Tag Archives: Katherine

Classic Adaptations: Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Liu Bei hears Zhuge Liang's plans for dividing the state, but contending for power.

“Should you wish to take the overlordship, you will yield the Heaven’s favor to Cao Cao in the north, and you will relinquish the Earth’s advantage to Sun Quan in the south. You, General, will hold the Human’s heart and complete the trinity.”

Remember, folks, it’s not spoilers if it happened almost two thousand years ago. In this episode of Classic Adaptations, we explore the work that represents the richest mother lode of adaptations I’ve found yet: the classic Chinese novel Romance of the Three KingdomsThere’s a lot of ground to cover here, so I’ll be moving pretty fast, but this is still a really long post.

Note: Chinese names have the form – Familyname Givenname – so that the first name is the family someone belongs to, and the second is their personal name. People who share a family name are, at least in theory, related by blood (or adoption) on their father’s side. There is also the courtesy name also called style, or zi, which was used when it would be impolite to use the given name.

Example: Zhao Yun, styled Zilong.

Is this confusing? Yes, but only for a little while, until you get used to it. The real headache is that some translations use different romanization schemes than others…

 

The History

The Three Kingdoms period followed on the collapse of the (Latter) Han Dynasty, and officially lasted from 220 to 280. Romance of the Three Kingdoms is historical fiction, itself an adaptation of folklore, in turn adapted from well-known history. We’re in for quadruple or even quintuple adaptations, with this classic!

History writing in Han Dynasty China (as in nearly all Chinese states) wasn’t a hobby for the educated, as it was in contemporaneous Rome, it was the foundation of any new regime. Official histories collected the previous dynasty’s paperwork, and stitched these records into a narrative, generally calculated to make the first Emperors of any government look as good as possible, and the last ones as bad and incompetent as possible, to justify not only the current regime, but also the structure of dynastic succession itself.

As to that succession, the one, overarching principle is that of the Mandate of Heaven. Unlike in Europe, where Kings and Emperors were considered God’s regents on Earth, if a previous Emperor had done a bad enough job to provoke natural disasters or uprisings that undermined the stability of the state, then he could be replaced. Anyone who successfully unseated the previous Emperor and united the other Chinese states became the next Emperor, preferably in a formal ceremony, in which the previous Emperor handed over power (and the Mandate of Heaven) to the new Emperor, establishing a new dynasty. A central concern, therefore, is from whom, and on what grounds, a dynasty claims succession of the Mandate of Heaven.

This political bias leads to some fascinating interactions, when this model for history is adapted to fiction. In an official history, someone loses the Mandate of Heaven because he’s incompetent and a bad guy, and the new ruler is, by default, a good guy, because that’s politically expedient for everybody. In fiction, someone’s a bad guy, because it makes a better story that way. Writing a Chinese historical fiction novel could get you into trouble, if you craft a villain out of the wrong person. In this context, it’s not touchiness to read an allegory for contemporary politics into historical narrative, it’s just common sense.

If you want to read more about the history behind this novel, and its many, many spin-offs, there’s actually a fan website that covers many of them, and provides timelines, and a who’s who section, including fan translations of the biographies in the Records of the Three Kingdoms – the official history of the era, written when the Jin Dynasty came to power.

 

The Classic

Romance of the Three Kingdoms

By Luo Guanzhong

Romance of the Three Kingdoms cover image

I own this book. It’s about 800 pages long. See that “Volume I”? You better believe there’s a second volume, just as fat as the first. The introduction is a single page that boils down to “if you have this book you know why you’re here.” I love that.

In all seriousness, though, this is a loooo-oooooo-oooonnng book, up there with Les MisérablesMost translations weigh in at around 2000 pages. Given that the plot spans a century, it goes by FAST, though. Characters can be introduced and killed off within a single paragraph. This isn’t a novel about a close study of individual psychologies, it’s about the grand sweep of history. No time for navel-gazing here. Or romance. If there’s a marriage, it’s about politics, or maybe it’s an assassination plot or honey trap. That’s not to say that the main characters aren’t well developed. It’s just that there’s a couple dozen of them. In a small miracle of storytelling economy, the author lets the actions of these characters speak for themselves, and leaves the rest to the reader’s inference.

