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Wednesday, August 23, 2017

A bombing in Israel, A dying boy's last year, and an ancient Indian epic--all of them dealing with religion and faith with varying degrees of success

Faith and religion are generally topics that we avoid talking about for fear of offending anyone.  Yet in a world where religious extremists use their faith as an excuse for violence, and where it is sometimes hard to see past the glare of media stereotypes to see the good people of faith fighting for social justice, some sensible discussion of religion could make a difference.   This is particulalry true for high school students who are trying to figure out their place in the world.  I recently read three books, all appropriate for high school level readers, that deal with religion in very different ways and offer food for thought without being aggressive or evangelical.  All three are worth a read, though I reccommend some more highly than others.

Baxter, Jack; Faudem, Joshua; Shadmi, Koren (2015)  Mike's place:  A True Story of Love, Blues, and Terror in Tel Aviv.  New York:  First Second.

 Image result for Mike's Place graphic novel

Opening lines  (sort of)  (see below):

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Mike's place is a bar in Tel Aviv that is known for being a warm, cozy, hospitable place.  It features live music, an upbeat atmosphere, and welcomes everyone, whether local or stranger, Israeli or Palestinian, regardless of politics.  When US filmmaker Jack's plans to make a documentary about the trial of a Palestinian accused of masterminding terrorist attacks fall through completely, a walk at night and a chat with Mike's Place owner and bartender Gal lead Jack to decide to make a documentary about this apparently neutral ground in the middle of the religious tension in this part of the world.  But as we get to know the family of workers, regulars, and visitors that form Jack's Place, we also see glimpses of the suicide bombers who are planning to destroy the bar.

And though this is a graphic novel telling of a true story of the days leading up to a real bombing and the pain, grief, havoc, and eventually rebirth that followed, it raises a series of interesting questions about the brokenness of humans and about the grace that sometimes comes to them.  Here there is romance, betrayal, friendship, music, and violence -- and the amazing part of it is that the graphic novel format allows us to be right in the middle of Mike's Place and the lives of its inhabitants.  When the bomb blast comes, it is not a shock -- the reader has been expecting it -- but it hurts all the same.  We know these people.

After the blood and ambulances and hospital stays; after the injuries, deaths, and recoveries; after the grief and sorrow and post-traumatic stress, when the community of Mike's Place begins to rebuild, there is a sense of renewal and redemption and restoration of grace (while at the same time, there is a certainty that this sort of thing will happen again.)

Each section begins with a quote from the Qur'an which argues for unity, friendship, non-violence and hope.  (For example, section 2 begins with "Truly those who believe, and the Jews and the Christians, and the Sabaeans -- whoever believes in God and the Last Day and performs virtuous deeds -- surely their reward is with their sustainer and no fear shall come upon them, neither shall they grieve.")  Such quotations hang on through the images of the warmth inside the bar, the darkness outside of it, the joy and happiness of the Mike's Place crew, and the straight-faced isolation of the bombers-in-training. There is also a theme of seeking God, though it is very subtle.  French waitress Dominique goes to a fortune teller seeking divine wisdom to figure out which of her lovers she should stay with.  Filmmaker Jack calls home to his wife in the US every night, then goes for long walks in the falling dark, at one point buying a good luck charm from a shopkeeper.  Cameraman Joshua and his girlfriend seek meaning in each other, but don't seem to be finding it.  And most of all, the patrons at Mike's Place seem to seek a world that is calm, rational, joyful, unified by something, and not caught in the grip of hate.

The book contains a smattering of vulgar language, implications of people sleeping with each other, at least once cheating on a committed relationship, and there is some violence --but the way the book opens up discussions of what we should do when religions are in conflict with each other would seem to outweigh the negative aspects and make it a good choice for high school students.  In any case, it is well worth checking out.

Crutcher, Chris (2007) Deadline.  New York:  HarperCollins.

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Opening line:  "My plan was to focus my senior year on information I could use after graduation when I set out for Planet Earth from the Pluto that is Trout, Idaho, population 943."

That's how this novel begins.  But as Ben is about to begin his senior year, he finds out that he has an illness that will kill him in a year unless he starts immediately on a course of treatment that will be painful, leave him spending most of his remaining year in a hospital bed, and only has a small chance of being effective.  So Ben refuses treatment, swears the doctor to secrecy, and decides to make the most of his remaining year.  He goes out for football and makes the team because of his speed and daring.  He asks the girl he likes if she will go out with him and eventually ends up with a girlfriend.  He decides to help the town drunk get sober.  He takes on his narrow- minded history teacher by proposing a project where he will try to get one of the streets in his hometown renamed as Martin Luther King Drive, despite the townspeople's extreme lack of interest in such a change.  And all along he keeps his secret from his parents, his girlfriend, his brother, school authorities, and everyone.

