Reflections on Lost in the Cosmos

On the heels of finishing Percy’s satirical self-help book Lost in the Cosmos, I take a moment to reflect on the causes of my recent obsession. For those rolling their eyes at this topic because of a glut of recent conversations with me about Percy, feel free to stop reading and come back once you have made yourself a gin fizz and calmed down.

A couple reasons for this obsession are purely environmental:

  • Percy lived near where I live now
  • Also near where I live, the bar at the Southern Hotel serves half-priced old-fashioned drinks on Walker Percy Wednesdays in honor of Walker Percy

But also, the interest lies in the humor of Percy as well as the relevance of many topics to contemporary thought. Lost in the Cosmos illustrates these traits, but it is a difficult book to describe. The subtitle of the book is “The Last Self-Help Book,” but even this fails to illuminate what the book truly contains. It is a mixture of satirical self-help (suicide is recommended as a cure for depression in one of the more humorous, if off-color, chapters) as well as miniature short stories describing possible futures. The end of the book concludes, for instance, with a story of a space odyssey to find extra-terrestrial intelligence in the cosmos.

Lost in the Cosmos also contains:

  • Chapters that “can be skipped without fatal consequences” that seem pulled from an academic work (semiotics and triadic relationships) (p. 83). It is a heady but humorous section
  • Chapters of “self-help” that analyze quirks of humanity, such as what a sales clerk actually means when a person tries on a new pair of shoes in a store and the clerk sees them and says, “It’s you!” (p. 21)
  • Parody of both religious and non-religious people, scientific and non-scientific people
  • Humorous theories about why it is that artists and writers are often troubled souls, insane or addicted to substances, gambling, sex, or otherwise. The theory purports that when artists or writers create great works of art, they transcend mundane reality and go into orbit around it, similar to an astronaut making it through the earth’s atmosphere and into orbit. This transcendent state is beautiful and harmonious. Except that, eventually, Dostoevsky finished writing Crime And Punishment and was forced back to reality–and to cope with this, he headed to the gambling hall to play roulette. Re-entering the atmosphere, Percy theorizes, is difficult and perilous, and many artists have difficulty with this. To enable re-entry, Percy notes that artists find different ways to manage–anesthetization with drugs and alcohol, travel (either geographical or sexual), exile (where the traveler skips re-entry entirely and vanishes into the void), and more.
  • discussions of sex that may make some uncomfortable (not sexually explicit or lurid but simply frank description of human behaviors). In a chapter describing a space odyssey in a futuristic society, Percy describes with the patience of a researcher the different combinations of people that scientists tested to satisfy the “sexual needs” of the astronauts. He describes some combinations of individuals as devolving into conflict. Most of the experiments only highlight man’s inability to control or master themselves, despite the incredible progress of science and mastery of the world.
  • Interesting chapter titles. Traditional writing advice says to write a killer opening sentence to draw the reader in. Percy utilizes interesting chapter titles also, such as this one (chapter 9):

The Envious Self (in the root sense of envy: invidere, to look at with malice): Why it is that the Self–though it Professes to be Loving, Caring, to Prefer Peace to War, Concord to Discord, Life to Death; to Wish Other Selves Well, not Ill–in fact Secretly Relishes Wars and Rumors of War, News of Plane Crashes, Assassinations, Mass Murders, Obituaries, to say nothing of Local News about Acquaintances Dropping Dead in the Street, Gossip about Neighbors Getting in Fights or being Detected in Sexual Scandals, Embezzlements, and other Disgraces

p. 57

This chapter concludes, of course, with a quiz for the reader to notate their reactions to different unfortunate situations.

By this point, I imagine that you have either decided “I am NEVER reading this book,” or this has piqued your interest, and you are now ready to read something unlike anything you have read before.

