Friday, December 12, 2014

Back to the Classics 2014: Round-Up

2014 is drawing to a close and it is time to start looking back over the books I read this year.  The bulk of my reading consisted of classics chosen specifically for the Back to the Classics 2014 challenge hosted by Karen at Books & Chocolate.  I completed all of the categories!  Here is what I read:

Required Categories

20th Century Classic - Joy in the Morning by P. G. Wodehouse
19th Century Classic - Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
Classic by a Woman Author - Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
Classic in Translation - Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin
Classic About Way - Night by Elie Wiesel
Classic by an Author Who Is New to Me - The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

Optional Categories

American Classic - Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Classic Mystery, Suspense, or Thriller - And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
Historical Fiction Classic - Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott
Classic Adapted to a Movie or TV Series - The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim
Movie Review of Film Based on Book in Category #4 - Enchanted April

This was a fantastic challenge and it certainly helped knock a lot of classics off my TBR list!  I don't know if I will read a book in every category again, but I certainly plan on participating in 2015.  Thanks, Karen for hosting!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Mary Barton

“There is always a pleasure in unravelling a mystery, in catching at the gossamer clue which will guide to certainty.” 

As most people know, the Victorian era was a time of great change in the Western world.  It was a time of invention, of industry, of power, and of great wealth.  It was also a time of social upheaval, of intense poverty, and of class division.  And while our minds might immediately envision the narrow, dirty streets of Dickens' London, another author asked us to turn our eyes to the north and see the squalor, the heartbreak, and the division that was eating away at the heart of England's manufacturing district.

The Plot:

Mary Barton is the only living child of John Barton, a mill worker in Manchester.  Her mother died when Mary was young and her father blames her death on the sudden disappearance of his sister-in-law, Esther.  John is heavily involved in the trades union in Manchester and has become more and more depressed over time as the industry has hit a rough patch and paying jobs are scarce.  Mary takes a job at a dressmakers and to help support herself and her father.  

Mary's long-time friend, Jem Wilson, has loved her for years but is turned down when he proposes.  Mary has her sights set higher and is enjoying the secret admiration of Harry Carson, the son of a prominent mill owner.  But when Harry is murdered and Jem is arrested for it, Mary realizes where her affections truly lie and she sets out to do everything in her power to save the man she loves.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

The first novel by Elizabeth Gaskell that I read was North and South, which I absolutely loved.  I was pretty excited to read this novel, which was her first.  Though this one didn't affect me the way that one did, it is still a solid read.

It's neat to see a female Victorian author take on the issues of social justice and economic inequality as passionately as some of the male authors (like Dickens and Trollope).  Gaskell comes out swinging, showing us the abject squalor that was the reality for so many people of that time.  And while she doesn't blame the mill owners and wealthy for the economic situation that is causing it, she does fault them for refusing to see and help the needy people all around them.  John Barton goes to extremes in his retaliation, but one can imagine the desperation one might be driven to if you watch others live in lavish comfort when your own friends and loved ones are dying.  It was also interesting to see the geographical disconnect between London and Manchester.  Even today, it is easy for those who live in the seat of power to simply turn a blind eye to the needs of those who live further away.

While the social aspect of this story is as solid as that of North and South, the narrative is not.  It is harder to connect to these characters the way we do Margaret Hale and John Thornton.  Mary comes off as rather flighty and seems to have less spirit than Margaret.  And while Jem is a sweet guy, he lacks that quality of strength and passion that John Thornton embodies.  As a whole, the narrative seems less tight and comes off as rather heavy handed at times.

This is certainly a solid read and a must for anyone who loves Gaskell or Victorian lit.  If you are new to Gaskell's works, however, I would suggest you start with North and South.  You'll get the same social message with a better story and stronger characters.      

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Phantom of the Opera

“If I am the phantom, it is because man's hatred has made me so. If I am to be saved it is because your love redeems me.” 

In 1910, French writer Gaston Leroux published a novel that drew from his time covering the Paris Opera as a reporter.  Based on actual historical events at the opera, his story would go on to be the basis for many adaptations.  The story was finally immortalized by the 1986 Andrew Lloyd Webber musical which is the longest running musical in Broadway history.

The Plot:

In the light and glitter of 19th century Paris, the Paris Opera has come under new management.  The managers are told of a phantom who haunts the opera and demands payments, a private box, and other things in exchange for keeping the opera safe from himself.  The new managers scoff at such a notion and begin to ignore the Phantom's wishes one by one.  It isn't long before mysterious things begin to happen in the vast opera house.

One of these is the rapid rise to stardom of a chorus girl named Christine Daae.  She is convinced that her dead father has sent the "Angel of Music" to help teach her as he once promised.  She becomes reacquainted with her childhood friend, Raoul, and tells him of her "angel" expressing both intense fear for it as well as passion.  Raoul is convinced that Christine is being held against her will in the power of an all too real man, and he sets out to discover the true identity of his rival.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

Like most people, I first became aware of this story through the famous musical.  I like many aspects of the musical, though there is an element to Erik's obsession with Christine that is a little too creepy for me.  Still, I knew that many fans liked the book so I thought I would give it a try.

My overall opinion?  I wasn't too impressed.  This is a tricky story and I only see a couple of ways to really make it work.  The first is to read it as a sensation story.  Leroux's original readers would have been familiar with the historical context of the novel, and it obvious the Leroux was playing this up for sensation.  The whole story is played out like a mystery, as the identity and methods of the Phantom are slowly revealed.  You can certainly see the elements of Leroux's other writings which included detective fiction and "locked room" mysteries.  This is all well and good if you are new to the story.  Unfortunately, most of today's readers are not.  There is very little room for discovery and surprise since we already know the Phantom's identity, past, motivations, and his fate.  This takes a lot of the "sensation" out of the story.

