Bookworming, Metarambling

Reviews of Things: North and South

Welcome, my faithful steadfast readers, all three of you. As you can see, I spent almost entire year without blogging and while it’s not been a huge hole in my life, I could use some of the public introspection that blogging provides, particularly as I hate Facebook so I can’t use that most common outlet. But, clearly I just don’t have time for the proper reviews that I meant to be writing here – what with my two jobs, kid and, you know, life. So instead I’m looking for a better formula, one that would allow me to post faster and with more enthusiasm.
Please join me for the test ride of Mildly Enthusiastic Reviews of Things with the first test subject: North and South that I finished lately. I’ll try to post a review every week of something that I found particularly interesting (though in the end if I make it every month that will be still better than my current posting rate; we’ll see though, I aim high).

er-northandsouthNorth and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Category: Books

Find it on: Amazon

What it is:
Classic social and romance novel. Tells the story of Margaret Hale: her perfect hair, staunch morality, bleeding heart, many unfortunate experiences and a few instant conquests. It also describes the difference between the life in the South and in the North of England during the Industrial Revolution in an interestingly unflattering way.

How I found it:
I like to read a Victorian novel every spring and once I went through all Bronte sisters and Austen’s novels, I broadened my net, finding Elizabeth Gaskell. She’s way less exciting than those ladies but she has good points, too.

Summary judgment:
It’s not a masterful work: the story is messy, with uneven tempo and almost entirely dropped storylines. But it’s a decent read for all that.

Best things about it:
I liked John Thornton. I didn’t find him realistic at all but I like a romance story to seduce me with the idealized male character. I don’t like idealized females at all but with the man if I’m to find him attractive, he should be a bit over the top. His mother, on the other hand, was a beautiful portrait in its realism.

Worst things about it:
See above for the idealized females. I couldn’t care much less about Margaret with her unsurpassed beauty, queenly conduct and always proper behavior. Also, the second half of the book is such a rollecoaster of misery that it really tired me by the end of it.

Other pluses:
It had an easy tempo for the most part of it and quite memorable depictions of various places. I liked how Gaskell differentiated between London, Helstone and Milton, all locations drawn with their own distinct colors and scenes. She also managed to keep most of the lesser characters very believable.

Other minuses:
The preaching, with the main characters speechifying about their economic beliefs. It felt like a Christian-Marxist essay put into the story – or like a story written around one.

How it enriched my life:
I guess I’m filling gaps in my English literature knowledge. I’m also tempted to use the name Thornton for a character in a Victorian RPG. It’s a good name.

Fun fact:
As I was finishing the book on a train, a guy riding next to me suddenly stopped flipping through his newspaper and asked me what I was reading – and I couldn’t remember Gaskell’s name. Admittedly, he surprised me and also I was taking breaks from Gaskell to read his newspaper over his shoulder and I think it was just his way of suggesting that I stop? Not sure. Still, that was mildly embarrassing.

Follow-up:
I think I’ll try something else by Gaskell but not any time soon. I’ve got a lovely edition of Penguin Cranford, so that one is most likely.

Recommended for:
Patient people with taste for old-fashioned slow-budding romances or anyone interested in fictionalized history of industry.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Next time: Tabletop RPGs (maybe)

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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

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

Pleasures of Idleness: Emma

er-emmaI read Jane Austen in summer because bright summer days and her stories of rural matrimonial schemes go together perfectly. This year I reread Emma, which I’d read once in high school. Emma would always have the face of Gwyneth Paltrow for me: I love this adaptation, which was also my first encounter with Austen, and I think I even prefer it to the book. However, the book has charms of its own and, most of all, it surprises a modern, seasoned reader (that would be me) on many levels.

The first, and to me majorly important, surprise comes with the lack of suffering. I love reading and couldn’t give it up but sometimes it depresses the hell out of me. As a rule, characters have to suffer grief, loss, all sorts of misfortunes grand and small and sometimes, sometimes this knowledge makes me hesitate before opening a new book. Now, in Emma suffering is minor. Sure, it sucks when the man you discover yourself attracted to is, to your best knowledge, considering marrying another. But it’s hardly life-shattering, we’ve all been there and survived. Throughout the novel Emma remains rich, healthy and relatively carefree. I actually find it refreshing.

Another surprise is how this is a story of tediousness but while it verges on being boring, it’s actually not. (Well, to me. I can certainly imagine people, and especially men, crying hot tears of boredom over the endless dinner parties and local gossip.) Austen ingeniously builds idleness into the very structure of the novel. When a character is supposed to be tiresome in her constant blabbering, the reader labors through word-for-word citations so that they can experience the boredom. Many times we need to learn exactly what Mr. Woodhouse finds detrimental to his health, without the option of tuning him out and admiring wallpaper patters, which always helps in real life (and, by the way, I find him the most infuriating character in the whole book). Most Emma’s troubles come from the fact that she has nothing to do and this lifestyle does not agree with her: devoid of inner interests, she entertains herself with the most skill-less matchmaking in history. However, while Emma might benefit from working in a call center, I envy her the glorious freedom of unemployment without financial troubles. Must be soothing.

Emma herself, though claimed by Austen to be a heroine no one save herself would like, is not nearly as unsympathetic as this disclaimer promises. Admittedly, a likeable brat is easier to write than a likeable saint, but considering how self-absorbed, unobservant and callous Emma proves herself through most of the story, it surprises me that I find her so enjoyable (enjoyable as a character; I wouldn’t spend two hours with her). While many of these features bring her close to Scarlett O’Hara, Scarlett’s rebellion endears her to us while Emma remains prissily conservative. Of course, Emma changes or hers wouldn’t be a story at all, but the change is not as substantial as today’s reader might expect. For instance, she is glad to be rid of Harriet in the dénouement. In the end she’s just as much a narcissistic snob who has everything coming her way, and we have no choice but to accept it. In fact, it’s consistent how little drama in her life results in little change.

Finally, for the romantic interest. I know Austen’s romantic heroes feature in many an erotic dream, but frankly I never found them all that exciting. They always hover in the background, snide and self-pleased (or else idealistic and irritating) while the more lively heroines do their growing. Mr. Knightley is perhaps the most interesting (but that might be the movie fan speaking) but still he’s barely sketched out. We only get a vague image of masculinity and independence (married to perfect manners; her male characters always lack slightly rough edges) and can practically put any face we want on him. Personally, I prefer my romantic interests more developed. Of course, there’s the whole psychoanalytic ickiness of him being a father figure to Emma, what with the age difference and the constant moral preaching, but, speaking from my oh-so-vast real life experience, there seem to be immature girls who need precisely that: an older, decisive guy to keep them in check and curb their drama.

Altogether, I find Emma one of more pleasant Austen reads: everyone ends up with who you want them to end up with (I’m speaking of you, Elinor and Edward) and you get to relax in the world of balls, dinners and strawberry picking. However, for anyone who likes their action, even of the Pride and Prejudice kind, it must be quite disappointing.

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