Bookworming

The Shakespeare Project, Part 4 and Final

As you might or might not remember, last year I’ve embarked on a plan to read all Shakespeare plays between the 450th anniversary of his birthday and the 400th anniversary of his death. As the deadline is a few months ahead and I’ve already read them all, I declare the project a grand success. #selfimprovementfordummieshellyeah

Here are the last plays from the list, including some of my favorites that I left for last.

31. As You Like It

Reading: Third

Pluses: I know this is one of the important plays but I mostly like the woods in it.

Minuses: It spends too much time with the fool(s).

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥

32. Twelfth Night

Reading: Second

Pluses: There’s something interesting about the female characters.

Minuses: Not terribly interesting though. And I think there’s even more time spent on the fool. I also feel the way Malvolio gets treated is unnecessarily cruel.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥

33. Macbeth

Reading: Third

Pluses: This has always been one of my favorites. I like the grotesque witches, atmospheric Scotland, psychological self-torture of the villains. Finally, unlike in most of these plays, this one is actually interesting in the simple sense of “what happens next?”

Minuses: There could be a little less fighting, maybe, but that’s just being picky.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

34. Measure for Measure

Reading: Second

Pluses: This play is positively surprising in how it’s mostly not trying to be funny. I liked when it focused more on moral dilemmas and how sex was viewed as one of them.

Minuses: Sometimes it is trying to be funny.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥

35. Antony and Cleopatra

Reading: Second

Pluses: The characters are interesting and the setting around the Roman empire quite ambitious, with the frequent jumps between Egypt and Rome. I think I generally preferred the ancient plays to the Renaissance ones.

Minuses: I still find Cleopatra irritating.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

36. All’s Well That Ends Well

Reading: Second

Pluses: With this one I finished all the comedies. And the title is quite appropriate for that.

Minuses: Seriously, Bertram? What’s up with him? How marrying him can be any idea of a happy ending? I’m not sure there are any other particularly positive characters, for that matter, though I guess the old timers are the most interesting.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥

37. Romeo and Juliet

Reading: Fourth?

Pluses: This is simply an interesting play. The events follow swiftly (if, sometimes, hysterically) and the characters are well-differentiated in their tempers and motivations.

Minuses: Not much, but I did enjoy it more when I read it before. I guess it’s like some of those songs that you’ve heard so many times you finally start to wonder what the big deal is and then change the station.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

And that’s it! I actually expected the undertaking to be more troublesome but, in fact, some of the plays surprised me quite positively. It also gave me a deep, meaningless sense of satisfaction to complete mu cultural gaps. And now on to the other part of the project, a design one, but this one I will probably share elsewhere.

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Bookworming

The Shakespeare Project, Part 3

The time’s come to share the third portion of my Shakespearean experience (here’s the first with explanation and the second one). As I’ve decided to start with the lesser plays now I’m slowly moving on to the bigger titles and this definitely makes the journey more interesting.

21. Pericles

Reading: First

Pluses: After all those other plays it’s refreshing, probably because of the cooperation with another writer. The plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense but it reads fast.

Minuses: The characterization of the persons of the play leaves a bit to be desired: Marina is inexplicably perfect, Dionyza irrationally cruel and I won’t even start about all those brothel would-be clients that Marina converts to seeking religious entertainment.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥

22. King Lear

Reading: Second

Pluses: Well, this is one of the greats. Even though it’s extremely dark and probably somewhat depressing, it’s got a powerful atmosphere.

Minuses: I guess if you’re looking for an optimistic conclusion this must disappoint.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

23. Henry VIII

Reading: First

Pluses: It’s the first play with any Henry in the title that I actually enjoyed. I particularly liked how it didn’t have any cold-blooded villains, just normal people with various weak spots: that’s definitely more my kind of a story than all those cartoonish murderers and traitors.