The other way to make this work is to fill the story with something other than sensation...something like pity.  The reason the musical connects to so many people is that it does a good job of making you feel a strong amount of pity for the Phantom.  He is turned into this romantic anti-hero who needs only the love of a woman to make him a good man.  The book fails to do this.  Because Leroux is setting up an atmosphere of horror and suspense, he tends to play up the dark side of the Phantom.  Though there are small shots of sympathy here and there, we are never allowed to see things from the Phantom's point of view so it is difficult to see beyond his actions and his ugliness.  

If you are a huge fan of the musical, then you will probably want to read this for more background and context.  For everyone else who may be a casual fan (or not one at all).  I'm not sure I can wholeheartedly recommend it.  It just didn't excite me very much.

The Movie:

I have seen two versions of this story.  One is the 2011 live production of the musical at the Royal Albert Hall starring Ramin Karimloo and Sierra Boggess.  I liked this production and it was nice to have the opportunity to see the actual musical.

The other is the 2004 film version starring Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum.  I didn't hate it, but it didn't really become a favorite either.  The one decent aspect was Gerard Butler...didn't mind having him sing to me for a couple of hours! 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Page to Screen: Enchanted April

In 1991, director Mike Newell brought Elizabeth von Arnim's 1922 novel The Enchanted April to life.  With a solid cast, slow pace, and stunning scenery, it is an enchanting little film and one that is sure to help put a bit of calm into a stressful life.

The four main female characters are portrayed by Josie Lawrence (Mrs. Wilkins), Miranda Richardson (Mrs. Arbuthnot), Polly Walker (Lady Caroline Dester), and Joan Plowright (Mrs. Fisher).  The men of the novel are played by Alfred Molina (Mr. Wilkins), Jim Broadbent (Mr. Arbuthnot), and Michael Kitchen (Mr. Briggs).  I thought the entire cast was simply marvelous.  Of course, the performances themselves were solid but it was also nice to see the characters brought to life just as I imagined them when I was reading the book.

The film also did a fantastic job keeping the plot and pacing of the book intact.  When a book has as slow a pace as this one, it is easy for the film to try and add lots of extra drama, etc. to make up for it.  That doesn't happen here.  Instead, the film embraces the quietness and self-reflection of the novel and allows the story to simply be about the characters themselves.  Couple this with some spectacular scenery and you have a film that feels like a quiet vacation in and of itself.

If you like the book, this is a wonderful adaptation.  True to the story and characters, beautifully shot, and nicely paced, it is a little gem.  I recommend it for anyone who enjoyed (or is even interested in) the book.  

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Enchanted April

“Now she had taken off her goodness and left it behind her like a heap of rain-sodden clothes, and she only felt joy.” 

It is so easy to get bogged down in our lives.  To wake up one day and realize that we don't like where we are or what we have become because of it.  In her 1922 novel, Elizabeth von Arnim tells the story of four unlikely travel companions who leave their dreary lives behind and find joy, friendship, and love on the shores of Italy.

The Plot:

Lottie Wilkins needs a change.  She isn't sure whether her unhappiness is due to her own timidity, her husband's attitude towards her, or the dreary English weather.  Whatever the reason, once she reads the advertisement for a secluded castle on the Italian coast to let for the month of April, she knows she has to go.  She also notices that a slight acquaintance in her women's club,  Rose Arbuthnot, has seen the advertisement and she impulsively enlists her as a traveling companion.  Before they know it, the two have made the arrangements to rent the castle and have also found two more companions, Mrs. Fisher and Lady Caroline Dester, to help split the costs.

Each woman declares that they simply mean to get away from it all and be alone.  They have little intention of being near each other except at mealtimes, and true friendship certainly seems out of the realm of possibility.  But Italy has other plans.  As the month passes, the atmosphere of San Salvatore works its magic on each woman.  They slowly open up to each other, and in the end find themselves longing for the very things (and people) they were trying so desperately to escape.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

This book has been on my "to read" list for awhile now and it was nice to finally get around to it.  Though it was not all together what I was expecting, it was still a nice little read.

Though at first it seems that all four women are nothing but drab and unhappy women with a great need to escape the dreary English weather, it soon becomes apparent that they are actually lively and unique individuals.  Each woman has shut herself off from her world for different reasons.  Lottie feels that she can't please her husband.  Rose is embarrassed by the way her husband makes a living (writing books about royal sex scandals).  Lady Caroline can't stand being constantly followed around by men struck by her beauty.  And Mrs. Fisher simply won't let go of the past.  But as they spend more time in Italy, and each other's company, they begin to break down the walls they had constructed and allow themselves to be open to each other.  I think we've all at one time or another simply been simply shut away inside ourselves.  Sometimes, we don't even realize we are doing it.  We simply know that our relationships with others aren't very strong and we find no joy or satisfaction in what we should love.  We can't all rent a castle in Italy for a month, but we should stop periodically and evaluate what needs to change in our lives (and ourselves) to allow us to be open with the ones we love.

Though the setting of the book is certainly beautiful (lots of flowers, a spacious castle, ocean views), I was slightly disappointed that the book didn't really allow for Italy to be a character.  The only Italians we meet are the servants and none of the visitors ventured outside of the castle grounds.  I was hoping for something along the lines of A Room With A View and an "Italian flavor" to the story. This story, though charming, could have happened in any beautiful place.

This book certainly has it's charming moments and is a great story of the need for openness in any relationship.  Though I wasn't quite satisfied with the lack of, well, Italy in this novel it is still one that I can recommend.  An easy read with lots of lovely little lines and moments.

The Movie:

I will fully review the 1992 film version of this book in a separate post.    

