Friday, April 25, 2014

Two Gentleman of Verona by Shakespeare

My personal challenge for the year was to read at least four Shakespeare plays. I planned to use Carol's suggested method of 1) reading each play in one sitting, and 2) reading while listening. This weekend I took the plunge with Two Gentlemen of Verona.

Knowing how difficult it can be to keep everybody straight, I read a quick synopsis of the play before opening up my Kindle. Then I downloaded the audioversion from Librivox. Although I was not able to read it in just one sitting, I managed to get through it in one day, which was extremely helpful for remembering who was who and for getting the flow of the story.

The play had the same themes as several other Shakespeare plays I've seen: forbidden love, arranged marriages, women disguising themselves as men, fickle suitors, etc. In this case Valentine loves Silvia, but her father forbids it. Proteus loves Julia, but dumps her when he sees Silvia. Valentine and Proteus are/were best friends.

All the characters are constant in their love except for Proteus. He breaks his promises, lies, dumps his friends, threatens to force himself upon Siliva and is an all around heel. Why Julia loves him is beyond me.

Luckily, my expectations were not too high since the synopsis had let me know this was not one of Shakespeare's more popular plays. Also, the readers at Librivox were okay, but not great, which also detracted from my pleasure.

But it was worth the effort for it witty puns and its commentary on the thrills and foibles of romantic love.

O! how this spring of love resembleth
The uncertain glory of an April day,
Which now shows all the beauty of the sun,
And by an by a cloud takes all away! (Act 1, scene 3)

Love is like a child, 
That longs for everything that he can come by. (Act 3, scene 1)

[Valentine to Sylvia:]
O thou that dost inhabit in my breast,
Leave not the mansion so tenantless,
Lest, growing ruinous, the building fall
And leave no memory of what it was!
Repair me with thy presence, Silvia! (Act 5, scene 4)

These Shakespeare titles are free for Kindle.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Are You Bi-Literate?

Tim Challies linked to an interesting article on how the internet has made most of us "skimmers" vs. readers. (The follow-up article was on how most people just skimmed the first article.) The passages in italics are from the original post.

Claire Handscombe relates that since she quickly reads through e-mails and blog posts, she now has difficulty reading normal books. I have noticed this tendency in myself. My new attention span for a book is about an hour. After that I really have to push myself.

To cognitive neuroscientists, Handscombe's experience is the subject of great fascination and growing alarm. Humans, they warn, seem to be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through torrents of information online. This alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia...

Maryanne Wolf, one of the world's foremost experts on the study of reading was startled last year to discover her brain was apparently adapting, too. After a day of scrolling through the Web, she sat down to read Herman Hesse's "The Glass Bead Game." "I'm not kidding: I couldn't do it," she said. "It was torture getting through the first page..."

Wolf's next book will look at what the digital world is doing to the brain, including looking at brain-scan data as people read both online and in print. She is particularly interested in comprehension results in screen vs. print reading...

Researchers say that the differences between text and screen reading should be studied more thoroughly and that the differences should be dealt with in education, particularly with school-aged children. There are advantages to both ways of reading. There is potential for a bi-literate brain. "We can't turn back," Wolf said. "We should be simultaneously reading to children from books, giving them print, helping them learn this slower mode, and at the same time steadily increasing their immersion into the technological, digital age. It's both." 

I'd like to make just a couple of comments: First, I think skimming is absolutely essential in this age of information overload. I learned this skill way back in the 1980's so that I wouldn't waste time on non-essential information while doing research papers. Skimming is not a bad thing. What worries me is that our brains are becoming re-wired to want/tolerate only small bites of information.

Second, the idea that we have to steadily increase our children's immersion into the technological, digital age is ridiculous. It's already a stampeding horse, that's dragging our kids away from healthy times of imaginitive play and quiet reflection. If anything, we have to look for ways to decrease their immersion.

It looks like it's going to take a lot of determination to be bi-literate, but I'm up for the challenge. What about you? Do you struggle with this too?


Friday, April 11, 2014

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

"Them that die 'ill be the lucky ones." - Long John Silver

Treasure Island has never been high on my priority lists, but Heather piqued my interest in the audioversion when she left a comment on an earlier post.  She mentioned that Adrian Praetzellis had done an excellent job of reading several classics at Librivox so I popped over and downloaded three of his books.