Since Luo Guanzhong‘s 15th Century audience for the novel would have been very familiar with this history, he doesn’t change the major events, but rather paints the characters in a heroic or villainous light, to conform to his own era’s biases as to who was the most fit to rule, and often at odds with the official histories, which in turn, were biased in their own way. Five centuries have passed since the novel was written, and we, as readers from a different time, and half a world away, have our own filters to deal with. The choices the author makes, to adapt this history to his own time, and then the reader’s interpretations layered on top of it, mean that a story told primarily through actions develops complex and ambiguous outcomes in the reading – and this is where it gets really interesting.

EXAMPLE: Sun Jian

Qing Dynasty edition illustration of Sun Jian

Qing Dynasty illustration of Sun Jian with the Imperial Seal. Whether he even finds it – and what happens next – depends on the adaptation.

Sun Jian’s character, although not as obviously as some of the others, has been tinkered with by the authors of the novel. He did, apparently, fight a bunch of pirates when he was a teen (!!!). He did, according to his official biography, eventually become a general under Yuan Shu for the Han Dynasty against the tyrant, Dong Zhuo. His biography in the Records of the Three Kingdoms says nothing about the Imperial Seal. In the novel, however, one of his followers finds the seal in a ruined well, and gives it to Sun Jian, who lies to Yuan Shu about finding it (showing how power-hungry Yuan Shu is, and also how Sun Jian harbors ambitions of his own). The novel doesn’t mention that he restored the looted tombs in Luoyang, and also credits his killing of enemy officer Hua Xiong to another character (Guan Yu, incidentally, who got a massive heroism upgrade due to being literally ascended to godhood in the course of intervening centuries, as we will see).

Subtly, fiction molds real, complicated people into emotionally resonant roles in a story.

When the actions that define a character have gained, lost, or changed meaning across time and cultures, however, the real test of a story is how well it can weather such an unanticipated and cataclysmic journey. Romance of the Three Kingdoms succeeds spectacularly, telling a universal and deeply compelling tale, including heroic weeping into sleeves, baby tossing, and the odd incident of virtuous cannibalism.

 

The OTHER Adaptations

It’s hard to overstate just how significant Romance of the Three Kingdoms is in terms of how far it’s permeated the culture of China, and the East Asian cultural sphere in general. If you’ve so much as eaten in an American Chinese restaurant, I can just about guarantee you that you’ve seen a representation of at least one of the characters of the novel. Specifically, Guan Yu, who rocketed to the heights of apotheosis via a heroic treatment in the novel, several excellent Chinese opera suites, and Imperial patronage. The following are just a few of the many, many adaptations of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and each one is definitely worth a look, on its own, with unique perspectives, and takes on each character (who, by and large, were real, historical, living people).

  • Chinese Operas (Too many to count!)
  • Romance of the Three Kingdoms (1994 TV series)
  • The Ravages of Time (2001 manhua – Chinese comic book – series)
  • Three Kingdoms 2010 (2010 TV series)
  • Red Cliff (2008 motion picture)
  • Romance of the Three Kingdoms (video game series)
  • Dynasty Warrior(video game series)

 

Postscript:

Temporary Guan Gong shrine at the Umbrella Movement barricade.

By David290 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Above is a picture of the improvised Guan Yu temple at a roadblock during the Umbrella Movement protests in Hong Kong in 2014. Although often called a God of War, as if he were an analogue of Ares or Athena, Lord Guan is rather a god of brotherhood in a united cause, and self-improvement by reading literature. Really, there’s no better choice of patron deity for a (mostly) student protest movement.

Highlights of the above picture: under the oranges on the altar, hand-drawn angry chibi-style Lord Guan with an umbrella; to the right of that, a poster with the character model of Guan Yu from the Japanese video game Dynasty Warriors 5! In this image, we have history from the 3rd Century mutating into a novel which spawns a video game series centuries later in a different country, which ricochets back for religious and political use.

God of literacy in a library blog For The Win!

Guan Yu reading

By Fred Hsu on en.wikipedia (Photo taken and uploaded by user) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Article by Katherine, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch

Classic Adaptations: Hamlet

In this installment of the Classic Adaptations series, I seize the opportunity to rant about biological realism in cartoons. Also, it’s about Hamlet by William Shakespeare.

 

The Classic

Hamlet

By: Shakespeare

Hamlet cover art

You know this story, guys, come on. I’m dead certain you’ve seen at least one adaptation, too.