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Weekly Geeks Revisited: Best Movie Adaptations 2.0

I first began participating in the "Weekly Geeks" meme back in 2009 and continued on until its end in 2011.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, "Weekly Geeks" was a weekly meme for book bloggers to discuss various aspects of reading.  Topics were given, and we would each write a post pertaining to it.  I've decided to re-visit some of my favorite posts and update my thoughts and responses.

In July of 2009, Weekly Geeks were challenged to pick some of their favorite movies based on books.  There are a lot of factors that go in to deciding whether or not a movie makes a "good" adaptation and frankly it is all pretty subjective.  With that in mind, here are some more of my favorite book - movie adaptations:

The Fault In Our Stars 2014

There are plenty of adaptations that get the big things right.  They get the main characters, the plot, and the spirit of the book.  But it is rare for an adaptation to get even the small things right.  The Fault In Our Stars does that.  Granted, this is probably due in large part to the fact that the author was heavily involved in the production, but it is still pretty awesome.  I sat there the whole time saying "That room is EXACTLY like I pictured it" or "I knew that is what he would look like in that jersey".  A+ in my book.

Hugo 2011

This was a fairly tricky book to adapt as it is made up mostly of pictures.  But Martin Scorsese did a wonderful job of capturing the book's magical qualities.  It was particularly wonderful to see some of history's earliest films come to life again for a new audience.  Add that to some terrific acting from the young cast of Asa Butterfield and Chloe Grace Moretz and you have a truly stunning homage to both film and literature.

The Painted Veil 2006

This is a good example of a movie that was able to tell a different story from the book without really changing the plot.  While W. Somerset Maugham's novel focuses mainly on the personal growth of Kitty, the movie focuses on the relationship between Walter and Kitty.  It does this, however, without greatly altering the story and provides the audience with a slightly more satisfying ending.  

Captain Blood 1935

Though older movies are notorious for straying a long way from the original source material, there are those that do a solid job.  One of these is Captain Blood starring Errol Fylnn and Olivia de Haviland.  Not only does it maintain the swashbuckling and romantic attitude of the book, but it does so without throwing away a chunk of the plot.  It is also wonderfully cast and a treat to watch.

What about you?  What are some of your favorite book adaptations?  What makes an adaptation good in your opinion?  Share with us!    

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Eugene Onegin

“My dreams, my dreams! What has become of their sweetness? What indeed has become of my youth?”

When we think of Russian literature, names like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gorky, and Solzhenitsyn are the most likely to come to our minds.  But the tradition of modern Russian literature began several decades before the works of these great authors.  It began in the early 19th century with the works of Alexander Pushkin whom many believe to be not only the father of modern Russian literature, but also Russia's greatest poet.  His serialized "novel in verse" Eugene Onegin first appeared in 1825 and it's well loved characters and story would gain immortality as an opera by Tchaikovsky.

The Plot:

Eugene Onegin is a young St. Petersburg socialite who has become bored with his life which consists of nothing but balls and parties.  When he inherits a landed estate from his uncle, Onegin seeks a change by moving to the country.  There he meets his neighbor, a dreamy poet named Vladimir Lensky.  Lensky offers to introduce Onegin to the other area families, including that of his fiancee, Olga Larina.  Olga's sister, the quiet and romantic Tatyana, is immediately taken with Onegin and develops an intense (though rather naive) passion for him.  

When she can no longer suffer in silence, Tatyana openly declares her love to Onegin in the form of a letter.  Onegin coldly crushes her dreams and suggests she learn to control her emotions.  Not long after, Onegin's thoughtlessness leads to a misunderstanding with his friend, Lensky, and the ensuing tragedy will change everyone's life forever.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

I was first introduced to Alexander Pushkin through the Great Courses lecture series on the Classics of Russian Literature that I listened to.  I fell in love with his poetry and the plot of this story intrigued me, so I knew that I would have to read it one day.

This is truly a novel in verse and is about 389 stanzas in length.  It took awhile to get used to the rhythm of the poetry (like a Shakespeare play), but once that is done it flowed very smoothly.  It is also a little slow to start as the narrator spends a lot of time introducing the character of Onegin, discussing Russian society and the differences between country and city life, and reflections on his own muse.  But once the actual story gets going, it is rather enthralling.  In many ways, the poetry allows Pushkin to infuse the story with real emotion.  This is a story whose plot is less driven by action and more driven by the intense emotions of the characters.

The two characters whose emotions chiefly drive the plot are Onegin and Tatyana.  Onegin is consumed with an ennui that affect every aspect of his life.  Though he is included in social gatherings both in St. Petersburg and the countryside, he finds no real pleasure in them.  His pride and selfishness keep him at a distance from people, and make him unable to feel true sympathy with others.  This ultimately leads to the death of his only friend.  To Pushkin, Onegin represents everything that is wrong with Russia's high society.  Tatyana, on the other hand, is everything that Onegin is not.  She possess an inner strength and true compassion for others.  Though quiet, she is consumed with an intense passion.  Her declaration of love to Onegin is powerful, especially for a young woman in the 19th century.  And Pushkin doesn't fault her for this openness, but rather faults Onegin for his cruelty.  Tatyana is the Russia that Pushkin admires.  Unfortunately, society continues its work in the lives of both characters and by the time Onegin expresses his sincere love for Tatyana and remorse for his actions, she has armed herself against feeling and crushes him in return.

The difficulty in effectively translating Pushkin's works into English means that he is not generally well known to Western readers.  This is a real shame because the works I have read have been so full of passion and human emotion.  Though it lacks the epic scope of what we now consider to be real Russian literature, it makes up for that with intense feeling and a fascinating glimpse of early 19th century Russia.  I recommend it to anyone who enjoys romantic poetry, or Russian literature in general.

The Movie:

This story was most famously adapted as an opera by Tchaikovsky in 1879 and continues to be performed around the world.  I hope to find a good recording of it and watch it soon.

