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British Mysteries

Chasing Shakespeares, Sarah Smith, Atria Books, $24.00.

"I shall tell you what I believe. I believe God is a librarian. I believe that literature is holy...it is that best part of our souls that we break off and give each other, and God has a special dispensation for it, angels to guard its making and its preservation."

For the Elizabethan and/or Shakespeare enthusiast, this is the book for you. For the just plain Anglophile, this is the book for you. And Sarah Smith even tosses a few interesting questions into the mix, though I personally would have been happy just reading about the pair of Queen Elizabeth's gloves on display in Robert Cecil's house. My desire to go to England has been a lifelong one, and if you share that desire, or have even been there, this book is a thrill. Smith superimposes Shakespeare's London on top of modern London, with fascinating results.

The actual conceit of the novel is this (and it's similar to Tey's great Daughter of Time): take one serious grad student, give him a dubious collection of letters and other Mary, Queen of Scots memorabilia, and have him find, after sifting through countless ridiculous forgeries, a letter that not only looks like it may have been signed by Shakespeare himself, but also casts doubt on "Shakespeare's" identity. The grad student, Joe, is then presented with the exotic and wealthy Posy Gould from Harvard who is writing a thesis on William Cecil, Queen Elizabeth's right hand man. Posy is also attractive and rich, and in no time at all she has yanked the dubious Joe over to London to check out her theory: that Shakespeare wasn't Shakespeare, but Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford.

Joe is completely unconvinced but as he starts to do his research he begins to feel Posy may be onto something. Whether or not you agree with this central mystery may interfere with your enjoyment of the book - Shakespeare was Shakespeare after all: by any name, a genius who wrote the most memorable plays in English or any other language. But the bits of research and the theory Smith has Joe follow are fascinating - and may open questions in even the most serious of doubters. And the eternal question may of course be: is history really just a changing mosaic, with our own values and identities superimposed onto the facts? When it comes to Shakespeare, outside of the plays, there are very few facts, and so many of these questions are unanswerable so many years later. But I can wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone who has ever felt a shiver of wonder reading or listening to an actor recite Shakespeare's beautiful lines, who has ever been fascinated by Queen Elizabeth and her circle of powerful men, or by anyone who has been titillated by the Tower of London, the River Thames, and Stratford-Upon-Avon. This is hallowed ground, and Smith fearlessly treads it, with the bravery of - dare I say it - a scholar with a new way of looking at the past. If the book doesn't totally satisfy your desire for all things British, there's a terrific website with lots of great pictures.

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