This particular edition is my favorite, with lots of annotations, and scholarly essays and such. You’ll probably need lots of annotations, too, to deal with Shakespeare unfiltered. Even then, most modern editions are kind enough to “correct” the spelling. You’ll probably also notice that Shakespeare’s language is pretty filthy. Hamlet‘s probably the filthiest of his plays, in terms of language, too. (Titus Andronicus is way more gratuitously violent and offensive to the modern tastes, though. There’s a reason it’s not often staged… if it were a movie, it would be NC-17 for Everything.) Let’s just say that “get thee to a nunnery” – in a Tudor (+ subsequent… “unrest”) England when Catholics vs Church of England was Serious Business of the highest order – doesn’t refer to a literal nunnery, and leave it at that. Basically everything Hamlet says, especially to Ophelia, is some form of bawdy innuendo, or just straight-up bawdy. If you haven’t read Shakespeare since high school, just remember: your English teachers may have taught you everything you know, but they didn’t necessarily teach you everything they know.

You know this story, though. Hamlet’s father’s ghost(?) says his brother murdered him. Hamlet (pretends to be insane? actually goes insane?) to lure his uncle, the new king, into a false sense of security, so he can investigate the crime, stall for time, and ultimately try to kill him. Everybody dies. The end.

Countless adaptations have been made of Hamlet, from stage productions to motion pictures, but we will be focusing on just one, in particular.

 

Adaptation

The Lion King

Lion King DVD cover art.

Hamlet cleaned up for kids, with cartoon lions, and a happy ending.

This is, seriously, one of the most successful movies of all time. You know that already. You’ve probably seen it already. Yes, it’s mostly Hamlet with lions. I saw it at a drive-in theater with my family as a kid. The scale was incredible. The animation was amazing. Nothing really matches how big and vibrant this movie feels to watch. They were also pretty gutsy about killing major characters off nearly on-screen. We owned this on VHS, and I saw it almost monthly, for a while, not the least because my brother also liked it.

Here’s the basic plot of The Lion King: Mufasa’s brother Scar kills him and takes over the pride, driving out his son, Simba (Hamlet), who fritters away his adolescence in an oasis with Pumbaa and Timon (Horatio, and Rosencrantz/Guildenstern). Simba sees an apparition(?) of his father which convinces him to return home to defeat his sinister uncle, and take back the pride. Conveniently, the hyenas kill Scar, so that the protagonist keeps his paws clean.

Even now, I’m fascinated by lions, and love animals in general. The Lion King is a great movie, but it definitely doesn’t have anything like realism, regarding its wildlife cast. Let’s learn a bit about lions, and what this can teach us about adaptations.

There’s a few very good reasons male lions don’t return to the pride of their birth, as Simba does. Lionesses remain with their mothers (like Nala does), generally, so that a lion pride is composed of related lionesses, who are all sisters, mothers, aunts, and sometimes grannies of each other. When male lions mature, they are driven out by the resident male. Sometimes, as seen in The Lion King, two or so related males form a “coalition” and work together to drive resident males from a pride, and take their place. On taking over the resident male position in a pride, male lions immediately massacre any cubs they can find. Cannibalism may or may not be involved, depending on how hungry they are.

Labeled picture of a lion pride.

Composition of a pride of lions.

If these were real lions, given the cub massacre, Simba and Nala have to be Mufasa and Scar’s children. They’re at least first cousins on their father’s side. And, given that lionesses are usually related, they’re probably double first cousins. We know they don’t have the same mother, but their father(s) are at least brothers, if not the same individual. Eugh. Don’t even get me started on spotted hyenas, either, although making Whoopi Goldberg the leader was a solid choice: they’re matriarchal. (And have a far more complex and sophisticated social life than lions, too. I could do a whole post on spotted hyenas alone.)

The Lion King isn’t really Hamlet with lions, then. It’s Hamlet – a very human story about a kingdom in distress, and a conflicted protagonist confronted with competing values and ethical systems – as played by emphatically make-believe lion-shaped cartoons.

Common Clownfish

Nature isn’t obliged to follow human expectations.

Did you know clownfish are protandrous sequential hermaphrodites? Now you do. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.