There is also a 1999 film version called Onegin starring Ralph Fiennes, Liv Tyler, and Toby Stephens.  I thought it was a wonderful adaptation that really captured the emotion of the original.  Worth a watch whether or not you have read it.    

Monday, October 20, 2014

"I'm so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers."
- Anne of Green Gables

Thursday, October 16, 2014


He was all sin and mystery, and Miranda feared the pleasures he offered as she feared the fires of hell. Yet when she succumbed at last, it was not because her body was weak but because her mind was curious.

Beginning in the 1940s, American author Anya Seton began writing historical romances.  Her subjects ranged from Katherine, the wife of John of Gaunt to Elizabeth Fones, niece to the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Her works would go on to influence many later writers, including Phillipa Gregory.  Her 1944 novel Dragonwyck is set a hundred years earlier when a still young American nation was trying to determine exactly what constituted true freedom.

The Plot:

Miranda Wells is a young woman who has spent her entire life on the family farm in the Hudson River Valley of New York.  She chafes at her family's humble life and yearns to find adventure outside of the farming community.  She gets her chance when her mother receives a letter from a distant relation, Nicholas Van Ryn, who asks that one of her daughters come and live at the family estate known as Dragonwyck and become a governess for his daughter, Katrine.  Miranda gleefully accepts and is soon taken with the handsome and cultured Mr. Van Ryn, though his wife is anything but welcoming.

Life at Dragonwyck is different from anything Miranda could have expected.  Not only is she out of her depth in this grand society, but there is also a dark and mysterious presence that seems to haunt the house.  When tragedy makes a way for Miranda to attain the life she has always dreamed of, she finds that neither Nicholas nor Dragonwyck are truly what they seem.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

This is just one of those books that rings all of my bells.  Historic setting...check.   Mysterious house with a Gothic touch...check.  A magnetic and dangerous love interest...check.  Though it isn't great literature in the way a Bronte novel is, it was still very enjoyable.  It reminded me a lot of Daphne du Maurier's works.

The historical setting for this was very fascinating.  I had no idea that there was an almost feudal land system in America until I was introduced to this story.  This system was left over from the Dutch settlers of early New York and forced the tenants to pay the "patroon" in goods and services.  It is against this dying system that Seton sets her story.  Like the plantation owners of the South, Nicholas refuses to believe that his way of life will ever come to an end and he cannot understand why his tenants would want the change.  Seton doesn't just use historical settings in her novels, but also historical figures.  Writers like Edgar Allen Poe and James Fenimore Cooper make appearances in the story without it a jarring effect on the reader.

Though we see everything through Miranda's eyes, it is Nicholas who drives the story.  His personality is forceful and magnetic, and though you are never able to come to love him like you would Mr. Rochester or Maxim de Winter, you can't hep but be interested in him.  It is pretty obvious from the beginning that his relationship with Miranda has all the marks of an abusive one.  Nicholas is the type of person who believes that he can have anything he wants by sheer willpower.  But fate is the ultimate master and Nicholas must watch as the things he values most in his life are taken from him one by one.

As I said, this book had so many of things I love in my reading life.  If you are someone who likes historical romances or Gothic stories, this one is for you.  It has some fascinating aspects that will make it hard to put down.

The Movie:

I was introduced to this story by the 1946 film starring Gene Tierney, Vincent Price, Walter Huston, and Anne Revere.  It follows the book pretty well though it does end differently.  Vincent Price is simply masterful as the polished yet ruthless Van Ryn.  Great for classic film fans even if you don't read the book.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Janeite Tag

Hannah over at Miss Daydreamer's Place recently tagged me in The Janeite Tag.  The rules are as follows:
  1. Thank and link back to the person who invited you.
  2. Tell us about how you were introduced to Jane Austen, and share one fun fact about your Janeite life.
  3. Answer the tagger's questions.
  4. Write seven questions of your own.
  5. Tag anywhere from 1 to 7 other Janeites to participate.
How were you introduced to Jane Austen?

Funny enough, the same way I was introduced to many works of classic literature.  When I was growing up, PBS had a children's show entitled Wishbone.  It was about a dog who loved to read, and the adventure his human friends were having always coincided with the plot of a work of classic literature.  One of these was entitled Furst Impressions and that introduced me to the story of Pride and Prejudice.  As an adult, I was re-introduced through the 2005 film version of Pride and Prejudice, which remains one of my favorites.

One fun fact about my Janeite life.

I saw Austen's The History of England on display at the British Library...eclipsed only by the handwritten manuscript of Jane Eyre right next to it! 

What is your favorite Jane Austen novel?

If you had asked me this when I was younger, I would probably have said Pride and Prejudice.  But as I have gotten older, I have really come to love Persuasion.  It is such a wonderful story of people overcoming time and hurt to find love with each other.  I have also come to identify with Anne Elliot in a variety of ways.

Who is your favorite Austen hero an heroine?

Favorite hero is Fitzwilliam Darcy.  Favorite heroine is Anne Elliot.

Who is your favorite secondary character?

Probably Mr. Bennet.  Let's face it, he gets most of the best lines.

Provide up to five of your favorite Austen quotes.

“My idea of good the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company." - Persuasion

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”  - Northanger Abbey

“The more I know of the world, the more I am convinced that I shall never see a man whom I can really love. I require so much!” - Sense and Sensibility

“There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of merit or sense.” - Pride and Prejudice

Capt. Wentworth's letter...all of it - Persuasion

What is your favorite adaptation of each of the Austen novels?

Pride and Prejudice - 1995 Andrew Davies (Firth, Ehle)
Sense and Sensibility - 1995 Ang Lee (Thompson, Winslet, Rickman, Grant)
Northanger Abbey - 2007 Andrew Davies (Jones, Feild)
Persuasion - 1995 Roger Michell (Root, Hinds)
Emma - 1996 Andrew Davies (Beckinsale, Strong)
Mansfield Park (this one is hard because none of them are particularly good) - 1999 Patricia Rozema (O'Connor, Miller)

Are there any books you would recommend to a Janeite?

