BOOK REVIEW: Egyptian Mythology: A Very Short Introduction by Geraldine Pinch

Egyptian Myth: A Very Short IntroductionEgyptian Myth: A Very Short Introduction by Geraldine Pinch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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It’s a daunting task to provide a flyover of such a fruitful mythological tradition, one that spanned thousands of years. This book does a mixed job of it. When it’s good – it’s exceptional, and when it’s not – it’s not. One can’t fault a book with this one’s editorial mandate for not being comprehensive. However, one can fault it for not using the little space available in the best manner. The book spends too much time discussing art and artifacts, and (to a less objectionable degree) history. I say “to a less objectionable degree” not because there was less space devoted to history but because having some historical and anthropological background is of benefit to understanding a culture’s stories [more so than knowing about their material possessions.] Until I got to chapter three, I thought the book might have been mistitled and should have been “Egyptology: A Very Short Introduction” because it was such a broad discussion of Egypt and its artifacts.

That said, in chapter three, the book does an excellent job of reviewing the gods of Egyptian Mythology. Thereafter, it meanders back and forth between being an excellent introduction to Egyptian Mythology and a rambling discussion of things Egypt. There’s a fascinating presentation of the conflict between Horus and Seth, but most of the discussion of myths are short summations (often one-liners.)

I don’t have any basis for comparison, and, therefore, couldn’t tell you if there is a better introductory guide to Egyptian Myth. That said, it does a good job of presenting an outline of the subject, but expect to spend a fair amount of time reading about subjects that are, at best, tangential to the stories of ancient Egypt.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker

The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell StoriesThe Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This tome could’ve been two or more books (or, alternatively, could’ve been heavily edited into one book that stays on task.) The book’s first part contains the book that the reader expects to find. It’s that section that proposes that historically (e.g. pre-20th century) all popular stories fit into one or more of seven plot categories, each of which has a specific purpose. Part I clarifies the nature and purpose of these plot types. The seven plots are: 1.) overcoming the monster, 2.) rags to riches, 3.) quest, 4.) voyage and return, 5.) comedy, 6.) tragedy, and 7.) rebirth. While one might niggle about whether all the various myth, folklore, plays, epic poems, etc. of previous centuries can be categorized by seven plots (or some other number — bigger or smaller,) this first part isn’t particularly controversial. From “Beowulf” (overcoming the monster) to “Hamlet” (tragedy,) most of the stories one might think of probably do lend themselves to such categorization.

Where the book gets controversial, not to mention convoluted, is from Part II onward. Part II delves more deeply into the ideas of Jungian psychology upon which Booker (like Joseph Campbell) hangs his ideas about story. Now for my own controversial views. First, I think Jungian psychology is pseudo-scientific nonsense that should never be used in the treatment or understanding of the mind. While Freudians and Jungians have a big conflict with each other, I think they’re similarly useless. They both start from a laudable view that there is an unconscious mind and we should seek to better understand it. But then, instead of trying to objectively understand the workings of the unconscious mind (granted, it’s a terribly challenging task given our inability to witness the subjective mental experience of others,) each psychiatrist decided to furnish the unconscious mind with his own pet provocative scheme – Freud’s being centered on sexuality [particularly of an infantile nature] and Jung’s being more mystical, but neither man seemed to stop and think about whether said pet scheme could be defective and not universal.

Now, having said that, I don’t find it so objectionable that Booker (and Campbell) use Jung’s ideas for evaluating the fantasy realm of story. Jung’s archetypes may be a perfectly logical way for a writer to think about their characters, about symbolism, and about building nightmare realms. Therefore, I wasn’t that put out by the Jungian focus of the book – despite my lack of belief in the validity of Jungian psychology as a means to understand the mind or to treat mental illness. Still, it does reflect a mindset that is Booker is frozen in, a particular era and approach to psychology that creates many a blindspot in the author. Parts III and IV are about how plot is dead because writers have dared to go off book and abandon the purposes presented them by the titular “seven basic plots.”

Long story short: if you thought that Jung was the bee knees and that mid-20th century views on gender, art, and meaning were the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, then you may love this book. (At worst, you might find it rambling in places, but it often rambles intriguingly.) If you thought Jung was more a mystic than a psychiatrist, and that the approaches to art from recent decades are as valid as those that came before, you may hate it. I, personally, found a book that contained many interesting ideas, but also found that they were usually deep in the weeds (or maybe – more aptly – encrusted in the ice by which this book’s framework is frozen in time, a time that by no means represented the height of human understanding.)


