Boozy Books: Far from the Madding Crowd

Greetings, readers! Welcome to this week’s Boozy Books! I’m feeling very classic this week, and I thought I would celebrate one of the authors I came to admire only as an adult. In high school, the first time I read Thomas Hardy, I hated every minute of it, but his novels stuck with me over the years and, recently, I returned to them again. Now a “grown-up” (whatever that means) and likely because I wasn’t being forced to read Hardy, I really loved what I read.

I’m going to choose one of Hardy’s… lighter works for his first appearance, mostly because I’m not really feeling something as tragic as Jude the Obscure or semi-tragic as The Return of the Native (though I really, really considered doing that one this week to discuss the conflict between nature and society, and the doom of fighting one’s destiny). And I still haven’t entirely gotten over my dislike of Tess and The Mayor of Casterbridge. I think it’ll happen eventually, but I’m not pushing it.

I like Hardy these days because of his similarities to George Eliot, but also because he is as critical of Victorian society as Charles Dickens and as emotionally free as the Romantics (he considered himself a poet, actually, though most people know his novels first). He scandalized Victorian society by writing about extra-marital affairs, sympathetic “fallen women”, and bigamy in more than one of his novels. As an adult, I love his criticism of the social constraints placed on people in Victorian society, especially those that limited peoples’ lives. Anyone who criticizes the lack of education opportunities and freedom in marriage (esp. for women), and the effect of too much religion on society is good by me.

Also, did you know there is some belief that the term “cliffhanger” came as a result of one of his works? Yes. He gave us every season finale of every show ever. (Literally. A character LITERALLY is left hanging off a cliff at the end of one “episode”, as it were.)

But now the novel I did choose: Far from the Madding Crowd. The novel that gave Katniss her last name (you know… have to get that younger crowd to like Hardy somehow, right?).

Bathsheba Everdene (BEST NAME EVER, right?!) is far too proud. And not just because she values her independence (which is fine) or doesn’t really want to get married. She is too proud because she is used to being admired and has a tendency to stare at herself in mirrors for no reason. Yeah… proud and vain. She even despairs that God gave her such a beautiful face. Yeah. But that vanity is tempered by her good sense and self-determination. She becomes a formidable farmer and is shown to have good business sense and fierce dedication to both the venture and the people under her. And, despite being in charge, she isn’t afraid of a little hard work.

She is also intelligent and rational. Most of the time. The problem is that, because she is so willful and stubborn and independent, when she DOES have an irrational thought, it kinda… overwhelms her. And so much of the novel is driven by Bathsheba’s tendency to act on her irrational thoughts. She toys with a man’s affections by sending him a Valentine reading ‘marry me’ as a joke and then demurs when he acts on the feelings she engenders in him. When Gabriel Oak, the solid, steady presence in her life, rebukes her for it, she fires him (and is forced to swallow her pride to get him back when her flock suffers for his loss). And then there’s the stupidest decision she makes: she marries Sergeant Troy. Bathsheba is so used to toying with men, she is dumbfounded when Troy dares toy with her and, excited by the feelings he awakens in her, runs off with him (despite entertaining the proposal of that other guy, Mr. Boldwood.) This is a horrible decision with horrible consequences, and Bathsheba is finally forced to reckon with the fact that her pride and vanity have led to a lot of pain. Having learned this lesson, she finally gets a happy ending. And so does Gabriel Oak, who might actually be too good for her…

There was recently a movie version of this book. It’s good, but it leaves a lot out, like so many do. It does manage to capture Bathsheba and Gabriel really well, though, and Michael Sheen manages to out-act everyone in the joint despite having a relatively small part. Both sympathetic and slightly creepy at the same time. I do recommend the movie, though, for its beauty. So many of Hardy’s books are a celebration of a semi-fantastical rural England (they take place in Wessex, which Hardy named after the old Anglo-Saxon Kingdom) and the movie seems to really play on that.

But… what to drink? I think something with aspirations of grandeur. Something people drink when they want to be fancy… but it really isn’t. So… I’m going Cosmopolitan. This combination of vodka, triple sec, cranberry juice, and lime juice is absolutely perfect for the haughty, vain Miss Everdene. If, however, sensible Gabriel Oak is more your style, I’d stick with ale. No more than two… with a good meal. You’ve got shepharding to do, after all.

Well, that’s it for me today! A will be here tomorrow for Shakespeare!

C

Buy the Book:

Far from the Madding Crowd

Make the Drink:

Cosmo Time!

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Monday Muse: Characters

Heyo! Welcome back to Nerd Cactus-dom. It’s C again, with you for something that’s hopefully a bit shorter than Saturday’s Shakespeare gush-fest.

