Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Big House Books

Over at Book Riot, writer Johanna Lane has an article exploring the tradition of literature that revolves around large homes or estates.  She talks about her favorite "big house novels" and how they remain interesting to readers today:

"But the attraction of these novels is partly because the rhythms of life in great houses are so very different from the rhythms of our own: The characters linger over breakfast, they take long walks in the gardens, they stop for lunch, they stop again for afternoon tea, they talk to each other without constantly checking their iPhones."

Though she talks about how these novels have fallen out of favor of the years, I suspect that the success of Downton Abbey will change how much a modern audience enjoys those types of stories.  I have just started a "big house" novel myself (Anya Seton's Dragonwyck) and thought I would provide a list of my favorite novels that involve big homes who become just as much a part of the story as any other character:

How about you?  Do you have a favorite "big house" novel?  Share it with us!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Henry IV, Part 1

"Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere;"

Written around 1597, Henry IV Part 1 is the second in Shakespeare's four part series dealing with the reigns of the English kings Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V.  It remains one of Shakespeare's most popular works and includes many memorable characters like Prince Hal, Hotspur, and Sir John Falstaff.  Though it is popular, it's interpretations remain open and continue to evolve with modern readings.

The Plot:

King Henry IV's reign has been anything but quiet.  Not only is his mind disquieted by the murder of his predecessor, Richard II, but rebellion is beginning to arise in the kingdom.  Wales and Scotland are giving trouble on the borders and Henry is increasingly at adds with the powerful Percy family of Northumberland.  Adding to his troubles is the behavior of his eldest son, Hal, the Prince of Wales, who has forsaken the royal court and instead wastes his time in taverns and with low companions like Sir John Falstaff.  King Henry often wishes that Hal were more like Henry Percy (called "Hotspur"), the warrior son of the Duke of Northumberland.

The rebellious groups, including the Percy family, join forces and aim to overthrow the king and divide Britain into thirds. Prince Hal joins his father's army as they march to Shrewsbury where Hotspur's forces, and battle, await them.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

This was the second of Shakespeare's "History" plays that I have read.  This was also the one I was most familiar with as it seems to be the most popular of those particular plays.  Though it didn't eclipse Richard III in my opinion, I did enjoy the many different viewpoints it had to offer.

One of my favorite aspects is the idea of the two Henrys, two stars in one sphere.  At first, we share King Henry's view that Hotspur is to be admired above Prince Hal.  Hotspur is a consummate warrior while Hal seems to take pleasure only in drinking and carousing, hardly the desired image of a future king.  But Hal soon tells us that he realizes the degradation the company he keeps brings on him and that he is only biding his time until he can prove that he has the character of a king.  Soon, King Henry learns that the honor and glory found on the battlefield and in the royal court cannot make up for the love a son bears his father.  Though Hal does not seem to be the son his father might have wished, he doesn't hesitate to leave the party life behind in order to defend him and his throne.

Another aspect that must be discussed is the character of Sir John Falstaff.  Perhaps no other comedic Shakespeare character is as well loved or well studied as Falstaff.  On the one hand, he seems to be most of the deadly sins personified.  He is fat, a drunkard, lazy, a thief, boastful, and cowardly.  For many years he is Prince Hal's teacher and leads him in a life of pleasure and debauchery.  But Falstaff has a depth that many characters don't.  His love of Prince Hal is genuine, and he has a quality about him that causes us to feel a bit of sympathy towards him.

This is a solid play and one that many people continue to love.  It has heavy drama with the rebellion scenes balanced with great comedy involving Falstaff's escapades.  I do recommend it as a must read for a general understanding of Shakespeare's works.  Though I wouldn't call it a favorite, it is still one that I'm glad I read.  

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 2012 production of the play included the BBC's The Hollow Crown.  It stars Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Michelle Dockery, and Simon Russell Beale.  It is a fantastic production and a must see.  The acting is spectacular, of course, and the structure of the play is kept mostly intact.  The action scenes are especially well done and it is nice to see it in more of a film setting versus a stage setting.  I highly recommend it.
Do you have a favorite performance of this play?  Share it with us in the comments.          

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

O Captain, My Captain...

In memory of Robin Williams 1951-2014

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Much Ado About Nothing

“When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married.”

If you have ever read (or seen) and enjoyed a modern romance story, then you owe a lot to William Shakespeare.  His 1598/1599 comedic play Much Ado About Nothing has set the tone for many of today's most loved romance stories and remains a classic itself.  It is a story that continues to be retold in modern interpretations all over the world and remains a personal favorite of mine.

