{Review} The Elements of Blogging

It’s 2014 and everyone knows what a blog is. Whether you’re a seasoned pro or just starting your first blog, a common question is, “Where do I start?”

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of books about how to blog: tips about things like creating a domain, SEO, choosing a theme (or designing your own), etc. All of these are important but what if you don’t care about generating thousands of hits to your site or are overwhelmed by all this stuff you have to apparently learn to run a successful blog? Then look no further than The Elements of Blogging by Jacob Miller (kineticbear.com).

In The Elements of Blogging, blogging is boiled down to the basics – content. From tips for coming up with ideas, harnessing creativity and imagination, and most of all the motivation to keep up blogging, Jacob’s book will endlessly inspire. Interspersed throughout the book are stories from fellow bloggers (including yours truly*) about how they got started blogging.

True to Jacob’s style on his blog, Kinetic Bear, the ideas in this book are presented as suggestions and guidelines rather than rules and can be a helpful, refreshing reminder for bloggers who might feel as if blogging (and successful blogging) has become determined by traffic and numbers, not quality and content. If there was a self-help book for bloggers, this is it.

You can buy The Elements of Blogging on iBooks and Amazon, or download it as a pay-what-you-want PDF. Learn more about Jacob’s book here.

*I was one of the first readers of The Elements of Blogging, as well as one of the people who helped edit it and contributed my story. I am not paid to write this review. I am simply sharing a great book by a friend.

Written and published with Desk Publishing Machine.

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National Theatre Live: Coriolanus

Last month I saw National Theatre Live’s broadcast of Coriolanus with Tom Hiddleston and Mark Gatiss. Firstly, it was an amazing play and brilliant production; I am all the more glad for having seen it. Broadcast live from London, it was a different experience to watch a play in a movie theatre and one that is unique: using six different cameras to film the play, there were close-ups of the actors in various scenes and other angles that would be impossible to witness in a regular theatre attendance, in which one’s vantage point would be determined where one sat, etc., as well as two interval features: one before the start of the play, explaining the play and its context, and the second an interview with the play’s director, Josie Rourke. Both of these featurettes I enjoyed.1

I became interested in seeing Coriolanus as I learned more about it and was eventually convinced to see it after watching a video of Mark Gatiss talking about the play (video below). In preparation, I borrowed two2 copies of the play from the library: the Arden Shakespeare edition and the Folger Shakespeare Library. (While the text can be easily found online, I like to read the footnotes and learn the context of archaic or obscure meanings to different words, etc.) Of the two, Arden is more scholarly and I confess that I barely made a dent in reading either edition before going to see it and in a way, I am kind of happy to have gone to see the play with a blank slate; for once I didn’t know what to expect or anticipate in a Shakespeare play!

(Note: a higher quality version on The Telegraph is available here.)

One of Shakespeare’s more obscure plays, it is also his most politically driven and even has the apparent distinction of being banned in modern democracies (although there are little facts to support this, when I researched this). Some critics have read and analyzed the play as being “biography dramatized”, reflecting the political turmoil of Jacobean England during the Midlands Revolt in 1607 when prices of wheat and corn soared. It is doubtless, however, that Coriolanus is a topical drama for now and thus, is timeless as political commentary.

Caius Martius, the protagonist and renamed Coriolanus after a siege on the city of Corioles, is stubbornly contemptuous, prideful, and is a character that one could easily fast dislike but for the marked vulnerability that he’s imbued with by Tom Hiddleston’s stellar performance, instead creating a character whom one is able to understand where he’s coming from, even if not fully able to sympathize with or relate to as a character. This does not mean he is an unsympathetic character, or completely irredeemable, yet his flaws overshadow his virtues; in the words of Menenius, “His heart is his mouth; what his breast forges, that his tongue must vent.” Caius Martius is a soldier, but he is not a politician. He does not possess, or has cultivated, the way of language and wit like Menenius, delightful to watch and who is brilliantly played by Mark Gatiss. (Menenius’s mannerisms sometimes reminded me, more than once, of Mycroft from the BBC Sherlock.)

