BOOK REVIEW: Supernatural Shakespeare by J. Snodgrass

Supernatural Shakespeare: Magic and Ritual in Merry Old EnglandSupernatural Shakespeare: Magic and Ritual in Merry Old England by J. Snodgrass
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Like – I suspect – most of humanity, I’m a big fan of Shakespeare’s work, but I’m also not alone in feeling that I’ve missed a some of the depth and texture of his plays. Both language and the body of common / popular knowledge have evolved and migrated tremendously since the Elizabethan era. This makes a market for books that offer insight into the age and the role that the beliefs, norms, and daily life played in Shakespeare’s theatrical works. This book is one such work. It focuses on the role supernatural beings and various festivals play in the Shakespearean canon and why they do so.

Conceptions of the supernatural may be one of the areas in which human beliefs have changed most severely since Shakespeare’s day. The book has chapters on witches, ghosts, fairies, and enchanted forests that are interspersed among chapters that deal with various seasonal festivals of Pagan origin. I did find this leapfrogging around a bit odd, but I would speculate two possible reasons for it. First, the author may have wanted to build cyclicality into the overall organization, and thus put beings and creatures that seemed thematically related to a season near its festivals. Second, it may have seemed like a good idea to break up the festivals because that discussion could have felt tedious to a general reader if it’d been clumped together (as opposed to the “sexier” topics of witches and ghosts and the like.) This organization didn’t bother me; it just seemed a bit strange, but I could imagine it being for the best.

I learned a great deal from this book, and my newly gained knowledge wasn’t all about the supernatural elements of Shakespeare. The author dropped some fascinating facts regarding other domains as well – such as Elizabethan sexuality and lifestyles as well as biographical facts about Shakespeare. If you’re looking to expand your understanding of background information relevant to Shakespeare’s plays, this book is worth looking into.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Mythology Class by Arnold Arre

The Mythology Class: Where Philippine Legends Become Reality (a Graphic Novel)The Mythology Class: Where Philippine Legends Become Reality by Arnold Arre
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: August 9, 2022

Let’s call this “Breakfast Club” meets “Ghostbusters” but instead of busting ghosts this group of student-misfits is tasked with getting Filipino mythical creatures back to their home domains while saving their own city from the most villainous of the beasts. There’s a lot happening in this graphic novel — action and adventure tied to the daunting task of containing these creatures, some magical and some monstrous, but there’s also a couple love stories that play out, as well.

I enjoyed reading this graphic novel, finding it fast-paced and imaginative. The characters, both human and mythological, are distinct and face meaningful problems. It’s a story that is both lighthearted and humorous, but with the requisite tension and conflict for such a story. If you’re into mythological superhero stories, check this one out.

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BOOK REVIEW: Native American Literature: A Very Short Introduction by Sean Teuton

Native American Literature: A Very Short IntroductionNative American Literature: A Very Short Introduction by Sean Teuton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This VSI (Very Short Introduction) stimulates curiosity from its very title. One might be interested in, but not necessarily intrigued by, titles such as: “Native American Folklore,” or “Native American Mythology.” However, when one thinks of the world of Native American story and language-centric art, one is likely to first think of oral storytelling, and then, secondarily, about the immensely popular genre / commercial fiction of someone like Stephen Graham Jones. Even if one is aware of some of the Native American literary works that got widespread attention and praise, works such as Momaday’s “House Made of Dawn” or the poetry of Joy Harajo, one may wonder whether there’s the basis for such a broad overview style book.

That’s just the notion that this book seeks to challenge. That said, until the final two chapters, it doesn’t always feel like the topic is as advertised. That is to say, with the exception of chapter two — which discusses the oral storytelling of various Native American tribes, much of chapters one through five is historical and cultural background designed to provide context for the creation of a Native American literary canon, but without talking about the canon’s components much. Some of the questions addressed include: how Native tribes came to written language, in general, and then to the English language, specifically; how self-image of tribal peoples shifted over time (and how that impacted the nature of written works;) the nature of various strains of Native literature (e.g. literature of resistance v. literature of assimilation, and so on.)

I learned a lot from this brief guide. I’m not going to lie, it does have some sections that are dry and quite scholarly, but it also raises some interesting ideas while introducing the reader to books that will be wholly unfamiliar to some and largely unfamiliar to most.

If you’re interested in how Native American literature came to be, I’d recommend one check it out.


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BOOK REVIEW: Jagannatha of Puri by Gayatri M. Dutt

Jagannatha of puriJagannatha of puri by Gayatri Madan Dutt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I recently visited Puri, and – seeing the little, big-eyed Jagannath idols and images all across Odisha – I was curious to learn about the mythology behind the Puri temple and its tripartite deity. This 30+ page comic may not be the most scholarly or detailed account, but it may be the quickest way to get the gist of the story. And the comic does present an intriguing morality tale that includes lessons of patience and unselfishness.

The story begins with a king who is obsessed with finding a fabled cave-shrine that he was directed to in a dream. The king sends his best men out in search of the cave as its whereabouts are unknown. In time, one of the men stumbles upon a village whose chieftain is said to regularly make secretive visits to the cave and its idol. And from there, the race is on to get the king to the cave. But the deity is elusive, and insists that its followers work together harmoniously.

It’s a clear and well-developed story. It blends intriguing trippy elements like time-travel and messages in dreams with traditional religious mythology.

If you’re looking for a brief explanation of the Puri temple and the Jagannaths, it’s worth giving this short comic a look.


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BOOK REVIEW: Nightmare in Savannah by Lela Gwenn

Nightmare in SavannahNightmare in Savannah by Lela Gwenn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: November 9, 2021

Like New Orleans, Savannah is one of the few American cities that can pull off Old World occult-centered stories in a way that is on par with Prague or Budapest. While this is a fine story, I was underwhelmed at the degree to which it harnessed the promise of that setting. Mostly, the story plays out as teenage drama that could take place anywhere in America, with the novel addition of fairies [as opposed to the overplayed vampires or zombies.] I will say the book does a better job of getting mileage out of Fairy folklore than it does out of Savannah’s spook factor. These are not Peter Pan’s Fairies.

If you are looking for something akin to “Mean Girls” with less comedy, more angst, and a supernatural element, this book is definitely worth checking out. However, if the title “Nightmare in Savannah” has you expecting a deeply disturbing work of gothic horror, this is probably not the one for you.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

The Hero with a Thousand FacesThe Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book was written to explore the intriguing cross-cultural similarities between various heroic mythological and folk tales from around the world. However, it’s had a second life on writers’ bookshelves because it nicely explains a story arc, commonly called “the hero’s journey,” that serves as one of the most popular approaches to narrative plotting. Many of the most celebrated works of fiction and film, from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” to the first “Star Wars” movie, explicitly follow the hero’s journey arc. Campbell draws examples from a wide range of traditional hero stories. These involve central figures who must leave their familiar life in the world they know in search of some objective or change that they will bring back to their everyday life. Campbell doesn’t stick to well-known systems of mythology — such as Greek, Norse, Egyptian, and Hindu — but delves into small and less well-known tribal stories from Africa, Latin America, indigenous North America, and other far-flung lands. [That said, he does pull heavily from the world’s major religions, as well as from the most broadly known systems of mythology – e.g. Greek Mythology.]

The book is divided into two parts. The first of these parts is the one that will be of greatest interest to writers and other storytellers because it describes the hero’s journey story arc in great detail and using a variety of traditional stories. Part I is divided into four sub-parts and – within them – eighteen chapters. The first three sub-sections each investigate about a-third of the seventeen stages of Campbell’s monomyth, i.e. his name for the hero’s journey. [It should be noted that there’s no claim that all heroic myths contain each and every one of these elements, but only that if one wants to capture the bulk of all heroic stories, one needs to consider some formulation of each of these categorizations.] The first subpart consists of the five stages that take the hero from his work-a-day world into the new world [that is typically of a supernatural nature.] These stages include: a.) the call to adventure; b.) refusal of the call; c.) the supernatural aid or guide; d.) crossing the first threshold [into the supernatural / foreign world]; and e.) the belly of the whale (i.e. being swallowed into the unknown / self-annihilation.)

The second sub-part is called “Initiation,” and it covers the six stages within this strange, new world — including the attainment of the hero’s objective. This section begins with a “road of trials” to challenge the hero. This maybe the stage most associated with the heroic journey in the popular mind. The other stages of initiation include; meeting / marriage with the goddess (i.e. mastery of life,) temptation by a woman, atonement with the father, the elevation to an enlightened or divine state, and the ultimate boon (e.g. immortality or a great bounty.) [The middle portion of this section is where Freudian influence is most intensely felt.]

The third sub-part is about the hero’s return trip back to the familiar world. This section also includes six chapters including: 1.) refusal to return; 2.) the magic flight; 3.) rescue from without; 4.) crossing the threshold into the regular world; 5.) as a master of both worlds; 6.) with freedom to live. This idea that the hero returns not only with a great boon but as a master of two worlds is central to the hero’s journey.

The final sub-part / chapter recaps the entire process in a restatement and summary. Given the complexities and wide variation of the matter at hand, this is beneficial. This section opens with a helpful diagram that summarizes and depicts the stages of the hero’s journey in a cyclical format.