The Plot:

Leonato, the Governor of Messina, receives word that the Spanish prince Don Pedro is arriving along with his companions after a successful battle.  One of these companions, Count Claudio, instantly falls for Leonato's daughter, Hero.  Meanwhile, Benedick, the other companion, takes his up his war of wit and words with Beatrice, Leonato's niece.  They both profess to hate each other and are constantly throwing verbal punches.  Claudio and Don Pedro come up with a scheme to convince Benedick that Beatrice is in love with him and vice versa, thus causing them to fall in love with each other.  They enlist the help of Hero and meet with immediate success.  Hero also falls for Claudio and the two become engaged.  But Don Perdro's brother, Don Jon, decides to wreck things for the lovers by convincing Claudio that Hero is being unfaithful to him.  Chaos ensues and one wonders if either couple will finally achieve happiness.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

This was the first Shakespeare play that I became familiar with and it remains one of my all time favorites.  It is one of those stories that seems to come off of the page with its great characters, witty repartees, and fun plot.

Though Hero and Claudio's story drives much of the action, it is Beatrice and Benedick who are the stars of the show.  I think their story is interesting because you can't tell when they actually begin to fall for each other.  Have they always harbored secret feelings for each other?  Or does percieving weakness in the other (i. e. one being in love with the other) allow them to take down their own defenses and open themselves up to love?  Whatever the cause, their transformation from sarcastic enemies to sarcastic lovers is a fun one to watch.

One of the aspects of this story that I love is the masking of one's identity.  At one point or another, almost every character pretends to be someone they aren't.  Whether it be as a barrier to protect themselves or a way to conceal themselves while creating mischief, each character plays a part that is not really his.  I think this has an interesting correlation with our society today.  We hide behind our avatars and our Twitter handles in order to protect ourselves or to shrug off responsibility for the things we do or say.  Like the characters in the story, we have to open ourselves up to each other in order to experience love and to take responsibility for our actions.

If you are looking for a place to start in Shakespeare, this is a good one.  It is probably one of his most accessible and fun plays.  Probably my favorite comedy so far.

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 Joss Whedon's 2012 film starring Alexis Denisof, Amy Acker, Nathan Fillion, and a host of other people from other Whedon productions.  Though the dialogue is all Shakespeare, the setting is modern.  I truly love this film.  While it is faithful to Shakespeare's lines and plot, its setting allows for a fun and modern interpretation.  All of the actors are outstanding, and Nathan Fillion is especially endearing as the hapless constable, Dogberry.  I also loved how they took the songs in the original play and set them to modern music.  I highly recommend this!

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

Monday, July 28, 2014

Bucket List

Hannah at Miss Daydreamer's Place recently tagged me for the Bucket List Tag.  The idea is to list 10 things you want to do before you die and then tag other friends to do the same.  Although my bucket list (like my to be read list) is EXTREMELY long, I was able to pin down 10 goals that mean the most to me right now.

Visit my ancestor's native town of Ensingen, Germany

My father's side of the family arrived in America in the 1880s.  Before that, the family lived in the small town of Ensingen in Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany.  The town is 900 years old and has long been a wine making center of the southwest.

Learn to play the dulcimer

Variations of dulcimers (meaning "sweet song") are found all over the world.  The hammered dulcimer is especially popular in many cultures.  The one I want to learn is often called the "Mountain Dulcimer" and its roots are found in Appalachia.  Though I don't really have any background in playing music, this is an instrument I'd love to try.  Listen to one here

.    Ring in the New Year in Times Square

There is perhaps nowhere more iconic to spend New Year's Eve than in Times Square.  Watching the ball drop and the confetti fall is a part of every American's celebration.  Just once, I'd love to celebrate in person with millions of other people, hearing the strains of "Auld Lang Syne" promptly followed by "New York, New York".

Have a Middle Earth marathon

This one is kind of different, but it is one that my entire family wants to do.  We want to sit down and watch all three "The Hobbit" films immediately followed by all three "Lord of the Rings" films.  Geeky?  Yes, but also worth it!

Walk the Camino de Santiago

Following an ancient pilgrimage route along Spain's northern coast, this trip has become very popular in recent years.  It takes about 4 weeks, and can be done high class or "roughing it".  This idea of combining immersion in Spanish culture with a spiritual aspect is very appealing to me.