Josie Rourke’s production takes the brilliant turn of interpreting Coriolanus from a neutral standpoint so that the audience is able to see Coriolanus and the mob for what they are, all the while turning expectations on their head. Early on I assumed that I would take the side of the people but, conversely, by giving insight, in little ways, into Coriolanus I was driven to near exasperation by the plebeians, and especially the tribunes who stirred the pot that leads to Coriolanus’s banishment from Rome and the events thereafter. The one moment that is truly private, to which the audience is witness, and that compels our understanding of him and prepares us for the opposition of the tribunes, is a shower scene in which he washes away the blood after battle and we see his gruesome wounds for the first and only time. (The makeup is so well-done that I was taken aback and cringed upon seeing them.)

Part of what makes this production work so well is the stark minimalism of the set. The Donmar Warehouse seats only two hundred and fifty people and the stage is small. Instead of elaborate props, the only props used are the wall and chairs, which are put to versatile, creative use. At the beginning of the play, all the actors appear on stage and retreat into the back, where they sat on the chairs in the dark, against the wall, until it’s a particular character’s scene and retreat likewise; as the play progresses, the chairs are moved around the stage, whether to form a senate or a battle scene. The wall is also used as a prop, with ever-changing graffiti (using a light projector) symbolizing the people’s voices. Change of scene and acts are indicated by stage light and a kind of fast-paced techno music. All of these elements together create an atmosphere and setting with little to distract from the action and focus of the play.

If I were to pick a single highlight, it would have to be the time during the intermission and after the show, in which the show’s quality shines through the audience’s response and any discussion inspired or provoked by it, during which the themes of the play are allowed to be expanded upon in people’s conversations. On the way home from the play, we talked of nothing but the play: our favourite lines, stage direction, the actors, and the themes explored such as politics, military and its effects of civilian life, and the human condition (a recurring subject with Shakespeare), as well as possible modern interpretations based on contemporary social context of archaic meanings of certain words or old-fashioned constructs of society.

Coriolanus is thought-provoking and driven, and it’s a performance that I’m truly grateful for having had the opportunity to see. I would it recommend to everyone who is enthusiastic about Shakespeare or are admirers of the actors involved. While the play’s run is now over, National Theatre Live is screening encores to cinemas worldwide. To see if a movie theatre in your area will be screening it, check National Theatre Live’s website.

1 There has been complaints that it isn’t part of the theatre experience and I’ll concede that it isn’t but as an extra as part of going to watch a play in a movie theatre or cinema, I have no issue. Besides, by watching a play in a movie theatre one is already not taking part in a traditional theatre experience for reasons already mentioned.

2 Yes, two. It turns out that I borrowed the 1976 Arden edition, when I think I meant to borrow the 2013 edition – this, I realized, belatedly. However, after watching the play, the introduction was useful, particularly about the relationship of Coriolanus and Audifius. 

Notes and Further Reading

The Arden Shakespeare, Coriolanus (1976, see second footnote above)
Folger Shakespeare Library, Coriolanus (2009)
“Livy, Machiavelli and Shakespeare’s Coriolanus”, Anne Barton; “Plutarch, insurrection and dearth in Coriolanus”, David George; Shakespeare and Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2004)
The Noise That Banish’d Martius: Coriolanus in Post-War Germany
Donmar Warehouse Behind the Scenes: Coriolanus (bibliography included for further reading, as well)
Gaius Marcius Coriolanus, the legendary Roman general upon whom Shakespeare based his play (Wikipedia entry)
Telegraph: Tom Hiddleston meets Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (includes video)

Devil’s Brood

[This is a review of a sequel in a series. Read the review of the previous book, Time and Chance, here, and the first book When Christ and His Saints Slept here.]

Devil’s Brood by Sharon Kay Penman follows the latter part of Henry II’s reign and his downfall by his three sons, known as the “Devil’s brood” – deriving from the legend that the Angevin line was descended from the Devil himself – Henry the Young King, Geoffrey, and Richard, who would come to earn the nickname Lionheart for his reputation as a great military leader. Made discontent over their father’s unrelenting control, they decide to rebel and with the alliance of their mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Unlike Time and Chance, which mostly dealt with Henry II’s feud with Thomas Becket, the threat is closer to home and therefore with more devastating consequences for those involved. The twisted psychology of the Angevins, as written by Ms. Penman, as the brothers constantly manipulate one another and their father for personal gain, deceive, double-cross, and backstab one another and draw others into their web are ingredients for high drama that should also appeal to fans of Game of Thrones (the tv show and or books). The brothers’ bickering among each other and with their father will not only ensure their father’s downfall, but the loss of the Angevin empire.

