The Mythic, the Voice and the Story

Norse Mythology
Neil Gaiman
Bloomsbury
Feb 2017
HB $31.50 / PB $25.19

Retelling mythology is a daunting task. It presents problems at odds with each other: on the one hand, there is a vast wealth of conflicting, incomplete information to choose from, on the other, any book of mythology is a retelling of stories that most people already know at their base level. The mythographer runs the risk of either sinking into obscure academic detail, or producing only a thin, reheated soup. Storytellers over the years have tackled this problem with careful consideration of their subjects, the people listening and the context of the times. And, whether consciously or unconsciously, they also inject their own voices in their retellings.

Neil Gaiman’s voice is as familiar as the stories he is sharing. In here it is sure, calm and grounded without any flourishes. With this, he brings, and shares with the reader, the sense of awe, respect and wonder that this centuries old mythology provided him as a child.

Anthologies gain from being ordered in a specific way, no matter how familiar. Gaiman starts off his book with brief descriptions of our main players: Odin, the all-father, Loki his cunning blood-brother, and Thor, Odin’s strongest son. I like the choice to center around these three gods, playing on a commonality shared through modern media while making sure to set some things straight by including some little known traits.  And while these are the main three Gaiman chooses to focus on, he does thankfully include a glossary at the end of the book describing the various gods, locations and weapons encountered in the book.

After these introductions, Gaiman describes how the Nordic Gods’ world came to be and how our world came from it. These origins sound familiar, even to those unfamiliar with the mythology. The background is presented as fact, hard and immutable.

Each subsequent story is a tale of the various interactions among the gods, particularly focusing on how Loki slowly comes into play. Gaiman paints Loki as an agent of chaos, proving and disproving his loyalty, time and time again. Loki is usually to be found having to use the same conniving that got him and his fellow gods into trouble, to outwit the consequences of his own various schemes.

All of this, of course, comes to a head in Ragnarok, the Twilight of the Gods.  Loki and his children ignite his final scheme, and consequences from slights and decisions long ago bear their apocalyptic fruit. Presented scene to scene in a simple yet unmuted style, it’s a chaos that can be clearly envisioned and a reader will find easy to picture. The ending is a reminder that such stories will be told and retold as long as there are people to tell them.

The book is an easy read throughout, but is not without its potential distractions. It can be jarring to see modern speech patterns intermixed with classic sounding ones: Did what was needful will be juxtaposed with don’ts and can’ts. However, this doesn’t distract too much, and probably serves a greater purpose. Norse Mythology is a book that will make for great reading to kids (though make sure you go through it yourself to judge their handling of it!) and young teens. The collection also works well for those adults reading with distractions, or are tired of fantasy and mythology peppered with purple prose and ‘ye olde’ language.

Norse Mythology succeeds in what it sets out to do. A reimagining of centuries old lore, made palatable for a modern audience, mixed in with all of Gaiman’s trademark authorial charms. His modern interpretation is both respectable and enjoyable. Pick up the book and you may well find yourself rereading and recalling its stories to friends and family for years to come. These are the sort of stories, after all, that will keep being retold as long as there are people to tell them.

Literary and Genre and the Shadowlands Between

Jovellanos :: Goya

 

What is the distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction? Are these sundered and foreign countries, or do they share a common border? If they do have uncertain geographies, debated borders, hesitant small zones of hashed-out landmass, belonging to neither and both, then where is this shadowed half-place? How do we know when we have crossed from one land into the other?

Genre is often defined as anything that isn’t literary, encompassing among other things Romance, Crime, Fantasy and Science Fiction. But this is unhelpful unless we can define what we mean by literary fiction without resorting to an endless circular tautology. And therein is the rub. ‘Literary fiction’ as a term isn’t itself a very useful one. ‘Mainstream’ or ‘general’ fiction are perhaps better at capturing the bookshop shelf that is often named ‘Literature’, although it is debatable whether bookshop shelving tells us much past which titles tend to sell better when shelved beside which other titles.

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And Thus Did the Dragon Cometh

The Dragon Slayer :: Franz von Stuck

In recent centuries we speakers of this lovely language have reduced the English verb almost entirely to the indicative mood. But beneath that specious and arrogant assumption of certainty all the ancient, cloudy, moody, powers and options of the subjunctive remain in force. The indicative points its bony finger at primary experiences, at the Things; but it is the subjunctive that joins them, with the bonds of analogy, possibility, probability, contingency, contiguity, memory, desire, fear, and hope: the narrative connection.

Ursula Le Guin, Some Thoughts on Narrative in Dancing at the Edge of the World, Grove Press, 1989, p. 44

I have been reading Le Guin again, and it is always a heady experience. Her stories and her essays are mazes of thought that can lead to unexpected places. In particular, I want to jot down some of my own thoughts after reading the short essay, Some Thoughts on Narrative, in the 1989 collection, Dancing at the Edge of the World.

