A Visit To Middlemarch

My main goal before the end of 2016 was to finish George Elliot’s Middlemarch. I’d resolved to read at least one huge book from my Classics Club book list each year and this was my second after Frances Burney’s The Wanderer. Alas, I didn’t finish until January 1st, but we’ll still say it was close enough to count as part of the #ccwomensclassics event.

Though I’m an avid reader of British classic literature this is only the second George Elliot book I’ve read. I’ll admit I wasn’t a huge fan at first. I felt like the story spent far too much time on trivial details while skipping over scenes I would have expected more focus on (like weddings). But even when I was tempted to skim some sections I realized I would loose the plot thread if I missed even a few paragraphs and by the last 100 pages I felt everything coming together. It’s a much tighter story than I’d first given it credit for.click to read article, "A Visit To Middlemarch" | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Middlemarch chronicles the lives of a quite a large cast of characters, but Dorothea Brooks and Tertius Lydgate are the main characters. Interestingly, they are not love interests for each other. Rather, their stories parallel each other and intertwine in unexpected ways that you really don’t start to appreciate until close to the end.

Thematically, Middlemarch explores the nuances of marriage (among other things. It is, after all, 800 pages long). This aspect of the novel brings to mind the Tolstoy quote from Anna Karenina that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

The main characters’ marriages happen for various reasons and become unhappy in different ways. Dorothea’s was made because she wanted to marry, and support, a man whose mind she could admire. Her husband wasn’t actively trying to deceive her, but he wasn’t at all the person she expected and turned out to be far more small-minded than she. Lydgate married because he fell in love with Rosamund, who married him because she expected him to rise socially. When he didn’t become her mental image of who he should be, she stopped loving him and Lydgate discovered he was trapped trying to make her happy while struggling to not completely abandon his dreams.

There are also three happy marriages made in this novel. And that gets us to the first part of Tolstoy’s quote: “Happy families are all alike.” Middlemarch’s happy marriages have one thing in common — they start from a place of honesty. The man and woman have known each other for years, neither is trying to deceive the other, and their expectations of their spouse are (at least mostly) realistic. It’s kind of sweet to see how the two marriages that take place near the end of the story develop throughout the novel. The two unhappy marriages are made quickly and soon deteriorate, but the ones that we see grow and develop over several years end up thriving.

After reading the first 700 pages or so with a fairly low level of engagement, those last hundred pages made me not want to put the book down. My two month investment with this book (I started it at the beginning of November and took a couple breaks to read shorter books like Heartless) was more than paid-off with the conclusion. This might seem weird to say for a book that’s 145 years old, but I don’t want to say too much more and spoil it for you. Sufficient to say everything really does go together and there’s a satisfying ending in store if you keep going through all 800 pages.

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Meeting Marissa Meyer

Meeting Marissa Meyer | marissabaker.wordpress.com

blame my phone for the blurry photo

I went to my first author talk and book signing yesterday! It was so enjoyable. Can’t believe I haven’t tried something like this before, considering how much of a book nerd I am (of course, many of my favorite authors died 100+ years ago, so that might explain something …).

She talked for a while about her new book, Heartless, and invited six people up for a talent show styled after a Mad Hatter’s tea party scene in the book. I didn’t even think of volunteering (as you’ve likely guessed) since standing up in front of people terrifies me, but I really liked how she led the mini talent show. Even with the volunteers drawing random talents to show the crowd (things like spontaneously coming up with a character description or singing an operatic version of I’m A Little Tea Pot), Marissa kept things encouraging and light enough to dispel any anxiety her volunteers had. That’s the sort of talent you notice and appreciate in people when you’re a bit socially anxious yourself.

It’s always fascinating to hear other writers talk about how they create characters and what their writing process looks like. The question-and-answer part of her talk was fun and informative — definitely the part of her presentation that I enjoyed most.

Marissa signed all my Lunar Chronicles books (which are fantastic. You simply must  read them if you enjoy fairy tales and/or science fiction), including personalizing Cinder. And the ticket to the author talk included a copy of Heartless, which she also signed. I really, really want to read Heartless right now but I don’t dare start it until I finish writing my NaNoWriMo novel. I know it will be too distracting. And so I’m off to finish my work writing so I can get on to my novel writing so I can start Heartless as soon as possible. Have a lovely day, dear readers.

