Day 924: Ballet Shoes

Cover for Ballet ShoesNoel Streatfeild was a writer of popular children’s books in the 1930’s. Her first novel, Ballet Shoes, was so popular that the U.S. publishers renamed several of her subsequent books to include the word “shoes,” even though they were not series books.

Ballet Shoes is about three girls, all adopted by Great Uncle Matthew, called Gum. Gum is a fossil hunter, but when his house becomes too full of fossils, his great-niece Sylvia’s nanny makes him give them away to a museum. Gum goes off on another fossil-hunting trip but brings back a baby instead, the unidentified survivor of a shipwreck. Over the course of five years, he brings back two more. These are Pauline, Petrova, and Posy, and he gives them the last name of Fossil.

Gum goes off on another trip, leaving Sylvia and the cook and nanny in charge. Sylvia does her best to bring up the girls, although she is only ten years older than Pauline. But Gum doesn’t return, and the money begins to run out. Sylvia is forced to remove the girls from school and try to teach them herself. Finally, she must take in boarders.

Sylvia is lucky in her boarders, because soon they are all involved in the girls’ education. Two retired university professors undertake to teach the girls at no cost, and Theo, who teaches ballet, gets them enrollment in the Children’s Academy of Dancing and Stage Training, which prepares children for a career in the arts.

At 11, Pauline shows promise as an actress, and none of them have any doubt that Posy will be a famous ballerina. Only Petrova does not feel any particular aptitude, except for her interests in motors and flying, and she is most happy on Sundays, when boarder Mr. Simpson lets her work in his garage.

The rest of the novel follows the girls’ careers as they struggle to make enough money to support themselves and study dancing and theatre.

Ballet Shoes is not a classic because of its writing style or literary attainment, at least in my opinion. The writing is workmanlike, and the narrative arc lacks the highs and lows of other classics. Instead, it is a classic because of Streatfeild’s knowledge of the arts and the details about classes and stage productions. I think this novel would be fascinating for any child interested in the arts, especially ballet. And the plot about the four orphans trying to make it in a difficult world should appeal to most other imaginative children.

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Day 858: Fates and Furies

Cover for Fates and FuriesFates and Furies is about a marriage. Lotto and Mathilde marry shortly before graduating from college, after knowing each other only two weeks. They are both very tall and blonde, considered by many to be a golden couple. Lotto is charismatic and loud, always the center of attention, with many faithful friends. Mathilde is quiet and aloof.

Although Lotto has had a bit of a Southern Gothic upbringing, he is the son of wealth and privilege. However, his mother cuts him off when she hears of his marriage. Mathilde appears to have no family or money. So, the couple’s first years are tough, as Lotto tries to make it as an actor in New York while Mathilde supports them. But one night Lotto stays up drunk and writes a play. When Mathilde reads it, she knows he has found his vocation.

The first half of the novel is from Lotto’s point of view. Success seems to come easily to him after he writes his first play. Even though he is prone to depression if things don’t go well, he has hit after hit. Mathilde quits her job to take care of the business side, and he becomes a little self-satisfied. Still, all in all they are remarkably happy. He considers his wife a saint.

It is not until the second half of the novel, when we see the marriage and past from Mathilde’s point of view, that we learn a different truth about their lives. Mathilde, who has been alone for much of her life, is fiercely loyal to Lotto. But she is no saint.

Lauren Groff seems to write completely different novels each time out. This one shows the complexities of human relationships. That this relationship is almost operatic in scope gives the novel a slightly gothic trend.

I have mixed feelings about this novel. I think we are supposed to like Lotto more than I did, but I distrust charismatic people. I think Lotto may be a little stereotypical, however, while Mathilde is mostly a cypher until her half of the book, when many secrets come out. It is not until we learn Mathilde’s side of things that the novel really begins to unfold. It is certainly an interesting novel and one that could provoke discussion.

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Day 704: Henry VI, Part I

Cover for Henry VI, Part 1Henry VI Part I is my book for the latest Classics Club Spin! Enjoy the review.

The only one of Shakespeare’s history plays I’ve ever read previously is Richard III, although I once saw Peter MacNicol perform Richard II in Central Park (with Martin and Charlie Sheen two rows down in the audience). Henry VI Part I is Shakespeare’s first play as well as one of his Wars of the Roses plays, of which Richard III is the last.