The first was Treasure Island. Mr. Praetzellis catches you off guard when he begins because his voice seems so dull and uninteresting. But don't worry, it's a ruse. When he gets started on the pirate's voices, he's absolutely amazing. His reading of Long John Silver is spot on, succeeding in conveying both his dastardliness and his charm.

The story itself held few surprises since I'd read the Classics Illustrated comic book version a hundred times as a child and have seen various movie versions (the latest being Treasure Planet). Still, it's a pleasure to listen to any book with engaging characters that's well-written and well-narrated.

I especially liked the fact that Jim Hawkins is a kind of Frodo-figure. He's a little boy in the midst of adult good guys (the doctor and the squire) and bad guys (the pirates) and manages to be in the right place at the right time to be the hero of the story.

For families that read/listen together, these audio chapters are broken down into half hour chunks which would make this book a nice evening activity. (Maybe a bit too exciting for pre-bedtime if the kids don't already know the story.)

Thanks, Heather! I look forward to further listening from Mr. Praetzellis.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel

Their job description was simple: to save as much of the culture of Europe as they could during combat. (p. 2)

Adolf Hitler, in his lust for world power, had sent German art scholars all over Europe, secretly preparing inventories so that when he conquered each country, his agents would know the name and location of every important object of artistic and cultural value. He planned to put them all in the soon-to-be created Fuhrermuseum as a lasting tribute to his own greatness. After the war more than a thousand depositories were discovered of plundered artworks.

The thought that nagged me all the way through The Monuments Men was that the work of the MFAA (Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section of U.S. military) was proof of the fact that we are born with "eternity in our hearts." If we are only a conglomeration of cells that just happened to come together and evolve over time, then, of course, we have no souls and art is superfluous. But this book clearly (albeit unintentionally) shows that man is made for something higher. George Stout, (the recognized leader of the MM) wrote, "To safeguard these things will show respect for the beliefs and customs of all men and will bear witness that these things belong not only to a particular people but also to the heritage of mankind. To safeguard these things is part of the responsibility that lies on the governments of the United Nations. These monuments are not merely pretty things, not merely valued signs of man's creative power. They are expressions of faith, and they stand for man's struggle to relate himself to his past and to his God. (p. 23)

Intriguing scenarios abound:  Stout mused, What if we win the war, but lose the last five hundred years of our cultural history? (p. 236) Then comes the dilemma the MM face with returning all artworks to their original owners, even their enemies, the Germans. The Western Allies had sacrificed their national fortunes and a generation of young men; would they really hand back the spoils of their victory? (p. 396) The thought came back to [Hancock] as it often did: To save the culture of your allies is a small thing. To cherish the culture of your enemy, to risk your life and the life of other men to save it, to give it all back to them as soon as the battle was won... it was unheard of, but that is exactly what he and the other Monuments Men intended to do. (p.254)

The book has some surprising heroes: Count Franz von Wolff-Metternich, a Nazi art official who did his best to protect France's art collections from Hitler's looters. Rose Valland, a mousy looking secretary who meticulously recorded thousands of notes on stolen paintings and their locations that greatly facilitated their recovery after the war. Pöchmüller and Högler, the men who engineered a minor bomb explosion at Altausee which closed down the treasure-filled mines so that their priceless art works could not be destroyed by Hitler's Nero Decree.

It is easy to see why someone wanted to turn this into a movie (which I haven't seen) because of the powerful images. A small boy taking a U.S. soldier by the hand as they travel down a dark, enemy-filled tunnel, a priceless statue lying on a stained mattress, a helmet full of gold coins, the empty walls of the Louvre, and so much more.

Although a work of non-fiction, Monuments Men brimmed with all the themes that would make a great novel: hidden treasure, unexpected heroes, beauty in the midst of tragedy, and the risking of one's life for something bigger than one's self. Also, for a non-fiction work, Edsel's writing is unexpectedly beautiful at times. I love word precision and he knows when to wax eloquent and when to get straight to the point.

One of my favorite books of 2014.

P.S. After I read this book I couldn't help but get chills when I saw this photo of gifts given to Hitler for his 50th. (#13 of 19 pics). The painting above was his favorite: "The Astronomer"