Minuses: If I’m nitpicking I could live without the lower classes’ dialogs but there weren’t a lot of them anyway.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

24. Coriolanus

Reading: First

Pluses: I like these ancient stories and this one is fairly interesting, especially at the beginning.

Minuses: It lacks a really positive character to root for and the view of politics is altogether depressing.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥

25. The Comedy of Errors

Reading: Second

Pluses: This one was fairy light, if not that exciting.

Minuses: Not exactly a story you believe in, is it. I also disliked the treatment of Adriana.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥

26. Timon of Athens

Reading: First

Pluses: Er, I guess if you try really hard you get to imagine ancient Athens?

Minuses: It lacked redeeming features to me, with Timon going from naïve to misanthropic and all the other characters quite despicable.

Hasty judgment: ♥

27. Troilus and Cressida

Reading: First

Pluses: I liked the characterization of some of the Homeric heroes, different from what you might first expect (like for instance Hector). They felt like actual persons.

Minuses: It’s still not the most exciting of the ancient plays and women’s characterization falls on the negative side.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥

28. Hamlet

Reading: Third

Pluses: I must admit I didn’t much appreciate Hamlet on my earlier readings. I couldn’t bear his whining and I found the play overhyped. But this time I appreciated the rawness of the setting and conflicts and the truth of Hamlet’s doubts.

Minuses: To make up for criticizing the play before, I’ll say none.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

29. Love’s Labour’s Lost

Reading: Second

Pluses: It takes place in the woods, I guess.

Minuses: This play goes completely nowhere. It ends and you wonder what it was all for.

Hasty judgment: ♥

30. Othello

Reading: Second

Pluses: While it’s not one of those irritating plays, I still find it hard to come up with pluses.

Minuses: Of all the famous tragedies I always found this one the weakest. Not only does it lack exciting setting and atmosphere of a gloomy castle or, well, gloomy woods but also everybody is so easily manipulated by Iago. And I really dislike Iago-like characters.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥

Almost there! And actually it’s way ahead of the timeframe I set for myself at the beginning of the enterprise.

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Bookworming

The Shakespeare Project, Part 2

My reading of Shakespeare continues. I bravely soldier on through historical dramas with a breather of a comedy every now and then. Without much ado (get it?) let’s go to the second part of snap judgments, shall we.

11. Henry VI, part 2

Reading: First

Pluses: Alexander Iden is not despicable, I guess?

Minuses: This play would read like a propaganda piece for French revolution, with monarch(s) and aristocrats well worthy of losing their heads, except the lower classes are even worse. Except for one unimportant character who appears in all of two scenes, everybody is simply horrid.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥

12. Henry VI, part 3

Reading: First

Pluses: I guess I will finally remember who was red rose and who was white rose. For a while, anyway.

Minuses: Ugh, enough with those kings already. They are impossible to root for.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥

13. The Taming of the Shrew

Reading: Third

Pluses: It’s short.

Minuses: It’s basically a story of domestic (mostly psychological) abuse of an emotionally disturbed woman. Which would be fine, except the tone of it is really hard to get behind. This one has not aged gracefully.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥

14. Henry VI, part 1

Reading: First

Pluses: I was interested in Joan, despite the complete ideologically motivated character assassination towards the end.

Minuses: Every other character was traditionally awful.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥

15. The Winter’s Tale

Reading: Second, I think

Pluses: I sort of liked the description of the spring festival.

Minuses: This one dragged on forever. It might not be very long but I just couldn’t finish it and Leontes’s psychotic jealous outbreak came out of nowhere and looked too much like a plot device.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥

16. Richard III

Reading: First

Pluses: It’s more like tragedies than historical dramas, which means it actually has a story that goes somewhere and then ends.

Minuses: I know Richard is supposed to be despicable but why would I want to read about him? I don’t like such one-dimensional villains.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥

17. Two Gentlemen of Verona

Reading: Second

Pluses: It has a dog.

