Charmed: Tolstoy edition

Last week I celebrated my birthday by finishing one of my 2016 books (The Warrior’s Life – take that, New Year’s Resolution!) and seeing a couple of shows in New York.

Hamilton was amazing, of course. I was online at the right time eight months ago when Ticketmaster released a block of tickets previously held by scalpers, and I somehow got a single ticket before other bots could buy it. The social commentary of the multiracial cast seemed to have special meaning the evening of the Inauguration.

The next night, a friend and I celebrated our shared birthday week with Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, a folk/electropop musical adaptation of War and Peace‘s Volume 2, Part 5. This was the show that introduced Phillipa Soo to the creative team of Hamilton.

Before listening to the cast album, all I knew of War and Peace was that it was recommended reading for the French Revolution class I took in college, and that there was a miniseries adaptation in 2016 starring Lily James as Natasha.

I watched the first episode and bought the series on DVD because it was so beautiful, but all I remembered was that Pierre was the awkward illegitimate child of a wealthy man and that Natasha got “engaged” by kissing a guy in a garden.

In The Great Comet, Pierre is going through an existential crisis that requires two big epiphanies in one show, while (engaged) Natasha falls in love with the “hot” Anatole.*

Listening to the cast album was one thing, but nothing compares to sitting in the back row in the rear mezzanine and watching the clarinet player dance five feet away in the aisle. Nothing compares to eating pierogies in a theatre filled with chandeliers and anachronistic Soviet posters. Out of all the musicals I have seen in a theatre, The Great Comet was definitely the most immersive, magical experience.

“No One Else,” the song written after Phillipa Soo’s favorite passages about Natasha’s innocence, has been my favorite since I first heard it. The cast recording and Youtube video of her Barnes and Noble performance have been on a loop in my car and on my computer. Pippa’s voice made me love the show, but Denée Benton’s performance reminded me of the sweetness, innocence, and pain of adolescence.

Innocent Natasha, too good for this world and too pure, meets an unbelievably attractive man who kisses her then professes his love. Her confused logic, “We kissed, therefore I must love him,” and, “I have his love letters, therefore I must love him,” makes absolutely no sense, but I remember what it was to be a teenager. She’s young and easily caught up in the moment. He loves her, so she loves him. They’re going to run away to Poland and live happily ever after. It’s the perfect love story.

Then reality catches up with them and they have to face the consequences of their 19th century Russian letters.

Judging by the Wikipedia plot summary, darling Natasha has some of the biggest character development in War and Peace. She should, considering that she ages 15 years in the 1000+ page novel. She goes from being the girl who kisses a boy as a way to get “engaged” to becoming a responsible adult/wife/mother. She grows up. She is the reason why Tolstoy has moved back to the top of my To Read list.

According to my friend’s boyfriend, Pierre has a new epiphany every 25 pages, so unless he’s singing about falling in love like Josh Groban, I assume his existential crisis is going to get old very quickly. To be fair, however, his epiphanies are good song material.

And a performance of his last epiphany and the title song.

I don’t know if War and Peace will end with a great epiphany. Anna Karenina, the other Tolstoy novel that I have read, did end with an epiphany. Levin has his big religious conversion, then resolves to keep it secret from his wife because, “It is a secret, necessary and important for me alone, and inexpressible in words.”

I almost hope that Pierre’s final epiphany is so awesome that he can’t bear to tell anyone. I don’t think I understand now why he lives so aimlessly, but I hope his existential crisis is worth all his worries.

Four books remain on my reading list. That means I only need to finish two or three more books before I can start a new 1000 page one.

I can do this.

*You might remember my annoyance with hot characters. I didn’t like Vronsky in Tolstoy’s other famous work either. Seriously, Natalie, if you’re leaving your fiancé for this guy, he should write his own love letters. And ring the doorbell. You need higher standards.

Unfinished reads: A New Year’s Resolution

It’s funny thinking about everything that did and did not happen in 2016. To be completely honest, I don’t actually remember what my 2016 Resolution was, besides “Learn all the lyrics to ‘Alexander Hamilton’ from Hamilton.” I completed that one in about two weeks, and then named that as one of my best qualities in a job interview.

I’m a great goal-setter.

Looking at the last year and the Goodreads account that taunts me with “See how many books you read in 2016!” and “You finished five books and averaged 200 pages!” and “Your goal was 12 books!” – something does not add up.

