Book Review: ‘Hamnet’ by Maggie O’Farrell

I waited quite a long time for Waterstones to send me this book; and having received it, I spent the next few hours devouring this story of William Shakespeare’s family and the tragic death of his 11 year old son Hamnet.

Book cover of Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Living as I do near Stratford-upon-Avon I have visited all the Shakespeare properties a number of times. I will never experience Shakespeare’s Birthplace the same way again, now I have read this book. As I enter the rooms, I will imagine Ann Hathaway giving birth here, to her twins Judith and Hamnet; and in another room I will think of her laying out Hamnet’s body with loving care, sewing him into his shroud; and in another, of John Shakespeare browbeating William, or of his sister questioning or advising him.

Ann in this story is called Agnes; William himself is never named but called either ‘the Latin Tutor’ or ‘her husband’ or ‘their father / brother’. So we think of him in his relationships as an ordinary family man, rather than being distracted by the weight of his awesome reputation, over five centuries later.

The story initially moves back and forwards between two time-frames: the time of Agnes’ pregnancy with Suzanne, and the turbulent reaction of the families, and her subsequent marriage to Will; and then to the final 24 hours of Hamnet’s life, 13 years later as he falls victim to the Bubonic Plague. Life and death, beginnings and endings, are constantly interwoven, folding back on each other.

I found the book very intense, full of exquisite moment-by-moment accounts of highly emotional events, and the long period of Agnes’ grief, while her husband is in London on one of his long absences.

Will’s sister Eliza is the go-between in that she, unlike Agnes, is literate and can write the letters Agnes dictates and read the letters Will sends in return. Some have thought William Shakespeare very unloving to his wife and family, spending so much time away from them; but in this story we are offered a much more sympathetic picture. Will asks Agnes to come to London to live with him but she refuses as she fears Judith’s delicate health will suffer in the disease ridden city streets.

Ultimately with his London money Will is able to buy the gracious mansion at New Place; and I loved the descriptions of Agnes creating her dream garden there, planting many fruit trees and medicinal herbs and keeping bees and a host of cats.

The epiphany in this story comes with Agnes’ realisation of the true significance of her husband’s new tragedy ‘Hamlet’.

This is a book which will certainly have you scurrying to Google to check up on the known facts of William Shakespeare’s life and family members. You will see him in a new light and may also be deeply moved by the reality of life and death in 15th & 16th century England. A very highly recommended book.

subscribe SC Skillman mailing list

Favourite Feel Good Action Heroes in Books and Cinema: TinTin and his Universal Appeal

During the Covid-19 Pandemic and throughout the three lockdowns in the UK, many have sought the consolation of escape – into books or films.  Every so often I return to one of my top favourites – The Adventures of TinTin: the Secret of the Unicorn. To my mind this film exemplifies classic story structure; but above all it centres upon a likeable, engaging young hero.  Each time I watch it I know again why I loved TinTin so much on TV during my teenage years.

The Adventures of TinTin movie poster
The Adventures of TinTin movie poster

The Adventures of TinTin: The Secret of the Unicorn (directed by Peter Jackson & Steven Spielberg) was released in 2011. So it’s been out a while.  But I write blog posts when something inspires or excites or moves me, and haunts me at night. And that’s what this TinTin story did.

I asked myself again, exactly what is the appeal of TinTin? He’s a totally beguiling hero. He’s Sherlock Holmes, James Bond and Spiderman all rolled into one fresh-faced boy hero – and of course his intrepid dog Snowy (originally named Milou by his creator, Herge).

As a child I loved adventure stories. I started with Enid Blyton and later I moved onto King Solomon’s Mines by Rider Haggard, and Prester John  by John Buchan and Moby Dick by Herman Melville. These stories have everything – at their best they not only excite and thrill, but also they move, and they teach you about this life, and they convey archetypal truths about human nature.

You can draw parallels with your own life, even if you don’t do exactly the same dangerous things. You can use the action hero’s experiences as a metaphor to help you clarify what has happened to you, and what attitude to take. This is the power of a great story.

