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.

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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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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What Does the Bereft Hand Offer?

The Hollow of the Hand
P.J. Harvey & Seamus Murphy
Bloomsbury
Oct 2015
$35.00

the_hollow_of_the_handBetween 2011 and 2014, critically acclaimed musician PJ Harvey and her friend, photographer and film-maker Seamus Murphy, set out on a series of journeys together to Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Washington DC.

Harvey describes the modus operandi of her collaboration with Murphy: ‘I would collect words, he would collect pictures, following our instincts on where we should go’. The place names alone intimate the subject matter of the book to a global citizen familiar with a news cycle: wars, wars, wars. But it is the ordinary person that the pair is interested in, the landscape and the streets, human faces, as well as distant horizons: ‘I wanted to smell the air, feel the soil and meet the people of the countries I was fascinated with’.

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Well, I Guess That’s Settled Then…

Every Time I Find the Meaning of Life They Change It
Daniel Klein
Text Publishing
$29.99

every_time_i_find_the_meaning_of_life_they_change_itWhat is the meaning of life? It is a question that has haunted drunk teenagers and philosophers since the invention of beer and philosophy respectively. Is there even such a thing as an extrinsic meaning of life? And if the meaning of life is in actuality created, not discovered, then how does one go about carving the good life out of the hard rock of daily routine, with all of its disappointments and trivialities?

Broadly speaking, these are the questions that Daniel Klein orbits around, examining, questioning and mulling over. I say ‘orbits’ intentionally. With subtle humour, wit and skill, Klein circles topics, whilst at the same time holding himself at a distance–not aloof–but perhaps cautious, even suspicious of the clever ideas he examines. This is a curious, interesting approach. It reflects a perspective where Klein, now approaching his ninetieth decade, seems to have decided that the important things in life may have less to do with clever twists of philosophic wit after all, and maybe more to do with afternoons in a lazy sunlit garden with the family dog and one’s own thoughts.

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I Will Face God and Walk Backwards Into Hell

Notes on the Death of Culture
Mario Vargas Llosa, trans. John King
Essay
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
2015
Hardback
227
AU $35.00

notes_on_the_death_of_cultureI don’t mean to be alarmist or anything, but I have some terrible news.  Culture.  It’s… dead.  It’s dead, Jim!

How do I know?  Well, Mario Vargas Llosa told me so, and as the bastion of all that is Good and Right and Noble in this world, he should know.  Oh, how he laments the loss of glorious enlightemnent ideals, aesthetic art and literature.  A time when intellectuals were given their proper value, listened to and affecting the way society operated.  A time, you see, that only exists in the misted eyes and rose-tinted glasses of the privileged few.  Because apparently any kind of mass culture, any non-western-based culture, is just not worth your time.  And forget about the devilish Internet or about any kind of Islamic culture.  I mean really.  Really. Continue reading

Blind Revenge on the Blameless Victim

First They Killed my Father
Loung Ung
Non-fiction
HarperCollins
2000

first_they_killed_my_fatherI didn’t much like being in Cambodia the first time I went there in early 2014.  Led by the most unbearable tour guide imaginable* in a small group made up mostly of middle-aged Australian couples with whom the only thing I had in common was a nationality, I experienced what in retrospect was most likely culture shock. And for a time I wondered if it was because of the effects of the Khmer Rouge genocide on the country. Such a savage and profound event leaves scars on people who endure it, and on the nation itself.

Nonetheless, even though my mother gave me First They Killed My Father to read before we left on this trip, I resisted it.  I didn’t want to read misery porn, which any biography about the Khmer Rouge must surely be.  It took these last few years for me to finally work up to reading it.  Along with a little assistance from a Dateline special and Sue Perkins travelling along the Mekong. Continue reading

Deceived, Distressed by the Truth They’ve Been Withholding

Nothing to Envy Book Cover Nothing to Envy
Barbara Demick
Non-fiction
Fourth Estate
2010

nothing_to_envyNothing to Envy is Barbara Demick’s rightly praised history of North Korea in the early to late 1990s, as experienced by North Koreans.  Demick spent years interviewing North Korean defectors living in China and South Korea to compile the book.  Through their stories, Demick follows the crises in the isolated state that started developing with the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Many political commentators assumed this would lead to the collapse of North Korea as well.  As of time of writing, this has clearly not yet happened.

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The Silence is Illusion

Without You, There is No Us
Suki Kim
Memoir, politics
Crown
October 2014

without_you_there_is_no_usI first came across Suki Kim as a panellist at the exceedingly awkward “Inside North Korea” talk at this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival.  I have written about this panel in more detail before, but Kim’s frustration at her co-panellists, and at the situation in and around North Korea generally, was as palpable there as it is in this book.  Without You, There is No Us is a memoir of her time as a missionary English teacher at an elite university outside of Pyongyang.  It is an incisive and self-reflective memoir.

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Visible details of the scene

VISIBLE DETAILS OF THE SCENE
mrblo

When I reached the supermarket, an electrical pole stood burning near the parking lot. Firemen shot water at it while one of them gabbed with a policeman. I asked a security guard, whom I found watching, what had happened and he just reported the visible details of the scene.

“That electrical pole has caught fire,” he said, “Firemen have started spraying water on to it. A policeman stands next to them.” Continue reading

Wheelie bins

WHEELIE BINS
mrblo

In my area, the city council empties the rubbish bins once a week. We wheel them out to the road; the City of Monash empties them; we wheel them back to our houses and spend the rest of the week filling them up with hotdog packets. Then we repeat the cycle.

My neighbors paint their apartment numbers on their bins. That way they can make sure that each week they wheel out the same bin that they wheeled out the previous week. They have a history with their rubbish bin. Continue reading

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