Minuses: It’s more like a sketch and both problems and their solutions tend to come out of nowhere.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥

18. Cymbeline

Reading: First

Pluses: It’s entertaining, a lot is happening and it has a fairy-tale like atmosphere of “far away and long ago.”

Minuses: Almost all male characters are unbearable. This is understandable in case of Cloten or Giacomo, but with Posthumus it undercuts the story.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

19. King John

Reading: First

Pluses: Um, none.

Minuses: Everything else. I haven’t found one thing I would like about this play.

Hasty judgment: ♥

20. The Merry Wives of Windsor

Reading: Second

Pluses: It has no fake Italians and women actually do something and succeed.

Minuses: Of all the characters in all the plays is really Falstaff the one that needs to reappear again and again? Also, linguistic humor doesn’t age well.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥

Well, this wasn’t the most exciting bunch of Shakespeare’s plays but that only means that I’ve left all the really exciting classics for the second half of the challenge so things should get better now.

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Bookworming

Anthropology of a Teenage Introvert

Books: I had a lot of time to kill recently so I finished King John. So not the best Shakespeare. But I’m well halfway through my Shakespeare re-reading.

Music: Some Tom Waits.

Mood: As evidenced by February’s empty archives, February was a tiresome month that left me not a drop of energy to write. Things are happening but I’m mostly rather tired for now.

er-anrhtopologyofanamericanI read Anthropology of an American Girl by Hilary Thayer Hamann for the first time in December two years ago and immediately decided to read it again, which practically never happens. But this book moved me; so even though I got back to it after a year rather than immediately, this review is born of two readings. It’s a controversial book if you look at Amazon reviews: people either love it or hate it and had I seen the reviews before I started the book, I wouldn’t have picked it up. It sounds like nothing I’d enjoy: little plot, depressing and rambling? No thanks. Except, while you might argue for these things, the book is so much more.

It is a story of a girl, Eveline Auerbach, finishing high school on the threshold of the 80s, falling in love and suffering traumas. Now, I have no 80s nostalgia and the iconic literature of that time to which Anthropology is often compared – all the American Psychos and Bright Lights, Big Cities – is on my shortlist of the scourges of the world, together with head lice. But Hamann, while I suppose true to the spirit of the times, manages to make the 80s universal. She does that through a minute, obsessive vivisection of Eveline, the first-person narrator, who’s extremely introspective and prone to noting every little observation. She’s a visual artist but, as so often happens in novels, a visual artist is just a stand-in for a writer: Eveline seems more interested in words, the subtlety of their meaning, than in images. (To be precise, she’s often shown creating art but it’s the interest in language that colors her narrative.) Her observations, while based on banal everyday occurrences, are poignant and aphoristic. Every chapter holds a few phrasing gems.

The main reason why this book delighted me so is how I related to the heroine – not because I’d ever been a knock-out anorexic beauty to turn all the heads in a room but because of her attempts to put the world into words and to define it with precision. That’s how I used to imagine writing when I was a teenager harboring writerly ambitions: as always looking for striking ways to describe small things. So, while it’s not something I say often (or ever), the poesy of Hamann’s writing is what makes the book such a find.

And one more thing that Hamann captures amazingly is a teenage immature love – not the reality of it (I’m sure such romances never happen) but the concept. Eveline falls for Harrison Rourke, a substitute teacher, actor and boxer. Virile, trustworthy, protective and pretty much flawless, Rourke is not so much a character as an archetype of a man. From my point of view today I see their relationship as peculiar in its complete lack of communication: they learn crucial things about each other exclusively from other people, which often fuels the story’s drama. However, I still remember that when I was a teenager directing steamy dramas in my head, that’s exactly what they based on: the fact that their characters never properly talked to each other, which would have led to too speedy conclusions.

The first part of the love affair, with Evie in high school, admiring Rourke from afar also rang very true: the kind of imaginary relationship in which every look, every exchange grows to mean the whole world. Hamann manages to be both subtle and sexy in those descriptions of first encounters: they have an almost oniric quality. Nothing really happens (yet) but the tension is palpable.

