Quick and Dirty Manga Shakespeare Impressions

Globe 1614

Hamlet

  • Story: A self-centered prince alienates anyone sympathetic to his cause. Nearly everyone dies. Oh, and the adapter made sure the Oedipal undertones came through in Hamlet’s scenes with Gertrude.
  • Art Style and Setting: Saturday morning futuristic cartoon anime with the least visually distinct characters of the series. None of the characters have much detail, and even though I have read the original play several times, I was still flipping to the front to figure out who was who.

Julius Caesar

  • Story: A noble leader must choose between his ideals and his friend. Nearly everyone dies.
  • Art Style and Setting: Contemporary military with a dash of the fantastic. I really like the characters, but the war scenes used so much black that it looked like the printer malfunctioned.

The Merchant of Venice

  • Story: A money-lender learns to word his contracts more carefully. I really enjoyed this story. After reading so many plays with dysfunctional families and relationships, I was happy to see people who had their lives together and intelligent women who weren’t either miserable or dead at the end.
  • Art Style and Setting: Unabashed Western fantasy. All the characters are elves in odd colors: peach, gray, purple, and green. Most of the panels are quite elegant and detailed, but the particularly frivolous scenes are illustrated using chibis. It makes the “oh, you have GOT to be kidding me” over-dramatic dialog funny instead of grating.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

  • Story: Three couples show romantic love requires misery. And lies. And drugs. Maybe. Okay, I couldn’t really find a proper plot or point to this play.
  • Art Style and Setting: Ancient Greece meets modern technology. This title too has the overly emotional lines delivered by chibis. Hee.

Othello

  • Story: A husband decides to murder his wife rather than talk with her. Nice.
  • Art Style and Setting: Alice in Wonderland meets Dante’s Inferno. It’s odd, but at least I had no trouble differentiating the characters.

Richard III

  • Story: A horrible hunch-back stabs and decapitates his way to the British crown before being killed by the totally awesome King Henry VII. It gets a little silly towards the end, like Shakespeare’s in the back yelling “Can I mention again how much I ❤ your ancestor?” to the reigning monarch. Still, I enjoyed this one. Richard knows what he wants and goes after it.
  • Art Style and Setting: Believable 1400s England. The castle, tent, and battlefield sets are simple and let the characters’ interactions be the sole focus.

Romeo and Juliet

  • Story: A clergyman capitalizes on two teenager’s obsession with one another to bring peace to his city. This was my least favorite of Shakespeare’s plays going in, but the manga version makes rereading it possible.
  • Art Style and Setting: Contemporary Japan; the Montagues and Capulets are now yakuza families. Again, exaggerated chibis make the overly-emotional scenes tolerable.

The Tempest

  • Story: A wrongfully exiled duke magically summons his enemies to his island and decides their fates. The plot didn’t capture my interest, but Duke Prospero fascinates me. I need to read the original play again.
  • Art Style and Setting: This one is a mutt of the fantastic and the believable, of different time periods and continents. Some of the characters’ clothing has an Asian monk influence, some a contemporary Western civilian influence, and others an 1800s Western military influence. The air spirit flies by the drunken Edwardian butler. None of it feels jarring though.

All the titles in the Manga Shakespeare series are faithful reworkings of the original plays. I may not enjoy a particular title, but these books provide a quick way to get a feel for the plot, numerous characters, and most famous quotes.

Justice and Opportunity

Many in my generation tend to be pretty cynical when it comes to the American Dream, the federal government, and our ability to change anything. If the government and other people would leave us and our paychecks alone, and everyone minded their own business, we’d all be better off, right?

I recently read two titles that reminded me the federal government can be a force for the individual’s and the communities’ good, that Americans really do have more opportunities than many acknowledge, and that justice in this lifetime is not a lost cause.

The first book is Freedom Summer: The 1964 Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi. Author Susan Goldman Rubin recounts the murders of three civil rights workers and the fallout for both a small town and a nation.  Rubin has meticulously researched all her sources and refrains from overgeneralizing or sentimentalizing anything.

The CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) members and host families were incredibly brave and committed to non-violent change. Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner may have been the only members murdered, but every person expected to be harassed, jailed, and abused. Most of them were.