The second half of the book, Part II, takes a step back to look at the cosmogonic cycle — i.e. looking at mythological approaches to the story of the universe from its origin to destruction, though still with special focus on heroes. Again, Campbell finds many consistent elements among a broad and disparate collection of cultures and religions. Part II also features four sub-parts, this time including twenty chapters. The first sub-part (6 chapters) focuses on the origin of the universe. The four chapters of the second sub-part delve into mythology surrounding virgin birth among heroes, which is much more widespread than the well-known Christian story of Jesus’s birth. The third sub-part considers the lifecycle and varied roles of a hero, starting with the origins and childhood of the heroic figure, ending with the hero’s demise, and in between examining a number of the facets of a hero including: warrior, lover, leader, redeemer, and saint. The final subpart discusses how mythology and folklore treat the world’s end.

This book has many pages devoted to front- and back-matter including an introduction, a prologue, an epilogue, and an annotated bibliography. There are graphics throughout. Besides the explanatory diagram mentioned earlier, these are mostly renderings of artworks depicting events in mythological stories.

The broad sourcing of myths is necessary to tell the tale that Campbell sought to convey – i.e. that there are common narrative elements seen among varied cultures that had little to no interaction. With regard to one’s reading experience, the inclusion of myth and folklore unknown to most readers is a mixed bag. On one hand, it ensures that everyone – except perhaps professors of Mythology and Folk Studies – will learn about new stories and cultural traditions. On the other hand, it’s not always readily apparent what Campbell’s point is when he launches into a myth or folk story because it’s frequently done without any preemptory remarks that would clarify said point. This can make for some clunky reading in which one has to reflect and reread — as if reading a textbook as opposed to a popular work. This book sits near the edge between popular and scholarly reading. The reading isn’t terribly dense, but it does jump around from myth to myth in a way that presumably felt logical to the author but isn’t always readily so to a neophyte reader.

One quickly notices that Campbell was heavily influenced by Freudian ideas that haven’t weathered scholarly scrutiny well over the past several decades. It’s hard to be too critical about this as, when the book first came out in 1949, Campbell wasn’t alone, by any means. And, more importantly, Freud’s influence only really undermines certain ideas about what undergirds mythological tales. It doesn’t adversely impact the central argument that there are these common story elements across a diversity of cultures. In the chapter on “Woman as Temptress” one will see the most explicit examples as Campbell discusses “Hamlet” and the “Oedipus Trilogy.” Still, one could argue that Campbell’s ideas have survived more intact than did Freud’s.

I’d recommend this book for individuals interested in learning more about either mythology or story crafting. It’s extremely thought-provoking throughout, if – sometimes – a slog to read.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Nightgown & Other Poems by Taisia Kitaiskaia

The Nightgown & Other PoemsThe Nightgown & Other Poems by Taisia Kitaiskaia
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This playful poetry collection takes fairy tales and folklore as a theme, but — as in those tales — it makes magical leaps, refusing to be restrained. Amid poems that meander in a fun but stream-of-conscious way, denying the reader literal meaning, there are lines that — like Zen koan — slap the reader in the face for trying to rationally calculate a meaning. (An example that stuck with me is, “candles are dying to see me naked.”)

The poetess is clearly a word-lover, and occasionally makes bold choices of verbiage, sending me to the dictionary for words like “oubliette.” Though I must say there was always a nice pay-off. These weren’t words chosen solely for sound quality, they invariably represented evocative or profound ideas. (e.g. The aforementioned example, “oubliette” is “a secret dungeon with access only via a trapdoor in the ceiling.”)

Lest I make the collection sound impenetrable (if fun,) I’d say it just requires a certain surrender to whatever it kindles in the reader.

I immensely enjoyed reading this collection. It’s fun. Even when it’s taking on serious topics, which it does, it doesn’t take itself too seriously and it’s all the more effective fore it.

I’d highly recommend poetry readers give this one a try.

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DAILY PHOTO: Tháp Rùa by Night

Taken on December 26, 2015 in Hanoi

Taken on December 26, 2015 in Hanoi

 

Tháp Rùa is the Turtle Tower in the middle of Hoàn Kiếm Lake, which is the “Lake of the Returned Sword” or–more simply–“Sword Lake.” The lake is in the heart of modern-day Hanoi, and is sacred in Vietnamese folklore.

 

As the story goes, a Turtle god surfaced on this lake to ask a King named Lê Lợi to give up his sword. The sword was called “Heaven’s Will” (i.e. Thuận Thiên) and was said to have been given to the King by a local deity called the Dragon King (i.e. Long Vương.) Apparently, the Vietnamese King took a “the gods giveth, and the gods taketh away stance,” turning the sword over to the Turtle deity.

What it looks like in daylight

What it looks like in daylight

DAILY PHOTO: Tree of Dreams

Taken at Hampi in March of 2014.

Taken at Hampi in March of 2014.

This banyan tree at Hampi had hundreds of sachets tied to its falling roots. The tree is considered sacred and people put prayers in the sacks with small symbolic objects in hopes of seeing their wishes granted.