Some of this writing (especially the bit about suicide) seemed macabre and off-color until I listened to a lecture about Walker Percy – available here. In the lecture, the Professor Jennifer Frey reveals that the issue of suicide was very real for Percy–both Percy’s grandfather and father committed suicide prior to his 14th birthday. Themes of being an ex-suicide echo throughout Percy’s writings for understandable reasons. In addition, Percy was not always a “Southern Catholic writer.” He was born Protestant (nominally Presbyterian), and based on my reading came to really embrace Catholicism while recovering from tuberculosis in New England. It was only later in life that he relocated to Louisiana, near New Orleans, married, and came into his self as the writer he is remembered as today.

He also wrote–a fact that is apropos for 2020–against segregation in the magazine Commonweal in the 1960’s. Clearly, he was a man with a great deal of wit and intelligence, who thought deeply on many topics.

These topics include issues of self – how do we transcend our material reality without throwing it away entirely? Who are we in this universe? What enables a depressed person to go on living? What is the role of a person’s faith in the world? What questions can’t science answer? As I have been discovering and hope you will too, Walker Percy is a voice for our times because he dealt in his writings with issues that have only more vital since he lived.

A Celebration of Humanity

“Putting people of all shapes, sizes, colors…on stage together and presenting them as equals, another critic might have even called it a celebration of humanity,” newspaper critic James Gordon Bennett tells P.T. Barnum in the film The Greatest Showman.  This comment highlights what I love about this movie and two others that share its spirit.  While quite different, The Greatest Showman, Wonder, and The Music of Silence all have this common spark: a celebration of humanity in the face of social stigmas.

The Greatest Showman poster

The Greatest Showman

Celebrates: equality, the value of humans, beauty in all its forms, family

Premise: A man dreams of delighting the world with exotic shows.  With the help of his wife, two young daughters, and a lot of ingenuity, P.T. Barnum recruits social outcasts to join his cast.  Instead of hiding their physical differences, Barnum invites these people to celebrate who they are and to take their differences to new heights (or girths) on stage—to allow their audience to view the “wonders of the world” in a night of entertainment.  Full of peppy music, gorgeous sets, and breathtaking performances, The Greatest Showman brings this phenomenal circus show to life and weaves in themes about the importance of family, human worth, and realizing one’s dreams.

Further viewing: Here’s the song that sums up how The Greatest Showman is a celebration of humanity.

Wonder family

Wonder

Celebrates: kindness, looking beyond appearances, overcoming disabilities, supportive family and friends, inspirational teachers

Premise: Auggie’s dream is to become an astronaut, and he loves to wear his astronaut helmet.  One reason for this is because he was born with a rare facial deformity caused by a tumor on his face.  After 27 surgeries and years of homeschooling, Auggie is now starting his first day of fifth grade at a private middle school.  While a cheerful little boy with a devoted mother and loving father and sister, Auggie struggles with fear of rejection and being stared at by strangers.  This film explores how medical disabilities and being physically different can affect not only people like Auggie directly but can impact the lives of family members and friends.  I love how the film presents the story from different perspectives and highlights several characters’ personal struggles.

Further viewing: If you want to read a similar story based on true events, consider checking out the autobiographical children’s book Ugly by Robert Hoge, which I suspect inspired Wonder.  Here’s Robert Hoge’s TEDx about owning your face.

The Music of Silence

The Music of Silence

Celebrates: music, overcoming disabilities, family, inspirational teachers

Premise: This is a beautiful biopic about renowned Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli.  Born with congenital glaucoma, Bocelli (who goes by Amos in the story) gradually loses his sight and becomes completely blind by age 12.  Bocelli himself narrates the story, and the script is based on his autobiography.  The film depicts Bocelli’s struggles as he falls in love with music and then loses his voice.  His family, friends, and teachers have a powerful influence on his life as he attempts to find a place for himself in the world, fights for independence despite his disability, and tries to follow his dream of being a singer.  The music and cinematography are stunning, and the movie is touching and inspirational as it deals with a mother’s heartbreak over her young son’s suffering, Bocelli’s depression and frustration with his blindness, and what it takes to become a world-renowned musician.

Further viewing: Watch Bocelli’s performance of Nessun Dorma.