In all seriousness, though, taking a look at stories adapted to a telling through animal actors gives us a unique chance to see the limitations and frameworks of our own society and point of view as a species. The advent of computer animation (and limitations of early rendering to perform best with smooth textures) led to a flurry of movies in the late 1990’s and 2000’s starring eusocial insects like bees and ants:

All of these movies portray these insects as if they were human-like societies, with a monarch, and equal sex ratios. But bees aren’t little fuzzy insect people. And there’s no such thing as a male worker honeybee.

Antz DVD cover art

Inaccuracies don’t necessarily make a movie bad.

Bee Movie DVD cover art.

Sometimes, a movie must be inaccurate to be comprehensible, let alone sympathetic and engaging.

I’d argue, though, that most people wouldn’t want to see a movie starring actual, realistic bees. A fantasy kingdom of people in ant suits is far more relate-able than the very real behaviors of honeybees.

Worker bee.

A mature worker bee, doing what she does best: collecting provisions for the hive, and pollinating flowers. Without bees, flowering plants produce no fruit or seeds. This is why you should care about bees.

Could you make a realistic version of The Lion King? As close as possible to “Hamlet With Lions”? Sure. But I doubt anyone would care what happens to Mufasa if they see him slaughtering and eating lion cubs.

P. S. – Support your local pollinators!

Article by Katherine, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch

Beat Cabin Fever

Now that the weather’s actually acting like winter after a gray and soggy December, Cabin Fever is starting to set in, but spring won’t be here for a few months. Here’s four things you can do to beat cabin fever, and get yourself through to the spring thaw.

Get Organized

Don’t wait for spring cleaning to get organized, channel all that squirrelly energy you have right now into getting your living space in shape. Ditch the stuff you don’t need. Tidy up the things you do need. Do just a little bit a day, and feel productive and smug. Smugly productive.

Seriously, though. This book is better than any 10 books on "cleaning" out there. I mean, for real, get ORGANIZED.

Seriously, though. This book is better than any 10 books on “cleaning” out there. I mean, for real, get ORGANIZED.

Make checklists, and post them where you have to deal with them – physically touch them – every day. I post mine on a whiteboard with my daily schedule on it above my wall calendar, and put active checklists on top of my laptop. There are apps for this sort of thing, too, with reminders, and checklists, but those are easily disabled, or ignored. I’m talking about changing your behavior. A physical checklist forces you to deal with it.

Think about processes: “what do I do with and in my space?” Analyse behaviors: “why do these behaviors happen, and how can they be improved?” When dealing with an item while cleaning, don’t think “what should I do with this?” think “Triage.” If it’s DOA, ditch it.

Learn a New Skill

Your library is stuffed with books that can teach new skills, from the ground up.

You like snuggly scarves and warm mittens, and fuzzy sweaters. Everybody does.

crochet

Learn to crochet and make some.

afghans

Make an entire afghan.

amigurumi

Make stuffed animals.

Make cozies for things. Make cozies for everything. If you don’t have a couch-side holster for your remote controls, you should make one. Your exercise bike doesn’t have a drink rest? Make one. That’s what you can do with a new skill: use it in creative ways to improve your life. Wouldn’t it be nice if you didn’t have to pay people to maintain your computer for you? Wouldn’t it be nice if you could alter the couch to match the walls? Wouldn’t it be nice if you didn’t have to get someone in to patch that hole in the drywall?

Fix Things

You won’t want to find out why the bathtub drains slowly when it’s April and sunny. Get in there right now with a pipe snake and fix it. If you don’t know how, then learn how:

dare to repair

You’ll feel better.

I dragged a wad of hair out of the bathtub drainpipe once that was the size and weight of a sodden guinea pig. I should have sold it to a circus. Fixing it felt GREAT. (And probably saved a truckload of money, which felt even better.) Fix everything you can indoors while the weather’s bad, and there will be less to deal with later. The more organized you are, and the more skills you have, the more time and effort and money you can save. Get organized now, and fix small problems before they become big ones. It’s easier that way.

(I’m not lazy: I prefer “efficient.”)

Make Plans

Plans give you something to look forward to, to work toward. They’re the best kind of leverage out of the depths of the mid-winter dumps.

Plan a garden.

Plan a garden.

Plan a road trip.

Plan a road trip.

Make any kind of long-term, complex plan you want. It’s even better, if you make it with friends. They’ll keep you to it. You know what goes great with complex, long-term plans? Organization and checklists.

