Friday, July 31, 2009

The Grammar of Fantasy by Gianni Rodari

I expected this book to be a treatise on the fantasy genre. Happily, I was wrong.

The Grammar of Fantasy, lovingly translated by Jack Zipes, is a treatise on everything that goes into creating a perfect story and fostering imagination in children and adults alike. Meant primarily for teachers, this book is divided into over thirty exercises and lessons from dissecting folk tales, picking words at random, and changing much beloved fairy tales to the art of the puppeteer, limerick writer and comic book aficionado. The lessons are full of Rodari's charm; he withholds nothing about his opinion, and occasionally he spouts off a comment such as "enough has been said on this topic" leaving the reader chuckling. Also not to be missed in this book is the strong attention to generating laughter in children, and he even goes so far as to justify jokes and stories about such things as "poop".

Rodari's philosophy holds up with my original premise of continuing education. Whether continuing, or learning for the first time, he states, "The idea that the education of a mind must be a dismal affair is among the most difficult things to overcome". It reminds me of a NPR interview with a famous scientist who teaches science by throwing a bag of magnets into a room with children and seeing what they do with them instead of giving them textbook exercises. Laughter and creativity can be the only result.

The exercises in this book can be used with children if you're a teacher, a parent, or if you are an aspiring writer seeking to come up with new and fresh ideas for your next story. After all, what would have happened if Little Red Riding Hood didn't carry fresh baked goods to her grandmother, but ingredients for a time capsule, and she, her grandmother, and the wolf proceeded to travel around the universe.

But that's a story for a different time...

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Mythology in Video Games

Mythology can be found in the most unexpected places. Lately it has permeated pop culture in the form of video games. Three games that I've played lately on the PS2 offer a glimpse into myths of the world with stunning colors, staggering action scenes and stories that will draw you in and then take your breath away. Try these three games for a myth-packed challenge:

1. God of War series(Greek):
With a focus on Greek mythology, this actino/adventure game focuses on Kratos, a man with a vendetta and determined to topple Ares, god of war and perhaps all of Olympus. Enemies include Greek mythology favorites such as gorgons, harpies and cyclops. The gods and goddesses, just like Greek mythology, are fickle, and sometimes they can shower you with gifts, and sometimes they are your worst nightmare on the battle field.

2. Okami (Shinto):

If you've ever wanted to play a Japanese sun goddess, here's your chance. Playing Amaterasu, you roam Japan as a wolf, using your controller as a paintbrush to interact with the environment. Your quest: to restore faith in the gods by creating miracles and de
feating demons - traditional goddess fare. This game is visually stunning and looks like a traditional Japanese painting, complete with cherry blossoms and rising suns. Even the soundtrack sounds traditional and you feel like you are in the middle of ancient Japan instead of in your living room.

3. Odin Sphere (Norse):
This game is often so beautiful to look at that it can be hard to remember that you have enemies to fight. A RPG, Odin Sphere offers a story comprised of five characters which all play important parts in the fight for the Cauldron which leads to Armageddon. With the ability to mix potions, cook meals, and plant various trees that give you items, Odin Sphere has a healthy dose of strategy. It's only drawback is the frequent slow down during large battle scenes.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A Pasta Sauce Primer

I cannot count the number of times that I have heard people planning trips to Italy who say that although they cannot speak Italian, they will be able to read the menu because they know words such as marinara and alfredo. The truth is, most Italian restaurants in the USA cater to the Italian-American appetite. You are much more likely to find pasta sauces called al sugu and quattro formaggi than these two standard American favorites. I always urge these travelers, and first-time travelers to any country, to bring a small phrase book, or even a few printed pages, of more frequent menu terms. If you're one of those individuals who will eat anything, and sees eating as an adventure, then perhaps the information below won't assist you. But if you're a vegetarian, if you have a food allergy, if you simply would like to know what you're about to consume, then it's important to know your sauces before you make a mistake. It's impossible to list them all, but the below is a primer of the more common sauces you'll find in Italy. If you look closely, you may also see them popping up in your local grocery store. So dig in!

Bolognese - Also called ragu, this comes from the Bologna. It typically contains tomatoes, onion, milk, vegetables and meat (usually beef or pork).

Pesto - Originating in the Liguria region of Italy, pesto is typically fresh basil, pine nuts, garlic and other herbs. For the best taste this sauce is prepared by mortar and pestle.

Vongole - Clam sauce which is typically made with fresh clams, olive oil, garlic, parsley and pepper.

Carbonara - Originating in Rome, this sauce contains egg yolks, meat (typically guanciale which is cured fatty pork cheek), pecorino and parmesan cheese.

