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!