Death and the Afterlife: A Chronological Journey from Cremation to Quantum Resurrection ~ A Capsule Book Review

Death and the Afterlife: A Chronological Journey from Cremation to Quantum Resurrection ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Death and what comes after have fascinated people for as long as people have existed. When we die, are we cast into a dark oblivion, or do our personalities survive in another place? Are we rewarded for our good deeds and punished for our bad deeds? Will we be born again in another body? Do heaven and hell exist? Where do we go if we’re not good enough for heaven and not bad enough for hell?

Death and the Afterlife will not answer any of these questions, but it is a book that deals with a wide range of topics associated with the science and sociology of death, dying and the afterlife, including such fascinating topics as vampires, zombies, euthanasia, embalming, executions, seances, reincarnation, resurrection, sin eaters, death masks, transhumanism, brain death, near-death experiences, electronic voice phenomena, quantum immortality, thanatourism (visiting sites of suffering and death such as Nazi death camps), death of the universe, and many other topics.

Each entry is only one page long, accompanied by an appropriate painting or drawing on the opposing (left-hand) page. At the end of the book is a list of references that might be consulted for further reading.

Did you know:

  • Certain cultures, going back to the Neolithic Age (13,000 years ago), practiced what was known as “sky burial.” This means that the bodies of the deceased were cut into small pieces, including the bones, and left out on a ledge or hilltop for scavenger birds to carry away.
  • Before Napoleon Bonaparte’s death in 1821 at the age of 51, he insisted that an autopsy be performed on his body, the results of which, he believed, would help his son. He was found, during autopsy, to have stomach cancer.
  • Since 1960, the number of autopsies has declined because doctors are afraid of medical malpractice suits.
  • During the 17th and 18th centuries, “plague doctors,” who often weren’t doctors at all, wore frightening “beak masks.” The idea was to fill the beak of the mask with aromatic spices or fragrant perfumes, which were thought to prevent the wearer from breathing the plague in through the nose or mouth.
  • Walking Corpse Syndrome (WCS) is a mental disorder in which the sufferer believes he is dead, but still living, or that some of his organs have been removed.
  • During the 18th century, fear of premature burial (burial of somebody who wasn’t really dead) led to the rise of “safety coffins,” equipped with air pipes and bells. (Make sure I’m dead first.)
  • In the 13th century, the bubonic plague, originating in Asia, swept through Europe, killing roughly two-thirds of the population. The plague, the greatest biomedical disaster in human history, was still causing problems in Europe five hundred years later.
  • Experiments show that the soul contained in a person’s body weighs seven-tenths (0.7) of an ounce. This weight was arrived at by weighing tuberculosis victims at the moment of death and comparing it with the weight before death.
  • Ondine’s curse is a mental disorder in which a person forgets to breathe while sleeping and dies. It’s named after a water nymph from folklore who is cursed with having to remember to breathe.
  • French painter James Tissot in 1890 painted a famous painting called What Our Lord Saw from the Cross. It is the artist’s vision of what Christ might have seen from the cross while being crucified.
  • While Joseph-Ignace Guillotine did not invent the guillotine (decapitation device), as many people have been led to believe, he promoted its use as a humane method of execution in France in the 1790s. “My machine will take off a head in a twinkling,” Dr. Guillotine stated, “and the victim will feel nothing but a refreshing coolness.”
  • Saint Vincent Pallotti (1795-1850) was an Italian saint who helped the poor in Rome. When his body was exhumed a hundred years after his death, it was found to show no signs of decay, a sign of true holiness.

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp

The End of Eddy ~ A Capsule Book Review

The End of Eddy ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The End of Eddy, by young French writer Édouard Louis (born 1992), is a novel set in a small factory town in the North of France in a region known as Picardy. Eddy Belleguere is the fictional narrator of the novel, and we learn from the background information of the novel’s author that the story, though fictional, is, in fact, an account of his own life. Eddy Belleguere is the fictional alter-ego of real-life Édouard Louis.

Despite the charm of the region in France where the story takes place, the lives of the factory workers and their families are anything but charming. Life is hard in the factory, and the men who toil there all their lives sometimes die at an early age. They drink to excess, beat their wives, and watch porn and Wheel of Fortune on TV. The women, who sometimes also work in the factory, are long-suffering custodians of the children. The children are unmotivated, unhygienic boobs who usually want nothing more out of life than to get a minimum of education and then get a job in the factory and live the same life of toil that their parents have lived.