The second half of the novel shows Evie past Rourke and past high school, entangled in a self-destructive, self-punitive relationship with devilish Mark, a true child of Ellis and McInerney. This part is more socially conscious, with the descriptions of the glamorous, empty throng that Evie and Mark hang out with. More happens here but in a way this period of Evie’s life is more of a waiting game than high school, when nothing substantial really happened.

Mark is an evil reflection of Rourke: a man without honor, manipulating the girl with money and position, sexually perverse. There’s also a third friend, Rob, who’s the de-sexualized male companion, taking on the role of a reliable friend (and also a small-time crook involved with Jersey mob). Possibly, it’s not an accident that their names can be combined to form Ro-ark because they embody certain qualities – good or bad – that Rourke lacks. Of course, I might be reading too much into it; this book invites speculation. I should also add that the super-positive image of Rourke is a direct result of the first person narration. We only see him through Evie’s eyes, and to her he’s an enigmatic perfection. I can easily imagine a negative, feminist analysis of Rourke – but I don’t really want to because Evie’s vision seduced me sufficiently to enjoy this specimen of perfect literary manhood.

There’s also a whole – important but not that convincing to me – issue of Evie’s first boyfriend; of her perplexing relationship with her parents; of friendship and betrayal, suicide, drugs, sexual abuse, pregnancy, Reagan’s politics, not to mention boxing: so it’s not a book where nothing happens at all. But the real strength of the novel lies in the subtle texture of its language and in the unapologetic introspection of the main character, which reminded me of what it felt like to be seventeen. Few books about teenage girls manage to be so true to their subject matter.

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Bookworming

The Shakespeare Project, Part 1

In between the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birthday and 400th anniversary of his death (that is between April 2014 and 2016) I have embarked on a self-improvement project I’ve excitingly called The Shakespeare Project, because my life is one big roller-coaster ride. I’m reading all the plays: those I already read and those I always managed to avoid. As I finished 10 plays already, let me share some reflections and hasty judgments.

1. The Tempest

Reading: Third

Pluses: The philosophy of intelligent design, as it were, how the play suggests everything happens for a reason, even if we don’t immediately see it (true, you have to read pretty deep for that and I’m sure there are other viable interpretations but I like this one). The parallelism between the high plot and the low plot of slaves’ rebellion is an interesting structural device. Prospero is interestingly ambiguous as a character.

Minuses: Some of the worst comic reliefs ever. We may as well get it out of the way immediately: I detest Shakespeare’s punning humor, his clowns and all the nonsense that happens between the good stuff. I will be berating it constantly, just saying. Also, boring romantic leads.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥ (out of five)

2. The Merchant of Venice

Reading: Second

Pluses: As I didn’t remember anything out of my first reading, I really felt like I was catching up on some culturally relevant references, including “pound of flesh.” Women versus men tricks are mildly entertaining. Shylock’s character gives itself to various conflicting interpretations and is particularly challenging in the era of political correctness. I like all the interpretations stressing the role of the oppressed, including Antonio’s possible homosexuality.

Minuses: Nobody is particularly likable (nope, neither Shylock, nor the good guys). Various plots are disjoint and only come together at an effort.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥

3. Midsummer Night’s Dream

Reading: Second

Pluses: This is actually one of my favorites. The first time I read it it surprised my to no end with the fact that play-making imbeciles are actually sort of funny (which goes against anything I believe, as you may imagine). I like the setting in the woods, the conflict between the two girls and the fantastic world and its never-ending cultural relevance (remember them in Sandman? Things like that).

Minuses: Shakespeare’s Athens seems like the worst place to live. That’s all.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

4. Titus Andronicus

Reading: First

Pluses: The Rome from this Roman Horror Story is an interesting intellectual proposition.

