Monday, November 15, 2021

A Mother with Suffering Child


“He has, Agnes sees, done what any father would wish to do, to exchange his child’s suffering for his own, to take his place, to offer himself up in his child’s stead so that the boy might live.”   ― Maggie O'Farrell

Hamnet is a historical fiction novel about the life of William Shakespeare’s family at the time of his son Hamnet’s death in 1596 and the writing of the play Hamlet around 1600. I was disappointed with this award-winning novel. I found it boring, but even worse was the prose style of the author that succeeded in what I can only call piling on the adjectives and adjective phrases in describing in detail the mundane activities of the characters.

The description of William Shakespeare’s early life, his marriage to Anne Hathaway, whom O’Farrell calls Agnes, the death of his son Hamnet from the plague and the subsequent impact of this tragedy on their marriage and his work comprise the plot of the novel. Will is never named and is referred to as ‘her husband’, ’the father’ or ‘ the latin tutor’. He also has very little to say for himself. This deliberate omission is most likely made to free the narrative from the weight of association that his name carries, but I found it quite contrived considering how much detail we are given about the setting, including the house interiors and streets of Stratford.

The novel begins with Hamnet but the central character is his mother Agnes who is unconventional, free spirited, a gifted herbalist and clairvoyant. It is the events between Hamnet’s parents’ meeting and his birth that provide a major part of the story. At her first meeting with Will she presses the flesh between his thumb and forefinger which reveals his incredible future to her but disappointingly very little subsequently emerges from this insight. There are some interesting descriptions of his former home and the life of the household. The story is narrated in a non-linear fashion with each chapter relating to a different time period. However I found the frequent back and forth an unnecessary stylistic approach that added to my overall disappointment.

Monday, November 01, 2021

The Encheiridion

The Handbook (The Encheiridion)
The Handbook 

“Freedom is the only worthy goal in life. It is won by disregarding things that lie beyond our control.”
“The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best.”   ― Epictetus

This is the little (29 pp) book that lays out the essence of Stoic philosophy.  Stoicism was founded by Zeno of Cytium more than three centuries earlier, but it is the works of Epictetus (along with Seneca and Marcus Aurelius) that form Stoic thought as we know it today. Stoicism, while not a well known today as the thought of Plato and Aristotle, was one of the major philosophic schools in Greece and Rome for a half a millenium. 

What makes the handbook most interesting today is the practical advice aspect of Epictetus' thought. One can put some of these ideas to good use even in the twenty-first century.
According to Epictetus one makes progress when "he censures no one; he praises no one; he blames no one; he never talks about himself as a person who amounts to something or knows something." And finally, "Never say about anything, 'I have lost it,' but instead, 'I have given it back.'" Follow the Stoic principles and you will not have an unhappy life.

Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern IrelandSay Nothing:
 A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland 
by Patrick Radden Keefe

“Who should be held accountable for a shared history of violence? It was a question that was dogging Northern Ireland as a whole.”   ― Patrick Radden Keefe

Patrick Radden Keefe's book captures the history of the Troubles as told through the stories of the individuals involved in the events of the days from the nineteen-seventies till our current age. The narrative starts and ends  with the story of a young widow named Jean McConville and her ten children. Her story provided the backbone for a series of vignettes and set pieces that held my interest from beginning to the end. The details of the various episodes told stories of secrets and violence, both loyalty and betrayals, and events that stretched from the neighborhoods of Belfast to Boston in America and to the Houses of Parliament in London.

The structure of the book with its variety of characters and interrelated events provided a sort of motion that mimicked the changes in the fortunes of the actual participants involved in these events. I enjoyed the set pieces as well as the detail of the lives of the important players with names like Gerry Adams, Brendan Hughes, and the Price sisters; but I also appreciated the stories, sometimes horrific, of the less well-known persons, especially the children of Jean McConville who were shuttled off to institutions after Jean was "disappeared".

Whether the narrative was describing the famous bombings in London, the "hunger strikes" of the Price sisters and others, or the secret documentary "Belfast Project" at Boston College, the author seamlessly tied the incidents, events, and characters together into a riveting story that I found simply fascinating. 

No matter how much you may remember about these events, that is if you are of an age like mine that lived through this history as current events, I expect that you will read this history with amazement, similar to mine, at the details that the author puts on display. The book successfully portrayed many intimate moments while conveying history on a grand scale.