Every now and then a boy comes along who isn’t like the others, and that boy is Eddy Belleguere, the protagonist of the novel. He isn’t comfortable with the masculine gender role (as personified by his father, his brothers and every other male in his sphere) that he is supposed to adopt for himself. Eddy has feminine gestures and is attracted to boys and men. His friends at school are all girls. He is brutally bullied and abused by older boys in school and has no way to fight back. As he gets older and realizes he is gay, he tries to “fit in” and be like all the other boys, but he knows (and we know) that it isn’t going to work out. Eddy has an identity crisis and it is never going to resolves itself until he escapes his family, his town and his environment.

The End of Eddy is a story about identity, conforming, belonging, and finding one’s own place in the world, whatever that might be. It’s a breezy novel, simply written, engaging, engrossing and not at all taxing to the brain. Highly recommended to those readers who appreciate a good story about being “a square peg in a round hole.” I think we have all been there, at least in one way or another, when we were young. (Remember how you loathed gym class, dreaded it for days in advance, and might even still have nightmares about it?)

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp

Tchaikovsky, A Biography ~ A Capsule Book Review

Tchaikovsky ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The great Russian composer Peter (“Petyr”) Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in 1840 and died in 1893. He was a complex man who experienced many setbacks in his life, but one who, despite his fragile psyche, managed to write some of the great symphonic masterpieces of Russian music and of the nineteenth century, including six symphonies, three ballets, several operas, four serenades for orchestra, chamber music, songs, and (still) wildly popular concertos for piano and orchestra and violin and orchestra. His music is, today, still very accessible and popular and is performed and played wherever music is appreciated. Tchaikovsky never falls “out of favor” or becomes “passé,” as some composers do. (Writer-physician Anton Chekhov said during Tchaikovsky’s life that Tolstoy occupied the first place in Russian art while Tchaikovsky occupied the second place and Chekhov himself occupied the ninety-eighth.)

Tchaikovsky was born into a large and loving family (four brothers and one sister), in an isolated region of Russian where his father was a civil servant. His mother was rather cold to her children, but Tchaikovsky idolized her. Her death at age forty from cholera was a terrible blow from which he never fully recovered.

Tchaikovsky was morbidly sensitive with the soul of an artist, tending to be withdrawn and introspective. He was a homosexual who openly engaged in homosexual activity from the time he was a young student. (His turbulent inner life played a large part in the music he composed.) While not hiding his sexuality, or denying it, he always believed that it wasn’t “right.” After he became famous and successful, he lived in fear that he would be “exposed” and his career ruined or irreparably damaged. In his efforts to appear “normal,” he entered into a disastrous marriage with an unstable (possibly insane) woman named Antonina Milyukova. It turned out to be the biggest mistake of his life. He only lived with Antonina for two or three months, but she spent the rest of his life antagonizing and threatening him. He referred to her as a “demon” and “spawn of hell.” He could only assuage her, temporarily, by giving her money. She was a bitch on wheels.

About the same time as Tchaikovsky’s disastrous marriage to Antonina, another woman entered his life. Her name was Nadezhda von Meck. She was a wealthy widow, whose deceased husband had made a fortune in railroads. She had an almost obsessive admiration for Tchaikovsky and his music. She idealized him as the perfect artist, the perfect musician, the perfect man. She became his patron, which means she partly subsidized (supported) him while he composed. Madame von Meck was as eccentric in her way as Tchaikovsky was in his. The one condition of her financial support was that the two of them never meet in person. They corresponded for fourteen years, thousands of letters, and were both in the same place at the same time on many occasions, but they never met. Many of the letters they wrote to each other still exist.

Unlike many composers, Tchaikovsky achieved astounding success and popularity during his lifetime. His fame spread from his native Russia to Europe and the United States. Despite his never-ending personal struggles, his output of orchestral masterworks is extraordinary.

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky died unexpectedly in St. Petersburg in 1893 at the age of fifty-three. The official account of his death, and the one that was accepted for a century, was that he drank “unboiled water” and died of cholera during an epidemic. However, more than a hundred years after his death, new information came to light which strongly suggests that he deliberately ingested poison to kill himself.

Tchaikovsky, A Biography, by Anthony Holden, is an informative and engaging chronicle of the life and times of Russia’s greatest composer. It’s a long and exhaustively detailed biography, but never too long or too ponderously wordy. If Tchaikovsky’s music “speaks” to you, as it does to me, reading this book and understanding the life of this great man adds a new dimension to enjoyment of his music.