I have a really bad habit of starting books, telling people about a fascinating story…. and then never finishing the very subject of a 700 word blog post. I like jumping from story to story in an instant.

It’s a little embarrassing, though, when you’re a fast reader who takes months to finish a novel.

So here’s my list of the books I started in 2016 that I WILL finish in 2017.

  • Richard III  by William Shakespeare
  • Henry IV, Part 3 by William Shakespeare
  • Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev
  • Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
  • The Warrior’s Life by Alfred de Vigny

If that seems like a short list, that’s because I’m all about achievable goals.

I’ll finish those five books for sure. Let’s also add five more to my resolution list for good measure.

Part of the problem is that when I finish one book in a certain genre, I feel like I need to replace it in my list. I read Harry Potter et la chambre des secrets recently and now I feel like I need to start another French language book before I can finish anything vaguely Romantic.

The other problem comes when two or three of your books are too close to the same writing style or genre (remind me why I’m reading two Shakespearean histories at the same time?). Too many sad war stories in one book, and then you’re stuck in a sad war scene in another. Or your poet is getting a little too melodramatic.

I have a book in my car, one by my bed, one by my desk, another by my table, and another in the hall. The sixth read, the new French one, would probably also live in my car for the days when I don’t want to read English on my lunch break.

I’m going to actually finish these plays, novels, and memoirs before opening that really interesting French Sherlock Holmes book I picked up this week or the George Eliot novel that Poe Party inspired me to read.

My second resolution is to update my blog more. That takes scheduling and reading. Too little of either, and I find myself on Friday evening, too tired from work to put words into sentences.

2017 will be the year that I read more books and compose more words.

Shakespeare without supervision, part 1

This week, I decided to read my first Shakespeare plays since high school, as literary preparation for what I’m hoping will be a visit to a couple of historical sights this summer. Richard III was the plan, but then Wikipedia said it made frequent references to Henry VI parts 1-3, so now I’m reading four plays about medieval kings.

When I say, “Now I’m reading,” what I actually mean is that I read five pages from the biography of Shakespeare during the introduction to this play about a king.

This is my first taste of Shakespeare in five years. Sure, I’ve watched webseries and seen one or two community plays, but this is the first play I’m reading on my own. It’s the first time I’m reading Shakespeare without a teacher explaining historical context or analyzing the meaning of the sonnets. It’s the first time I’m going in without a clue of where I’m going or what’s happening.

English was my favorite class in high school, and I think I took my teachers for granted. Sure, I loved the books. I loved reading, and I loved learning. But I don’t think I realized how much I needed everything explained until this moment. (If any of my former teachers are reading this, thank you, because you’re probably the reason why I like Shakespeare.)

All I know about Henry VI is that he was a king who came before Henry VIII. I assume that Richard III lived after Henry VI. Wikipedia said that he was connected to the princes locked in the Tower of London, whose supposed cell I visited in 2013.

And that’s all I know.

I’m excited to revisit Shakespeare. I’m excited to learn [fictionalized accounts of] history through rhythm and rhyme. I don’t remember when the last time was that I read something written before 1700, so it will be fun relearning this style of English speaking/writing. Honestly, I think it’s going to be hard, so I’m excited* to actually use the footnotes and criticisms that the publishers helpfully publish in their “authoritative texts.”

All this is to say that I’m looking forward to reacquainting myself with Shakespeare, and I have a better appreciation for how my school teachers presented the historical and cultural context of his plays to us kids. My goal is to read four plays over the next month. We’ll see how far I get.

*Hopefully reading Shakespeare will remind me of better adjectives and feelings than “excited,” because I’m getting repetitive in my feelings and words about my feelings

Friendship, not Scrooginess

I’ll be honest, this post has been a struggle for me. I want to be sincere and deep and Christmas-y, but not cheesy nor stereotypical nor cynical. I started a post about hope last week, but I gave up when I realized that my post about characters who needed hope was going to be the exact type of link I ignore on Facebook.

In an attempt to avoid cheese, I became a bit cynical. I became a bit of a Scrooge.

Rather than talk about A Christmas Carol, though, I’d rather focus this week on something that I’m thankful for: friendship. I think the best way to combat tiredness from overplayed Christmas songs at work, unending social and political debates online, cheesy TV movies, consumerism, and expectations of shallow Facebook posts is to stop and celebrate the very things that I want to read more about this time of year.