You’ll note we didn’t do a silly yesterday. I apologize for that. I’m reasonably certain A’s show closed last night and it’s meant to be my responsibility to fill in on occasions like that, so I totally dropped the ball. To make up for it, here’s a funny picture that fits the theme of Shakespeare 400:

Moving on. Today, I’d like to talk about something that Shakespeare knew really, really well: characters.

I’ve mentioned that my two favorite plays are Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing. My third favorite… well, not third place, but third out of three is Henry V, but I’ve a fondness for individual soliloquies and characters from other plays, as well.You all know Nerd Cactus’ collective adoration for Mercutio, enough to write an entire novel entirely for the purpose of keeping him alive.

But what is it about the characters from those plays that stands out? Well, Hamlet is a complex character study of grief and anger, tinged with (faux) insanity and tragedy. Much Ado has Beatrice and Benedick, two characters so amazing they managed to take over the entire play despite technically being a subplot. And Henry V is all dashing military hero one minute and slightly nonplussed suitor the next, all culminating in a tragically young death, the consequences of which are the subject of three sequels.  But what is it these characters have in common?

They’re human. And the masters of their narrative, not the other way around.

You see, that is the key to a good character. They are the masters and not the mastered. They are not just tools in the hands of an author to be bandied about their world, twisting and turning to fit a story. An author cannot poke and prod them to fit just as a person cannot be poked and prodded to fit. People are confounding and contradictory and do things that get in the way of what we want. They are frustrating creatures. They don’t answer questions in the way you want them to. They don’t fall in love with the person you want them to. Sometimes they’re right bastards. Often, they get in their own way. In short, people are creatures of Free Will and cannot be directed like pieces on a chess board. And characters are people; they’re just people who live in our imaginations rather than on this Earth.

I cannot tell you the frustration… nay, the rage I’ve felt when I started reading what seemed like a good story and then THE PERFECT ONE comes on the scene. You know what I mean, right? The character who can do no wrong and can solve all the problems and always makes the right decision, slicing through problems and prejudice and unlikable qualities like a hot knife through butter. It’s like the creator of that character lives in a world where no harm should come to their babies or, even worse, where a good guy can have no bad qualities or they’re not good guys anymore. The weird thing is that, like, 90% of these stories are the ones that have villains who’re just misunderstood and need to be loved.

Of course, THE PERFECT ONE isn’t the only problem. The most recent episode of The Flash is a prime example of another of the more rage-inducing character problems: changing your characters because you need the plot to progress in a certain way. A group of otherwise intelligent and resourceful people sat around having tea and crumpets with a villain who’d ALREADY GIVEN UP HIS LEVERAGE. “Oh, but sir, I’ve given my word! I must keep it or I won’t be the good guy anymore! Plus, the writers really need this outcome, so I suppose we’ll all just sit back and become morons for melodrama!” THIS IS INFURIATING. DO NOT DO IT. If you need a particular outcome, you find a way to move the plot around your characters, not the other way around. Your plot is Muhammad and your characters are the mountain; the mountain doesn’t come to Muhammad.

How do you do this? How do you create mountains? Well, I’ve talked about this before, but you need to talk to your characters. Get to know them the way you know a person. First you see what they look like, how they dress, how they carry themselves as they move, how they interact with the world (without any insider knowledge to what they might be thinking — how a stranger would see them and judge them), etc. You need the way they sound, the words they use, their mannerisms as they speak. How they meet new people. You see what I mean? You start as if they’re a stranger and peel back layer after layer until they’re revealed to you. But, you know, leave some suspense and room for surprise because even the people we think we know the best can shock the hell out of us. Don’t just do character bios, though, especially for personality. Eye color? Hair? Occupation, family members, and where they went to school? Yes. Put that in a chart. But shifting things like personality and the like don’t do well in such confined and rigid circumstances. Too many writers seem determined to force their characters to stick to the bio instead of allowing them, like people, to breathe.

For this sort of thing, I recommend character sketches. No, no… not drawing. Ye gods, no. I mean short vignettes designed to investigate your characters in different circumstances, even those that don’t/won’t/can’t appear in your stories. Actually, I’ve found it’s better to stick clear of the actual narrative lest you become married to a particular version and are tempted to force it into context. One of my favorites is to kill my character off and to force them to kill someone else (a stranger, their lover, the villain, etc), especially if I don’t plan on either of those things happening in the story. Pushing characters to the brink to find out if/when they’ll break. (I’m totally a method writer.) Even if it never appears in the story, you know it and, whether you believe me or not, just the knowing colors your writing.

