BOOK REVIEW: Faust [Part I] by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

FaustFaust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This review will cover the first part of the play in verse by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. I start with that statement because there is some potential for confusion, because: 1.) there are many tellings of the Germanic legend loosely-based on Johann Georg Faust; 2.) there are two parts to Goethe’s play and some editions include both and others just one; 3.) Goethe’s play was apparently not written with the intention that it would be in two parts and so the proper title of this isn’t “Faust, Part I” but rather that became a common title, retroactively and after the author’s death. I’ve done my best to link to the same edition as I read (which seems to be sometimes erroneously listed as containing both parts one and two – when it is really just the first.) Part I is said to be more closely based on the myth than is the second.

The gist of the story is so well-known that it will be recognized even by those who’ve not read this play (or works like Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus” [written well before Goethe’s play(s).]) The successful but bored Doctor Faust makes a deal with the devil in which Mephistopheles gets Faust’s soul if Faust can ever be made to feel truly satisfied. Goethe’s “Faust” opens with a wager between God and the Devil. The Devil believes he can corrupt God’s favorite (i.e. Dr. Faust) and turn him from a righteous path. Faust’s deal leads to a series of adventures that culminate in an ill-fated love relationship with a woman named Gretchen (a.k.a. Margarete.)

The story and its theme are straightforward. The idea is that there is a ceaseless yearning – be it for pleasure or understanding or whatnot – that is insatiable, and that giving into a desire to quench that yearning can lead even the best of humanity into tragedy.

The play is delivered in rhymed verse, and the translation by Bayard Taylor makes for pleasant reading.

I’d recommend this book for readers of classic literature. It’s an old tale, and is well conveyed in this translation of the play.

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Around the World in 6 Myths

6.) Thor & Loki in the Land of Giants (Norse): There’s no shame in putting a mere dent in the impossible.




5.) Rama & Sita (Hindu / from the Ramayana): Careful with your assumptions. You may end up looking like a jerk even if you’ve proven yourself generally virtuous.




4.) Anansi the Trickster (Ghanan / Akan): Don’t do favors for tricksters.




3.) Arachne the Weaver (Greek): Don’t be arrogant, even if you’re the best.




2.) Izanagi & Izanami (Japanese [creation myth]): Hell hath no fury…




1.) White Buffalo Calf Woman (Native American / Lakotan): Don’t let your lust get away from you and be careful in your assumptions.

BOOK REVIEW: Treasury of Greek Mythology by Donna Jo Napoli

Treasury of Greek Mythology: Classic Stories of Gods, Goddesses, Heroes & MonstersTreasury of Greek Mythology: Classic Stories of Gods, Goddesses, Heroes & Monsters by Donna Jo Napoli
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book consists of 25 biographical sketches of figures from Greek Mythology. It’s one of those books that grew on me, and the reason it grew on me was a few of the chapters toward the end were engaging, such as those about Heracles, Jason, and Helen. This also means that the number of stars I gave it is fairly meaningless. It was in no danger of getting 5 stars nor 1, but could’ve been anywhere in between at various points in my reading.

The problem with the book is that the unit of interest isn’t the myth, i.e. not the story, but rather the mythical figure, the various gods and heroes of ancient Greece. Because of this organization, some of the chapters have a tight and memorable story, such as that of Heracles and his 12 labors, while others are just piles of genealogical facts mixed with odd mythical happenings (e.g. who burst from whose forehead) and tossed with that mythical figure’s bit parts in larger myths. The book is a good, solid reference book for schoolkids doing research on Greek Mythology, but much of it’s not very engaging to read.

The graphics are beautiful and colorful, if a bit artsy (not always instantaneously clear in subject.) There are maps, a timeline describing happenings of ancient Greece — real and mythical, a bibliography, and a quick guide to the characters that would make more sense if the book wasn’t a collection of relatively brief biographical sketches to begin with (but repetition has its merits, particularly for children.)

If you’re looking for a collection of biographies of mythical Greeks (i.e. a reference for children,) then this is a good book for you. If you’re looking to get your kids intrigued by the Greek myths, then you might want to shop around. Put another way, if you’re looking for a version of what Neil Gaiman did with this “Norse Mythology,” only for the Greeks, this isn’t it.

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POEM: A Khasi Myth: or, Rodent, Lightening, and Sword

In a sacred forest

a Rodent roamed

who owned a sword

it freely loaned.

This was no hacking

machete blade,

but made of metal

of unmatched grade.

One day Lightening

made a request:

To borrow the blade

believed the best.

Lightening zigged,

sliced, and zagged.

Claiming ownership

 in its boastful brags.

The rightful owner

requested its return.

But the rodent’s

plea met only spurn.

So the critter devised

a clever, sensible plan

in order to bridge

the requisite span.