See a play at The Globe

This is something I wanted to do when I was in London but didn't have the opportunity.  This is seeing Shakespeare as it was meant to be seen.

Visit the Bronte Parsonage Museum

I love the Bronte sisters, and the very idea of seeing the house where they grew up and where their imaginations were fed makes me giddy.  Combine this with standing on the Yorkshire moors and I think I would die from emotional overload.
Have a home library

Right now, my books are crammed in any available space.  One day, I hope to have a room dedicated to my collection.  With a window seat, of course.

Become a certified genealogist

I have been obsessed with genealogy for years and I hope to one day become a certified genealogist and do some freelance work.

Become fluent in French

I have long loved to study language and French is by far my favorite.  Though I only have a basic vocabulary now, I'd love to become fairly fluent in it.  Guess that means I'll just have to move to Paris!

At this point I'm supposed to tag some people.  I don't have that many indvidual bloggers that I interact with, so I am going to go with hopeinbrazil at Worthwhile Books.  And to anyone else who would like to participate, jump in and link to your post in the comments!

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Just for Fun

Thought this would be fun to post since I am almost two thirds of the way through my summer reading of Shakespeare.  From the 1953 version of Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate, here is "Brush Up Your Shakespeare".

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Black Count

All over the world, Alexandre Dumas is recognized as one of the titans of French literature.  The swashbuckling adventures found in his works like The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, and The Man in the Iron Mask portray a world of honor, betrayal, love, and friendship.  But though his stories are some of Western civilization's most famous, few people realize that many of their most famous elements are based on the character and exploits of one very real person...his father, General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas. In his Pulitzer Prize winning book The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, Tom Reiss seeks to tell the general's story and to reveal how his larger than life presence impacted his son and the art he was to create.

Thomas-Alexandre Dumas was born in the French sugar colony of Saint Domingue, the son of a French aristocrat and a his black slave.  At the age of 14, his father sold him and three other siblings into slavery in order to raise funds for passage back to France.  He was later repurchased by his father and then raised in France.  He received the education of any French noble, mastering the arts of fencing, riding and literature.  But as his father's fortune dwindled due to lavish spending on a new wife, Dumas assumed his mother's name and enlisted in the French military.  It wasn't long before he distinguished himself as a member of the Queens Dragoons.  As the old regime fell and France was swept up in revolution, Dumas took advantage of the new found freedoms and rose higher and higher, eventually reaching the rank of General of the French Army.  But Dumas' fortunes, like those of France, were soon to be forever changed by an intelligent and ruthless man from Corsica.

I found this book to be extremely fascinating.  I have always loved Dumas' work, but I had no idea that so many of his stories, especially The Count of Monte Cristo, were based on his father's life.  And General Dumas' story in many ways rivals those of his son's creation.  It is obvious that, though raised as an aristocrat, he is very much a man of the Republic.  He firmly holds on to the ideals of the revolution, even when others twist them for their own use, or seek to undermine them.  He is also a consummate leader and warrior, garnering the respect of his men and overcoming some of the most difficult situations that can be thrown at a soldier.  His rise in the army is meteoric.  In fact, he was the highest ranking black commander in a white army until Colin Powell became a four-star general in 1989.

But the story the Reiss tells here is not just Dumas', but also the story of all people of color in revolutionary France.  France was one of the first European powers to pass laws against slavery, even though it's rich sugar colonies were firmly built on them.  This allowed blacks and people of mixed race to rise as high in French society as whites, and for their children to be educated alongside them.  And the revolution extended the idea of liberty and equality to all Frenchmen, allowing Dumas to not only command a white army, but also to marry a white woman.  Unfortunately, even as these ideals crumbled before Napoleon's ambition, so did the freedoms of blacks all over France.  Eventually, slavery would be brought back to the French colonies.  It is all too obvious that the reason so few people, French or otherwise, know anything about Dumas is because of racism.

As a non-fiction book, this reads very easily.  Reiss packs in a lot of information, but delivers it in such a fun and adventurous way that you feel as if you are reading a novel.  His writing is easily read and well paced, allowing even the least scholarly among us to grasp what is happening.  It also really helped me understand the timeline of the French Revolution as well as the many issues the caused it to happen.

I highly recommend this book to anyone.  If you love the works of Dumas, or are interested in the French Revolution, military history, race relations in France, or the French sugar colonies then you could do far worse than to read this.  It is certainly a wonderful tribute to a man whose contribution to French history has been all but forgotten.