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Time and Chance

[This is a review of a sequel. Read the review of the first book, When Christ and His Saints Slept, here.]

Soon upon finishing When Christ and His Saints Slept, I began the sequel Time and Chance. Whereas the first book mostly dealt with Empress Maud and King Stephen’s war for the English throne, Time and Chance is about King Henry II’s reign and his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Henry’s ascension to the throne did not signify peace for England. He campaigned to claim Welsh territories and, most notably, would make his chancellor Thomas Becket archbishop and that would cause a long and bitter battle between them for seven years and that would end in tragedy. Aside from his marriage to Eleanor, it is his public argument with Becket that he is perhaps best well-known, and remembered, for.

Although he would not be crowned as King of France, through his marriage to Eleanor, Henry effectively ruled over both England and France: this would become known as the Angevin Empire.

Against Eleanor and his mother Maude’s advice, Henry appoints his friend and chancellor Thomas Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury, although he was never a priest. By making Becket archbishop, he believes he can exert his control and reassert his rights over the Church of England. In a dramatic turn of the tables, however, Becket rejects his old lifestyle and zealously throws himself into his new life, becoming a staunch supporter and defender of the church to the point that a bitter resentment and antagonism grows between the two former friends.

Ranulf’s (from WCAHSS) role is expanded in Time and Chance, as he experiences a personal conflict as his loyalties to England and Wales tied as he acts as advisor to Henry as his nephew prepares to conquer Wales, in an attempt to expand his empire’s territories. Despite the advantage of having greater numbers (English as well as Welsh, enemies of the Welsh king Owain ap Gwynedd*), Henry’s attempts are generally futile as the English are unfamiliar with Wales’ harsh landscape and they are ambushed by the Welsh; in one of these ambushes, Henry nearly loses his own life. Seemingly fighting a losing battle, as a last resort to suppress the Welsh Henry orders the Welsh hostages to be taken to Shrewsbury, where they are mutilated. Two of the hostages being Owain’s sons. Within the story, Ranulf leaves the English camp for Wales, enraged by this decision; neither he or Henry will have communication for thirteen years.

Wherever he goes, it is a battlefield for Henry. While his and Eleanor’s union began as a passionate affair, with mutual attraction, their relationship is put under strain as Henry is kept away from home – and from Eleanor – for longer more than the last, with his political campaigns and his public argument with Becket. This also keeps him away from his children, who, as they grow up, come to know their father as well as a complete stranger.

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When Christ and His Saints Slept

Published via Pressgram

Published via Pressgram

After I read The Sunne In Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman, it was so riveting that I soon looked up her other books. I nearly read Lionheart next, after reading a blog interview with her, but decided to start at “the beginning”, so to speak, and began with her first book in the Plantagenet series: When Christ and His Saints Slept. I didn’t know what to expect with this one, as I did not have as much interest in or knowledge of this particular period in medieval history, so it was with happiness when I recognized that familiar pull as I became swept into the story and involved with the characters very much in the same way as I did while reading The Sunne In Splendour.

Much like the opening of The Sunne In Splendour, when we meet Richard as a child, Ms. Penman strikes a similar note in the beginning of When Christ and His Saints Slept with Stephen as a child, in a moment of vulnerability when he overhears his parents arguing about his father‘s cowardice during the First Crusade and his mother forces his father to make a second pilgrimage. From the vantage point of seeing different characters as children and through their formative years, we are able to watch them grow up and evolve and, in this way, we are better able to sympathize or even relate to them, and, perhaps, understand their actions.

When Christ and His Saints Slept is about the war for the English crown that would last fifteen years, which would ultimately lead to the beginning of the Plantagenet reign. After the death of his only legitimate son in the sinking of the White Ship, Henry I proclaimed his daughter Matilda (called Maude in the book to distinguish from the many Matildas) his heir. This created much disconcertion as a woman had never ruled in her own right back then and despite making his court swear an oath of allegiance to Matilda, after Henry I died, his nephew Stephen of Blois took the crown and was anointed king instead. This begins a long and bloody war for the crown, Matilda campaigning for what she believes is her right and later, fighting for her son Henry’s right as she realizes that her own hopes of being queen are futile.

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The Sunne In Splendour

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Day two of reading The Sunne In Splendour (published via Pressgram)

The first things I remembered learning about Richard III were 1) he was evil 2) he killed his nephews, the Princes in the Tower. I also remember being of an age – still a child – when one generally accepts what they’re told and doesn’t question it, so I knew that he was bad but I didn’t really comprehend at the time. I remember when my parents rented a VHS of Richard III with Ian McKellen and being told that it was scary, I wasn’t allowed to see it./p>

It wasn’t until in February of this year, in fact, that I began to learn more and understand Richard III when his grave was discovered in Leicester, in a parking lot (or car park, in British English). Either by coincidence or not, about a week before the news broke out, I had intended to watch Richard III, the very same movie my parents had watched years before. I borrowed it from the library and, well, for one reason or another, I kept putting it off until I had to return it, so ultimately didn’t end up seeing it. I still haven’t. (For sake of this post, I did consider watching it but I decided not to, except for the few clips I found and watched on YouTube.)

It was with much interest that I followed the Richard III story, as news broke out and pieces began to be put together, ultimately revealing how much his image was a product of Tudor propaganda – aided, with no thanks, by Shakespeare’s play. It was like a mystery. There is no concrete evidence that he did kill his nephews, which for some means that it isn’t out of the question – there’s just no evidence to prove it. There is just as much, or little, evidence to support either; however, the scales tip forward in his favour that he didn’t when we learn more about him as a person and how, during his brief reign, he helped the common people.

Some months ago I became interested The Sunne In Spendour by Sharon Kay Penman, after learning of it in an interview with Richard Armitage (he is named after Richard III and also has been attached, for a long time, to a project about the king). This is a historical novel that is, at heart, a biography of Richard III, beginning with him as a young boy to his death on the battlefield of Bosworth but it is also about the Wars of the Roses, especially his brother Edward IV. Sharon Kay Penman has that remarkable ability to create dimensional characters, men and women and children, that come alive and make you care about them. It was also through reading this book that I became better able to understand this particular period in time and history. The title derives from Edward IV’s (Richard’s older brother) badge of three suns or a phenomenon known as “parhelion“. He convinced his troops that the suns represented the Holy Trinity, although another version (perhaps in the book – it’s all a blur) states that he said the suns represented himself and his brothers Richard and George.

I borrowed it from the library, but for some reason did not start reading it immediately. (The length and thickness of the book – over 900 pages – didn’t unnerve me, I’ve read books longer than that, such as The Count of Monte Cristo.) I finally resolved to read it when I needed to return it to the library and I was pulled into the story, enthralled, from the beginning. I’ve not read a book in so long that has tugged at my emotions, moved me so deeply. I was involved with all the characters, and especially Richard as a boy – I felt so deeply for him and sympathized, to the point of tenderness. So wrapped up in my emotions was I that, sometimes, I was reading the words but scarcely comprehending what was happening and then–! This last sentence I refer specifically to the death of Edmund, one of Richard’s brothers. It is history, so it is bound to happen, but I invested in the characters from such an early start and so deeply that I grieved with the rest of them.

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The Silent Age

If you were to ask anyone who knew me well if I played videogames, the answer would be “not really”. Once in a while, though, a game will come along that hooks me and I don’t stop – can’t stop – playing it until I’ve completed it. I suppose it could be a form of addiction, but it only lasts as long as I play the game.

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The last game to hook me was The Silent Age. (The name is taken from the David Bowie song “Sons of the Silent Age”.) It’s been around for a while, but I only learned of it last month. Set in the 1970s (the present, in the game) and the future (2012, our sort-of present) the protagonist is Average Joe: a lowly janitor who works at a big government building, whose life is suddenly changed when he tries to help a dying old man, who gives him a time travel device. Joe is tasked with the mission to save humankind from an inexplicable disaster, which is glimpsed when he travels to the future.

What made me download the game was the description in the App Store, which I found highly entertaining in addition to being well-written. A small sample: (though you really must read the whole thing)

It’s 1972. Love is free. Flipflops, English leather and bandanas are the height of fashion. Meanwhile the Cold War is more than lukewarm and a real one is going on overseas. Movements are happening. Environmentalists, the female liberties movement, and on the dance floors an entirely different kind of movement is overtaking the underground clubs. The winds of change are certainly blowing over the country.

Somewhere in the big city, in a tall, faceless government building someone left a window open. All the winds of change are doing here is blowing leaves all over Joe’s newly-swept floor. He’s been there for two years now. Working a dead-end attendant job making sure the building is as spotless as the suits walking the hall. It’s been like this for years, going from soul-devouring job to the next.

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