Monday, September 05, 2011

Book Review: Shadow of the Bear by Regina Doman

For those of you who know me, you know that Shadow of the Bear is not really my kind of book. First off, it is contemporary fiction which is not my favorite genre. Secondly, it is set in New York City which is one step above Baffin Island in terms of places I'd like to visit. (OK, maybe one step below.) Thirdly, on it's face, it's a story about the trials and tribulations of two teen-aged girls--Rose and Blanche Brier. There are no swords, chain mail, or 12 pounders anywhere to be seen.

But strangely enough, I enjoyed Shadow of the Bear. It is very well written--a real page-turner in the best sense of that phrase. The author, Regina Doman, uniquely crafted the book as a modern retelling of the fairy tale of Snow White and Rose Red. And it works. Though following the framework of the old tale, Doman expertly weaves in modern settings, themes and issues to create a story that's clever and enchanting. Her lead characters are multi-dimensional and completely sympathetic and the story celebrates a number of very positive virtues: steadfastness, courage, trust, and self-sacrifice primary among them.

Of course, I had tremendous appreciation for Doman's unabashed use of Catholic themes. These are central to the story but are used with a light enough touch that they do not come off as preachy. I suspect that most Catholic readers will appreciate her honest insider's view of the Faith as opposed to the lame caricatures of Catholicism that appear in most secular fiction today.

Yes, it's true--Shadow of the Bear is a favorite of young adult readers of the female persuasion and that will probably remain the case in the future. But I don't think it would be a bad thing for young gentlemen to read these books as well. If they can wade through some very female dialog and several passages about clothing, hairstyles and makeup, they might even gain some insight into the sort of behavior that a virtuous young woman expects out of a man. That alone should be worth the price of the book for most young fellows.

As for reading level, due to some rather intense scenes toward the end of the book, I would call Shadow of the Bear suitable for ages 14 and up.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Yi San - An enthralling Korean historical drama (with Catholics!)

Due to the dearth of anything even close to good on American TV, my wife and I just finished watching yet another Korean historical drama--Yi San (also here). In 77 episodes, this series tells the story of a boy, Yi San, who grows up in the palace as the royal grandson, son of the crown prince. Unfortunately, his father is executed as a traitor and Yi San is thrust into the role of crown prince at the age of 11. However, the same court faction that demanded the death of his father is similarly hostile to Yi San, and the king, his grandfather, is an angry unforgiving taskmaster who is deeply suspicious of him. But the young crown prince finds unexpected help in the form of two orphan commoners--Park Dae Su, a boy about to become a eunuch, and Seong Song Yeong, a palace maid in training and budding artist. These two become secret companions of the crown prince and assist him as he navigates palace intrigues and deadly threats.

This was the forth Korean historical drama we've watched, and as good as the previous ones were, this one beat them hands down. It had more memorable music than Jumong, better acting than Dae Jo Yeong, and a more engaging plot-line than The Great King Sejong. The opening scene of Yi San is one of the most enticing pieces of film-making I've ever seen. Having now watched all the episodes and viewed the opening again, I realize that it contains all of the major themes and plot elements that are played out over entire series: art, military prowess, the majesty of the royal court, treachery, lust for power, and assassination. Watch it, and see if you can resist being drawn into the series:

I did a quick scan of the history after we finished and was happy to see that the series followed the facts pretty well. For me, this is one of the great bonuses of watching these dramas--learning about a civilization that is almost completely neglected in western education.

Yi San reigned as King Jeongjo from 1776 to 1800 which made this the most modern of the historical dramas that we've watched so far. This also meant that the subject of Christianity appeared in the series, and we were gladdened to see a positive portrayal of Catholicism. Upon reading the history, I was amazed to discover that Queen Dowager Jeongsun (portrayed as Yi San's main antagonist in the series), was responsible for the Catholic Persecution of 1801. (Here's a link to the "Beheading Mountain" Martyrs Museum and shrine in Seoul.) There was also an overtly pro-life theme that showed up toward the end of the series. Given this, I can recommend Yi San almost without reservation. I say "almost" because there are three parts of the series that may irk some Catholics:

1. There are several very frank and earthy scenes about how one is made into a eunuch, including a little boy who tries to do the job on himself. These scenes are mostly comic relief, though, and nothing gets shown. They also don't persist past the early episodes.

2. A couple of the artist characters are into creating and collecting illegal obscene art. Again, this is included as comic relief and these characters are treated as harmless buffoons. Glimpses of the obscene art are seen on occasion, and it is slightly amusing to see that "obscene" has a fairly Victorian interpretation in the show.

3. The marriage customs in Korea allowed for polygamy and that makes for some very un-Western relationships, particularly within the royal family where the marriages were nearly all arranged for the sole purpose of producing an heir to the throne.

These items aside, Yi San has a very high moral tone in the best Confucian sense, with an emphasis on benevolence in rule, filial piety, loyalty to family and patron, and equality of opportunity for all classes of society. I found it to be an enthralling and thoroughly enjoyable series. It certainly beats the heck out watching the latest unfunny, double-entendre-laden sitcom or cheesy, teachable-moment drama produced for American TV.