As a history play, Henry VI Part I is more about the events at the beginning of Henry’s reign than about Henry’s life. In fact, he is very young through much of the play and only appears occasionally. The play depicts the discord among the powerful men surrounding Henry, culminating in the Wars of the Roses (although the seeds of the discord can be traced back earlier, to when Henry of Bolingbroke (later Henry IV) deposed Richard II). Henry IV and Henry V, in their turns, have held the country together, but Henry V’s young son shows no such ability. Although Shakespeare himself (and many historians) seems to be disposed toward the Yorkists, it is clear by the end of the play that the Lancastrians will prevail during Henry’s reign.

Painting of scene
The choosing of red and white roses, a scene from the play

The other main event of the play is the war in France. I should not have been surprised to find Joan of Arc (referred to in the play as Jean La Pucelle) the villain of this plot, since the English burned her, but it was a shock nonetheless. The gallant Lord Talbot is the hero, while Jean fights with the aids of demons.

The play is not as dramatic as some others, but it has its moments. I thought it was most interesting as showing the Tudor view of this great series of conflicts.

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Day 693: Fallout

Cover for FalloutMost of Fallout is told as a flashback, but the opening section is very short, so we can say we really encounter Luke Kanowski in 1961, when he is 14. He has busted his mother out of the mental asylum where she’s lived since he was five to take her to visit the art museum in London. The expedition is not a success, but while they are being questioned by a security guard, Nina Hollings notices them.

Nina is with her mother Marianne, a selfish woman who hands her off to her sister Mat when Nina is in her way but reclaims her before she can gain any stability. Later, she does other things to sabotage Nina’s self-confidence. Marianne works sporadically as an actress.

Luke is a young adult when he meets Paul Driscoll and Leigh Radley. He has been working at a mill, but shortly after he meets the two, he decides his life is harmful to him. Luke feels immediate friendship for Leigh and Paul and has soon moved to London. There the three of them work together with a few others to open a new theater.

Leigh has fallen immediately in love with Luke, but Luke is busy seducing practically every woman he meets, so Leigh becomes Paul’s girlfriend. Leigh’s father was unfaithful to her mother, so Leigh decides to stick with the man she feels is safe.

Then Luke meets Nina, who her mother has essentially pimped out to Tony Moore, a theatrical producer. Tony and Nina are soon married, Nina naively not realizing that Tony is using her as his beard. That is, she doesn’t realize until she finds him with two waiters during a party.

Luke’s first play is being produced as he and Nina begin an affair. This affair and the things Luke is willing to do to try to “save” Nina have repercussions for several people.

This novel is completely different from Jones’ The Uninvited Guests, which I enjoyed more. Although I was compelled to read the novel, I really don’t enjoy fiction where men betray themselves for a woman, or vice versa. Usually, the woman in these novels is bad. Nina isn’t, but she is weak and selfish and eventually asks Luke to betray his friends and his art.

Finally, I feel as if the ending of the novel is unrealistically hopeful and pat, when I think of the wreckage that has gone before. The background of the theater and play production with a bit about the politics of theatre is very interesting, though.

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Day 617: Charles Dickens

Cover for Charles DickensReading this biography of Charles Dickens was very interesting to me after reading The Invisible Woman, about Dickens’ long illicit affair with Nelly Ternan. I have read biographies of Dickens before, but these two were the first I read that were forthright about some of Dickens’ inconsistencies and hypocrisies.

Renowned British actor Simon Callow puts a different spin on this book by examining Dickens’ love of and relationship to the theatre and his audience. Dickens adored the theatre and made quite a few forays into amateur theatrical productions, some of them quite large in scope, before settling on dramatic readings of his novels that were hugely successful.

It was of course during one of these productions, performances of a play he wrote with Wilkie Collins, where Dickens met Ellen Ternan, the young actress who became the focus of his mid-life crisis, which eventually ruined his marriage. She was brought in to replace Dickens’ daughter when a public performance made it improper for a young lady to appear.

This book is written in vivid and humorous style. It is entertaining and provides a view of Dickens’ career from the point of view of a theatrical background. Callow has himself played Charles Dickens more than once, most notably in a one-man performance, and is the author of nine books on theatre.

P. S. This book is sometimes titled Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World.

Day 434: Coriolanus

Cover for CoriolanusCoriolanus is one Shakespeare tragedy with which I was previously unfamiliar, and it is a powerful one. More than any other Shakespeare play I’ve read, it is about politics, class dissension, and the fickleness of popularity. It is also about excessive pride.

