Off The Bookshelf: Romeo & Juliet/West Side Story

I know it’s been a while since I’ve shared a book on my Off The Bookshelf segment, so this week, I’m going to discuss one of my favorites. I’ve talked about this famous story in depth a few times before, notably to discuss five points that are often missed and the reasons why it’s a greater story than many people think. Once again, I’d like to revisit this classic tale of forbidden love, this time in a double dose. I hope you’ll enjoy this review of one of my favorite books off my shelf: Romeo & Juliet/West Side Story.

Romeo_and_Juliet_West_Side_Story

Romeo & Juliet/West Side Story

Summary

First published in 1965, Romeo & Juliet/West Side Story comprises two stories in one: the stage play Romeo & Juliet by William Shakespeare; and the 1957 Broadway musical West Side Story by Arthur Laurents. The book also includes explanatory notes for unfamiliar expressions in Shakespeare’s play and a foreword by renowned theater director Norris Houghton.

Romeo & Juliet tells the story of two teenagers in Renaissance Verona who fall in love despite the age-old feud between their families, but who are driven to an untimely end by fate and the violent circumstances surrounding them. Inspired by Shakespeare’s play, West Side Story tells the same tragic tale of a doomed romance between young lovers, but updates the setting to modern-day New York and the protagonists to a white American boy and a Puerto-Rican girl torn apart by the racism-fueled rivalry between the street gangs with which they’re associated. As much for Romeo and Juliet as for Tony and Maria, love blossoms at first sight and against the odds, only to be threatened and destroyed by hatred that brings tragedy not just to the young lovers, but to their war-torn society as a whole.

Review

Romeo_and_Juliet_BookI first read this book as a teenager, shortly after watching the 1961 movie West Side Story as homework for singing lessons (I was to sing “Somewhere” at my first presentation). Long familiar with the plot of the original play, I had fallen in love with the story of forbidden romance and was eager to finally read Shakespeare’s timeless classic for myself. Of course, I’ve made my love for the story itself abundantly clear in the past, so this review will focus a little more on the format of this book than on the pieces within it.

What I find most interesting about this particular book is the way the same story is presented over two very different backdrops: one in Renaissance Italy, the other in 1950s New York. By combining both stories into one volume, Romeo & Juliet/West Side Story offers a unique way to visualize the tale of star-crossed young love across time. The similarities and differences between these popular pieces become clearer as the reader is able to quickly swap a scene in one play for its parallel in the other: the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets becomes a turf war between the Jets and the Sharks, the Capulet ball becomes the dance at the gym, the poetic exchange at Juliet’s balcony becomes a duet on Maria’s fire escape. Each story is beautiful in its own right, but I’ve found that to be able to compare and contrast them so easily makes the fundamental plot all the more fascinating.

West_Side_Story_MusicRomeo & Juliet was the first Shakespearean play I ever read, so naturally I was yet unfamiliar with Elizabethan English. This is where the notes in the back of the book came in extremely handy. Essential words and terms are referenced to the line with modern English translations and explanations wherever necessary, so the notes were a tremendous help when it came to deciphering the meanings within Shakespeare’s verse. It’s worth noting that they’re still helpful to any new reader who plans to read more of Shakespeare, as several of the expressions used in Romeo & Juliet commonly appear in his other works. Unfortunately, a similar device isn’t available for West Side Story, which relies on its readers’ familiarity with the music to be fully enjoyable, but this is merely a minor drawback to what is otherwise an equally stunning theatrical masterpiece.

Both Romeo & Juliet and West Side Story have had a profound impact on audiences: one for its poetic deconstruction of romantic ideals, the other for its dramatic commentary on the consequences of social intolerance. The presentation of both plays in one volume brings to light the true timelessness of Shakespeare’s classic, proving that the story of love born against hate will be forever relevant as long as people and society continue to be powerfully motivated by both.

Inspiration

Romeo & Juliet is the archetype of forbidden love thwarted by circumstance, so it’s no wonder the story has translated so well into the modern setting of West Side Story. Whether set between feuding families or warring street gangs, this tragic love story reads not only as the epitome of the passion and dangers of young romance, but as a lesson on how hatred kills. Perhaps for its universal themes of love, intolerance, and the cruelty of fate, the plight of the star-crossed lovers is a tale that has fascinated readers for centuries and certainly will for many more to come. It has served as inspiration for much of my romantic fiction, and to this day I indulge in it whenever I feel the need to satisfy my cravings for drama and romance.

