Transcript / LoLT: Mel's Shakespeare Project and Two New Books — 01 March 2024

Transcript / LoLT: Mel's Shakespeare Project and Two New Books — 01 March 2024

Friday, 1 March, 2024

This is a transcription of ‘LoLT: Mel’s Shakespeare Project and Two New Books — 01 March 2024’

This episode is brought to you by BetterHelp. Give online therapy a try at and get on your way to being your best self.

David: What would you do if you had an extra hour in your day? — Would you crack open that book you’ve been meaning to read? Would you go for a run? Would you spend a little more time with your favorite people?

David: A lot of us spend our lives wishing we had more time. Who doesn’t? I know I hear that clock ticking. But time for what? How do you decide to use the hours we have? What do you squeeze into your day, and why?

David: The best way to get to the bottom of that is by figuring out what’s important to you, and then prioritize. Therapy can help you find what matters to you, so you can do more of it.

David: If you’re thinking of starting therapy, give BetterHelp a try. It’s entirely online. It’s designed to be convenient, and to work around your schedule. You fill out a questionnaire, you get matched with a therapist, and off you go.

David: Learn to make time for what makes you happy, with BetterHelp. Visit BetterHelp dot come slash StrongSense today to get 10% off your first month. That’s BetterHelp H-E-L-P dot com slash StrongSense.


[cheerful music]

Melissa: Coming up, a modern classic I somehow missed.

David: A modern marriage of science and memoir.

Melissa: Plus, our distraction of the week. I’m Mel.

David: I’m Dave. This is the library of lost time.

Melissa: This week, a Washington Post article recommended two books by Kirsten Bakis, and now all I can think about is sitting in my reading nook under a blanket with endless cups of tea while I get lost in these stories.

Melissa: I want to read you the beginning of the Washington Post piece so you can feel where I’m coming from:

‘If you were a bookish teenager in the late 1990s, the odds are good that ‘Lives of the Monster Dogs,’ Kirsten Bakis’s first novel, arrived in your life like a spirit visitation. I remember it staring out at me from the fiction shelves at a Seattle bookstore, not long after it was published in 1997, cover-forward among a thicket of variegated spines. And what a cover it was, a faded photograph of a dignified malamute standing on his hind legs, his body sheathed in an antiquated silk smoking jacket, cravat at the collar, one paw balanced rakishly on a cane. Staring into his eyes, you couldn’t not pick it up; picking it up, you couldn’t not read it; reading it, you never forgot it.

Melissa: I mean. That is quite a sales pitch.

Melissa: So here’s the setup: In the 19th century, a Prussian scientist set out to create a race of perfect canine soldiers for the kaiser. He transformed Rottweilers, Dobermans, German Shepherds, and other majestic breeds into talking, well-mannered, impeccably dressed gentle-dogs. For 100 years, these dapper dogs lived in a remote Canadian settlement. But in 2008, they were forced to relocate to New York City where they become unwitting celebrities. A NYU student named Cleo Pira becomes their spokesperson and friend — and eventually, secrets are revealed.

Melissa: Cleo narrates the novel, and it unfolds through diaries, newspaper clippings, articles for Vanity Fair magazine, and part of an opera libretto. When it came out 27 years ago, it was the author’s debut. It was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. They called it ‘fiercely original’ and ‘a dazzling, unforgettable meditation on what it means to be human.’ It also won the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel.

Melissa: And then the author disappeared professionally. Until this week, when her second novel ‘King Nyx’ was released. From the descriptions and reviews, it sounds like another cracking exploration of the Gothic. It’s 1918, and Charles Fort — he was a real-life researcher — Charles Fort is working on a book about unexplained phenomena. He’s also on the verge of being broke. Then along comes a mysterious, eccentric millionaire who offers his grand home on a remote island so Charles can finish his masterwork. [DAVE]

Melissa: His wife Anna reluctantly agrees, and she’s soon immersed in a story that includes missing girls, a mysterious figure in the woods, life-sized automaton dolls, and the creeping dread that things are not what they should be. A review said, ‘it’s almost impossible to put down once you’ve started it.’

Melissa: That’s ‘Lives of the Monster Dogs’ and ‘King Nyx’ by Kirsten Bakis, and they’re both waiting for you AND ME to read them right now.

David: Nell Greenfieldboyce is a science reporter for NPR. She’s had that gig for almost the last thirty years. She does a bang-up job explaining topics in biology and physics and all the rest to people who usually pay little attention to science. And, in that position, she’s had access to some of the great scientific minds and labs of our time.

David: She’s written a book. It’s called ‘Transient and Strange: Notes on the Science of Life.’ And if you saw that book on a shelf, you might think: hm. Pop science essays. And you’d be right. The book has some excellent essays explaining black holes, tornados, Paleolithic cave drawings, and such. But you’d only be partially right.

David: This book is also a memoir. It’s a science-oriented woman telling her own coming-of-age story. For instance, Greenfieldboyce talks about tornados, but she talks about it partially through the experience of her precocious, science-loving children. There’s a bit in the book when she’s explaining — with some glee — how powerful and genuinely intense tornados are to her maybe four-year-old son, only to realize, about halfway in, that she’s also terrifying him. How do you back out of that moment? How do you tell a child that tornados are monstrous winds that can level a town, but that we don’t need to be scared of them all the time? How can you be true to science and comforting at the same time?

David: There are other bits when science resonates with her life, like when she’s lying in bed with her soon-to-be-husband and wondering if courtship is a eugenics experiment. It is, a bit. Or when she’s talking about her adolescence and the parallels in the emerging science of black holes.

David: This is a very relatable and well-written memoir with a lot of science in it. It came out in January. It’s called ‘Transient and Strange: Notes on the Science of Life’ by Nell Greenfieldboyce.

David: And now our Distraction of the Week. [magical sound effect]

Melissa: I’ve started a Shakespeare project. How I got here is a little bit of a ride. But — there are fun things to watch, read, and listen to along the way so I thought I’d share.

Melissa: A few months ago, we watched the TV series ‘Good Omens.’ I’d not read the book — and I didn’t know much about it except that it was written by Neil Gaiman and the internet seemed to love it.

Melissa: Turns out, it was written by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, and I loved it. It’s funny, thought-provoking, suspenseful, and deeply romantic. And because it’s so romantic, I developed TV crushes on all the actors, but most especially on Michael Sheen and David Tennant, who play an angel and a demon whose relationship stretches through all time.

Melissa: And because there is no rabbit hole I won’t go down when I’m curious, I dove deep into the IMDB pages for both actors. We’ll probably get to Michael Sheen at some point, but today is David Tennant’s turn.

Melissa: He’s probably best known as the tenth and fourteenth Doctor in ‘Doctor Who.’ There’s ‘Good Omens,’ of course. And he has a very distinguished stage career. Which brings us to Shakespeare.

Melissa: Every time I say the name Shakespeare out loud, I have to sing that line from the musical ‘Something Rotten.’ [clip of song the song ‘I Hate Shakespeare’ from ‘Something Rotten.’]

Melissa: I do not, in fact, hate Shakespeare.

Melissa: But I don’t have much of a relationship to Shakespeare, either. Thanks to high school English classes, I know that Iago is the villain in ‘Othello,’ poor Caesar gasps out, ‘Et tu, Brute,’ as he’s stabbed, and ‘Macbeth’ opens with spooky witches.

Melissa: Around the time we finished watching ‘Good Omens,’ I learned that David Tennant was starring in a production of ‘Macbeth’ in London. At the Donmar Theatre. Which has only 250 seats. The show was designed around binaural audio that you listen to through headphones. So the sound is 3D. The music and birds screeching and witches chanting comes at you from all directions — and it allows the actors to whisper and still be heard.

Melissa: I was very excited about all of this — and about five minutes after finding out about the show, I learned it had been sold out since last May. We tried to get tickets in a lottery for weeks, and every day at 11:01 a.m. our Macbeth dreams were crushed. But! David Tennant recently announced they’re planning another run of this production in the fall. I’ve started preparing now.

Melissa: The one thing all Shakespearean actors seem to agree on is this: The plays are meant to be performed, not read. The reason Shakespeare seems boring and impenetrable in high school English class is because we’re supposed to see it and hear it. When it’s performed by actors who know what they’re doing, your heart understands the truth and meaning of the words, even if your brain doesn’t quite catch it all.

Melissa: Since we couldn’t see Macbeth, we did the next best thing, and watch the Royal Shakespeare Company Hamlet from 2009. It starred David Tennant and Patrick Stewart.

David: I think the reason you’re on a Shakespeare kick is because David Tennant is so good in Hamlet. We saw Benedict Cumberbatch do Hamlet. It was fine. I like him as an actor, but compared to Tennant’s it was dry.

Melissa: It also made me roll my eyes at what a drama queen Hamlet is.

David: I Tennant’s Hamlet feels very — I feel a bit pretentious with the words that are about to come out of my mouth, but Tennant’s Hamlet is lively and funny and better than any Shakespeare I’ve seen.

Melissa: Agreed. I never thought I’d be laughing while watching Hamlet, but there we were. And I actually FELT sad at the sad parts, rather than thinking ‘oh, that’s sad.’

David: That’s typically my problem with Shakespeare. It hits me in the head, more than the heart. So we’re hoping when we see Macbeth, it will be a similar experience.

Melissa: Yes. I also feel like part of the reason I enjoyed Hamlet so much is because I had listened to podcasts with scholars who put it in context. And now I want to do the same with Macbeth. If you would like to go on your own Shakespeare adventure, I’m putting all of my favorite resources in show notes. There are David Tennant performances, podcasts, videos, and books. I should also mention there are rumors that DT’s Macbeth will be released as a film in theaters later this year.

Melissa: Visit for more on the books we talked about today and links to all of the Shakespeare resources I talked about today. Join me in my madness!

David: Thanks for joining us on the library of last time. Remember to visit your local library and your independent bookstore to lose some time yourself.

Melissa: Stay curious. We’ll talk to you soon.

[cheerful music]


Top image courtesy of Marc Brenner.

Want to keep up with our book-related adventures? Sign up for our newsletter!

sharing is caring!

Can you help us? If you like this article, share it your friends!

our mission

Strong Sense of Place is a website and podcast dedicated to literary travel and books we love. Reading good books increases empathy. Empathy is good for all of us and the amazing world we inhabit.

our patreon

Strong Sense of Place is a listener-supported podcast. If you like the work we do, you can help make it happen by joining our Patreon! That'll unlock bonus content for you, too — including Mel's secret book reviews and Dave's behind-the-scenes notes for the latest Two Truths and a Lie.

get our newsletter
We'll never share your email with anyone else. Promise.

This is a weekly email. If you'd like a quick alert whenever we update our blog, subscribe here.

no spoilers. ever.

We'll share enough detail to help you decide if a book is for you, but we'll never ruin plot twists or give away the ending.

super-cool reading fun
reading atlas

This 30-page Reading Atlas takes you around the world with dozens of excellent books and gorgeous travel photos. Get your free copy when you subscribe to our newsletter.

get our newsletter
We'll never share your email with anyone else. Promise.
follow us

Content on this site is ©2024 by Smudge Publishing, unless otherwise noted. Peace be with you, person who reads the small type.