The Misanthrope- Moliere

The Misanthrope by Moliere is a play about manners and ethics of the French nobility. Alceste is a rather grumpy, off putting character who believes in personal integrity- in acting and talking to someone the same way as you talk and feel about them when they aren’t there (no being polite to their face and bitching behind their back- be rude to them in person too if that is how you feel!) He would rather not falsely call someone a friend, until he truly considers them as such. Most of his contempories prefer to hide negative thoughts about someone in order to follow social niceties.

Surprisingly, he has fallen in love with a socialite who loves to say witty but rude things about people she and her guests have in common. She says she loves him, but is she true?

The play contrasts the extremes of fake pleasantness vs harsh truthfullness in its characters, with only Alceste’s friend Philinte acting with a happy medium- being polite in social circumstances, but truthful when a friend needs to be told how he is going wrong.

It is a fairly pleasant read, but I found myself wondering by the end what the point really was. It is funny because recently my brother and I ended up accidentally both separately attending Tartuffe (or the Hypocrite) at the theatre on the same night. He felt like he couldn’t see why that play was written- what the point was- whereas I didn’t feel that way. Tartuffe is a play about a conman who has weaselled his way into the favour of the father of a rich family by pretending to be a holy man. He in fact is a terrible man who wants to sleep with the wife and steal all their money. He is creepy, dirty, sleazy and the type of man who makes your skin crawl, but at the start the whole family can see this but not get the dad (and grandma) to. This set it up for a good fun time of the family trying to plan how to bring him down, with lots of humour and awkwardness and catastophies and a steady drive towards the climactic confrontation. At the same time there was an underlying commentary on  people who are false or self serving in religion, and those who are gullible or seem to prefer to not look too deeply at what is going on.

I suspect that like with many plays, I would perhaps have gotten more out of the Misanthrope if I saw it performed. I suppose that the issue around where the border is between telling white lies to keep people happy and being fake, is one that holds throughout the ages and is still worth contemplating now.

The Pillars of the Earth

-by Ken Follett

This book was leant to me by a friend who loves historical fiction, with the  praise of being her favourite book ever. Unexpectedly, it is about the building of a cathedral in twelfth century England. Spanning 50 years, it follows a group of key figures who are working towards the building of the cathedral, and their enemies who want to stop them. Politics, religion and ambition intertwine, shaping the outcome of whole towns.

The story is based very much in a few character’s everyday life and thoughts, with the interconnected, overarching politics seeming both an outside force that is slightly set apart from them, and a web they are inherently involved in and creating. Each main character has different areas they focus on based on their interests, having both somewhat mundane and somewhat specialised areas- the master builder will think about his family, relationship and sex, as well as wax lyrical about the beauty and mathematics of building a cathedral; the priest focusses on both the practical aspects of running the priory and building the cathedral, and the spiritual aspects of what he is doing.

At 1070 pages, it is a long read, but not a difficult one. There are diversions into stories that I can’t quite call side stories- each character has the time and space in this novel to have a significant period of there life explored, and while not all that happens directly influences the main story of the building, everything comes together in the end to inexorably lead towards the final building. I often found these diversion, or explorations, to be some of the most interesting bits- they were often about how a relationship formed or changed. The novel could still work without a lot of these explorations and be much shorter, but but the length and depth gives a sense of the slow, steady progress of time, and the holistic nature of life (everything is interconnected).

The Rosie Project

-by Graeme Simsion

Don is a genetics professor who is searching for a wife. His efforts so far have not been successful at all, and as a logical person he decides there has to be a way to eliminate unlikely matches earlier and streamline the process. He creates a 16 page questionnaire, which has to be answered in a very specific way to prove compatibility. But then Rosie comes along- in reality she just wants an answer to a question to settle a bet, but he mistakes her as a candidate and his world is never the same again.

I loved this book. While it is easy to imagine how the main character Don, who probably has undiagnosed Aspergers syndrome,  could be annoying or exasperating to those in his life, it is really fun and interesting to read his story.  Don’s way of thinking means that he often has less detail about the things we usually notice and describe to give a reader a sense of a room or a person, but more about things we don’t- more little facts about human nature and the inconsistencies we live with without realising. There were a few things that he pointed out that made total sense to me- for example he doesn’t decorate his apartment, because the human brain ignores things that are the same as previously and only notices the new- so he thinks what is the use paying and arranging decorations that he will only appreciate for a week or so. For me, I can’t see things if there is too much clutter- if the fridge is full I can’t see anything to eat, so I keep it at least half empty, and I have noticed that if you leave some mess out long enough you stop noticing it.

All in all this book is very light hearted and easy to read. I imagine almost anyone would enjoy it, unless they are the type of person who just has one genre they like and don’t like any others.

 

Outlander- Diana Gabaldon

I was quite surprised by this book. I am not sure quite what I was expecting- probably a fun historical fantasy adventure that could be classified as ‘young adult’, because the last time I have read books with elements of historical fiction and fantasy was a few years ago. Also it was recommended by two friends who I know as bright bubbly mothers and professionals. I was pre-warned that the outlander TV series has an entire episode around a rape or something similar (haven’t watched it yet and it was mentioned in undertones in the tearoom- I think that’s what she said) that one of the girls found a bit too much. But I was still caught by surprise at how ‘adult’ this book was.

 

Claire Randall is on a holiday with her husband researching his family history in Scotland after the end of the second world war which kept them apart for most of their married life. Unexpectedly, Claire finds herself transported back in time to 1743, where she finds herself caught between a skirmish of the English and the Scottish. She is taken to be kept an eye on by the Scots, and after a period of disbelief, learns to live among them. And it is rough. There is poverty and corrupt use of power, men who have never heard of feminism, people who enjoy torture, there is rape, witch trials, domestic violence,  almost being killed by wild animals, infighting and sex… lots of sex.

 

The writing style was fairly straight forward. It was written in first person from Claire’s point of view. The Scots’ speech was written in their accent with local words thrown in, but I didn’t find it was too hard to understand.

 

There is always something fascinating about historical works- what I found most interesting was the harshness of life, compared with say  most of Shakespeare’s plays, or the Tudors series- which do have violence and treacherous politics but still manage to have a sheen of pleasantness, respectability and orderliness. Life in Outlander seems much more archaic and less modern than life in those other works which were set in a time 200 years earlier- the focus on nobility in the earlier works is probably the reason for this.

 

Overall I still haven’t decided if I am going to keep on with the series- at times it was a bit too adult and I wasn’t enjoying it, but there is a part of me that wants to read the next books because they go to interesting places and times.