Reading for Me

The Books I Have Read…..Just for Me

#14: The Book of Air and Shadows (Michael Gruber)

on March 27, 2013

This New York Times bestseller has been on my shelf for a few months now, but I never got around to actually picking it up. I suppose I was a little intimidated by the cover. It just looks so academic somehow. When I read “About the Author” my intimidation grew.  The bio begins with this sentence:  “Michael Gruber has a Ph.D. in marine sciences and began freelance writing while working in Washington, D.C., as a policy analyst and speechwriter for the Environmental Protection Agency.” Tell me that doesn’t sound like some serious writing is ahead.

When I finally dove into the book, I was thrilled with an intelligent novel about the world’s greatest playwright, William Shakespeare. The premise of the novel is that Shakespeare wrote an additional play about Mary, Queen of Scots that has never been seen by human eyes since the author’s death. The story line waltzes around the law offices of Intellectual Property, the basement of a New York bookstore, and the New York City Library.  Filled with characters — including powerful Russian Jew mob bosses! — the story also provides an entertaining dialogue between Shakespeare and his “cousin” written in Elizabethan English.  Add in a cryptic message and the search for the elusive manuscript and you have a really neat story on your hands.

While I was pleased with the story, what was the greatest joy was the beautiful language that Gruber used to form his tale.  Here are three of my favorite passages from the first half of the book.  These won’t give away anything from the plot, but give you a flavor of the quality of writing that is the strength of the novel.

“Perhaps he had snapped under the strain.  Professors go batty too, perhaps more often than other people, although owing to their profession their madness is less often remarked.”  (p. 44)

“I suppose we can blame Shakespeare himself for starting it, because he made up people who were more real, though false, than the people one knew.  Dick Bracegirdle understood this, which was why he set out to smash Shakespeare and all his works.  I took a history course at Columbia — Haas will recall it too, because I took it on his recommendation — a man named Charlton taught it.  It was English medieval history, and although I have expunged the Domesday Book and all the kings and queens from my mind, I recall very well his take on history in general.  He said there are three kinds of history.  The first is what really happened, and this is forever lost.  The second is what most people thought happened, and we can recover that with assiduous effort.  The third is what the people in power wanted the future to think happened, and that is 90 percent of the history in books.”  (p. 91)

“He ate when he was upset, he knew, and if he didn’t watch it he was going to look like Orson Welles, without that person’s early achievement to balance out the flab.”  (p. 199)

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