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery

New Questions:
  1. If you could invite any Austen heroine to tea, who would it be and why?
  2. Would you prefer a quiet dinner party with a few friends or a large community ball?
  3. Which of the Austen "villains" do you feel to be the least "bad"?  Why?
  4. What is your favorite adaptation of a Jane Austen novel with a modern setting?
  5. Which Austen town/city would you like to live in (i.e. Merryton, Highbury, Bath, etc.)?
  6. What is your favorite Jane Austen novel?
  7. What is your LEAST favorite Austen novel?
I tag:

hopeinbrazil at Worthwhile Books

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

I have always been intrigued by Russia.  It is a country and a culture that is at once familiar and yet so very different from our own.  It is a country shaped by the weather, by religion, and by it's size.  It has also been shaped by its many rulers from Tsars to communists.  But perhaps no one other than Peter the Great has left as big a mark on Russian history as Empress Catherine II.  In his 2011 biography of her, historian Robert K. Massie explores the life of one of history's most remarkable women and how she overcame so many obstacles to lead her nation into a new era.

I had been wanting to read this book for awhile and ended up enjoying it quite a bit.  I had only a vague knowledge of Catherine and the role that she played in Russian history.  Massie recounts Catherine's entire history from just before her birth in 1729 to her death in 1796.  Many factors lead Catherine from a small Prussian province to the throne of one of Europe's mightiest empires.  She was cousin to the prospective tsar, Peter of Holstein, and was considered a good match by those who wanted Russia to trade its alliance with Austria for an alliance with Prussia.  But though life in the Russian court was glittering, it was not without its downsides.  She was subject to the whims and ever changing moods of Empress Elizabeth.  Her husband was an overgrown child with no sense of dignity and no love for his wife.  And like all royal courts, this one was full of spies and people seeking to climb the ladder of success.  But Catherine's intelligence, wit, and beauty charmed many people and eventually she found herself on the throne and loved by the people she had adopted as her own.

Catherine's life was simply fascinating.  One of the most interesting aspects was how much she was a product of the times she was living in.  From a young age she was caught up in the ideas of Enlightenment.  Voltaire, Diderot, and d'Alembert became not just her tutors in political thought, but her personal friends as well.  Though she eventually gave up the idea of establishing a true Enlightened monarchy in Russia, it did lead to many changes and helped usher Russia into Western society.  Social changes were begun during Catherine's reign, including changes to Russian law and more freedoms for the serfs.  She also encouraged arts, culture, and education throughout the empire.  This cultivation of the arts lead to the existence of many of the great Russian writers, musicians, and artists that we appreciate today.  From Pushkin to Tolstoy to Tchaikovsky, I think it is safe to say that none of them would have existed as we knew them without Catherine the Great.

For all of the accomplishments of her reign, Massie never loses sight of the fact that she was first and foremost a woman.  He shows us not only the strong and intelligent empress, but also the woman in desperate need of love and affection.  Catherine never received true love in early life.  Her mother and her husband were especially disappointing.  The rest of her life, she constantly sought the comfort of many different lovers.  Several of these men would eventually leave their mark not just on Catherine, but on Russia as a whole.  But no matter how much she loved a man, Catherine never gave up or shared her rights as empress and she always remembered the duty she had to the people of Russia.

This is a well written biography and an easy read for the layman historian.  Massie packs in a lot of information but does so in a way that is not overwhelming or "scholarly" in tone.  He also includes lots of background on Russian history and society that is helpful to those who may not have much of a background in it.  I recommend this to anyone who has an interest in Russian history, or in Catherine.  Though Massie shows her flaws, he also portrays the strength she had as a woman and a leader.  A wonderful glimpse into the life of a woman who changed not just her own nation, but the world as well. 

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Happy Birthday To:

Truman Capote
September 30, 1924

“Be anything but a coward, a pretender, an emotional crook, a whore: I'd rather have cancer than a dishonest heart.” - from Breakfast at Tiffany's 

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Antony and Cleopatra

"The breaking of so great a thing should make a greater crack."

Believed to have been first performed around 1607, this play immortalizes one of history's most famous and captivating love stories...that of Roman general Mark Antony and Cleopatra, Pharaoh of Egypt.  It is a story of passion, betrayal, power, and ambition.  But more than the relationship of two people is at stake as two empires collide and the fate of the world hangs in the balance.

The Plot:

Mark Antony is one of the triumvirs of the Roman Republic, but lately he has been neglecting his duties.  He has fallen in love with Cleopatra and spends his time with her in Egypt.  He ignores Rome's problems, even when his own wife dies after leading a rebellion against Octavius Caesar.  Tensions mount between Antony and Caesar when Antony is called back to Rome to help fight pirates who are terrorizing the Mediterranean.  In an effort to smooth things over and strengthen the bond between the co-rulers, newly widowed Antony marries Caesar's sister, Octavia.

Eventually, Antony is unable to resist returning to Cleopatra.  He abandons his family and has himself and Cleopatra crowned as King and Queen of the eastern third of the Roman Empire.  War is inevitable and both sides prepare for a meeting that will change not only of their own lives, but that of the empire as well.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

I wasn't sure what to expect from this particular play, but I ended up enjoying it quite a bit.  It was, in my opinion, the most complex of the Shakespeare plays that I have read.  I enjoyed the Roman setting, and the similarities to the power struggle seen in Macbeth was interesting as well.