What impressed me is how trapped everyone was in rural, segregated Mississippi. Black people may have been citizens on paper, but very few had the right to vote. Even those who could vote had no expectation of justice. When the local law enforcement officers and Ku Klux Klan members are one and the same, where could they go? Mississippi had not convicted a white person for murdering a black person ever. The Freedom Summer murders became news only because two of the victims were white and their families refused to stop pestering the federal government to investigate.

White people in rural Mississippi were just as trapped. Sympathetic white people knew if they were seen driving with a black person or talking to a white federal agent, they would be the next target. Some did help investigators, giving their statements and pointing out the local KKK members, but others begged them to leave for the investigators’ safety.

I was also struck by how driven the black children, teenagers, and many of the adults were to learn once given the opportunity. They worked together with the volunteers to create Freedom Schools and then focused on learning to read and learning the law. Many of the children are now professors or lawyers. You can read about individual stories here.

The second is Hidden Girl: The True Story of a Modern-Day Child Slave. Shyima Hall recounts her captivity, eventual liberation, and  readjustment to freedom. At eight years old, her Egyptian parents sent her to work for a family of six. She never went to school, never received medical attention when needed, never ate during the day due to her overwhelming work demands, and was repeatedly physically abused.

At twelve years old, agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement rescued Shyima from her owners’ California home and spent the next six years prosecuting her captors and helping Child Protective Services keep her safe.

As in rural Mississippi in the 1960s, everyone in Shyima’s Egypt seems so trapped. Poverty and lack of education keep the lower classes stuck in terrible living conditions. Her parents genuinely believed she was better off as a domestic slave, and I can see their point. If her owners had worked her twelve hours every day instead of eighteen, she would have had a better standard of living.

The Muslim men’s arrogant and pervasive demand for their wives’ and children’ respect while doing nothing to earn it keep the women and girls scared and dependent and teach the boys to be abusive. Shyima carefully notes that she no longer believes Islam itself is the problem, but she offers no examples of good Muslim men – only abusive and/or dictatorial ones.

Once liberated, Shyima spent hours upon hours trying to catch up academically in a completely foreign language. Students who refused to study and work baffled her. They were being offered the opportunity to make a better life for themselves, and they didn’t seem to care.

Shyima worked hard. She graduated high school, became an American, and now supports herself. She took advantage of the opportunities and now speaks to raise awareness about human trafficking.

These books are painful to read, but also incredibly hopeful.  Once given justice and an opportunity, an American CAN improve his/her lot in life with enough drive and determination.

Despite all the problems, despite all the frustrating bureaucracy, despite all the bad politicians, despite large corporations and lobby groups pressuring officials, I’m blessed to be where I am and when I am. May I always be mindful of that and, as a Christian, may I always

  • seek justice,
  • correct oppression;
  • bring justice to the fatherless,
  • plead the widow’s cause.        -Isaiah 1:17

Reflections on Newbery Books of 2014

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Newbery Medalist

  • Kate DiCamillo’s Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures: Recommended.  A damaged girl and an odd squirrel fight the establishment. I enjoyed Flora’s biting sense of humor. She’s smart and cynical but still feels like a child. I also appreciated the inclusion of a somewhat present, redeemable mother. In most of DiCamillo’s other novels, the mothers are dead, missing, not well characterized, or useless.

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Newbery Honors

  • Kevin Henkes’ The Year of Billy Miller: Recommended.  Henkes’ characterization of seven-year-old Billy and his family could not have been more perfect. He makes adult readers remember all the little thing about being an “average” grade school kid growing up in a “average” family. And he give children a relatable and sweet story without becoming saccharine or didactic. I look forward to reading this one aloud in a few years.
  • Holly Black’s Doll Bones: Recommended.  I tried Black’s The Spiderwick Chronicles and Tithe and felt underwhelmed. They weren’t bad, just not particularly memorable. I was therefore pleasantly surprised by Doll Bones. Despite the supernatural overtones, the characters and relationships feel true and grounded.
  • Amy Timberlake’s One Came Home: Recommended.  My favorite of the bunch, this historical mystery manages to be both grim and humorous. I genuinely could not predict where Timberlake would take Georgie and Agatha’s story of family discord – and loved her choice of ending.
  • Vince Vawter’s Paperboy: Recommended.  Even before reading the biographical blurb or internet information, I could feel Vawter drawing on his own experiences growing up with a disability in the segregated South. All the relationships (if not all the plot points) feel so believable. Particularly refreshing is the protagonist’s honest questioning of religion and parental responsibilities – and his fairness in his assessments. He does not make snap judgments one way or the other and sees people as people. There may be hypocrisy or disappointment, but he is still charitable and open to learning. Most children’s novels would use grown-ups’ flaws as an impetus for total hostility or rebellion or emo-cry-black-eye-liner-pity-parties, and Paperboy doesn’t. Kudos.

