Editor's Choice

The Winter SoldierClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Daniel Mason

Summary

Vienna, 1914. Lucius is a twenty-two-year-old medical student when World War I explodes across Europe. Enraptured by romantic tales of battlefield surgery, he enlists, expecting a position at a well-organized field hospital. But when he arrives, at a commandeered church tucked away high in a remote valley of the Carpathian Mountains, he finds a freezing outpost ravaged by typhus. The other doctors have fled, and only a single, mysterious nurse named Sister Margarete remains.

But Lucius has never lifted a surgeon's scalpel. And as the war rages across the winter landscape, he finds himself falling in love with the woman from whom he must learn a brutal, makeshift medicine. Then one day, an unconscious soldier is brought in from the snow, his uniform stuffed with strange drawings. He seems beyond rescue, until Lucius makes a fateful decision that will change the lives of doctor, patient, and nurse forever.

From the gilded ballrooms of Imperial Vienna to the frozen forests of the Eastern Front; from hardscrabble operating rooms to battlefields thundering with Cossack cavalry, The Winter Soldier is the story of war and medicine, of family, of finding love in the sweeping tides of history, and finally, of the mistakes we make, and the precious opportunities to atone.

BookBrowse Review

Imagine the thousands of confounding cases doctors face routinely for which diagnoses are hard to come by. Now imagine an additional point of pressure on those decisions that must be made in a matter of seconds: the urgency of war. One wonders what mistakes are made and lived with under such harrowing circumstances, a question eloquently pondered by Daniel Mason in The Winter Soldier. It is a breathtaking and evocative novel on multiple fronts, but above all, it is the story of human frailty among those who have sworn to "first, do no harm."

The 22-year-old Lucius Krzelewski is born into a wealthy Polish family who have sunk roots in Vienna. Lucius finds medicine to be his way of giving back to society, but three years into his studies, World War I breaks out and he is caught in the whirlpool of history. Restless and in the prime of youth, he receives an additional boost when fellow Pole Madam Curie tells him at a professional dinner: "Save yourself. Genius favors the young. You are running out of time." These words inspire Lucius to join the war effort, where medical cases abound. After all, what better immersive experience for a young medical student like him than the battlefield trenches.

Lucius expects a fully staffed hospital, but he is instead posted to a small village in the Carpathian Mountains of Galicia (a former Eastern European country that straddled parts of modern day Ukraine and Poland). On the map it sat in a narrow valley on the northern slope of the mountains, "a finger's-breadth from Uzhok Pass on the Hungarian border." Here he must take charge of a makeshift hospital set up in a church where all the doctors have left and the only person in charge of operations is a mysterious nun, Sister Margarete. Under her brusque, take-no-prisoners tutelage, Lucius, who has never before handled a scalpel, quickly learns the tools of the trade.

The hospital squeaks along in "patch and send" mode on limited medical supplies (the only thing that flows in abundance is horilka, the local liquor, which Sister Margarete uses liberally as disinfectant and to buoy her own spirits). The somewhat predictable rhythm is upended when the titular "Winter Soldier" arrives, a Hungarian from Budapest, Sergeant Jozsef Horvath. The serviceman doesn't present with any immediate symptoms but it is very clear he is deeply damaged. The term PTSD was not a part of the medical lingo then, but Lucius classifies it as "nerve shock." The case intrigues him endlessly, and also tests him severely: ultimately he will make a decision that will compromise his oath and haunt him till the end. A slow-brewing romance between Lucius and Sister Margarete is also complicated by the chaos of war, as their simmering, half-baked intentions are dashed by the swallowing up of this small Galician town by Russian forces.

Author Daniel Mason is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Stanford University Department of Psychiatry, and brings his own research interests to bear here. These include the subjective experience of mental illness and the influence of literature, history, and culture on the practice of medicine. The Winter Soldier weaves a spellbinding story, which draws you into another world from the very first page. At times the romance, also sensitively handled, overwhelms the central focus of the novel, which is trained on a doctor's remorse over a poorly handled decision. But the descriptions of wartime eastern Europe and the nuances of youth and inexperience and human error, are all hauntingly drawn to spectacular effect.

There is so much grandeur and sweep in these pages that you might be forgiven for not wanting to turn the last page. Few stories handle the human cost of war as delicately and perceptively as The Winter Soldier does. Read it. It's a bravura performance.

Book reviewed by Poornima Apte

Beyond the Book:
Medicine and World War I

Makeshift hospital at a church in Bezu-le-Geury, France, June 16, 1918The Winter Soldier shines light on the desperate measures taken to save lives during a war that produced casualties in the millions. When Lucius Krzelewski arrives in the small Eastern European village of Lemnowice, Sister Margarete informs him that she has lost many soldiers to typhus (typhoid fever) and that chronic infections of lice had driven many literally insane. Medical supplies are limited to sutures and a few antiseptics, which have to be periodically supplied to the remote field unit.

Given that the use of advanced weapons of killing such as machine guns and artillery increased dramatically during WWI, the types of wounds that soldiers suffered were correspondingly catastrophic. Prior to WWI, the best hope for wounded soldiers in Europe would be to wait for somebody to pile them on to beds of straw on trains which would then transport them to distant hospitals. It was during the war that motor ambulances, outfitted with a physician or two, and basic supplies to staunch bleeding were pressed into service.

A new system of treating the wounded was also devised, one that would be fine-tuned over subsequent decades. The first stop would be a regimental aid post (RAP), which was incorporated into the front line. The RAP would typically be operating in triage mode, after which the wounded would be transferred to a casualty clearing station via a motor ambulance. The casualty clearing station was situated outside of the line of fire. After stabilizing life-threatening situations, the soldier could be cleared for transport by train to a larger hospital base. From descriptions in The Winter Soldier, it would appear that the church that housed the makeshift facility was a casualty clearing station, where the most pressing needs were attended to.

In The Winter Soldier, Sister Margarete performs amputations very routinely. Indeed amputations were extremely common at this time, mainly because the antiseptics available could not effectively prevent the onset and spread of gangrene in wounded soldiers. Midway through the war, Henry Dakin, a British biochemist in a military hospital on the front in France, devised a solution of sodium hypochlorite that could kill the gangrene-producing bacteria. Once this medicine was pressed into service, amputations were not seen as the first measure. Instead, wounds were irrigated with the antiseptic solution and the progression of the bacteria monitored with the hopes that amputation could be avoided.

The large scale of the two World Wars galvanized doctors to devise new ways of saving lives and generated many advances in medicine. In The Winter Soldier, Lucius treats Sergeant Jozsef Horvath, a man suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD was not part of the medical lexicon at the time, and was generally referred to using terms like "shell shock," "battle fatigue," and "war neurosis." The classification of PTSD as a distinct psychological disorder did not come about until the American conflict in Vietnam.

World War I makeshift church hospital courtesy of U.S. Army Medical Department Office of Medical History

BrotherClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by David Chariandy

Summary

One sweltering summer in the Park, a housing complex outside of Toronto, Michael and Francis are coming of age and learning to stomach the careless prejudices and low expectations that confront them as young men of black and brown ancestry. While their Trinidadian single mother works double, sometimes triple shifts so her boys might fulfill the elusive promise of their adopted home, Francis helps the days pass by inventing games and challenges, bringing Michael to his crew's barbershop hangout, and leading escapes into the cool air of the Rouge Valley, a scar of green wilderness where they are free to imagine better lives for themselves.

Propelled by the beats and styles of hip hop, Francis dreams of a future in music. Michael's dreams are of Aisha, the smartest girl in their high school whose own eyes are firmly set on a life elsewhere. But the bright hopes of all three are violently, irrevocably thwarted by a tragic shooting, and the police crackdown and suffocating suspicion that follow.

Honest and insightful in its portrayal of kinship, community, and lives cut short, David Chariandy's Brother is an emotional tour de force that marks the arrival of a stunning new literary voice.

BookBrowse Review

Brother is the brief, moving account of how a single, tragic moment in time can alter the course of numerous lives, and how grief can eat a person from the inside out. Trinidadian Michael Joseph and his mother Ruth, have been mourning a loss for a decade, suffering from what psychologists refer to as "complicated grief." Michael explains, "There are losses that mire a person in mourning, that prevent them from moving forward by making sense of the past. You become disoriented, assailed by loops of memory, by waking dreams and hallucinations." Michael is aware that his mother is suffering from this condition, but is seemingly blind to the fact that he is likewise afflicted.

The novel is narrated in two timelines from Michael's point-of-view. In the present timeline, he is an adult looking after his mentally unstable mother. The arrival of his former high school girlfriend Aisha, whom he has not seen in ten years, rockets Michael's psyche back in time to the violent event that tore apart the fabric of his family. The second timeline revolves around this event, as Michael recalls coming-of-age with his older brother Francis in the late 80s/early 90s in a housing project called "The Park" in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough. The brothers do their best to stay safe and sane while contending with neighborhood violent crime and their over-protective mother's rules, finding solace in the local barbershop and a burgeoning hip-hop scene. Francis dreams of seeing his best friend recognized for his DJ skills, but all of their bright futures are shattered by the events of one tragic night.

There is a seething tension at the center of the novel concerning the discrimination and marginalization perpetrated against immigrants and people of color. Well aware of these attitudes, Michael's mother raises her children to subvert stereotypes, as do many of the other immigrant families in the Park. Michael recalls Aisha, a bright young woman, being heralded as "an example" and "the exception." This speaks to the concept of "respectability politics" - the expectation that a person of color must be twice as good, twice as smart, twice as upstanding, to get the same respect as their white counterparts.

Chariandy skillfully captures the stark poverty and lurking malevolence of Michael's neighborhood: "a suburb that had mushroomed up and yellowed, browned, and blackened into our life", which compares the area to a fungus while also hinting at its large immigrant population. Within the darkness of this community lies a ray of hope, the barbershop, a place of comradeship and comfort for young men of color. Chariandy describes it evocatively: "Entering Desirea's, you walked into a solid fog of smell, a collision of body warmth, colognes and hair products, thick in the nose, waxy on the tongue. You were hit with a mash-up of sounds and rhythm halted and restarted. A bass so deep and heavy you could feel it in your jaw." The other young men in the barbershop, many of whom are also children of immigrants, understand Michael and his brother's situation precisely, and they form a communal bond in this sacred space.

For a book set in 1991 and 2001, Brother is remarkably timely. Chariandy explores the harm racist and xenophobic attitudes can have on an individual, and on a community as a whole, and how law enforcement, rather than acting to improve such a community, can become a violent and oppressive presence. It is a plaintive and gripping representation of the loss of life and dignity that results when certain people in society are viewed as expendable - an urgent plea for empathy.

Book reviewed by Lisa Butts

Beyond the Book:
The Barbershop and Black Male Bonding

Black BarbershopAs a young teen, Michael (in David Chariandy's Brother) begins spending time at the neighborhood barbershop, Desirea's, with his older brother and his friends. In the book, just as in life, black men visit the barbershop not just for haircuts, but to share their personal lives, discuss current events, listen to music, and just relax with their neighbors and friends.

In an ode to the barbershop published in Fader magazine, a journalist quotes a friend: "In a lot of ways barbers are our therapists. The shop is where I learned what being a black man was about early on," adding that there are "not many places that all men got together and could talk freely." Fader also published interviews with five black barbers from across the United States to gather their thoughts on the barbershop as a place of community and togetherness where men can exchange ideas. One barber explained that his shop is a place "where all types and ages of people [come] together to have an open dialog and growth," while another highlighted the importance of his role in his patrons' lives: "People trust me for their image in life, for the moment. I'm needed for several reasons and I'm a part of the process in all of them: first day of school, interview, job, wedding or date...It serves as a place of balance."

Obama at the BarbershopA journalist for the Black Youth Project, however, points out the ways in which the barbershop can be a breeding ground for toxic masculinity – for example, the sharing of sexist and homophobic viewpoints. While acknowledging that it can be a place to "heal and to love," he points out that this opportunity is usually restricted to heterosexual and cisgender men. Openly gay former NFL player Wade Davis spoke with the Huffington Post about his unique experience of being accepted at his barbershop; being "the 'gay football guy' in the shop has allowed customers to discuss everything from Frank Ocean to sexism and misogyny, to HIV in the black community, to the prison-industrial complex." In Brother, it is strongly implied that Francis and his best friend Jelly have an intimate relationship, though it is not stated outright, and if it is noticed by the boys' other friends at Desirea's, no one mentions it.

Getting Blood Pressure takenRecently, healthcare researchers have begun reaching out to men at barbershops about medical issues like the importance of screening for hypertension and prostate cancer. Research shows that many men are reluctant to seek out routine medical treatment, sometimes because of a distrust for doctors, sometimes because of lack of time or money. In an experiment spearheaded by the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers went directly to the barbershop, where most black men go on a regular basis anyway, and conducted the tests there. During the screening, the researchers provided advice about methods for lowering blood pressure, and found that that men were more open to receiving this information in an informal setting where they felt at ease.

Barbershop, courtesy of plushstylephoto.com
Obama at the barbershop, courtesy of themancavebarberlounge.com
ASU professor Olga Idriss Davis checks the blood pressure of barber Marvin Davis, courtesy of asunow.casu.edu

The Islamic EnlightenmentClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Christopher de Bellaigue

Summary

With majestic prose, Christopher de Bellaigue presents an absorbing account of the political and social reformations that transformed the lands of Islam in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Flying in the face of everything we thought we knew, The Islamic Enlightenment becomes an astonishing and revelatory history that offers a game-changing assessment of the Middle East since the Napoleonic Wars.

Beginning his account in 1798, de Bellaigue demonstrates how Middle Eastern heartlands have long welcomed modern ideals and practices, including the adoption of modern medicine, the emergence of women from seclusion, and the development of democracy. With trenchant political and historical insight, de Bellaigue further shows how the violence of an infinitesimally small minority is in fact the tragic blowback from these modernizing processes.

Structuring his groundbreaking history around Istanbul, Cairo, and Tehran, the three main loci of Islamic culture, de Bellaigue directly challenges ossified perceptions of a supposedly benighted Muslim world through the forgotten, and inspiring, stories of philosophers, anti-clerics, journalists, and feminists who opened up their societies to political and intellectual emancipation. His sweeping and vivid account includes remarkable men and women from across the Muslim world, including Ibrahim Sinasi, who brought newspapers to Istanbul; Mirza Saleh Shirzi, whose Persian memoirs describe how the Turkish harems were finally shuttered; and Qurrat al-Ayn, an Iranian noble woman, who defied her husband to become a charismatic prophet.

What makes The Islamic Enlightenment particularly germane is that non-Muslim pundits in the post-9/11 era have repeatedly called for Islam to subject itself to the transformations that the West has already achieved since the Enlightenment?the absurd implication being that if Muslims do not stop reading or following the tenets of the Qur'an and other holy books, they will never emerge from a benighted state of backwardness. The Islamic Enlightenment, with its revolutionary argument, completely refutes this view and, in the process, reveals the folly of Westerners demanding modernity from those whose lives are already drenched in it.

BookBrowse Review

In this comprehensive and well-researched history, de Bellaigue examines the evolution of Islamic thought and Mideast politics over almost two centuries, viewed through the eyes of some of its most revolutionary thinkers. Confining his study largely to events in Cairo, Tehran, and Istanbul allows for a sweeping narrative of major historical events including Napoleon's 1798 invasion of Egypt, the construction of the Suez Canal, and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. In addition to presenting the thoughts and feelings of those who lived through these events, De Bellaigue charts the destructive path of imperialism as France, England, the U.S., and other world powers have gone about exploiting the region for land, resources, and trade routes. This hindsight perspective provides a greater understanding of the scars and fissures that continue to haunt the Middle East today.

De Bellaigue covers the many rulers and politicians who worked to bring improvements to their people, notably Egypt's Muhammad Ali, Turkey's Midhat Pasha, and Iran's Amir Kabir, among others. Arguably the more interesting stories, however, are those of the local intelligentsia, modernizing thinkers who traveled beyond their borders and returned with knowledge of medicine, astronomy, democracy, and art.

Rifaa al-Tahtawi, the "'father of Egyptian identity'" received a five-year education in France in the 1820s where he marveled at the postal system as much as the writings of Rousseau and Voltaire. Ibrahim Sinasi brought an entirely new conception of journalism and drama to Turkey, while the radical Bahaism movement preached a kinder, gentler Islam in Iran. Female innovators like Huda Shaarawi and Halide Edib Adivar (see https://www.bookbrowse.com/mag/detail/index.cfm/ezine_number/489/preview/1/body/x16089#btb">Beyond the Book) are celebrated for their political contributions to the region as well.

De Bellaigue's sources are impeccable and fascinating, including detailed travelogues, reports from diplomats (and their wives), personal journals, memoirs, and other firsthand documents. While he is certainly trying to provide a generally positive view of the history of the Islamic world, de Bellaigue is no apologist, he discusses the Armenian genocide, the "gradual anathemisation of homosexuality," brawling harems, and teenage brides with appropriate horror and distaste. Certainly few readers will walk away with more positive associations of the word "sharia" than they had before, the word tolls through the book in every region and time period as shorthand for radical, reactionary doctrine.

The Islamic Enlightenment attempts to right a perceptual fallacy of Eurocentrism, the belief that the Muslim world has always been, and will always be ideologically backward and oppressive. Including the word "Enlightenment" in the title is a well-chosen rhetorical flourish, but the truth seems to lie somewhere in the middle ground. Islam is not a religion of violent jihadists or peaceful disciples. Progress occurs in fits and starts. Modern ideas are introduced, embraced, and then trampled upon by religious reactionaries. One need only count the number of reformists in the book who were exiled or executed for their beliefs to see that "enlightened" is something of a misnomer. The more important project of The Islamic Enlightenment, however, is to explain how and why this cyclical process takes place, and de Bellaigue executes this aspect perfectly. The book begins with Napoleon's invasion of Cairo, and ends with the discovery of oil and the fallout from World War I, the carving up of the region by Britain and France that radicalized vast swaths of the population, triggering a religion-themed backlash against all things Western.

This remarkably vivid account has something for Islamic scholars and lay readers alike. It is accessible, not requiring a lot of prior knowledge, and detailed, populated by many lesser-known historical personages. Those seeking to understand the hornet's nest of Middle Eastern politics, conceived from the union of Islamic dogma and Imperialist meddling, could certainly opt to start here.

Book reviewed by Lisa Butts

Beyond the Book:
Halide Edib Adivar

The Turkish author and activist Halide Edib (also sometimes spelled as Edip) Adivar is one of the influential women highlighted by de Bellaigue in The Islamic Enlightenment, for her literary talent as well as her ardent nationalist allegiance. She published two memoirs and 19 novels, and was an outspoken voice of support for women's rights and Turkish independence.

Halide Edib Adivar Edib was born in Istanbul in 1882 and educated at Istanbul's American Girls College at a time when most girls did not attend school. After graduating, she married a mathematics professor from the school, and had two sons with him before they divorced in 1910. She worked as a journalist and published her first two novels in 1909-1910. In 1911 she traveled to London, where she wrote The New Turan, a utopian vision of a Pan-Turkish national identity. This work earned her the moniker, "mother of the Turks." Edib married again in 1917. Her second husband, Abdülhak Adnan Adıvar, was a fellow intellectual and activist.

In 1919, Edib gained renown for a speech she delivered at the dawn of the Turkish War of Independence, when the Greek army came to occupy Izmir. She spoke encouragingly to the crowd of a brighter future, declaring "The Turk and the Muslims are now experiencing their darkest day. Night, a dark night. But there is no night without morning in life." The speech also contained a pithy phrase that Edib recycled for use in her novel, The Daughter of Smyrna: "Nations are our friends. Governments are our enemies."

During the war, later known as The Turkish War of Independence, Edib worked as a nurse and her nationalist spirit was further bolstered by witnessing the courage and selflessness of the soldiers. She wrote about the war in her second memoir, The Turkish Ordeal, published in 1928. The war dissolved the Ottoman Empire and created the nation of Turkey, and Edib and associates formed the Progressive Republican Party as an opposition party to the rule of President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. After the banning of the party by Atatürk, Edib and Adivar moved to Europe for several years. Edib returned to teach literature at Istanbul University in 1939. She retired in 1950, but continued writing until her death in 1964.

Edib's novels are celebrated for their insight into the social issues of the time, and their strong female characters. She was an admirer and expert on 18th century English literature and her novels reflect that affinity in tone, plot structure, political commentary, and narrative point-of-view, which is typically third-person omniscient. In addition to those already mentioned, Edib is extolled for her 1935 novel, The Clown and His Daughter, set in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire.

Picture of Halide Edib Adivar from Bilgihanem.com

The Spy of VeniceClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Benet Brandreth

Summary

August, 1585. England needs its greatest hero to step forward ...

When he is caught by his wife in one ill-advised seduction too many, young William Shakespeare flees Stratford to seek his fortune. Cast adrift in London, Will falls in with a band of players, but greater men have their eye on this talented young wordsmith. England's very survival hangs in the balance and Will finds himself dispatched to Venice on a crucial assignment.

Dazzled by the city's masques and its beauties, he little realizes the peril in which he finds himself. Catholic assassins would stop at nothing to end his mission on the point of their sharpened knives - and lurking in the shadows is a killer as clever as he is cruel.

Suspenseful, seductive, and as sharp as an assassin's blade, The Spy of Venice introduces a major new literary talent to the genre - thrilling if you've never read a word of Shakespeare and sublime if you have.

BookBrowse Review

Benet Brandreth's delightfully diverting historical thriller brings the Bard to vibrant life. Even though I am far from a Shakespeare scholar, I thoroughly enjoyed spotting the allusions to themes that the young protagonist would later explore via his plays. Add to that Brandreth's genius idea of filling Shakespeare's so-called "missing years"* with villainy, adultery, scandal and intrigue and this book climbs to the top of my list of the year's favorite reads.

The Spy of Venice begins in 1585 when William, at twenty, already has a wife, Anne, and three children. Living with his parents, the couple seems happy enough, though the restless young man does regret the mandatory marriage that resulted from one moment's pleasure with the decidedly older woman. Where he is all barely-harnessed energy and mischief, Anne is characterized as perfectly content with home and hearth. Indeed, when the fair comes to town and Will seeks her permission to attend the play she asks, "Will you be drunk again?" "Again?" he replies. "I am never drunk, Wife. Though I grant I am prone to periods of great wit followed by deep sleep." Ultimately, she seems happy to have him out of the house as he's almost as childish as their two-year-old daughter, Susanna.

At the fair, William treats a troupe of traveling thespians to a jug of wine and, in exchange, they regale him with stories of their lives and travels. He is clearly enamored with the ethos of the theater – he loves the acting and he especially loves the words. He fancies himself something of a poet and, ultimately, submits a short theatrical piece for the troupe to perform. It's a piece intended to woo the daughter of a local politician. On his first encounter with her, "he managed to look contrite and wolfish at the same time. It was a combination he had had occasion to master. He was rewarded with a smile from the girl."

William's advances yield a much greater reward later on in the girl's bed. But he is identified in his early morning escape and the politician - unwilling to name the actual violation - accuses him of poaching, swearing retribution on both William and his upstanding father. He and his family decide that he needs to make himself scarce. So he takes off for London, promising to write and send money.

London isn't welcoming, and the only job William can land is cleaning stables. But, as luck would have it, he once again encounters the traveling players and resumes his friendship with two of the principles, Nicholas Oldcastle and John Hemminges. Through them he becomes acquainted with a knight, Sir Henry, who hires Will to write a love poem for him. It is his first professional writing job and Shakespeare finds himself in a state every writer can relate to. "When his poetry had been for his pleasure alone, it flowed from him freely. Writing for another seemed to dam the river." He overcomes the temporary block, which leads to another commission from Sir Henry, which leads to William getting beaten up – which leads to Sir Henry hiring the players, including Shakespeare, to accompany him on a mission for the Queen, to Venice.

Turns out Sir Henry is a spy assigned to deliver a letter to the Doge of Venice proposing an alliance against Spain, the Netherlands, the Catholic Church and everyone else bent on destroying England. His plan includes using the naive William in a risky scheme. But en route, the traveling embassy is beset by murderers who leave only Shakespeare and Oldcastle alive. Sir Henry turns the letter over to William with instructions to personally hand deliver it to the Doge. With Oldcastle posing as Sir Henry and William as his man, the pair embark on the adventure of young Will's life in Venice.

Rapturous Venice proves to be every bit as beautiful, sexy, dangerous and exhilarating as anyone ever imagined. And William gets thoroughly caught up in the intrigue. The young wordsmith is completely up to the task at hand despite his naïveté in matters of state. Rubbing shoulders with nobles, felons, courtesans and killers – sometimes all in one body – rapidly baptizes the quick witted Will in the arts of duplicity and villainy.

From the very structure of this book – as a play in five acts with interludes, prologue and epilogue – to the prose and dialogue so true to the Sixteenth Century, to The Spy of Venice's intricate plot, I believe that Brandreth does Shakespeare proud.




*Between 1585 and 1592 there is no record of William Shakespeare's whereabouts. Needless to say it is seven years ripe with possibilities for anyone with imagination. Since so many of Shakespeare's plays take place in Venice many speculate that he must have spent some time there.

Book reviewed by Donna Chavez

Beyond the Book:
Shakespeare and the Double Entendre

In Benet Brandreth's The Spy of Venice, William Shakespeare is a brilliant wordsmith but still a young man with all of a young man's appetite for adventure and women. He's witty with a rapier-like pen and rakish sense of humor. But wait. Many people reading Shakespeare's plays might doubt that the Bard of Avon had much of a sense of humor at all. Even the so-called comedies, they might argue, are only moderately humorous.

So is Brandreth's characterization of a brilliantly witty Shakespeare total fabrication? Or is it conceivable that old Will might have been the Stephen Colbert of his time? Very much so the latter. The operative word to consider is "time." As with anything intended to be funny, two of the most important considerations are context and mode of delivery - in this case, specifically the double entendre.

The double entendre is a phrase that can be interpreted in two ways, one which is innocuous, the other which is usually bawdy. It's been in use for a long time - for example, The Canterbury Tales (14th century) are filled with them. From The Great British Baking Show to Benny Hill to 007 or the Carry On series of movies, the double entendre seldom fails to deliver a laugh. It has always been, and remains, popular where audiences are squeamish talking openly about certain topics, usually sex.

In Shakespeare's day, his double entendres were just that. The Elizabethan era had a strictly enforced social structure and each stratum had its own code of conduct. The code covered everything from dress to speech patterns to proper topics for discussion. Certain topics, no matter how powerfully they occupied one's mind, were never discussed, and so a common method for addressing them was via the double entendre.

Take, for instance, this line from Much Ado About Nothing Act 5, Scene 2 when Benedick says: "I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be buried in thy eyes."

As Mental Floss explains: "In Elizabethan slang, 'to die' was a euphemism for sexual climax, so Benedick telling his lover, Beatrice, that he will 'die' in her lap has less-than-chaste implications. It should also be noted that the title of the play itself is a dirty pun; remember, 'nothing' was an Elizabethan euphemism for a woman's lady parts."

The era and context of the double entendre dictates whether it will be well received or not. Clearly language, politics, and even pronunciation have changed over the last five centuries. Thus Shakespeare's jokes can lose all meaning to the 21st Century audience. But make no mistake. William Shakespeare wrote jokes and puns into just about every play that had audiences either rolling in the aisle or demurely tittering behind a delicately gloved hand.

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