It needed to climb

from Earth to the sky

because it had no

wings with which to fly.

But it wasn’t just wings

which Rodent lacked.

It had only one item

 to be skyward stacked.

So it piled its poop

as high as it could,

from the base of a tree

past the top of the woods.

Stacking and piling, the

poop nearly touched cloud.

When a thunder crack

struck ear-splitting loud.

Lightening saw rodent

would reclaim the sword

that Lightening had come

to so ardently adore.

Down fell the Rodent

to a pile of fried dung

that had once been its

steps and its ladder rungs.

 You may think that

Lightening got its way.

But the Rodent piles

its poop to this very day.

Someday when Lightening

is momentarily distracted,

Rodent’s sword will be

surreptitiously extracted.

BOOK REVIEW: Monkey: A Folk Novel of China by Wu Cheng’en

Monkey: A Folk Novel of ChinaMonkey: A Folk Novel of China by Wu Cheng’en
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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If you’re familiar with any Chinese folklore, it’s probably this story. But you probably know it as “Journey to the West.” It’s not only been released in numerous editions as a novel, it’s also been adapted for film, stage play, and I’m sure there must be a video game of it out there.

If you’re thinking, “Chinese folklore? Sounds boring.” Think again. This is a superhero story. Monkey, also known as the Monkey-King and “Great Sage Equal to Heaven,” is an immortal who has all manner of supernatural powers. He can fly. He can make copies of himself. He can transform himself—either disguising himself as another being or appearing as an inanimate object. He has an iron truncheon that can be the size of a sewing needle or a mile long and which is indestructible. Wielding said staff, he can defeat armies or deities.

In fact, the flaw in this story isn’t a lack of adventure or thrill. On the contrary, it’s one adventure after the next. If anything, the flaw is “Superman Syndrome.” That’s what I call it when the hero is so ridiculously overpowered that even when he’s fighting gods, dragons, or whole armies there’s still no doubt about the outcome.

Of course, the Monkey does eventually meet his match in the form of the Buddha. The Buddha defeats Monkey not in combat, but in a bet. That event shifts the direction of the story. In the early chapters, Monkey is goes about heaven and earth arrogantly wreaking havoc. He’s not altogether detestable. He does have his redeeming traits, but he’s insufferably arrogant and mischievous. After he’s imprisoned following his run-in with the Buddha, a monk is assigned to go to India to bring back scriptures (hence, a “journey to the west”) to China. Monkey is assigned to be the monk’s guardian and along with two others that they pick up along the way (Pigsy and Sandy) the monk is escorted on his journey. The party faces one challenge after the next, and the trip is long and arduous. Some of the challenges require brute force but in many cases they are battles of wits. So while Monkey may be overpowered, he does experience personal growth over the course of the story.

The story is told over 30 chapters, each set up with a cliffhanger. I enjoyed this translation by Arthur Waley. It is end-noted, which is useful given the historic and cultural nuances that may not be clear to readers.

It should be noted that this is unambiguously a Buddhist tale. There is a bias against Taoists and other non-Buddhist religions evident throughout the story. It’s not just the fact that the Buddha easily defeats Monkey when no other deity or group of deities can, there’s a steady stream of anti-Taoist sentiment. So, Taoists and Chinese Folk Religion practitioners be warned, I guess.

I would recommend this book for fiction readers, particularly if you have an interest in the superhero genre or Chinese literature.

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BOOK REVIEW: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Norse MythologyNorse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is the telling of a select group of Norse myths with the signature humor and down-to-earth prose of Neil Gaiman. It’s a fascinating collection of stories and is well-ordered so that the reader is often familiar with references to past events from earlier stories.

 

After an introduction that explains how Gaiman first became interested in Norse mythology both through the comics and then actual mythologies, there are a couple of chapters that largely provide background before delving into the chosen Norse myths in great detail. One of these chapters gives extended “bios”—if you will—for three of the most prominent characters: Odin, Thor, and Loki. Then there are a couple of chapters that both convey the timeline and of the spatial dimensions of the nine realms of the world the Norse created.

 

There is a brief story of how Odin lost his eye in the pursuit of wisdom that’s entitled “Mimir’s Head and Odin’s Eye.”

 

It’s from this point on that the stories are substantial and complete. The first of these stories is entitled “The Treasures of the Gods” and it’s about of how Loki created a competition among dwarf master craftsman. Loki does this in order to keep Thor from beating him with Mjöllnir after the god of mischief stole the hair of Thor’s wife, Sif (one of the items to be judged by the gods was stipulated to be a set of hair that would reattach and be as beautiful as Sif’s original hair.) The competition was Loki’s way of using a clever ploy to make the fix without it costing him anything and while at least sticking it to the dwarfs a little. The story is also well positioned as some of the items that are gifted to the gods in the competition are seen repeatedly in later stories. Loki creating mischief is a recurring theme not only in Norse mythology, but in this collection of myths specifically as they make for some particularly humorous tales.

