I can understand the motivation. People generally expect YA books to have positive endings.
I also, despite the glowing reviews about how Reynolds speaks so to this new generation, found the tone of the book a little distracting. To appeal to teens, the narrative voice takes on the tone of a “friend,” a guy who’s just giving it to you straight. It also seeks to connect to the youth by making comparisons to things like football and Nike sneakers. Some might argue that teens really love these things and the book is just trying to be relatable. However, even as a teen, I always wondered why teachers thought everyone loved football and wished they would stop trying to be hip by making allusions I didn’t care about. This is just my personal preference, however. The football and Nike lovers of the world might really find the book’s tone appealing. And if talking about football convinces more people to read history, why not?
These critiques are, of course, minor. Stamped has rightly received national attention because it teaches history many people probably were previously unaware of. And it does so by making that history easy to understand and easy to read. Most reviewers have given the book glowing reviews without any negative mentions, probably because the content and the effort to teach antiracism outweigh any quibbles over how relatable the average teen finds any specific sport allusion. Because the book is an overview, it will not cover the complexities of every topic it raises. But it does serve as an excellent starting point for individuals to start learning more.
I am a huge fan of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, so when I saw there was a cookbook for the book, I had to try it out. Recipe books based around other books can be hit-or-miss. Oftentimes, it feels like the creators wanted to cash in on a popular title more than they really wanted to pay homage to it or even offer some actually tasty meals. The Little Women Cookbook, however, surpassed my expectations. Wini Moranville clearly appreciates Alcott’s work and attempts to offer a cookbook that acknowledges Alcott’s beloved book while also providing recipes for authentic period dishes–thankfully updated for the modern cook.
Moranville largely bases her recipes around actual meals and food mentioned in Little Women. Entries typically have a quote from the book, reminding readers of passages such as Jo’s famous ruined dinners and Amy’s failed picnic. Readers then have the opportunity to cook something similar to what the Marches and their friends would have enjoyed. Other times, Moranville will offer a recipe that was actually found in the “receipt” book Meg consulted, or a recipe that would have been common at the time. The result is that readers will feel confident that they are really experiencing something akin to what diners in the 1860s would have. (Updates such as allowing for the use of a temperature-controlled oven or gelatin in lieu of calves’ feet allow readers to modernize the experience a bit.)
Fascinating historical facts and explanations intersperse the book, making it an interesting read for fans of Little Women, even if an individual does not feel like making any of the recipes. For example, Moranville illuminates readers as to the nature of the “messes” Meg cooked for Beth; discusses how the Marches, though poor, managed to afford lobster; and finally explains what a blacmange is. Other historical notes explain why Louisa May Alcott’s work was filled with apples, or talk about how her father was what we would now call a vegan. Moranville ends up answering questions about Little Women and its author that readers may not have even known to ask.
I also appreciated that Moranville provides several full menu suggestions for readers who want to do something like create their own picnic–just like the Marches and Laurie. Sometimes new recipes can be confusing. What are you supposed to pair them with? Are they supposed to constitute a full meal or are you supposed to add side dishes? Moranville takes the guesswork out, and, really, I wish more cookbooks would do the same.
To give a full review of The Little Women Cookbook, I decided to try out some of the recipes myself. At times, I did feel a little bit like Jo, somehow running into absurd dilemmas while cooking, but, ultimately found the recipes relatively easy to follow and ultimately delicious. I chose to cook: apple orchard chicken, Jo’s lettuce salad, and black raspberry jelly cake with lemon cream.
The apple orchard chicken was pretty easy to make. You simply cook your chicken on the stove top, then prepare a sauce made of apple juice, chicken broth, and cream to pour on top. The only problem I had was that the liquid is supposed to reduce on the stove top before you add the cream to complete the sauce. I kept it boiling, but for some reason, it didn’t want to reduce. My chicken was ready, however, and I was hungry so I gave up and ate a soupy sauce. I would make this recipe again, but I will have to boil the sauce a lot longer than I had anticipated. I recommend cooking the sauce while you cook the chicken, to account for this added time, even though the book says to make the chicken first and then to wrap it in foil while you make the sauce.
For Jo’s lettuce salad, I prepared a Dijon mustard and egg yolk-based dressing that Moranville assures readers “was among the most common ways to dress salad a the time.” You are supposed to pair it with an “assertively flavored green” like arugula, since the salad does not call for anything other than the dressing and greens. The only arugula I could find, however, seemed pricey for the amount, so I just used iceberg lettuce and dressed up my salad with tomatoes, green olives, and banana peppers–I figured that would make the salad taste assertive enough. I did really enjoy the dressing, however, which basically tastes like really tangy Dijon. I acknowledge, however, that the dressing may be acquired taste, since my test subject went to look for a different dressing. Fortunately, the book recommends that you make the dressing separately rather than tossing it in with the leaves, since it is so heavy. This makes it easy for your guests to taste the dressing before committing to dumping it all over their greens.