For all the above reasons and more, Romeo & Juliet is and likely always will be my favorite story at its core, regardless of the characters, settings, and details that flesh it out. To be able to enjoy my two favorite versions of the story in a single volume is simply the cherry on top of a classic poetic delight.

Visual Art as Inspiration for Writing

When it comes to creative writing, there are plenty of sources of inspiration out there. Several of them have been featured here on my blog, from books to music to video games. But one particularly beautiful source of inspiration that I have yet to discuss is visual art.

So today, I’d like to explore the inspiration that visual works of art can provide for creative writing. How can art composed of images become fruit for art composed of words? Enjoy!

Worth a Thousand Ideas

Secret Garden 1Visual art is arguably the “most universal” art medium. It comes in many forms: drawings, paintings, photography, sculptures, etc. They can come in a vast array of colors or a monochromatic spectrum from black to white. They can be amateur pieces created for fun or professional-quality works on display in the finest galleries in the world. But one thing they all have in common is that they were each born from an idea. If you think about it, doesn’t that make them a sort of “writing with images”?

Similar to creative writing, a work of visual art can start as one idea that grows into a whole network of connected thoughts, stories, possibilities, all waiting to be discovered by the artist’s audience. These can prove especially inspirational to writers, as the quality of our work relies on our ability to create images in our readers’ minds the same way that visual artists create images for their viewers’ eyes. So the next time you feel stuck in your writing, why not try to draw ideas from the beauty within a visual piece?

Secret Garden 2Gaze into the Mona Lisa‘s eyes and try to imagine what she’s thinking. Mentally reassemble the shapes of an abstract work into something concrete. Improvise a scene based on your favorite photograph. Write a poem based on the emotions evoked by the colors in a classic painting. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then challenge yourself to see how many of them you can fit into a story. You never know what ideas may be hidden in a visual work until you look for them!

Visual art is a beautiful means of expression that can spark all sorts of other wonderful forms of art. Just a brief look is often enough to get our creativity flowing. But what happens when you create visual art yourself?

From Drawings to Words

When I was in high school, I would sometimes find my mind wandering in the middle of class. To pass the time, I would draw the occasional doodle in my textbook. Most of these drawings consisted of wings, dolphins, and horses, with a wolf and a tiger thrown into the mix for good measure. I’ll be the first to admit that they weren’t very good, but those drawings, however distracting they were from schoolwork, actually taught me a few interesting things about myself: I love animals, I love movement, and I wish I could fly. And from then on, I applied all those facts to my writing.

Secret Garden 3If you were to look back through all the Friday posts on my blog, you’d probably notice that most of my stories feature animals and other non-human characters. I’ve written a poem about what I would do if I had wings, and one of my most popular creative writing posts is about how to write for animal characters. Even a look through my novel ideas would reveal a pattern of bird motifs. Though drawing was never my strong suit, it did give me plenty of ideas for my creative writing, and for that I’ll always appreciate it as one of the many invaluable sources of inspiration for my true artistic passion.

So even if it’s not your forte, I strongly recommend giving visual art a chance. Draw, paint, take photos, anything that can jumpstart the creative part of your mind. The ideas you find in your art may become the inspiration for your next big written work. And if you’re lucky, you may discover something beautiful about yourself along the way. Good luck, and thanks for reading!

Secret Garden 4

Today’s post is dedicated to my grandmother, whose lovely work in Johanna Basford’s Secret Garden coloring book served as the illustrations for this article. Happy Birthday, Grandma! I love you!

Off The Bookshelf: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

For Christmas 2013, I received a copy of Neil Gaiman’s newest acclaimed novel released in the same year. Unfortunately, though I wanted to add it to my Off The Bookshelf segment as soon as possible, other priorities in my life have been delaying my leisurely reading time, so that I only just managed to finish the book last month. It’s a shame I couldn’t get through it quicker, because the truth is that it was a delight to read. So without further ado, here’s my review of The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

Summary

Published in June 2013, The Ocean at the End of the Lane tells the story of an unnamed man and a strange experience he faced in his youth. After returning to his childhood home for a funeral, the middle-aged narrator pays a visit to the farmhouse down the lane, where he met an extraordinary girl named Lettie Hempstock and her mother and grandmother when he was seven. While sitting at the edge of the pond behind the house – a pond Lettie had called an ocean – he suddenly recalls the details of the most fantastic and terrifying event of his past – “a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy”.