A Christmas Book Trio

Winter has so many aspects that I love.  While I don’t care for the longer nights and sometimes dreary cold for their own sake, I do appreciate the juxtaposition they create with the indoors.  How cozy wintry weather makes home seem!  I love cuddling up with a book in a warm house with a cup of cocoa when it’s cold outside.  I love the colors of snow, ice, evergreens, holly bushes, migrating birds, and Christmas decorations.  One of my favorite parts of winter is singing and listening to Christmas carols, and I am always tempted to break family tradition and listen to Christmas music before Thanksgiving, in spite of my sister’s objections.

What truly makes winter wonderful, though, is Christmas and the story of Christ’s birth which we celebrate during this season.  Christmas is a story that mankind has been commemorating since before it even had the name “Christmas” or the date December 25th.  This true story began with Joseph, Mary, and the shepherds and for over two millennia has continued with the young and old, men and women, around the world.  We continue to celebrate it in many ways, from decorations and traditions to music, movies, and books.  And as is my tradition, here are three Christmas books I have discovered over the past year.

A Child's Christmas in Wales

A Child’s Christmas in Wales / Dylan Thomas (illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman)

This children’s book is my most recent Christmas discovery.  A Child’s Christmas is essentially a collection of Christmas memories and scenes.  Dylan Thomas writes in a very poetic, stream of consciousness style that is sometimes confusing and at other times creates a vivid picture of what is happening.  The book captures the quirky, unfiltered reality of life at Christmastime in Wales.  However, although I appreciate the realism and the artistry Thomas displays, the content and tone don’t seem to suit a young audience.  While the book is packaged as a children’s story, contains “child” in its title, and follows a child’s perspective of Christmas, I think adults would appreciate the story more because of its complex writing style and nostalgic tone.  That said, I would definitely recommend the book for its art.  Trina Schart Hyman is one of my favorite children’s illustrators, and her artwork fills the story with character, expertly bringing to life the scenes Dylan Thomas paints with words.

The True Gift

The True Gift / Patricia MacLachlan

Liam and Lily are visiting their Gran and Grandpa for Christmas.  When Liam finds out that their grandparents’ pet cow no longer has her donkey friend, he worries that White Cow will be lonely and sets out to find her a new companion for Christmas.  This story resonates my Christmas memories and family visits in surprising ways.  From making snowmen cookies with red cinnamon buttons to debating how many books to pack for vacation, Liam and Lily’s experiences are funnily similar to my own.  I found this little book charming and hope you do as well!

The Christmas Tree

The Christmas Tree / Julie Salamon

What’s your Christmas tree story?  Mine isn’t all that glamorous.  First, my father or brothers climb into the attic and haul down the artificial tree (version 3.0 since I’ve been around).  Then, my mother, siblings, and I shake the dust off the needles (and shake off some needles too) and spread the stiff branches.  After swathing the tree in strings of lights, topping it with an angel, bedecking it with ornaments, and swaddling it in a rug and a pile of presents, the journey is done.

Keeping this in mind, you can imagine my surprise and curiosity when I discovered in The Christmas Tree a story about the journey of perhaps the most famous Christmas tree in the world.  I had never thought much about where the famed Rockefeller Center Christmas tree comes from each year.  But in a beautiful story filled with fascinating characters, sweet illustrations, and Christmas themes, Julie Salamon crafts a delightful Christmas narrative that gives me a whole new perspective on Christmas trees.  I would say more, but it’s been a while since I read the book—and I want you to enjoy it for yourself!

Do you have a favorite Christmas book?  Or have you discovered any new ones this year?  I would love to hear from you in the comments.

Review: Bibliotheca

What started as a $1.4 million Kickstarter campaign back in 2014 finally came to fruition in 2016 with the publication and delivery of a four-volume edition of the Bible (or 5 if customers chose to have the Apocrypha included in the slipcase). What was unique about this edition, you may rightly ask? There are many editions of the Bible that cost well under $199. So why the steep price tag?

