Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Reviews for European Reading Challenge 2013

  • Hamlet by William Shakespeare (DENMARK)
Wow.  Once again Shakespeare creates a masterpiece out of completely avoidable insanity and death.  How come when Hamlet killed Polonius and his mom and stepdad/uncle decided to send him to England, he's totally okay with this even though it thwarts his plans for vengeance?  How come Horatio didn't stage an intervention for his clearly-crazy friend Hamlet after he sees him talking about a random skull?  How come there is no scene at the end with the Ghost sitting on the battlements, surrounded by all the ghost of people that died because he just HAD to have vengeance? 

If this play taught me anything, it's that if Hamlet ever went to Oz he would stab the man behind the curtain.  Also it taught me not to listen to suspicious ghosts. 

  • The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens (THE UNITED KINGDOM)
Okay, I literally just finished reading this book as I type this, so my opinion could very well change once my mind processes the ending.  Dickens is one of my favorite authors because he creates characters and atmosphere that "draw in" the reader.  I don't mind his longer novels because the plots are complex enough to be worth it.  However, I  have to admit that The Old Curiosity Shop did not live up to my expectations.  The villains are horrible, yes, but not to the glorious over-the-top extent of Squeers (Nicholas Nickleby), or the razor-sharp chessmaster level of Mr. Tulkinghorn (Bleak House).  Also the heroes and heroines were too saccharine to earn my admirationn: Little Nell takes initiative about ONCE in the entire story, and that initiative is to lie (for good reason, but still).  Would I recommend this book?  Yes.  Would I recommend it over Great Expectations or Our Mutual Friend?  No.
  • The Histories, Volumes 1-2 by Tacitus (ITALY AND SURROUNDING ROMAN TERRITORIES)
The saying goes, “History is written by the victors,” and never is this more apparent than when reading the earlier histories written by Romans.  The Roman Empire was the greatest civilization to ever exist, and it was expected that historians would present it as such in their writings.  That said, Tacitus makes a valiant attempt (at first) to present historical events without moral or political commentary.  Unfortunately this attempt results in a spewing of dates and names, without being very interesting. 
Yet there are a few times that I found The Histories to be entertaining or otherwise worth the read.  First, whenever Tacitus does allow himself to make a moral commentary, it is usually profound: “Death is the natural end for all alike, and the only difference is between fame and oblivion afterwards”, or, “Human nature is always ready to follow where it hates to lead.”
Second, there are a few humorous accounts that break up the otherwise monotonous recounting of facts and dates.  Lines like, “A reputation for mercy!  There’s no money in that.”  And then there are the times Tacitus relates when Roman soldiers were, to use an internet expression, “trolled” by their barbarian enemies or subjects: “[Some] indulged in a cockney practical joke, and stole some of the soldiers’ swords, quietly cutting their belts while their attention was diverted.  Then they kept asking ‘Have you got your sword on?’  The troops were not used to being laughed at, and refused to tolerate it.  They charged the defenceless [sic] crowd.”  Good thing there were no phones or fridges in Roman Imperial times, or people would’ve gotten beheaded for asking ‘Is your refrigerator running?’
  • Scandinavian Folk and Fairy Tales edited by Claire Booss (NORWAY, SWEDEN, DENMARK, FINLAND, AND ICELAND)
I perhaps could have counted each "book" as a country and finished this challenge with this single anthology, but I would rather read "too much" (ha! as if that were even possible!) than feel I was cheating in any way.
Of all five of my ERC books, this would be the one I would single out as the best to read aloud, especially to children.  As the title suggests, this is a HUGE collection of fairy and folk tales.  Some of them are familiar (like the "Little Red Hen" or "Three Billy Goats Gruff"), some were unfamiliar to me (East of the Sun, West of the Moon), and some I think are undeservedly forgotten ("The Werwolf," "Jurma and the Sea-God").
This book was over 600 pages of short (sometimes only paragraph-long) stories, which was hard to get through without mixing up the characters.  However it did give me an opportunity to compare the different storytelling styles of five countries that, on the surface, might seem very similar culturally.  
The Norwegian, Icelandic, and some of the Finnish tales were funny, short, and undetailed.  The Norwegian ones in particular seem to stop mid-story, with a sort of excuse: "And then the fox snapped at the pig's tail, and if the pig's tail had been longer, this tale would be too."  I got the feeling that these were stories being made up for bedtime by a tired and impatient parent.  The Danish tales are very, very long, and included a lot of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales (which are NOT like the Disney adaptations!).  And finally the Swedish tales always ended with the main character and most of the other characters dying.  Seriously, the death toll was so high it was like watching an episode of Doctor Who. 

  • Grecian Calendar by Christopher Rand (FRANCE...JUST KIDDING.  GREECE.)
This was a surprise entry.  I'd originally gotten this book digging through a free "book drop" a few years ago, thinking that it literally was about the Ancient Greek calendar.  In actuality it's more like a travel-memoir written in the 1960's by an American writer for Time.  Christopher Rand spent a year in Greece, touring the different islands, tasting the food, seeing the ancient ruins, and learning the language.  That is what this book is about.  For me, it's the perfect kind of book to read in the summer: the prose is fun to read and describes so palpably the exotic locations that I feel I've gone on vacation while reading in my own backyard. 

Of all the books I read for the ERC, I would have to say that Grecian Calendar was my favorite.  Not necessarily because it was the best-written of the five, but because it was one of those rare occasions where a book surprised me with how interesting and enjoyable it was. 

