Thursday, December 1, 2016

The Tempest

The Tempest by William Shakespeare (1610)

Although I'm technically finished reading plays for my Bardathon Challenge, I'll be seeing a performance of The Tempest in December so I decided to read it ahead of time. In this play, the magician Prospero has been living in exile on a remote island with his daughter Miranda. He conjures a storm which brings to the island several people who had conspired together to oust Prospero. His complicated manipulations result in the marriage of Miranda to the son of the King of Naples, and Prospero's own restoration as the Duke of Milan.

My experience reading this was pretty meh. I enjoyed some of the wordplay and humor, such as when a ship was described as being "as leaky as an unstanched wench." When Trinculo notices the monster caliban he remarks: "What have we here, a man or a fish? Dead or alive? A fish, he smells like a fish - a very ancient and fishlike smell, a kind of not-of-the-newest poor-John. A strange fish." Later, that same character says, again to Caliban, "Monster, I do smell all horse piss, at which my nose is in great indignation." So that was all amusing.

Again I read the Folger edition, as I've been reading with the other plays. This time I noticed that some unfamiliar words and phrases weren't explained, though "maze" was defined, which seemed a bit odd. I also had a hard time keeping track of the characters since so many of them seemed interchangeable. And I had a tough time understanding what was happening near the middle, but when all was said and done I think I get the idea.

At this point I sort of think if you've read one Shakespeare play, you've read them all so I probably won't be making a point to read any more. I'm looking forward to this play though - the island setting, storm, shipwreck, monster, and various spirits should lend themselves to a more visual experience.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Big Magic

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert (2015)

I don't read much self-help and was a bit put off by the sub-title, but I'm intrigued by ideas about creativity. After hearing this book mentioned on a few different blogs, I impulsively picked it up at the library even though I had several books at home already. I'm glad I did! This was an easy, pleasant book to read and turned out to be an inspiring missive encouraging everyone with even a spark of creative interest to pursue our interests.

Gilbert works through typical fears that prevent one from doing creative work, and dismantles several myths about what it means to live a creative life. If I had to sum up her basic premise, it would be: Do whatever you want, however you want to do it and regardless of how good at it you are. These basic ideas are expressed through various beliefs about creativity, and I ended up making a ton of notes in the course of my reading.

Some of her beliefs are a little out-there, but in a way that is productive and helpful. Like, she talks about ideas having lives of their own in a magical way, and finding people to bring them forth. If an idea picks you, it will try to get your attention and if you don't latch onto it, it will find someone else. To any rational thinker that's ridiculous, but given how little control one has over things like inspiration, it seems like a pretty useful way to think about it, and has definitely served Elizabeth Gilbert well. Like the time she spent a couple of years working on a book and then neglected it, and Ann Patchett ended up writing basically the exact book. She could been upset and angry and allowed it to ruin their friendship, but instead she just took it for granted that it was out of her control and she moved on to the next project.

A related idea comes from the ancient Greeks and Romans, which is that genius is something external. A person isn't inherently genius, but they may have genius for a time. Having a brilliant idea doesn't mean that a person is always brilliant, and failing to come up with a brilliant idea isn't necessarily one's own fault. This keeps the ego in check and lets people off the hook a bit. Which is all to say that you can't control inspiration.

Gilbert also believes that authenticity is more important than originality, that your work doesn't need to be important, and that the idea of tortured artist is hogwash. Those who were great creators and were alcoholics or drug addicts were great creators despite their addictions not because of them. Interestingly, she doesn't seem to value education in the arts very much. While it's obvious that you don't need a degree to be good at your art, she seems to think that the only thing gained from getting an MFA is debt. I'm not qualified to argue about this because, like Gilbert, I don't have an MFA and was, in fact, (also like her) a political science major. But I imagine there is value in getting the degree because if nothing else it's forcing you to focus on and practice your craft.

She cares less about success than about fully engaging in your creativity for its own sake, saying that if she weren't creating she'd be destroying. She says "I firmly believe that we all need to find something to do in our lives that stops us from eating the couch." And there's value in trying different kinds of creative work, too. If you really want to write but you feel blocked, go spend some time drawing or take the dog for a walk or just switch gears and do something different, and when you return to your writing you might be in a better spot to keep going. I've heard this advice before, but it's worth a reminder.

A couple of her ideas especially stood out to me. The first one came from her mother: "Done is better than good." Which Gilbert later paraphased as: "A good-enough novel violently written now is better than a perfect novel meticulously written never." Her point being that most people don't actually finish things, and finishing a thing is a pretty big deal even if it's not perfect. "You do what you can do, as competently as possible within a reasonable time frame, and then you let it go."