Quattro Formaggi - This means four cheeses. Depending on the region of Italy, it is made with different cheeses, and therefore can have a completely different taste.

Alla Salvia - This means with sage. Fresh sage, olive oil and garlic are regulars, but sometimes it also includes anchovies.

Con Panna - This means with cream and can be a basic cream sauce, or it can also be included with a basic tomato sauce.

Arrabiata - This literally means angry quills. If you have a heat tolerance, watch out for this one. It can have pork or beef or be meatless, depending on the region and on the restaurant, but it always includes red pepper.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius

Why do evil men seem to be rewarded in life and good men punished?
What do all men strive for in life?
What is the greater good?
What truly makes a man happy?

These are some of the questions addressed by Boethius in his The Consolation of Philosophy. Written by a Roman statesman condemned to death in the sixth century, it is medieval humanism at its finest. Boethius is visited by Philosophy a quasi-Greek goddess and angel hybrid who is determined to lift Boethius's spirits and carry him from his wallowing into the light (of philosophy and reason, of course). The book is divided into five sections, with alternating prose and poetry. It reads as a discourse between man and spiritual mentor, one who doesn't hesitate to chastise him when needed.

This manuscript should be required reading for any philosophy student, but it is also a welcome addition to anyone struggling to understand the human psyche and the larger questions at play in the world. Although written from an ancient viewpoint, after reading this classic, it is clear that for some things, human haven't changed at all. We are still muddling through, we are still seeking to understand, and perhaps Boethius's The Consolation of Philosophy will provide that consolation in this seeming upended world.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Book of 1000 Days by Shannon Hale

While in England, WH Smith ran a stellar sale where I was able to buy one book, get one 50% off. Of course this encouraged me to take a chance on a British author, and I happily selected The Book of 1000 Days by Shannon Hale. Entranced by the cover alone, I hoped that this book would deliver a solid fairy tale, where the hero (or heroine, in this case) takes all. I was not disappointed.

Taken from a Grimm's fairy tale, and set in a fantastical Mongolia, Hale has lovingly named all of her characters with fragments of Mongolian words for who they represent. The heroine Dashti, for example, means good luck, and the main squeeze Tegus, means perfect. It starts when Dashti, and the princess she has just agreed to serve, are thrown into a tower for seven years, all because the princess refuses to marry a brute of a prince, and prefers another. Dashti, happy with more food than she could ever want, keeps her spirits up, but when rats start devouring the food, and howling is heard from outside the tower, things can only get dicey. A journey ensues, and Dashti, forced to impersonate the princess, gets into more muck than a mucker maid ever has before, as she begins to fall for Khan Tegus, the princess's soon-to-be-betrothed.

The writing is charming and Dashti instantly likeable for her lower-class naivete and her desire to be a good person. She constantly tears herself between her duty to the princess, her duty to the ancient ones, and her duty to her own heart. Convinced that something is wrong with the princess, Dashti sings to her regularly, songs of healing, though the heroine is never quite sure what she needs to heal. A lovely treat is that the princess also grows as a person due to Dashti's never wavering loyalty and friendship, and the trouble that the two girls get into.

This is only one of several fairy tales retold by Hale, and was pure fairy tale charm. After all, sometimes you need a book where a hero isn't born a hero, but claws her way through to make the world a better place, no matter what that world may be.

Visit Shannon Hale's website here.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Upholders of Ancient Greek Morality: The Furies

To say their name invites disaster. Dogs bark and howl to announce their arrival. The stench of poisonous gas fills the air, and then you see them. With hissing snakes writing on their heads, and large bat wings extending behind them, here are three of the foulest creatures of Greek Mythology - the Erinyes, or more commonly known as the Furies. Yet, despite their horrifying appearance, the Furies are one of the most significant factors in the ancient Greek's decision to abide by a moral code. Created out of the blood in the sea when Cronus castrated his father Uranus, or alternately from Nyx, the Greek deity personifying Night.

Although beliefs vary by sect, Christians follow the ten commandments as a guideline for morality. To break one of these commandments is sin. Depending on the sect, forgiveness can be found, the sinful deed forgotten, or reversed, frequently with humility and admission of guilt.

The Furies, however, were not interested in admission of guilt.
Alecto ("unceasing"), Tisiphone ("avenging murder"), and Megaera "grudging" particularly sought out crimes against ones kin, especially when murder was involved. Once the deed had been committed, the Furies punished the evildoer by driving him or her insane, often to the point of suicide. It is said that when they were not punishing kin-murderers on the surface, they dwelt in Tartarus, torturing its residents. However, although they were renowned for being cruel, they were also upholders of justice, and said to be fair. They often interceded on behalf of the law when the crime was that of ethics by protecting beggars and strangers. Due to this, they were often called "The Kindly Ones" in order to avoid invoking their name, and their wrath.

