If We Were Villains ~ #JNGReads

If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio is a unique and engaging mystery novel, but unfortunately it failed to grip me quite as much as I thought it would.

It is nearly impossible to say anything about this novel’s plot without including spoilers, so I will keep my summary short. If We Were Villains follows the story of Oliver Marks (the narrator) and his 6 fellow students as they attend an acting program geared specifically toward performing Shakespeare. We first meet Oliver as he is being released from prison after serving a 10 year sentence for a crime related to a tragedy that occurs during the students’ senior year at Dellecher. Oliver then recounts his story and the events leading up to his convictions, and we as readers piece together the story as we move closer toward Oliver’s trial and entrance into prison. In this sense, we already know the outcome/end of the story before it has even really begun.

This is a fantastic and fascinating premise for a mystery novel, and my issues in getting into the story did not have anything to do with the plot, which I found very intriguing. Rather, I found it very difficult to connect with any of the characters because I could not bring myself to like them or care what happened to them, including Oliver himself. Now that I sit down to write this review, I am finding it almost impossible to describe why I didn’t love the novel or the characters because each one of them was interesting enough. Each character had their own quirks, background and personality, but for some reason, they all fell flat for me and I found myself getting annoyed with them more than anything. I found Alexander to be irritating and thought his jokes weren’t funny and were poorly timed; I thought Meredith was self-centered and very difficult to get to know because she was such a total femme fatale stereotype and seemed to have no more layers than that; and I found that Wren and Filippa just faded into the background and didn’t stand out to me at all. Arguably, the three most interesting characters are James, Richard and Oliver, but I found James to be too much of a good guy, Richard too overdone as a villain, and Oliver just plain whiny. That was maybe the hardest part of the novel to accept, for me: I expected Oliver to be this super intricate character, and I wanted him to rival the unreliable narrators I’ve encountered in such great novels as The Moonstone and, more recently, Gillespie and I. Instead, all Oliver seemed to do was get overly nostalgic and sentimental, idolize and dote on his fellow students, and overall absolve all of them of any of their guilt because he held them on such a high pedestal. It grated on my nerves at points and also made it hard for me to care about Oliver…which meant that I didn’t feel any real eagerness to learn why he ended up in prison or any anxiety about his situation because I sort of assumed his own stupidity landed him there.

Moreover, although I love Shakespeare and I’m the first to appreciate a quote from one of his plays coming from either the mouth of a real person or a fictional character, I found it totally heavy-handed how often Oliver and his school mates quoted the Bard. Sure, I get it, they are theatre students and they only act in Shakespearean plays, and having them say a couple quotes here and there in conversation would’ve been cool, but a significant portion of their dialogue came straight from Shakespeare’s plays (not to mention the scenes when they are actually acting on stage and large chunks of the plays are transcribed). This just made it even harder to connect with the characters because none of them really had a voice of their own. I felt like I knew Shakespeare better than any of the characters by the time I finished If We Were Villains. Not to mention the fact that since the quotes were interwoven into every day conversation, I found myself having to pause and dissect exactly how they fit into the scene I was reading and why the character would’ve chosen to speak that specific line. This was a jarring experience and took me right out of the drama and mystery every time it happened.

That being said, If We Were Villains is an enjoyable enough book. It’s not awful by any means, and I actually quite liked the plot, even if I didn’t like the characters. I think I should also note that I recently finished the Six of Crows duology which features such a strong cast of characters, all working together, that it was hard not to compare the 7 main characters of If We Were Villains to the strong and diverse group in Six of Crows. I’m sure there are many readers out there who would have better luck with If We Were Villains, and indeed, there are some rave reviews of it on Goodreads, so I encourage readers who like unique thrillers or who have a particular fondness for Shakespeare to give it a shot. Hopefully you’ll find something to connect to in it!

❥❥❥.5 (out of 5)

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

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Be True

Good morning Dear Readers and welcome to another pseudo-JNGReads post!