The play is structured around the dichotomy of Rome and Egypt.  Rome is portrayed as an almost masculine empire.  It is ruled by men and governed by law and reason.  Honor and strength in battle is considered more important than anything.  Egypt, ruled be a woman, is portrayed as a land of pleasure and sensuality.  Emotion dictates action.  In this world, there is no room for emotion and reason to coexist.  Antony is weak because he allows his desire for Cleopatra to keep him from fulfilling his duties to Rome and to his family.  Though it is line with 17th century thinking, it could certainly rub modern audiances the wrong way.

The role of Cleopatra is considered by many one of Shakespeare's most complex female roles.  At first glance, she seems to embody the manipulative seductress.  She is given to hysterics, uses her changing moods to keep Antony with her, and rules a court given completely to pleasure and sensuality.  And yet, underneath all of that, she is also a skilled ruler.  She shows time and again that she does not use her feminine whiles for selfish pleasure only.  She is Julius Caesar's mistress while he is in power.  She saves her Egyptian fleet at the price of Antony's.  She considers Octavius Caesar's offer of allowing her to keep Egypt in exchange for killing Antony.  And she takes her own life, not in grief for Antony, but rather in fear that she will be taken to Rome as a prize.  It is clear that she is not a character to be put in a box.

This was a nice way to finish my summer reading of Shakespeare.  It is certainly not as cut and dry of a play as it may appear at first glance.  And in many ways, it combines elements of all of the Shakespearean categories...comedy, history, and tragedy.  A good read for anyone who loves Roman history and complicated characters.

The Performance:

Though reading Shakespeare is fun, it is also important to see it performed.  Shakespeare gives few stage directions and this allows each individual give their own interpretation of the characters an their actions.

I watched the 1974 television performance by the Royal Shakespeare Company.  It stars Richard Johnson, Janet Suzman, Corin Redgrave, and Patrick Stewart.  This is the RSC, so naturally it was well acted.  Some of the production values screamed 1970s, but overall it was a good performance.

Do you have a favorite performance of this play?  Share with us in the comments!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Books That Made Me...

If you have been on Facebook recently,  you have probably seen the "10 Books That Have Stayed With You" meme.  Participants have listed 10 books that continue to impact them and then challenge friends to do the same.  Author Roxane Gay took it one step further with this post entitled "The Books That Made Me Who I Am".  In it she states:  "I could not limit a list of important books to a number or a neatly organized list. The list, whatever it might look like, would always be changing because I too am always changing. I am not influenced by books. Instead, I am shaped by them. I am made of flesh and bone and blood. I am also made of books." 

It got me to thinking about, not my "favorite" books, not books that have "stayed with me", but the books that have transformed me as a person and that influenced me in different ways throughout my life.

My inquisitiveness must stem from my early love of mystery novels.  My mind goes back to the moments spent curled up on the couch as my mom read me the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators Series.  I was caught up in the mystery and the knowledge that you could solve the problem if you were observant.  As I grew, this was only encouraged by the Sherlock Holmes stories.

My love of the magic and beauty of childhood and home certainly comes from classics like The Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh, and Paddington Bear.  Even now, reading them brings me a sense of peace, safety, and a love of the simple and funny moments in life.  As I grew, I learned that comfort and safety isn't guaranteed.  But reading The Chronicles of Narnia gave me courage and helped me realize that though God may not always seem close, He is there and has equipped me to face every battle.

My idea of friendship was influenced by Little Women and the Anne of Green Gables series.  I always envisioned me and my sisters as being an extension of the March family.  We were very close as children and often found our amusement, our encouragement, and our strength within our family circle.  And Anne Shirley taught me that it isn't age, gender, class, or proximity that determines if someone can be your friend.  It is choosing to see beyond what is visible in people and embracing the spirit within them.

The hopeless romantic in me is fed by the likes of the Jane Austen novels, North and South, Rebecca, and classic fairy tales.  I'm a sucker for a romance, and my idea of the perfect man has (for better or worse) certainly been shaped by these stories.

My self-worth, as a person and as a woman, has been influenced by various female characters.  Elnora Comstock from A Girl of the Limberlost taught me that self education can take you as far as any structured classroom.  Marian Halcomb from The Woman in White taught me that strength, love, and intelligence are more important than traditional beauty.  Laura Ingalls from the Little House series taught me to embrace an adventurous spirit and to not let others' ideas of who you should be keep you from living the life you want.

The one book that has had the most influence on me from the very first time I read it was Jane Eyre.  As I have grown and matured, it has become what I needed in each stage of life.  As a teenager, I reveled in the romance between Jane and Rochester.  Now, as an adult, I see in Jane not only the person I am, but also who I want to become.  A passionate person enclosed in a quiet frame.  Someone who feels that she must do the right thing, no matter how much she wishes not to.  Someone who cares about herself and reputation, yet doesn't allow the opinions of others to dictate her life.  Someone who is comfortable in solitude, and yet desires true companionship.  No matter how the rest of my life turns out, I can't help but feel that this book will always be one of my touchstones.

What about you?  What books have shaped your life and the person you have become?  Share with us!           

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Henry IV, Part 2

Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude;
And in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then, happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

The reign of Henry IV draws to a conclusion in the third of Shakespeare's series of history plays.  Though less known (and less loved) than Part 1, there are moments of mirth and heartbreak  that will remain with the reader (or audiance) forever.

The Plot:

Part 2 picks up right where Part 1 leaves off.  Hotspur is slain, but there are other rebellious parties that must be defeated.  Prince John of Lancaster rides to the north to engage the armies of the Archbishop of York.  Sir John Falstaff makes his way, slowly, behind him gathering men for the royal forces along the way.  Prince Hal seems to slip back into his old habits and company, again grieving his father.  And King Henry IV is weighed down by his crown and feels he is reaching the end of his reign.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

As a follow up to Part 1, this particular play seems less dramatic and not as tightly written.  There are no battle scenes, less time is spent amongst the rebels, and Prince Hal and Falstaff only encounter each other twice.  But there were some stand out ideas and scenes that definitely stuck with me.