For dessert, I chose to make the hot milk sponge cake, which you can then transform into the black raspberry jelly cake with lemon cream. The store only had grape jelly and strawberry, however, so I turned it into a strawberry jelly cake with lemon cream. Moranville instructs cooks to make the hot milk sponge cake, let it cool, then cut it in half. You are then supposed to spread the jam in the middle, put the top make on, and put the lemon-flavored whipped cream on top. I found these instructions a little strange since the cake recipe only makes one round 8-inch pan’s worth of cake, which is rather thin to cut in half. Gamely, however, I tried. And failed. I ended up spreading the jam on top of the cake and then spreading the whipped topping over it. It really didn’t matter; it still tasted delicious and was probably the best part of the meal. I also forgot to add the sugar to the lemon cream topping, but, since it was spread on top of jam, that also did not matter. (Though it did make me feel rather like Jo trying to cook!) In future, I will double the hot milk sponge cake recipe and make two cake pans’ worth if I want to create a layer cake.
Altogether, The Little Women Cookbook is a pretty useful cookbook. The recipes are things you might actually want to make and they typically do not require odd ingredients. For my meal, the main things I had to buy that I don’t usually stock were things like heavy whipping cream*, lemons, jam, and apple cider vinegar. If the book were ever updated, I do think it would be helpful for Moranville to include advice such as how to store certain recipes–what type of container, cold or room temperature, how many days, etc. Possibly most cooks will not need this information, but I find it reassuring to be told my storage choices are correct, and I think new cooks in particular might benefit from this information. Altogether, however, I can say that The Little Women Cookbook was a delightful read as well as a culinary success.
*Part of me regrets not also buying an electric mixer since it took me at least 15 minutes to whip the cream by hand, but I like to think this added to the authentic March family experience.
“Jarvious Cotton’s great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Klu Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation; his father was barred by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole.”
As the United States celebrates the nation’s “triumph over race” with the election of Barack Obama, the majority of young black men in major American cities are locked behind bars or have been labeled felons for life. Although Jim Crow laws have been wiped off the books, an astounding percentage of the African American community remains trapped in a subordinate status–much like their grandparents before them.
In this incisive critique, former litigator-turned-legal-scholar Michelle Alexander provocatively argues that we have not ended racial caste in America: we have simply redesigned it. Alexander shows that, by targeting black men and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control, even as it formally adheres to the principle of color blindness. The New Jim Crow challenges the civil rights community–and all of us–to place mass incarceration at the forefront of a new movement for racial justice in America.
The New Jim Crow is an eye-opening look at the justice system in America. Even readers who think they have some understanding of how incarceration works in the U.S. may be surprised by Michelle Alexander’s findings. She lays out a compelling case to argue that the War of Drugs begun in the 1980s targets black and brown people, penalizing them with disproportionately heavy sentences for minor drug use. Once labelled felons, individuals become part of America’s under-caste; it is perfectly legal to discriminate against them in housing and hiring. Furthermore, they lose access to welfare, making it harder for them to feed themselves and their families. And they are denied the opportunity to vote. This system, which makes it almost impossible for previously incarcerated individuals to get a job, find a home, and feed themselves, stacks the deck against them, making it more likely they will have to return to illegal activities to stay alive. The system, Alexander, argues has to change. But we cannot do that until we stop being indifferent.
Alexander spends a lot of time dismantling the notion that a “colorblind” society can lead to true equality. She asserts that it is Americans’ belief in colorblindness and a postracial society that allows them to be indifferent about what is happening in the neighborhoods they don’t live in. While it is common for young Black men to be stopped and searched just for walking down the street or driving down the road, white people, as a rule, do nothing to contest this system because it does not affect them and because they believe that the people who are being stopped must have done something to deserve it. Yet, Alexander wonders, what would happen if white people were stopped at the same rates as young Black men? How long would it take for the system to change?
Some people may try to justify the incarceration rates of Black men, but Alexander asks her readers to rethink the way things are. Does it actually make sense to have heavy mandatory sentences for minor drug use? Should someone’s life be ruined just because they were found holding a small about of drugs? Why do we say of the white college student that, “He has his whole life before him! It was just a mistake. Give him another a chance.” But we don’t extend that same reasoning to the young Black man convicted of the same or a similar crime? And does the data actually support the notion that we must be “tough on crime” to keep communities safe? Why is there less focus on white collar crimes that affect more people than someone using? Why do the poorest get saddled with more jail time because they can’t afford to buy their way out with information or assets?