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BOOK REVIEW: The Stories Behind the Poses by Raj Balkaran

The Stories Behind the Poses: The Indian mythology that inspired 50 yoga posturesThe Stories Behind the Poses: The Indian mythology that inspired 50 yoga postures by Raj Balkaran
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Released: July 26, 2022

Yoga practitioners will be aware that — while some posture names are banal, straightforward descriptions (e.g. Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana, or “standing hand-to-big toe pose –”) many others invoke animals, sages, or deities for historical, mythological, or symbolic reasons. As this book’s title suggests, it presents the mythological backstories for fifty yoga postures. The vast majority of these fifty poses are common ones that will be readily familiar to most Hatha Yoga practitioners, though a few are advanced or obscure and aren’t likely to come up in your run-of-the-mill studio class. (And a couple may be familiar to some individuals by another name.)

The book is cleanly organized with five sections (Shiva poses, Vishnu poses, Devi / goddess poses, God story poses, and sage poses) each containing writeups for ten poses. Each pose is presented via colorful artwork in the Indian style (typically with the deity or sage in question performing the posture.)

I found the entries to be well-written and clear (Hindu Mythology can be extremely complicated and some authors get lost in the weeds by including too much minutiae or unnecessary details, but that wasn’t the case here.) The full-page artistic renderings of the poses are also clear and tidy, such that anyone familiar with the pose should readily recognize it.

The one thing I think could have been done better (though probably not without messing up the aforementioned clean organizational scheme) would be to cut some of the redundancy in the stories. In a few instances, the same story appeared in multiple chapters. To the author’s credit, these weren’t just copy / pasted, they were written uniquely, sometimes with additional information or a different focus. Still, it was a bit distracting to find myself in the middle of the same story and wondering whether I’d zoned out or lost my place. This might have been dealt with by putting multiple poses with one story and not repeating the tale one or more times. For example, the stories about Vasisthasana and Visvametrasana are inherently coupled, and the poses might be as well. (Perhaps even referencing the fact that the story had already been told might have been helpful and less distracting.)

All-in-all, I thought this book did a fine job of presenting the myths and relating them to the postures. I learned a great deal from reading the book and would recommend it for yoga practitioners and those interested in Hindu Mythology.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Storyteller’s Handbook by Elise Hurst

The Storyteller's HandbookThe Storyteller’s Handbook by Elise Hurst
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: June 14, 2022

This is a book, but not one that one reads but rather one that one writes. It contains more than 50 imaginative and fantastical artworks intended to help creative parents build their own stories, while helping their children learn to become storytellers. There is a forward by Neil Gaiman (who has worked with the artist on previous occasions) and an introduction by Hurst, but otherwise there’s almost no text.

The animate subjects of the book are children and animals, but not just any animals. They are mis-sized, misplaced, mythical, imaginary, anthropomorphized, and extinct creatures in search of a clever explanation for their existence and behaviors. The usual suspects of our beloved stories are most well-represented: bears, lions, foxes, rabbits, birds, and fish – for example. But there are also less well-known creatures: mollusks, a mantis, kangaroo, koala, and armadillo. The settings are also designed to fuel the imagination: oceans, hot air balloons, impossibly floating places of all sorts, cities of gothic and fantastical architecture.

If you’re looking for a storybook where you have a graphic prompt to trigger your own story, this is a beautifully illustrated example of such a work.


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BOOK REVIEW: A Bad Business by Fyodor Dostoevsky

A Bad BusinessA Bad Business by Fyodor Dostoevsky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection gathers six pieces of Dostoevsky’s short fiction, each brilliant in its own way. The stories vary in length and genre, but share an interesting insight into humanity.

“A Bad Business” is about a high-ranking official who decides to wedding crash one of his underlings. Like the third story in this collection, it’s the psychology that makes this tale compelling. The lead character vacillates between feeling empowered by his host’s deferential behavior and feelings of embarrassment and regret over violating norms. While it might sound like an unrelatable story, the psychological foibles shine through recognizably.

“Conversations in a Graveyard (Bobok)” is largely as the title describes, and is one of the speculative fiction pieces.