Well, these four volumes–divided into the The Five Books & The Former Prophets, The Latter Prophets, The Writings, and The New Testament–represent a reader’s Bible of sorts–no page or chapter divisions, and with a single-column layout. In addition, the materials are very high-quality, from the stone-based mineral paper that the text is printed on (supposedly longer-lasting than normal paper) to the cloth material covering the exterior. So a reader’s bible for hipsters? Well, basically.

bibliotheca_celery_standard_sq_1024x1024
from the website; the above is similar to my edition except mine includes the Apocrypha separately, not in the slipcase.

What I have discovered since receiving my editions is 3 things:

  1. I am less likely to read a book that I view as too valuable to handle regularly; the editions collected dust on my shelves for the first two years of ownership. They looked great, though.
  2. Now that I have begun reading from these books more regularly, I am beginning to appreciate the designer’s decision to use a revised version of the 1901 American Standard Version (ASV) translation, which, from my understanding, is largely the original ASV with “thee’s” and “thou’s” updated to use more modern expressions. The reason I appreciate this is that I can read familiar passages and encounter slightly different phrasing that makes me pause to figure out what the passage is saying; the translation seems very readable and clear, but also different from the NKJV and ESV I’m accustomed to. So I often find myself meditating on the meaning of a passage before pulling up another translation to verify the meanings are similar. The process has been fun!
  3. I also appreciate the lack of verse and chapter divisions–it makes it easier to see connections between thoughts, especially in New Testament epistles, where I often stop reading at the end of a chapter or topical division. In 1 Peter 3:1-12, for instance, it is easy to see the transition from Peter talking to wives, then husbands, then everybody together. There’s no “Suffering for Righteousness’ Sake” header splitting verses 1-7 and 8-12. It is a continuous thought as Peter addresses several audiences. Seeing this progression is possible with any Bible of course, but the simplicity of the page design makes it easier for me to recognize.

I pre-ordered back in 2014, waiting until 2016 for delivery, and only this year did I finally begin to take the books off the shelf and crack them open more regularly. Was it worth the wait? The books are very high-quality and have provided a helpful bit of variety (I know! The nerve of praising novelty with respect to the Bible!) to my Bible reading, so I say–yes.

Circumnavigating the Globe

At least in literature, adventure often surprises the least adventurous and the most unsuspecting people in their ordinary lives, dragging them off and away to save the world, to do daring deeds, or to travel the world in eighty days.  And that is exactly what happens to rich, gentlemanly Phileas Fogg, a man who does the same thing every day for years, until one day.  In Around the World in Eighty Days, author Jules Verne spins an extraordinary tale of how Phileas Fogg and his valet Passepartout cast Fogg’s life of routine out the window and embark on a trip to circle the globe in eighty days.

The adventure begins in an unsuspecting manner.  Phileas Fogg is dwelling in late nineteenth century England and, as usual, goes to his club.  However, when Fogg tells his friends at the club of a newspaper article which states that, thanks to the modern transportation system, the entire world can be crossed in eighty days, his friends deny the article’s accuracy.  Fogg says that the feat can be done and enters into a wager with them, promptly setting out from England with Passepartout to prove them wrong at the risk of £20,000 (for the curious, approximately $650,000 by today’s standards).  Without any forewarning, the unadventurous pair find themselves thrown into a journey through exotic countries full of dangerous people and treacherous paths.  And to top it all off, they are being secretly trailed by Detective Fix of Scotland Yard who suspects Fogg of being a bank robber.

Without Phileas Fogg as its main character, Around the World in Eighty Days would be an entirely different book, for Fogg is most unusual.  First of all, he is very honorable and sticks up for his views, no matter what the risk to himself or his fortune—hence the wager with his friends and the venture around the world.  In addition, Fogg is timely and very particular, but the best aspect of his character is that, beneath the indifferent and meticulous outside, hides a good, generous heart.  One of the few characters who delves deeply enough to discover this heart is Passepartout, Fogg’s French valet.  When he enters Fogg’s service, Passepartout thinks he has found the ideal master and is ready to settle down in a quiet, well-ordered life.  Consequently, the journey around the world, which begins the very day Passepartout starts working for Fogg, delivers quite a blow to Passepartout’s ideas of an easy life.  Passepartout is a likeable man who makes friends easily but is also careless and absentminded at times.  After resigning himself to the hectic journey his master is dragging him on, Passepartout eventually realizes that he is enjoying himself and that perhaps a quiet life can wait for the moment.  The story’s third character is Detective Fix, and he is determined to apprehend “guilty” Phileas Fogg.  However, this requires Fix to tag along with Fogg around the world, and Fix finds himself participating in many of Fogg’s and Passepartout’s adventures.