The play has references to events of the time it was written, for it begins with a riot over corn, the like of which had taken place in Warwickshire the year the play was written. Its war between the Romans and the Volscians is also a reference to the war the English and Spanish had been carrying on intermittently.

Caius Marcius is a warrior who has spent most of his life as a soldier and has no social graces. He is proud and arrogant and disdains the common man. After he soundly beats the Volscians in battle, particularly his bitter enemy Aufidius, and conquers their city of Corioles, the Roman generals rename him Coriolanus and the senate wants to award him a consulship. This office as ruler of Rome is the one that all great men aspire to. Unfortunately, to have the office, Coriolanus must beg the honor from the public and show them his wounds gained in defending the state.

He is reluctant to do so, knowing that he is unable and unwilling to ask for what he thinks he deserves, but his austere mother Volumnia and his supporters talk him into it. Two jealous tribunes, who are representatives of the people, are afraid that Coriolanus will strip them of their offices. So, the two, Brutus and Sicinius, work to enrage the people after they have already sworn to support Coriolanus.

The result is another riot, and instead of receiving the high honor, Coriolanus is declared a traitor. The tribunes even try to have him executed, but he is banished.

The seeds of Coriolanus’ downfall are sown both by the treachery of his rivals and by his own hubris. Things go downhill from there.

It is interesting that in the class divide, Shakespeare’s sympathies seem to align with the men of power even while he deplores Coriolanus’ flaws. There are several speeches about the public not being able to make a decision, about their fickleness, and so on, and the actions of the public seem to bear these ideas out. You can image what Shakespeare would think about a democracy or about our current political situation.

Day 415: Antony and Cleopatra

Antony and CleopatraOf the Shakespeare tragedies I have been reading, I think I have the least sympathy for the characters in Antony and Cleopatra (except perhaps for Othello–I have no sympathy at all for him). One of the problems is in, of course, how their relationship has historically been portrayed–with Cleopatra as a manipulative slut instead of a sovereign trying desperately to save her kingdom from being swallowed up by the Roman Empire. But the victors always get their way in portraying the conquered.

Antony and Cleopatra is, of course, the play about the last years of the relationship between Marc Antony and Cleopatra of Egypt, their political maneuverings with Rome and particularly with Octavius Caesar, and their deaths.

I believe the traditional way of looking at this play is of the great man brought down by his fascination with a rapacious woman. However, pay attention to the difference between how the characters talk about the nobility of the Romans and how the Romans actually act. I think something more subtle is going on here. I don’t see much evidence of a great man in this play. I see a soldier who pretends to be a noble Roman and is not. I see a female ruler who is more of an enigma, who controls her own shifting image, like a chimera.

image of The Death of Cleopatra by Reginald ArthurNot having the strongest grounding in classical literature, it is not always clear to me what is going on during the political maneuverings and battles, and which characters are on whose side. Of course, it is a historical fact that Cleopatra fled the battle of Actium with her ships at a strategic point, causing the battle to be lost. Why she did so is still a mystery.

For a different view of Cleopatra, although maybe a closer view than Schiff thinks, see Stacy Schiff’s excellent biography.

Day 375: King Lear

Cover for King LearKing Lear is about fathers and their children–in particular, how two fathers misjudge their children, mistaking flattery and trickery for love, and push away those who sincerely love them. It is also about the responsibilities of power.

We all know the plot. King Lear has three daughters, Regan, Goneril, and Cordelia. As he is an old man, Lear wants to rid himself of the cares of governing while keeping the title and prerogatives of his office. So, he proposes to divide his property among his daughters but first sets them a silly test of telling him how much they love him to determine the sizes of their gifts. Regan and Goneril reply fulsomely, but Cordelia, who is not comfortable with expressing feelings, replies with restraint. Lear, who had planned to give her the biggest piece as she is his favorite, banishes her and splits his kingdom between the two other sisters.

In a parallel story, the Duke of Gloucester has two sons. His eldest, Edgar, is legitimate, while Edmund is not. Edmund, who is a lot like Iago but with more cause, decides to take all that Edgar has, so he forges a letter that makes it seem as though Edgar is trying to tempt Edmund into murdering their father. He also keeps Edgar away from Gloucester by making him think that he, Edmund, is on Edgar’s side and telling him that Gloucester is angry.