Article by Katherine, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch

 

Science and History with Conan the Barbarian!

pulpmagazines

Pulp fiction – real pulp fiction – has a reputation for being brainless fluff. I’m talking here about Conan the Barbarian, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Zorro, and Tarzan. These stories, now generally bound as collections in books, were originally published in weekly magazines printed on very cheap wood pulp paper. This is popcorn reading: predictable, lurid, and exploitative – calculated to shock and play into the prejudices of their readers. However, like an iceberg, most of the substance is deep under the surface.

Pulp fiction is the domain of early detective stories, the entire Noir genre, the primordial soup out of which rose comic books, fertile ground for science fiction and modern horror writing. Most of our entertainment today – the themes of our hit movies, television shows, video games, books – owes a great deal to these cheap pulp stories. These tales grew out of the social environment of the 1920s and 1930s, and, while there’s plenty of sexism and racism to go around, there’s also a stunning amount of science history embedded in the fabric of the stories and the worlds they are set in.

conanbook

Let’s look into some science history with Robert E. Howard’s Conan (featuring H. P. Lovecraft):

Hyborea isn’t quite a fantasy universe.

(NOTE: All of the following uses Robert E. Howard’s posthumously published essay on the setting of the Conan stories, The Hyborean Age. Free eBook here at Project Gutenberg.)

Conan the Cimmerian’s world is actually our world, in our own distant past, one we remember only through garbled mythology. The fact that continents move was just coming into acceptance at the time these stories were being written in the 1930s – plate tectonics as we know it found acceptance in the 1950s and 1960s, with the discovery of seafloor rift zones. The actual rate of this movement was not yet known, allowing Howard’s world to have a different shape than our own, including hypothetical “lost continents” such as Lemuria and Atlantis – popular with occultists and mystics at the time.

Human history, too, it was becoming clear, was much longer than once thought, allowing the fictional Hyborean Age plenty of temporal elbow room for lost empires and forgotten gods: these stories take place in the bronze age, on the cusp of the adoption of iron. The people of Conan’s world, similarly, derive from projecting backwards in time from theories of race current in the 1930s (now discredited). According to Howard, Conan’s own people, the Cimmerians, would eventually become the Celts. Both the geography and the population of the Conan stories owe a lot to cutting-edge geology and archaeology of the first few decades of the 20th Century. Although these stories are fiction, they were founded, as much as possible, on the most current science available, and even though we’ve advanced our understanding of the world since, they still present a snapshot of the state of science and corresponding social anxieties in the first part of the 20th Century.

Howard and H. P. Lovecraft kept up a correspondence, and both authors’ bodies of work are interrelated. The stories of Conan interlock with the early human history of Lovecraft’s fiction, and share some of the same place names and even background characters. Lovecraft based much of the horror in his own writing on a new understanding in science in the 1920s that the universe was far larger than previously thought.

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” — The Call of Cthulhu (excerpt) by H.P. Lovecraft

That is not the outlook of fiction with a sense of security in humanity’s central place in the universe. Howard’s evil gods and abyssal horrors share this template, and even some of the literary and conceptual background, especially the new scientific outlook that made it possible. From cosmology to geology, and even anthropology and history, the Conan stories may be pulp fiction, but, like their protagonist, they’re definitely far more intelligent than they look.

Cover art for The Best of Robert E. Howard: Crimson Shadows

A very nice compilation, to get you started on Howard’s pulp fiction in general – it even includes some Kull stories, which fit into the distant past of the Conan narratives.

Or, if comic books are more your speed…

Cover art for Conan: the God in the Bowl and Other Stories

Kurt Busiek is one of my favorite comic book writers, creator of the incomparable Astro City series. This adaptation is fantastic! Cary Nord ’s art fits the world and characters well, with primal rage fairly rippling off the page.

Related Science Resources:

Enjoy!

Formats Available:  Book (Regular Type), Graphic Novel

Article by Katherine, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch

Hedy’s Folly by Richard Rhodes

hedysfolly

Hedy Lamarr is best known today for being a gorgeous movie starlet. However, her most lasting contributions to history may well be her skill as an inventor, rather than her stunning looks on the silver screen. Richard Rhodes draws on a range of historical sources – military and show biz – to detail how Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil developed and patented spread-spectrum radio technology to make radio-directed torpedoes un-jammable – ultimately the seed of today’s digital wireless communications networks, from cell phones to wifi Internet.