Minuses: It’s not a proposition that would appeal to me very much, though. I dislike the cartoonish violence, absurd villains and the lack of at least one likeable character.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥

5. Henry IV, part 1

Reading: First. I’m particularly behind in historical dramas because they always seemed so opaque with all the mixable names of English provinces that are really people

Pluses: You can mostly tell living characters from dead ones. I guess the contrast between the high world of the court and the low one of taverns is interesting. In theory.

Minuses: Well, it is mostly boring. Prince Harry and particularly his companions are thoroughly detestable. I know we’re supposed to like Falstaff but I truly can’t fathom why.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥

6. Henry IV, part 2

Reading: First

Pluses: Well, the prince’s transformation and his relationship with his father. These are pretty much the only moving moments of this play.

Minuses: Every. Single. Damn. Tavern. Scene. They had me groaning and pouring tears of boredom. We get it, there are many things which sound like penis! Seriously, it’s like talking to a 13-year-old in the middle of hormonal storm.

Hasty judgment: ♥

7. Richard II

Reading: First

Pluses: It is very elegantly written, with some subtle imagery and epic gloomness. A perfect lack of comic reliefs is truly perfect. Richard is quite impressively complex.

Minuses: Well, the central conflict is not that exciting or, frankly, relevant past the era of God-appointed kings. Sure, you can look for analogies with other political systems but the truth remains: it’s a play about whether you can depose the king.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥

8. Much Ado About Nothing

Reading: Second

Pluses: It’s quite a breezy one, without the heaviness of even some of Shakespeare’s comedies (not to mention tragedies). Beatrice and Benedick’s affair is somewhat original, too.

Minuses: It’s really not much about anything and poor Hero is so will-free you just want to kick her.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

9. Henry V

Reading: First

Pluses: It’s almost pleasurable how detestable Henry has become. You really get the kick out of hating him. I admit the play is rather well-written, with its mixture of tones and languages.

Minuses: I guess if you’re English you might read it differently? But this is really a play about a hypocritical, war-mongering aggressor who’s almost proud of all the violence he’s about to unleash on another country. Shakespeare tries to make him heroic (or, at best, ambivalent) but there are really few saving graces here. And his romantic suit at the end makes one sorry for Catherine.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥

10. Julius Caesar

Reading: First

Pluses: This one is quite a beauty. It doesn’t get bogged down with too much exposition (or comic reliefs), things happen swiftly, characters make bold and stupid decisions and everything unfurls into the undoing of all but Mark Antony and Octavius. Brutus and Caesar’s dilemmas are palpable and character’s flaws make them human, not paper.

Minuses: It gets slightly more messy in the second half but the first one, up to the speeches over Caesar’s body, makes up for it.

Hasty judgment: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

That’s it for now. I’ll be back with the next portion once I’ve read it. I still don’t find myself a die-hard Shakespeare fan but there certainly are fairly impressive parts to his oeuvre.

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Bookworming, Everydailiness

In the Meantime

While I’m writing my PhD, which I’ve been sort of doing for a while but only actually started doing yesterday, I don’t expect to write many other things so, as usual, bear with me. In the meantime, here’s a list of things I’ve recently read but won’t probably get down to reviewing as by the time I have, well, time, I will have forgotten most of my impressions.

Here goes: Kazan’s Acts of Love (my third reading and I still like it), Liza Dalby’s Geisha (I still prefer the less realistic but oh-so-lovely Memoirs of a Geisha), Bright Lights, Big City (pretty awful, ammarite?), The Giver (so, so awful; seriously I know it’s for kids, but it was still awful), iZombie (fun, actually), Persuasion (my last unread Austen, really liked it), Broke Heart Blues (not great, but so far haven’t found anything by Oates that I’d love). I’m also in the middle of what I’m pretentiously calling The Shakespeare Project, which means I’m reading (or re-reading, I’m not that uneducated actually) all of Shakespeare’s plays by 2016. I could do it faster, but it’s better with breaks. So far I’ve read five, I guess, but I’m optimistic. (Self-improvement for dummies.)

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