Monday, May 20, 2013

To read, or not to read, that is a silly question

"The remarkable thing about Shakespeare
is that he is really very good,
in spite of all the people who say he is very good." 
~ Robert Graves

Recently I finally read William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, as I slowly make my way through the entirety of the Bard’s works, and at my sister’s behest since it is her favorite tragedy.*  While I found Hamlet well-written and dealing with deep and interesting themes, I could not help but react with my default reaction: inappropriate jocundity.  This default reaction has occurred with every Shakespearean tragedy (and a few plays by Christopher Marlowe as well), starting with my initial exposure to Othello.  I think this is due to the tragic elements of the story being completely avoidable.

Take Hamlet, for instance.  Obviously as the story opens the titular character has some…issues.  This is understandable since his father, the king of Denmark, has recently died.  Yet instead of ensuring that her son gets the grief counseling he needs, Hamlet’s mom, Queen Gertrude, decides to compound her son’s mental imbalance by marrying his uncle Claudius (the king’s brother and...twin, apparently.  I’d go crazy, too.).  As Hamlet becomes more and more erratic, the people around him constantly ignore the warning signs, instead chocking his unhealthy amount of crazy to his love for Ophelia (although he just doesn’t seem that into her).

Unbeknownst to them, it is the visitations of his father’s ghost that is driving Hamlet crackers.  His father’s ghost demands Hamlet avenge his death by killing his murderer…his own brother Claudius.  Eventually (spoilers) Hamlet succeeds in spades, not only killing Claudius, but including his mom, Ophelia, Ophelia’s dad, himself, and also two random dudes named Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to the death toll.  One almost expects to see a tally number pop up at the bottom of the stage when this play is presented.

Personally, I find Hamlet unrelatable.  If I were in his position, just minding my own emo business, and some ghost showed up that looked like my dad, I would at least demand some otherworldly I.D.  How else can Hamlet be sure that his dad and mom didn’t pull an ol’ switcheroo and kill Claudius, pass him off as the king, then collect the life insurance money and get (re)married?  Then Claudius’ ghost, out for revenge, would be all, “Hamlet, Hamlet I ammmm your father! Avenge my death!”  This is probably what happened.  Which is why the ghost is totally okay with the collateral damage.

Also, how come none of the other characters show up as ghosts?  I mean, obviously the door between the spiritual and earthly realms is wide open, or else the King/Claudius-in-disguise wouldn’t be taking nightly walks on the battlements trying to freak out sentries.  After Polonius dies, I expected him to show up to Laertes and be like “Laertes!  Avenge my death!”  This little ghostly appearance thing would also be helpful in clearing up exactly how Ophelia dies…if she did die….** 

After the play ends and pretty much everyone we cared about (and even some we only kind of tolerated) are dead, why don’t they all show up in ghost form?

HAMLET: Father! I have done as you asked and avenged your death!  Now we can be together!

KING: Dude, that’s your uncle. 

GERTRUDE: Yeah, Hamlet.  If you’d stopped acting all nuts for a while your dad and I would have let you in on our insurance scam secret.

HAMLET: Uncle?  Why would you do that to me?

POLONIUS: Do that to you?  You stabbed me to death and then proceeded to have an entire conversation with your mother as if my corpse weren’t stiffening on the floor right in front of you!  I can’t believe I tried to get you to marry my daughter.

OPHELIA: I never really felt enthusiastic about that plan anyway.

Speaking of Polonius’ death scene, am I the only one who saw parallels between that and The Wizard of Oz?  “Pay no attention or violence to the eavesdropper behind the curtain.”

Lastly, as I came to the close of Hamlet I could not help but wonder, “What came next?”  Are we really supposed to root for this Fortinbras nonentity becoming King of Denmark?  Or did Horatio steal the throne (which to me makes more sense, since he basically enables Hamlet in his bloodthirsty escapades of insanity)?  And did the Danes ever catch on to the fact that they’d been invaded by Italy and Greece? (Claudius?  Horatio?  Ophelia?  Laertes? Polonius?  Methinks Shakespeare was in need of one of those name origin books for prospective parents.) 

Guess I’ll just have to wait for the sequel to come out. ***

*Huh.  “Favorite tragedy” just sounds weird. 

**My play-watching self functions on the premise that “no body, no death.”  I figure Ophelia went to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and started a pop-rock band.

***Hamlet II: The Rise of Horatio has a nice ring to it.  Also a spin-off entitled Ophelia and the Pussycats, or perhaps a parallel-universe “Parent Trap” story in which Hamlet is forced to get his mom back together with his ghostly father with only the help of his long-lost twin brother (naturally played by Hayley Mills) and their combined acoustic guitar-playing skills.  

Monday, May 13, 2013

Pass the Bookplate: Second Helpings

Below are either the images or links to images of bookplates owned by a wide range of world leaders, artists, and celebrities throughout history. 

Monday, May 6, 2013

Pass the Bookplate

For my birthday my mom bought me a collection of six Jules Verne novels with the original illustrations. I already owned three of the books (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, A Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and From Earth to the Moon), but actually my translation of Journey was the inferior version so I was looking to replace that. Unfortunately when I got home, excited to replace my three thin volumes with a honking thick one, I found that there was one thing that I would be sore pressed to get rid of in those books: I had book-plated them.

Bookplates are the more sophisticated version of those stickers that say “this book belongs to” that you can write your name on and slap onto the flyleaf of your favorite books. They are more sophisticated in that bookplates used to be commissioned by a reader to put in the volumes of their library.