As his relationship with his girlfriend grows, though, and as his teamwork with his brother on the football field seems to be leading them to double scholarships, Ben feels more and more like he wants to tell someone, but now so much time has passed that if he does tell anyone, they will feel betrayed.

And here is the most interesting part of this very gripping novel.  Ben has visions where he is talking to someone he calls Hey Soos (think Mexican pronunciation of Jesus).  Hey Soos appears in his dreams and they talk about right and wrong.  Hey Soos seems a lot more real than Ben's biblical image of Jesus, and at first Ben assumes Hey Soos is his own subconscious.  Later he isn't so sure.  Yet because the question is not settled and because Hey Soos doesn't seem to be a religious figure, Crutcher is able to bring in some religious-moral perspective without all the baggage that usually goes along with it.  And because the main character is facing his own death, he listens to that advice in a way that is different from how most high school students might listen.

Crutcher's work is frequently challenged and occasionally banned.  I am not sure why.  There are some vulgar words from time to time and a character in the book has had a child outside of marriage, but the book combines authenticity with the very real and complicated ethical dilemmas that high school students need to deal with, I suggest that Deadline belongs on every high school teacher's shelf (if not on every student's desk as part of a unit).  Best book I have read in a long time.  Buy it.

Arni, Samhita; Chitrakar, Moyna (2011) Sita's Ramayana.  Toronto:  Groundwood.

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Opening lines:  "For a thousand years the Dandaka forest slept. // Until one day the daughter of the earth came.  At her touch the flowers, creepers, and trees of the Dandaka awoke from their long sleep. The forest watched her with great interest.  She was no hermit's wife -- beautifully dressed in priceless silks and ornaments, worth a king's ransom."

The Ramayana is apparently a great legend of ancient India.  It involves a princess and her brother and honor and right and wrong and I really wanted to like it.  It seems like a great story, and I applaud the publisher, Groundwood, for bringing this ancient story to light -- but I couldn't get through it.  The story is told in graphic novel form (sort of) and in spite of the way the book preserves the language of the original and the beautiful art inspired by the art of India, I don't think it works very well as a graphic novel.

There were several reasons for this.  First was the lettering.  I'll admit I have a preference for hand-lettered graphic novels.  Part of the reason for my preference for hand lettering is probably tradition.  the first comic books that I read were hand lettered, with some words emboldened to indicate emphasis -- but more than that, it was like the hand lettering captured the voice of the story.  This is certainly true with modern hand-lettered graphic novels.  Sita's Ramayana uses typeset lettering in a sans serif font.  The lettering seems artificial and lifeless and doesn't convey the depth of the passion of the story.  In fact, as times words of intensity seem humorous because of the way the print looks so bland and emotionally level on the page.

Second, Chitrakar's illustrations, while an excellent example of the Patua scroll painting tradition, do not convey the story in such a way that supports the words as much as it could.  Consider this illustration:

Image result for Sita's Ramayana

The words may be too small to read, but just look at the panels.  What is happening here is that Surpanaka, princess of Lanka (on the right) has transformed herself into a beautiful woman to win the love of Lakshmana (the fellow on the left).  Lakshmana, however, realizes that she is a demoness, and in the second panel, cuts off her nose. She flees back to Lanka in the fourth panel and persuades her brother Ravana, king of Lanka to avenge this insult.  Unfortunately, the panels do not to a very good job of conveying this action.  In the second panel, the thin stick that looks like a baton in Lakshmana's right hand, is actually a sword.  In the third panel, the red color on Surpanka is meant to indicate that her nose has been cut off. There is no indication of movement (which could be accomplished by a two-panel series showing the sword at the beginning of its arc and at the end.) So while the illustrations are beautiful, they do little to convey action and passion in ways that the words cannot.

Perhaps I do not know how to read this type of art.  That is a fair criticism, but if that is so, I doubt many other readers will know the secrets either.  For me, at least, the magic of the graphic novel's integration of word and action through image and panel never quite get off the ground. So much so, that honestly, I did not make it to the end.

Having said that, I have no doubt that this rendition would help newcomers to the story to be able to picture what is going on, and as such might be worthy of a classroom library for students who are interested in reading this ancient tale.

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