Confession of a Bookaholic: Women Who Ruled the Ancient World

Book ReviewsWomen Who Rule

I was really hoping to have a triumphant opening paragraph to this post, with HRC elected as the most powerful leader in the modern world. I will resign myself that she received the most votes for the job (and cross my fingers for the DAMN ELECTORAL COLLEGE), and move forward with stories of women in Ancient Egypt, China, and the Mongolian and Ottoman Empires, women who ruled vast empires in their own right. They are not angels or Madonnas, they are not whores (well, except for Cixi of China, she was literally a concubine…which still isn’t technically a whore), they are politically savvy, militarily ruthless, and multi-faceted humans with enormous decisions to make in order to successfully rule an empire.

And I Darken, by Kiersten White (4 stars, Historical Fiction). What would happen if someone rewrote the brilliant military mind/historical brute, Vlad the Impaler, as a woman, Lada the Impaler? “And I Darken” would happen. I really loved the mix of Ottoman history, Byzantine history, the clash of Christianity and Islam, sibling relationships, friendships, loyalty to heart and/or country, a bit of romance, and a whole lot of kick-ass female lead. Is Lada perfect? Not at all. But she is interesting in ways most princess-y leads are not. The thing I appreciated the most about Lada is that she felt real, flawed and angry and hopeful and determined in ways I very much relate with on a personal level. She seems like a REAL human with conflicting emotions and internal power struggles with the multiple sides of her own personality; I wish more women were written with that kind of honesty.

The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt, by Kara Cooney (4 stars, Biography). I waffled between three and four stars for this; three because so much of the research is so thin. Frankly, there just isn’t much surviving record of a female Egyptian king born 3500 years ago whose successor tried to erase her from carved memory in temples and monuments (and, subsequently, the text has *a ton* of speculatory sentences and declarations of what “might have” or “must have” or “could have” happened/been thought/been said/etc.); four because 3500 years ago a woman rose to the penultimate seat of power in the ancient world without–as far as we can tell–espionage, war, or killing her husband-brother or nephew-stepson, the male heirs to the throne. Cooney does a good job of constructing a possible story, including a lot of information about life in Egypt prior to the reign of the Pharaohs (which began about 1000 BC). King Hatshepsut (there is no ancient Egyptian word for “Queen”) marked her rule with peace and prosperity, built more temples and monuments than any other Egyptian king except Ramses II, of Moses and the Exodus fame. This was so interesting and I learned so much about Hatshepsut’s kingdom, the rules and ceremonies and rituals in ancient Egyptian courts, heavily tied to religious ceremonies with Ra/Re, the ancient sun god. (Hatsheptsut for President! (Too soon?))

The Secret History of the Mongol Queens, by Jack Weatherford (3 stars, History). There is significant evidence that Genghis Khan’s daughters (and grand daughters, and grand nieces, and so on) ruled with aplomb throughout the vast Mongol Empire that lasted from the early 1200’s to the 16th century across vast tracts of central Asia, China, and Russia, and even as far as Korea. Much of the history of these women was destroyed, literally the pages were cut from the Mongol written record, and only through combing third-party legends and stories can some of their histories be reconstructed. Much of this book focuses on the relationships of those women with their husbands, sons, in-laws, and nephews throughout the generations of Mongol rule, there is actually probably more about the male Mongol warriors and rulers than the women in this book. The last quarter focuses on one warrior Queen, Mandhuhai, who brought the Mongol Empire back to life, literally, by placing a crippled child, the only surviving male heir of Genghis Khan, on the throne and then spending the rest of her life protecting and raising him to be a strong Khan, ruling by his side for almost 40 years. Throughout the former realms of the Mongol lands there are dozens of legends and stories of Mandhuhai, and by actually–gasp–paying attention to those stories Weatherford was able to construct a relatively stable timeline of her life. (His “afterward” states repeatedly that he dismissed all of the stories about Mongol women while he was doing years of research for a book about Genghis Khan…which makes me SERIOUSLY question his viability as a historian, anthropologist, or researcher. “It’s cool, I’ll just ignore HALF of the population of this empire completely because they have lady parts and, therefore, are less important than the penis wielders.” Ugh.)

Empress Dowager CiXi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, by Jung Chang (3 stars, Biography). This is an exhaustive biography of the last Empress of China, Cixi (tsi-shee) who ruled from 1861 thru 1908, opening China to western trade and western influence, putting down internal rebellions and political unrest, dealing with the Opium Wars and the Boxer Rebellion, all the while maintaining absolute power on the throne of China. The author tends to paint her through rose colored glasses, glossing over some truly heinous decisions and rule (like, poisoning her nephew, the budding Emperor, and drowning his wife in a well, and ignoring brutal religious conflict, etc etc etc) and focusing instead on her legitimate successes. In addition to detailing the life and political (and personal) decisions over her long life (she died when she was 73), Chang also explains some major historical landmarks in China and the western colonizing bastards, oh, I mean, powers, that shaped much of the subsequent conflicts between Britain, Russia, Japan, France, etc., etc., etc.

Nefertiti, by Michelle Moran (2 stars, Historical Fiction). Within a few pages it became very clear to me that this was romanticized historical fiction, a few chapters in it was clear that it was MEHstorical fiction. The book is told from the point of view of Nefertiti’s half-sister, the one who follows her to the palace and is expected to give up her entire life, all hopes and wants and dreams to the whims of her ever-more-histronic ruling lady. Nefertiti’s character, sadly, is never really fleshed out more than face value: she is portrayed as a stunningly beautiful but completely selfish woman with no real connection to the people, except that she’s beautiful and throws money at them, despite destroying their gods and forcing them into slavery to build her a new city to a new god. I’m annoyed. Moran routinely mentions Hapshepsut, a ruling pharaoh in her own right, as someone Nefertiti tries to model herself after, but she a) doesn’t really explain anything more about Hatshepsut except that she was pharaoh, and b) Nefertiti as portrayed in this book never has enough support or power to truly reign in her own right, she’s not given strength and political savvy, she is a beautiful puppet. Because, of course, why would a woman (in the ancient world or now) be able to rule on her own. (Insert MUCH GRUMBLING and CURSING here over the damn, pervasive Patriarchy.)

More books about women who rule.


Confessions of a Bookaholic: North Korea

BookReviewsonNorth Korea

A few years ago I became obsessed with North Korea, the lives of ordinary citizens who current live under the Kim dynasty, and especially those who have managed to escape and make their way to South Korea (through a circuitous route of multiple international borders) or the West. I try to read any and every book I can find about the DPRK, here are a few of my latest haul. To date, the book that gave me the best understanding of life in the DPRK is Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick.

In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom, by Yeonmi Park (5 stars). I have read a number of books about North Korean refugees escaping the DPRK and making their way through China (or elsewhere) to lives of freedom. However, this book may have given me the best reasoning for WHY someone would take the risks to escape, the horrifying experiences of being an illegal in China (who have contracts with DPRK to send back any refugees, which means they’ll go to a prison or labor camp, or be executed), and the reasons for then trying to escape from China into a DPRK refugee-friendly country and then to South Korea. Park also writes a pretty extensive section about her time in South Korea, how difficult it was to catch up to her peers in school, but also to understand how to use the internet, credit cards, cell phones, and even flushing toilets. This book helped me understand so much more about the why behind political refugees who flee their country for a better life, and the difficulties and hardships trying to live in their new homes. Park settled in South Korea, in a country that immediately granted her a passport, where she (mostly) spoke the language, South Korea gives all DPRK refugees money and training classes and provides education opportunities, yet she still struggled to assimilate to this new world. I can’t imagine refugees who are trying to learn a new language and do not have full citizenship in their new country on top of the difficulties of trying to start over, I haven’t stopped thinking about their situation worldwide. Excellent read.

The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Tyrant Who Created North Korea, and The Young Lieutenant Who Stole His Way to Freedom, by Blaine Harden (4 stars). This is part-bio of Kim Il-Sung, part history of the Korean War, and part-bio of No Kum-Sok, a young Korean fighter pilot who defected with an intact Soviet MiG in 1953, something American intelligence had been trying to get their hands on for years. I think Harden did a great job of going back and forth between the two characters and their histories and backgrounds, as well as the time they were contemporaries, with No Kum-Sok fighting in Kim Il-Sung’s desperate air force.

Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the capture of the spy ship Pueblo, by Jack Cheevers (4 stars). The USS Pueblo, a spy ship during the Cold War, was attacked by North Koreans and confiscated from international waters in February 1968. The ship was woefully unprepared for the fallout of a possible capture; also, the Navy was completely unprepared for an international waters attack and capture and it took almost a year to get the crew–82 soldiers and 1 corpse–home. This is the story of Captain Pete Bucher, his time with the Navy, and the details of his experience as a detainee in a North Korean prison (it rivals anything you would read in Unbroken).  I got emotional several times as I learned about the physical and psychological torture that the Americans endured at the hands of their North Korean interrogators. Technically, because the US and Korea were not at war at the time, the soldiers were not classified as POWs, they were…? It’s still murky, actually. The United States was fighting in Vietnam and losing both the actual battles and the publicity war in worldwide newspapers, both LBJ and Nixon struggled to figure out how to a) bring these men home, and b) what to do with them at that point. Gaaah. Such a well-written book! Highly recommended.

A Thousand Miles to Freedom: My Escape from North Korea, by Eunsun Kim (3 stars). I feel I need to break this book into two separate ratings; discounting Kim’s story because she is not a great or compelling writer feels disingenuous, however her writing is the only way I can relate to her story, and it didn’t quite do it for me, it seems she pulls punches to protect people–which I can absolutely understand–but it was pretty obvious she was doing so, and that made me want to know the rest of the story. Most of Kim’s story revolves around the nine years she spent as an illegal in China, sometimes happily living and working, other times living in constant fear of her cruel “stepfather” (the Chinese man who purchased her mother as a sex slave, a woefully undertold story) or being found out by Chinese authorities and sent back to North Korea.

The World is Bigger Now: An American Journalist’s Release from Captivity in North Korea, by Euna Lee (3 stars, okay, actually probably 2). Lee and her colleague were doing a documentary story on DPRK defectors who escaped into China, and in the course of their documenting they actually *wandered into North Korean territory* *with video cameras*, and are then SUPER shocked at being caught and dragged off to interrogation, a trial, and a strict prison sentence. The level of shock Lee exhibits throughout the book made me think she hadn’t actually done any research on how the DPRK treats people who disobey their laws (tiny infraction = life in prison camp). This book is not written very well, nor edited very well, and I was hoping for more information on how, exactly, Lee and her fellow journalist were finally allowed to leave DPRK, there was very little information in this book about it, but the short story is Bill Clinton came to pick them up in a shiny jet. (!!!) Now, this was after he’d left office as President, but STILL, it takes some doing to get that level of a political ally to show un halfway around the world. There was zero indication on how those conversations happened or that agreement and travel arrangement took place. I understand that Lee wouldn’t have been in on those negotiations as a prisoner, but it seemed so jarring to say “oh, and then we were led into this hotel conference room and Bill Clinton was there, in the DPRK, and then we knew we would be able to go home.” Um…what?! THERE IS SO MUCH MORE TO THIS STORY! I think I need to read the companion book by Laura and Lisa Ling (Laura was the captor, Lisa was–I believe–the driving force on raising enough awareness and political clout to get the former President of the United States to go to North Korea and bring her sister home). So, that book has been added to my hold list.

For additional reads about North Korea, you can check out my Goodreads shelf.


Confessions of a Bookaholic: A collection of reviews about war in Africa

It seems a little strange to offer a handful of reviews of books written about surviving various wars in Africa: Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Rwanda. However, here we are. The African conflicts I know the most about are the Rwandan genocide in the 90’s and Apartheid in South Africa, with tidbits of info about Darfur and Boko Haram. However in my lifetime there have probably been hundreds of battles and wars fought throughout the continent, only a few of which made our headlines.I distinctly remember learning about the Rwandan genocide while I was in junior high school, I had heard something in class and went to the library after school to look it up. I remember reading the article about Rwanda in the brand new, super fancy Microsoft Encarta encyclopedia, and then reading recent news articles about the war, the killing, the unimaginable death tolls. I remember where I sat in the library, what I was wearing, even some of the images in the Encarta and news articles.

As I read these books I was fascinated by the difference between autobiographical accounts of a war and a more biographical or historical sketch; the one is personal and fractured, often without resolution or closure. Most individuals are not always where the most important decisions or action is happening for the duration of a war, nor do their lives have tidy little chapter endings at the armistice or cease fire. The broader historical context may be necessary to truly understand what is happening and be able to follow the plot line of the conflict, the politics, and the major players. However, the autobiographical stories have such heart-breaking details, they can capture the million tiny details that, when added together, will tear a country to pieces.

Confessions of a Bookaholic_War in Africa_feistyharriet_Sept 2016

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, by Ishmael Beah (5 stars). Oh, this book broke my heart, the simple story telling does not minimize the gravity of a young boy in war-torn Africa. In fact, it increases the horror of so young a child running from soldiers and then becoming one of them; he’s lost his family, his friends, his home, himself. The efforts from the U.N. and other organizations to rescue some of the child-soldiers in the African jungle, their struggles, the psychological damage and PTSD from their experiences were difficult to read about, to realize that thousands of children were in this position, conscripted, drugged, killing machines masquerading as children.

Say You’re One of Them, by Uwem Akpan (4 stars). This book is really hard to rate; it is a collection of short and long-ish stories (the two longest are about 130-150 pages each) told from the point of view of children growing up in war-torn African countries. For me, the short stories were far more impactful; the condensed pages mean the details really pop, the microcosm of time–usually just a few days–makes every little thing yank at your heart-strings. The longer stories did not affect me in the same way, particularly the one on the bus. In fact, I skimmed the last 40 pages of that, waiting for something to happen or catch my eye, and in reading a few other reviews, this seemed to be the least well received. Some of the text is difficult to understand, there are local language idioms and words from a smattering of other languages thrown in, the dialogue is written in dialect and it often was difficult for me to piece together, exactly, what was happening. I think dialect can be a very effective addition to writing, but I felt lost here most of the time; I wasn’t understanding the language or what direction it furthered the story, it felt kind of like reading Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. This all being said, the story about the Rwandan Hutu/Tutsi genocide hit me square in the feels in ways other accounts of that war haven’t. It is the final story, and where the book’s title comes from, and for me it was by far the best of the pieces. The shorter stories bumped this from 3-stars to 4, the longer stories, for me, were only marginal.

Half a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (4 stars). I knew very little about the Nigerian Civil War in the late 1960’s where the Biafran state attempted to break from Nigeria to form their own country (ultimately, they were unsuccessful, after years of fighting the Nigerian and Biafran governments called a truce and Biafra rejoined Nigeria). This book follows several characters through the conflict, two adult sisters, Olanna and Kianene and their families and friends, although the book is primarily told from Ugwu’s point of view, the thirteen-year-old houseboy (servant) of Olanna and Odenigbo, who both work at the University. I love Adichie’s writing, her descriptions are vivid and her characters bring to life a political scenario I know nothing about. I appreciated learning about the politics and war through Ugwu’s eyes and ears; everything was new for him too. This has many heart-wrenching scenes and situations and because we’re talking about civil war–neighbor’s fighting against neighbor’s and all the horrific conditions that go along with that–it is not light on gore and graphic scenes. It’s not full of gratuitous violence, but when a society descends into civil war and the fighting is in every town, the ravages of that war will touch everyone.

There Was A Country, by Chinua Achebe (3 stars) The subtitle, “A Personal History of Biafra” is really the best description of this book. Biafra was, for 30 months in the 1960’s, it’s own country in the corner of Nigeria, with a population consisting mostly of people of Igbo heritage. Biafrans fought Nigeria troops for their right to self-govern, and after millions died from war, disease, and starvation, a “peace accord” was signed and Biafra was consumed again by Nigeria. Achebe includes several of his own poems throughout the book, and they are, by far, the best parts, in some ways, the only parts that I connected to emotionally. Not that I expect to  connect emotionally to a book about s revolutionary/civil war based on genocide and with starving children in its wake…well, actually, I *should* be moved by that. And I was, but not necessarily due to Achebe’s writing, which, outside of the poems, was very textbooky and dry, quite surface info of dates and people and speeches. I think Half A Yellow Sun gave me a deeper understanding of what life in Biafra was like during and after the war, her ability to combine stories and characters and experiences into a work of fiction with characters I cared deeply for was more moving for me than this book.

We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: Stories from Rwanda, by Philip Gourevitch (4 stars). In the spring of 1994 over 800,000 Rwandan Tutsi’s were slaughtered in about three months. They were primarily killed with machetes, that rate amounts to 5 people per minute, hacked to death by their Hutu neighbors and fellow townspeople. The first half of this book is mostly based on interviews Gourevitch had with survivors of the genocide, the second half covers a lot more of the international relief efforts (or lack of efforts) during and immediately after the genocide, the politics involved, the lack of action from the U.N. and other western powers. Overall, this gives a horrifying account, both of the killings, but also of the international community who stood by and did nothing, then followed up with relief efforts to help the Hutu killers, and ending in forcing Rwandan refugees to return to their homes and again live side-by-side with the people who killed their families. My heart is sick ten thousand times over.

An Ordinary Man: An Autobiography, by Paul Rusesabagina (3 stars). Rusesabagina is most familiar as the hotelier who housed 1,200 Tutsi refugees in his Rwandan hotel during the genocide of 1994. Part autobiography of his early life, part war-time history of his country, part the basis of the movie Hotel Rwanda, this book is an interesting and heartbreaking mix. I usually read thru my lunch hour, but had to stop because I couldn’t eat after reading about the horrors and brutality of regular people slaughtering their neighbors, their friends, even their own families. This is a very first-person account, one man’s experience in hell, and I think that, despite the Hollywood success of the film, you need to remember that while reading this memoir.

Other Recommended Reading:

Cry, the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton
Long Walk to Freedom, by Nelson Mandela
Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe
Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, by Philip Paul Hallie

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Confession of a Bookaholic: Tales of Explorers and Adventurers

I love me a good adventure story, I love the discovery and thrill of wandering among the new, forging paths unknown, and the grit and glory required for surviving under less-than-stellar circumstances in harsh conditions around the globe. Now, I am keenly aware that European explorers were not the first people to wander among most places on the planet; I know that the history I am most aware of has a serious twist towards the Euro-centric version. I loathe (white, male) explorers who claim they are the first discoverer of a location, while simultaneously making notes on the native people who live there, or local trackers who have helped their exploration party navigate rivers or mountains or dense jungles. Uh, they were there first, Sir. You didn’t “discover” anything that wasn’t already well-known by those populations.

This latest batch of books about explorers and discoverers was kind of a mixed bag; I loved two, and the rest were pretty marginal. I have listed a few recommendations at the end, however, that should tickle your fancy if you have any hankering for learning about some of the more remote or undisturbed places in the world.

In the Heart of the Sea, by Nathaniel Philbrick (5 stars). I *loved* Moby Dick, it somehow combined two loves–Darwinian natural history and 19th century exploration stories. This is the true story of the events Moby Dick was based on, but instead of chapters and chapters describing the brain, skeletal structure, and habits of spermacetti whales, Philbrick follows the crew of the sunk Essex as they make for land and safety in tiny little whale boats with skant provisions. Yep, loved that too. Just like I loved reading about Shackelton’s adventures across Antarctica and the frozen ocean to safety, and just like I loved reading about Fawcett’s adventures in the Amazon. Love, love, love.

Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, by Jean Lee Latham (5 stars). I read and loved this Newberry book when I was a kid, re-reading it made me realize how much this book affected my way of thinking. Nat Bowditch is a brilliant mathematician in 18th century Salem, Mass, who was indentured at age 12 as a bookkeeper instead of going to Harvard to study. He continues to study everything he can get his hands on, keeping notebooks of facts and numbers and sums, teaching himself Latin, algebra, astronomy, French, and navigation. In his early twenties he finally is released from his indenture and is finally free to do what he likes. He signs on as a clerk for a voyage and is on his way. Bowditch is unconventional, but he also teaches every crew he works with how to navigate using math and charts and numbers, how to take solar and lunar readings, and how to calculate latitude and longitude, in a time when most ships in the high seas do not have a single person who can do such calculations, let alone an entire crew. Bowditch also teaches himself languages for the ports he will be visiting and continues to learn everything he can, about people, history, business, everything. It was so fantastic to read this again!

Memoir of Nathaniel Bowditch, by Nathaniel Bowditch (2 stars). I really love Nat Bowditch as a human, intellectual, adventurer, and one of my childhood role models. However, this is not a book of his memoirs, he didn’t even write the vast majority of this book. This is the transcript of an extended eulogy that Bowditch’s son delivered one week after his father’s death. There is very little nuance, it is a collection of memories with a very nostalgic light, Nat Bowditch was an all around stand-up citizen of Salem, Mass., however he was not perfect, and these “memoirs” only paint him in the most flattering light. Which, given the timing of said speech, makes total sense. There are a few bits from Nat Bowditch’s journals and notebooks, a few favorite stories that were told over and over and part of family lore. Because this was originally published in the mid-1800’s I’m not going to harp too much on the memoirs-or-not point, but if you want more info on the father of modern navigation, read “Carry On, Mr. Bowditch” instead.

Lost City of the Incas, by Hiram Bingham (2 stars). Travelogue for Hiram Bingham who visited Machu Picchu in 1911 and spread information about the ruin’s existence to the Western world (note: I do not say he “discovered” it because, in fact, local native people were WELL AWARE of it’s existence when he arrived). This is interesting for being a travelogue for an white American well-to-do explorer in the early 1900’s complete with almost all of the assumptions and sentimental superiority that comes with it. Honestly, it was exasperating for me to read, yet again, how Bingham was “discovering” the ancient city of the Inca’s and projecting his own assumptions and prejudices on the ancient Inca and the modern descendants who lived among those ruins. Sigh. A better option is Turn Right at Machu Picchu, or Lost City of Z (the latter is not about Machu Picchu, but about South American exploration).

Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad (2 stars). I really wanted to like this, to appreciate it, to find literary value. But mostly I was just annoyed and bored and ready for the colonial imperialism to be done with; the oft-repeated concept of white Europeans venturing into a native “savage” population and making all sorts of judgements is just…it drives me nuts. I understand that for their time, and blah blah blah. Did not enjoy.

Other Recommended Titles, In No Particular Order:

The Lost City of Z, by David Grann. Percy Fawcett, a British explorer obsessed with the Amazon, went missing in the 1920’s searching for his mythical City of Z; the rumors and stories around his adventures and time with Amazonian tribes persist, decades after his presumed death. A modern writer tries to retrace the trail and find some answers.

South: The Story of Shackelton’s Last Expedition, by Ernest Shackelton. A detailed first-person account of Shackleton’s attempt to cross Antarctica with teams of people and sled dogs. Fascinating. Also, lots of ice.

1421: The Year China Discovered America, by Gavin Menzies. Fascinating history of world navigation from a non-Euro perspective; a massive Chinese fleet set out to sail and map the world in the early 1400’s, this is their story. (Menzies, a bit of an eccentric, claims that one of those maps was brought to Italy across the Silk Road by Marco Polo, and eventually made it’s way to the Spanish court of Isabella and Ferdinand, the new patrons of Columbus).


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Confessions of a Bookaholic: Henrik Ibsen plays

Book Reviews_Henrik Ibsen_feistyharriet

Henrik Ibsen, a Norwegian playwright, spent his career picking apart stodgy Victorian values to examine the seedy underbelly, actual relationships, and human behaviors that flourished as real-life counter-points to the hyper-moral, Christian, patriarchy-based social facade. He writes about feminism, the degradation of women, the differences between religion and morality, the benefits and drawbacks of a nationally mandated version of Christianity; he writes about sex and STDs, incest, marriage and adultery, and almost all of his works have suicide and/or madness in them. Most plays written during Ibsen’s lifetime (he published from 1849-1899) followed a fairly standard story arc involving a (male) hero-protagonist faced with insurmountable odds and a tidy, happy ending with a moral lesson and true love’s kiss. Ibsen challenged this format and introduced complex characters fighting with a lot of sticky moral questions that fall squarely into a large gray area where nothing is so easy as black or white. He delves into the realities that lurk behind the Victorian veneer, and while many of his plays are over 150 years old, there is so much of his content that feels completely fresh and current to modern sensibilities. Basically, Ibsen is a Norwegian-speaking Shakespeare. Dah, he’s such a fantastic writer with a tremendous grasp of human nature!

I know reading plays can be an acquired taste, it is not the same as reading a novel (something almost every review of J.K. Rowling’s A Cursed Child mentions). In reading a play you, the reader, have to imagine far more than you would in a book as you only have dialogue to work with (and a few minimal stage directions or visual descriptions). Reading a play and being fully immersed in the world of the playwright, understanding the emotions behind dialogue without much (if any) omniscient narration is a learned skill. If you’ve ever watched a (well designed/performed) play you probably completely understood the story and characters and their motivations, right? Playwrights intend their work to be heard, not read, and it makes a huge difference in understanding for most people. If you can find an audio version to listen to while you read, that may help (I listened to a few through Librivox, but the actors are kind of a crap shoot). If you haven’t read an Ibsen play before–or any play before–I’d recommend starting with one of these first two: A Doll’s House, or Hedda Gabler.

A Doll’s House: Probably Ibsen’s most famous play, first published in 1879 it portrays the tragedy of a Victorian (patriarchal) marriage and the ridiculous role it leaves for women who are fully capable in the outside “man’s” world. Nora has good business sense; her husband does not. Nora has strong opinions on relationships and money and marriage that mirror feminists several generations later; her husband does not. The options that are open for her and super limited and in order for her to help her husband at all she must be super subversive and secretive and possibly even veer into illegal-for-Victorians territory, you know, so her incompetent husband doesn’t lose face in public. This is perhaps the first play in the western theatrical canon that addresses gender roles and how they can be damaging for men AND women.

Hedda Gabler:  Hedda is in an unhappy marriage with a man she doesn’t love and feels trapped and thwarted in the rest of her aspirations.Hedda doesn’t want to be a mother–the obvious/only next step for someone in her position–and she doesn’t particularly want to be a wife, quiet and docile and domestic is not her jam. She tries to explain this to her husband, to a friend, to her ex-lover, to a doctor, to the household staff, but no one seems to grasp that she cannot and will not shoe-horn herself into the mold that is expected of her. Hedda is often called the female Hamlet, she has such a complex and meaty role!

Ghosts: This is a psychological thriller that boldly discusses marriage infidelity, venereal disease, and assisted suicide. Yes, and it was published in 1881 when NONE of those things were openly discussed. Helen Alving is tortured by the memories of her late husband’s many infidelities, yet as a Good Victorian Woman she feels she must honor him in every way possible, to help him save face in their community. She wants her son to return home from his travels to help her establish a new family order, one without ties to her dead husband, one where she hopes she will be free. What she does not expect is that her son, Oswald, has his own horrifying legacy from his father: his syphilis is not a result of his Parisian free love, but was inherited directly from his philandering father, and it is quickly killing him. Fun fact: Once upon a time I took home a state theater medal for a scene from Ghosts; I was Helen Alving, my bff was Oswald in the scene is where Oswald asks for his mother to administer enough drugs to kill him if the syphilis eats too much of his brain and he becomes a syphilis vegetable. Not an easy scene for a couple of 18 year olds!

Enemy of the People: This! Published in 1882 this play is still so relevant. We’re talking water in Flint, Michigan, and the GOP and current Presidential election brouhaha, and environmental damage being covered up by a ruling (but stupid) majority; this play has all of that. A popular tourist attraction in a small town, the baths, is actually poisoning people, the concerned doctor-scientist who discovers this wants to rally the town to his cause, close down the baths and correct the issue. He takes to the media (newspaper) to argue his case, and is completely shut down by his brother, the Mayor, and the rest of the “concerned” town citizens who do not want the baths closed because they will all lose revenue in their respective businesses if the tourists stay away. Does ANY of this sound remotely current? Yes. Yes it does. Ibsen is brilliant, and there are so many quotes that are spot-on in our current political and environmental landscape.

Rosmerscholm: Not my favorite Ibsen, it explores similar themes of his other plays: the role of women, morality vs Christianity, and–as always–there is a lot of talk of suicide.

Master Builder: Somewhat autobiographical, Ibsen writes about an architect who believes he has sort-of magical powers, if he dreams something up, it comes to pass. He has built his career on the destruction of his wife’s family/ancestral home, something she has never gotten over. And then this teenage vixen comes along to try and destroy the architect, and she does good work. Not my favorite, and it didn’t have great reviews when it was first performed, but it is interesting how much of Ibsen’s life is in this particular play.

Emperor and Galilean: Huge, sweeping epic on the fight between Christianity and paganism in ancient Rome (AD 351). The Roman Emperor, Julian, is trying to rule his vast land holdings; the followers of Christ (the Galilean of the title) are trying to maintain Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire. The clash between church and state, Christian and other, intellectuals and faith, it’s all there. A recent re-translation by Ben Powers cuts this 7-hour play down to 3.5 hours (both performance time) and modernizes the language a bit, it is easier to understand than the original behemoth.

More info on Henrik Ibsen.

Harriet sig