Books History Librarianship Poetry Travel

Visiting the Folger Shakespeare Library

Last weekend we made a charming visit to the Folger Shakespeare Library, just a stone’s throw from the U.S. Capitol. The library is renowned for having more than 70 First Folios of Shakespeare’s plays (and depending on how you count, as many as 82), including one on view under glass with a neat interactive display.

Founders Henry Clay Folger and his wife Emily Jordan Folger were obsessed with collecting the folios in the early 1900s, and today the library focuses its collection on all materials related to Shakespeare, as well as materials from 1450 to the early 1700s.

We signed up for a tour of the Reading Room, which includes the marvelous stained glass window depicting scenes from the “seven ages of man” speech in As You Like It:

All the world ’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His Acts being seven ages. …

See Morgan Freeman deliver the full speech here (3 minutes).  My photo of the library window doesn’t really do it justice.

As You Like It

I was also fond of the statue of Puck; the base of the statue has an inscription from the character in A Midsummer-Night’s Dream, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” Here’s its context from the play:

Captain of our fairy band,
Helena is here at hand,
And the youth, mistook by me,
Pleading for a lover’s fee.
Shall we their fond pageant see?
Lord, what fools these mortals be!


Finally, I include this marvelous bust of the Bard himself. I know there’s raging debate over which likenesses of Shakespeare are historically accurate. This one, I think, captures his artistic  spirit.


Books Pop culture

A reader’s review of ‘Cloud Atlas,’ the movie (versus the book)

I’m an unabashed fan of the novel “Cloud Atlas,” so I was pretty nervous about the idea of a movie. After the critics panned it, I should have been forlorn, right? But I saw it for myself and loved it, really loved it.

The reviews of the movie “Cloud Atlas” have struggled to summarize its storyline because its based on a novel that heaps storyline upon storyline and leaps from one time period to another. It’s about a young attorney in the 1700s on a voyage through the South Pacific who succumbs to a strange illness and tries to help an escaped slave. It’s about a dashing young musician in the 1930s who wins an apprenticeship with an aging composer. It’s about a muck-raking reporter in 1970s California who tries to expose a cover-up at a nuclear power plant. It’s about an aging English publisher in the 1990s; he’s unwittingly committed to a nursing home by his malicious brother. It’s about a science-fiction future, when a clone tries to escape enslavement from “corpocracy” and inspires others to rebel. And it’s about the farther future, after “The Fall,”  when humanity tries to put itself back together in Hawaii after apocalyptic cataclysm.

Like most postmodern or post-postmodern novels, “Cloud Atlas” the book reminds readers constantly that what they’re reading is fiction. Its purpose is to layer multiple stories on top of each other so that a larger, different story emerges, much the way impressionist painters layered paint on canvas. It’s not a traditional narrative, but a story of ideas.  “Cloud Atlas” then becomes a meditation of how the strong prey on the weak, how the predators justify their actions, and how the weak find ways to resist.

The movie, interestingly, embraces most of the novel’s strange quirks and narrative play. (It also takes some interesting liberties with the book’s plot.) This isn’t a movie with a beginning a middle and and end, but many beginnings, many middles and many endings.

Different actors play different roles in the film, and some have suggested that one way to read this casting is as the same souls traveling through time. I would reject this reading of the progression of souls — even if the filmmakers intended it. For one thing, the idea doesn’t make much sense, and in the movie there’s no natural sense of how the characters are particularly connected. And for another thing, some of the actors are in such heavy make-up that you can’t even tell it’s the same actor. (I strongly disagree with the reviews that claim the actors always remain recognizable.)

So then why do I think this casting “works” anyway? Because it reminds you that the specific stories are connected thematically, not literally. It’s like a live stage play where the actors play different roles; it serves to remind you that you are watching a narrative that was created by human beings to explore ideas.

I went to “Cloud Atlas” with someone (Mark) who hadn’t read the book. He said he enjoyed the movie and could follow it easily; it wasn’t as complicated as the reviewers would have you think. So with all that in mind, I would urge you to see “Cloud Atlas”. It doesn’t tie up all the loose ends in a big bow or end with a big musical number. Instead, it’s just an interesting, beautiful movie that will make you think.


Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A life of David Foster Wallace, by D.T. Max

I really liked this journalistic account of the life of David Foster Wallace. Its primary focus is on how his professional and personal life resulted in the publication of his novels and nonfiction, so a lot of it is about the publishing industry, universities where Wallace worked, and his literary friendships. Some of the reviews I read on Goodreads seemed to think the book wasn’t long enough, but it satisfied me — I did not want to read a long scholarly biography or extended analysis of his early childhood, etc.
A lot of this book is sad, though. It made me realize how private Wallace was in his life, and how little I knew about him (despite being a big fan) when he was alive. A lot of the revelations here involve his somewhat troubled personal life. I guess it should have been obvious to me that whoever wrote “Infinte Jest” would not be Mr. Happy Happy Normal, but I always liked to think of Wallace as living a life of basic contentment and balance. This book shows that wasn’t the case, at least part of the time, and in detail. On the whole though, I enjoyed this book, it was very readable, and it will certainly enhance my understanding of Wallace’s work. While I was reading it, I found myself constantly going back to my bookshelf to pull down Wallace’s work, and I can’t think of a better compliment to a literary biography than that. 

Books Poetry

The Ireland visit, a reader’s tour, 2012

When the spouse and I went to Ireland in 2007 for the first time, I was in full-on James Joyce obsession, and we saw a lot. We did the Dublin Writers Museum. I had the glass of burgundy and gorgonzola sandwich at Davy Byrnes. We drove out to Sandycove to see Joyce’s Martello tower and the museum there. And in Galway, we went to Nora Barnacle’s home.

For our most recent trip, I was (am?) in full-on William Butler Yeats obsession. Sadly, though, we did not go to Sligo. There were good reasons for that, involving travel time and logistics and such like. So the ultimate Yeats tour of Ireland is still out there waiting to be undertaken.

No regrets, though! We had THREE great literary moments in our latest trip to Ireland, which I will recount here.

1. Dublin Literary Pub Crawl/Seamus Heaney radio interview. The pub crawl put together stops at Dublin’s historic pubs with  dramatic readings from Irish literature — Samuel Becket’s “Waiting for Godot,” James Plunkett’s “Strumpet City,” Oscar Wilde on his travels in America. The actors who proclaimed the roles did a great job, and the pubs had great ambiance, too. The capper on our night out, though, was the ride back to our cousins’ house north of Dublin in County Meath. As we were leaving the city, a radio interview with Irish poet Seamus Heaney was just beginning. 

It’s very difficult to summarize the career of Seamus Heaney briefly, so I won’t try. I’ll just note here that he won the Nobel Prize in 1995, and I’ll link to the Poetry Foundation’s biography of him and let you take it from there. Or, you could take a moment to read “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing.” (“Smoke-signals are loud-mouthed compared with us:/ Manoeuvrings to find out name and school,/ Subtle discrimination by addresses/ With hardly an exception to the rule.”)

As we were pulling into the driveway at home, the radio interview had just ended, we had listened to some of Heaney’s major works, and it was the perfect ending to a memorable evening in the city of Dublin. 

2. Yeats exhibit at the National Library. We went to the National Library of Ireland on one of our first afternoons in the country, so the spouse could do some research. Lo and behold, their very notable exhibit of The Life and Works of William Butler Yeats (see worthwhile NYT write-up here) was still going! This exhibit opened in 2006, and we wanted to go when we visited in 2007, but we got too busy, and like I said, I was obsessed with Joyce back then, not Yeats. 

This time, I got to spend a blissful hour and a half in the exhibit while the spouse did research in the library’s reading room. 

Most, most wonderful about the exhibit was the area that showcased Yeats’ poetry. You couldn’t miss it, it was a screened seating area right when you entered the exhibit, and it included wall-sized renderings of his poems with out-loud readings. The recorded reading were by Yeats himself, Seamus Heaney, Sinead O’Connor and several others. Sinead did a particularly haunting job with “Easter 1916.” (I’ve looked for a CD of these readings to no avail, sad.) The National Library has posted a virtual tour of the Yeats exhibit, and I’ve spent time on it even now. It’s fascinating.

3. Listowel Writers Week/Paul Durcan reading. The reason we went at the time we did this year was so we could go to Listowel Writers Week, the literary festival is in its 41st year, in County Kerry. Listowel is a charming town, and the highlight of the week was getting to see the poet Paul Durcan read on Friday night. Durcan is another one of Ireland’s celebrated poets; the Irish Independent says he “comes second only to Seamus Heaney as our most famous living poet.” 

Durcan’s new book, “Praise in Which I Live and Move and Have my Being” was in every bookstore we stopped at in Ireland (Dublin, Ballybunion, Kinsale, Clonakilty). The night of the reading, the spouse stood in a very, very long line to get me an autographed copy. It’s one of my favorite presents I’ve received in a long time and my best memento of the trip. My favorite poem is “The Recession.” The inscription reads, “For Angie, Warmest wishes, Paul Durcan, Listowel, 1 June 2012.” 

Books Fact-checking

Books: ‘The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Religion and Politics’

Books: ‘The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Religion and Politics’

Books Travel

Books to read for a trip to Ireland

We’re going to Ireland again, so it’s time for another Irish reading list.

So what’s on my reading list? I don’t have all that much time, so it’s fairly short. 

Modern Ireland: A Very Short Introduction. You won’t find anything here about the Celtic tiger or the financial crisis. By “modern,” they mean from about1800 to 1992, with a heavy emphasis on before 1922. Got that? Instead, this is mostly a history of how Ireland won its independence from Great Britain. If you’ve watched “Downton Abbey,” this is the kind of book that would give you great insight into the world of Tom Branson, the “very political” driver. 

The Forgotten Waltz, by Anne Enright. This is a contemporary novel, the story of an affair. Enright won the Booker Prize for a novel about a family confronting the suicide of an  adult son. Her writing is supposed to be fabulous. 

Mothers and Sons, by Colm Toibin. This choice is much more difficult, I’ve been wanting to read something by Toibin for years. “The Master“— probably his best-known work — is a fictionalized portrait of the American novelist Henry James. Toibin’s novel “Brooklyn,” is about an Irish girl arriving in the States in the 1950s; it also got excellent reviews. His newest work is a set of essays called “New Ways to Kill your Mother,” in which he contemplates literature and family. But I will probably go with “Mothers and Sons” because it’s about (relatively) contemporary Ireland and also for a more mundane reason — I have it on my bookshelf. 

Books History

To End All Wars, by Alan Hochschild – Favorite Nonfiction of 2011

This history of World War I — To End All Wars by Alan Hochschild — was my favorite nonfiction book of 2011. I don’t usually think of World War I much, yet it was an astounding conflict in so many ways, with its vast loss of lifeless and the almost pointless way it started. I wasn’t really sure how the war ignited before I read this book, and now that I have more detailed knowledge, I’m not sure I can explain it any better. Basically, Austria invaded Serbia, and the rest of the countries of Europe really wanted to go to war, so they all jumped in.

Hochschild uses a smart structure for his history: He focuses on people in Britain, switching between the points of view of the generals running the war and the anti-war protesters trying to stop it. There’s plenty of futility to go around on all sides: The generals don’t understand that they can’t take out machine gun nests by throwing infantry and cavalry at it. Meanwhile, the conscientious objectors are trying turn public opinion that seems absolutely gung ho for war.

Hochschild tells the story through just a few characters, including the Pankhurst family, a mother and her daughters who were radical suffragettes — bombing buildings and rappelling into parliament — before they split over the war issue. The mother, Emmeline, became a fervent war supporter, while one of her daughters ran a prominent anti-war newspaper. 

Finally, World War I has popped up in some uniquely personal contexts for me. My husband has been working on a history of his grandparents, who came to the United States from Ireland in 1913. His great uncle John came to the States around the same time, but was drafted and sent back Europe to fight with the Americans in 1918. Back in Ireland, the Easter Rising, which eventually led to the country’s independence, happened in 1916, right in the middle of the war.

On a lighter note, World War I is figuring heavily in the new season of my favorite TV show Downton Abbey.  

I would strongly recommend this book to people who are interested in history but who find traditional scholarly treatises to be dull and plodding. This book is anything but.


PowellsBooks.Blog – Powell’s Q&A: Chad Harbach – The Art of Fielding

PowellsBooks.Blog – Powell’s Q&A: Chad Harbach – The Art of Fielding


Review: Memorable characters in Chad Harbach’s ‘Art of Fielding’ explore human condition through baseball – St. Petersburg Times

Review: Memorable characters in Chad Harbach’s ‘Art of Fielding’ explore human condition through baseball – St. Petersburg Times

Books History

Review: In ‘Caleb’s Crossing’ by Geraldine Brooks, Puritan woman and Harvard’s first American Indian graduate challenge beliefs – St. Petersburg Times

Review: In ‘Caleb’s Crossing’ by Geraldine Brooks, Puritan woman and Harvard’s first American Indian graduate challenge beliefs – St. Petersburg Times