So… get to creating mountains, fine readers! And I’ll be back on Friday with my booze recommendation!

C

Shakespeare Saturday: 400 Years!

Welcome, everyone! How’s everyone’s day going so far? Done something Bardy with your time? Read a play, watched a play, watched a movie of a play, pretended you know what King John is about? (All y’all Shakespeare trivia champs out there know what I’m talking about.) At the very least, have you used a Shakespeare quote/phrase ON PURPOSE at some point throughout the day?

If not, there’s still time. Comment here with your favorite Shakespeare line and you’ve got yourself covered. Heck, I’ll settle for your favorite play as favorite line might be too difficult. I know it would be for me.

I wanted to do something special today, it being the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death (and possibly, also, his birthday, but obviously not 400 years on that one). Thing is… a lot of the big topics, we’ve already covered. We’ve written about how he totally wrote his playsShakespeare’s foolswhy you need to see Shakespeare live (or at least a taped performance), Shakespeare and gender, and even given examples of some of our favorite movie adaptations of Shakespeare. And I’ve definitely talked about why I love Shakespeare. Seriously, amidst the silly pictures and the article round-ups keeping you lovely people abreast of all things Bard, we’ve written some cool stuff.

We’ve even discussed why our generation isn’t too stupid for Shakespeare, which seems to be a prevalent theory among older generations. In fact, you should take some time and go back through our Shakespeare Saturday posts (just search Shakespeare Saturday and they’ll pop up) because some of them are pretty damn good. The one on Queen Mab’s speech as it applies to Killing Mercutio was a particular favorite of mine.

But if we’ve talked about all that… what should we talk about on this special day?

Well, I thought… let’s talk about Richard III. Everyone else will be talking about how amazing Shakespeare is (OK, so will I), so I want to talk about the play I have the hugest problem with. (Well, this one and The Merchant of Venice… but we’re writing a whole musical about that problem, so I think we’ll work it out.) The play toward which, as well as it is written and as much fun as it must be to perform (and that I am really looking forward to seeing Benedict Cumberbatch tackle), I will forever carry a little nugget of rage. Which is weird, because, not long into the play, one of the historically correct aspects of the narrative — Richard III having Lord Hastings executed — involves a member of my family being killed for no other reason than he got in Richard’s way. That’s how much I dislike aspects of this play. It makes me defend Richard III, who killed family! (To be fair, so’s Richard. Everyone was related during the Wars of the Roses. Seriously. It was pretty much just a huge family feud.)

But I’m not here to talk about how inaccurate it is. Not really. We all know Richard III wasn’t a hunchback (he had scoliosis, yes, but it wouldn’t have given him a hunched back) and didn’t have a withered arm, and there’s really no proof he had the Princes in the Tower executed (and, really, he was the one person who benefited least from their deaths), and he was, like, two-and-a-half when Somerset (another ancestor of mine, actually) was killed at St. Albans, and he definitely didn’t kill Clarence (or talk Ed 4 into doing it) in a vat of wine (and there’s actually evidence it strained the relationship between King Edward IV and Richard), and he didn’t kill his own wife’s father and former husband (though both were killed in battles involving Richard, there’s… no proof he was the one who killed them). As evil and conniving as Shakespeare’s Richard is, it’s no surprise everyone celebrated the coming of Richmond (Henry VII) at the end of the play (well, that and Shakespeare would have to have been an idiot to do otherwise; Richmond was Good Queen Bess’ grandfather). But even Shakespeare didn’t take Richard’s valiant qualities away from him. Though “a horse, a horse, my kingdom…etc” is often quoted as a sign of cowardice, in context, the line is Richard wanting to go back into battle. If there’s one thing we know about Richard III, it’s that he was a brilliant, brave soldier who loved his family. And even Shakespeare could only take half of that away from him.

What I want to talk about today is an article I was recently shown and really enjoyed. It discusses a lot of what I’ve already mentioned here, but brings in a really interesting element: that Shakespeare, being Catholic (there’s a lot of “Shakespeare was a secret Catholic” arguments/conspiracies afoot), wrote Richard III as an allegory about the succession in a time when Elizabeth I was growing older and said succession was a concern. And, more importantly, that the eponymous King was actually an allegorical representation of Robert Cecil, the Queen’s trusted adviser, who, along with his father (Richard Attenborough in Elizabeth), was fighting for a Protestant successor (namely James I). The article is here and you should totally read it because it’s an interesting argument. I don’t know that I buy Shakespeare as a secret Catholic because, though there are obvious Catholic themes throughout Shakespeare’s works, I think he was mostly a storyteller first. Hamlet, for example, needs those Catholic themes for the ghost to work. But I could definitely see Shakespeare writing about the undue influence of the Cecils upon the Queen, especially considering what bad advisers had wrought throughout the Tudor years.