The first is the decline of King Henry IV.  He is a man who gained his crown through rebellion and has had to fight every moment of his reign to keep it.  His dream of leading a crusade to the Holy Land slowly fades as he realizes that his health and the rebellion in the kingdom will never allow it.  Though he gained what he wanted (the throne of England) he was never able to enjoy it in peace.  His greatest achievement became his greatest curse.  He hopes that Prince Hal will have a more peaceful reign since he will attain the crown legitimately, through inheritance.

The most important part of this play is the transformation of Prince Hal to Henry V.  At the beginning of the play, it seems that he has slipped back into his old habits.  He continues to frequent his old haunts and spend his nights in pleasure.  And yet, it becomes apparent that his perspective is changing.  As his father lies on his deathbed, he considers how much the crown cost the king and what a weight of responsibility it is.  His acceptance of this responsibility and his change in behavior is both wonderful and heartbreaking.  It was good to see him accept the Lord Chief Justice (who had openly scolded his wild behavior) as a mentor.  On the other hand, his dismissal and banishment of his former companions, including Falstaff, comes across as rather harsh.  Though we know that Falstaff is a fool and not someone who should be close to a king, it is obvious that his love for Hal is genuine.  The betrayal he felt must have been devistating.

This is probably the weakest of the Shakespeare plays I have read this summer, yet it is one that should be read along with the other three in the series.  It certainly outlines the burden that comes with power and the strength of character needed to rule wisely.

The Performance:

 Though reading Shakespeare is fun, it is also important to see it performed.  Shakespeare gives few stage directions and this allows each individual give their own interpretation of the characters an their actions.

As with Part I, I watched the 2012 production included in BBC's The Hollow Crown.  It stars Jeremy Irons, Tom Hiddleston, Simon Russell Beale, David Bamber, and Geoffrey Palmer.  It was a wonderful production that beautifully conveyed the heavy emotion of the play.  Definitely worth watching.

Do you have a favorite performance of the this play?  Share with us in the comments!       

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The splendour falls on castle walls
And snowy summits old in story:
The long light shakes across the lakes,
And the wild cataract leaps in glory.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying,  dying

O hark, O hear! how thin and clear,
And thinner, clearer, farther going!
O sweet and far from cliff and scar
The horns of Elfland faintly blowing!
Blow, let us hear the purple glens replying:
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.
O love, they die in yon rich sky,
They faint on hill or field or river:
Our echoes roll from soul to soul,
And grow for ever and for ever.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
And answer, echoes, answer, dying, dying, dying.
-Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Tempest

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” 

Supposedly written in 1610-11, The Tempest is believed by many scholars to be the last play Shakespeare wrote on his own.  Though not very popular with 17th century audiences, it is now considered by many to be one of Shakespeare's greatest works.  In some ways, this particular play is concerned with its own nature, and many early scholars have seen it as Shakepeare's farewell to the theater.  

The Plot:

After being usurped by his brother, Prospero, the rightful duke of Milan, and his daughter, Miranda, have lived for 12 years on a deserted island.  Chance brings those who had overthrown him in the vicinity of the island, and Prospero uses his magic arts to cause a storm that washes everyone ashore and scatters them about the island.  This includes his brother, Antonio, Alonso the King of Naples, and the king's son, Ferdinand.  With help of his spirit servant, Ariel, Prospero works to bring all of the company back together and reclaim his rightful place as Duke of Milan.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

I was pretty familiar with the plot of this play though I had never actually read it.  It has several different qualities that set it apart from the typical Shakespearean comedy.  I found it to be less laugh out loud, but rather enjoyed the more mystical aspects of it.

As with Macbeth, the atmosphere of The Tempest contributes heavily to the impression it leaves.  While the atmosphere of the former is dark and foreboding, the atmosphere of this play is light and mischievous yet tempered by a solemnity.  The magic of the two plays also contrast well as the spells and dark omens of Macbeth contribute to horror and evil while Prospero's magic is used mainly for good.  I loved the mystical qualities of the play, both playful and solemn.  Ariel, as an immortal spirit, brings fun to the story and his tricks and interactions with the villains of the play are often hilarious.  As a man approaching the end of his life, Prospero is much more straightforward and his often heavy spirit keeps the play from being in the same vein as A Midsummer Night's Dream.  We are much less concerned with characters looking ridiculous than we are in other comedies.

One of the interpretations of the story that I found fascinating was the idea of Shakespeare writing Prospero as himself.  This theory has persisted for many years and is accepted by most critics.  In this theory, the plot is meant to represent the theater and Shakespeare as magician controls the characters and even the very elements.  Yet, like Prospero, Shakespeare is approaching the end of his life and will be letting go of his servants (characters) and his magic arts (writing). "Our revels now are ended.  These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits and are melted into air, into thin air..."  This idea of the magician/playwright giving up his magic and retiring from the public eye is both beautiful and sad.  It makes Prospero's final plea to the audience for freedom and release all the more powerful.  "As you from crimes would pardon'd be, let your indulgence set me free."

I think this is the most beautiful of the Shakespeare plays that I have read.  The free use of magic and song, the mischievousness contrasted with villainy, and the reflections of a person at the end of their life all combine to be something rather extraordinary.  Though it may or may not be Shakespeare's final work, it is certainly a fitting send off for history's greatest playwright.  A must read for any Shakespeare lover.

