Book Review: Gaiman’s NORSE MYTHOLOGY brings new life

I love reading mythology, and especially the Norse myths. I was first introduced to them as part of a world mythology book I read as a kid. The intricacies of fantasy universes like Redwall and Middle Earth would each serve as a form of mythos for me, providing me with clear moral codes and heroes and beings of immense power to admire and emulate.

A few years ago, I read The Norse Myths, a collection of the mythos collected by Kevin Crossley-Holland, pulling primarily from Snorri Sturluson’s recordings of them in 13th-century Iceland. This annotated compendium exposed me to a much more academic view of mythology, which was just as enthralling as the children’s stories I’d read previously.

This is all to say that Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology is not my first pass at these stories, and it will certainly not be my last. Even still, I cannot emphasize how much pleasure I took from this particular telling

I listened to the audiobook version of this, and I don’t know how anyone can read Gaiman any other way. He is a master storyteller as both a writer and a narrator, and his inflection, his voices, and his enthusiasm for the story enliven everything he narrates. Listening to Gaiman tell a story is like someone lighting a candle in pitch black that illuminates the book in your mind for the first time.

Gaiman presents the Norse myths in a style that is remarkably accessible to the modern reader but does not detract in any way from the power, the wonder, and the downright strangeness of these stories. His chapters are renamed as well to appeal to a modern audience. Rather than regaling us in epic-style prose in “The Lay of Thrym”, Gaiman instead recounts a fireside tale of “Thor’s Journey to the Land of the Giants”, which he describes with a nod both to the hilarity and the foreshadowed danger of Thor allowing Loki to dress him as the goddess Freya in order to trick the powerful giant Thrym.

As is expected with any Gaiman story, the dialogue is punchy and entertaining, and his dry sense of humor permeates both the absurdity and the fatalism of the Norse myths.

By the time the reader reaches “The Last Days of Loki” and “Ragnarok”, the weight of the end times lends greater meaning to Gaiman’s words, and to the hopefulness with which he describes what comes after the end times.

I thoroughly enjoyed this listen and will absolutely be listening to it again… perhaps on a road trip with my kids as part of their introduction to the Norse myths.

Steve D

June Write Day: Halfway Already?!

We’re almost halfway through 2021, which is weird. I went into a long-weekend stay at the family lake house ready for summer, and we got near-winter temperatures and rain, so it definitely doesn’t feel like we’ve hit summer to me.

I also don’t like the notion that I only have half a year to get two stories ready for publication… I need a vacation.

Last Month’s Goals

  1. Write 7,500 words.
  2. Work out at least every other day again.
  3. Read 3 books.

Write 7,500 words?

No, but I wrote over 6,000 words, which is my best total since January. As I wrote a couple weeks ago, I’ve been trying to write after work more to avoid needing to motivate later at night when I’m definitely more tired and usually lazier.

That strategy largely paid off in May. I wrote 12 days, even with a 4-day mini vacation for Memorial Day weekend and averaged over 500 words per session.

My main weak spots were at the beginning of the month (again), and the final weekend, when we took said mini vacation and I was away from my home computer. 10 of my 12 writing days came between May 12 and 25, meaning I just need to be more consistent at the beginning of the month.

I’m already off to a decent start for June. I wrote after work yesterday and feel like I have some solid momentum on my rewrite of Uprooted, The Herb Witch Tales #1.

I definitely did not meet my goal of 7,500 words written, but I feel really good about this trajectory, and I’m motivated to keep it going in June, a short month where I have one weekend of little to no writing ahead of me.

Work out every other day?

I don’t think so, but I feel like I came close. Near the end of the month, I completed the final in a series of yoga videos from Yoga with Adrienne on YouTube. I feel like her videos have helped my technique a ton — breathing and otherwise. However, I was missing a workout element from my yoga. So I went back to Sarah Beth Yoga, who focuses more on the workout aspect, and man, it was great. I’ll probably alternate between the two channels and yoga styles for the time being, as the mood catches me.

I definitely got back into my resistance exercises towards the end of the month, but a nagging soreness in my left hand isn’t helping. I’ve also become the guy who uses a trip to the playground with his kid to do pull-ups on the monkey bars. So there’s that.

Read 3 books?

I only finished one book in May. I’m just about finished with The Two Towers and have two other Audible shorts in progress. My LoTR re-read slowed a bit because the book is split between two halves: the first half focused on Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, and the rest of the Company, and the second half on Frodo and Sam over about the same time period.

I’ve enjoyed the Frodo/Sam sections–and they in fact grew on me the more I read, particularly the fascinating chapters with Faramir–but the structure just caught me off guard. I had been really into the Rohan storyline, basically unable to put the book down, and I didn’t realize it was ending when the second part opened.