Today I’ll be posting a quote, but it’s not from a piece of literature that I’ve read (or at least not recently)…it’s from a piece of literature that I saw acted and performed.

Yesterday, my brother, my boyfriend and I went to a local movie theatre to watch the National Theatre Live production of Hamlet, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. I’ve seen NT Live performances before, most notably the staging of The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall which will undoubtedly get its own blog post sometime very soon, and I have never been disappointed by the experience! I think the whole concept of the NT Live screening is brilliant: as a viewer, you get the opportunity to watch a live screening of a play or musical or ballet or opera or any such similar event from the comforts of your nearest movie theatre. So, for example, yesterday afternoon, BBG, SS and I were able to watch Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet from our suburban town in Canada, all while he was performing at the Barbican Theatre in London, England. Isn’t that just incredible?! Obviously I would’ve loved to be able to go to London and see the production live, but that sort of spontaneous travel isn’t possible for most people, and the NT Live screenings give viewers from all over the world the opportunity to participate in monumental theatre events with the utmost convenience. I already have a whole list of other NT Live screenings I’m hoping to see before the end of the year!

Now, on to a review of the play itself…

Make It So

It was just as incredible as you would expect with an actor as talented as Cumberbatch fronting the whole ensemble. He was a remarkable Hamlet! I’ve only see Hamlet performed once before, but it was a university level production…and although it was quite good, it was nothing compared to the production yesterday. Cumberbatch absolutely lived and breathed the role of Hamlet – he was so believable as the tormented Danish prince, and I could not comprehend how easily he would burst into tears and then how quickly he would collect himself and become effortlessly composed. I believed him instantly as a young man who had gone mad with grief and anger, and he was also able to infuse humour into many parts of the story. I haven’t actually read Hamlet since my final year of high school (more on this later…), but I have always loved the play and so many of the quotes replay in my mind on a regular basis. But, to hear those quotes spoken and expertly articulated by someone as skilled as Cumberbatch was truly enjoyable! Here’s one of the quotes that spoke to me so vividly yesterday (as it did when I first read the play years ago) and that was so precisely articulated by Cumberbatch as to make it more poignant than ever before:

“…there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” – Hamlet, Shakespeare

Isn’t that line just so true? Part of what I love about Hamlet’s character is the fact that he really recognizes the power of a person’s own mind – he fully realizes that the mind is a place where thoughts and worries and doubts and fears can replay constantly and without cease, and it is up to the person themself to work through these thoughts, to frame them in a way that will either be beneficial and easily overcome or in a manner that will be totally detrimental and destructive. I just love this idea! I’ve always been an introspective person, and I spend a lot of time in my own head, working things out, revisiting the same ideas over and over to get control over them and manage them…and a line like that just makes this sort of activity seem normal and necessary and healthy. It’s also helpful in that it encourages a person to be optimistic, to remember that if something seems insurmountable and difficult, it can be got over and dealt with if you just take the time to think about it and spin the negative into a positive within your own psyche. What a profound piece of advice from a troubled prince!

Silence…

…is not something that there was much of in this production of Hamlet. The actors were loud, the music was forceful and the staging was lively. Every single one of the actors was so committed to their role, and the actresses who played Ophelia and Gertrude really stood out to me because they were passionate about delivering their lines and fearless about portraying their emotions. There were multiple moments when these women wept (I don’t think Ophelia ever stopped crying, to be honest!), and in moments of intense feeling and anguish, all of the actors would scream and rage in the most realistic display of emotions I’ve seen in a long time. Nothing was quiet about this play, or calm, or subtle. The stage was even filled with dirt for the entire second half of the play, and I was amazed that the actors were able to sludge around in the mud and still deliver their lines perfectly. The cast was comprised of some extremely talented professionals, and they all held their own opposite Cumberbatch…there was such strength in every performance!

Papa Polonius

And finally, I should get to today’s main quote and explain the reason why Hamlet has always touched me so deeply.