Richard Rhodes is best known for winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 with The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Here, he writes well out of his usual history-epic comfort zone, and, in some respects, it shows. This book is terse, and more “dishy” in tone, attempting to emulate a movie industry gossip rag, equal parts frothy biography and dense technological history. Ultimately, whether you will enjoy this book depends on whether you like either or both of these genres, and can tolerate the other.

If you like this:

Publicity photo of Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr in “Let’s Live a Little” (1948)

You better like this with it, too:

USS Wahoo

USS Wahoo SS-238: one of the most successful US submarines of WW II. Lost with all hands in 1943.

If you do like your Hollywood gossip biographies with a hefty helping of technological wartime bureaucratic drama, or the reverse, then this is the ideal book for you.

Formats Available:  Book (Regular Type and Large Type), e-Book, Audiobook (CD and Downloadable)

Reviewed by Katherine, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch

Something for Everyone in Five Comics Books

Whether you have always loved comics or you never picked one up in your life, if you want to read about cape-and-tights heroes or curl up with something trendy and artsy, then this list has something for you.

The Arrival – Shaun Tan

The Arrival is proof that a good story doesn’t even need words. A stunning narrative of an immigrant’s experience in a new and alien land, it’s like having someone play solos about hope and isolation on your heartstrings.

Barbarian Lord – Matt Smith

This is the comic book that Vikings would have written if Vikings wrote comic books. Sure, there are other comic books that try to capture the age, or even just borrow the aesthetic, but Barbarian Lord reads like a deadly-serious re-telling of one of the Icelandic Sagas.

Marvel Illustrated: The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde; Roy Thomas; Sebastian Fiumara.

It’s a hard task to adapt a longer book to graphic format, but Marvel does a fantastic job with The Picture of Dorian Gray. Taking a dark, psychological, Gothic novel and adapting it successfully to graphic format – that’s nothing short of a miracle.


Astro City: Confession– Kurt Busiek; Alex Ross; Brent Anderson.

If you never read comics because you felt superheroes were flat characters and the world they are set in simplistic, Confession will change your mind. Smart, sensitive, and nuanced.  The storytelling will keep you glued to the page.

Hellboy: The Chained Coffin and Others – Mike Mignola

Although the third in the Hellboy series, this volume of short stories speaks to the soul of the series: respect for the source material. If you like gritty, pitch-perfect renditions of folklore and mythology, and a bit of dry humor on the side, this is the book for you.

Formats Available:  Graphic Novel

Reviewed by Katherine, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch

EDITOR’S NOTE:  Originally posted on LFPL’s Teen Blog at http://blogs.lfpl.org/teen/2015/01/07/something-for-everyone-in-5-comic-books/

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea

pyongyangCover

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea is Canadian animator Guy Delisle‘s cartoon diary of his stay in North Korea while working in an animation studio. While other books focus on North Korea’s history, leadership, or place in international politics, this one examines with dry humor and sharp wit the day to day experience of living as a foreign guest worker in Pyongyang, and the tension between what is there, what visitors are allowed to see, and what everyone is allowed to say. The huge fake smiles plastered on the faces of the accordion girls – the illustration chosen for the cover – mirrors the ongoing theme of this bizarre masquerade.

Delisle’s style is classic cartoon, with clean line art and caricature, and he uses it to best effect, telling his story – presented as a series of vignettes – directly, effectively, and with great clarity and force. While other presentations of the same material could come off as heavy-handed or unrelievedly grim, Delisle manages the mood with a keen eye for the absurd, and pitch-black humor.

This often-surreal travelogue benefits from the distance of the author’s outside perspective, a remove that allows for humor and wit. Despite this, Pyongyang remains good-natured and compassionate, as well as insightful and entertaining. If you’re looking for a short but incisive and genuinely funny perspective on life in North Korea (at least the parts foreigners are allowed to see) this is the book for you.

Formats Available:  Graphic Novel

Reviewed by Katherine, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch

The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs

prfg2dino

I confess a deep, lifelong love of dinosaurs. I had a stuffed Tyrannosaurus rex as a kid, instead of a bear, and it still sits on my dresser. I read just about everything I can find on them, from bird identification guides, to blog posts and papers by paleontologists. I am very, very picky about dinosaur books. There’s a system, you see.