Take the archetypal villain, who pursues his obsession to its bitter end.

There are people who live their lives like this. They’re all around us. They express it in their relationships. People who have never learned the art of letting go.

Their obsession leads to such things as ‘unfinished business’ when family members die; ‘skeletons’ that stay in cupboards for generations; vendettas that last decades, family members who don’t talk to each other for years.

The lesson the archetypal villain and his fate teaches is this: ‘People matter more than things’.

In this life, what matters most of all, above ‘due recompense’, above ‘getting satisfaction’, above ‘being right’, is human relationships – and of course this is the lesson the archetypal villain never learns, and which the hero instinctively honours, or the story wouldn’t satisfy us.

A hero learns, and changes. A villain never learns, and never changes.

TinTin is a hero who’s open to all that life has for him; he’s never held back by self-limiting beliefs; he’s ready to live on his wits, yet has an unerring instinct for a just cause, personified by a character who is flawed, but whose heart’s in the right place; then he throws in all his gifts on that character’s side.

Does this excite, inspire and move you, as it does me?

#SocialDistancing #Walks in Enchanted Woodlands

I admit I rather like taking nature walks where everyone we meet is social distancing… with a polite smile, other walkers withdraw into the shrubbery or the bracken and we pass each other by at a safe distance, or with jokes about whether we are on the right route and whether we’re going round in circles and have seen each other before.

So it was in Thickthorn Wood, Kenilworth. Only the sound of cars rushing past on the A46 between Warwick and Coventry in a newly-loosened lockdown slightly detracted from the exquisite melody of the birdsong.

Glorious rhododendrums and bluebells gave this woodland the feeling of an enchanted forest. I could almost imagine Merlin and Arthur making their way along the track on white horses, searching for Nimue to try and persuade her to cancel one of her magical conspiracies against the inhabitants of Camelot….

Book Review: ‘Less Than Ordinary’ by Nicki Copeland

Less than Ordinary‘, published by Instant Apostle, is a non-fiction inspirational self-help book, an account of one woman’s journey from low self-esteem and negative self-limiting beliefs to a place of wholeness where she is able to blossom, nurture her relationships, rejoice in her own inherent worth, and offer her gifts to the world.

A quote attributed to Nelson Mandela: As we let our own lights shine we unconsciously give others permission to do the same.

During the early part of the book, as I read Nicki’s story, I found myself wondering where all these ideas about herself had come from. What messages was she given when she was a young child? But later I thought that maybe the people who gave her those messages had no idea they were doing something so destructive; perhaps no such intention lay behind their words.

And then I realised I was identifying with some of her experiences, and I recognised the mindset. It may be that cultural presumptions about the role of women have something to do with it – even in our society, male/female equality still has a long way to go – but I also know there are men who feel as Nicki describes in these pages.

On a lighter note, I might mention that PG Wodehouse’s novels are full of young men browbeaten by domineering aunts and other authority figures, who are too shy and timid to express their true feelings, or be assertive. Light or not, the issues Nicki shares with us are not just a female thing.

What interested me in the book was Nicki’s description of how she came out of all this. She says that she ‘gradually began to consider…’ or ‘it occurred to’ her that… or she ‘slowly realised….’

For me the process was the same. Observation of people and experience of life eventually teaches you a stunning truth: that many of those who appear confident are not, underneath; that probably the majority of people shrink from meeting strangers; and that, in fact, when we humans seek to achieve our goals, we seem to be hard-wired to take what Robert McKee describes, in his book Story, ‘the most conservative action first.’

In Story, McKee points out that when constructing a plot, the author sets the main protagonist a challenge to overcome, a goal to achieve. Then the protagonist considers how to get what they want. And they always take the most conservative action first. In other words, they expend the least amount of energy to get what they want. This seems a rule of human nature and in the natural world too.