Van Gool's Around the WorldAround the World in Eighty Days is a delightful adventure story.  Tagging alongside the main characters as they traverse Europe, India, Asia, the Pacific Ocean, America, and the Atlantic is a fun pursuit, and Verne’s book is a well-woven tale that has certainly earned its position as a classic in the library of fiction.

P.S. A fun version for children that has forever shaped how I imagine Vernes’ characters is Van Gool’s adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days (see picture on left).  The illustrations are  engaging, and I would highly recommend it for kids!  I loved it as a little girl and still feel nostalgic just thinking about it.

Review: Once Upon A Time in Hollywood

Director Quentin Tarantino excels at suspense, building anticipation that something terrible is about to happen in many of his most memorable scenes. Most of the time in Tarantino’s latest creation, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the situations defuse themselves, but the few times they don’t, chaos ensues.

The movie tells an endearing buddy story—washed-up western TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) stars as the “heavy,” or villain, in all his newer films and yearns for the days when he was young and played the hero of the pictures in which he appeared. His stuntman and best friend, Cliff (Brad Pitt), drives him everywhere he needs to go, a requirement after Rick racked up one too many DUI’s.

Rick also lives in a house next door to actress Sharon Tate and director Roman Polanski–something that becomes important as the film begins to intermix fiction with the real-life events of the Manson murders that occurred around that time. The film’s story seems to wander at first, but actually builds carefully, laying out characters and beats scene-by-simmering-scene while intermixing real-life Hollywood notables such as Steve McQueen and Bruce Lee with Tarantino’s own composites. It’s a film of many layers that is enjoyable on the surface as a dramatic, off-beat, humorous film filled with memorable characters and moments. Yet with a little knowledge of history and the events surrounding the Manson murders, some of the scenes take on more significance and have greater impact.

Of course, this is an alternate history, so we know that Tarantino is putting his own twist on the disturbing historical events. While not a violent movie by any means, the film contains a few violent moments that make the film warrant an R rating (along with profanity, drug use, and some sexual references – at least according to the film’s IMDb page).

What is this film? Is it wish fulfillment? Haven’t we all wanted to go back in time at some point or another, saying, “If had been there when this or that historical event happened, here’s what I would have done.” Perhaps this film is for know-it-alls? Regardless, the result is quite gratifying while also being suspenseful. The suspense is also greater since, due to the composite nature of the movie, we actually don’t know everything that will happen. Tarantino, not history, holds the last card here.

This is a movie for movie buffs as well as buffs of history. It’s well-acted, well written, well designed, well-photographed, and well—just all-around well-done.

The Accidental President

How often do the “normal” people and moments in life capture national fascination?  After all, the public and the media like to focus on stories that deviate from the norm, that are bigger than everyday life, and that take the audience away from their typical lives.  However, a person or event occasionally becomes extraordinary by being quite ordinary and yet surprising the world in some unusual way.  Harry S. Truman was one of these people.

The Accidental PresidentIn the biography The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That Changed the World, A. J. Baime provides insight into Truman’s life, career, and the national and international impact of his time in office after FDR dies.  This story is fascinating as it shows how a Missourian with little money and almost no public presence rises to the highest seat of power in the United States.  What makes Truman’s career even more remarkable is that he was extremely ordinary.  Baime writes about Truman and his future wife Bess, “Bess Wallace was everything Harry was not.  She was fashionable, athletic, and popular.  Harry, in his own words, “‘was never popular.  The popular boys were the ones who were good at games and had big, tight fists.  I was never like that.  Without my glasses, I was blind as a bat, and to tell the truth, I was kind of a sissy.  If there was danger of getting into a fight, I always ran’” (44).  Humorously, Baime explains that even though “Harry sat next to Bess Wallace in church school…[i]t took him five years to get up the courage to say hello” (44).  These descriptions sound more like a depiction of Charlie Brown, not future president material.