This year, I’m celebrating Christmas first with friends, and second with family. What that means is that this week, I’m fighting my Christmas Scrooge with memories of friendships. What better way to remember friendships on a literature blog than to celebrate three types of friendships that I recognized in my life in 2015?

Jane Bennet was one of her sister Elizabeth’s best friends. There are many things I love about her, but my two favorites are her graciousness and her kindness. Over the last few months, as I graduated college and started working, I discovered that I knew more Jane Bennets than I had thought. My friends encouraged me and prayed for me and asked me how I was doing when I was struggling through rejection in job applications. They give me the benefit of the doubt when I am an unreliable friend, and it makes me feel loved.

Mr. Knightley was the one person who ever told Emma Woodhouse that she was wrong. Dear, sweet Emma, she was well-liked and well-regarded by her community, but she was a bit of a know-it-all. Sometimes her pride and big talk were harmless, but other times, she truly hurt people. Mr. Knightley was the only friend who ever told her that she was wrong. I realized during an Austenland party at my house that I have my own Knightleys who will bluntly say, “You are being that person right now. Stop it,” because I am obnoxiously pointing out historical inaccuracies during a fun movie. There’s a time and a place for everything, and a Knightley knows how to (kindly) shut you up.

Cosette’s mother was obviously Fantine, but she (spoiler alert!) died before her daughter grew up. There’s a sentence in Les Misérables, when the author is describing adult Cosette’s clothes before she actually meets Marius, that basically says that the women in the town could tell from the way that she dressed that she did not have a mother, because a mother would tell her that her gown fabrics were wrong and she was dressed inappropriately. I might be cheating in this one, but I currently work in retail, and my coworkers have taught me more about style in the past few months than I had expected. They have taught me about confidence and belts and ankle boots. They have helped me find clothes that don’t make me feel so short. As I have helped customers define personal styles, my coworkers themselves have helped me do the same. My coworkers have been to me what Fantine (hopefully) would have been to teenage Cosette.

I am thankful for the friends who invite me home for Christmas, who teach me through their words, actions, and warm hugs what friendship truly means. These friends come from every one of my life stages – childhood, college, and grownup adult jobs – and they chip away at that cynicism that creeps up from commercialism.

Q: Is Christmas about giving?
A: It most definitely is, and friendship is one of the best gifts I could hope to receive or give this year.

Merry Christmas, you wonderful you. Make some great memories and hug your friends and family for me.

To dress like Jane (the zombie slayer) – Halloween 2015

Is it socially acceptable to talk about your Halloween costume three days after Halloween? Who knows, but I’m going to talk about my dress because I’m still excited.

My friends know that I enjoy dressing up for Austenland parties and period drama marathons. I usually wear a pink Regency dress that my mom sewed when I was in high school, but I wanted a new, historically accurate one for this year with a lighter fabric and lacing that actually stayed tied. I was going to buy a white printed muslin or some kind of gauzy cotton, but then I found two beautiful fabrics that seemed period-appropriate. I couldn’t decide, so I bought both.

I can't find theem on the Joann Fabric website anymore, but I remember these as cotton and rayon blends
Both of these are cotton from Joann Fabrics

If you, too, would like to make your very own historically accurate Regency gown, here are some links to the patterns we used. We made the shift/chemise and short stays from the undergarments pattern, adapted the Simplicity version of the Sense and Sensibility Regency Gown pattern to make a bodiced petticoat, and then used the gray/green fabric for the drawstring dress from the S&S Elegant Lady’s Closet pattern. Here’s a link to a discussion of Regency fabric and 19th century fabric printing, and another one to some reviews of different patterns for historical dress.

Jane Austen has been a gateway into a love of historical fashion for me. My four historical fashion Pinterest boards reflect my specific interest in 19th century fashion. You might wonder why I thought it was necessary to make three layers of underwear just to go under a silly dress, but they’re actually necessary to get the right silhouette. The chemise is like a short slip that covers your armpits (ie catches sweat), the stays are a type of short corset, and the petticoat provides a barrier between a possibly sheer dress and your legs. We can’t have any ankles showing! The idea is that unless you spill salsa or something on your dress, you’ll only need to wash the undergarments.