And if that works, good. But if it doesn’t – then you’ve got to spend a bit more energy, exercise more ingenuity, and do something a bit less conservative. And so on, until only the most extreme measures will do. It’s often only when people are pushed to the limit that they conquer great challenges.

So we can apply this rule of life to what Nicki says in her book Less Than Ordinary. All her early presumptions about herself were utterly false; and when the truth of human nature and behaviour finally broke in on her, she threw those false ideas away and she let her light shine.

I do believe there is great value for us when an author describes this process as well as Nicki does. If you feel this book sounds like one that would speak to you, I’d recommend reading it and pausing every once in a while to think about it, as you go through Nicki’s story.

Courage doesn’t consist of being naturally ‘confident’, and having high self-esteem written into your DNA and grasping challenges eagerly.

Courage is all about those who go on a long journey from out of a dark place, and discover the truth through life experience, then change in the light of it using the new knowledge to transform their lives.

SC Skillman

psychological, mystery, paranormal fiction & non-fiction

Book Review: ‘Reparation’ by Gaby Koppel

I first heard of this book via my local independent bookshop Warwick Books, and planned to go to an evening with Gaby Koppel, to hear her talking about ‘Reparation‘.

The subject of the book – a young Jewish woman’s research into her mother’s past as a survivor of Nazi persecution during World War II – immediately appealed to me, but in the end I wasn’t able to get to that evening. Instead I ordered the book later, and now having read it, how I wish I had been there to see Gaby Koppel and hear her talk about her inspiration for the novel. When you’ve finished reading a novel, that’s when you are hungry to find out details about the author’s personal biography.

This is one of those books which will surely increase your knowledge in a number of areas, not least insights into how Hungary is currently addressing its baleful wartime past, and a vivid description of the fiercely insular life of the Hasidic Jewish community in Stamford Hill, in London; and indeed into how a modern Jewish person with no religious belief feels.

Alongside that, it is a heartfelt and passionate exploration of a mother daughter relationship. And the book helps you to understand wherein Jewish identity lies. It is undoubtedly based on the author’s real life experience of her Hungarian mother and her German father. And the main protagonist, Elizabeth, works in TV production just as Gaby does in real life.

As I began the story, for some time I found the first person narrator’s attitude to her mother Aranca very judgmental and sardonic, expressed in waspish style. Then gradually I began to see how Elizabeth had developed this attitude, and to understand the pressure on her of her mother’s volatile and temperamental behaviour and alcoholic episodes.

As my reading of the novel progressed I liked Elizabeth more and more, with her sharp and sassy wit, and her habit of always saying exactly what she thinks. She is a character who never wears a mask, and I often felt myself identifying with her thoughts and feelings.

As for Aranca herself, known always as Mutti to Elizabeth, she comes over as very challenging and exasperating, but the more we understand what she has suffered in the past, the more we empathise with her. And I was captivated not only by her quest to seek reparation from the Hungarian government for her past losses, but also by Elizabeth’s accounts of her relationships with Dave and with Jon, and by her exploration of how being Jewish profoundly affects every area of life.

I was fascinated by what we learn in the story about the Jews, about their feelings, beliefs and attitudes, and in particular about the Hasidic Jewish community. Reading this book opens up the lives of others to us, and I believe stories like this teach us to respect and accept our differences, and the various ways in which people seek to express their identity.

Highly recommended.

SC Skillman

Psychological, paranormal, mystery

fiction and non-fiction

Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit and Perilous Path

My next book Paranormal Warwickshire will be published by Amberley Publishing in June 2020

Film Review: ‘Tolkien’ 2019 Film Starring Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins: A True Picture of Tolkien’s Inspirations?

Tolkien film 2019
Tolkien film 2019

I’ve recently been to see the film Tolkien about the early life of the great author who created The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. As one who has loved the creations of Tolkien, both his writings and his art, since I was at university, I looked forward greatly to seeing this film.

I was aware that Tolkien’s family have distanced themselves from the film so I was intrigued to find out for myself what could be the cause of their objections.

Nicholas Hoult’s performance as young Tolkien is admirable, and I often found the story very moving. The film sets out to show what might be considered Tolkien’s formative years – his childhood move to Birmingham, the loss of his parents, the transfer of his care to a priest, his lives at school and university, the relationships he formed, his early relationship with Edith who became his wife, his experience in the trenches in the First World War and his early married life, moving towards the time when he began writing The Hobbit.

Some of the criticisms levelled at the film have included the fact that no mention is made of his Catholic Christian worldview which played a vital part in his conception of Middle Earth and can even more clearly be seen in The Silmarillion. But this didn’t strike me as a major fault in the limited context of this film, since I had not expected it to cover more than a few elements which may have played their part in the creation of Middle Earth.

The film opens with a grim scene in the trenches and we return to this again and again in flashback. Then we move on to idyllic sunlit forest – woodland at Sarehole Mill, known to have inspired Tolkien. Throughout the film we are offered scenarios in which the film-makers speculate about the experiences from which may have sprung many elements in Tolkien’s fantasy world: the eye of Sauron, the two Towers, the Nazgul, the Dark Lord,  the Ents,  the Elvish princess Arwen, the close Fellowship of the Ring, the devotion and loyalty of Samwise Gangee to Frodo; and behind the action we often hear the voices of Lothlorien.

I enjoyed all this, accepting that the film-makers could not necessarily be expected to stick to known facts. From the point of view of a writer myself, I know that often when we write, ideas arise from the unconscious, and we cannot even say necessarily where any of them came from: unless it strike us unexpectedly. Thus it would surely have been for Tolkien as he created Middle Earth.

I was fascinated, though, to learn of Edith’s love for Wagner’s Ring Cycle – a love I share – and how this would have influenced Tolkien.  And also to learn of the influence of his professor in Philology, played by Derek Jacobi, who says: “There’s a comfort in distance, in ancient things.”  Tolkien’s passion for creating languages, complete with structure and vocabulary, comes over strongly.

And the film ends again back in the woodland at Sarehole Mill with Tolkien encouraging his children to speak to the trees, and speaking to them of their power:  “little people just like you… little in stature, not in spirit.”

Here are some other posts I’ve written about Tolkien.

SC Skillman

Psychological, paranormal, mystery fiction

Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit, Perilous Path.

l

 

 

Film Reviews: ‘Tolkien’ 2019 Starring Nicholas Hoult

Tolkien film 2019
Tolkien film 2019

I’ve recently been to see the film Tolkien about the early life of the great author who created The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. As one who has loved the creations of Tolkien, both his writings and his art, since I was at university, I looked forward greatly to seeing this film.

I was aware that Tolkien’s family have distanced themselves from the film so I was intrigued to find out for myself what could be the cause of their objections.

Nicholas Hoult’s performance as young Tolkien is admirable, and I often found the story very moving. The film sets out to show what might be considered Tolkien’s formative years – his childhood move to Birmingham, the loss of his parents, the transfer of his care to a priest, his lives at school and university, the relationships he formed, his early relationship with Edith who became his wife, his experience in the trenches in the First World War and his early married life, moving towards the time when he began writing The Hobbit.

Some of the criticisms levelled at the film have included the fact that no mention is made of his Catholic Christian worldview which played a vital part in his conception of Middle Earth and can even more clearly be seen in The Silmarillion. But this didn’t strike me as a major fault in the limited context of this film, since I had not expected it to cover more than a few elements which may have played their part in the creation of Middle Earth.

The film opens with a grim scene in the trenches and we return to this again and again in flashback. Then we move on to idyllic sunlit forest – woodland at Sarehole Mill, known to have inspired Tolkien. Throughout the film we are offered scenarios in which the film-makers speculate about the experiences from which may have sprung many elements in Tolkien’s fantasy world: the eye of Sauron, the two Towers, the Nazgul, the Dark Lord,  the Ents,  the Elvish princess Arwen, the close Fellowship of the Ring, the devotion and loyalty of Samwise Gangee to Frodo; and behind the action we often hear the voices of Lothlorien.

I enjoyed all this, accepting that the film-makers could not necessarily be expected to stick to known facts. From the point of view of a writer myself, I know that often when we write, ideas arise from the unconscious, and we cannot even say necessarily where any of them came from: unless it strike us unexpectedly. Thus it would surely have been for Tolkien as he created Middle Earth.

I was fascinated, though, to learn of Edith’s love for Wagner’s Ring Cycle – a love I share – and how this would have influenced Tolkien.  And also to learn of the influence of his professor in Philology, played by Derek Jacobi, who says: “There’s a comfort in distance, in ancient things.”  Tolkien’s passion for creating languages, complete with structure and vocabulary, comes over strongly.

And the film ends again back in the woodland at Sarehole Mill with Tolkien encouraging his children to speak to the trees, and speaking to them of their power:  “little people just like you… little in stature, not in spirit.”

Here are some other posts I’ve written about Tolkien.

SC Skillman

Psychological, paranormal, mystery fiction

Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit, Perilous Path.

l

 

 

Film and Book Review: ‘Silence’ by Shusaku Endo: and The Film Starring Andrew Garfield

Silence by Shusaku Endo is one of the most compelling and powerful books I’ve ever read.Silence - a novel by Shusaku Endo I wrote about it in this way on my website as part of a blog post about an exhibition at the British Museum, Living With the Gods.

When I first read the book, several years ago, I think one of the most remarkable things about it is that the reader can see both sides and even have some understanding both of the Japanese and the Jesuit priest, despite the extreme cruelty of the torture to which the Christian converts are subjected.

I personally thought the priest Roderigues should apostatise and that it wouldn’t detract from the integrity of his faith at all, because how can we ever eradicate what is in the heart of another, especially in the face of words and actions forced out of them under torture?

But I admired the priest’s determination to stay true to his faith, as he understood it. I also felt I could make sense of the position of the Japanese, utterly determined to stop a foreign religion from adultering and diluting their own culture, from stealing hearts and minds in their own country devoted to their own religions. I saw both sides.

And in the film directed by Martin Scorsese which was released in 2010, I felt the same. Basically the Jesuit priest played by Andrew Garfield would be wisest, I considered, to recognise that the Japanese culture and mindset was utterly alien from his own cultural formulations of religion and utterly set on protecting their own cultural and religious identity.

I feel the same when I read about the Jesuit priests who came to England clandestinely in the sixteenth century to try and turn England back to Catholicism again:  God’s Secret Agents, an excellent book by Alice Hogge.  And also when I visit historical properties which were once strong Catholic houses whose occupants practised their faith against the direct orders of their government, and where persecution of priests is part of the house’s history.

No matter the rightness or the wrongness of their position, when viewed in hindsight, I still admire the priests’ passionate conviction in the face of fierce persecution and the prospect of being hanged drawn and quartered.

England ultimately became Protestant, and I don’t myself believe that the spiritual stakes as they saw them ever existed; or that the fate of anyone’s eternal soul ever stood in jeopardy according to whether they were Catholic or Protestant.

But they believed it. And that’s all that matters.

Were they wrong? This is the big question that hangs over all these heartrending, dramatic stories. And the same question hangs over all our lives, as we struggle for whatever cause or goal or dream we passionately believe in. We’re probably wrong, too. Or at least there’s a high probability we are.

But does that invalidate our passion, conviction, courage and persistence and fierce unrelenting resilience?

No. Because if it does invalidate it, then shall we all just give up now?

I know as a writer I will never give up, whatever the outcome may be.

SC Skillman

Psychological, paranormal and mystery fiction

Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit and Perilous Path

Coming soon: Spirit of Warwickshire

 

Book Review: Out of the Forest by Gregory P. Smith

Over Christmas a biography came to me which is one of the most compelling and moving accounts I have ever read. Out of the Forest by Gregory P Smith with Craig HendersonOut of the Forest (published by Penguin Australia) is the memoir of a man who spent ten years living as an alcoholic drug-crazed recluse high in the New South Wales forest, (with occasional forays down the mountain to the local hippy community to sell his crop of marijuana, and spend his income on  alcohol).