Review

First off, I have to thank Vanessa Levin-Pompetzki for the book recommendation on her blog, since that’s where I first heard about this novel. I’m glad I stumbled upon her post, because the book really is a wonderful read. A fantasy tale narrated from the memories of a seven-year-old boy, the story touches on such themes as existentialism, the struggles between good and evil, and the discrepancies between childhood and adulthood.

What drew me in most about this book is the way it so subtly yet realistically depicts the simple qualities that make us human, such as curiosity and fear. The author does an excellent job of portraying the theme of self-identity throughout the story without emphasizing it too greatly; it was more of an impression left on me after finishing the book than a prominent point to focus on with every turn of the page. In that respect, I believe the author made a wise decision in creating a seven-year-old protagonist, as few adults in this world experience life as purely and innocently as children do.

This is another favorite theme of mine from the book: the divide between the world of children and the world of adults. From the beginning of the story, it’s implied that the middle-aged narrator sitting by the Hempstocks’ “ocean” feels somewhat disconnected from his youth, which he vaguely remembers as not being a particularly happy time in his life. Throughout his childhood memories, references are made to how differently grown-ups behave compared to children, as well as how difficult it would have been for him to make his parents understand what was happening at the time the strange events took place. Yet the author makes a point of illustrating how these differences are merely superficial; one of my favorite excerpts in the novel comes from a conversation between the narrator and Lettie about the true nature of adults:

Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.

– Lettie Hempstock, The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Neil Gaiman, 2013)

Overall, Mr. Gaiman has constructed a beautiful work of art that readers of any age group can appreciate. Personally, I believe this novel would appeal mostly to adults for its deeper message of understanding the world and one’s own self, which many of us tend to forget as we grow older. Whether we need reminding to search for our true identities or to compare our past perspectives to our present outlook on life, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a captivating read with the potential to leave its readers asking the simplest questions they didn’t even know were hidden in the depths of their minds.

Inspiration

In a way, The Ocean at the End of the Lane reminds me of The Little Prince in that the story centers on life and existence from the perspective of a child, with a gentle hint of fantasy to add to the intrigue of the narrative. I love stories that depict the world from the eyes of children, as such tales remind me of how I used to live when I was younger. For artists in particular, it’s interesting – if not essential – to remember the past once in a while, and there’s nothing like a well-written work of fiction to take us there in ways we never even imagined.

So if you too enjoy stories that can make you see the world and even your own life in a different light, I highly recommend giving this book a read. You may just catch a glimpse of yourself within the pages of Gaiman’s mysterious “ocean”.

Off The Bookshelf: Treasury of Christmas Tales

Remember when you were a kid, how you enjoyed reading or listening to holiday stories with your family at the end of the year? That was a good part of my childhood, as we had several Christmas-themed books sitting on our shelves when I was growing up. So to celebrate the season, here’s a brief review of a Christmas book we had when I was a kid: Treasury of Christmas Tales. Enjoy!

Treasury of Christmas Tales

Treasury of Christmas Tales, by Carolyn Quattrocki

Summary

Treasury of Christmas Tales is a children’s book published around 1994 and consisting of a collection of classic Christmas stories. The book was put together by author Carolyn Quattrocki, and includes colorful illustrations by Susan Spellman and adaptions of works by writers such as Charles Dickens (“A Christmas Carol”), Clement C. Moore (“‘Twas The Night Before Christmas”), the Brothers Grimm (“The Elves and the Shoemaker”) and Hans Christian Andersen (“The Little Match Girl”). Written in simple text, Treasury of Christmas Tales contains 19 stories, all themed around Christmas and the winter holiday season:

  1. A Christmas Carol
  2. The Wishing Star
  3. The Little Match Girl
  4. The Christmas Mouse
  5. Jingle Bells
  6. The Magic Toy Shop
  7. The Littlest Angel
  8. The Twelve Days of Christmas
  9. The Christmas Bear
  10. ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas
  11. The Nutcracker
  12. Santa Claus is Coming to Town
  13. The Tiny Elf
  14. O Christmas Tree
  15. The Elves and the Shoemaker
  16. The Little Drummer Boy
  17. Christmas Carols
  18. The Happy Snowman
  19. Rudolph’s Adventure

Review

I remember I enjoyed reading this book with my mother and sisters when I was a child. Around the end of the year, my mom would read some of these tales to us while we followed along with the pictures, which really made for a fun family experience.