Despite his ordinariness though, Truman wins against all odds time and time again, and his honesty and hard work appear to have been key to his success.  Also important to Truman’s character is his continuous dedication to his family.  He always makes time to look after and stay in touch with his mother, sister, daughter, and wife.  When his family is most concerned about the huge responsibility that has been thrust on him, Truman is worried about how being president will affect the privacy and lives of his family.

Dewey Defeats Truman headline
Truman surprised the nation by winning the 1948 presidential election and proving newspaper headlines wrong.

In contrast to his unimpressive personality and ordinary origins, Truman’s life is anything but ordinary, and The Accidental President is a fascinating biography.  Baime packs the book with interesting details and narrates events in a story-like manner that makes the biography very readable.  Thanks to Baime’s skillful juggling of places, people, and events, the different scenes of the story tie together smoothly and help the reader grasp what is happening simultaneously around the world.

While the title The Accidental President appropriately captures how unusual Truman’s career turned out to be, I think perhaps a more fitting title would be The Providential President.  As much as people may criticize or disagree with Truman’s policies and decisions, he turned out to be the right man for his hour.  Truman faced difficult decisions and stressful scenarios with courage, honesty, and dedication, and I think succeeding generations should take care before passing judgment on Harry S. Truman.  After all, he had to make some of the hardest choices and deal with some of the greatest challenges any American president has ever confronted, and he did so without the clear support of the American people that an elected president would have had and without the history-making charisma that most world leaders have possessed.  President Harry S. Truman proved a common man could become the leader of a world power and accomplish the extraordinary.


Works Cited

Baime, Albert J.  The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That  Changed the World.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, NY: 2017.

Sing a Song for Springtime

Green leaves unfold, flowers blossom, and songbirds line the tree boughs and flit in the bushes and on the ground.  Every day, the world seems more intensely green.  Driving home on winding highways that dip through forest tunnels and by meadows of cows, I sometimes see entire fields that are so covered in yellow blossoms that they glow like a splash of sunlight.  Without a doubt, winter has withdrawn, spring is here, and soon summer will arrive.  To celebrate the season, I thought I would share with you some choral music that reminds me of spring.

Immortal Memory: A Burns Night Celebration by Paul Mealor is a delightful album with beautiful choral arrangements and recitations of songs and poems by Robert Burns.  To give you a taste of the album, here’s the song “Immortal Memory.”

Acclaimed choir director and composer John Rutter teamed up with harpist Catrin Finch to create the lovely album Blessing.  The songs on this predominately harp album range from lullaby-like to peppy and leave me with a smile on my face.  Who would have thought that harp and bassoon could pair so well together?

And to finish with two lovely songs arranged by John Rutter, here are “What Sweeter Music” and the upbeat “Sing a Song of Sixpence.”

Are you an enthusiastic traveler or spring-cleaner who likes to belt out favorite songs while hard at work?  What are some of your favorite springtime songs?  Please share in the comments.

Review: Captain Marvel

Due to the shortness of time, I am re-posting my review of the film, Captain Marvel, from our sister site, Flint & Bone’s Comic Reviews, today.

Flint and Bone's Comic Reviews

Drumming up an original introduction to yet another Marvel movie review requires more effort with each review. What original words can be said about this one that have not already been said in some combination regarding the myriad of predecessors? Has the franchise passed its prime? That is the question I concern myself with, probably too often. Is there an original thread to be plucked, or thought to be explored that hasn’t been already?

This is popcorn fare. Designed to bring crowds to the theater, satisfy the faithful comic-book readers as well as those who casually keep up with the films. Glitz, glamour, extensive action set pieces. It’s practically rote for Marvel films at this point.

And speaking of Marvel, Carol Danvers is Captain Marvel. Through a series of flashbacks, Carol’s story is revealed. It’s a sad, happy tale that includes a not-so-ordinary cat named Goose and a younger…

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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.