This man now holds a PhD and is an academic at the Southern Cross University at their Lismore campus in New South Wales, where he teaches Social Sciences. His name is Dr Gregory Peel Smith, and his story takes him from a severely abusive childhood and period of torment in a Catholic orphanage, through years of mental suffering, self-destructive behaviour, alcoholism and drug addiction and self-imposed isolation, to his present life.

Partly because I know the area Gregory is writing about (having lived in Brisbane for four and a half years myself, and having visited the areas of the New South Wales coastline, and spent time in the very mountains of which he speaks) I read this account with intense interest. But as Gregory describes his journey through the depths of human anguish, into self-imposed exile from human society, and all the gruesome details of what it takes to survive in isolation in the wild, I was totally captivated. This book has a strong spiritual character, despite Gregory’s disavowal of the Christian religion (not surprising when you read of the physical and spiritual and psychological abuse he received from the Catholic nuns in the orphanage.)

And the way in which Gregory rehabilitates himself, upon emerging from ten years in the forest, is deeply moving and inspiring. Although later on he is greatly helped by certain individuals whom he identifies as angels, in the early stages he transforms his life solely through his own inner resources. He describes in detail his method for “mounting a mental counter-insurgency” against his inner demons which I believe would be immensely helpful for anyone who has gone through any experience approximating to his kind of mental suffering and turmoil. Though his case was extreme I believe it will be of great value to many, and not only those who have been through comparable extreme experiences.

Naturally I highly recommend this book, and not only to a general readership but to those interested or engaged in psychotherapy and personal spiritual transformation.

The Virgin Birth and the Power of the Supernatural Truths in the Christian Faith

The Christian faith rests on the awesome truth of several supernatural events – the Virgin Birth, the Incarnation, the Transfiguration, the Resurrection and the Ascension – and last year, I watched again “The Nativity”, the TV mini series first broadcast by the BBC at Christmas 2010.The Nativity BBC TV mini series first broadcast 2010

I remember the series had a strong impression on me when I first viewed it and we could hardly wait for each new episode. Seeing it as a continuous story was a different experience from viewing it in episodes;  I found it much more challenging and harrowing, especially the scenes in which Mary is judged and reviled both by her fellow villagers in Nazareth, and by householders and innkeepers in Bethlehem.

Tatiana Masleny and Andrew Buchan both gave brilliant performances as Mary and Joseph  and I must confess John Lynch came over as a very handsome and rugged Gabriel.

Here’s a Youtube link to a beautiful and moving song by Kate Bush with clips from The Nativity film.

Seeing this very realistic re-imagining of the Nativity story again, I realised afresh how divisive the story is, for all those who engage with it, whatever they believe.  To see Mary portrayed like this when she has been so revered by Catholics over the millennia with titles like Queen of Heaven and Mother of God, is certainly very challenging. And it leads me to reflect again on the assertions of Christian theology, most notably the question of how God could have chosen to bring his Son into the world by causing Mary so much suffering … huge issues arise from this, and provide much material for argument and discussion. Once again this brings up the question that many have struggled with, of why Jesus could not be the son of God and also born naturally by Joseph.

I thought this portrayal of the story has the power to strengthen and enhance the faith of the viewer by the honesty and realism of its portrayal. But how you respond does of course  depend on the stance you choose to take before coming to the story.

Certainly I remember the leader of our group at an Alpha course a few years ago beginning the discussion by expressing an inability to believe in the virgin birth.

But in this film version, we see Joseph as key. His ability to wholeheartedly believe what Mary was telling him, saved her from the judgementalism and hatred and rejection of all those around her – which, without the protection of Joseph, may even have resulted in her death before Jesus was even born.

This gives us much to reflect upon.