The second thing I was very happy to hear her say is that she doesn't believe in telling people that all they need to do is follow their passion. She finds this unhelpful and sometimes cruel, explaining that chances are that if someone has a clear passion, they are probably already following it. The reality is that many people don't know what their passion is, or has multiple passions, and had one but now it has changed. Her version of this advice is to follow your curiosity. Not everyone has a great passion, but most of us are curious about things, and investigating those can lead you on a path to a satisfying project.

I think what I liked most about the ideas in this book is just how democratic her views on creativity are. What she seems to emphasize over and over is that you don't have to be good, you don't have to make a living just from your creative projects, and that it doesn't matter if a million people are better at it than you. What matters is that you're pursuing something that you love for its own sake, and you shouldn't let other people's ideas or your own fears of failing stop you from doing that.

I've never read anything by Elizabeth Gilbert before. Years ago I picked up a copy of Eat, Pray, Love and read about a page before deciding it wasn't for me. Reading this book, however, kind of makes me want to try that one again just because I really like the way she thinks about things. Personally, my creativity tends to involve dabbling in various things rather than pursuing a great passion whole-heartedly so I found much here to be validating. But I think there's also a lot that would be helpful for someone who does have a great, driving passion for art or writing or music or origami or some other creative work. It's a very quick, easy book to read but it's packed with a whole lot of food for thought.

Have you read any books about creativity that you loved? Please share your suggestions in the comments!

Friday, November 25, 2016

No Good Duke Goes Unpunished

No Good Duke Goes Unpunished (The Rules of Scoundrels #3) by Sarah MacLean (2013)

I've been reading this series completely out of order. I began with #4, Never Judge a Lady By Her Cover, then progressed to #1, A Rogue by Any Other Name. Now I've just finished #3, No Good Duke Goes Unpunished and I can confidently say that this series should win some sort of prize for Best Titles Ever. The one I haven't read, #2, is called One Good Earl Deserves a Lover. I rest my case.

But about the story. It begins with the Duke of Lamont waking up and expecting to find a woman next to him in bed, but finding only blood. He has no memory of the night. He does remember the woman though, because she was engaged to marry his father. Now she's apparently dead and for the next twelve years he's known as the Killer Duke.

Then one day she appears - Mara Lowe. She's been in hiding this whole time, but now feels a lot of guilt about setting up this innocent guy. She offers to finally clear his name and they enter into an agreement in which he will pay her to spend time with him in public and then she will be revealed as who she truly is, exonerating him. The money will go towards saving the orphanage she runs. She's desperate for money because her reckless, irresponsible brother has lost everything. Of course, even though Temple (as the Duke is called these days) and Mara should be sworn enemies because of their history, they are drawn to each other despite how much they each try to resist.

Mara has all the best qualities of a romance heroine. She is strong, witty, doesn't take crap from anyone, and despite living in the 19th century she can take care of herself perfectly well, thank you very much. I loved some of the things she said and, in fact, would love to start using the words "scallawaginous" and "scoundrelly." Also, she has a pet pig named Lavender who sleeps on a cushion. As pet pigs should. This novel also has one of my very favorite tropes: Temple becomes gravely injured and Mara helps nurse him back to health. Well, she doesn't help a whole lot since she isn't allowed near him for a while, but it still works for me.

The only issue I really had is that the characters seemed determined to make things more difficult for themselves than they needed to be, which is an all-too-common problem I encounter in romance novels. There was a point where it seemed like they were pretty much all set, but Mara still insisted they couldn't be together. Oh, and the word "worrying" was really overused. Not as in an anxious feeling, but as in fiddling with something (like a lip or a nipple.) It was used about 5 times in the course of just a few pages, which seems excessive. But these are very minor issues with a book that I found overall pretty enjoyable.

You may recall that I struggled a bit with the last book I read because I wasn't really in the mood to read about Soviet oppression around the time of the US election, but do you know what I did want to read? This. This is exactly what I needed. I actually began it before finishing the last book because I really, really needed some comfort and pleasure. Sarah MacLean came through for me, as I knew she would. I have only one more book in this series to read, and I was surprised to learn that on Goodreads it has the highest rating in the series. I've enjoyed them all so far, but I absolutely loved Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover, and now I'm looking forward to reading the one that, apparently, many people loved even more.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Ten Things I'm Thankful For

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. This week is a Thanksgiving freebie - things you're thankful for or books you're thankful for. I can't pick out specific books that I'm thankful for so I'm going more general with this one.

1. Books - all of them!
There are so many out there that there really is something for everyone, and I appreciate that here in the US we have the freedom to read whatever we want. Not everyone in the world has the freedom to do so, or the access to the books they want.

2. Meditation and my meditation room
I started meditating back in May and it really has made a difference in my life. For one thing, I sleep much better these days, but I also think it's just made me more calm in general. We have a room that's small enough to be kind of useless and I made it into my meditation room (also called "room of solitude" or "room of requirement.") It feels absolutely luxurious to have a space set aside for mindfulness and contemplation.

3. The US government's system of checks and balances
I always take it for granted but I think we'll be getting more use out of it soon.

4. Organizations like ACLU, SPLC, and fact-checking websites like Politifact
Protecting our rights and helping us figure out what's true and what isn't. I've been lax about donating, but soon I'll be setting up some monthly donations so I don't fall behind again.

5. Financial stability
I'm all too aware of the growing economic inequality in this country and I'm incredibly lucky to be in the position I'm in.

6. The city I live in
There are many reasons why I live in Somerville, and specifically East Somerville. My neighborhood has a huge immigrant population, which gives it a diversity and vibrancy different from many other places. Not to mention delicious tasty foods. We are one of the sanctuary cities that have been mentioned in political discourse recently, and our mayor has strongly reaffirmed that status. This makes me very happy.

7. My job, especially my department
This was on my list last year too, and it has not changed. My job is still amazing. Even though it's been a bit rough lately because of being so incredibly busy and some post-election safety-pin-related drama, I still wouldn't trade it for any other job I can think of. I'm especially lucky that the people in my department make being a department head much easier than it could be. Every person in my department is passionate about their job and that makes all the difference in the world.

8. That guy I live with
He doesn't get much airtime here, but I need to give a shoutout to Eric. I've been reading a lot of posts on Pantsuit Nation (the secret FB group Clinton referred to in her concession speech) and the MA offshoot of Pantsuit Nation, and a lot of women have expressed that their husbands voted for Trump and/or don't understand why many women don't want a president who has bragged about sexually assaulting women. I'm very grateful to live with someone whose masculinity isn't threatened by feminism or anything else, and whose basic beliefs are very similar to mine. He also does all the cooking, so.

Someone doesn't like her new winter coat.
9. Petri's greatly improved behavior over last year
Getting a dog has been incredibly disruptive to daily life and making plans, not to mention a whole new skill set I've had to learn. Last year at this time we were both tearing our hair out and really honestly didn't know if we'd be able to keep this dog. She was horrible! Biting, grabbing at our clothing, running around like a maniac, pulling hard when we tried to walk her, freaking out at other dogs, not to mention her ongoing intestinal issues. But as soon as her health issues cleared up we were able to send her here for an intense board-and-train program for 5 weeks. Then again in the spring for another 6 weeks. At this point she's pretty much a regular dog which feels like a miracle.

10. My health
It's true that I've been having problems with my wrist preventing me from doing yoga or knitting as frequently as I'd like, and I've also had to start wearing reading glasses this year. Aging means falling apart and I'm quite grateful that I seem to be doing it slowly. I realize I'm only in my early 40s, but there was a time that was the extent of our lifespans. I just started running this year and although I won't be winning any marathons (who am I kidding? I won't be entering any marathons) I'm glad I've been able to stick to a regular exercise routine.

I think we can all agree that 2016 has sucked in a lot of ways. We lost amazing people like Prince and David Bowie and then elected a hot-headed reality tv star as president. Now more than ever it's important to think about all the important little things that make our lives fulfilling.

What are you thankful for this year?

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Symphony for the City of the Dead

Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson (2015)

It's been over a week since I've posted about a book, and it's no coincidence that my last book post was the day before the US presidential election fiasco. I actually started this book a couple of days before but had too much anxiety to read, and that only increased after the results came in. It took everything I had to force myself to read this because Soviet oppression is exactly the opposite of what I actually felt like reading at the time. But it was for my book group at work and I'm glad I made myself read it because it was actually very good and we had a great discussion!

The Siege of Leningrad was a significant but often-overlooked part of World War II, and I imagine most people know little about the composer Shostakovich and the role of his music during that time. Anderson expertly weaves together two different threads; the political aspects of the war, and Shostakovich's life and music. The result is a rich, vibrant story filled with unforgettable imagery.

A lot is covered, so I will just mention a few things that stood out to me. One was the resilience of the Russian people. Last night at my book group someone mentioned that Russia is declining, and another person said "Yes, but it has always been declining." This speaks to something essential about the country, which is the determination and strength of Russia and its people to keep going even when everything is fighting against them. The Siege lasted for something like two and half years, Hitler's troops surrounding the city so nobody could leave and food couldn't be shipped in. Even while literally starving to death, the members of the orchestra came together to rehearse and perform Shostakovich's 7th Symphony. It's what kept them going. People who just huddled in their beds to conserve energy were the ones who died; those who kept active lived. When the Symphony was being performed, starving people gave up their daily rations to afford tickets. And in the end, Hitler lost.

Another part that stood out to me came earlier in the time leading up to the siege. Stalin and Hitler had communicated a bit and come to an agreement about how far each could send their troops, essentially divvying up eastern Europe. As Hitler's troops came closer and closer, many different people alerted Stalin, who refused to believe it was happening. He would contact Hitler, who would tell him that the reports was lies to throw him off and he should ignore them. Stalin believed him, much to his own detriment. This would be mind-boggling with any leader in a time of war, but even more so because Stalin didn't trust anyone. But he chose to trust Hitler.

Life for the Russian people in this time was filled with fear and paranoia. If you wanted to survive it was essential to toe the party line and make sure you didn't say anything that the government didn't approve of. This was incredibly difficult because it kept changing. This extended to artistic expression, so Shostakovich had to keep politics in mind with his music. We don't think of music without lyrics as expressing specific opinions, but it can be interpreted and not always in the way the composer intended. Shostakovich wasn't put in a good position at all. Of course we'll never know what he actually thought about anything since he couldn't speak freely, which is also addressed in the book.

Despite the fact that I was completely not in the mood to read this, I ended up liking it a lot and I'd highly recommend it. This work is pretty dense for a teen book, but not as dense as most adult non-fiction books, so it was just perfect for me. As you can probably tell from my stream-of-consciousness thoughts above, Anderson tackles a lot here. But it's necessary because so much is tangled up together that can't really be separated. There's no doubt that Shostakovich's music played a role during the Siege and exploring that requires looking at the larger context. It was fascinating!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

2017 Classic Book-a-Month Club

Do you know what time it is? It's time to start thinking about 2017 reading!

I've been thinking that I haven't read many classics this year - it was my year of Shakespeare, but I think those few plays were the *only* classics I read - and was considering making an effort to read more next year. Then I saw the announcement for....

Hooray! This is hosted by Adam at Roof Beam Reader, who has compiled a monthly schedule made up of classics he wants to re-read and some that he's never read and is asking people to join in. Sign me up!

Now, I'm not planning to read everything on the list. I already have a book group book to read every month and tons of other books I want to read. But there are several on the list that I definitely want to read and others that I will seriously consider.

Here's the list:

January: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

February: The Three Theban Plays by Sophocles

March: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

April: Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald 

May: A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry

June: The Confidence-Man by Herman Melville

July: Paradise Lost by John Milton

August: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

September: Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

October: Angels in America by Tony Kushner 

November: The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

December: Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë 

I'll likely participate in March, April, May, and December. None of the months are completely out of the question, except maybe July. (A 400+-page epic poem? Dear god, no.)

Specifically I am super determined to read Tender is the Night because I've wanting to for years and haven't managed to make it a priority (despite having it on my TBR Pile Challenge.) I've also been wanting to re-read Wuthering Heights because I read it maybe in my 20s and only remember that I really liked it. I also really liked The Age of Innocence and loved Ethan Frome so I'd love to also try The House of Mirth. I just read Northanger Abbey less than a year ago and it's too soon to re-read but I might make a point to read another Austen novel in August.

While I'd love, in theory, to reread The Brothers Karamazov someday, I don't know that it will happen in 2017 but I'll definitely keep it in mind. Several others on the list I'm mildly intrigued by and will consider. I'm hoping to expand my horizons by reading at least one that I'm totally unfamiliar with.

I'm really looking forward to participating!

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Top Ten Movies to Make Me Feel Better

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. Today's topic is a movie-related freebie.

I don't really talk politics on this blog, nor am I much of a movie-watcher, but I can tell you that in the wake of a presidential election that I can only describe as tragic I have been watching more movies and tv than usual just to try and escape. Here are my favorite movies to watch when I need to be cheered up.

1. Disney's Beauty and the Beast
I hadn't seen this in years but watched it on election day in hopes of staving off anxiety.

2. Pride and Prejudice, BBC version
I may have mentioned this one before. Once or twice.

3. Finding Nemo
I've probably watched this forty times, and I do not have children. It's still good. So is the sequel, Finding Dory.

4. Chicken Run
I'm not sure there's anything better than chickens with British accents.

5. Ghostbusters, 2016 version
Ok, I've only seen this once so far but that's only because all the library copies are out. This movie is truly revolutionary: not only are the main characters all female, but none are there to be sexy, none are in romantic storylines, and none are portrayed as victims. Name another movie with those qualities. (Seriously, name them - if they exist I want to watch them!)

6. Pitch Perfect
Music makes everything better. I even liked the sequel!

7. Sleepless in Seattle
This is my go-to romantic comedy. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are an incomparable combination, and Rose O'Donnell is the icing on the cake.

8. Zootopia
I just saw it for the first time but it was adorable and had a great message about racism. (A bunny to a fox: "You're so articulate!")

9. A Little Princess
Pure comfort food.

10. The Secret Garden

What movies do you turn to when the world is crappy and you just need to feel better?