Okay, yes, Polonius is a bit of a ridiculous character. Most of the time, he’s just raving about random stuff and he makes some of the most terrible decisions in the entire play (which is saying a lot!). He’s basically like that father or grandfather figure who doesn’t really know what he’s talking about, but you listen to him to be polite…and then, occasionally, he does say something really truthful and you can’t help thinking that maybe he really was brilliant all along.

Well, I really like Polonius, and I happen to think that he provides some of the greatest moments of wisdom in the whole play. My absolute favourite quote comes from Polonius, and it is definitely a motto that everyone should live their life by.

Be True

“This above all: to thine own self be true…” – Hamlet, Shakespeare

When I first read Hamlet during grade 12, I was struggling with who I was and who I wanted to be. I had some not so supportive “friends” at the time who made me feel really guilty and insecure about a lot of aspects of my personality, and I knew that once I entered university, I had to figure out what parts of myself I wanted to keep and cherish, and what pieces were better left inside my high school’s walls. I wasn’t a partier at all in high school, I definitely did not like the idea of “hooking up”, and I still only drink on very rare occasions these days, and I found myself being criticized almost constantly because I allegedly didn’t know how to have any fun, was too obsessed with school and my grades, and thought I was too good for everybody else because of my desire to always be as responsible and mature as possible. I don’t know if as a girl in grade 12 I owed it to myself to “live a little” and go to a couple parties and not focus all of my energy into my tests and essays…I don’t know what my life would’ve been like if I had chosen a different path when my “friends” critiqued me. What I do know is that, at the time, changing my personality felt utterly impossible. I just couldn’t fathom doing things any differently because I wasn’t comfortable with the idea whatsoever. Yes, I felt tormented and there were many moments when I was even fed up with myself, almost wishing that I could’ve been the type of girl who didn’t care so much about the future and who was willing to take more risks. But, it wasn’t in my nature, and even when I desperately wanted to spend my night partying and meeting guys rather than studying, I knew that there was a reason my heart (not yet fully green, but getting there) wanted me to stay home. When I got to school on the Monday mornings after party-filled weekends, I always discovered why: I wasn’t overly fond of the stories I heard about what went on at these parties, and I was always grateful that I hadn’t been around to witness my friends or my crush or the girl or guy I had to work on a project with acting in a manner that I could only describe as foolish.

I don’t want to sound stuck up (lest my “friends” actually turn out to be right!), but I just didn’t understand the point of getting drunk and making decisions that you’d definitely regret in the morning, and I still don’t. But, oh, how I struggled with being the girl who always turned down invitations to parties, who arrived at prom by herself instead of pre-drinking (Is that what it’s even called?), who had no event to go to after graduation. I wasn’t alone without choosing to be so – I had “friends”, but I just didn’t feel like I could be 100% true to myself around them.

And, that, I was learning in my English class through the wise words of Polonius, was what I needed to do. If I wanted to live well and live fully, I had to be true to myself 100% of the time, in every circumstance. I held onto Polonius’ words as a sort of mantra – I had to believe that if I just stayed true to myself, I would one day find my niche, the place I was meant to be and the people who would love me with all my formerly unpopular opinions. And, I’m pleased to say, I did. I thrived in university, I met people who loved studying as much as I did. I was able to say proudly, No, sorry, I actually don’t drink, without seeing looks of disdain and annoyance. And, when I was invited on a trip to New York City during my third year of university to study Chaucer manuscripts at establishments like Columbia and Princeton University, I stumbled upon a beautiful silver necklace in the gift shop of the gorgeous Morgan Library with Polonius’ words engraved elegantly on it (pictured above). I knew right away that I needed the necklace – I had remained true to myself, upon Polonius’ instruction, for so many years, and I finally felt happy with and confident in the woman I was becoming.

To hear those words spoken yesterday…well, it meant a lot. Now, I’ve fully become the woman I always wanted to be and I know that it’s all down to the fact that I have always known myself.

Happy Sunday Dear Friends – stay true!

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

my green heart

Meant to be Broken – #JNGReads

Welcome to this week’s #JNGReads blog post! In this post, I can’t help but reiterate a number of ideas I’ve already talked about here already…but the quote I found was just too perfect to resist, and once again I have a sort of thesis that indicates exactly why I started this blog to begin with!

I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a rebel, by any standards. I mean, last summer I dyed a pink streak into my hair, but that’s pretty much the extent of my life’s rebellions. A little lame, I know. What some of you might find surprising, though, is that starting this very blog was an act of rebellion of sorts, especially after coming out of an English MA program at a relatively rigid academic institution.

Let’s begin with my quote selection for this weekend, and then things will become a bit clearer:

“I felt passionate about the subjects I wrote about, but there were conventions and rules to follow…” – Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi

Once again, Azar Nafisi has perfectly summed up my entire experience of my Master’s degree: I had such hopes, such love for literature, so many lofty ideas, and yet, I was forced to fit them all inside a bubble, into a set of objectives and aims. I was often not interested in doing that, and I had minor moments of rebellion, when I would vehemently disagree with a professor’s opinion in a seminar (and prove my own point with textual examples, of course) or when I would gush and gush about characters, particularly one Mr. Rochester, as if they were real, alive and breathing beside me. Would I say that I got into trouble for these moments of overwhelming emotion? Not exactly…but I was sometimes used as an example of what NOT to do in an academic career…because naturally, an academic should never feel anything about literature under any circumstances. *Insert eye roll here.*

So basically, long story short, and as you all already know from reading some of the other pages on this blog, I completed my MA, got my shining white diploma, and started this dear ol’ blog to talk about literature how I wanted and with as much darn passion and emotion as I believe is necessary and appropriate. And let me tell you, I feel that A LOT of emotion and feeling is necessary and appropriate when discussing novels, or poetry, or works of theatre. Sure, rules are all well and good…sometimes. But, why would I want to follow rules when talking about a piece of culture that was born out of some author’s feelings and passions? I’m sure Jane Austen didn’t feel entirely neutral when she wrote about Elizabeth and Darcy; I’m certain that Shakespeare wasn’t devoid of passion when he wrote Romeo’s passionate speeches to Juliet; and I am 100% positive that Charlotte Brontë felt a lot of things about the love story of her Jane and Rochester…a lot of things that I have no doubt she would’ve wanted me to feel as well, and to rant and rave about as loudly as I can.

So welcome again all you dear followers to this blog that is full of and ruled by emotions and feeling. Thank you for joining me on this ride, and for helping me break some rules that I was never particularly fond of to begin with!

JNG

Girl with a (Very Big) Green Heart

my green heart

How to Dress Like a 20th Century Phonetics Professor (ie- Henry Higgins)

‘Ello Guvnas!

Okay, that was awkward, but I can explain my Eliza Doolittle-esque greeting! Today I am proud to present a blog entry that I’ve been working on for quite some time! I’ve had these photos saved on my computer for months, and I thought it was high time that I shared them with you. I’m so excited! 😀

I’ll try to calm down for a second and elaborate further. I’ve ALWAYS been a fan of the musical My Fair Lady. Seriously, when I was just a wee little thing, my grandfather introduced me to the movie adaptation with Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn and it was LOVE at first sight! This movie is absolutely incredible – hilarious, emotional, rambunctious, educational, beautiful. It’s just everything you could ever want in a film, especially if (like me) you love British things, you enjoy 20th century speech and clothing, and you have a particular fondness for curmudgeonly older gentlemen. I have to admit, I fell in love with Henry Higgins from the opening of the film, when he starts his diatribe about the English not being able to speak properly. I don’t want to say outright that I’m a bit critical of peoples’ grammar, but, okay, I am…I can’t help it, I’m an English “Master” after all! So, like Professor Higgins, I’ve always found myself saddened by the fact that people don’t talk like they used to, in the good ol’ days! (Sidenote: I’m also very critical of how people text these days – in my opinion, there is NEVER an occasion when it is okay to say “u” instead of “you” or “r” instead of “are”! The English language could be so beautiful if we let it be!)

Anyway, I pretty much put Henry Higgins on a pedestal (I’m sure he would’ve been very proud to be there!) and reading George Bernard Shaw’s original text Pygmalion in my university years did nothing to take him off. He’s even better when you read him, because then his witty rejoinders and critical comments really take full affect. I get it, many people find Henry Higgins sexist, and sure, he is! But he’s also a classic portrayal of the 20th century professor, and I think that if you choose to find him a little bit ridiculous, you can actually have a good laugh with him! I believe that Rex Harrison steals the show from Audrey Hepburn (who is very loverly, no doubt, and I do adore her!)…and I’ll admit again that I’ve had about a dozen crushes on professors over the years just because I thought they were all surely exactly like Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins in real-life. I also took linguistics courses in university mainly because I was convinced that I wanted to be a professor of phonetics – imagine my pride when my first year linguistics mark turned out to be my highest in all of my university career, all thanks to the fear that My Fair Lady would be forever ruined for me if I didn’t put 1 million % effort into the course!

Now, the inspiration for this post (to get to the point) comes from one of Professor Higgins’ most famous questions to his bestie Colonel Pickering: Why can’t a woman be more like a man? Sexist, I know…gender stereotypes galore, I get it. But bear with me here; Shakespeare played with this idea too, in his famous comedy Twelfth Night (my absolute favourite Shakespearean play), and I have always thought it would be so fun to dress up like a man for a day. Sadly, our society does subscribe to traditional views about male and female dress, but it is for us to break these molds and be a little more creative with fashion, so that’s what I tried to do with the outfits you are about to see below. As I’ve said time and time again, I’m an academic at heart, and I love the way male professors seem to dress in every pop culture representation (and, honestly, often in real-life), so I chose these outfits lovingly and with excitement to try to emulate one of my favourite professors and literary characters of all time.

It all began when I wore the outfit below to work. I looked at myself in the mirror and thought: I could totally see Henry Higgins pairing a white dress shirt with a sweater exactly in this way. I was immediately more confident, so I simply had to take a picture.

How To Dress Like A 20th Century Phonetics Professor

Then, my mom and I found this navy cardigan. I was sold as soon as I saw the arm patches…classic Henry Higgins! I had to buy it straight away!

The Sweater of a 20th Century Phonetics Professor

So, I had a number of tops that would befit my dear friend Henry Higgins. But what about something to wear on my feet? Well, I had just the pair of shoes, what I like to call my Oxford shoes, perfect for strolling around campus or sitting at a desk conducting research or typing lecture notes.

20th Century Phonetics Professor Shoes

Now, it’s literally just occurred to me that many of you may not know what Henry Higgins looks like (a travesty – GO watch the movie ASAP!), so before I do my big reveal and show you an entire outfit, here’s a photo of the movie cover on my bookshelf. You can see Professor Higgins in all his glory in the bottom right corner.

My Fair Lady

Keeping that image of Henry Higgins in mind, take a look at the final outfit I constructed to make myself look like a 20th century phonetics professor.

IMG_1900

So there you have it: a little How To. I hope you enjoyed! Let me know what you think of my outfits in the comments below please!

Now I’m off to go do a dramatic reenactment of Henry Higgins singing “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” in my bedroom. Like actually, not kidding!

Toodles!

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

my green heart

What Next?

I have only about 100 pages left of Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name, but I figured today would be a good day to write a first entry about the book and my impressions about a specific aspect of it. I’m off work today (it’s a holiday in Ontario) and I’m sitting comfortably on my bed, in my oversized University of Toronto hoodie (You’ll see just how ironic this is soon…), reading at a slow and leisurely pace and watching the sun glimmer on the snow outside my window. I’m in a contemplative mood again, and so I think it’s definitely time to write about an aspect of Goldman’s work that spoke to me from the moment I reached page 153, where I found this quote:

“[Aura had] spent her first semester at Columbia taking classes that particularly required her to learn a new language – critical theory…”

Okay, I’ll give you all some context about why I felt deeply connected to Aura when I read this sentence. If you’ve read the other pages on this blog (specifically ~About the Girl with a Green Heart~), you know that I felt pretty disillusioned during my Master’s degree; what you don’t know is that my annoyance with academia came from all the darn critical, theoretical literature I was being forced to read in every single class (not to mention the one class that was entirely about critical theory and didn’t have a single novel on the syllabus)! Honestly, I do not and will never love critical theory…it is just too dry and boring and technical for me! If I wanted to study science, I would study science…and I have never ever ever had the instinct to dissect a fictional text in such an objective, mathematical manner…it seems crazy and counterintuitive to me in every way! Sure, I respect Foucault and Derrida (I mean, they’re geniuses and I’m not even going to try to comprehend their works) and I actually do enjoy some of Roland Barthes’ ideas. But I have no interest in applying every single theory of a particular academic to the work of my most favourite author. I could be wrong, but I don’t think Charlotte Brontë or Shakespeare or Milton would’ve given much thought to what such-and-such literary theorist from such-and-such university would one day say about their texts. And I really do believe, at the core of my green heart, that obsessing over critical and theoretical applications takes the joy, pleasure and romance out of reading any piece of literature.

Okay, so after that rant, you can understand why I found my MA a little less than inspiring. I wasn’t altogether thrilled about stifling my emotions and making sure that every single claim I made in a paper was backed up by pages and pages of critical theory. Come on, doesn’t the academic world want to produce anything unique these days?

Apparently not. And I think Goldman’s Aura really senses that too. I have more evidence than just that one quote:

“Aura was discovering in those days that she wasn’t like the other grad students, ideologically prohibited from considering the person and mischief of the author.”

“…during one of their thesis meetings, [Aura’s professor] said, Oh, Aura, really, you are still so innocent. We have to get rid of this naïve love you have for the literary text.

The love of literature isn’t innocent or naïve, thought [Aura].”

Obviously it’s gratifying to read passages like these and realize that I’m not alone in my frustrations. I cannot understand, I will never be able to wrap my mind around why it is so wrong to LOVE characters, to try to get at and dialogue with their creators. I just don’t see why the academic world is so afraid of passion and feeling. And I feel that Aura struggled with this very dilemma.

Would I be doing my PhD right now if someone could guarantee that I wouldn’t have to read another critical text? Probably. I would definitely be doing it if I had gotten through my MA with a more positive attitude and hadn’t been challenged for having emotions about the novels I was reading. Don’t get me wrong, I am so proud to have a Master’s degree, and a part of me still wants to achieve the highest level of academic distinction. But I’m not going to reduce my friends, the characters I have grown to adore with all my (green, green, GREEN) heart to archetypes or pawns in theoretical formulae. I can’t do it – I don’t want to come to hate books through studying them!

So what’s next for me? Many people have been asking me this lately, and I think it’s time to arrive at an answer. I love my job at the moment, taking on new tasks and roles (that’s right, a lot can change in a month and my attitude is much more optimistic than it was when I wrote my first personal entry!), and I’m not in any position to question that. Because I didn’t love my MA all the way through…and, to be frank, at this time last year, I really didn’t even like it at all. So I’m going to do what I’m loving now…until I can make a case for the fact that working toward a PhD wouldn’t require trampling on my love for the sentiments evoked by the written word. And Aura had her own answer for the question people have been asking me, as well:

“I wish to be me. I am not me when I am an academic. I am not an academic nor will I ever be.”

Take that [insert name of critical theorist here]!

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart (…and, okay, a Master’s too!)

my green heart