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp

Hollywood Babylon ~ A Capsule Book Review

Hollywood Babylon ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The silent screen’s greatest lover, Rudolph Valentino, was married twice, both time to lesbians, and neither marriage was ever consummated.

Movie director William Desmond Taylor was murdered in his Hollywood apartment in 1922. Investigation into his death revealed that he had been living a double life. All his colleagues were suspects in his death but, even with this plethora of potential murderers, the truth was never uncovered. The real murderer took the secret to his/her grave.

Silent screen comedian, jovial Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, must certainly have wished he had never thrown a wild party in a San Francisco hotel room in 1921. The sexual shenanigans at the party led to the death of a trashy “starlet” named Virginia Rappe. Fatty was jailed and charged with first-degree murder in Rappe’s death. He was eventually cleared of the murder charge (after three lengthy trials), but his screen career was finished.

Thelma Todd, twenty-nine-year-old comedic actress (she starred with Laurel and Hardy and the Marx brothers), called the “Ice Cream Blonde,” was found murdered in the garage where she kept her car in 1935. Nobody ever found out what really happened, but Thelma was believed to have had an ongoing feud with gangster Lucky Luciano. Thelma Todd’s murder is one the most baffling unsolved murders in Hollywood history.

Twenty-five-year-old Olive Thomas, called “the most beautiful woman in the world,” was vacationing in Paris in 1920 with her husband Jack Pickford (brother of Mary Pickford) when, after a night of nightclubbing and drinking, she drank mercury from a bottle and died at a Paris hospital several days later. Evidence suggests that her poisoning was unintentional, but the story still persists that she killed herself on purpose.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Ramon Navarro was the biggest star in Hollywood. His most famous role was in the 1925 silent version of Ben-Hur. In 1968, age 69, he was brutally beaten to death in his Hollywood home by a pair of brothers out to rob him. The brothers were brought to justice but received only light sentences.

In 1932, would-be movie actress Peg Entwistle killed herself by climbing to the top of the famous “Hollywood” sign and jumping off. After her death, she became a symbol for Hollywood disillusionment and broken dreams.

Silent screen superstar Charlie Chaplin was quite a dog with the ladies. (Apparently he wasn’t too particular about which ladies.) In the 1920s, he impregnated sixteen-year-old, would-be actress Lita Grey. He did the right thing and married her, but the marriage was a disaster. It turned out that Lita Grey and her dear mama were planning on taking poor old Charlie for every cent he had.

Screen goddess Lana Turner’s sexy bad-boy boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato, was a shadowy underworld figure with an Oscar-sized tool in his pants. (Lana found him exciting.) In 1958, he was abusing Lana with his fists, when Lana’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Cheryl Crane, intervened with a big knife, stabbing pour Johnny to death in Lana’s Beverly Hills mansion. It was eventually ruled a “justifiable homicide,” but Lana and Cheryl experienced much unfavorable press coverage, not to mention the heartache.

Nearly every Hollywood scandal, from the silent era through the 1960s, is covered, however superficially, in the book Hollywood Babylon. It was banned when first published in 1965 but managed somehow to resurface ten years later. People find Hollywood Babylon objectionable because it makes no pretense of journalistic integrity. A lot of the purported “truth” in it is false, exaggerated, scurrilous, sensationalized and unfair. That’s not to say it doesn’t hold your interest from first page to last, though, as long as you read it with the proper attitude.

Copyright 2021 by Allen Kopp    

From Here To Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death ~ A Capsule Book Review

From Here To Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Did you know that 99.9% of people in Japan are cremated since a cemetery plot in Tokyo costs the equivalent of $53,000 American dollars? Did you know that there’s a “body farm” in North Carolina where people can choose to have their bodies “composted” after death? Did you know that the American funeral industry came into being with the sole purpose of selling you a casket? Did you know that, beginning in 2017, more Americans are choosing cremation over conventional burial? Did you know that the American funeral industry fears cremation because it’s cheaper (no embalming and no casket) than burial? Did you know that in Bolivia there are people who pray to human skulls, believing the skulls can intervene for them in heaven?

Did you know that cemeteries that require a casket to be buried in a steel or concrete vault do so to make maintaining the grounds easier? Did you know that in Colorado there’s a small town where you might have a “natural” cremation (as opposed to “industrial” cremation) for as little as $500? Did you know that many cemeteries have added a section for “natural” burial where (un-embalmed) bodies are buried in a wicker basket or a cardboard box? Did you know that, in Victorian times, crowded cemeteries in large European cities might have as many as twenty bodies in one grave and that dead bodies were frequently displaced to make way for somebody else? Did you know that these overcrowded cemeteries exuded noxious odors, especially after rainfall?  Did you know that, in a section of Indonesia, there are people who exhume the bodies of their long-dead relatives, talk to them, dress them, and bring them offerings of food?