May next year’s list be just as good!

Reflections on Caldecott Books of 2014

Caldecott Medal

For those with question marks over their heads, here is a short explanation of the history behind the medal. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

All caught up?  Good.  Now, on to the individual titles.

  • Brian Floca’s Locomotive: received the medal and deservedly so.  Floca teaches about the science and mechanics involved in a steam engine and the history of the First Transcontinental Railroad at the same time.  The use of second-person usually feels artificial to me, but Floca makes it flow so well.
  • Aaron Becker’s Journey: my favorite of the four.  Becker’s meticulous attention to detail and variety of perspectives tell a wonderful adventure without words.  He also manages to make the journey feel dangerous yet not gruesome.  When does his next book publish?
  • Molly Idle’s Flora and the Flamingo: feels like an animated feature in the best ways.  The characters are expressive and believable without any text.  The only negative I see is the physical book.  With such light, delicate paper for the flaps it will be damaged within a few months.
  • David Wiesner’s Mr. Wuffles!: an original concept impeccably drawn.  A testy cat attempts to catch an aliens’ spaceship while the insects and aliens make First Contact.  This too is a story without text (well, unless you count the aliens’ incomprehensible speech bubbles) that works perfectly.

Usually there’s at least one title that makes we wonder what on earth Caldecott/Newberry/National Book Award Committees are thinking, but not with this stack.  I’d recommend any of the titles to both children and adults.

Lessons from Long Live the Queen

I’m busy preparing a princess for her fast-approaching ascension to the throne. She’s doing fairly well: she can recite the religious texts, understand ciphers, handle a bow, and waltz without tripping over her own feet. I’ve even grown fond of young Elodie…

Priestess_robe

…even if she refuses to implement my wardrobe advice. Yikes.

Then she gets the munchies and decides to open the chocolates that just arrived at the castle without a proper return address. One cherry cordial later, she’s green and crumpled on the floor.

Poisoned

“Idiot!” I yell and mash the escape key. I fleetingly wonder if this is how Anora felt when Cailan did something stupid.

Welcome to Hanako Games’ Long Live the Queen, the cutest political strategy game I’ve found. Elodie must avoid assassination attempts, civil rebellion, foreign conquest, forced marriages, and the courtiers’ determination to undermine her authority.

She died, and she died a lot, as I worked out what skills a leader needs to be effective. She and I finally made it to her coronation, a lovely affair…

Coronation

…that masked her (and my) disillusionment and frustration with national politics. Long Live the Queen taught us:

  • An effective leader must possess some degree of self-control and tact when dealing with other nobles and ambassadors. Truth doesn’t always matter.
  • An effective leader must be well-versed in public speaking. Few people care about sincere intentions.
  • An effective leader must have a large information network both at home and abroad. Spying on everyone is essential.
  • An effective leader must keep the masses on her side either by favoring their cause in court or by funding state-sponsored programs. Loving animals and being “spiritual” also wins her points with the commoners, but it isn’t necessary.
  • All the other lessons one can focus upon – martial skills, history, economics, military strategy, and a strong faith – have very little impact on a leader’s surviving and continuing as ruler.

Great. Queen Elodie is now Bill Clinton, and I’m her James Carville.

Excuse me while I restart the game and shape Elodie into an empathetic, studious ruler. She may not last long, but at least we won’t be so depressed. Besides, if she has to die, at least I can make sure she goes in style. I’m leaning toward this:

Monster

Mary Poppins vs. Nurse Matilda

Poppins

Picture this:

Your father has died before your tenth birthday, leaving your mother alone with three girls to support. She asks you to be a darling and watch your younger sisters while she goes and drowns herself in the creek behind the house.

Do you:

  1. Cling to her skirts?
  2. Get help from a neighbor or friend?
  3.  Hug your family tight and start praying?
  4. Make up stories to soothe your sisters fears?