The Performance:

Though reading Shakespeare is fun, it is also important to see it performed.  Shakespeare gives few stage directions and this allows each individual give their own interpretation of the characters an their actions.
I watched the 2010 film version starring Helen Mirren, Felicity Jones, Ben Whishaw, and Alan Cumming.  At first I thought that Prospero becoming Prospera would be distracting, but Mirren gave an excellent performance and played the character brilliantly.  All of the acting was wonderful and the CG elements helped keep the "magic" of the play intact.  They also did a great job incorporating the many songs of the play, even turning Prospero's epilogue into the end theme.  Worth a watch in my opinion.
Do you have a favorite performance of this play?  Share it with us in the comments.               

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Coming Soon...

As most of you who have read my blog for any length of time are probably aware, I love classic literature.  It has been the foundation of my reading life and most of the authors whose works I read have been dead for decades if not centuries.  I don't usually get to enjoy the anticipation of awaiting the publication of a new work by a favorite author.  But I do have a few modern authors whose works I enjoy and I am slowly finding new ones as well.  A couple of them have new books coming out soon that I am very excited about.

One of them is Marilynne Robinson.  I greatly enjoyed her 2005 novel Gilead and also the follow up book entitled Home.  This October, the final book in the set will be published.  Entitled Lila, it tells the story of Rev. John Ames' young wife who is briefly mentioned in both Gilead and Home but who has remained a bit of a mystery.  It follows her from her childhood up through her courtship with Rev. Ames and the birth of their son.  I can't begin to describe how excited I am about this novel.  Lila was always the character I was most interested in and I was afraid I would never learn her story.  This is a gift I never really expected to get.

Another author whose newest work I am looking forward to is Kazuo Ishiguro.  I loved his novels The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go.  His new one is set to be published in March of next year and is entitled The Buried Giant.  There aren't a lot of details as to what the novel will be about, but you can bet that I will be checking it out.

If you are a Margaret Atwood fan, you will be happy to hear that she is going to be publishing a new work.  You might, however, be disappointed to learn that you most likely will never get to read it.  She is the first author to join in on The Future Library Project, begun by Scottish author Katie Paterson.  This project will compile 100 texts from modern authors to be published in 2114, one hundred years from now.  Though the idea is fascinating, it is also pretty frustrating.  All readers live with the depressing knowledge that we won't get to read everything before we die.  Just thinking about works by favorite authors that won't be published in my lifetime makes me want to cry.

What about you?  Are you excited for any new books?  Share with us!

Saturday, September 6, 2014


"By the pricking of my thumbs, 
Something wicked this way comes."

More than perhaps any other play, Macbeth signals the change in the English monarchy that occured during Shakespeare's career.  It is believed to have been written after the ascension of King James I to the throne, ending the reign of the House of Tudor and ushering the reign of the Scottish House of Stuart.  It is a story of ambition, witchcraft, superstition, and Scottish history.  Today, it continues to fascinate actors and audiences alike, and carries a stigma with it that haunts the theatrical world.

The Plot:

The play opens on three witches, huddling together during a thunderstorm.  The forces of King Duncan of Scotland, led by Macbeth and Banquo, have defeated the armies of the kings of Norway and Ireland.  As Macbeth and Banquo return home, they encounter the witches who prophesy that Macbeth is now Thane of Cawdor and will one day be King of Scotland.  Macbeth scoffs at this idea until a messenger arrives announcing that King Duncan has made Macbeth Thane of Cawdor as a reward for his victory.

Macbeth bears the news to his wife who latches onto the idea of her husband becoming king.  She persuades him to murder Duncan while he stays at their home, questioning his manhood when he initially refuses.  The deed is done and Macbeth is pronounced king.  But his guilt and paranoia plague him and he is forced to commit more murders in order to keep his throne secure.  

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

I had only a vague idea of Macbeth's plot and was unsure of how it would appeal to me.  I actually enjoyed it quite a bit and think it might just be my favorite of the Shakespeare's tragedies that I have read.

Of all of the Shakespeare plays that I have read, this one probably has the best atmosphere.  King James I was fascinated by the idea of the supernatural and Shakespeare certainly feeds that fascination with this play.  It is full of storms, witches, omens, ghosts, and prophecies.  The image of the three witches casting spells and cooking potions is vivid even on the page.  Over time, this sense of evil foreboding has penetrated even the stage where it is enacted.  Many in the the theatrical world consider the play to be unlucky and refer to it simply as "The Scottish Play" rather than as Macbeth.  As someone who enjoys some darker touches and Gothic stories, I found this atmosphere to be utterly delicious.

The other fascinating aspect of this play are the two lead characters, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.  While Macbeth has some similarities to Richard III, he lacks the magnetism and pure evilness of that character.  He is a man driven by ambition (as well as insecurity about his own manliness).  He doesn't even think about being king until the idea is suggested to him, but once it is nothing seems more important.  To him, not attaining the crown is worse than murdering his king and guest in cold blood.  As for Lady Macbeth, her very name has become synonymous with the idea of the supreme villainess.  She is also consumed by ambition and suppresses all "feminine" emotions in favor of more brutal, "masculine" ones.  Though it is not seen by the audience,  her smearing of King Duncan's blood on his bodyguards faces is horrifying.  But ambition is never satisfied and as murder after murder is committed, both characters go mad with guilt and are unable to wash the blood from their hands.

Macbeth is perhaps Shakespeare's most unique play.  It's dark atmosphere, ruthless characters, and morality overtones make it stand out.  I really enjoyed it.  And it is also the shortest of the tragedies, so I highly recommend it as a starting point.

The Performance:

Though reading Shakespeare is fun, it is also important to see it performed.  Shakespeare gives few stage directions and this allows each individual give their own interpretation of the characters an their actions.
I watched the 1981 performance starring Jeremy Brett and Piper Laurie.  Though it was very much a "stage" setting compared to the other plays I've watched, it was still good.  I love Jeremy Brett's acting and he was wonderful here as well.  Worth a watch, though I really can't wait for the new version with Michael Fassbender to come out!
Do you have a favorite performance of this play?  Share it with us in the comments.