To legitimize myself as a somewhat cool person at the Halloween party I attended, I became Jane Bennet the zombie slayer. I jokingly told my friends, “If I’m going to be a Bennet, I might as well be the pretty one,” but I promise you that my costume decisions were not completely that shallow. I wrote about my love for Jane in one of my very first blog posts back in June. The eldest Miss Bennet may be the prettiest girl in town, but she also has heart of gold. While Elizabeth and Mrs. Bennet may enjoy ragging on Mr. Darcy, Jane constantly tries to give him the benefit of the doubt. She can be a bit naïve in her views about the world, but she learns over time that people can be unkind. She gains wisdom, yet remains kind and forgiving.

Jane has an incredibly good heart, but she’s also an expert zombie slayer in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I have mixed feelings on the movie adaptation (see this post on P&P&Z for around two thoughts on it), but I still think the idea of Jane killing zombies while wearing a ballgown is a great one. Thus, I tied on two plastic daggers (in the book, the daggers are on the sisters’ ankles, but there’s no way a ribbon’s going to be able to keep them from falling off my lower calves), put on an old tiara from Claire’s, and pretended to stab a friend dressed as a Jedi at a party. Of course, she did recover from my (fake) stab pretty quickly, so my zombie killing skills probably need a little work.

Please excuse the too-long petticoat
Please excuse the too-long petticoat

In retrospect, perhaps buying thin cotton so I can sympathize with Mrs. Allen and Mr. Tilney’s Northanger Abbey conversations about the way muslin tears was a bad idea. If you want to sew a dress using super thin cotton, I would suggest lining the bodice and using interfacing so the seams don’t rip apart. I think I’m going to redo the bodice back soon so I can wear the dress without worrying about damaging it when I lift my arms. I might also make a normal skirt petticoat. These will be perfect for my upcoming Austenland parties and the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies movie when it comes out next year.

Until next week!

*Update/Note (February 23, 2016)- I did indeed wear this dress the first time I saw P&P&Z in the theatre, but because it’s based on the time period rather than the zombie movie, it should not be confused as a reproduction of any costume actually in the movie. In the movie, the girls wear empire waist dresses that basically have a waist/thigh high side slit for fighting and riding astride a horse. Underneath, we see them wearing ruffled bloomers (a few decades early, though necessary with their immodest skirts), long stays, stockings, and garters. They are wearing neither chemise nor petticoat, which might make the dressing scenes look sexier, but mainly make me think about how often they would have to wash sweat out of their dresses. Really, I think the director and costume designer tried to make sexy Regency gowns, which is why Elizabeth’s dress is so low-cut in her fight with Darcy. During the daytime, a woman would have worn a bit of fabric in the neckline so you wouldn’t see her cleavage. Her chemise would have also kept her from falling out from the stays/dress. With the right undergarments, her silhouette would have looked quite differently.

If you want to copy one of the movie costumes, you’ll need thigh-high slits in your skirts and some ruffled bloomers. Stays/corsets are more “correct,” but I personally think the actresses wore modern bras during most of their scenes. Alternatively, you can just wear leggings, a wide belt, and an altered long coat, and you’ll have a “zombie battle” costume.

Beginnings

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

So begins one of the most famous pieces of literature, several movies, a webseries, and now my blog. This is not, however, my way of announcing that I’m about to propose marriage to the next rich guy that I meet. That would be a bit extreme.

I am a fangirl. This used to be something that I didn’t talk about in public for fear that I’d look “weird,” but there’s a point when you need to stop hiding the parasol and Regency gown in your closet and just host a costumed Austenland party. Or five.

I am a fan of good stories, especially ones from a different time and place. I love the social rules that the characters must abide by in books like Pride and Prejudice and Les Misérables, and I love reading the painfully awkward moments that I pray I never have to experience. I also love watching good adaptations of my favorite stories. I love when a good writer can put my favorite characters in beautiful clothes and make something even better than what I had imagined, and when I know a story too well, I love when a writer can make me look at my favorite characters in a different way. The first kind of adaptation leads to my love of BBC miniseries, and the second to my love of webseries.

This blog will be my time to both rant and wax on about books. If you want snark on silly things on the internet that say things like “Keep calm and wait for Darcy” or my recommendations on literary webseries, I am glad to be of service. Until my next post, you can find me on social media or on my couch writing cover letters to the tune of some movie. I’ll leave you with a beauty tip from Austenland.

Late at night when I’m all alone, I put my face in the fire.