Alexander’s research forces readers to confront biases they may not have known they were holding. She asserts that the creation of the War on Drugs made being Black synonymous with being a criminal, and that this campaign was part of a purposeful effort to appeal to lower-class white voters who had to be prevented from finding solidarity with the poor Black community. Because of the concerted media campaign launched by the Reagan administration, people began believing that drug usage, which they had previously not cared much about, was engulfing America and that Black users were dangerous and violent. Young white men probably use drugs at a higher rate than Black men, yet, when asked to picture a user, most people will probably think of someone who is Black. Readers will have to ask themselves why. Does the data actually support the idea that Black men are more likely to be criminal? Or have they been unwittingly swayed by media portrayals that they have never thought to question?
The forces arrayed against meaningful change in the justice system are many. Discriminatory practices exist at every level, from pretextual traffic stops to jury selection to who gets adequate legal representation to who gets sentenced with what types of crimes. Additionally, there are many economic incentives for interested individuals to try to keep the booming business of privatized prisons going. Readers may have not thought of every piece of the puzzle, but Alexander compellingly lays out in detail how the entire system conspires to keep Black men on the fringes of society.
The question, of course, is what readers do with this information once they have it. On an individual level, readers may be convinced they need to rethink their unconscious biases. Do they automatically associate being Black with being criminal? How have biases such as this affected things like a company’s hiring practices? A landlord’s renting decisions? A school administration’s choices about who gets sent to alternative schools? Additionally, readers may feel more empowered to have difficult discussions about race, now that they have data to back them up. Ultimately, however, Alexander argues that we must have the courage to use this information to make real, systemic change–even if that means some people give up their privilege to make things more equal. It is an effort that she imagines can only be achieved through a popular, grassroots movement–not legal battles.
The New Jim Crow is a provocative, well-researched book that will have readers rethinking everything they have been told about the War on Drugs. It will open their eyes to practices they may have not even known were occurring. And, ultimately, it will empower them to take a stance. Find your copy today!
James Shapiro takes a look at a pivotal year in the reign of King James I of England and how political and historical events may have affected Shakespeare and informed his writings.
The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 seems to be James Shapiro’s attempt at recreating the success of his previous book A Year in the Life of Shakespeare: 1599. However, while A Year in the Life presents a compelling argument about the ways in which current events shaped Shakespeare’s writing, The Year of Lear seems forced to make more tangential connections–perhaps because the dating of King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra is not even very certain. At times, the connections seem to disappear altogether, and readers are left with a fascinating account of King James I’s rule, but not much Shakespeare. The Year of Lear may be best suited to history enthusiasts and less so to avid Shakespeare fans.
I have read three books by Shapiro so far and Shapiro is generally very good at stressing that we will never know as much about Shakespeare as we would like. We will certainly never get a glimpse into his inner life or his personal thoughts on why he wrote what he did. What Shapiro tries to give readers instead is an account of what was going on in the world around Shakespeare. By looking at moments that rocked the nation such as the Gunpowder Plot or debates that occupied people’s minds, such as the question of Union, Shapiro argues that we can have a taste of what Shakespeare was experiencing and how it might have affected his work.
This argument works very well in A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, but somehow seems less compelling in The Year of Lear. A good deal of Shapiro’s focus does not even seem to be on Shakespeare’s work for much of the play. There is an interesting discussion of Union and how King Lear deals with related questions, a fascinating analysis of Antony and Cleopatra and how Shakespeare diverged from his sources, and a long detour into the supernatural and James’ preoccupation with witches. I never really felt that Shapiro convincingly linked the supernatural back into Shakespeare’s plays despite the fact that he does cover Macbeth. More pertinent is the connection Shapiro makes with England’s preoccupation with “equivocation” and Macbeth. And yet, a good deal of the book simply gets lost in the intricacies of the Gunpowder plot, recusancy and increased anti-Catholic laws, the cracks beginning to show in King James’ reign.
Books on Shakespeare tend to focus on him as an Elizabethan playwright, so I appreciated a book dedicated to exploring Shakespeare’s work under King James. I also enjoyed learning a lot about history I never knew before. However, I do think the connections Shapiro makes between history and Shakespeare are not always as strong as they could be–certainly not as strong as they were in Shapiro’s previous work.
1599. Queen Elizabeth is childless on the throne of England. Her people anxiously await a potential foreign invasion, especially if she does not name an heir. In Ireland, rebellion brews and the queen’s former favorite, the Earl of Essex, sets out to quell it. But some fear he could return at the head of an army, his sights set on England crown. Tensions run high and, through it all, Shakespeare writes four of his greatest plays, speaking to his contemporaries about their unexpressed hopes and fears.
