Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Language Freak Summer Challenge

As I had anticipated, 2013 is turning out to be much more busy than 2012 was, and I don't want to add to my mountainous TBR list.  But I love being connected to other readers, and therefore love a challenge I can participate in without doing anything I'm not already doing.  So here's another one:  Ekaterina at In My Book is hosting the Language Freak Summer Challenge.  We are asked to read one or more books in a foreign language during the summer: 

The idea is simple: read books in a foreign language, enjoy it and be proud of yourself! I will collect whatever you want to post about your experiences from now till the end of August and hopefully we will all have some progress in languages by the beginning of September!

Happily, I am reading in German pretty much all the time--not that I am fluent (if only!), but I'm trying to improve.  I'm not going to commit to more than one book, because I am very slow, and also because I'll be traveling for a good chunk of the summer.  Hopefully I'll get through two, though.  My current German read is Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen

Language Freak Summer Challenge

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Open Letters

This collection of essays by Vaclav Havel, written in a dry, even deadpan style, testifies to the courage of the playwright, dissident, and first president of independent Czechoslovakia.  Havel spoke the truth to tyrants, again and again.

His writing influenced not only the Czech independence movement, but those of other Soviet-bloc countries, including Poland's Solidarity movement.  These documents dissect the peculiar nature of the totalitarian system Havel lived under, and reveal the train of logic that inspired the dissident movements. 

I read ten of the 25 pieces in this collection.   Of those, two stood out most.  

"Dear Dr. Husak," an open letter to the then general secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist party, is an appeal on moral grounds to relax the iron grip of totalitarian control of all culture and ideas in Czechoslovakia:  
So far, you and your government have chosen the easy way out for yourselves, and the most dangerous road for society:  the path of inner decay for the sake of outward appearances;  of deadening life for the sake of increasing uniformity;  of deepening the spiritual and moral crisis of our society, and ceaselessly degrading human dignity, for the puny sake of protecting your own power.
"Reports on My House Arrest" shows the price Havel paid for writing things like the above.  It is a dispassionate, detailed account of the harassment inflicted on him by the police during 1978 and 1979, culminating in his arrest later in 1979.  He seems to want to set down every detail, from being watched, to being unable to receive visitors, to having his car and home vandalized, as a record:
When I shop, they now stick so close to me that if they were to slip their arm into mine we'd look like lovers.  At the post office, they boldly read my correspondence over my shoulder, and once they snatched the letters out of my hand and recorded the names of my correspondents (not very useful, since most of them only sign with their Christian names).  
This is, for me, Havel at his most interesting.  Harder for me to get through were pieces like "The Power of the Powerless," a very abstract yet very precise description of the peculiar nature of the totalitarian systems of the Soviet bloc countries.  He makes a good case that these dictatorships were unlike any others in history.  Sadly, writing that is long but not engaging, even if very important, quickly becomes a chore for me to read.  

There was a lot in this collection for me to love and learn from;  anyone interested in the period or in Havel would probably find much of it interesting and enjoyable.  

Essay Challenge