Anyway… what this article really made me consider was how we interpret Shakespeare. (And, yes, I realize I’m getting a bit long here, but c’mon, it’s a special day!) What contextual meanings have risen and fallen throughout the 400 years since Shakespeare’s death? Did Elizabethan audiences really look at Richard III and know Shakespeare was writing about Robert Cecil? Does that mean a modern interpretation could have, say, a Dick Cheney-esque Richard? Or could a modern audience look at a character like Macbeth, broken by what he has done for ambition’s sake, and see modern politicians? Did Colonial Americans see George III as a stand-in for Richard III? We know John Wilkes Booth saw Lincoln as a tyrant and we also know his favorite role as an actor was Brutus in Julius Caesar (although, funnily enough, his debut was as Richmond in Richard III). For 400 years, new meanings have risen and fallen, and audiences have taken new and ever-changing interpretations away from Shakespeare’s plays. To a teenager, Romeo and Juliet might be romantic, but an adult might only see the tragic, stupid decisions of two young people getting them killed. I know my opinions on The Taming of the Shrew have changed drastically over the years as I grow and my worldview changes.

I’ve already talked about Shakespeare’s timelessness, but that article really brought it to light for me. We see so many things and understand so many different meanings in Shakespeare both alone and as part of a greater audience. We turn to him for romance, for sorrow, for joy, for ambition. We turn to him for greatness and for woe, for amazing insults and, I admit it, potty humor (SO MANY FART JOKES). There’s deep psychology and sublime ridiculousness to be found in Shakespeare’s plays, sometimes both at once. And, even after 400 years, we’re still uncovering new layers and finding new ways to appreciate his words.

Basically, William Shakespeare may have been dead for four centuries, but the Bard is immortal.

C

PS- In case that amazing ending wasn’t enough for you, here’s an update on the This Be Madness bracket. I have had to choose between my absolute favorite plays, Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing, in the final and it was, I can assure you, a far more difficult decision than it really had any right to be. In the end, however, I was forced to go with Hamlet. Why? Because, as much as I love Much Ado, the part of it I adore is Beatrice and Benedick and, strictly speaking, they’re a subplot. So the main plot — Hero and Claudio — gets overshadowed by what Shakespeare intended to be secondary and, as much as I love it, that means Hamlet, which is strong throughout (and gives us some of the finest speeches known to man), must be given the nod. Go ahead and check out the finals and learn who won (I won’t spoil it for you) here.

PPS- This really cool article came up as I was writing this and I wanted to share it with you. Theater snacks! What did people eat at the theater in Shakespeare’s time? Well, I won’t spoil it for you, but it definitely wasn’t popcorn.

Seriously. I’m done now. Forgive me for writing so much. And do read everything I’ve linked to! They’re all quite good and prove, I think, we here at Nerd Cactus aren’t just lushes who constantly read drunk! (But, just in case you really wanted my recommendation for today, I’d say you can never go wrong with a good ol’ English ale!)

Boozy Books: Bardy Boozin’

Happiest of Fridays, my friends! Welcome back to Nerd Cactus, your home for literary pairings, authorial rants, occasional wit, and (more-often-than-not) irreverent/entertaining videos. We welcome you most heartily to this, our latest installment of Boozy Books. *fanfare*

Because tomorrow is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death day I will be pairing a rather wonderful book about Shakespeare entitled: Reduced Shakespeare: the Complete Guide for the Attention Impaired (abridged). And, yes, this was written by the mad geniuses behind The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged). Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor (of the Reduced Shakespeare Company) have compiled a brilliant and hysterical guide to all things “Bard”.

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Though this is technically an educational non-fiction volume (and we typically cover fiction), it’s thoroughly engaging and reads as a book of leisure. Full of quips, sarcastic side-notes, study guides for each play, and other “learned nonsense” this book is as entertaining as it is (accidentally?) educational. You will absolutely learn about William Shakespeare while reading this book, and I promise it won’t feel like school. Of course, assuming you’re reading while drinking with our pairing then it REALLY won’t feel like school.

So, what to pair with this deliciously silly work? In the spirit of Shakespeare I’d say mead, BUT given the loopy lightness and condensed way in which the subject is treated I think a fruity drink is in order. Like… A pineapple and strawberry mojito. Yeah. And you should drink it through a crazy straw. Because Reduced Shakespeare.

Enjoy!