Katherine’s Guide to Evaluating Dinosaur Books:

1.  Accuracy. If it’s a non-fiction book, it had better be well researched by people who know what they’re doing. No excuses for using shoddy or old research or perpetuating outright falsehoods. For dinosaur books, there is one special consideration:  

It should at least know what a dinosaur is. This might seem obvious, but, when I hit the shelves, I’m always surprised at the number of “dinosaur” books that call the wrong things dinosaurs.

What is a dinosaur? Dinosaurs are all of the descendants of the single common ancestor of modern birds and Triceratops. They are archosaurs (all the relatives of themselves and crocodiles) with hips that fit upright legs. A chicken’s legs don’t sprawl like an alligator’s. Dimetrodon, Pteranodon, Icthyosaurus, Plesiosaurus – these are not dinosaurs.

A Black-Capped Chickadee is a dinosaur:

blackcappedchickadee

“Black-capped Chickadee” by Brendan Lally – Own work.  Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Black-capped_Chickadee_1.jpg

(It’s all in those scaly little legs: they fall straight from the hip socket. Note also adorably teensy claws.)

2.  Illustrations. There is no substitute for a scientific illustrator. Shoddy computer graphics abound in dinosaur books for children and adults, yet good, clear, hand-drawn illustrations do the job far better, and bring out details that are easily botched by cheap computer graphics, such as feathers. This is definitely one case in which a picture is worth a thousand words.

3.  Focus. A clear, tight focus can really help a book, especially one that covers a topic as expansive as dinosaurs. Dinosaurs were around for a really, incredibly long time. To put the Mesozoic – the “Age of Dinosaurs” – in perspective, it ended 65 million years ago. The Cretaceous alone, the last of the three periods of the Mesozoic, lasted 80 million years, longer than everything that has happened since. It’s easy for a book to lose sense of this perspective, or for information to get muddled without a well-defined focus.

The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs definitely knows what a dinosaur is. The book knows what several hundred dinosaur species are. It is exactly as it says in the title – a field guide – with detailed, accurate, informative illustrations on every page, thorough introductions to each group, and information for every species introduced, including size, estimated weight, characteristics, distribution and habitat, and notes.

Even better, it’s by a scientific illustrator who is also a dinosaur researcher. Every page is crammed with line drawings and silhouettes of skeletons, beautiful muscle studies, and sensitive life restorations. The author – Gregory S. Paul – helped lead the charge for changing the visual interpretation of dinosaurs, from tail-dragging, cold-blooded, saggy-skinned mega-lizards, to the warm-blooded, and much more alert and dynamic creatures that populate today’s research and even motion pictures, in accord with advances in scientific knowledge. Especially striking in The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs is the restoration given for the chicken-sized Anchiornis huxleyi – the coloration of which has been determined: it was gray, with black and white banded arm and leg feathers, and a reddish crest on its head. On the other side of the coin, Gregory S. Paul uses a robust, informed imagination in the life restorations to suggest possibilities for dinosaurs that dry bones cannot. The zebra-striped feather crest and cassowary-like wattles on Dryosaurus altus bring the animal to vibrant life.

Organized by phylogeny, with species notes that indicate possible relationships, or insufficient data, The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs is easy to browse or use for reference – never losing its clear focus as a reference for the general public. Keeping an eye to context, the book opens with an introductory section that details the history or dinosaur research, changes in the field, dinosaur natural history, and even an overview of details such as diseases or injuries known from dinosaur fossils.

Whether your six-year-old has dinosaur fever, or the six-year-old in you does, a great dinosaur book like this one is indispensable.

Formats Available:  Book

Reviewed by Katherine, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson

ghostmap

In 1854, an outbreak of cholera struck the Soho district of London, killing over 600 people. Steven Johnson ’s The Ghost Map paints a vivid and engaging portrait of a community struck by a disease it does not understand and cannot control, and the struggle to develop the knowledge and means to stem the tide of mortality. Even if non-fiction is usually not to your taste, this account of Dr. John Snow’s investigation of the outbreak and the struggles of families and individuals gripped by the disease is engagingly written and well worth a read.

Dr. Snow’s investigation of the cholera epidemic of 1854 became the seed for modern epidemiology. While the story of his plotting cholera cases on a map of the district and targeting a public water pump as the source of the outbreak – ultimately resulting in the removal of the handle of the pump – is well known, it’s not the complete story, and Johnson does an admirable job bringing the sights – and smells of mid-19th Century London to life.

choleramap

Dramatized narratives of Soho residents’ lives during the outbreak serve for more than background nuance and flavor. Small details – a splash of gin added to water unwittingly killing the bacteria – hint at the much larger developments that the 1854 outbreak led to. Dr. Snow’s struggle to find the focus of the epidemic and then convey his ideas about the pump as the common source to authorities convinced that disease was spread by foul smells, not by water, foreshadows the use of maps and charts to illustrate data and convince the public and policy setters. The use of the map was at the cutting edge of the time: Florence Nightingale used charts and maps to push for the need for sanitation. The field of data visualization, then in its infancy, is an important part of scientific research and public service.

Given the impact of the 1854 Soho cholera epidemic on today’s world, and how the concerns of infectious disease and public health are still with us, the central dramas of The Ghost Map are well worth thinking about. In the final chapters, the author attempts to integrate the lessons of the epidemic with more modern concerns, and although some of his points are worthwhile, others seem like over-reaching attempts at relevancy, when the story of the outbreak, and the impact epidemiology has on our lives is a gripping story in itself. Some of this poorly-integrated theorizing feels like it belongs to another book, and isn’t given enough time for a good, mature argument.

All in all, however, despite the problems of the last chapters, The Ghost Map is a must-read for history buffs, or even fans of historical fiction, to get a feel for the urban atmosphere of the time. At his best describing the Soho outbreak, Johnson strikes a fine balance between exploring the scientific and historical significance of the events and the very human drama of families and individuals in the grip of a deadly disease.

Formats Available:  Book, eBook

Reviewed by Katherine, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch

Vagabond by Inoue Takehiko

Author’s Note:  For consistency, all Japanese names in this review will be in traditional order – surname first, and given second.

 

13Vagabond

 

Inoue Takehiko has created a masterpiece in Vagabond – not just for the breathtaking artwork, but for the story as well. A loose retelling of Yoshikawa Eiji’s 1935 novel Musashi, in turn loosely based on history, this manga series follows Miyamoto Musashi as he follows the way of the sword, testing his skill in mortal combat, ultimately transforming him through introspection into a more whole and compassionate human being. Yet, despite the action-heavy premise, characters drive the plot and interest.

 

Slam Dunk

 

The author’s previous experience with the high school basketball saga Slam Dunk informs the fight scenes with the crackle of tension and physical struggle, yet the characters and their development through slow growth and sudden insight hold just as much interest, if not more, as duels to the death. Tightly plotted encounters and fleshed-out characters illustrate facets of the journey to enlightenment in the way of the sword. What to do with pain and rage or even kindness in an unfair and often violent world – this question, and the success different characters have in answering it, lies at the heart of the story. Is it possible to run away forever, from pain and responsibility, as Matahachi tries to do? What if rage grows unchecked, as it does for Gion Toji? Grief, love, and death stand as open and complex questions underpinning the plot. Despite characters’ places in the story as questions or foils, they each grow, or fail to, thrive, or die, in a vivid and electrically realistic way.

Inoue has taken liberties with the original novel, but even those update and refresh aspects that would not be as relatable to a modern audience. The character Otsu, for example, while a blank, rather flat archetype of a love interest in the original novel – is a much more developed, complex person in Vagabond, struggling to transcend her own abandonment and rejection, first by her birth parents, then by her fiancée, and even her own adopted mother.

21Vagabond

It takes a lot of guts for an author to adapt a classic and acclaimed work of literature from the past for the present. In addition to the pitfalls inherent in re-telling a well-known story (how to keep it fresh?), every decision the author makes comes under microscopic scrutiny (what to change, what to keep?). Even more challenging, then, is an adaptation across media, such as turning a Shakespeare play into a film. Adapting a beloved work of the modern literary canon for a comic book, however, is audacious, bordering on career suicide. Yet, Inoue Takehiko has done just this, and triumphed. Whether you love manga already, or if you have never tried the medium, Vagabond is a thrill to read – intelligent, sophisticated, and driven by the sensitive depiction of its characters.

 

Editor’s Note:  If you are new to the Japanese format of manga (or its sister format anime), check out the author’s FAQ (which is also available on the Reader’s Corner’s Comics and Manga page).

Formats Available:  Manga

Reviewed by Katherine, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch