Percy Jackson and Escapism: Lessons to Live by

To bring summer to a glorious close, I road-tripped up to Alexandria Bay, New York with my roommate, Nikki. As we trekked through Wellesley Island State Park on an absurdly beautiful Monday morning, we discussed some pretty hefty philosophical quandaries such as, “What would you do if you found out you were the last human on Earth?” Our answers were deeply probing, since we considered what we’d really, really do in this situation, as our puny little selves, not as, you know, Katniss Everdeen. I presumed that, after curling up into a ball for a solid week or two, I’d probably head off to a (now abandoned) bookstore and grab all the books I’ve always wanted to read but never had the time. Then, I’d seek out a (now abandoned) mansion, curl up in front of a (probably unlit) fireplace and read, read, read.

I was being facetious—but only a little. Because I realized something about myself over the years: I have a tendency to “stress-read.” When situations—either present or anticipated—make me uncomfortable or anxious, I relieve the tension by…well, forgetting about it. And the best way for me to forget about something is to escape into another world. Since this is not, as far as I know, physically possible (…yet), I can escape mentally merely by opening up a book.

Of course, not just any old book will do. Memoirs are out, most books of historical or realistic fiction are out. Highbrow literature, all out. Basically, anything above an eighth-grade reading level can be shoved off the shelf. You see, when life gets too complicated, I like to simplify things.

On our trip, Nikki and I also went to a drive-in movie theater, and our choice of entertainment was pretty limited. Between Kickass 2 and Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, we chose the latter. It was a cute movie with a so-so script, but we had fun. And at the end of a vacation day, isn’t that what’s really important?

For some reason, though, the characters stuck with me even after the movie ended. So, I watched the first movie when I got home and figured that my appetite would be satiated. Spoiler alert: It wasn’t. After a brief internal debate about whether or not I should be incurably mortified or just slightly embarrassed over my new obsession, I eagerly gobbled up the third book in the series. And then the fourth. And then the fifth. And then the first and second, even though I had just seen the movies. All in the span of a week.

It was, undoubtedly, the latest manifestation of my “stress-reading” condition, as I vainly attempted to prolong the already-fading summer (or, more significantly, my already-faded childhood) as the hours until my final semester of college ticked closer.

But what was it that really attracted me to Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series? Certainly, Riordan’s tale of demigods (those are the children of Greek gods and mortals, for you n00bs) contains almost a ridiculous amount of similarities to Harry Potter, especially when it comes to the characters: You’ve got the impulsive hero whose fate lies in the words of a prophecy, the brainy ladyfriend (who, in this case, is the daughter of Athena), the goofy best friend, the rival, the traitor, the headmaster/mentor figure, etc. There’s the revelation of a magical—or mythical—world that exists right under our noses, but it is one that we muggles mortals aren’t enlightened enough to see or understand it. And there’s Camp Half-Blood instead of Hogwarts… but it’s just six of one, half a dozen of the other. Sometimes, the whole “Harry Potter / Game-Changing Fantasy Series” copycat approach can backfire. Other times—like in this case—it can be sweetly sentimental.

Perhaps I was feeling nostalgic. I’d rather be graduating Hogwarts than Barnard. I miss the extraordinary hype surrounding the release of each Harry Potter book, and I doubt I’ll ever experience something of that magnitude ever again. I miss the complete immersion into J. K. Rowling’s magical universe; I miss forgetting to eat or sleep because there was something going on in Harry’s life that mattered so much more.

So, yes, Percy Jackson reminded me of Harry Potter, and though I read the books over the course of a week instead of a decade, doing so allowed me to relive a tiny sliver of my childhood. I also learned a thing or two about Greek mythology in the process. HUZZAH, education!

However, I also enjoyed the Percy Jackson series on another level. Much like the best of the Pixar classics, Percy Jackson was created primarily for children, but contains nuggets of humor that adults would also appreciate and wise lessons of which people of all ages need to be reminded. And lo, as I head back to the ambitious stress-cooker that is Columbia University, my adventure in simple life lessons began.

The Percy Jackson books are easily enjoyable because Percy is, in a word, charming. His wry, adorably guileless first person account of his (mis)adventures provide for lots of chuckles. His rules of thumb include: “I’d learned to be careful with immortals. They tended to get offended easily. Then, they blew stuff up.” He relates a word of caution on encountering paradise: “You deal with mythological stuff for a few years, you learn that paradises are usually places where you get killed.” And, of course, he warns against shadow travel: “I don’t recommend shadow travel if you’re scared of: a) The dark; b) Cold shivers up your spine; c) Strange noises; d) Going so fast you feel like your face is peeling off. In other words, I thought it was awesome.”