Treasury of Christmas Tales 1994

The 1994 edition of Treasury of Christmas Tales from my childhood

What I especially enjoyed about this book was how accessible the text was for us at our young age. Originally complex tales like “A Christmas Carol” were adapted into language that we as children could easily understand, but that didn’t lose the Christmas spirit of the story. Even sad tales like “The Little Match Girl” were told in a way that was uplifting and heartwarming. I also liked the colorful illustrations on every other page of the book, which made the stories even more comprehensible and memorable. It isn’t a broad collection for sure, but it does have good stories and illustrations that made it a joy for us to read every holiday season.

Inspiration

Though I hadn’t read this book since I was a kid, recently rediscovering it among my childhood belongings brought back pleasant memories of enjoying the holiday season with my family. It’s always fun to revisit stories from a happy time in your life, and the tales I enjoyed as a kid usually have a way of inspiring me to create stories of my own as an adult. So if you have some good holiday stories from your childhood, I encourage you to read them again this season. You may find just what you need to write your own cheerful Christmas tale!

Motivational Music: Post-Rock (Moving Mountains, Gates, There Will Be Fireworks)

I know it’s been a while since I last shared a Motivational Music post, so here’s a new one for you to enjoy! After debuting this segment with a similar post, today’s topic features more music in one of my favorite genres: post-rock. This style of music, aside from being pleasant to listen to, tends to inspire quite a bit of my writing, so I hope you’ll find it motivational too! Enjoy!


Moving Mountains

Moving Mountains

Moving Mountains (2013)

Genre(s): Post-rock, Indie rock
Origin: Purchase, NY, USA
Writing Inspiration: Drama, poetry, romance
My Favorite Song(s): “Hands“, “Swing Set“, “Once Rendering

Moving Mountains were an indie rock band from New York, active from 2005 to 2013. They’re well known for their versatile style of music, which generally combines emotional vocals with post-rock instrumentals. Because of this, I usually listen to them when I want to find inspiration for poetic and dramatic themes. Their last album, Moving Mountains, has been especially motivational for my romantic stories due to its ambient qualities, while older albums like their rock-oriented Waves provide inspiration for my darker poetry ideas. Moving Mountains have covered a relatively broad range in the indie rock spectrum, so if you enjoy this style of music, chances are they have at least a few songs that may inspire you.


Gates

Bloom & Breathe (2014)

Bloom & Breathe (2014)

Genre(s): Post-rock, Ambient, Indie rock
Origin: New Brunswick, NJ, USA
Writing Inspiration: Drama, tragedy, poetry
My Favorite Song(s): “Bloom“, “Not My Blood“, “Born Dead“, “They See Only Shadows

Having emerged from New Jersey in 2011, Gates are a relatively new band on the post-rock scene. “Similar Artists” lists on popular music streaming sources tend to rank them very close to Moving Mountains, but they’re no mere copy for sure. While Moving Mountains most recently showed a softer quality to their music, Gates consistently implement more elements of rock in their songs, as is well evidenced in their newest album, Bloom & Breathe. With solid instrumentals and lyrics layered with emotional influences, Gates have been great inspiration for some of my more dramatic and tragic stories, as well as the occasional poem. Even when I’m not seeking creative inspiration, I enjoy getting lost in this music while taking a break from writing. Whether you’re trying to get inspired to create a dramatic piece of art or simply in the mood to sink back into some awesome music for a while, I highly recommend giving Gates a listen! You won’t regret it.


There Will Be Fireworks

The Dark, Dark Bright (2013)

The Dark, Dark Bright (2013)

Genre(s): Post-rock, Indie rock
Origin: Glasgow, Scotland
Writing Inspiration: Poetry, romance, drama
My Favorite Song(s): “South Street“, “River“, “Here Is Where“, “Says Aye

There Will Be Fireworks were among the first bands I listened to after my best friend introduced me to post-rock. Much like the previous two bands, their music consists largely of emotional lyrics set to atmospheric instrumentals, which make for some hauntingly beautiful songs. Their newest album in particular, The Dark, Dark Bright, is a powerfully moving collection that has inspired me to write romantic poetry and stories. The vocals are by no means perfect, but I feel that just adds even more to the raw genuineness of the music, especially with such touching lyrics to go with it (I haven’t yet been able to listen through without at least getting choked up). TWBF are one of those bands I could listen to for hours, and if you appreciate genuine music that flows with every note and has the potential to touch your creative soul, I’m sure you’ll feel the same way!


I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about these amazing post-rock bands, and that they’ll inspire your writing as much as they’ve inspired mine! Thanks for reading/listening!

Reminder: if you really enjoy the music by the bands featured in this article, be sure to support them through their official music pages (links in the above album covers)! Help keep the indie scene thriving! Thank you!

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