Meeting Marissa Meyer | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Reading Henry IV

Warning: English nerd content ahead.

I’ve been quite fond of Shakespeare since high school. Freshman year I watched Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V and then read the play for extra credit. I loved it so much I choose to read it again the year we studied British literature, along with Taming of the Shrew (my mother’s choice) and As You Like It (recommended by a teacher).

Since homeschoolers can pick their own curriculum and my mom hated reading Shakespeare’s tragedies when she was in school, I didn’t get a hold of those until college. There, I discovered Hamlet was almost as good as Henry. Almost, but not quite. When I took a Shakespeare class where the professor included Henry V on his syllabus I was in literature nerd heaven.henriad

The only strange thing (to me at least) about this whole Henry obsession is that it took me so long to read Henry IV, Part One and Henry IV, Part Two. In these plays, the character I knew as noble King Henry V is the riotous Prince Hal. I did put them on my Classics Club book list, but I probably wouldn’t have read these plays for another year or so if I hadn’t decided on a futuristic/sci-fie re-imagining of Shakespeare’s Henriad for my NaNoWriMo novel (click here to learn more). I’d seen them, though, in BBC’s The Hollow Crown.

This brilliant adaptation is remarkably faithful to both Part One and Part Two (it leaves out more scenes and changes a few parts of Henry V, but that play’s not the topic of our post today). I enjoyed reading the Henry IV plays, in part because of associating the on-paper scenes with what I’d seen in The Hollow Crown. Here’s a small clip of Tom Hiddleston as Henry, but you should really check out the series and watch it for yourself.

For reading Part One, I picked up a copy without annotations or notes. I was rather pleased with myself that I didn’t feel like I needed them. This is also the play I enjoyed most. It feature a more straight-forward and active story line, and more scenes with Prince Hal. I tend to prefer Shakespeare’s main plots and noble characters to the sub-plots and more comedic characters, and that held true for these history plays.

Part Two follows the Henrys less and I’m glad I had a Folger edition to read for that. There were whole sections of Falstaff’s speeches that left me puzzled (the notes made me feel better, though — apparently scholars can’t figure out some of his lines either). You need this play to get from Part 1 to Henry V, but it’s my least favorite of the three.

Whether or not you already love Shakespeare, I’d recommend starting with The Hollow Crown if you’re interested in these plays. They’re really meant to be seen and heard more than read. I suspect the man who begged pardon of his 17th century audience for daring “On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth / So great an object” as Henry’s life would approve of the scope film provides for storytelling (Henry V, 1.1.11-12).

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Why do we care about old writings?

A few years ago when I was in college, one of my professors organized a small group of interested students and took us up to the Cleveland art museum. The purpose of our visit, a touring exhibit of religious artifacts from medieval Europe, was interesting, but that wasn’t what lured me there. It was the museum’s permanent collection of illuminated manuscripts.

These manuscripts date from the Middle Ages. Every page was carefully copied by hand, and they didn’t just stop there. Illuminating a manuscript with (real) gold, silver, and bright colors in illustrations and elaborate first letters turned them into works of art. The sort of books you took the time to create like this were held in high value (many are religious texts).

Why care about old writings? | marissabaker.wordpress.com

photo of Cleveland’s “The Glory of the Painted Page” collection

It’s no secret I love books. But most of the books on my shelves are, in the strictest sense, disposable and replaceable. They were impersonally mass-printed in a factory. Any meaning that particular copy has is unique to me. But for the handwritten manuscripts each copy is unique. They’re irreplaceable. And they were created with love.

That’s also true of the ancient writings I saw yesterday. The Ancient Hebrew Scroll Project is one of only 2 or 3 complete sets of the Tanakh (Old Testament), and it’s the only one you’ll ever have a chance to see. It tours in public and there’s never any admission fee. The oldest scroll is a 600 year old Torah. Others are around 250 years old, with the exception of some scrolls too rare to obtain old copies (those are newly commissioned). Several survived the Holocaust, including a Haftorah that was bayoneted six times by Nazis.

