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

Teenagers, Murders and Secret Societies: Special Topics in Calamity Physics

er-specialtopicsEven though I don’t specifically search for stories about high school girls, I find them in the strangest places, my latest one the once-controversial Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl.

This début novel tells a story of 17-year-old Blue van Meer in an unapologetically postmodernist fashion, rife with literary allusions and metaphors. Blue travels the country with her father, a professor of political science, to finally settle for her senior year in a mountain town. She gets involved with a mysterious group of pretentious teenagers led by an even more mysterious, and probably insane, teacher. It’s then that life-changing events unravel (they include hanging; and it’s not a spoiler because the book tells you on the first page).

Like a precocious teen, the book can’t decide between its two preoccupations: does it want to be extravagantly fun (as a whodunnit) or seriously ponder life questions. Sometimes it manages to merge these two, but generally it’s better at the page-turning aspect because once the revelations start coming, you can’t put the book down – even though you rightly suspect in the end you’ll be treated to an open ending.

The open ending is interestingly solved, though. The whole novel is structured like a syllabus, each chapter titled with a famous book’s title. Sometimes this casts an important light on the events, sometimes it seems more like playing with the phrase from the title itself (“Things Fall Apart,” “The Trial”). At first I welcomed the game of allusions but after a while you realize that the very amount of books referenced requires a determination of a Bible scholar and you focus less, especially as the events speed up. At any rate, the syllabus ends with a “Final Exam” where all the possible answers to the story are gathered as multiple answers to test questions. This is an interesting and quite effective way to sum up the unanswered mysteries and at least give the reader a selection from which to pick out their favorite ending.

Just like literary allusions multiply beyond reason, metaphors crowd one another. Most of them are surprising and fresh, sometimes also awkward and confusing. I didn’t mind but I only occasionally interpreted them, again overwhelmed by their amount. But not a single one stood out to me as much as this one used by this reviewer: “she seems to think that if you fling enough metaphors at your readers’ heads, their ducking can be interpreted as bows of reverence.” Pessl doesn’t usually reach this level of accuracy in her metaphoric choices.

While the elaborate story leaves us wanting for final answers, another motif gets precedence: how growing up means emancipating from your parents. Blue’s father, professor van Meer, is definitely the most interesting character in the novel that you can’t decide whether to love or to hate. He’s charming, self-assured and intelligent, treats his women like doormats, thinks himself a wonder and refuses to apologize for anything. Obviously for Blue he’s the center of the world. The mysterious teacher, Hannah Schneider, serves as a mother figure and will also turn out a disappointment. In two poignant scenes, Pessl presents them in a similar way, their faces lit orange and monster-like. This emancipation from parents is a fairy-tale motif, very Bruno-Bettelheimian. In the end, in the world devoid of competent adults, Blue will learn to stand on her own and even, despite endless bad examples, form a romantic relationship. This is the true closed ending of the novel and I actually liked it.

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Bookworming

Queer Romance: Tipping the Velvet

er-tippingthevelvetThe first time I heard of Sarah Waters was when Atwood praised her in a review. I made a mental note to check her out and then forgot about it. Some time later I came upon her described as the author of lesbian Victoriana, which is hardly very respectful but still kind of intriguing (I love Victorian stories, did I mention that?). So when I finally got hold of her novel and it turned out to be exactly that (at least on some level), I both enjoyed that fact and wondered what else Ms. Waters had to offer.

Because if you imagine what “lesbian Victoriana” might look like, you’ve probably hit more or less on the story and feel of Tipping the Velvet. Nancy works in an oyster parlor (yes, I’ll get to that) but harbors love for music halls and it is there that she encounters Kitty, who performs dressed as a man. A pretty standard love affair follows, in which one girl joyfully embraces her new homosexual identity while the other refuses to admit to it, which obviously leads to a (quite predictable) clash – and it is only the beginning (or, you know, first half). The story itself is hardly revolutionary but interesting enough. Waters tries her hand at describing a few different environments of Victorian England: wholesome parochial community, bohemian world of music halls, debauched upper classes and poor-yet-working-for-utopia communist intellectuals. I found all these worlds sufficiently different, colorful and memorable. They also catalyze Nancy’s transformations.