These and other interesting nuggets of information are revealed in From Here To Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death, by author/mortician Caitlin Doughty. She writes on the grimmest of death-related subjects with humor and insight that only a person who works in the “death industry” could have. It’s an interesting, informative, nonfiction book that will expand your knowledge and make you ponder on your own mortality, unless, of course, you are planning on living forever, which I don’t think is a very pleasant prospect for most of us.

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp

Mrs. Bridge ~ A Capsule Book Review

Mrs. Bridge ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Mrs. Bridge, the superb novel by Evan S. Connell (1924-2013), was first published in 1959. It is a classic of realist fiction, a piece of Americana, an indelible portrait of the kind of Midwestern American woman who lived in the 1940s and who no longer exists. (The companion piece to Mrs. Bridge, titled Mr. Bridge, was published ten years later.)

India Bridge is a Kansas City “country club matron” of the 1940s. She is married to Walter Bridge and they have three children: Ruth, Carolyn (Corky) and Douglas. Walter is an attorney and he is busy, busy, busy all the time to make enough money to “take care of” his family. In fact, he believes that “providing” for them is much more important than spending time with them or showing them he loves them (even though he does love them). He works from morning ‘til night and sometimes when he gets home all he can do is fall into bed to rest up for the next day of work. (Do we detect a heart attack in the making?)

Walter and India Bridge are “well to do” rather than rich. They have enough money for just about anything. They live in a lovely house and have two cars; they belong to the country club and they have plenty of snooty friends. They can afford a tour of Europe, which they are enjoying until the Nazis invade Poland and they have to go back home.

Mrs. Bridge can afford a maid to run the household, do the cleaning, shopping, laundry, cooking, etc. The maid’s name is Harriet and she is both a blessing and a curse to Mrs. Bridge. She is efficient, but in the very fact of her efficiency she places Mrs. Bridge in a dilemma because it leaves her (Mrs. Bridge) with plenty of time to try to find something to do and think about the past when she had to do all the housework herself and her three children were little and needed her.

One of Mrs. Bridge’s endearing qualities is that she is “traditional” and resistant to change. As her three children grow to adulthood, she is frequently baffled and hurt by their behavior. Her son, Douglas, is aloof and secretive. When she finds a naked girly magazine in his dresser drawer, she burns the magazine and gives Douglas an old-fashioned marriage manual from when she herself was young. The older daughter, Ruth, is something of a bohemian and nothing like her mother. She leaves home as soon as she can and goes to New York to work and become a libertine, unashamedly “sleeping” with a number of different men that she doesn’t care about. The younger daughter, Carolyn (Corky), goes off to college and finds an “inappropriate” man that she wants to marry. Mrs. Bridge must accept the fact that Carolyn’s husband’s father is a low-class plumber instead of a doctor or a lawyer. Carolyn soon finds herself with a baby and discovers that that she “can’t stand” the man she’s married to.

Mrs. Bridge is a slice of life, a chronicle of a specific time in twentieth century American life, an engrossing account of  the small moments that make up a life. India Bridge is a conflicted character: a woman with all the material comforts to make her happy but with plenty of reasons not to be happy. By the time you reach the end of the novel, you will have the feeling that India Bridge not only a character in a book but a person you know, or have known, intimately.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Flowers by Night ~ A Capsule Book Review

Flowers by Night ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Set in Japan in the 1820s, Flowers by Night, by Lucy May Lennox, is a fascinating glimpse into an exotic Asian culture of two hundred years ago. Tomonosuke is of the samurai class, but he’s not an especially important samurai. He works as a sort of accountant in the office of the exchequer. He’s in his early thirties and he has a wife named Okyo. They have been married for five years but have no children because they aren’t interested in each other sexually.

Ichi is an “anma,” a blind masseur, only twenty years old. He went blind in childhood as a result of a fever and a rash. His family disowned him when he went blind, so he has no standing in society. He is a “non-person,” but he has learned to be self-reliant and to support himself by giving massages and performing as an amateur musician. He is a member of the Todoza, a guild of blind men. (Most of the Todoza members are moneylenders and for that reason are generally disliked.)