I would have gone for option 2, but P. L. Travers chose option 4. Thus her Mary Poppins series was born from a child’s fear and the need for stability in her life.

What surprised me most about Mary Poppins (the book, not the Disney musical) is how callous the eponymous nanny seems. She’s vain, bossy, snappish, deceitful, and shows no compunction about manipulating and bullying children or adults. I wouldn’t have been surprised to find her standing over one of the sleeping babies with a knife and then barking at the other kids to go back to sleep. This is who Travers thought would make the ideal guardian as a child?  And why did Walt Disney spend so many years trying to get Travers’ permission for an adaptation when he’d basically rewrite the entire story and characters’ personalities?

Possibly Mary Poppins’ personality evolved as Travers herself changed. At least, I hope those younger sisters heard about a kind guardian as they waited to hear the splash in the back. Ugh. Anyway, after watching this documentary, Mary Poppins’ less attractive qualities seem to have been the author’s.

I’ll stick with Christianna Brand’s Nurse Matilda series, thanks. It too has a bossy care-taker and contains just as much violence, but Nurse Matilda (or Nanny McPhee as she is renamed in the movies) is genuinely kind and seeks to improve her charges’ behavior and character rather than trolling the entire family.

Matilda

Short Scribblings on The Bronte Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne

Many years ago, I enjoyed Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and then moved on to Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. With less than thirty pages to go, I threw it across the room and didn’t touch it again except to take it back to the library. I wondered what had made the Bronte sisters so intense and, at times, so maddening. Thanks to Catherine Reef’s The Bronte Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, I now know.

The Bronte Sisters illuminates the personalities and the family dynamics that influenced the authors’ works. Death, abuse, isolation, and the prevailing misogyny of 1800s England led these intelligent women to deep introspection and a burning desire to create.

Oddly enough, Branwell Bronte (their brother) was neither abused at school nor faced with limited career options as his sisters were, yet he was the only one of the siblings who completely despaired and led a dissolute life.* The authors had inspiration for their more horrible male characters living right in their home.

The one difference I saw between he and his sisters was the women’s deep and constant faith in their God and the life to come. Of the many quotes in the biography, my favorite was Charlotte Bronte’s on Darwin’s theories and the rejection of God:

“The strangest thing is that we are called on to rejoice over this hopeless blank, to welcome this unutterable desolation as pleasant state of freedom. Who could do this if he would? Who would do it if he could?”

Now I’m curious to find their poetry too since that seems to be the most reflective of their worldview.

Expect commentaries on Bronte novels in the coming month. Well, excepting Wuthering Heights. Y’all don’t need a four-page post detailing the repulsive traits of every character described therein.

*Every time Branwell was mentioned, this song popped into my head.  Ugh.

Ideas Have Consequences: Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov

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Recommendation 1: The Brothers Karamazov is not light, fluffy, turn-off-your-brain beach reading. I would recommend having a zippy book on hand for the day you’re stuck on page 792 or 936 and need a break. Still, the work is completely worth it!

Recommendation 2: Unless you do not particularly care about having the main plot spoiled, avoid commentaries or lists of characters. All the ones I have found give away the murderer.  Boo.  Hiss.  Etc.

The Brothers Karamazov action is rather straight-forward. Alexei, his brothers Dmitri and Ivan, and Fyodor, his father, reunite in their hometown. Within a week, Fyodor has been murdered. Who killed him and why? Well, the “why” part on one level is pretty straight-forward: Fyodor lived as a complete &*$# towards everybody in his life; no tears were shed here. The reader needs to explore and answer the “why” from the worldview aspect and the novel’s main theme: ideas have consequences, not only for that one person, but for the rest of the world.

Dostoevsky doesn’t care about physical descriptions or the everyday interactions of ordinary lives; the first scenes with the characters hanging out together will make you think everybody needs to be on psychiatric medication. They all immediately and completely tell their life’s story and soul’s state to one another. Please remember that this character may not be a realistic individual, but he is a completely consistent type of person or thought. Indeed, sometimes you’ll feel like Dostoevsky creates both a deadly serious argument and a parody at the same time. Maybe he understands life is both a tragedy and comedy. Laugh, but keep thinking!