Much like the first story, “A Meek Creature” deals in subject matter that may seem unrelatable to today’s reader, but one will recognize the state of mind that drives the story. It’s about a middle-aged man who marries a teenaged girl. The story revolves around the young wife’s death, and attempts to reconcile her demise, which leads him into a dismal territory of self-discovery.

“The Crocodile” is the one piece that doesn’t at all suffer from being dated. While the details may feel retro, this absurdist dark comedy story remains both hilarious and meaningful. The underlying theme is disappointment that economic considerations have come to rule the world, but the story doesn’t beat one over the head with the politics, but rather lets the absurd situation of a man being swallowed whole by a crocodile do the work.

“The Heavenly Christmas Tree” reminded me of the fairytale “The Little Match Girl,” and is a heartfelt Christmas tale.

“The Peasant Marey” is the story of a prisoner having a flashback of the kindness of a neighborhood peasant in his childhood. It’s written in an autobiographical style. I don’t know how much license was taken, but I do know that Dostoevsky did spend time in prison as does the story’s lead.

This collection is well worth reading by any lover of short fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Narrative Poems by William Shakespeare

The Narrative Poems (The Pelican Shakespeare)The Narrative Poems by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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While William Shakespeare is overwhelmingly known as a playwright who also wrote a collection of sonnets, back in his day some of his poetic stories were quite well-received. This volume collects the five narrative poems that Shakespeare is believed to have authored (or partially authored.)

Venus and Adonis: This is one of the two long-form narrative poems of Shakespeare. It tells the tale of the goddess Venus’s obsession with Adonis, her many attempts to woo the hunky lad, and the tragedy that befalls him, breaking her heart. It’s written in six-line stanzas of iambic pentameter with a quatrain of alternating line rhymes and an end couplet of a third rhyme.

The Rape of Lucrece: This is the other long narrative poem of Shakespeare. Lucrece’s husband, Collatine, is off on campaign and brags about how perfect is his wife, Lucrece. The “gentleman” he is telling this to is Tarquin, and the high-praise of Lucrece sets the seed of obsession in Tarquin’s mind. When he then finds himself in Collatine’s neighborhood (with Collatine still off to war,) he pays Lucrece a visit and is invited to stay over. That night he breaks into her bedchambers and – after threatening to kill her and a random male servant whose corpse he’ll shove into bed with her – Tarquin rapes her. After mulling over her options, Lucrece calls for Collatine’s return and after getting the promise of Collantine and his fellow soldiers to have revenge for her, she tells them who raped her immediately before ending her own life by dagger.

It’s written in the rhyme royal seven-line stanzas of iambic pentameter made famous by Chaucer.

The Phoenix and the Turtle: This is a very different poem from the others. In terms of format, it abandons iambic pentameter in favor of shorter, punchier lines. Stylistically, it’s a bit more obscure and allegorical than most Shakespearean poetry.

The gist of the tale is the description of a funeral for the perfect couple. [I guess that an important thing to know is that “Turtle” is used as short for turtledove, and so it’s not a tale of bestial interspecies lovin’.] Besides the lines being shorter, the entire poem is short and sweet, ending with a philosophical lament about truth and beauty.

The Passionate Pilgrim: While we’re back to iambic pentameter (and mostly sonnets) this work is a departure other ways. First, rather than being a narrative poem proper, this is really a love poetry collection. Second, while the collection consists of twenty poems, Shakespeare is believed to have only written five of them (I, II, III, V, and XVI.) Of those, the first four are sonnets, and the last is an eighteen-line poem. Third, this is not new or exclusive material. The first two sonnets came to be included in the 154-sonnet collection of Shakespeare (138 and 144,) and the other verse is from “Love’s Labour’s Lost.”

A Lover’s Complaint: The weeping of a maiden attracts the attention of a passerby, who she tells her tale of woe, having been wooed by a young man who got his milk and high-tailed it before he was forced to buy the cow. Besides being a woman’s tale of woe, it also shares with “The Rape of Lucrece” the fact that it is written in rhyme royal. It’s much shorter than “The Rape of Lucrece.”

I would highly recommend poetry readers dig into these lesser know Shakespearean works.


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POEM: Escaping Isolation [PoMo Day 17 – Ottava Rima]

In isolation, I took to story,
and traipsed through worlds impossible yet true,
living life from infantile thru hoary,
under skies: gunmetal to deepest blue,
in lands where trucks were known to be lorries,
and ancient cities breathed as though brand new.
Where neither time nor bars could imprison,
I found my phoenix had now arisen.

