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. 

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