Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Black Count

All over the world, Alexandre Dumas is recognized as one of the titans of French literature.  The swashbuckling adventures found in his works like The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, and The Man in the Iron Mask portray a world of honor, betrayal, love, and friendship.  But though his stories are some of Western civilization's most famous, few people realize that many of their most famous elements are based on the character and exploits of one very real person...his father, General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas. In his Pulitzer Prize winning book The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, Tom Reiss seeks to tell the general's story and to reveal how his larger than life presence impacted his son and the art he was to create.

Thomas-Alexandre Dumas was born in the French sugar colony of Saint Domingue, the son of a French aristocrat and a his black slave.  At the age of 14, his father sold him and three other siblings into slavery in order to raise funds for passage back to France.  He was later repurchased by his father and then raised in France.  He received the education of any French noble, mastering the arts of fencing, riding and literature.  But as his father's fortune dwindled due to lavish spending on a new wife, Dumas assumed his mother's name and enlisted in the French military.  It wasn't long before he distinguished himself as a member of the Queens Dragoons.  As the old regime fell and France was swept up in revolution, Dumas took advantage of the new found freedoms and rose higher and higher, eventually reaching the rank of General of the French Army.  But Dumas' fortunes, like those of France, were soon to be forever changed by an intelligent and ruthless man from Corsica.

I found this book to be extremely fascinating.  I have always loved Dumas' work, but I had no idea that so many of his stories, especially The Count of Monte Cristo, were based on his father's life.  And General Dumas' story in many ways rivals those of his son's creation.  It is obvious that, though raised as an aristocrat, he is very much a man of the Republic.  He firmly holds on to the ideals of the revolution, even when others twist them for their own use, or seek to undermine them.  He is also a consummate leader and warrior, garnering the respect of his men and overcoming some of the most difficult situations that can be thrown at a soldier.  His rise in the army is meteoric.  In fact, he was the highest ranking black commander in a white army until Colin Powell became a four-star general in 1989.

But the story the Reiss tells here is not just Dumas', but also the story of all people of color in revolutionary France.  France was one of the first European powers to pass laws against slavery, even though it's rich sugar colonies were firmly built on them.  This allowed blacks and people of mixed race to rise as high in French society as whites, and for their children to be educated alongside them.  And the revolution extended the idea of liberty and equality to all Frenchmen, allowing Dumas to not only command a white army, but also to marry a white woman.  Unfortunately, even as these ideals crumbled before Napoleon's ambition, so did the freedoms of blacks all over France.  Eventually, slavery would be brought back to the French colonies.  It is all too obvious that the reason so few people, French or otherwise, know anything about Dumas is because of racism.

As a non-fiction book, this reads very easily.  Reiss packs in a lot of information, but delivers it in such a fun and adventurous way that you feel as if you are reading a novel.  His writing is easily read and well paced, allowing even the least scholarly among us to grasp what is happening.  It also really helped me understand the timeline of the French Revolution as well as the many issues the caused it to happen.

I highly recommend this book to anyone.  If you love the works of Dumas, or are interested in the French Revolution, military history, race relations in France, or the French sugar colonies then you could do far worse than to read this.  It is certainly a wonderful tribute to a man whose contribution to French history has been all but forgotten.      

Monday, July 14, 2014

Books in Odd Places

In a world where almost everything has become mobile or accessible while on the go, it is no surprise that books have become that way too.  We can listen to them in our cars, or read them on our devices wherever we happen to be.  But books are beginning to make appearances in some rather odd places as well.  Here is a look at some of the random places you can find books nowadays.

New and Improved Bookmobiles
Bookmobiles have existed in America since they were wagons pulled by horses.  And though you may think this style of borrowing books is a thing of the past, many cities continue to embrace it and to use it to bring more than just books to their patrons.  The El Paso Bookmobile makes stops all over the city and includes services found at the main branches like internet access and storytelling.
Beach Reads

Though reading is as much a part of the beach as sand, sun, and water, it usually means you have to lug all of your books with you.  Until now.  From Spain and Australia to France and Tel Aviv, beaches all over the world are seeing more and more pop up libraries opening for visitors.  The libraries are usually free and patrons are encouraged to leave favorite reads of their own for others to enjoy.