Why care about old writings? | marissabaker.wordpress.com

The beginning of Psalm 119 on a scroll written in 2009. Notice you can see the lines are written in sets of 8, each starting with the same Hebrew letter (that’s why it’s divided alphabetically in your English Bibles; because of the type of poem/song it is)

Every single Bible scroll, the new and the old, was created the same way. Two Levites stand holding a completed scroll open before a scribe. The scribe reads one word aloud, then writes it using a pen made from a turkey feather dipped in ink made from gall nuts, gum-Arabic, and ash. He does this for every single word with the exception of the YHWH name of God. For this word, he will not speak it aloud and before writing it he washes his hands and takes up a pen only used to write the Name.

Once the scroll is finished, the scribe counts every letter to make sure it adds up to the correct number for that scroll. If it passes that test, he gives it to another scribe for re-counting, spell-checking, and format inspection. If that scribe gives it the go-ahead, it’s given to another scribe. Only after two scribes double-check the first scribe’s work is the scroll kosher.

Why care about old writings? | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Latter (aka “Minor”) Prophets. Scroll written the late 17th Century

“So what?” some people ask. Who cares about hand-writing things like this in the age of computers? And yet this is how the Bible was preserved intact and unchanged for thousands of years. It’s the only way any writing from pre-1440 got passed down to us. There’s something about the process itself that lends meaning to the books and scrolls created with such careful attention.

New, fast, and disposable isn’t always better. There’s value in taking time to pour love and great care into something that will last. That’s one of the lessons the old writings teach us. They give us a chance to stop and ponder what we value. Something preserved in this way has to matter or it’s not worth taking the time.

Why care about old writings? (or, On Torah Scrolls and Illuminated Manuscripts) | marissabaker.wordpress.com

If there were no computers or printing presses any more, which writings would you value highly enough to copy by hand letter by letter so nothing was lost?

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Become A Book-Swapping Ninja

Do you like books? What about surprise packages arriving on your door full of goodies? Or getting the chance to make someone else’s day?

If any of that sounded good, you’ve got to join us for the Ninja Book Swap. I tried it for the first time this spring and it was fantastic. Not only do you have the opportunity to give and receive books, you get to tell all your friends you’re a ninja. There’s literally no down-side.Become A Book-Swapping Ninja | Ninja Book Autumn Book Swap Blog Tour | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Here’s how it works: you sign-up on the Ninja Book Swap website, say “Hi” on the blog or Bex’s Twitter if you haven’t swapped before (just so she knows you’re real), answer a few questions, and give them a link to you book wish-list. Then, you’re matched with two other people. One will be sending you a package (you don’t know who this is) and the other is who you’ll be sending a package to (they won’t know who you are).

Become A Book-Swapping Ninja | Ninja Book Autumn Book Swap Blog Tour | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Ninja goodies wrapped and ready to send

The rules ask that you send your book swap buddy one book from their list, a gift you think they’ll like based on the questions they answered, and a note telling them who you are and saying “Hi.” You can also send more if you want and dress-up the packaging to make it special (which I highly recommend). Try browsing #ningjabookswap on Twitter for ideas of what people have done in the past.

Become A Book-Swapping Ninja | Ninja Book Autumn Book Swap Blog Tour | marissabaker.wordpress.com

the package I received from my spring book-swap buddy

Registration for the Ninja Book Swap opened on Saturday and will stay open until October 2. I hope you’ll join us! Here are all the links you’ll need for more information:

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Becoming “Noble Harry”

Check out this article I wrote for Femnista’s Shakespeare issue (and perhaps a few of their other articles while you’re at it)! It’s always a pleasure to write for and read this online magazine/blog.

I have no trouble answering the question, “What’s your favorite Shakespeare play?” (though it sadly isn’t asked very often). My answer has been Henry V since I first read it in high school. I grew up immersed in classical tales of adventure and heroism–stories by Robert Louis Stevenson and Jules Verne, legends about Robin Hood and King Arthur. In that context, my affection for Henry V comes as no surprise.

“Noble Harry,” as Shakespeare dubs the character, is the quintessential heroic figure. He’s a man of action, a brilliant soldier, a king committed to justice only where he cannot show mercy, a believer in God’s sovereignty, and a romantic figure in his wooing of Kathrine. Shakespeare is far too talented a storyteller to leave even his heroic figures one-dimensional, though. There’s much more to Henry’s character than being a perfect king.

Continue Reading: Becoming “Noble Harry”

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