BOOK REVIEW: The Art of X-Ray Reading by Roy Peter Clark

The Art of X-Ray ReadingThe Art of X-Ray Reading by Roy Peter Clark
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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If one asks a group of people whether a story worked or not, one is likely to hear widespread agreement, but if one asks them why it worked [or didn’t,] one is likely to get a hodgepodge of murky conclusions. The average person will struggle to put together a coherent explanation for failed stories, an explanation which may or may not be grounded in paydirt. That’s because whether writing works or not is a matter of emotional resonance, and what delivers that emotional experience is almost as hidden as the pipes and wires in the walls that deliver water and electricity. Clark’s purpose with this book is to show the reader some of the characteristics they can read for, features which may not be readily apparent when one is lost in a good book, but which make the difference between a masterpiece and a ho-hum work.

While I referred to “story” a lot in the preceding paragraph, it’s worth noting that Clark’s book does cover the gambit of creative writing activities – including a few poets, essayists, non-fiction authors, and repeated references to one very famous playwright. That said, the bulk of the works under discussion are fiction — be it a novel, short story, epic poem, or play.

The book consists of twenty-five chapters, and the subtitle is a little bit deceptive because not all of the chapters take a single work as a focal point. Each of the chapters has a core concept to convey, using one or more authors (and one or more of each writer’s works) to do so. Some of these lessons are at the level of language, such as Nabokov’s playfully poetic alliteration and assonance, Hemingway’s sparse prose, or Toni Morrison’s effective use of repetition. Other chapters explore how intrigue can be set up and sustained: such as in Shirley Jackson’s foreshadowing of the twist in her story “The Lottery,” or the way “Sir Gawain and the Green Night” turns a non-event into unexpected chills, or how Harper Lee uses the slowed experience of time to build tension. Still other chapters present techniques such as placing texts within the text as done in “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” zooming in or out with perspective as is done in Homer’s “Odyssey,” or Shakespeare’s rejection of conventions in his sonnets. Some chapters investigate how a tone is established such as in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magical realism, and one other focuses on intertextuality – i.e. the borrowing of ideas from past masters in a non-plagiaristic sort of way.

The authors and works selected are popular and will generally be a least familiar to avid readers of English language literature, and most readers will have read at least a few of the works under consideration. A few of my personal favorites were explored including Shakespeare, Yeats, and Hemingway, and I suspect that will be true of most readers. There was only one author of whom I had no knowledge, M.F.K. Fisher, a writer who is well-known to mid-twentieth century cookbook fans, but who is a little obscure today. Having said that, I did come away with an interest in reading the book under discussion – i.e. “How to Cook a Wolf.”

While this book is marketed towards writers, I think any serious reader would find it an interesting and worthwhile read. If you want a better understanding of what succeeds in the world of writing, you should take a look at this book.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Neil Gaiman Library, Vol. 3 by Neil Gaiman

The Neil Gaiman Library Volume 3The Neil Gaiman Library Volume 3 by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: June 1, 2021

 

This series collects short fiction of Neil Gaiman and presents it via the medium of the graphic novel. While there are four works listed, because two of these works contain multiple stories, there are actually eight stories contained in this volume. The selection is diverse both in terms of genre and artistic style. With respect to genre, the stories cut across fairy tale, fantasy, horror, supernatural, and tales of the weird. The artistic styles range from art nouveau to comic strip style. While this is the third volume, the included stories all stand on their own, and so there is no necessity to have read previous volumes. Because Gaiman draws heavily on fairy tale source material, parents might assume these are kid-friendly stories, but you should check them out first yourself as “Snow, Glass, Apples” and “The Daughter of Owls” both present somewhat sexually explicit content (the former both graphically and with respect to story events and the latter only with respect to story,) and while the horror stories are pretty calm as horror stories go, they are still works of horror.

“Snow, Glass, Apples” is a dark take on the princess-centric fairy tale. It imagines a vampiric young nymph who appears as challenger to the Queen. This is probably the most visually impressive work, being illustrated in a style that mixes art nouveau with Harry Clark’s stain glass artworks. It is definitely not the run-of-the mill graphic novel, graphically speaking. The art is exceptionally detailed and stunning.

