Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is Philip Pullman's re-imagining of the story of Jesus Christ, although in this new vision twin boys are born to Mary and Joseph, one named Jesus and the other named Christ. 

Drawing inspiration from apocryphal and canonical accounts of the childhood and ministry of Jesus, Pullman puts the twin brother Christ in the background while also pushing him into the forefront. As an observer of his brother's religious zeal, Christ is both faithful and doubting, inserted as the one who tempts his brother and also as the historian who tells the story not so much with an eye on fact as the truth that underlies the events. In other words, Christ tells his brother's story with an agenda. 

And this is Pullman's point. A self-proclaimed atheist, Pullman approaches the story with a surprising reverence, never going so far as to suggest that Jesus was lying and even suggesting that the miracles recorded did indeed occur. I have no doubt that fundamentalists will be horrified by Pullman's perspective. I was amused by one person suggesting that all Pullman did was paraphrase the Biblical text. Clearly someone was reading something I did not. Yes, Pullman has Jesus telling the same stories one can find in scripture but there is a tone to these stories, which on the audio book perhaps is more easily "heard" than in the text, that undercuts the stories. It is not until Christ reinterprets them, with the encouragement of a stranger who wants to read about what Jesus is doing, that the stories take on the eloquence and meaning that have been given to even the most obscure parables. 

What Pullman does most remarkably is imply that the elevation of story into theology is a slippery and even precarious slope, certainly not a science as some theologians might want to suggest. The fact that Pullman himself draws on both the traditional and the obscure stories of Jesus Christ's life establishes a tone almost immediately of highlighting how truth is far more relative than we might want to believe, especially those who want to believe that the Bible is Truth. Ideally, those who find Pullman's perspective offensive will be driven to read the Bible for themselves. Odds are they won't bother and will attack Pullman, damning him and condemning him without a first let alone second thought. 

I really enjoyed the book for being provocative and if it encourages people to think twice, to read more deeply, then hallelujah!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Movie Reviews (with a World War II theme)

Defiance has been on our “to be watched” list since it first came out.  Rob is a big fan of the actors--Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber--and I am always interested in watching “period” movies.  I had never heard about the Bielski partisans, which is surprising to me because I went through a period of devouring everything I could read about any resistance during World War II.  It is a remarkable story, one that should be remembered and shared.  I am sure that there are moments created for dramatic effect but it is easy to forgive the need to “entertain” in the face of a well told story.

I do recall hearing about one thing before seeing the movie.  Some of the descendants of the survivors had gone to see the movie and saw the dramatization of their grandparents getting married.  During that scene, I started tearing up, deeply moved by the awareness that the cost of survival is all the more remarkable in the face of seemingly impossible odds.

The Pianist also takes place during World War II, this time mostly in and near the ghetto in Warsaw.  Also based on a true story, this movie is both larger and smaller, focusing as it does on the experiences of one man, Wladyslaw Szpilman, through the wonderful direction of Roman Polanski who has the uncanny knack of making the horrific visually beautiful without flinching from the brutality of the moment.  

(I should also confess that although I love Roman Polanski's direction, I am not one to easily dismiss his past and am content with his continuing to live away from the United States.  I don't go out of my way to either see nor to avoid seeing his movies because I can admire his work without admiring him.)

God On Trial is a possibly apocryphal account of an event that occurred in Aushwitz, where a group of Jewish men, some Biblical scholars, put God on trial in absentia for not fulfilling the promises he made in the Abrahamic covenant.  Much of this BBC production feels more like a stage drama than a film and whether the events depicted actually occurred or not is irrelevant.  No doubt many Jews questioned God during the Holocaust and the final moments . . . I cannot even put into words . . . it is all too . . . “perfect.”  That is the word.  The ending, horrible and brutal and tragic, is also perfect.  There is a line in this drama that will forever stand as perhaps the most profound moment on film, especially in the context of what may or may not be fiction.  Chilling and beautiful–the climax left me breathless.

Absolutely one worth seeing.

Finally, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a purely fictional story based on a novel.  Told through the naive perspective of a young boy, the inevitable conclusion is poignant almost in spite of itself.  Perhaps this movie is the easiest to approach because of the perspective.  The innocence of the two boys, one the son of a Nazi soldier and the other a Jewish prisoner, is heartbreaking from the very first moments of their meeting.  How do you forge a friendship across an electrified fence?  And there is something honest and vulgar about how the opening moments include little boys playing at war, as if such things were merely games for little boys to be playing.

In spite of its tone and the intention it established to emotionally tug at the audience's heart, I did not cry at the ending, probably because it did not come as a surprise.  Or maybe I'm not compassionate enough.

I don’t know if I would recommend any of these with the same urgency as I did Bent, which in some ways shares the same small tone as the last two movies.  I certainly prefer God on Trial over The Pianist, although the latter is visually more compelling.  Defiance is Hollywood trying to be relevant.  And while all of these movies are good, some are more accessible than others. I have to say that I “enjoyed” all of them on different levels and for very different reasons, if enjoyment is what one gets in seeing such a dark episode in history dramatized.

If I were to rank them in the order to which the impacted me after having watched them, I would say the order goes as follows:

  • Bent
  • God on Trial
  • Defiance
  • The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
  • The Painist

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A Caldecott Celebration by Leonard S Marcus

A Caldecott Celebration: Seven Artists and Their Paths to the Caldecott Medal by Leonard S Marcus is a collection meant to pay homage to the medal that is rewarded to the artists of picture books which, as anyone who has been reading my blog knows, I’ve been reading for the sheer pleasure of it.

There are seven books represented in this “celebration” one representative of each decade’s books.  How one book can represent an entire decade is beyond me but Marcus has done a good job at discriminating some of the more obvious choices.  Even if I were not reading my way through the list of winners, I would recognize some of these books.  I especially enjoy reading the stories behind the pictures: what inspired the different artists, the process they use to come up with these award winning images.  Marcia Brown apparently uses tracing paper to explore her ideas by cutting out individual elements and then playing around with them on the page until the perfect layout presents itself while Maurice Sendak originally wanted to write a book called Where the Wild Horses Are.

For the child who has grown up reading a lot of picture books or is talking about becoming a children’s book creator, this book is simply a must-have.  This book, in many ways, serves as a primer for how different artists approach their craft which for this reader was fun to see!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Another Five Caldecott Medal Winners (with suggestions for further exploration)

I’ve never seen the movie and I can only imagine that a lot has been added to the story to carry this book to film.  The black and white drawings of this book are wonderful and it is not surprising that this artist has won the Caldecott Medal more than once.  The story is good, the type of tale that doesn’t surprise but completely charms.

For Further Exploration:
Have the child create a board game of their own.  Encourage the child to perhaps put their game in a different place with a little research about their chosen location.
Research the various species of animal described and try to figure out what jungle might have them all.  (Also ask, “Do lions live in the jungle?”)

Marcia Brown has ambitiously translated a free-verse poem and then illustrated it.  This is a very sophisticated book on several levels.  The child who has grown up on Dr Seuss or Shel Silverstein may be excited to read a poem that uses internal rhymes and word rhythms to build a poem.  The illustrations are done like shadow-puppets, an apropos choice given the content of the poem.

For Further Exploration:
Make some shadow puppets.  (Templates can be found online or make your own.)  You may want to do this after watching a shadow puppet performance.  There are several available online.
Research puppetry.
For the adolescent reader, discuss “shadow” as an archetype and how each type has a shadow self.

I doubt my children will remember this but we had a copy of this book on our shelves.  I bought it because I adored the illustrations.  When I read the text, my appreciation grew by leaps and bounds.  Based on a traditional tale, this version draws on Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene for inspiration.  The text and images work perfectly together, making the book look as much like an illustrated manuscript as a contemporary picture book.

For Further Exploration:
Look at illuminated texts from the middle ages and discuss the similarities and differences between this book and the manuscripts from the past.
Have the child choose a traditional story from his/her ancestral roots and illustrate a page (or the entire text for the more ambitious).
Read aloud from Spenser’s text (you may want to do this in more than one sitting) which can be found in Canto 1 of the text.
Have the child create an emblem for his/her own shield if she were to go into battle with a dragon.
Discuss the different attitudes towards dragons in stories.  (Not all cultures saw dragons as evil!)
For the older child, The Hobbit is one of many stories that can be read which draw on the myth of dragons.
Also for the older child, discuss other traditional British legends including, of course, King Arthur, Beowulf, et al

Perhaps it is because I am not especially fond of fables that I wasn't blown away by this book.  I don't dislike them.  I have a book of Aesop's fables which I bought to replace the same edition I had as a child.  Otherwise, I don't think I've ever gone out of my way to include fables in my book collection nor read them to my children.

For Further Exploration:

  • Of course, read fables from various traditions and look up the geographical location on a map.  
  • Have the child think of a maxim and then write and illustrate a fable of their own.  
  • Read aloud from a book of fables without showing the child any illustrations, if there are any, from the book.  Have the child draw an illustration for the fable.  
  • Do the above with four or more fables and have the child practice penmanship by writing down the concluding maxim for each fable (and possibly the title as well).
There is much to say in praise of this book about the first flight across the English channel but the text is not one of those things.  Perhaps it's just me but something about the writing completely left me cold.  The story is interesting not because of the writing but in spite of it.  The illustrations are lovely and this historical story may be new to some adults who typically think that the "story of flight" begins with the Wright Brothers (and pretty much ends although it all evolves from there).  Far from it.  And reading about how Bleriot learned through trial and error should be an inspiration to any reader.

