Friday, June 20, 2014

A Midsummer Night's Dream Revisited

RHYS BOWEN: Tomorrow night will be midsummer night and I found myself thinking of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s always been one of my favorite Shakespeare plays—one of the comedies I actually found funny.

We had to study one Shakespeare play each trimester at my school. We had to read them in class and I remember how painful it was to sit and listen classmates struggling with language we just didn’t understand. The comedies were worst. At least with the tragedies we knew that someone would get stabbed or poisoned in the end. 

We could appreciate Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet. But those comedies. What was funny about them?
It wasn’t until I was working in BBC drama and a friend was stage manager for the Royal Shakespeare Company that I was backstage at a Shakespeare comedy AND the audience was laughing out loud. Roaring with laughter. Because the actors understood what they were saying, all the clever play on words and naughty double entendres.  Obviously our straight laced school mistresses either didn’t understand it themselves or didn’t want us to understand.

So I’m wondering, Reds, were there any books you hated in school and came to love and appreciate later in life? Or were there any subjects you couldn’t stand in school that later became passions for you? I didn’t like history the way it was taught, all dates and battles. But now I make my living writing about it, taking readers to historical periods.  Maybe if they’d given me historical fiction to read, I’d have been a history buff back then. So fess up, Reds…

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  They MADE me read Ethan Frome in High School. I cannot tell you how much I hated it. Later in lIfe, I fell in love with Edith Wharton, and the romance with her continues. It was just wrong place, wrong time.

Our Town was also wrong place wrong time. I thought it was RIDICULOUS, stupid and sappy. Now I cannot even think about it without crying. Dickens, too. who I now love, but we all shared the Cliffs Notes about Nicholas Nickelby.

I always loved Shakespeare, from moment one, even though they started with Julius Caesar, which is a silly one to get kids to like.
And you are so right about teaching history, Rhys. It's a STORY, a great story, with compelling characters and fascinating motivations and incredible action and outcomes.  If they would only teach it that way.

HALLIE EPHRON: Believe it or not, my first attempt to read an Agatha Christie novel ended in abject failure. Summer of high school, I had not a clue why my mother loved her books. Later, of course, we connected in a serious way.

And for my 16th birthday my mother gave me a copy of Virginia Woolf's "A Room of One's Own" and I could not see at all what she was going on about. It was several decades before I got back to it and, listening to it as a book on tape, I loved it. Then I waded into Mrs. Dalloway... I had to read it out loud to myself in order to stick with it. Dense prose. Serpentine sentences.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Why do they start kids on Julius Caesar, I ask you? At least teenagers could understand Romeo and Juliet!  I don't remember reading a single thing in high school English that I liked. Hated The Old Man and Sea. Hated Gatsby (although I read Tender is the Night on my own and did like that one.) HATED Of Mice and Men. Hated The Grapes of Wrath. If I hadn't been a voracious reader before high school, I would never have read another book.

What have I come back to? Read/reread many Dickens novels while researching In a Dark House--loved them. Rediscovered Hemingway when I ran across A Moveable Feast a few years ago, although I still can't bring myself to reread The Old Man and the Sea. Fell madly in love with Shakespeare when I saw Ken Brannagh's version of Henry V (muhltiple times...)

So, should I give Edith Wharton a try?

HANK: Definitely, Debs! Try CUSTOM OF THE COUNTRY. I loved it! And HOUSE OF MIRTH. Which is way too sad, but fabulous.

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Debs, DEFINITELY give Edith Wharton a try! I can't remember any books I didn't like in high school or college — but that's good, right? Oh, wait — James Joyce's ULYSSES. Never really figured that one out... LOVED Shakespeare because the first play I read in school read was MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING. So funny! I remember the TV show Moonlighting was popular at the time and I pictured Cybil Shephard and Bruce Willis as Beatrice and Benedick.

RHYS: So do share, everyone... have you ever come to love a book or play you once hated?


  1. The only book I ever really, really, really disliked was Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Sorry to say I've not yet learned to love it . . . .

  2. Found Henry James pretentious and still do.

    I still prefer Shakespeare's histories and tragedies to his comedies, but like those enough to have made the mistake of going to "Falstaff" at the Vienna opera. There were a number of problems with that: only the clumsiest parts of some of Shakespeare's least funny comedy bits were incorporated int this opera; Verdi usually has one good aria per endless opera but in this one, he didn't even deliver that (not a big Verdi fan*); and the idea of any Germanic country staging a comedy goes beyond oxymoron.

    (*Am I the only person who goes to "La Traviata" and spends the last act thinking, "Die already!"?

    But I digress. I hated "War and Peace" in school, but when I read it as an adult, I got hold of a much better translation and adored it. It's all in the translation, isn't it?

  3. There is nothing better than seeing Shakespeare performed... well. I saw The Taming of the Shrew in Central Park with (drum roll) Meryl Streep and Raoul Julia. They were amazing and for the first time I got it. It is a REALLLY sexy play. Who knew?

    I found a Youtube about it...

  4. Loved Shakespeare from the first moment, and ended up focusing on his work in college and grad school. However, I still despise almost all required reading for any American Lit classes. Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, Ethan Frome. . .(shudders). No, I just can't go back there. I might give Edith Wharton another shot, though. And yes, why do schools start with Julius Caesar? Seems like an odd choice. Kenneth Brannagh was brilliant in Henry V. I wrote a conference paper comparing he and Lawrence Olivier. I think I shocked the conference committee with my argument.

  5. Count me as another Edith Wharton fan. I love Ethan Frome.

    One book I didn't appreciate at the time was A Separate Peace (John Knowles). I just found it boring, but reading it later I came to appreciate it for its focused brevity.

  6. I can't think of anyone I hated and came to appreciate. Joyce comes closest - maybe because I just didn't *get* it in high school, but I had a great college prof who opened my eyes.

    Hallie, yes, seeing Shakespeare performed *well* is the key. Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh as Beatrice and Benedick - my daughter was howling and loved it. Patrick Stewart did a great WWII-era MacBeth. I saw some great plays at Stratfore Ontario in college, and went again for my honeymoon. A play a day doesn't sound very romantic to a lot of people, but the hubby and I loved it.

    And I don't know why they start with Julius Caesar - maybe because it's historical?

  7. Can't think of any I really loathed.

    Like others, I latched on to Shakespeare early. My various English reachers made the plays work for us, even though, yes, JC in grade 10. We went to see the Gielgud movie that year.

    And of course in Toronto there were (and still are) school trips to Stratford, Ontario, where there were special school performances with the actors answering questions from the audience at the end.

    I think that has made all the difference.

  8. Oops, that last comment was me. Google muscled its way in and posted my comment in my erotic romance writer alter ego. It happens.

  9. Yes, we read JC first, in ninth grade for me but my teacher was brilliant, making us read it out loud to each other, and we loved it. It also coordinated with reading Caesar's Gallic Wars in second year Latin. That same year we had a field trip to a movie theatre down town to see Richard Burton in a film of his playing Hamlet on stage. We were in love with him and then with Shakespeare.
    You've made me want to try Edith Wharton again.

  10. Julius Caesar?! Thank God, we started with Romeo and Juliet or I might never have come to any of Shakespeare's other plays! Hated Sherwood Anderson, didn't care for Fitzgerald (still making high school kids everywhere read The Great Gatsby). But loved Hemingway, and loved loved loved the poets--Dickinson and ee cummings and Frost and TS Eliot and and and...

    And emphatically agree that sometimes a well-performed play or movie will open my eyes to a work I might previously have ignored. What comes to mind is To Kill A Mockingbird. Movie wonderful! I was always afraid to go back and read the book--I know, I know, what was I thinking? The boys had to read it for an English class, so I finally read it and felt like I'd known it and loved it forever.

  11. Ellen, you're so funny about La Traviata! I love that opera because I had a friend singing in the chorus of some production and got to know the music.

    But to be honest, I end up thinking "die already" in most opera performances:)

  12. I remember reading "Great Expectations" as a freshman in high school -- I had always been a reader but that was my introduction to Literature. And I was hooked.

    With Joan, I disliked Joseph Conrad -- and never gave him a second look.

    But most literature I have read in school has been pure joy.

    My first year as a teacher, the school had chosen books they thought the kids would like, many based on movies -- "2001 A Space Odyssey" and
    "Planet of the Apes" (I am not making this up). The students were poor readers.

    I got copies of "Romeo and Juliet" and we had a great time with it (and I played them the West Side Story music).

    If literature is well written, it is accessible.

  13. In college "everyone" was ga-ga over Tolkien's The Hobbit, followed by Lord of the Rings. I couldn't read them. The long names of people and places required me to sound them out. Then when they appeared again, I had to do it again! Too much trouble. I couldn't see the massive appeal.
    Jump ahead many years and my son became a fanatic. But he got hooked on the audio books. It was a terrific version with each character having a unique sound. The speaker did the work for me. It was marvelous and helped me understand the appeal. It also made for very entertaining car rides.

  14. You guys are cracking me up today! I had season tickets to the opera for twenty years, and I can't tell you how many times I thought, "Die already!" Except for Puccini. He may be considered lowbrow by opera snobs but I love Puccini.

    My high school friend who helped me with the Great Book Project last year was having to read Gatsby. He's not a good reader, and when I asked him what he thought about it, he said, "It's about a bunch of rich people being bored. What is the point?"

    I couldn't tell him. Any takers on that one?

  15. I hated everything we had to read in high school (even though I loved to read on my own), especially Dickens and Thomas Hardy. When I went on to college after a stint in the Navy, I took an English Lit course which included 'Return of the Native' and 'Great Expectations'. I was stunned at how much better writers Dickens and Hardy had become in just 5 years!
    In addition to what others have already stated about how Shakespeare needs good actors to be appreciated, the best performances of the comedies emphasize the physical, sometimes downright slapstick, aspects, something no high school kids can envision while reading in class and struggling with the vocabulary.
    Having said all that there's not enough money in the world to get me to try 'Silas Marner' again!

  16. Debs, your friend is right on target about the Great Gatsby. They were bored. I read the Great Gatsby in middle school for fun then for my Honors English class in High School. My excellent teacher led us in a discussion about the Great Gatsby. I think the point of this book was about the "lost generation" after the first World War. Perhaps your friend could rent a DVD from Upstairs, Downstairs (BBC) series. There were several episodes with Lesley Anne Down about "young bright things". Your friend will need to start with the first world war stories in the series then proceed from there.

    Rhys, that is interesting because I thought that people in England understood Shakespeare better than Americans. Since my Mom taught high school English, I grew up surrounded by Shakespeare. I could not understand the language. However, there was a children's version of Shakespeare stories written by ? Bernard Miles, a Shakespearean actor in England, who wrote this book for his grandchildren. I was living in England and took a class at Oxford. My English professor told us that people in the Midlands still speak in Old English. I always liked Shakespeare, though I did not understand the language. While I was at Oxford, I saw Measure for Measure with BSL (British sign language) translators. It was impressive.

    It's ironic that you hated these books in high school because when I started high school, my "English" class had juvenile books instead of the classics like the books you hated. My friends would complain that they hated these books. I cut my class to sneak into my friends' classes so I got to read these books you hated. I was thrilled.

    Yes, these books were challenging at first. But these books prepared me for college reading.

    Hallie, interesting story about Agatha Christie. I started reading Bertram's Hotel when I was 12 because I saw one of my favorite actors reading the book ;-/ It was hard at first but I pushed myself to read the book. That was after Nancy Drew books.

    There was one book, though. I did not really hate it though I found it extremely difficult. I had to read it for Advanced Placement English. it was a novel by Herman Melville. Moby Dick was the novel. Our excellent teacher explained the themes very well. Still, I had difficulties following which was which in the book. I am going to try another crack at the novel this year and see if I get it.

    Rhys, Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of my favorites. It was included in the children's book that I read. I thought some of it was funny too.

    Everyone, enjoy Midsummer Night tomorrow!

  17. I'm so happy that I learned to love reading, long before I got to high school, because I absolutely loathed everything that was assigned. I could not read Moby Dick, or Beowulf. I hated all things Dickens. Gatsby bored me to no end....and I had to read it again in college.

    I would happily read anything with the word "Mystery" in the title...but that was about it.

    I disliked history. I appreciate it now, but not in my fiction.

    Christie is perhaps the only author I can read, whose books are not necessarily set in my lifetime. I prefer more current books.

    If it's a "classic", and was assigned reading...forget it. I can't say I've come to love anything I disliked in high school, as far as books go, because I won't give them a second chance. Too many books, too little time.

  18. Count me as another reader who always loved Shakespeare, but that may be because I saw performances from a young age. I've tried to pass on the same love to my kids - Maine is FULL of amazing summer Shakespeare and we regularly see several plays each year.

    I can't think of anything I had to read in high school that I hated then, love now. I don't think ETHAN FROME improves upon the reader's greater maturity. I did. however, have the experience of re-reading THE SCARLET LETTER as an adult. I never got it as a kid (perhaps because I kept leafing ahead, waiting for what I was sure would be a sexy, sexy scene between Hester and the Rev. Dinsmore) but going back to it as a thirty-something, I was amazed at the power of the writing.

    Another book that reads completely differently as an adult? The Little House on the Prairie series. As a kid, you think they're stories about Laura and Mary's adventures, but as an adult, you realize they're the tale of a civilized eastern woman dragged all over the American frontier by her charming, feckless husband. He leaves her alone with small children in dangerous surroundings and she has to work like a dog from sunup to sundown just to maintain the bare minimum standard of living.

  19. Rhys, you have a good point about historical fiction. Jean Plaidy novels carried me through dry books that I had to read for my history classes. I took a Tudor history class. In the dry history novel, it forgot to mention that Henry the 8th had a sister who married the King of Scotland. Jean Plaidy's novel included that information. I asked my professor and he said yes, that's right.

    I also loved Barbara Cartland novels, which were really romance novels. Her novels included historical facts, though.


  20. I must have started Nabokov's Ada five different times before finally making it past the first hundred pages. Now it's one of my favorite books.

    I remember my mom bugging me to read two books that I didn't want to read. What is about being bugged to do something that makes you not want to do it? Turned out I loved them both. The books: Gone With the Wind, and Roots.

  21. Likes Debs, I don't recall liking any books I was made to read in high school. To this day, I barely read the classics either. I'm not very well-read, actually, from a classical perspective.

    Has anyone seen Joss Whedon's recent version of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING. That was the first time I've laughed at a Shakespeare comedy -- the first time!

  22. Ahhh, my poor Ethan Frome is getting slaughtered here. Kristopher, I can't tell you how happy I was to see that you loved it. I loved Ethan Frome the first time I read it in high school and every reread I've done since. Everything about Ethan Frome is constructed so well, from the name of the village, Starkfield, to the economy of language and action that says so much more than its sparseness. It is often touted as Wharton's most carefully and finely constructed novels. So, Debs, don't be afraid to try this one.

    Now that I've defended my beloved Ethan Frome, there are two novels that when first introduced in high school I didn't care for. The Great Gatsby and The Scarlett Letter. I like Gatsby better than in high school, but it's still not high on my list. However, I have come to love The Scarlett Letter and Hester Prynne.

    And, Rhys, although I have always had a thing for history, you are so right about adding some historical fiction to the teaching of history. I used to recommend books to teens or my children that were historical fiction on what they were studying in history class. I think teachers are more adept now at using different means to teach what could otherwise be a dry litany of dates and events.

  23. I can't recall any books I hated in high school, and read later on in life and loved. Some of the books people mentioned here that they hated in high school were on our reading list, but I looked them over and decided not to read them. (We were given a list of books to pick from, one book per month. I'd browse through a book to see if I thought I'd like it.)

    My high school English teachers were very enthusiastic about Shakespeare, and successfully conveyed that enthusiasm to us. My college Shakespeare instructor was also - obviously - enthusiastic about Shakespeare! I don't remember if it was one of my high school teachers or my college instructor who told us that it can be hard to remember which of his plays you've read and which you've seen performed. I've found that to be true for me, too.

    A couple of years ago I went to see a college production of Othello. It was fantastic! I forgot that the performers were students, and got totally wrapped up in the story.

  24. I didn't like most of what I read in high school. I haven't gone back and revisited it. Why should I? There are other books I want to read. While I agree about Heart of Darkness, it was couple with The Secret Sharer in my class, a book I liked because Conrad actually used paragraphs, so I could follow what was happening. Novel idea, right?

    The first time I read a Hardy Boys book it went back to the library unfinished. I'd gotten hooked on Narnia and was spending all my reading time there. (See, my only reading one book at a time started in 3rd grade). Of course, in 5th grade I gave the Hardys another chance and loved them. And I'm a mystery reader today not a fantasy reader (for the most part). Not sure what that says about me.

  25. Hated Hemingway and still don't "get" him, although I concede there must be something there, since he has so many admirers. I have to say I'm saddened by all the comments about being forced to read Shakespeare and not understanding the language -- what in the world were your teachers doing that they didn't explain the language as you went along? We were taken to see a wonderful production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in high school, and I was hooked from then on. We're lucky enough to have the really excellent Trinity Shakespeare Festival here in Fort Worth (of all places); I just took my teenage grandkids to see "The Tempest" and "The Comedy of Errors," and they loved both, even the 14-year-old who is more interested in fashion and make-up than literature. Shakespeare must be seen, not read.

  26. I loved A Farewell to Arms when I was a teenager. So sad and romantic to die on a Swiss Lake.

    And I believe several of you have hit the nail on the head. Shakespeare is written to be performed. Take a visual aspect and it goes flat.

    Oh and I didn't like Middlemarch in school, but when I was working in BBC drama we did a production of it and I loved it. (Maybe because a certain man I was interested in was playing the lead)

  27. Rhys, I love your topic today. It sent me way back to childhood and a developing love of reading and responsibility. Thank you.

    We had a 7th grade assignment to read and write a report on a play. Mr. Grassia was very pleased to tell us that we could choose any play we wanted. We had the weekend to choose the play and bring our copy in on Monday to discuss why we chose it.

    On Monday Mr. Grassia had a room full of 11 and 12 year olds with no plays to read. The school library didn't have any. The town library didn't have any. Really. He shrugged his shoulders and said, "That is the assignment."

    Some students had parents who worked in Boston and were able to find plays there. Some students shared the plays they found in odd places. The neighbor's garage was popular spot to look.

    One student found a book of plays at a dump site near Nutting's Lake it is. Yes, that kind of dump site. Local kids used to search the woods for remains. Maybe they still do.

    I rode my bike to Woburn and, with my cousin Alan's library card, checked out the only play I could find, Hamlet. Mr. Grassia smiled. I always wanted to ask if he gave us that assignment on purpose to make us scramble and cooperate, or did he just like upsetting kids. I decided to ask him when I grew up.

    I read Hamlet and forged through by reading the annotations, which I'd never heard of before. I didn't understand anything, except the "Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio" bit. Well no, I didn't really understand it, but I knew what was happening. Kind of.

    So, while I hated the assignment, and no one's helping or providing the necessary reading materials, I did become personally invested in my education. Three cheers for Anthony R. Grassia!

    Yes, I did look him up when I was an adult. It took years, and the new Internet—only to find his obituary and learn that he'd moved on to teach high school English near Boston and had lived very close by for several years. I know he would have been pleased with how I turned out. I wish I'd found him sooner.

  28. Debs, I think The Great Gatsby is, especially today, a poignant story—a cautionary tale of the dangers inherent in the American dream. It isn't about bored rich people. It's about a whole country full of people who cannot let go of the promise of the possibility of becoming rich. In return for the dream we allow the keepers of great wealth to keep us from obtaining, not the dream, but what each of us is entitled to.

  29. Michael NethercottJune 20, 2014 at 6:37 PM

    Hank, I remember my best friend in my high school years telling me he was assigned Ethan Frome and thought it was the most boring book ever written. I read it as an adult and thought it was great. I'm guessing the literary subtleties and sexual undercurrents flew right past my buddy's poor sixteen year old mind!

  30. Julia, I devoured the Little House books as a kid, but I picked up one what you were saying in, of all places, the TV series. Caroline had a neighbor friend (who later died in a fire, which ruined the series for me) with whom she used to share rolled-eye looks about Mrs. Olsen, and I though, "Someone GETS friendship between women."

    Deborah, I adore Puccini-- and Wagner. But, although I adore Mozart's "Don Giovanni," I will NEVER willingly attend another performance of "Cosi Fan Tutte" or "The Magic Flute." My favorite-- I swear I know every note-- remains "Carmen," though.

    I suppose I will have to pick up a copy of "Ethan Frome" now. We also read "Julius Caesar" in 8th grade, and I loved it then and love it still. Mark Anthony's sarcasm in that funeral oration.

    We did a musical Hamlet (book by the late Howard Kissel) for the Columbia spring show my freshman year. So I knew every line (Polonius's advice as a madrigal, anyone?) Then I went to "Rosencrantz and Guildensern are Dead" when it first opened on Broadway. How wonderful to see Hamlet as a walk-on in a play about their lives! Sheer genius, even better if you know the original almost by heart.

    I went to see Gielgud in a performance in the West End back in the Sixties. He was AWFUL. And my mom thought she was exposing me to Culture by dragging me to see Eva LeGalliene in something by Ibsen when I was about eight. Eight year olds do not appreciate Ibsen. Not sure I would appreciate his plays even now-- way too heavy. If I'm going to read about frivolous women getting into trouble, I'll take Mme. Bovary and Anna Karenina.

  31. If I didn't like it to begin with, I still don't. And I've finally learned I don't HAVE to finish a book just because I started it. There were some I didn't finish but always felt guilty and like someone would take away my library card if they found out. ;)

  32. This post hit at a perfect time; I’ve been obsessing about what books to read and when as a result of the firestorm over whether “The Fault in our Stars” should be a book that adults enjoy as well as the books for whom “YA” novels were intended.

    As someone whose second career is now focused on Dickens, I will say that I did not appreciate “Great Expectations” when I read it at fourteen. I wasn’t ready for it and, from what I’ve learned since I started teaching Dickens to adults who thought they didn't like him, neither were many people who read it at that age and consequently relegated Dickens to the ashheap. Fortunately, I didn’t have that reaction, but I didn’t love it until I was in my thirties, and now I see it as the finest achievement of Dickens’s art (but not my favorite novel: “Our Mutual Friend” will always hold that place).

    When we are younger and impressionable we should read books that we can access and those that challenge either our language skills or our ideas, but not perhaps both simultaneously, or we risk being turned off. I found “TFIOS” accessible and its criticism of being unreal facile. So what if the teenagers speak like college Rhetoric majors; does anyone want to hear thirteen-year old Juliet sound her age? Art has the privilege of being heightened to make a point, and Green is working harder at his art than the final product displays. He knows how to tell a story with a three-act structure like the best craftsmen out there. If his book opens the world of reading to someone, then it’s a good thing.

    I hated the cross-dressing in “Twelfth Night” and “As You Like It” when I read them at age fifteen—after I saw them performed live I understood what was going on. I still love “Moby Dick” and “Ethan Frome” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Scarlet Letter” and “Far from the Madding Crowd” and almost all of those other books I read when I was young and somewhat precocious. To all those who hated a book earlier in life, I say: give it another try. It may be the same book, but you’ve become another person. You may be ready for its message.

    Unless it's Ayn Rand. Put her down right now and move on.

  33. Just another Edith Wharton to recommend, and better second time reading-the Age of Innocence, just about my favorite book. And I also find a lot of the Great Gatsby not so great but the very end is some of the most beautiful profound writing ever, I think.