I said I didn’t want to rush through Tolkien and I’m glad I haven’t. Anyway, I’m almost done with book 2 and will move on to Th Return of the King this week.

Goals for June

  1. Write 9,000 words. I know, this word count is getting out of hand, but I feel like I can do it if I just take my own advice and write more consistently across the month. Once again, I’m adding the word count I missed in May to that month’s goal, so 7,500 plus the 1,500 I didn’t write.
  2. Spend more time outside. I’ve been meaning to take the little guy hiking for a while, and I plan to do it this month. I have a couple trails picked out already for Sunday morning hikes. I just need to motivate and get him in the car.
  3. Read 3 books. This might as well be a running goal at this point. It feels attainable more often than not and helps me stay on top of my reading, at least to some extent.

Steve D

Book Review: EXIT WEST and relatable worlds

Exit West has been in my Audible library for at least over a year — when Audible used to make their Originals content available as part of a monthly selection.

I picked it up and sort of forgot about it, buried at the bottom of my Not Started list. I finally decided to give it a shot.

I ended up enjoying Exit West much more than I had anticipated when I first started. Mohsin Hamid’s narrative starts off slowly, the first couple chapters introducing the protagonists, Saeed and Nadia, in terms of their relationships, families, and how they were raised in a predominantly conservative Muslim society.

What’s interesting is that Hamid never names the country in which Saeed and Nadia live, and the particulars of the political conflict that upends their lives is inconsequential. Hamid chooses to focus on how it impacts them to tell a story that could apply to any two people, from any society, at any time in human history.

This is reinforced in the structure of the story. Hamid uses a methodical narrative style to capture vignettes of the lives of his characters. He then extends this to nameless characters we meet only once, snapshots of people’s lives who on the surface have no relation to the protagonists but whose shared experiences enliven the story.

Hamid presents a fictional future that likely already exists in some countries and will be more widespread over the coming decades. As the political conflict quickly turns to civil war around them, Saeed and Nadia are forced to hide out in their own homes before making the heart-wrenching decision to escape through one of the many doors that transports people from one life to another.

This is a world in which human societies are more divided but also more interconnected, where large groups of migrants have to eke out their existence in new places, fundamentally reshaping the identity of the places they come to inhabit, as well as themselves.

Saeed and Nadia try to hold their fraying relationship together among this emotional tumult, and their bond becomes the strongest force holding the narrative itself together.

Speaking of the audiobook version, Hamid’s narration is steady, and emotional notes come not in his inflection, but in the meaning and rhythm of his words.

I’m pleased to find two other stories by Hamid available on Audible, and regret not listening to him sooner.

Steve D

Book Review: SUPER BLACK and the cultural imprint of black superheroes

I picked up Super Black: American Pop CUlture and Black Superheroes by Adilifu Nama on Audible recently, and really enjoyed the information and lessons Nama presented.

Nama’s central theme is that black superheroes are more than tokenism brought to the comics page, which is how they are often talked about or analyzed. Instead, Nama explores how black superheroes have engaged in or even shaped the narrative of race and racial identity in American culture.

I was immediately impressed with Nama’s academic approach to this effort. He spends the first chapter laying out his thesis, his methodology, and refuting the arguments of previous analyses. He also is shy in criticisms of specific comics or stories for their over-reliance on stereotypes and insincere storytelling. It is not difficult to tell that he is a fan of comics, and he even mentions the effect that comics had on him as a boy, but he also wants to provide a considered analysis, and he does.

Nama looks at each of the most prominent black superheroes, as well as a few who made a particular mark on the discussion of racial issues.

He takes this a step further by examining other genres of media to discuss how black superheroes, at their best, have presented an encouraging image of Afro-Futurism, and often led the way in bringing those themes to the sci-fi and fantasy genres.

Even for someone without a deep knowledge of comics lore or history, this book is an engaging review of the most prominent Black superheroes and their depictions over the decades. Analyses of Black Panther, John Stewart’s Green Lantern, Power Man / Luke Cage, Black Lightning, Brother Voodoo, the Falcon, and Storm jumped out to me. Nama also discusses a run of Hal Jordan’s Green Lantern and the Green Arrow, which managed to touch on social justice issues in America in the 70s, not long before John Stewart debuted as the Green Lantern.

Nama then spends some time examining the superhero status that Barack Obama attained in the American psyche in the run-up to his election in 2008.

I really enjoyed this book and will definitely be looking for some of the comic arcs that Nama discusses to better understand these stories.

Looking Forward

Super Black was originally published in 2011, when the Marvel Cinematic Universe was just getting started — really before “MCU” became a widely understood pop culture term. I am curious how Nama would examine the growing on-screen prevalence of black superheroes since then.