Clearly, the Furies provided great incentive to be kind to women, strangers, and kind alike. Ancient Greeks were taught stories of the Furies, much as children today are told to be good or they will be snatched away by the bogeyman. They are the exemplification of the behavioral concept of avoiding an aversive condition. So if you hear hissing, or the sound of dogs barking, perhaps someone has broken the law, and the Furies are in pursuit.

Painting Above: Orestes Pursued by the Furies, 1862, by Adolphe William Bouguereau

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Lucca's San Michele in Foro

Located in the heart of Tuscany, Lucca is often missed for the greater tourist sites of Florence and Pisa nearby. Founded by the Etruscans, and later turned into a Roman colony in 180 BCE, Lucca played an important part in Italian history, being the site of a conference in 56 BCE which established the First Triumvirate. Much later, Napoleon gifted Lucca to his sister Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi and named her the Queen of Etruria.

Lucca is one of the most preserved walled cities in the world, and a favorite pastime of locals and visitors alike is walking or biking the circumference of the wall and enjoying lunch at one of the many parks located at intervals along its path. Lucca also offers more impressive vistas than the wall, for it is peppered with towers, a few of which are climbable, and the mountains and Tuscan countryside are more than visible and can take your breath away.

In the heart of this beautiful city, however, once used as a way station for pilgrims, lies San Michele in Foro, a church to rival the most beautiful in Europe. The church is mentioned as early as 795 AD, however, its current incarnation is a result of Pope Alexander during the 11th century. In typical Pisan-Luccan fashion, its facade is a fusion of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. The front of the church looks sadly incomplete as it is a flat panel adorned with a flattened statue of St. Michael. The most curious part of this church is seen when one starts to walk around the church to view the backside of the front facade. Stairs stretch towards the statue of St. Michael, and it is said that priests would climb the stairs to orchestrate St. Michael's wings springing to life, thereby showering Lucca with its very own "miracles".

Friday, July 3, 2009

A Short History of the Wedding Dress

As my neighbor came out of her house last weekend, white wedding dress complete with beading, tulle, and satin flouncing around her, it reminded me that wedding dresses have not always been white. Wearing white (for western brides) did not become fashionable until Queen Victoria donned one (she was probably not amused). This flamboyant gown made people note her status, and soon after brides began to copy her. It was certainly not a virtuous color, and was seen as a symbol of wealth since you would not have to wear the dress again.

In ancient times, here are some of the customs that were followed:
  • Roman women wore a dress similar to the robes of Juno, goddess of marriage. They were modestly draped and would cover their heads with a red square of cloth to appear pale and statuesque.
  • Grecian women would wear long, elegant dresses (like the peplos). Their dresses were closed with two clasps, and the more expensive and ornate the clasps, the more wealthy the family. They covered their heads in gold to symbolize virginity, joy and happiness (the color of the sun).
  • Russian women wore red to symbolize joy and beauty. The dresses were similar to today's sundresses and they wore their hair plaited with ribbon.
Today many cultures continue to wear colors other than white (Asian cultures still prefer bright colors), and with a move towards non-traditional marriage, weddings and lifestyles, perhaps in the future of western weddings, we may begin to see a rainbow of possibilities.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Deus Ex Machina by Maria Aragon

For anyone passionate about Greek mythology, prepare for a fun romp with Deus Ex Machina. Stewart Dunk, a socially inept young man under the thumb of his overbearing (and lusty) mother, finds out that his new neighbors are none other than a group of the Greek gods. Ares, Hermes, Aphrodite, Athena and Medusa all play their respective parts and Aragon has clearly done her research (by stating Medusa's Libyan ancestry, for example). However, the Greek mythology scholar should also prepare for a hearty dose of suspension of disbelief as Athena and Hermes become quite an item through Aphrodite's meddling and manage to produce divine offspring. Full of a sense of what would happen if you let Aphrodite handle the cooking (fish soup, anyone?) and Ares handle home redecorating (provided you don't need any walls left), a mythology lover will have a lot of laughs along the way.

The writing itself, however, often speeds along at too fast a clip (much of the book is dialogue and slapstick comedy), and could have benefited from a better sense of pacing. But if you manage to lend the author some patience, you will find a gem of a story and a rip-roaring good time.