Wisdom Cries Aloud

Proverbs 1:20 depicts wisdom calling out in public.  She cries out on the streets, in the market, and at the city gate.  This picture of wisdom actively pursuing people and offering knowledge to all reminds me of how accessible knowledge is to those who seek it and how one can find it even in the most unlikely places.  An example of one of these unlikely places that I recently discovered was a children’s book about the ancient samurai.

I have come to realize that I enjoy children’s book retellings of Japanese and Chinese legends.  Several of my favorite children’s books that I have discovered and reviewed in recent years are Heart of a Samurai and Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, and my list of future books to read includes Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune.  One reason for my interest in this genre is that these stories are often refreshingly different from Western stories.  While I enjoy Greek and Norse myths and European fairy tales, a collection of Asian stories often offers a pleasant change.  The storytelling style is unique, the characters and settings are exotic, and the themes can be intriguing.  Browsing a library shelf recently, Sword of the Samurai: Adventure Stories from Japan by Eric A. Kimmel caught my eye.  Unsure whether I had read it before and intrigued by the title, I decided to try it and discovered that the children’s book is well-told, entertaining, and thought-provoking.

A samurai wielding a naginata, which is a Japanese weapon similar to a pike

Kimmel divides Sword of the Samurai into short episodes that each tell a different tale.  Each section begins with a short description of life or beliefs in ancient Japan that relates to the succeeding story.  This arrangement mixes historical facts with stories in a way that makes learning about Japan and the samurai fun and memorable, which would be especially good for young readers.  The narrative is very readable and contains excellent descriptions that enrich the story with the perfect amount of detail.

One of my favorite aspects of this book is the humor in the stories.  Although most of the stories involve battles or conflict of some kind, some of my favorites focus on other aspects of life in the time of the samurai.  Several of the legends have clever characters and scenarios that made me laugh out loud.  Unlike the wiliness of Greek mythological characters, these samurai have an understated cunning that I find more palatable than in a lot of Western stories.  The samurai respond humbly when they outwit their enemies, rather than bragging about their success.

What surprised me more than the storytelling and humor, though, is the themes Sword of the Samurai deals with.  The stories touch on a wide variety of subjects, from women’s place in society to the acceptability of violence to what makes a true warrior.  Many of the ideas that the stories promote and accept as normal are very alien to Western culture, and the stories contain wise advice as well as warnings.  For instance, while loyalty to family and leaders is admirable, these stories demonstrate how samurai could go too far in attempts to honor the people they served or represented.  The stories commemorate valor, wisdom, patience, and justice but show little of love or kindness.  One of the saddest examples of this is when a leader attributes his success in deescalating a dangerous situation to his lack of emotion.  The character explains, “Human life must mean nothing to us…especially the lives of those we love best” (82).  He sees love and emotions as a hindrance to protecting others because they can lead to fear and anger.  The cure here seems worse than the disease, though.  As these stories demonstrate, fearlessness was an influential ideal in Japanese culture to be obtained at all costs, but a fearless attitude could often become a heartless one, leading to horrible atrocities.

As it turns out, I had read Sword of the Samurai before, but I am glad to have rediscovered it.  This book provides a good introductory examination of some of the contrasts between Japanese and Western culture in a well-written, enjoyable format that will appeal to a range of audiences.  Whether readers are looking for a fun set of stories, an intriguing view into another culture, or thought-provoking themes, Sword of a Samurai by Eric Kimmel is a good book for the job.  What I appreciate most, though, is how this children’s book reminds its readers that one can learn from unexpected sources and find insight in even the most unlikely places where wisdom cries aloud.

Our Bitter Struggle

The day was cool and overcast—not exactly ideal Sunday weather, but good enough if the only ambitions of the day were to sleep. Trying to feel at least somewhat productive, I gathered my computer and a glass of sweet tea and sat down on the sofa to hammer out a few words on a topic as yet undetermined.

After a minute or two of watching the cursor slowly blink on an empty page, I began to feel as though a pair of eyes were upon me. Looking around the room, my gaze fell upon the house’s resident cat. Her body draped with languid dignity across the mantlepiece as cats are wont to do when they feel that they own the world (note: this dignity is present at all times other than when they want food or to be let outside—in which case this façade is quickly lost with hysteric abandon). She looked on me from her lofty throne, eyes quickly communicating her sense of feline superiority and control. Now I have been told, both by Jim Davis and others, that to look away from a cat after making eye contact is a sign of weakness and inferiority. As such, I immediately knew that my sworn duty was to make sure this cat understood her proper place in the universe, and with quick abandonment of my writing project I began to engage in a contest of mortal staring.

I’m not heavy into pet psychology, but assuming that animal psychiatrists are on to something has always made the games more fun. One such study found that if you blink at a cat while maintaining eye contact, a message of ‘friendly’ superiority is communicated as opposed to a hostile one. Now, as much as the fate of the world hung in the balance due to our great struggle, my streak of ‘benevolent-dictator’ had no desire to rub my obvious superiority in her face, and so frequent attempts to ‘blink’ at my opponent were made to little obvious effect.

Steely gaze met steely gaze as the cat and I maintained unbroken eye contact for quite a while, each waiting to see who would crack first. However, after much staring that quickly grew quite embarrassing due to its duration, she glanced away. VICTORY! Turning back the computer screen I realized that she had just given me something to put down on my empty page; but, before even pressing the first keystroke, I felt her gaze upon me again. Realizing that capitulation to her war of attrition at any point would mean ultimate defeat, I hardened my resolve to see this ongoing fight to the bitter end. After many reiterations of the war and victory cycle, hopes were high in the human camp that final victory was just around the corner. However, just as ultimate conquest seemed within reach, my opponent rose gracefully and moved to lie down in a less combative part of the room, leaving our epic struggle with such a carefree air as to say, “I am tired of your stupid antics human, and this game ceases to amuse me, so see you after my nap.”

Despite this small setback, the war is not over. Mankind must triumph! For now, however, I content myself to fill out this page and await the hour when her contented snoring ceases and her eyes open, and then we shall once again engage in bitter combat for the fate of the living room.

Jim Davis

Review: Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

Riding on the waves of good sentiment from the original Lego Movie that surprised me (and most people?) with how awesome it was, Lego Movie 2, five years later, seems late to the party. In the intervening years, Chris Pratt, who voices the main character, Emmet, has gone from being a likeable but relatively unknown actor (Parks and Recreation) to being a cinematic superstar in such films as Guardians of the Galaxy, Jurassic World, Passengers, and more. With the time gap, can the filmmakers recapture the lighthearted wit of the original? The answer is no, but that is okay.

In parallel with real-world time, the sequel begins five years after the events of the first film–in a post-apocalyptic world channeling vibes from Mad Max: Fury Road. This world, as the film quickly establishes, is the fallout caused by the Lego-obsessed boy’s sister (mentioned at the end of the first film) being allowed to play with her brother’s Lego creations. Can the main characters survive in this post-apocalyptic wasteland? To find out, watch the movie. Or read on, to decide if that’s something worth doing.

If Lego Movie surprised us with its freshness, wit, and cultural commentary (provided by such catchy/banal songs as “Everything is Awesome”), the sequel is surprising in some of the new elements it brings to the mix–a musical vibe, and a tone that is thematically darker in places. Lego Movie 2 is not a clone of the original, and this is both a liability and an asset.

It is a liability because some of the characters in this film feel transparent. The original film hides the metaphorical (?) story of the father-son relationship until the last third of the film, giving the Lego characters space to breathe and become real to the audience, before revealing the meta-story. Because the curtain has been pulled back already, however, Lego Movie 2 has a transparency that makes certain characters feel simpler. For instance, you might think, This character is only saying this because that’s what the sister is trying to communicate to her brother. It robs the audience of an emotional connection with some of the characters, because we feel they are marionettes for the larger meta-story.

However, the distinctiveness of Lego Movie 2 is an asset in other ways. It is not the same story as the first film, and that is okay. While not as strong as the first film, it tells a familiar but original story that, instead of recycling the popular parts from film 1, takes a different direction, revealing new dimensions to each of the characters. As a film, it stands on its own legs, which is respectable, even if the legs aren’t quite as swole as the first film’s.

All in all, Lego Movie 2: The Second Part was an amusing, lighthearted way to spend a Saturday evening. Would I recommend most people wait for the subsequent release to Redbox or Netflix to watch it? Probably. But, for those who enjoyed its predecessor, is it worth seeing this installment? Absolutely.

And Another Reason Why English Is Hard…

English really is quite a difficult language
Being hard to speak, and even harder to spell.
Consider, for example, the following verbiage,
And stress one word, with unique connotation:

“I never said she stole my money.” – A blanket, bland statement
I never said she stole my money.” – There was another accuser.
“I never said she stole my money.” – You’d never make that pronouncement.
“I never said she stole my money.” – Oh, but you heavily implied.

“I never said she stole my money.” – This woman has been framed.
“I never said she stole my money.” – She got to it by other means.
“I never said she stole my money.” – There are other victims to be named.
“I never said she stole my money.” – But perhaps she’s stolen your heart?