A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 is one of my favorite non-fiction Shakespeare reads to date. It focuses intensely on one year in Shakespeare’s life, drawing connections between cultural, political, and religious moments that would have impacted Shakespeare and potentially influenced his writings. No easy one-to-one connections are drawn, but Shapiro convincingly demonstrates that Shakespeare was sensitively attuned to what was happening around him and to how the nation–and his audience–may have been thinking, feeling, and responding. He tapped into their hopes, their fears, their bitterness, and their anxieties in order to write plays that spoke strongly to their historical moment, but that still resonate with us today.
Shakespeare’s ambiguity seems to be one of the defining features of his works that continues to appeal to audiences. It allows for vastly different–and opposing–interpretations of his writing, while also allowing readers who enjoy ambiguity to simply revel in the apparent contradictions. Shapiro compellingly arguments that this feature of Shakespeare’s writing arose directly out of his historical and political moment. It makes sense, on the one hand, not to take sides if you want to draw in as many audience members as possible. But it also makes sense never to take sides if you wish both to avoid appearing like the government’s sycophant and if you wish to avoid getting into legal trouble for producing a play that could offend the government. Walking a middle line where both sides are convincingly argued and rejected, so no one ever knows where the final judgment lays, could be the very best way to keep your audiences coming back and to keep yourself out of jail. (It is notable that Shakespeare appears to have successfully avoided running afoul of the censor for his entire career, unlike many of his playwright contemporaries–perhaps most notably Ben Jonson.)
Reconstructing Shakespeare’s inner life is never going to be possible. However, Shapiro demonstrates that we can have some idea of what Shakespeare may have been thinking about and responding to if we bring our attention to the major historical moments of Shakespeare’s day. Doing so reveals nuances that are easy for contemporary readers to overlook. But it also makes Shakespeare’s work seem even more marvelous in that, by speaking to his own time, he continues to speak to ours.
James Shapiro, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, traces the roots of the Shakespeare authorship controversy, examining why readers first began doubting the man from Stratford-upon-Avon had written his own plays. He examines the claims of Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, as the two candidates with the most support, before explaining why he believes Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.
James Shapiro’s Contested Will is an important addition to the debate surrounding the true authorship of William Shakespeare’s works. Though Shakespeare scholars generally do not credit the idea that someone other than Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, conspiracy theories still abound. Shapiro argues that academic silence on the topic is part of the reason alternative candidates for Shakespeare still flourish. Despite the misgivings of his colleagues, he therefore wrote Contested Will, which traces the early reasons readers had to doubt Shakespeare’s authorship and carries into the present day. The book is an engrossing study of how our conceptions of authorship have changed–or not–over the years.
Previously, I was aware that those who argue Shakespeare could not have written Shakespeare usually based some claims on his class. Shakespeare was not cultured enough, rich enough, or educated enough to have written his plays. To me, the arguments reek of classicism, and are not particularly compelling. Shapiro goes farther, however, revealing how these sentiments arose out of a new conception of authorship in the Victorian era: an author can only write what he or she knows. This belief, that Shakespeare could only have written court scenes if he had been to court, or plays set in Italy if he had been to Italy, convinced even other authors like Mark Twain and Helen Keller than Shakespeare could not have written his plays.
Shapiro uses two of the most popular claimants to the Shakespeare oeuvre (Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford) to illustrate how different cultural conceptions over the years challenged people’s beliefs in Shakespeare.. Though many names have been proposed as the “real” Shakespeare, Shapiro argues that these two can reveal to us how Shakespeare’s authorship began to be questioned. In essence, people began to want to know who Shakespeare was, despite a lack of historical facts, and they wanted his image to match their idea of what an author should be. In some cases, this lead to complex forgeries demonstrating that Shakespeare was the urbane, well-connected, and Protestant author the people wanted. This stood in stark contrast to the evidence showing that Shakespeare was a man who did not write simply for writing’s sake, but because he cared about money!
Shapiro examines the evolving conceptions of authorship with what we know of authorship in early modern times. Autobiography was, he notes, practically unheard of, except in some spiritual texts, and even the concept of interiority may have been different: few people kept a diary. He also examines what we do know about the historical Shakespeare, and argues from it that we can conclude that William Shakespeare was, after all, William Shakespeare–a well-known figure in London and not a front for an aristocratic writer.
Interspersed with all this is a great deal of entertaining historical facts, from William Henry Ireland’s complex Shakespeare forgeries to the bizarre authorship theories suggesting that Queen Elizabeth was having incestuous affairs the government had to cover up. The sheer strangeness of the history is sure to pull in readers who love to learn about the past, even if they are not particularly interested in Shakespeare.
Contested Will is a highly readable and entertaining history. Based on extensive research, it is also a compelling work, one well suited to defend Shakespeare’s name and legacy.