 

“The Master Builder” is about a builder who shows up right as the Asgardians need a wall built. He claims that he can build it improbably quickly in exchange for the sun, the mood, and the hand of Freya (the most beautiful Norse goddess) in marriage. While all the other gods consider the price too high—not the least of whom being Freya—Loki convinces them that it’s an impossible task and that they can get free foundations if they give the builder a set timeline (a fraction of what he stated) and set another limitation or two. When they are on the verge of losing, the gods—suspecting the builder isn’t what he appears—agree to cheat.

 

“The Children of Loki” concerns a second family that Loki that is kept secret from the Asgardians. The three are an odd bunch: a girl who is half beauty / half corpse, the creature that becomes the Midgard serpent, and Fenrir wolf. Most of the story deals with the wolf child and the fact that they will only release the creature if they know that they can later bind it, but its strength is such that it seems to be able to break any binding. This story also explains why the Norse god Tyr has only one hand.

 

“Freya’s Unusual Wedding” This story revisits the idea of someone trying to negotiate Freya’s hand in marriage. Freya proves unwilling to take one for the team in order to fix the problems of other gods—in this case Thor’s hammer, Mjöllnir, has gone missing and the thief says he will give it back as a wedding gift. This time it is Heimdall—rather than Loki—who hatches a clever plot that will save the day.

 

“The Mead of Poets” This story revolves around a god of wisdom named Kvasir who comes into being after a strange treaty agreement between the Aesir and the Vanirs. Kvasir is killed and his blood is used to brew mead that is said to give imbibers the ability to write great poetry. This time it is Odin who saves the day and retrieves the mead. It also offers a humorous explanation of from whence bad poetry comes.

 

“Thor’s Journey to the Land of the Giants” Thor travels with Loki, and—eventually—with a bondservant named Thialfi (how Thialfi comes to be with them is part of a prank that Loki pulls that is explained at the story’s beginning.) The three were each subjected to a competition to see whether they were worthy, and it appears they weren’t.

 

“The Apples of Immortality” This is another tale that begins with a traveling trio including Thor and Loki. When Loki gets himself into hot water, he agrees to hand over the Apples of Immortality, which go hand-in-hand with the goddess who oversees them, Idunn. Without Idunn’s apples the Asgardian gods age and die like humans. Loki first has to hatch a plot to surrender Idunn, and then he’s forced by the angry and aging gods to carry out a plan to get her back.

 

“The Story of Gerd and Frey” This is a love story in which the god Frey (brother to the aforementioned Freya) is smitten with a woman named Gerd. Frey promises his magical sword, capable of defeating any attack, to his manservant in order for him to ask for Gerd’s hand.

 

“Hymir and Thor’s Fishing Expedition” Thor needs to borrow the huge mead cauldron of a giant to make a massive banquet happen. Thor goes on a fishing trip to help grease the wheel with the giant, who is very attached to the cauldron. Thor shows both his legendary strength and dimwittedness, but ultimately wins a bet that will grant him ownership of the cauldron.

 

“The Death of Balder” Balder is one of the most beloved Norse gods, and he dies as the result of one of Loki’s vicious mischiefs. To call it a prank would seem to trivialize it, but that seems to be how Loki views these acts. When the overseer of the underworld (where the dead who didn’t die gloriously in battle go), Hel, agrees that she will release Balder if all the creatures of the world agree that he was beloved, Loki outdoes himself.

 

“The Last Days of Loki” Adding insults (literally) to the injury of having been responsible for the death of Balder, Loki heads off into exile, but is pursued by the Asgardian gods.

 

“Ragnarok: The Final Destiny of the Gods” Here we have a description of how the Asgardian end of days is to play out. The Norse gods aren’t immortal, but Ragnarok is the end of a cycle, but not the end of all existence.

 

As I mentioned, the first couple chapters offer more backstory than the extensive myths through the rest of the book. This works well as it gives the reader the necessary background in a readable and palatable fashion. Another nice feature is a glossary that includes all the named characters and major places mentioned throughout the book. The section of mini-bios at the front only covers Odin, Thor, and Loki, and so it’s beneficial to have a list of all the various other gods–a number of whom (e.g. Freya, Frigg, Heimdall, Tyr, etc.) play major roles in one or more of the stories.

 

I’d highly recommend this book. It’s extremely readable, humorous, and educational to boot.

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DAILY PHOTO: Guardian Lion, Singapore

Taken in Singapore in November of 2016

Taken in Singapore in November of 2016

 

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