Your Next Read is Calling

Due to the rise in cell phone usage, Britain has seen the need for the iconc red phone booth fall to just about nothing.  Many towns and villages, however, have chosen to save their booths by turning them into lending libraries for the community.  Readers simply use the box as an exchange place, picking up new reads and leaving others.

Little Free Libraries
Americans are getting in the spirit too (but without the cool phone booths).  All over the country "little free libraries" are popping up in big cities and small towns.  The idea of "take a book, leave a book" keeps the library stocked and neighbors can enjoy sharing books amongst each other in one convenient place.  There is even a website dedicated to helping you find a library near you, or giving you ideas on how to start your own. 
Have you noticed books popping up in unexpected places?  Share them with us! 

Saturday, July 12, 2014


“There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Of all the plays and poems written by William Shakespeare, there is perhaps none as iconic as Hamlet.  It is required reading for many students around the world and its lines and images are often what we envision when we think of Shakespeare.  It seems to have been his most popular play in his lifetime, and the role of the Danish prince remains a right of passage for today's Shakespearean actors. 

The Plot:

Prince Hamlet is mourning the recent passing of his father, the King of Denmark.  His uncle Claudius has assumed the throne and hastily married Hamlet's mother, Queen Gertrude.  Hamlet is told of the mysterious sightings of a ghost resembling his dead father who is haunting the castle.  He goes to investigate and discovers that it is indeed the ghost of the old king.  The king tells Hamlet that he was was cruelly murdered by Claudius who coveted both his crown and his queen, and he charges Hamlet to exact revenge by killing Claudius.

Hamlet is uncertain of whether he can trust the ghost.  He begins to act as if he has lost his wits and Claudius and Gertrude struggle to understand what may have caused it.  There is talk that he may be crazy due to love for Ophelia whose father, the Chief Counselor, has opposed the match.  Events soon convince Hamlet that the ghost's story is true and he seeks to enact his revenge, even as Claudius tries to secretly have Hamlet killed.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

Like most people, I was pretty familiar with the plot of Hamlet, though I had never actually read it.  It is Shakespeare's longest play and at times it can certainly feel like it.  The action alternates between slow and quick which at times can give it an uneven feeling.  But this is a classic for a reason and you can certainly see the influence it has had on our modern stories.

There is a lot going on this play that really highlights the upheaval of Shakespeare's time.  In many ways, the play has both a "modern" and a "medieval" feel.  The setting has a medieval feel with the ghost of a warrior king, revenge, and discussions of purgatory and "Christian burial".  But other parts, especially Hamlet himself, have a much more Renaissance flavor with lots of philosophizing, skepticism of the supernatural, and madness.  That is probably part of the reason the play remains popular today, because there are elements that we recognize as belonging to our times and not just the distant past.

This is one of the most quoted works in English literature and I was constantly discovering phrases that I did not realize came from this play.  Phrases like "To thine own self be true", "method in the madness", "Brevity is the soul of wit", "Sweets to the sweet", and "The lady doth protest too much".  Again, because it is such a huge part of our culture, everything about this play felt familiar.  That is great in some ways, but it also kept me from completely loving the play as there didn't seem to be anything "new" for me to discover.

I think this is a play that everyone should read simply to understand the cultural implications of the work.  It is certainly one of English literature's most important works, and Shakespeare's as well.  A good play, I just don't see it being one of my all time favorites.

The Performance:

 Though reading Shakespeare is fun, it is also important to see it performed.  Shakespeare gives few stage directions and this allows each individual give their own interpretation of the characters an their actions.

I watched the 2009 PBS Great Performances version starring David Tennant as Hamlet.  It has a modern spin that is nice without being distracting.  The performances were also great with Tennant pulling off a Hamlet that could easily flip between sober and reflective to crazy and unpredictable.  Patrick Stewart was also wonderful as Claudius/Ghost, but who would expect anything less.  There are some scenes that are cut (Fortinbras does not come in at the end of the play), but overall it is a wonderful adaptation of the play.

Do you have a favorite performance of this play?  Share it below!               

Friday, July 4, 2014

Celebrating America

Today is Independence Day!!  Here in America we are awash in red, white, and blue.  We are gathering with family and friends, grilling our favorite foods, and capping the night off with spectacular displays of fireworks.  We are celebrating the essential American values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  And also the general a** whooping we gave the Brits!  This is honestly one of my favorite holidays in the year and I will be partying hard with my fellow citizens.

No matter how much fun you are having, there is always time for a good book.  I wanted to highlight some books that are American classics or that portray the incredible and complicated thing that is the American experience.

  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain.  Though many would argue that the proverbial "Great American Novel" has yet to be written, this gem by one of the best known American authors could be a contender for that title.  Tom Sawyer made his debut in America's centennial year and he remains popular to this day.  Whether he is tricking other boys to paint the fence, searching for buried treasure, or showing up late to his own funereal, Tom embodies many qualities of the American spirit.
  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.  If Tom Sawyer is seen as a "book for boys", then Little Women is its female counterpart.  The joys, struggles, love, and loss found in the home of the March sisters are remembered by all who encounter them.  Jo March is especially memorable as she pursues her dreams of being a writer with a frankness and spirit that is inspiring and endearing.
  • Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  The pioneer spirit is a large part of the fabric of the American identity.  Whether it is reaching the Pacific Ocean or landing on the moon, Americans have a tradition of pushing onward to the next achievement.  In this series, Wilder captures life as pioneer on the plains and the determination and sacrifice needed to win the West.
  • To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  Just as Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe became beloved the world over for it's anti-slavery message, so Lee's novel became beloved for speaking out against racism.  It's portrayal of life in the American south resounds with readers from many different cultures and backgrounds and is taught in schools around the world.
  • Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.  Though many disapprove of the romanticized portrayal of the antebellum south and slave culture, this remains one of the most popular books in America.  In some ways, one must read Gone With the Wind in order to understand America's relationship with the dark parts of it's past.  
  • Flower Drum Song by C. Y. Lee.  We are a nation of immigrants.  Our identity is made up of pieces from every country on the planet.  From the Mayflower to Ellis Island to the Mexican border, the immigrant experience has been one of joy, pain, struggle, and sacrifice.  In this novel, C. Y. Lee highlights the struggles of Chinese Americans in San Francisco and the struggles as the different generations grapple with what it means to be American.
What about you?  Do you have a favorite work of American literature?  Share with us!  And if you are American, how will you be celebrating today?

"Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty." - John F. Kennedy

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Shakespeare in OP

Hannah at Miss Daydreamer's Place posted this video on her blog and I thought it was very timely considering that I am reading Shakespeare for the summer.  Worth a watch if you love Shakespeare or the history of language!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Richard III

"Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York;"

Written in approximately 1592, Shakespeare's play based on the life of England's King Richard III is one of power, fate, murder, sorrow, and liberation.  Following both Richards bloody, almost secretive rise to power and his short reign, the play defines him and determines how people will think of him for centuries to come.

The Plot:

The wars between the House of Lancaster and the House of York have seemingly come to and end with the defeat of Henry VI.  Richard, Duke of Gloucester, a younger brother of the new king, laments his physical condition as a deformed hunchback.  He proclaims himself a villain to the audience and seeks to gain the crown for himself.  Though the nobles of the kingdom are warned of Richard's intentions by the former queen, Margaret, Richard is able to charm them all into believing he has only the best intentions.

One by one, he is able to remove those who stand between him and the throne.  Too late do those around him realize that he will stop at nothing to seize it.  But even once the crown is his, he is not safe as a new threat in the shape of Henry Tudor emerges from France.  Deserted by those around him, Richard seeks to retain the throne he gained by the blood of others.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

I've read a number of Shakespeare plays, but this is without a doubt my favorite so far.  I thoroughly enjoyed every second of it from the classic struggle for power to the immortal lines from Shakespeare's pen.  This is certainly one I see myself indulging in over and over again.

I think the most striking thing about this play is the character of Richard himself.  From the very first soliloquy, he admits to the audience that he is a villain who will stop at nothing to steal the throne for himself.  And yet at the same time we feel ourselves drawn to him.  Perhaps it is his deformities which he blames for his lot in life.  Perhaps it is his witty charm and magnetism.  Perhaps it is because he speaks to us directly.  For whatever reason we cannot simply loathe him and our feelings become very complicated.  I think it is very telling that some editions refer to this play as the "Tragedy of Richard III" rather than the "History of Richard III".  You can certainly see how this character has affected our modern portrayals of villains in stories (I'm thinking especially of Loki in Thor and The Avengers). 

Of course, this magentism is really only a factor in the first half of the play.  As time goes on, Richard speaks less and less directly with the audience.  We begin to view him only through his actions and their affect on others which are not good.  Slowly he is becoming the pure villain he always claimed to be, desperately struggling to retain the throne he stole.  It is also clear by the end that Henry Tudor is our new hero.  We see him riding in to free England from Richard's tyranny and bring peace to the land by marrying a daughter of the House of York.  In one of the best scenes in the play, the ghosts of those whom Richard has murdered simultaneously curse him and bless Henry Tudor.  The transformation of Richard to evil personified and the House of Tudor to England's saving grace is complete.

I honestly can't recommend this play highly enough.  If you love English history, political intrigue, and complicated anti-heros, then this is for you.  A must read for anyone who is trying out Shakespeare!

The Performance:

 Though reading Shakespeare is fun, it is also important to see it performed.  Shakespeare gives few stage directions and this allows each individual give their own interpretation of the characters an their actions.

I watched the 1955 film version starring Sir Laurence Olivier.  Though there are some scenes/characters that are cut, it is still considered by many to be the definitive version.  Olivier, of course, delivers Shakespeare's lines with ease and his portrayal of the deformed king is now what most people think of when they hear the play's title.  A great version of an amazing play.

Do you have a favorite performance of this play?  Share it below!     

Saturday, June 21, 2014

School Books

The idea of what children should have to read in school seems to have been popping up a lot lately.  There was the news out of the UK that many American classics were being removed from required reading lists.  The school year just ended here in the US and most high school students have a list of books they must read over the summer.    And over at Book Riot, they asked contributors to name modern books that they think should be required reading.  Their list included The Kite Runner, The Handmaid's Tale, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and An Artist of the Floating World.  This got me to thinking about what books I would want to see as required reading for High School.  Here are some of the ones I came up with:

  • A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O'Connor.  I think short stories are great for a society that is quickly losing its attention span.  A well crafted one can leave as big an impression as a 600 page novel.  And if there is a writer who knows how to leave an impression, it is Flannery O'Connor.  Her stories emphasize grace with a strong symbolism, and is also a wonderful commentary on the South of the 40s and 50s.
  • I, Claudius by Robert Graves.  Historical writing does not have to be boring.  Just read Robert Graves' classic about the political turmoil of the Roman Empire.  It's Game of Thrones meets House of Cards!  Plus, it is a great example of the corruption of power and underestimating those with disabilities. 
  • Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.  If you want your students to see an example of writing that is poetic, beautiful, and calm then look no further.  Robinson's story of an Iowa pastor at the end of his life is touching and I think a wonderful way to teach kids that the best books aren't just a whirlwind of adventure and romance, but can also be quiet and reflective.
  • The Chosen by Chaim Potok.  This book is great for young people as it addresses the problem of becoming your own person.  Like the characters, they are struggling to find their own identity amidst the expectations of their parents, their society, and their friends.  It also emphasizes understanding for the beliefs of others that you may not understand or agree with.

What about you?  What books do you think should be required reading for High School?  What aspects are important in deciding what young adults should read?  Should certain books be required at all?  Sound off!