Book review: “Shakespeare’s Secret” by Elise Broach

After reading "Masterpiece" by Elise Broach, I was looking forward to another of her acclaimed books, "Shakespeare’s Secret".

I finished reading it a few days ago, and I was disappointed… and annoyed.

It’s not because it is badly written — Broach is well in command of all the tools necessary to suck a reader in and then move the story along. She is a keen observer of life among the young, with the attendant frustrations and joys.

Unfortunately, "Shakespeare’s Secret" requires more effort to suspend disbelief that did "Masterpiece" — and THAT was a tale involving a friendship between a human boy and an artistically gifted beetle!

Let’s start with the name of the protagonist, the girl named Hero. This is the first of a number of obvious contrivances that don’t really work. The idea is that her parents (her father is a Shakespeare scholar) named her after one of the female characters in Shakespeare’s "Much Ado About Nothing", much as they also named her older sister. But the older sister is named "Beatrice", a much more conventional — albeit slightly archaic — girl’s name. "Hero" is in no conventional sense a girl’s name… and unless the parents are complete dolts (and they are not written as such), they MUST have known that the name they chose for their second child would cause her problems in life. (Hadn’t they ever heard the old Johnny Cash song, "A Boy Named Sue"?) And come on — with all the female characters in Shakespeare’s plays, THIS was the only one which came to their minds? To this reader, giving the girl this weird name was an obvious ploy to create issues for the character which would allow the writer to put her through the wringer.

Maybe that is typical of books written for this age group — make a character seem friendless and shunned for most of the book and then give her some kind of turnaround whereby she is suddenly seen as "friendable" by her peers. (I won’t get into the slightly creepy notion in the background of the plot that the only way this can happen is that she is seen hanging out with "the coolest boy in school"… not because she does things or has innate qualities that eventually make her seem appealing and interesting to other kids, but rather that she is perceived as being approved by one of the "cool" kids. Nice message for young girls there.)

But that’s just the beginning of the hard-to-believe twists and turns of this book. That cool boy I just mentioned? He conveniently turns out to be the grandson of the older woman living next door to Hero, even though she has known him for years and never suspected anything. A diamond worth millions of dollars goes missing, and an extensive police search of the house Hero and her family moved into afterwards doesn’t turn up anything… because the clever hider of the diamond hid it in a — well, I don’t want to blow the big reveal, so I’ll just say that the hiding place is pretty obvious and is in plain sight. I don’t want to give away too many details of the plot and the characters’ relationships — suffice it to say that much of that stuff is clearly in the story to provide surprises and neatly wrap up dangling plot threads.

But I think the most annoying thing about this book is the material Broach puts in about the mystery of the "true author" of William Shakespeare’s plays. Not so much because it isn’t interesting — it is — but because Broach makes the cardinal error of putting forth the argument that William Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon COULDN’T have written the great works attributed to him because he was just a "common businessperson" and as such, how could he know anything about court intrigues and history and all the other things which fill Shakepeare’s plays? I’ve heard this kind of comment before, and it always amazes me that any writer worth his or her salt would say such a thing… because isn’t part of being a writer exploring and researching and imagining things outside of yourself? (Not to mention the absurdly condescending nature of the "common businessperson" remark — as if there haven’t been many examples through history of "common businesspeople" doing uncommon and remarkable things.)

Broach ALMOST redeems herself for this stuff when she has one of the characters reveal near the end that the true "secret" of Shakespeare is that what he wrote in his plays still has resonance for people today, centuries later. That’s very true, and also very obvious to anyone who has ever (a) lived a life, and (b) read a Shakespeare play. I would not call it a "secret", exactly.

I have to say that I enjoyed "Masterpiece" much more than "Shakespeare’s Secret", but I certainly wouldn’t NOT recommend the latter to young readers. It has a lot of good stuff in it, and — assuming you can look past the blatant plot contrivances and somewhat silly coincidences — it is worth the reading… and if it gets people, especially kids, to give the works of Shakespeare a second look, all the better! — PL

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“Transformative”

They say
that moving from one state
to another
is a transformation
In my case
the first state was Massachusetts
and the second, New Hampshire
I could say that move transformed me
but it would be more to the point,
more honest, more true, to say
that the person I moved with,
moved for, transformed me
I was a different man
in that second state
I lost the lines in my forehead
got married in my back yard
to a woman who loved the ocean
and the sound of her typewriter
and those quiet, solitary hours
which brought forth beautiful words
in meaningful combinations
And I discovered something that before
I never believed was true
at least
not for me
I found that love could last. — PL

Hexapod

This is one of those drawings that came out of left field. I don’t really know what inspired it — just that as I sat staring at the next blank page in my sketchbook, I had this vision of some kind of multi-legged creature climbing through tangled branches… and looking up, as if seeing some sight unusual to its eyes.

I still don’t know what the scale is — the creature could be the size of a large beetle, or the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. I don’t think it’s necessary to know how large or small it is (or is supposed to be).

As I was penciling this, I kind of got stuck about halfway through. I’d drawn the basic shape of the creature, and roughed in the branches that it was climbing on… but then it just started to seem really silly and awkward, and I put my pencil down, disheartened.

It was probably a week or so later that I returned to it, determined not to let it be stalled at that point. There was something about it that made me want to finish it, even if it came out looking as goofy as I feared it might. So I kept at it, and got it to a point where I was pretty happy with it. And it was near the end of the pencilling that I added a small detail which turned out to be one of the things that made the whole piece work for me — the thorns in the branches. Suddenly, the creature took on a life it hadn’t possessed before, as I imagined that it would take some special climbing skills and toughness to be able to walk around on a plant or tree or whatever it is which was liberally studded with nasty, sharp spikes.

(Here’s the penciled drawing as it looked just before I started to ink it.)

When I began to ink the drawing (with the #6 Sakura Pigma Sensei pen I carry in my left shirt pocket (along with several other pens, pencils and a screwdriver/pen/knife tool), it started to gel, to come together. Curiously, I think it was figuring out what I was going to do with its mouth that made it work for me. I was stuck on that — should it have sharp, pointy teeth? Flat herbivore teeth? No teeth at all?

What I finally decided on was an odd sort of "baleen" type thing, similar to what some whales have — more of a rough, bristly strainer than teeth per se. And when I drew that in, the creature suddenly became real for me (well, as REAL as something like this can get!). And the inking progressed from there.

(Here’s the inked version as it stands now. I was going to say "the final inked version", but I may play around with it a little more.)

I think I will be trying to do a color version of this piece, and possibly use it — along with a few other recent pieces — in a portfolio I would make in a limited edition, for sale at the "Paint and Pixel" event happening in April in Northampton that I was just invited to (haven’t decided if I am going yet… but I should tell them soon). It could be fun. But of course it means I have to get off my ass and actually break out the watercolors and do it! — PL 

Book Review: “Masterpiece” by Elise Broach

On the strength of a recommendation in a comment (thanks, Amy!) on my wife’s blog post about the Albrecht Dürer show we went to in Williamstown, MA, I recently bought "Masterpiece", a novel for children by Elise Broach. It is basically a story about a beetle named Marvin who discovers he has a talent for drawing — a talent so profound that one of his drawings (a copy of a miniature Dürer drawing) is used in a scheme to catch the thief who has stolen several other original Dürer drawings.

But it’s more than that. It is also — perhaps mostly — a story about friendship. In this case, it is a most unusual friendship, one between a young boy and a young beetle. And I have to give the author a lot of credit for accomplishing one of the most difficult of tasks in this kind of story, and accomplishing it with seeming ease and seamlessness: the suspension of disbelief. Broach anthropomorphizes the beetle Marvin and his extended family — they speak in English with each other (and understand the speech of humans, even though they cannot speak to humans), go on picnics, play games, and so forth — but she does it in a very interesting way, coming right up to the line where you might expect that Marvin and his human friend James will start talking to each other like characters in a Disney cartoon (think Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket, for one example)… but not crossing that line. Instead, she uses clever body language and an internal monologue (both on Marvin’s part) to establish the method of communication between boy and beetle.

I don’t, in general, read books written for this age group, but Broach’s writing style and ability to imbue insects (and people) with interesting personalities drew me right in. Marvin and his family are the kind of people — uh, I mean beetles — that anyone would like to spend some time with. And Broach makes the occasional wry aside (I liked the one about lawyers in the beetle world especially) which adds to the appeal of the story for adults.

But I think the thing that I found most charming and evocative was the scene in which Marvin first discovers his talent for drawing, when he dips his two forelegs into the ink left in the cap of James’ bottle of ink, and starts to use his claws like pen nibs to render an exquisite drawing of the scene outside of James’ bedroom window. There is something about this that really appealed to me — I think it was in part that Broach didn’t have Marvin trying to use the pen or any other human drawing implement, but instead did what seemed completely — well, natural. It made total sense that this is the way a beetle might draw with ink.

To avoid giving away too much, I won’t get into the mystery part of the plot — suffice it to say that it involves a museum, an original Dürer drawing, and a plan to catch the thief who has stolen several other Dürer drawings. It is all well-written — but I have to say that the resolution of the mystery is perhaps the weakest part of the whole book, and actually — at least for me — required more suspension of disbelief than accepting a beetle who draws in ink really well with his feet. But, even so, it doesn’t ruin the story.

(I must also mention one sequence involving Marvin and his cousin Elaine and their adventure with a hungry turtle in a terrarium — it’s well-done and exciting, but left me wondering why it was in the book. It had the feel of something added later, perhaps at the urging of an editor who wanted more action in the story. It’s one of those things which could be excised entirely and never be missed. I will say, too, that it was in this sequence that the pretty realistic world Broach had created for her beetle protagonists started to slip a bit, with a bit too much "Indiana Jones"-style derring-do on the part of Marvin and his cousin. And can beetles REALLY walk up the sheer glass side of a terrarium?)

The accompanying black and white spot illustrations by Kelly Murphy are amusing and charming, and perfectly complement the text. There is also a very interesting question-and-answer section with both author and illustrator in the back of the book. I would have no problem recommending this novel, especially for its target age group. And I think I will be reading more by Elise Broach. — PL

(I already posted this review over at my original blog, but i think I will use this blog to do most of my book reviewing. I also plan to review — in a kind of small capsule way — some books I’ve read in years past, books I would like to say something about but don’t remember all the details necessary to write a lengthy review. Could be fun! — PL)

The Art of Titles


(Jeannine wrote about this anthology of poems over on her blog, and I was thinking about posting this comment there, but then thought about it some more and realized that while I do think I had a valid comment, it might not be appreciated in that context. So rather than stir stuff up that probably doesn’t need to be stirred up, I thought I would just put it here.)

The title of this book — "The Art of Losing" — bothers me for some reason. I am not sure that I can fully articulate what that reason is. But perhaps it has something to do with the fact that — as I understand it, anyway — any "art" is deliberate, purposeful, contrived and directed, while "losing" (death, in this context) is otherwise: most often passive, accidental, unintentional, and simply inevitable. How it is possible to have an "art" of "losing" eludes me… at least at the moment.

There is also the sense, in the use of the word "Art" in a title like this, that the idea is to become "good" or "skilled" at losing. I don’t get that. I can see getting "good" at dealing with grief — that could be helpful. I know from personal experience how grief, untended, can ravage you. But while there is certainly something to be said for learning how to cope with loss and the grief and pain that can come with it, I don’t know if becoming "artful" at loss is a good thing. If loss doesn’t touch you none-too-gently, is it really loss?

Perhaps I am being particularly dense today.

All of the above being said, however, I am sure — given Jeannine’s high standards and perspicacity in such matters — that the book, as she points out, is full of poems that were well chosen for their intended purpose. That there might be a better title for the collection is a minor point. — PL

In this corner, Doubt

Here’s another drawing of "Doubt", personified as an annoying figure, a woman in ugly clothes who gibbers and gnaws the air from the corner of your writing room (or the room you write in), leaching hope out of your atmosphere. FIrst the pencil sketch…


… and then the finished inked version.


This drawing, like the first one, was inspired by Jeannine’s original comment on her blog (http://jeannineatkins.livejournal.com/149184.html) and the responses of some of her commenters. I am not totally happy with it, mostly because I think it needs work in the face. I don’t really have a handle yet on what Doubt’s mug should look like, which is why I have been cheating it a bit (putting it in shadow, covering it up with long stringy hair). I think I need to do some conceptual sketching to try to work it out.

Jeannine and I had a discussion last week about what Doubt should look like, and I posited that perhaps she should be somewhat seductive — not sexually seductive, but seductive in that awful way that depression is… so terribly easy to drop into that pit, and so very hard to claw one’s way out again. — PL

“On the beach”

Death litters the beach
row upon row
what once lived
moved, ate
now eaten
by wind
sand
wave
worm
and bird

Death comes in colors
row upon row
white of bone that is not bone
yellow, beige, speckled orange
moisture glistens on curves
rippling arches, fans
corrugated
by nature’s
mathematics

Death crunches underfoot
row upon row
cast up
by the ceaseless tides
the waves make other waves
leaving only a feast
of death
to please
our eyes. — PL