Riordan joins in on the fun from behind the scenes (very Greek god-like of him), setting up an invisible world that reflects to a tee the one in which we live; Mount Olympus is located at the 600th floor of the Empire State Building, in the city we’ve pretty much all come to accept is the center of the universe. (Another friendly jab at New York: “I love New York. You can pop out of the Underworld in Central Park, hail a taxi, head down Fifth Avenue with a giant hellhound loping behind you, and nobody even looks at you funny.” ) The Underworld, of course, can be accessed through a recording studio in Los Angeles (though in the movie it can be found under the Hollywood sign), while the entrance to the actual world of the dead is described by Percy as “a cross between airport security and the Jersey Turnpike”—complete with metal detectors and EZ-DEATH lanes. Meanwhile, Cerberus, the three-headed Rottweiler that guards the gates to the Underworld (and goes by “Fluffy” in Harry Potter), is really just a misunderstood softie who wants to play fetch.

This being Greek mythology, the whole “man was created in the image of God” thing is taken quite literally, and the gods and goddesses are as petty, sardonic, and paradoxically tender as any human. Apollo, the god of the sun, light, music, and poetry, has sandy hair and a cocky grin, and drives his pimped-out chariot around the globe while composing terrible haikus. Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, love, and lust, enjoys the funhouse ride because she can gaze at her reflection in every mirror, and she places stumbling blocks in Percy’s love life because the tragic romance of it all amuses her.

But aside from having quite a few laughs at Percy & co.’s expense and learning the difference between Tantalus and Tartarus, I was able to pick up on some more earnest themes as well. Underlying the entire series is the fact that the divine parent of these young demigods (and sometimes the mortal one as well) abandoned their children immediately after conception. It is explained to a frustrated Percy that the gods can’t “play favorites” for their children because they have to look out for all of humankind, but this doesn’t make him feel any better about his complex familial situation, and he no doubt represents the attitudes of many of the other half-bloods, some of whom are “Undetermineds” and haven’t even been claimed by any particular god or goddess.

This begs the question: Do we owe our families anything at all? Discounting objective morality, our intuitions respond in the affirmative. As Riordan drolly puts it: “Families are messy. Immortal families are eternally messy. Sometimes the best we can do is to remind each other that we’re related for better or for worse…and try to keep the maiming and killing to a minimum.” If that doesn’t accurately describe just about every family in the known universe—whether on a metaphysical scale, a historical-religious scale, or a microcosmic scale—I don’t know what does.

Percy also teaches us about the importance of tolerance and acceptance. Tyson, Percy’s half-brother, is a Cyclops, hated by demigods due to his hulking stature and twisted visage—and because of widespread generalizations about the personalities of his kind. But Percy, ever the titular hero, demonstrates that while Tyson may look and act differently, he has merits of his own to contribute (and of course, a heart of gold. Yadda yadda). Another twist implanted by Riordan is the notion that most of the residents of Camp Half-Blood have dyslexia and ADHD. Something that serves as a point of humiliation for Percy in the mortal world ends up feeding into his greatest strengths in the world of monsters and demons; he has trouble making sense of English because his brain is “hard-wired for ancient Greek,” and his ADHD is a result of heightened senses that will save his life in many a battle. Logical, in the context of the story, but also meaningful, in the real-world sense; the differences in each kid should never be a source of embarrassment, but should merely reflect a “different” way of experiencing the world.

Which brings us to another revealing theme that percolates throughout the series: The Mist. How can a world with Scythian Cracanae and Minotaurs and sons and daughters of Greek gods exist right under our noses? Because silly mortals like us only see what we want to see, of course. The Mist, controlled by the goddess Hecate, averts a mortal’s sight from viewing monsters and gods and whatnot. Some mortals can see through the Mist, but these humans are few and far between. As one character notes: “It’s funny how humans can wrap their mind around things and fit them into their version of reality.” Who knows? Maybe my stress-reading wasn’t a form of escapism at all. Maybe this heartfelt, simplified world is really all around us—and all we have to do is open our eyes.

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The Bard is Strong with This One

You might have heard someone giggle on the subway recently, utterly immersed in a small, unassuming-looking book. You might have then snuck a peek to see what book this person found so amusing, and upon glimpsing the word “Shakespeare” on the cover, you would then have scoffed and judged this person to be insufferably pretentious, both for reading Shakespeare on the subway and for understanding it well enough to laugh at the centuries-old jokes.

But you wouldn’t be able to look away from this unusual sight, so you’d steal another glimpse at the book’s title, under the pretense of discovering which of the Bard’s masterpieces this young woman was enjoying. It is then that you’d notice the next two words of the title: Star Wars.

‘Tis true. And ‘tis most glorious indeed! (I’ll have you know that I seriously considered composing this blog post in iambic pentameter, but decided to leave it to the poets and the PhDs. I know, I know. Try to reign in your disappointment.)

William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, a New Hope is the project taken on by Ian Doescher, the intrepid, delightfully creative mind behind the most fantastic, most exciting, most unbelievably geektastic mashup in mashup history. It’s the book I never knew I needed until I learned of its existence. As one Goodreads user aptly pointed out, it’s the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of nerd culture literature; why have chocolate and peanut butter separately when you can enjoy them together in a single, delicious, unforgettable treat?

When you cross George Lucas’ sweeping Star Wars saga with the brilliant prose of William Shakespeare, a Reese’s Cup is exactly what you get.

My first thought upon picking up Shakespeare’s Star Wars was, of course, lolwtfbbq? And after it dawned upon me that this creation combined two of my favorite things in the galaxy (“Raindrops on roses and Shakespeare on Star Wars…”), I wondered how many other people counted Shakespeare and Star Wars among their favorite cultural pleasures, and I was shocked to learn that the number is apparently more than, say, three.

I discovered my appreciation for the Bard only recently, while sitting through the 8:40 AM Shakespeare class of Peter Platt (with whom every Barnard woman who took this course is in love) and actually enjoying it. I now consider myself something of a Shakespeare aficionado, having read (/dirt off shoulders) nine and 1/5 of Entertainment Weekly’s Top Ten Greatest Shakespeare plays– along with a number of others. As for my Star Wars obsession, well, refer to this post of mine for a primer.

While highly unconventional, Doescher’s masterpiece actually works. As the author points out in his afterword, Shakespeare’s works and George Lucas’ series are much more tightly intertwined than you might think. For one, Wikipedia (hail!) classifies Star Wars as an “epic space opera,” which, for me, calls to mind an absurdly amusing image of Dark Helmet belting out a duet with Rocky Horror on an abandoned space station, but it just goes to show that pairing the scifi classic with an artist whose plays reflect many of the same themes is not completely out of left field.

Doescher reimagines the iconic Star Wars characters as sixteenth-century heroes, heroines, villains, and clowns, and the lyrical prose that flows from their lips marks one of the only glaring differences between the Bard’s Star Wars characters and those of Mr. Lucas. Princess Leia thrives as particularly strong-willed Shakespearean heroine, akin to the quick-witted princess in Love’s Labour’s Lost, while stage directions such as “Enter Ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi” immediately call to mind the many other-worldly beings who have haunted Shakespeare’s plays—most notably, the late King Hamlet. Beloved droids R2-D2 and C-3PO slot in seamlessly as a futuristic Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, while R2 is written as a Puck-ish character who sneakily moves along the plot, revealing to no one but the audience that he can, in fact, speak English. (Though it must be said: R2-D2’s iambic pentameter beep-whistle-squeaking is priceless.)

Darth Vader, of course, takes center stage as a Shylock-esque villain (with notable Othello overtones) whose hardened exterior may reveal just a brief spark of humanity. And when Luke waxes philosophical about the stormtrooper he has killed while clutching that fallen soldier’s helmet in his hands, I could practically see the mirror image of Hamlet addressing Yorick’s skull, spewing the same existential angst.  (However, I’m pretty sure that Hamlet’s words were “Alas, poor Yorick,” rather than “Alas, poor stormtrooper.” Details, details.)

The interconnected themes of tragedy, sacrifice, and budding romance loom large over this sweeping enterprise of a play, merging Shakespearean staples with the modern-day characters that audiences know and love. But, unsurprisingly, my favorite lines in the play were the famous Shakespeare quotes swapped with scifi terminology, and the the well-known Star Wars quotes rewritten in sixteenth century English iambic pentameter.

Alas! Some samples of the first category: (Feel free to test yourself and brag to me about how many you knew offhand)

C-3PO: Now is the summer of our happiness / Made winter by this sudden, fierce attack! (1.1.1-2) [Real quote]

LUKE: –But O, what now? / What light through yonder flashing sensor breaks? (3.5. 45-46) [Real quote]

R2-D2: [aside] A plague on both our circuit boards, I say! (4.4.122) [Real quote]

LUKE: Friends, rebels, starfighters, lend me your ears. (5.4.65) [Real quote]

…And some shining examples of the second:

LEIA: –O help me, Obi-Wan /Kenobi, help. Thou art mine only hope. (1.6.77-78) [Real quote]

OBI-WAN: –True it is, / That these are not the droids for which thou search’st. (3.1.22-23) [Real quote]

OBI-Wan: The Force, it shall be with thee always, Luke. (4.2. 55) (Um, do I really have to link this one?)

If you haven’t gotten the picture yet, this is a wondrous work of fiction that contains thumb-biting, fortune’s fools, and rousing soliloquies along with blaster fights, lightsaber duels, and droid yard sales. And I personally think that the celebrated Han-Leia banter is even more enjoyable in old English. (“Thou sweatheart of ingratitude!” “Thine edgy trigger finger!” Oh snap.)

Shakespeare’s Star Wars is the perfect blend of these two cherished classics. I was so enthused by this book that I was suddenly inspired to tackle another Shakespeare play (see: the tab on my computer with the entire text of Much Ado About Nothing) and revisit the world of Star Wars (see: the boxed set of the original trilogy currently residing on my desk). This quirky, unconventional combination of two cultural behemoths is truly a Force to be reckoned with.

Book Review: The Fault in Our Stars – On Tragicomedy

The Fault in Our Stars is a quick read, but it is by no means an easy one. With a plot that centers around two terminally ill teenagers falling in love, how could it not tug at the heartstrings? By the time you reach the ending, you’ll be wishing the story of Hazel and Gus continued on indefinitely. Unfortunately, as one of the recurring mantras in this poignant tale informs us, the world is not a Wish-Granting factory.

Hazel Lancaster and Augustus Waters, 16- and 17-years old, respectively, meet at a cancer support group and immediately hit it off. Terminal illnesses aside, they’ve actually got a lot in common. Ah, young love.

Except it’s not really young love, because Hazel and Gus’ cancer-riddle lives come with tragically short expiration dates; Hazel’s portable oxygen tank (“Phillip”) and Augustus’ prosthetic leg serve as constant reminders of this inescapable fact. Hazel celebrates her half-birthdays because her lifespan feels longer when measured in months rather than years, and Gus engages in video games in order to play out his fantasy of dying a “heroic” death rather than one that is decidedly inglorious.

But the triumph of John Green’s writing is that, despite the dreary subject matter (or perhaps because of it), he succeeds in making this story deeply and unequivocally funny. It has been said that there is a fine line between tragedy and comedy, and Green navigates that line like an expert tightrope walker. Hazel narrates in a voice both wise and snarky, using Random Capitalization to convey particularly maddening/meaningful concepts; she addresses the sentiment that her cancer will most likely define her existence after her death, wondering if people would think that “the only thing I’d ever done was Have Cancer.” Gus is cut from the same mold, winning Hazel over by (among other things) launching into a monologue about taking existentially fraught free-throws on the basketball court. (Happens to you all the time too, right?)

While Gus frets over the absurdity of “methodically tossing a spherical object through a toroidal object,” his partner in metaphysical ponderings scoffs at equally absurd social conventions that reflect—be it resignedly or comfortingly—our only ways of dealing with such indescribable tragedies such as cancer. And as Hazel scrolls through the Facebook page of a girl who Fought Heroically but Lost Her Battle with cancer, it is impossible not to feel keenly connected to these desperate attempts to create order out of a disorderly world, even as we realize how ridiculous it is to be posting platitudes on a dead girl’s Facebook wall.

In this sense, The Fault in Our Stars is as serious a novel as its one sentence summary would suggest. And in a twisted way, it is precisely the comic aspects of the story that make it so profound; Hazel and Gus making light of everything is a kind of defense mechanism that reveals their need to believe that there is, in fact, a Cosmic Importance to it all.

Augustus, more so than Hazel, is the one who subscribes to this belief. Though Hazel has long been resigned to the ordinariness of her life, Gus constantly aspires to do something classically heroic with his life. These visions of grandeur are accentuated within Gus as a result of his illness—think of it as a Napoleon complex of a sort. More specifically, both teenagers are (understandably) concerned with how they will be remembered after their deaths—a concept that is almost constantly on Gus’ and Hazel’s minds. Many of the book’s most emotionally resonant moments are encapsulated by the interactions between Hazel and her loving parents, offering Hazel—and us—a glimpse at the future Lancaster family without one of its key members.

John Green’s witty, insightful characters provide a glimpse not only at the lives of cancer patients, but also, in a larger sense, at the lives of those who (according to Augustus Waters) are “suffering from personhood”—that is, all of humankind. Time affects us all; the tragedy in this book is that Hazel and Augustus possess such a small slice of it. Or as one character puts it: “What a slut time is. She screws everybody.”

Hazel and Gus do get their chance to be together, Time Slut be damned. As for the rest of us, we’ve got our chronic cases of personhood to contend with.