A

Strawberry Pineapple Mojito Recipe: http://www.momontimeout.com/2015/04/pineapple-strawberry-mojito-recipe/

Buy the Book:
http://www.amazon.com/Reduced-Shakespeare-Attention-Impaired-Playwright-Abridged/dp/B004JZWMWQ/ref=sr_1_5?ie=UTF8&qid=1353817145&sr=8-5&keywords=Austin+Tichenor

Bonus Round Tuesday: This Be Madness

Captain’s Log, supplemental: Tuesday, Star Date 4.19.2016…
Welcome, readers and loyal minions! It’s A again! Bet you didn’t think you’d hear from me until Friday. Well, normally that would be the case if not for something REALLY REALLY AWESOME.

BEHOLD!

image

What you see before you is the official “This Be Madness” bracket. It’s like March Madness except it’ll be used to determine which is Shakespeare’s greatest play. (I’m putting my money on a showdown between Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, although I’d love to see Othello make a play for the sweep…)

http://mashable.com/2016/04/18/shakespeare-bracket-this-be-madness/

Unfortunately, we missed the first day of voting, but it is ongoing until April 22. The big reveal will be on April 23rd (the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death) so make your votes count!

See you on Friday!

A

UPDATE: Here is the voting page for Round 2… http://mashable.com/2016/04/19/this-be-madness-shakespeare-round-2/#Ga1ivosHLEqp

Monday Muse: Writing Buddy Bonanza

Heyo everybody! Welcome to the Monday Muse this very early Tuesday morning… Yeah, I know. Late again. #Shocker. It’s been another hectic weekend of shows, auditions, and birthday outings, and today was so productive that I ended up relaxing a little too much when I got home. But a Muse you were promised, and a Muse you shall have!

C and I met today to begin work on our second big project (a play!) and it was a blast. Bouncing ideas off of one another, reading aloud in Starbucks, and generally laughing our asses off put me in such a good creative zone that I feel we’ll be knocking this one out with a handful of meetings. Not only that, we went on to discuss two other future projects. So we’re in good shape to keep ourselves busy. In the best way possible. Go Team Nerd Cactus!

Writing is so fun. Occasionally frustrating, yes, but also great fun. It gets especially fun when you work with a partner who gets you, tempers you, and is not afraid to correct you. And when you find someone with whom your talents mesh, you’re even more well off… Most important: if you have a shared passion and an idea you believe in, you’ll find it’s not that hard to put something on the page. That’s what it’s about, after all. Putting something on the page.

But how can you develop writing relationships such as this? How can you tell which of your writer-type friends will best complement your style? To be honest, I still wonder at my good fortune of being introduced to C… But what I can tell you is that it’s a pretty organic process. You can’t force these things, they just happen. You strike a friendship, discover mutual respect for each other’s ideas and work, spit-ball on a few topics you have common interest in and, BAM, suddenly you’re writing consistently, growing as a result of unhindered feedback, and filling notebooks with future projects. And that, children, is how Nerd Cactus came to be…

Now, I know C has several writing partners – and I imagine she has a thing or two to add – but I think it’s safe to say that she is friends with each person she deems to spend time writing with. That’s why they’re called writing BUDDIES. If you’re looking to join forces you can reach out to people you already know and trust, or set out to make entirely new connections. There’s no wrong way to go about assembling a writing team as long as you end up with someone who inspires you to keep creating.

Happy Monday (but actually Tuesday)!

A

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Silly Sunday: Did you know?

Heyo, everyone! Welcome to today’s Silly Sunday! It’s me, again… C. The weird one who rambles too much and doesn’t believe in self-editing. I’m here today for Silly Sunday!

I need to begin today with a story. I mean, you could skip straight to the video because it’s Monty Python and that needs no explanation, but why I chose it becomes clear if you read this part.

Yesterday, I went to IKEA. I enjoy IKEA. Not necessarily for the cheap furniture or the meatballs, either; I enjoy looking at their design choices in the showroom. The mix of color and texture. The accessorizing. I like to picture what kind of people would use each kind of room.

So… in the midst of this, at a room with a lot of books on the shelves and cozy chairs and blankets, with my writers’ sensibilities screaming that this was the sort of place I would like to be, I hear the following:

“That is too many books.”

In a perfectly serious voice!

Imagine! TOO MANY BOOKS?!

Well… you’ll be glad to know that my ability to keep my mouth shut is better than my internet presence would make it seem. Or, rather, to say things quietly under my breath so the evil blasphemer in question couldn’t hear me. But, let me tell you, I was totally one of the villagers in this video… because that woman really was a witch!

 

Lesson: There’s no such thing as too many books and anyone who thinks so should not be trusted.

It’s A’s turn tomorrow to Muse! I promise she’ll be back.

C