Though he draws his main characters as people we genuinely care about, Dostoevsky primarily uses these characters as embodiments of ideas and worldviews. Dmitri, the eldest brother, is the uncontrolled sensualist. Ivan, the middle brother, is the careful, independent intellectual. Alexei is the self-giving and childlike believer of his God. Through these and other less important characters, Dostoevsky directly forces his readers to confront different views about…

  • whether a person can ever find personal peace or happiness – and what worldview might lead to it, the life of unbridled passions, the life of carefully-considered, logical ideas, or the life of loving religiosity
  • what duty a person has to the rest of human society and the physical world
  • what moral and legal guilt the people surrounding a criminal bear for his crime
  • whether God exists and what human suffering tells us about this God

…just to name a few. Heavy material to work with, but Dostoevsky makes each character’s struggle with his worldview and reality so engrossing and moving you are compelled to see what happens next. There’s a reason he is still read 150 years later in the USA, a country he himself despised; Dostoevsky’s just that good!

This is not to say The Brothers Karamazov doesn’t have problems. Hubby, poor dear, had to listen to a tirade once I got to a certain plot point. Also, Dostoevsky clearly promotes one of the worldviews while remaining completely silent on some of the frightening implications. But that is for another day…for making you examine your personal worldview, few books have it beat. Hugely recommended.

Quotes

This book has fantastic psychological insights. Initially I tried to write down the great quotes from the book…and then realized I was transcribing whole chapters. Here are two of my favorites:

  • “Anyway, what does it mean, being ridiculous? There are so many different ways a man may seem funny to someone else. Especially these days when everyone who has any talent seems to be morbidly afraid that he may appear ridiculous. That’s why so many gifted people are so unhappy” Alexei to Dmitri (744).
  • “Listen to the rest of it then; let me bare the other half of my soul” (1029). Dmitri says it, but it could have come from any of the characters. Hee.

Works Cited

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Trans. Andrew R. McAndrew. 1880. New York: Bantam Dell, 2003.

The Little Way of Ruthie Leming

Dreher’s The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life is a jumble of cancer struggles, family dynamics, spiritual wanderings and signs, Parisian epiphanies, warring character traits, and contemplations on the meaning of community.

Does that sound like a whole lot to tackle in one memoir? It is. To make it even more scattered, Rod Dreher seems to be conflicted or undecided on many of the topics. For example, most of the time he describes his sister Ruthie as a loving and kind mother, wife, and teacher. He often refers to her as a saint (in the Roman Catholic sense of the word)! The rest of the time he describes her as rude, disapproving, and close-minded when he made decisions different than Ruthie’s – such as living away from their hometown, writing for a living, home-schooling his children, exploring his Christianity more deeply, and cooking a French dish. Yes, that last one’s a real example. Another time he tells how frustrating and limiting he found living in a small town and having a father who did not understand him…and then admits that the same frustrated relationship is repeating itself with his own son.

Dreher also leaves many interesting stories unexplored. In particular, his aunts’ service in France during WWII and his investigation of abuse in the Roman Catholic church leading him to switch denominations intrigued me. I hope he writes more on these in the future.

Despite the flaws, I finished the book quickly because many of the questions he raises are ones young adults and parents will answer simply by living their lives.

  • Do I let peers, family, school, culture, or church pressure me into accepting something that’s incorrect? Or have I chosen the opposite opposition as a reaction, not as a measured decision?
  • Do I choose a career or passion that requires me to move far from my extended family?
  • Do I let a few individuals in a group turn me off to the entire group?
  • What is my duty to my extended family? What is my duty to my child? How would I resolve a conflict between the two?
  • Where do I have prejudice because it’s different – not because it’s morally wrong – and how do I root that out and not pass that on to the next generation?
  • What am I doing to cultivate relationships with others? Do I need to seek reconciliation with anyone? How do I show love for another while not giving approval to their sins?
  • How would my family tackle a life-threatening illness? How can I help others going through one right now?
  • Will I choose to make family and community relationships an idol? How can I keep it in proper perspective?
  • How often can a person change denominations before he or she burns out on the idea of church and God altogether?
  • How much navel-gazing can one do before becoming an indecisive mess?

 

I did not find a satisfying story nor the secret of a good life in The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life, but sometimes just being called to reflect on your own decisions is enough. Recommended.