Nancy’s story is a rather generic tale of coming to terms with one’s sexuality, complete with a perfect fairy-tale ending, when everyone comes together and Nancy gets to choose her perfect partner. And I’m not sophisticated enough not to love such a closed, happy ending, sorry. But the real literary wonder happens in the language. The whole story is full of seemingly innocent allusions and jokes that reference current LGBT culture. For example, once Nancy joins the act in male clothing and needs a scenic name, she, quite randomly, decides upon King. One of the characters, though not a warrior princess, is called Zena (with a Z, but still). The word queer appears many more times than statistically likely. Even the oyster parlor, though not exactly a word game, is a similar nod to the reader.

This game, however, has a second side. While modern elements of “queer” culture are, seemingly innocently, incorporated into the Victorian tale, the language of the era also appears. Because it is, I assume, meaningless to the modern reader, the appropriate expressions are explained by the characters as Nancy gets to know her new world. This includes most notably the title, which had it used a more recognizable synonym, would jump out to you from a bookshelf as rather risqué (if not downright vulgar). But because it doesn’t function in the language anymore in its Watersian meaning, we only get the joke once it’s explained by one of the characters.* Playing with slang like this is fun in its own way but also it makes an important point: homosexuality is not only a sexual orientation but also a whole culture that changes with time (even if Waters’ heroines are surprisingly modern in some of their behaviors).

I actually enjoyed this book quite a lot and am looking forward to Waters’ next novels. I have no idea how she could continue with more of “lesbian Victoriana” because Tipping the Velvet pretty much covers it all but maybe she found new ways to tell the same stories or even completely different stories to tell. If you can recommend anything, I will surely try to follow.

* Yes, I suppose you can figure out the meaning by yourself but admit, wouldn’t you, like Nancy, think rather it has something to do with the theater?

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Bookworming

Fairytale in New York: The Golem and the Jinni

er-thegolemandthejinniAround St. Valentine’s I happened to read something more or less love-related so here comes a thematic post.

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker will appeal to all you (us) Gaiman fans, at least those who always thought there’s too much pop culture savviness in his books and not nearly enough tenderness. It tells a story of end-of-nineteenth-century New York with its crucible of cultures, each of which brings its own legends and, unknowingly, magical creatures. Yes, something like American Gods but with less sex and way less gods.

As the title immediately informs, the protagonists are the golem, come from around Gdańsk, who represents Jewish culture, and the jinni, from a Syrian desert, who lives with Christian Syrian community. Their stories start separately but come together somewhere in the middle of the book, the encounter possible thanks to the magic of New York.

While the love that will ensue (is this a spoiler? I guess it’s obvious from the title) is not particularly thunderous (it evolves rather than erupts), another love dominates it: the one for the city of New York. New York of the novel is a mythical place, not only inhabited by magical creatures but also, like any true myth, it brings together opposites. The rich and the poor meet in the same parks and people exist both as a part of their secluded community and of something bigger that grows out of it. I quite enjoyed walking this city with the characters.

Like the city, the golem and the jinni struggle to unite oppositions: their generic nature that makes them act one way, and the confusing expectations of humanity that they’ve joined. Like most fairy tales, this is not particularly difficult or nuanced but the attempt to understand human beings – resulting in deciding to join their society – is interesting. Of the two creatures, I found golem much more engaging. She struggles maturely with her situation, not like a brat whose toys are taken away, the way the jinni sometimes acts. But also, the Jewish community itself held more attraction for me, maybe because of Gdańsk (or, historically accurate, Danzig, but we don’t like this name) and because Jewish culture is part of the literature I come from.

I also felt that the natures of the golem and the jinni reflected on, rather stereotypical, natures of women and men. The golem is born to submission, she lets caution guide her actions and passes the time with drudgery. The jinni rebels against caution, human ways and boring jobs, walks the city at night and leaves heiresses pregnant in his wake. I was wondering what would happen, were they the opposite and decided the male golem would be dull and the jinniyeh (which is apparently female jinni) irritatingly loose. So, I guess those stereotypes are not going anywhere. But the character who steals the show is actually the villain, the golem’s creator who arrives to New York in quest for eternal life: the author manages to make him both repulsive and fascinating as a villain should be.

Definitely not one of those grand reading experiences that stay with you forever, The Golem and the Jinni still read great and kept my interest; it even managed to be poetic at times. Sometimes (or, quite often) that’s all you ask of a book. Happy Valentine’s, especially to those of you who spend it with a book.

PS. The one scene that intrigued me was when the golem and the jinni met a couple of other unidentified-but-probably-supernatural creatures. I like that it was never explained who they were.

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