For Further Exploration:

  • Read about the history of flight, including the sketches of DaVinci and others who pondered the engineering capabilities of man's eventually flying.
  • Read about Daedalus and Icarus, the story of one boy's hubris and a father's failure.
  • Make paper airplanes.  Make different styles and discuss the advantages of the different styles to either fly long or fly high or fly smoothly.  (If your child really enjoys this, don't stop with paper.  Invest in some balsa wood airplanes and other types of model airplanes, including, of course, remote control models.)
  • Discuss and explore aerodynamics, how heat rises and how air blown across the top of a piece of paper will cause it to rise up against the pull of gravity.
  • Look at images of different types of airplanes through history and see how the mechanics and style of airplanes has changed over the decades.
  • And for fun . . . visit an airport and watch the planes lifting off (assuming you can get through security to do something like this nowadays) or watch an episode of Peanuts that includes Snoopy riding in his Sopwith Camel.  (Research Sopwith Camel and World War I while you're at it!)

Monday, August 23, 2010

How to Make Even Beautiful Women less than . . .

If you want to know how to take a beautiful woman and make her unattractive on every level, then you can’t do better than to see these two movies.

First, we have Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day.  Let us set aside the obvious observation that this movie missed its window of opportunity by waiting far too long to be made.  The fact that this movie is insultingly derivative makes it all the more unnecessary.  The first movie was not brilliant but it was different.  This one is just more of the same and unfortunately the same is not as fun the second time around.  (This isn’t sex, people!)  But seriously, how does anyone take the luminous Julie Benz and make her look hard and unappealing?  I can’t even wrap my mind around this?  Everything from her hair color to her mannerisms to her accent are off-putting.  Is this the same woman who plays the vulnerable Rita on Dexter?  Or the same woman who infuses Darla with the both strength, perversion, and delicacy on Buffy and AngelYes.  So let us place the blame where it solidly where it belongs–at the feet of Troy Duffy.  Benz deserves so much better.

Second, I share my thoughts on The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc which has everything and nothing going for it.  Visually it is luscious and often lovely.  So can anyone explain to me how it is possible to take its star, Milla Jovovich, who is both luscious and lovely and make her absolutely unattractive?  I suppose I would have been less put off if the character had been presented as possibly sane but the writer and/or director decided to suggest that she was an hysteric, prone to extremes from an early age.  Whether this is psychologically genuine is irrelevant.  If you cast a role with a gorgeous woman is it really too much to ask that this woman not be made ugly in the film?  And I feel frivolous and foolish for only addressing her appearance but if I were to say anything about her acting ability based on this film, I would be left with nothing nice to say.  Sadly, if I lay any blame at the feet of the director, I cringe for the director is her own husband.  I guess it comes as no surprise that the marriage ended in divorce.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

A Family Secret by Eric Heuvel

A Family Secret by Eric Heuvel is a graphic novel about a young girl’s experience in Amsterdam during World War II.  When Helen’s grandson finds some interesting things in the attic, her story is told through a series of flashbacks that include Helen’s best friend Esther’s own experiences as a Jewish girl leaving Germany for Amsterdam to avoid the persecution by the Nazis.

The audience is clearly meant to be young adults, as the unnecessary footnotes attest to.  The images are reminiscent of the work Herge (Georges Remi), the man behind the Tin Tin series.  The story is interesting, if not somewhat predictable.  There are other stories alluded to but not fully explored, as in Helen’s sharing about the Dutch colonists in Indonesia who were rounded up during Japanese occupation and, upon being freed, thought they could happily return to their plantation and continue ruling over the indigent peoples.  There’s a story in that, one that isn’t often written from my own reading experience.

Unfortunately, the back cover of the book also tells the reader something pivotal about this book because one of the characters in this novel obviously gets to tell their own story in another graphic novel. Stupid choice on the publisher’s part.

Stupid choice on the writer’s part was to create a ridiculous ending, a coincidence that strains at credulity and reads more like the author’s haste to wrap things up in a nice neat package.  It doesn’t serve the overall story well.

I would recommend this book to younger readers but for the more sophisticated reader who wants to know about Amsterdam during World War II there are too many other great novels and books of nonfiction to spend more than a few moments flipping through the pages of this graphic novel.  A disappointment over all.