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What to Make of the Colour Purple

Purple Prose
Liz Byrski and Rachel Robertson (with others)
Fremantle Press
2015
$27.99

purple_proseIf the idea of reading about what one colour means to fifteen writers sounds, well—how shall I put this delicately—rather monochromatic, think again. The result is technicoloured, multifaceted, shimmering.

Writers Liz Byrski and Rachel Robertson cooked up the scheme in Liz’s herb scented courtyard when Rachel mused that she would like to write about purple but didn’t want to write a whole book. Liz suggested an anthology of women writing about purple, and so Purple Prose was born.

The colour purple has of course, they point out, many different associations already across cultures, including feminism and the suffragette movement, lesbian, gay and transgender rights, royalty, wealth, healing and spirituality. There are purple occurrences in nature: purple flowers, vegetables, animals, insects and minerals.

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Come At Once If Convenient

The Adventure of the Colonial Boy
Narrelle M. Harris
Improbable Press
March 2016

 

colonial-boy-v-smlThe Adventure of the Colonial Boy by Narrelle M. Harris is a Sherlockian novel steeped in a strong brew of Victoriana—in the sense of both the era and the state. And to see our much beloved characters running about in places so familiar and dear is an utter delight.

These are my places, you see. The places my almost daily perambulations take me—down Collins, past Parliament, up to Eastern Hill, around the old terraces near St. Vincent’s, the road up to Kyneton.* Is this what it feels like when a New Yorker watches all those movies set in New York? Or are they so inured to them that it seems the natural way of things? Perhaps I should just read more books by Melbourne authors set in Melbourne. Seems a legit fix.

The Adventure of the Colonial Boy is one of the latest from Improbable Press—a press dedicated to the more romantic interpretations of the Holmes and Watson relationship.

For those who know, you know this facet of the relationship has been discussed, studied, elaborated upon for almost as long as the original stories themselves have been around. For those of you wondering what on earth the world has come to, I’m afraid I’ve got some news for you. Here, let me make you a cup of tea. You wrap this shock blanket around your shoulders, have a bit of a sit down—we need to talk. But first, let me tell everyone else about this lovely book.

We enter into our heroes’ world two years after Holmes’s apparent destruction along with his great nemesis, Moriarty, at the falls of the Reichenbach. Holmes’s ever faithful companion Doctor Watson, still mourning the greatest loss of his life, now mourns the recent death of his wife, Mary.

After a strange day of near-misses, Watson receives a message that sparks near equal amounts of hope and anger and suspicion—“Come at once if convenient. If inconvenient, come all the same—S.H.”. He follows the familiar summons, making his way to the antipodean post-gold rush city of Melbourne.

There, both Watson’s anger and hope are vindicated when he finds Holmes alive and well. Well, alive anyway. From here they must overcome their recriminations and (please allow me this wonderful cliché) find their way back to each other, emotionally. All the while they pursue and are pursued by the remaining dregs of Moriarty’s web.

Holmes’s two year endeavor to eliminate this intricate syndicate of criminals has led to Australia and the pursuit of Sebastian Moran. For Dr. Watson, memories of his younger days spent in the Victorian gold fields with his brother and father are brought back, as well as the memory of the scandal from which he has been running ever since.

Narrelle M. Harris evokes a tangible sense of colonial Australia with an intricate and at times wonderfully gruesome mystery worthy of Doyle’s best. The Victorian is strong with this one and the romantic relationship between Holmes and Watson is handled with the deftest of delicate touches. Their years of miscommunication are finally confessed and resolved—or are they? Spoilers sweetie. This book was promptly added to my growing list of blanket books. Cozy-fireplace-hot tea-rain patter-blanket books that just make you want to curl up and keep reading.

 

*Well, obviously I don’t walk up that one daily. Or maybe that’s not so obvious to everyone. I do not walk daily to Kyneton. I’d need a lot more porridge in the morning.

Butterfly In The Dark

The Perfect Girl
Gilly MacMillan
Hachette Australia
March 2016

It’s easy to forget—considering there are generations that have grown to adulthood knowing no different—that the internet of things is still new to humanity. Certainly in terms of laws and regulations, the internet is still something of a frontier with the frontier mentality of “anything goes”. Because what are the consequences of misbehaving, really?

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Everything Can Be Changed

Eat, Pray, Love Made Me Do It
Multiple Contributors
Bloomsbury
Jun 2016
AU$18.99

eat_pray_love_made_me_do_itTen years ago, Elizabeth Gilbert published her little memoir about the year she spent picking her life together after divorce and depression by travelling to Italy, India and then Indonesia to find what she’d been missing.