Black Panther became one of the MCU’s most iconic characters almost overnight when that movie debuted in 2018. Before that, both Don Cheadle and Anthony Mackie had supporting character roles in various films, as War Machine and the Falcon, respectively.

And now Marvel presents us with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, a limited series that earnestly shines a light on racial injustice in America and wrestles with the notion of a man being both black and Captain America in 21st-century America.

I think it’s easy to be cynical about a huge corporation owned by an even huger corporation trying to convince viewers that they care about social justice, but the fact is that Black Panther (and it’s upcoming sequel) and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier are stories about black superheroes with strong themes of Afro-Futurism (especially in Black Panther) told by black directors and writers. That’s not nothing, at least in my view.

I’d still like to hear what Nama thinks about those stories of significant black superhero figures though.

Steve D

April Write Day: Many Paths, One Set of Feet

Scatter-brained is how I would describe my March. Not necessarily from me. It just felt like a chaotic month for a variety of reasons, so I feel like I need to re-center.

Last Month’s Goals

  1. Write 6,000 words.
  2. Work out at least every other day.
  3. Finish 4 books.

Write 6,000 words?

Nope. A bit over 4,000 was the final count for March. I ended up putting quite a bit of time into a family tree for my story, both to enrich the character building and to make sure I could keep track of all the kinship ties for this one family. Did I use this as a form of procrastination from actually writing? Yes I did. Will it help me write a better story later? I think so.

I also focused almost entirely on revising/rewriting part 1. Part 2 has not been left in the dust entirely, but implementing my newer ideas in part 1 is keeping me motivated. Honestly, living in the two stories simultaneously — even knowing part 2 will have to change — has not been as distracting as I expected. Even though I know changes to part 1 will mean heavier revisions to part 2 later on, it’s still good for me to work through the plot issues of part 2 as it currently stands. I will likely have to face these plot issues anyway in some form, so it never hurts to noddle a problem for a bit.

Work out every other day?

I think so…? I’m going to say yes! I don’t track my workout progress in this way, but I know I did my resistance exercises nearly every day. I fell off on my yoga routine a bit, but I’m satisfied to have done something at least every other day.

Finish 4 books?

Just 3. I finished one Audible listen, one graphic novel, and one full-length novel, all of which I reviewed in the last few weeks.

I am more than halfway through reading The Fellowship of the Ring, but that’s my only current read. I really didn’t listen to Audible much at all in March. I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts recently, and there are only so many listening hours in the day.

I have plenty of things to listen, but most of them are super-long 15+ hour books, and I’m more in the mood for shorter listens at the moment. Anyway, this is the main reason I didn’t finish four books. I’m really enjoying my re-read of The Fellowship, though, so I’m not currently interested in reading anything else. The power of Tolkien, I suppose.

Goals for April

  1. Write 6,000 words. This is definitely achievable, I just need to put the time in. I think I really need to get back to writing in small chunks when I can, plus a few longer writing sessions. Small writing sessions of a couple hundred words each day can build up quickly.
  2. Finish 3 books. I plan to jump straight into The Two Towers upon finishing The Fellowship. I’d also like to find something to listen to on Audible, but it will likely be a shorter something.
  3. Relax more, preferably outside. I’ve had a lot going on recently, mentally, and it’s been hard not allowing it to bleed into interpersonal relationships. I really just want to prioritize my own relaxation more, even if that’s just wandering around the yard with the toddler. One of his favorite things currently is to walk circles around our garage/sitting room. He just… walks… around the outside of this building. I don’t know what he gets out of it, but I find it quite cathartic. I need more moments like that week-to-week or even day-to-day. I’ve also started using our time outside together to do little things around the yard, like weeding the patio, which helps with the stress.

Steve D

Story Lessons from THE LORD OF THE RINGS, part 1

Creativity Sessions writing process. Evening Satellite Publishing.

After some lackluster reading the last month or so, I am embarking on an epic quest: to reread The Lord of the Rings! I will not be reviewing these stories in a critical sense, because how could I? Instead, I will share some storytelling insights I pick up as I go along.

This will be primarily focused on the books, but I will also reference the films by Peter Jackson to compare the stories as they are told between these two media.

Spoilers ahoy.

Continue reading “Story Lessons from THE LORD OF THE RINGS, part 1”

Book Review: CROSSROADS OF TWILIGHT, and middle-book syndrome

I just finished reading Crossroads of Twilight, the tenth book in Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series. I’ve already mentioned this book a couple times in recent posts, mostly because it took me longer than I expected to get through it. And not in a good way.

Ten books into this series, I’ve run into more than a couple of stretches where there doesn’t seem to be any real narrative movement, and the characters’ insistence on running in place when there’s a path laid out for them has been frustrating.