“The Problem with Susan and Other Stories”: As the title suggests, this is one of the two multi-story entries in the collection. The titular main story features a retired Professor who is plagued by Narnia-like dreams, and who receives a visit from a reporter for a college paper. The art for this one is much more reminiscent of the typical graphic novel of today. There are three other stories included. “Locks,” the comic strip-esque illustrated story, is a take on “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” as it’s being told to – and imagined by – a little girl. “October in the Chair” imagines a kind of story competition taking place around a campfire by anthropomorphized “months.” It’s a bit more artistically rendered than the other stories in this [sub-] collection (although that may have to do with the dark tone that is used to reinforce that the stories are being told in the middle of the night in the middle of a woods.) The final story is a brief, but artistically dense, story that imagines a day in which everything goes wrong at once.

The sixth story, “Only the End of the World Again,” revolves around a man / werewolf who wakes up to find that he has clearly turned in the preceding night. The tale is set in a small and remote village, where everyone seems to know everything about everyone, and it doesn’t shock the man when select people let slip that they know his secret. As the story unfolds, it’s clear that the man / werewolf is caught up in something bigger than his own tragedy.

The last entry is a two-parter. The first is one of my favorite Neil Gaiman short stories; entitled, “The Price,” it offers an answer to the question of why some indoor / outdoor cats constantly come home battered and bleeding. The second story, “The Daughter of Owls,” revolves around “the baby left on the church steps” plot mechanism. Because the girl is enveloped in owl accoutrements, she is shunned by the village and forced into exile at a dilapidated former abbey. Both of these stories have a more brush-painted style that the usual graphic novel.

I enjoyed this collection immensely. While not all of the stories were new to me, the way they were illustrated shone a new light on the familiar tales. All of the stories are masterfully crafted and illustrated. While Gaiman draws heavily on well-known fairy tales, there is nothing banal about these stories. I’d highly recommend this book, even if you’ve read some of the stories already.

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BOOK REVIEW: Best Fairy Stories of the World ed. by Marcus Clapham

Best Fairy Stories of the WorldBest Fairy Stories of the World by Marcus Clapham
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book collects sixty-two well-known fairy and folk tales. While the bulk of the stories are European, there are a few entries from Indian, Japanese, Aussie, Slavic, and Middle Eastern folklore. There are several stories which will be familiar to all readers (often by virtue of their Disney adaptations,) such as: “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Cinderella,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Snow White.” There are others that are widely known as go-to bedtime stories, e.g. “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” and “The Three Little Pigs.” Then there are others that are likely to be – at most – vaguely familiar to any reader who is not a specialist in global oral storytelling traditions, some because they are anachronistic and relate less well in the modern world and others because they are not well-known in the Western world (e.g. Japanese and Indian stories.)

For the most part, the selection of tales is not surprising. As mentioned, the collection is European-centric with all but about a dozen entries being from Europe. However, given the book is directed toward the English-speaking market, that narrow focus is to be expected. In fact, stories from the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson together make up about one-third of the included works. Some readers may take umbrage that the proposed “Best Fairy Stories of the World” includes examples from so little of the world (ignoring Africa, the Western Hemisphere, and the vast majority of Asia, altogether.)

What is strange about the collection is that there are just a few pairs of stories for which both stories in the pair are structurally identical. I’m not talking about having a common theme or moral. The common objectives of these stories often result in them having thematic overlap, but that is not necessarily a problem for readers. For example, there are several “rags to riches” type stories. However, these stories are widely different in story events and characters, such that reading them does not leave one with the feeling of having reread the same story. Instead, I’m talking about instances like the inclusion of both “Rumpelstiltskin” and “Tom Tit Tot.” In both of these stories, the lead is charged with a task they cannot complete, and some magic creature comes along and says they will do the work and, if the person can guess their name, it’s a done deal, but if they can’t guess their rescuer’s name, they will be owned by said savior. Even how the two stories’ endings unfold is identical except in the finest granularity of detail. On one hand, I can see how including overlapping tales would give readers some indication of how these tales spread and became adapted by other cultures. However, on the other hand, I would have preferred that the editor selected the better of the two and use the freed-up space to include, say, some Native American or African stories.

I enjoyed this collection. It took me back to my youth, and also exposed me to some stories with which I was unfamiliar. I do believe the title could have been better worded because to call these the best in the world and then to make them almost entirely from northern Europe could be interpreted as being pretty conceited. However, I doubt there was any such conceit, just a desire to sell stories that would appeal to a particular readership, and then to hype it in as big a way as possible.

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