Not without its detractors, Eat, Pray, Love became a worldwide smash hit phenomenon, spawning an industry of yoga vacations, the film starring Julia Roberts as Gilbert, and inspiring readers to take on their own ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ adventures.

In the intervening years, Gilbert has published another memoir, Committed, novel The Signature Of All Things, and Big Magic, about creativity (‘Creative living beyond fear’). She has become something of an evangelist for the messages of accepting vulnerability and embracing fear that are currently prominent on the be-your-best-self circuit. I know, for I am her friend on Facebook, and have often been prompted to reflect on maxims such as ‘Bad things happen to women who wait for good things to happen’ and ‘Not this’ (gloomy sea, gloomy sky).

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The Blurred Line Between Life and Story

Radiance
Catherynne M. Valente
Hachette
March 2016

Radiance_smHeadline news 1858: Conrad Wernyhora and Carlotta Xanthea launch a rocket, by cannon, into space. By cannon! Can you imagine anything more majestic, more magnificent, more momentously transcendent, than space travel via cannon? The world of Radiance is not the world we know, bound by practical concepts of physics and fusion, but the fantasy of a world we wish could have been. It takes Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon and asks, “What if?” We step back in time, mid-1800s, when the technology of modernity started to bloom. A few tweaks, a snip here, a mod there, and we step forward again.

Behold, the moving image!, but now Hollywood has colonised the moon, and the planets and remaining satellites wave the national flags of pre-WW1 powers. An enforcement of patent law means that colour film and sound have never caught on, and a vaudevillian aesthetic permeates the cultural form. To say that Radiance is set in a sumptuous, theatrical solar system of luscious impossibilities is to put it lightly. Continue reading

Always Celebrate Your Birthday

gratitudeGratitude is the last work we shall have from Oliver Sacks. It comprises four essays that were published in the closing years and months of his life. The first essay, Mercury, was written and published before Oliver Sacks discovered that he had a rare and difficult to treat form of melanoma. It celebrates old age, and the essay feels, in its way, soberly upbeat. It is an essay steeped in the love of living. Within its words reside the glimmering promise of good health and happiness for at least a few years to come. And yet there is a tension that Oliver Sacks never intended. As the reader, we know more than he did when writing it. We know that he will not live out the decade. We know that his body was already secretly betraying him to cancerous cells, even as he wrote about the joys of good health in old age.

The subsequent three essays were written after the cancer diagnosis, and they are, as such, reflective on what it means to reach life’s end. But that said, all of these four essays are, none of them, depressing works. Oliver Sacks was always in his writing, a believer; a believer in human capacity to cope with strange twists of neurological fate; a believer in the ultimate goodness of human nature; a believer in others; a believer in himself. I don’t doubt that a person cannot always and constantly believe in the fundamental goodness of life: but I have to wonder if Oliver Sacks came as close as might be humanly possible? His written words seem so irrepressibly positive. And all this despite the fact that Sacks clearly found himself in times and places during his life where the evidence was stacked against there being any sort of fundamental goodness underlying our human existence.

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Here, Though the World Explode…

The Night They Met
Atlin Merrick
Improbable Press
December 2015

 

tntmMany moons ago, in a more innocent time when the world was young and carefree, I reviewed The Day They Met—a series of short stories about the day (the many days) that Sherlock Holmes and John Watson met. Because they did, they do and they will, and in every which way throughout time and space.

There was, however, one terrible dastardly thing about this book—it ended. How unutterably rude. Of course, all books must come to an end so I cannot fault it for doing so but still, the cheek. The impertinence, I say!

So colour me all sorts of bright and cheerful hues when The Night They Met was released. Oh yes, my pretties, they’re back—John Watson and ‘Herlock Sholmes’… I mean, Hemlock Shromes… I mean… oh, you know who I mean. The sun may have set, dear reader, but the temperature is about to rise. Continue reading

The Name’s Vitkus. Ona Vitkus.

The One-in-a-Million Boy
Monica Wood
Hachette Australia
12th April 2016
Paperback
$29.99

isbn9781472228369-detailImagine for a moment. Imagine turning a hundred. Imagine turning a hundred and receiving a letter from Queen Charlotte herself.* Are you imagining it? If you are, I’m going to have to ask you to step away from any sharp objects and stop being so utterly ridiculous. A royal head of state by the time you’re a hundred? Are you mad? No, you’re much better off deciding which world record you should aim to be the oldest person to achieve. Much more likely.

Miss Ona Vitkus has the right idea. At a hundred and four she has some way to go to join the ranks of oldest living person but she’ll certainly die trying. Of course, it took the boy to get her interested in life again. Assigned by his scout troop to help her every Saturday, it doesn’t take long for Ona to open up to the little boy, so odd and different from his contemporaries. She finds herself recalling her past for him and in doing so, she slowly unlocks a past buried so deep she hadn’t realised it was still there. Continue reading

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