In both cases the fathers, without considering their own experiences of their children’s qualities, throw away the loving child and favor the conniving children.

One metaphor throughout the play is that of sight. Neither father can see what is plainly before him. Gloucester actually loses his sight during the course of the play, and Lear goes mad before he can see clearly.

Madness also factors heavily in the play. Lear is driven mad with grief when he sees his older daughters for what they are, while Edgar pretends to be a madman to hide from his brother and father. Of course, madness is exciting in the theatre because a mad character is allowed to say anything, but Lear’s lines seem very obscure to me, unlike Hamlet’s when he was pretending to be mad.

This play seems to me to be rather disorganized. A lot of time is spent wandering around on the moors, with different characters running into other characters. I confess to finding that part tedious. Cordelia, who in one way is so important to the play, spends most of it offstage, while the fool, who is a dominant character at the beginning of the play, is ruthlessly killed in the middle of it. I am not sure of the point of the scene where Edgar makes his father think he has committed suicide by leaping off a cliff. All in all, this play seems rather messy to me.

Day 365: Othello

Poster for OthelloI have been reading and viewing a few of Shakespeare’s tragedies lately. Othello, in contrast to Hamlet, seems to be about very little in terms of overarching themes. Whereas Hamlet makes observations about death, revenge, the place of women in society, the relationships between fathers and their children, Othello is about what? Perhaps trusting too easily? Perhaps trusting not enough? Of course, it is about racism, jealousy, and betrayal, but what does it say about them?

The plot, of course, is that Desdemona elopes to marry the Moor, Othello, having fallen in love with him as he told the tales of all his adventures. Iago sees this marriage as an opportunity to have his revenge on both Othello, who has given the position he expected to Cassio, and on Cassio himself. He does this by making Othello think that Desdemona has betrayed him with Cassio.

To me the play is mostly about trust. Desdemona is a fool, it seems, to entrust her life to a man who would doubt her on so little evidence, actually before there is any evidence. Why is Othello so quick to trust Iago, a man he has overlooked for promotion, who has reason to hate him, and yet so quick to distrust his wife, who has never given him reason to doubt? Of course, this contrast says something about society’s view of women at the time.

Perhaps also Othello is a good excuse to write the part of a truly evil villain, Iago. For certainly Iago’s is the most important part.

Why is this a tragedy? Is Othello a great man brought down? I suppose he is great by virtue of his military adventures, but he is brought down by his own stupidity and gullibility. Desdemona is nothing but a victim, completely helpless to control her fate. This is not my favorite Shakespeare play, filling us with dread as it does from almost the beginning.

Day 328: Hamlet

Cover for HamletMy husband likes his jokes. When I told him I was re-reading Hamlet, he said, “It’s full of clichés, you know.” But it was amazing to see how many lines from this play are so familiar to all of us, have almost entered our societal DNA.

Everyone is familiar with the plot. Hamlet’s father, the King of Denmark, has died, and Hamlet’s mother Gertrude has married his uncle Claudius, his father’s brother, who is now king. Hamlet is in grief and dismay at his father’s death and his mother’s quick remarriage. In the first act of the play, Hamlet meets the ghost of his father, who tells him that Claudius murdered him by pouring poison in his ear as he slept. The ghost orders Hamlet to avenge his death.

One of the puzzlers for me about this play is the reason why Hamlet then chooses to fake insanity. It allows Hamlet to continually bait Claudius and Gertrude without consequences, but otherwise does not make sense to me.

An interesting point raised in the introduction of my version of the Collected Works is that Polonius, in appearance and behavior, is meant to be William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth I’s chief minister. The claustrophobic feeling in the play of not being able to trust anyone, of being spied on (depicted marvelously in the 2009 Royal Shakespeare Company production, starring David Tennant and Patrick Stewart), reflects the paranoid nature of Tudor society because of the prevalence of espionage at that time.

Of course, Hamlet’s musings on suicide, death, and the nature of revenge are a major focus of the play. An undoubted message seems to be of the unintended consequences of actions, particularly of revenge. Hamlet and Laertes are bent on revenge, but in obtaining it, they manage to wipe out both their families.

I have seen Hamlet played as a drooping figure of indecision, but I don’t think this is a correct interpretation. Hamlet is caught on the crux of a dilemma. He wants to do what is right but knows that whatever action he chooses, the results will not be pretty. Hence, the inaction.