This book, however, was the hardest installment of this series for me to get through. Rather than running in place, or even building up to something, the characters in this book just did nothing.

There were a lot of conversations, a lot of plans being made without any details as to what they were, or even what they were aiming to achieve, and a lot of schemes.

Always with the schemes in these books.

Schemes within schemes that are so convoluted, so tepidly hinted at by the POV character of the moment, that the reader can’t possibly have any real clue of what’s really happening. There are so many characters now in this series, and they all have their perfect little plans laid out and ready to spring, except the reader has no idea what any of them are, and there are 200 of them!

Ugh.

So, yeah, this book took me some time to get through. I was simply not interested in most of what was happening. I read the last third of this book in fits and starts just trying to get to the end.

The structure of the chapters was at first intriguing to me. The book is structured in such a way that you follow one particular character or set of characters for several chapters in a row before abruptly pivoting to another character. I think this would have been an effective mechanism to develop specific character arcs if most of the chapters didn’t feel like filler content.

Without getting into details, I was particularly interested in both Elayne’s and Mat’s narratives in this book, but I haven’t heard from Elayne since the first third, and Mat’s story took an unexpected if interesting turn at the end.

All of this is to say that I’m happy to be done with this book, and I’m taking a break before getting into book 11.

Jordan has always toed the line between being just vague enough while building suspense. This story did not build anything. The last few chapters are interesting and definitely set up for book 11, but they do not make up for the 700+ pages of what felt like filler content.

Steve D

Book Review: STARDUST, a perfect fairy tale for adults

Stardust by Neil Gaiman, cover illustration, fantasy, fairy tale story, short stories

Stardust is the first book I’ve read by Neil Gaiman, and hearing the Audible version that he narrates was a real treat. Gaiman is one of those authors who I’ve seen a lot of references to online, but I could not have named one of his stories. Now I’m kicking myself for never looking up his work before.

Stardust is an incredibly enjoyable story in an authentic setting. The typical English village of Wall where the story begins feels completely mundane in the best possible way, from the little farmhouses that sit on its outskirts to the tavern where the locals pass gossip and the general store where they place their orders for the proprietor to pick up in the nearest large town.

Sitting just outside the village, however, is a stone wall with a gap in it, which is always guarded by two of the villagers, and which the residents of Wall are not allowed to pass through. Through this gap every nine years comes a market of bizarre beings from the land of Faerie, the land beyond the wall. Tristan Thorn, a young lad from Wall, one day decides that he must journey into Faerie to find a fallen star.

Thus begins Tristan’s journey with an intriguing cast of characters and intricate plot building. Even though there is not a ton of world-building or exposition, the world around Tristan feels like it’s full of history, both everyday and fantastical. Every character speaks and acts with such quirks that you can’t help but think that there are unique stories behind each of them — an incredible example of the writers’ adage that each character is the hero of their own story.

The plot was compelling and the arc of the characters felt very natural. Tristan was quite a savvy protagonist, especially for a teenager who had never left his village before, but I think this is established well enough early in the story that it doesn’t feel out of place.

Gaiman is a wonderful narrator whose cadence enhanced the listening experience, more so because he narrates it in the style in which he intended it to sound. The voices he creates for each character are distinct enough while keeping the listener immersed in the story.

I already have a couple more Gaiman stories queued up on Audible, including his telling of Norse Mythology, which — come on. How can I not read that?

Steve D

Seeing the Story Trees for the World-Building Forest

Creativity Sessions writing process. Evening Satellite Publishing.

I already don’t like that strained analogy of a title, but we’re going with it unless I can think of something better. The writing part of my brain pretty reliably ebbs and flows between two points. Sometimes, all I can think about is the story in front of me and how I can bring it to fruition. Other times, all I can think of is all the stories except the one immediately in front of me.

I’ve been pretty heads-down on part 2 of The Herb Witch Tales the last few weeks, but recently, my mindset and thought process has started to shift. This is a natural phase for me, but it’s helped me come to a bigger realization about my writing. I need to focus more on the stories themselves. Continue reading “Seeing the Story Trees for the World-Building Forest”

Book Review: MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING, by Viktor E. Frankl

Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl, book cover, book review

I picked up Man’s Search for Meaning on Audible at the recommendation of a friend. I had heard of this work and Frankl before, but I didn’t really know anything about him, or about why he wrote this book.

I gravitate towards books about the big questions and especially existentialism, so this seemed right up my alley. (You will recall I just recently finished a Stephen Hawking intro to cosmology and quantum physics.)

Man’s Search for Meaning ended up being completely not what I expected and also much more gratifying than I had hoped. This post is less a review than a brief look at how Frankl’s book impacted my own perspective on meaning and existence. Continue reading “Book Review: MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING, by Viktor E. Frankl”