Friday, March 28, 2014

The Odyssey, by Seymour Chwast

Sirens and Sea Nymphs and Cyclopes, Oh My!

Homer's The Illiad and The Odyssey are classics, but the challenging language and format (please see an excerpt from The Odyssey here) can certainly be a turn-off for readers, especially adolescent ones.

Seymour Chwast's futuristic adaptation of the epic poem The Odyssey is a fantastic alternative or supplement to the original text.  The comic format creates a smoothly flowing plot that students can easily follow. 

The Illiad is the story of the Trojan War, whereas The Odyssey is the story of Odysseus’ journey (a ten-year one, at that) and arrival home from the war. In the beginning of the graphic novel, Odysseus' role in the Trojan War is relayed, including his masterminding of the famous Trojan Horse deception, which allowed the Greeks to conquer the Trojans. 

Chwast’s adaptation includes all 24 books (or chapters) of the original Odyssey, breaking the plot down, slide by slide, into the most significant parts of the epic.  Early on, readers are introduced to the King of Ithaca's family - his wife, Penelope; his son, Telemachus; his father, Laertes; and his mother, Anticlea - as well as the trouble that's been brewing in his kingdom during his absence. (Learn more about our epic hero's life via his Shmoop Facebook page.)

The graphic novel takes readers on Odysseus' larger-than-life journey (cursed by Poseidon) from Troy to Ithaca. We make pit stops, some lasting longer than others (Odysseus has a weakness for the ladies, even sea nymphs), at the mysterious Land of the Lotus Eaters, who wish to hold Odysseus and his men forever; the Cyclops, Polyphemus, who dines on Odysseus' men before losing, well, the reason for his moniker; and the Land of the Dead, aka Hell, where he conferences with a spirit while warding off impeding ghosts, including a couple of whom had been close to him in life. In order to reach Ithaca, Odysseus is forced to make life-or-death decisions for himself and his men, who make the already-difficult journey home even more difficult. However, throughout his journey, he has had goddess Athena by his side; her assistance follows him home to Ithaca, where he is faced with nearly 100 despicable suitors who are vying for his wife's hand in marriage.  It will take a man of epic proportions to reclaim his wife, son, and kingdom, after a twenty-year absence. 

In many classrooms (my own included) across the country, Homer's The Odyssey is taught in a ninth grade curriculum.  We tend to read most - if not all - of the text as a class, as many students struggle with understanding the format and language without aid from their teacher or peers.  For this reason, Chwast's adaptation of the original text would be a wonderful inclusion to a unit on Greek Mythology and The Odyssey.  Chwast turns a challenging, complex read into an interesting, enticing narrative, complete with visual aids.

Below are two images of the Cyclops scene from The Odyssey.  The top is directly from Chwast's text, and the bottom is a 1555 painting by Pellegrino Tibaldi, called Ulysses Blinding Polyphemus the Cyclops.  The above image would likely appeal more to teen readers, as it lacks that "ancient" look, instead, taking on a modern illustration that is more consistent with an adolescent's view of art.

(If you'd like to watch the above-illustrated scene from the 1997 film The Odyssey, please click here.)

To learn more about the author/illustrator, please visit Seymour Chwast's official website here

To read an interview with Seymour Chwast about his choosing to compose The Odyssey, click here. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Nazi Hunters, by Neal Bascomb

Adolf Eichmann: prisoner, 1961

“He locked his gaze with Eichmann’s and saw the Nazi’s eyes widen in fear. Eichmann stepped back. He was about to run” (Bascomb 1365).

In his narrative nonfiction book The Nazi Hunters, author Neal Bascomb chronicles the suspenseful tale of the stake-out, capture, trial, and hanging of one of The Holocaust's most notorious murderous agents: Adolf Eichmann.

When most individuals hear about the Holocaust, they, understandably, tend to associate just one Adolf-- Hitler. However, Adolf Eichmann had just as large a role in this massacre. In charge of the deportation of the Jewish people, whom he referenced as a "disease," to ghettos and concentration camps, Eichmann estimated that he had participated in the deaths of five million Jews during The Holocaust.  As we know today, his number is just shy of the six million Jews said to have perished. 

Bascomb's text introduces readers to this callous war criminal who plagued History with one of the most despicable acts of humanity: "The Final Solution."  His novel begins with important background information. It includes details from the war, and the plans, at all stages and steps, to exterminate the Jews. Biographical information is provided for all key players, including the Nazi Hunters, and motives are discussed. And of course, graphic details of ghettos, cattle cars, and concentration camps, from eye witnesses to this tragedy, are illustrated candidly.  Having painted a picture of absolute terror and bewilderment, Bascomb successfully sets up the reader for the rest of his novel. 

At the end of the war in 1945, Adolf Eichmann disappeared, managing to flee punishment for the atrocities that he'd committed.  But sixteen years later, his past caught up with him in the form of a courageous, dogged group of Israeli secret agents called the Mossad, all of whom carried a personal connection to the tragedies of The Holocaust.  In the novel, the covert mission, in all of its complexities, is thoroughly explained, and we witness Eichmann's abduction from Argentina and delivery to Israel, where he would come face to face with the fate that he'd thought he'd escaped.

Adolescents and adults alike will be enthralled by this gripping, well-written novel.  The pages of Bascomb's text evoke from readers emotions ranging from fear, disgust, sympathy, and elation, for he depicts the characters and historical events with such accuracy and poignancy that we can feel the pain of the survivors, feel the urgency of the mission, and feel the relief of a nation oppressed. 

Mentioned multiple times throughout the text, the claim that our world must learn from this atrocity acts as a primary motive for the capture of Adolf Eichmann.  Bascomb inserts the thoughts of Isser Harel, leader of the Mossad operation: 

"If the mission succeeded, Harel knew that not only would the Mossad earn its place among the top intelligence agencies in the world, but also - much more important - the Jewish people would see justice done to one of the leading organizers of the Holocaust.  The world would be forced to remember what had happened, and it would be reminded that such horrors must never be repeated" (730).

Isser Harrel
The echos of Harel's words should reverberate throughout every teacher's mind.  The real voices of Holocaust survivors are fading into darkness at the passing of each year, so it is our duty to pass on the story of this unfathomable act of evil.  Bascomb's The Nazi Hunters would be a wonderful addition to an eighth grade English curriculum, especially if paired with a history class' unit on World War II and The Holocaust.  The text discusses multiple death camps and their locations, the devastation of Kristallnacht, and the events leading up to the end of the war.  A history class' teaching of this information would prove beneficial as the students will access their prior knowledge while reading The Nazi Hunters

Finally, students will love the novel's addition of genuine photographs of the members and initiators of the Mossad team, Eichmann's family, surveillance footage, official documents, and Eichmann in captivity and at trial.  Also included are photographs of drawings created by Mossad member Peter Malkin while he kept watch over Eichmann in custody.  Readers are able to make a more personal connection to the story as the aid of these photographs pave a clearer path of the understanding of the situation relayed through Bascomb's words. 
Drawing of Eichmann by Malkin; 1960

In one of his letters of deportation orders during The Holocaust, Eichmann wrote, "They (the Jews) were stealing the breath of life from us" (Bascomb 177).

How ironic this statement would prove to become.
Below is a video that nicely summarizes Adolf Eichmann's role in the war, his escape, capture, and fate that followed. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Death of Bees, by Lisa O'Donnell

The Death of Bees, the debut novel by 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize winner Lisa O'Donnell, places readers in the center of a deadly family secret, one that, with the passing of the seasons, remains miraculously hidden from friends and family alike. Hidden, until a curious dog named Bobby uncovers a bone. And then another. 

Set in Glasgow, Scotland, O’Donnell’s text focuses on Marnie and Nelly, sisters who have experienced a far from ideal upbringing.  Their parents, Gene and Izzy, whom both girls loathe, have been drug and alcohol abusers for as long as they can remember; because of this, the girls have been forced to grow up at a much quicker pace than other kids. 

Unfortunately, while they are much wiser and experienced than their years express, the law, of course, doesn’t see it that way.  Marnie desires to become twelve-year-old Nelly’s legal guardian at sixteen-years-old, but at the beginning of the novel, she is still months away from this essential birthday.  Yes, Marnie's birthday cannot come soon enough for the girls—because Gene and Izzy are dead and buried underneath freshly planted lavender plants in the back yard, and a visit from a social worker would be quite disastrous for Marnie and Nelly.  It would be unfortunate if their maternal grandfather, after years of absence, reappeared in their lives as well. Would be. 

Right next door, Lennie, an elderly homosexual man who has just lost his beloved partner, yearns for the warmth of companionship again.  He's had an embarrassing brush with the law recently, and the townspeople are proving unforgiving.  However, Marnie and Nelly welcome him into their lives, and having been led to believe their disgraceful parents have abandoned them, he does the same for the girls. The relationship formed between Lennie and the girls becomes unbreakable, and within the novel's pages, he illustrates their solid bond in the most selfless manner imaginable.  

The Death of Bees places readers on a vividly gritty journey through the eyes of not only Marnie, but Nelly and Lennie as well.  Stories of drug dealing and usage, friendship struggles, truancy, promiscuity, and sexual and alcohol abuse are prevalent throughout the novel, and O’Donnell’s words certainly evoke both sympathy and disgust from readers toward her characters.  Adding to the suspense are the many twists and turns of the novel’s plot.  It’s been clear from the start as to who killed Izzy. But who killed that abusive, "druggie loser" Gene?  All is not black and white. Certainly not.

Lisa O'Donnell's premiere novel is formatted in sections:  Winter, Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter again.  Throughout these sections, O'Donnell places text resembling a journal format, interchanging between Marnie, Nelly, and Lennie, who appears to be writing to a specific audience: his deceased partner.  The transitions from one entry to the next are exemplary, which, aside from the characters' names placed at the top of each new section, provides readers with a clear and smooth understanding of the storyline. Finally, the journal sections are seldom more than 2-3 pages in length, allowing for a quick, easy read of the novel. 

Though a quick read, the content was a bit rough to stomach, and at times, quite disturbing. Because of its status as a Young Adult Literature book, I was very surprised by the language and situations O'Donnell placed in her characters' lives.  Marnie's sleeping with a married man and then her boyfriend, Kirkland, are graphically discussed.  Lennie's receiving of oral sex is illustrated.  Many critics do recommend her novel for much older teens (sixteen-seventeen), but even still, I cannot imagine providing one of my students with a novel that so openly and frequently discusses a variety of sexual acts, derogatory words and phrases, and so on. 

But I get it; these young girls have had a horrendous life due to their horrendous parents. They were exposed to the deplorable world of substance and sexual abuse at an early age, and because their parents couldn't (or wouldn't) provide for them, they had to fend for themselves, especially Marnie, who, in the text, is a player in the drug game in order to bring home some money for her and her sister, for whom she feels responsible.  Her perception of love is certainly skewed, likely because her mother provided such a poor example for her.  A reader may even apply Marnie's uncouth actions throughout the text to the age-old Nature vs. Nurture argument here. One particular excerpt reveals Marnie's ignorance, and explains her promiscuity:

Marnie: "I wish I'd never met Kirkland. I wish I'd followed my instincts and told him to f*** off, but he was so nice to me."
Lennie: "Marnie, you don't have to love everyone who's nice to you. People should be nice to each other" (O'Donnell 193).

I do see why all of the sex and swearing presents itself in the text.  People's actions and words often reflect the company they keep. However, the extent of the graphic nature of Marnie's sexual endeavors and flippant swearing has, in my opinion, no place in a Young Adult text.

Language aside, there are definitely parts of this novel in which teenagers, in one way or another, would certainly be able to relate: Defiance against parents/authority. Expression of homophobia. The beginning and ending of romantic relationships, both heterosexual and homosexual. Drug/alcohol abuse. Cancer. The suffering and death of loved ones. 

For a fortunate few, these concepts may appear foreign; however, I would imagine that students have been touched by at least a couple of these topics discussed in The Death of Bees.

Overall, while I found the text intriguing, suspenseful, and smoothly flowing, I do not recommend this novel be read by teens under eighteen, and definitely not in a classroom setting.  I think that we teachers can investigate other Young Adult texts that might have a similar story, yet are absent of unnecessary vulgar language and sexual references. 
Please view author Lisa O'Donnell's official webpage for her brief biography. 
Please view a Huntington Post interview with Lisa O'Donnell about her successful novel The Death of Bees.