When samurai Tomonosuke meets blind masseur Ichi by chance, he is drawn to him because of his beautiful face and pays him for a massage. After several meetings, their “business” relationship turns sexual. (We are told in the background information for Flowers by Night that sexual relations between men were not only common, especially among the samurai class, but accepted and acceptable, during this period in Japanese history.)

Tomonosuke and his wife Okyo, along with Okyo’s maid, Rin, are relocated to the city of Edo (present-day Tokyo), and Ichi tags along to be near his beloved Tomonosuke. (Ichi lived in Edo before and knows his way around.) Tomonosuke and Okyo are adjusting to life in the city when tragedy strikes.

Tomonosuke is falsely accused of embezzlement (set up by a fellow employee) and is jailed. He is waiting to be executed, he believes, when an earthquake, followed by a fire, strikes Edo. (Fires are so common in Edo that they are called “flowers of Edo.”) The jail where Tomonosuke is being held collapses in the earthquake and Tomonosuke is freed, along with the help of Okyo, Rin and Ichi. All four of them flee Edo since Tomonosuke is a wanted man. They travel, under cover, with a band of itinerant musicians. In their travels, they experience much hardship, including brutal winters (many feet of snow) and near starvation.

In the meantime, we learn that Okyo and Rin have been involved in a long-term lesbian relationship. Rin had been sold as a child to a brothel; Okyo rescued her and vowed to always take care of her. So, we have an unusual foursome: Tomonosuke and his blind lover Ichi and Okyo and her young lesbian lover Rin. The four of them together form a strong bond and, in their highly unusual circumstances, vow to always remain together, no matter what. They become a family in an uncaring and inhospitable world. Okyo feels compelled to produce an heir (especially important in an Asian culture at this time) and, since her husband Tomonosuke doesn’t have sexual relations with her, this is not going to be possible. Tomonosuke and Okyo come to believe in time that a wise expedient is to have the Tomonosuke’s blind lover Ichi conceive a child with Okyo. “Will the child be blind also?” Rin innocently asks. “Of course not!” Okyo tells her. “He wasn’t born blind!”

I haven’t ever read anything like Flowers by Night before. It’s a story about courage, about being on the outside and overcoming the odds in a world that is betting against your survival. More than that, it’s about the bonds that people can form with each other to make life a little more bearable. Highly recommended.

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp

The Confessions of Young Nero ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Confessions of Young Nero ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The Emperor Nero (real name Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus) was born in the year 37 AD and died at age thirty in 68 AD. He became the fifth Roman emperor in 54 AD at the age of seventeen.

History for the most part has not been kind to the Emperor Nero. Historians, writing about Nero in the decades after his death, advanced the narrative that he was an over-the-top lunatic, whose cruelty, depravity and sexual excesses brought the Roman Empire to its knees. He reportedly had sexual relations with his own mother, Agrippina, and had her killed five years into his reign. He is believed to have tortured and killed thousands of Christians and earned the distinction of being designated the “Beast” in the Book of Revelations. He had poisoned (or otherwise murdered) anybody who challenged his authority. He spent money lavishly and lived luxuriously. He murdered his wife, Poppea, and then, feeling remorseful, marring a surgically altered boy who resembled Poppea. It might be said that he was a perfect example of the adage: Absolute authority corrupts absolutely.

Nero certainly did have his own mother, Agrippina, killed (as a desperate act of self-preservation), but the rest of the ugly stories about him might only be based on rumor, innuendo and fabricated tales. Historians didn’t like him because he was popular with the common people (but not the aristocrats and the elites). He was an unconventional emperor who engaged in sports competitions, musical performances, chariot racing and other activities deemed unworthy of an emperor.

The historical novel The Confessions of Young Nero, by Margaret George, is an attempt to set the record straight about the real Nero: what he was really like, instead of what his enemies and detractors thought of him and his reign. One of the reasons the common people liked him was because he engaged (at great expense) in many public-works projects, including bathhouses, stadiums, theatres and other entertainment venues. He sometimes gave away expensive “gifts” (including tracts of land and horses) to people who attended sporting events. As an artist (poet and musician), he promoted the arts and public performance. As a military leader (but never on the field of battle himself), he scored impressive victories against foreign enemies, including in Britain and Parthia.

The Confessions of Young Nero is over 500 pages long, but it is only half the story of Nero’s life, told in his first-person voice. The second book, also over 500 pages, is The Splendor Before the Dark. As author Margaret George explains in her lengthy Afterword,   The Confessions of Young Nero is her attempt at an honest portrayal of the life of a fascinating, controversial, long-ago historical figure who has been frequently misunderstood, maligned, and misinterpreted by history.

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp

Give Us a Kiss ~ A Capsule Book Review

Give Us a Kiss ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Daniel Woodrell’s 1996 novel, Give Us a Kiss, is set in the fictional Missouri Ozarks town of West Table. It is the story of a hillbilly family, and specifically the story of two hillbilly brothers: Doyle Redmond, age 35, and his 39-year-old brother, Smoke. Doyle is the main character in the book and is telling the story in his first-person voice.

Doyle is something of a conflicted hillbilly. He can never get away from his hillbilly roots, but after he left the town of West Table he became something more than a hillbilly: he went to college, became a semi-successful writer with four non-selling books to his credit, and was once married to a striving, snooty bitch named Lizbeth. (The name alone says it all.)

When Doyle returns to West Table after an absence of several years, he embraces all that is hillbilly and all that he left behind (as exemplified by his elderly grandfather, Panda). He moves in with his brother, Smoke, and Smoke’s girlfriend, Big Annie, in their trailer home out in the country. Big Annie has a beautiful 19-year-old daughter named Niagra (after the movie of the same name with Marilyn Monroe). Despite the age disparity (Doyle is 35 and Niagra is 19), we know the two of them are going to be a hot item.

We learn that Doyle and Smoke, in their younger days, were hell-raisers of the highest order and were frequently on the wrong side of the law (typical of their family). Now, as men approaching middle age, they grow a marijuana crop out in the woods where they believe it will never be detected. They nurture the crop until it is ready to harvest and process into saleable pot bricks (with the aid of a trash compactor and large bottles of Coca-Cola). Just as they are ready to sell the crop and get the long-awaited bundle of money the crop will bring, they are betrayed and fall afoul of a nasty hillbilly family called the Dollys. (Murder and Mayhem are the Dolly family’s stock in trade.) The Dollys and the Redmonds have a history of bad blood between them going back many years and several generations.

Daniel Woodrell is the leading exemplar of hillbilly fiction in American letters. Give Us a Kiss is another fast-paced page-turner from him about rednecks living the hillbilly dream. And aren’t the lives of hillbillies a lot more fun and so much more interesting (as Mr. Woodrell has proved in book after book) than college professors, Wall Street brokers, doctors and lawyers? Those people bore me unto death. Who wants to read about them?

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

Hamnet ~ A Capsule Book Review

Hamnet ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

A little background information, please: English playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616) lived in the small town of Stratford-on-Avon, a hundred miles or so from London. The business of his family was making and selling gloves. When he was eighteen, he married a twenty-six-year-old woman named Anne Hathaway (1556-1623) who was expecting his child. William Shakespeare and his wife Anne Hathaway had three children: Susanna (1583-1649) and twins Hamnet (1585-1596) and Judith (1585-1662). Hamnet died, age eleven, in 1596. The cause of his death is not known. Since the plague was a persistent threat during this period of history, it might be assumed—or has been speculated—that Hamnet died of the plague. Nobody will ever know for sure.

Little is known about Shakespeare’s private life or the life of the family. What is known is that Shakespeare’s profession (playwright, actor and theatre manager) made it necessary for him to leave his family behind and spend most of his time in London. He tried to spend at least spend part of every year with his family in Stratford-on-Avon.

The novel Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is a purely speculative historical novel about Shakespeare’s family, mostly minus Shakespeare. While the title of the novel is Hamnet, it is more about Shakespeare’s wife, Anne, who is called Agnes here. (Apparently, as explained in a note at the end of the book, she went by either name.)

Hamnet, the novel, is told from the female point of view: that is, Anne Hathaway’s point of view. There is a lot of material here (female angst) about domestic concerns, raising children, dealing with difficult relatives and having a mostly absent husband. The great man himself is a secondary character in this story. If you’re looking for a book that gives insight into Shakespeare’s life and times, his private life and character, this isn’t it.

With her husband (William Shakespeare) away so much of the time, Anne (Agnes) has a lot of time to be jealous and to wonder what he might be doing (and with whom) in London. At the end of the book, she, along with her brother, Bartholomew, makes a surprise visit to London on horseback. She doesn’t find William at his lodgings, but she is told she might find him at the theatre. It’s providential (and coincidental) that she, an unlettered woman who never understood her husband’s passion for writing, finds him acting in his own production of his new play, Hamlet, as the ghost of the king’s father. She understands, for the first time, the alchemy that occurs from the spoken dialogue that her own husband writes, and how the play is, in a way, a tribute to their departed—and much lamented—son, Hamnet.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp