Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

norsemythologyNeil Gaiman is one awesome author. My first introduction to Gaiman was, if memory serves, his collaborative work with Terry Pratchett, Good Omens. I found that book absolutely hilarious when I was in high school. Side note: I just read and reviewed Daughters of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt which is related to Good Omens as both books feature the Device family, witches, and Witchfinder Generals.

From Good Omens through the Sandman graphic novel series to Stardust, Anansi Boys, American Gods, and The Graveyard Book (and a bunch of short stories and other works I can’t remember right now), Gaiman has not disappointed me. And Norse Mythology did not break my  Gaiman record.

In this work, which is essentially a collection of Norse tales, Gaiman captivatingly relates some of the exploits of Odin, Thor, Loki, and the rest of the gods from beginning to end, from origin story to Ragnarok. These stories are easily digestible, presented in as uncomplicated a fashion as possible, and yet remarkably precise and thought-provoking.

Clearly Norse Mythology has moved more fully into popular culture these days with the whole Avengers hullaballoo and Thor, from said movies, being all…..

thorHubba, Hubba. But I still remember my very first introduction to Thor….

thoradventuresinbabysitting2Vincent D’Onofrio in Adventures in Babysitting. Man, I loved that movie when I was in grade school. I wonder how it holds up….

Back to Gaiman’s book. The prose is beautiful, descriptive without being trite and expressive without being sappy. The stories are standalone but readers can’t help but see the thread that runs through them all, the thread that binds the Norse who told these stories with the modern people who read them today, the questioning of what it means to be alive, to be a good person, how did we get here, what’s coming…

I highly recommend reading it.

 

Stalking Jack the Ripper

stalkingjacktheripperStalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalco was a pleasant surprise for me. I went into the novel with a bunch of groundless assumptions: since I liked the cover so much and the concept, I assumed the book would be terrible. What? I’ve been burned before. But this book was far from terrible. I loved it.

Audrey Rose Wadsworth is torn between her father’s traditional, if excessively germ-based, expectations and her uncle’s world of death. After her mother’s death, Audrey’s passion for forensics, for understanding death, took hold. Her uncle’s expertise gave her the tools she needed to become an adept apprentice in forensic science. But when she becomes embroiled in an investigation into Jack the Ripper, Audrey’s personal and professional life collide in unexpected and unfortunate ways.

This novel is wonderfully atmospheric, has a strong female lead, contains an interesting – if not fully developed – cast of characters, and features a love story that wasn’t vomit-inducing as with a few YA novels I’ve read (I’m old and less than romantic). I also truly enjoyed the writing in this novel, finding Maniscalco’s prose to be the perfect amount of flow, description, and action, with diction that is both formal and educated while being clear and precise.

I already have the second book in the series, Hunting Prince Dracula, and the third book, Escaping Houdini, ordered.

 

 

Sweetly by Jackson Pearce

sweetlyJackson Pearce’s sweetly is yet another book that has been languishing on my shelves for far too long. In this retelling of Hansel and Gretel, the main character, Gretchen, her brother, Ansel, lost Gretchen’s twin sister to a witch as they ran from her in the woods when they were kids. Years later, Gretchen and Ansel are roadtripping away from their lives, determined to reach the open coast, a stark contrast to the forest that has defined their lives for so long. On their way, they find themselves in Live Oak, South Carolina, guests of the infamous (at least in town) Sophia Kelly, seen as a sweet savior by some and an evil witch by others. Gretchen quickly falls in sisterly love with Sophia even as she questions the string of missing girls and as she discovers the secrets of the woods guided by Samuel, a town outcast.

I wasn’t overly impressed with the storyline as the plot was rather predictable; however, I was impressed with the storytelling for the most part. I enjoyed Gretchen’s slow and steady, introspective progression to a confident woman, and I enjoyed Pearce’s ability to brutally and sensually describe both violence and chocolate. A few bits here and there felt contrived, the story asking the audience to believe without explanation; but overall I enjoyed the book.

I have to admit that I have not yet read Sisters Red, which I hear is a companion book to Sweetly. Years back when I was blogging at eclectic / eccentric, I remember some buzz around this book. Is it worth the read?

Daughters of the Witching Hill

daughtersofwitchinghillYears ago, way back in 2010, Sandy of You’ve Gotta Read This, a now-defunct blog which I miss terribly, sent me Mary Sharratt’s Daughters of the Witching Hill. I, somehow, lost this book in the overflowing rows and rows of books on my much abused shelves. I finally got around to reading the book, however, and it is fantastic. In her review of this amazing novel, Sandy says that “at the hands of Sharratt’s creativity and delightful story-telling, a piece of history has been re-animated and converted to a page-turner of a book. One that enlightens and entertains.” And I completely agree.

Based on the 1612 Pendle Witch-hunt as detailed in Thomas Potts’ The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster along with other research, Daughters of the Witching Hill follows Bess Southerns, a poor widow with a gift for healing, and her family as they struggle to survive a land which wants to annihilate their forbidden Catholic faith as well as their otherworldly abilities.

This moving novel embodies magical realism. Instead of treating the witch-hunt as a smokescreen for killing off women who don’t conform to societal expectations and the men who “allowed” it, Sharratt’s work embraces the concept of witchcraft. The primary group of women accused of witchcraft do in fact possess magical abilities. The devil lies in the details though as the women and the novel make a very definite distinction between witch (one who works evil) and cunning woman (one who heals and blesses) and neither of those definitions conform at all to the vision of the witch held by society at large and the Witchfinders determined to smoke out and hang anyone associated with witchcraft.

The characters Sharratt focuses on are compelling in their complex and flawed natures. She delves into their psyches with precision and sincerity, aligning no one person as the bastion of good or of evil. Even Bess and her granddaughter Alizon, the narrators and focal points of the novel, are damaged and damaging as well as honorable and generous as they both harm and heal the people around them. Alice Nutter, a rich woman with no otherworldly abilities, fascinates readers as a devout Catholic hiding priests in her house in an age where Catholicism was illegal and punishable by the most brutal of deaths. Even Nowell, the Witchfinder at the center of our tragedy, is given enough backstory to make his fanaticism understandable. And the list goes on as we follow Bess and her family through three generations.

If you, like me, have been sitting on this one for years, I suggest you pick it up immediately.

Sunday Post: Getting in the Groove

sThe Sunday Post hosted by the Caffeinated Reader is an opportunity to share with the blogging community what bookish things are happening in our world. So what have I been doing?

Blogging|Last week, I posted reviews of James McBride’s The Color of Water and Zora Neale Hurston’s posthumously published Barracoon. This coming week I have reviews scheduled for Daughters of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt and sweetly by Jackson Pearce.

Reading |I am currently all about Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain, but I also sped my way through Shadows of Glass and Remnants of Tomorrow, books 2 and 3 in Kassy Taylor’s Ashes of Twilight trilogy.

Listening |I absolutely adore Revisionist History by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell’s episode of the week for me was “The Footsoldier of Birmingham” in which Gladwell investigates the statue commemorating the picture of a police dog attacking a Black boy:

footsoldierofbirminghamThe problem is before publishing the photo, before writing the narrative, before making this image a central argument of the Civil Rights movement, no one found out what was really going on. And no one questioned how the above picture became the following statue:

footsoldierofbirminghamstatue

Gladwell takes us through the entire story and makes us think. He’s a fantastic storyteller, a careful thinker, and a casual speaker.

Anticipating | I received two new books in the mail this past week. The first is Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race, a nonfiction children’s book recommended by Jill at rhapsody in books. The second is Abridged Classics: Brief Summaries of Books You Were Supposed to Read But Probably Didn’t, which seems hilarious and was recommended over at Bookfoolery.

Doing | Last week, the family and I celebrated the 4th of July with family, food, and fireworks. For the first time, we had a band at the fireworks which was awesome and my kids got all excited when they would play a song they knew.

The adults loved the music even more than the kids:

fourthfamilyAnd let’s not forget to give much love to my patriotic t-shirt:

fourthshirt

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”

barracoonZora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God strikes me as such a seminal and important work in so many ways: the use of black vernacular, the portrayal of female autonomy, the portrayal of black female autonomy at that, her insistence on writing a story without politicizing, and so on. I fell in love with this story and then I fell in love with Hurston, so when I saw that Barracoon was finally being published, I ordered a copy immediately.

In Barracoon, Hurston interviews Cudjo Lewis and 86 year old man who came to America on the Clotilda, a slave ship operating after the slave trade was outlawed. The ship, and hence Cudjo and the other Africans on the ship, is generally believed to be the very last slaver to cross the Atlantic. When Hurston began her interview with Cudjo, he was the last living survivor of the crossing. Three-months later she had his story.

And it is heart-wrenching. Cudjo speaks with Hurston, tells her his stories, in a way highly reminiscent of traditional oral storytelling with multiple short tales interspersed with lore and asides. He moves from his life in Africa when he was a child through the attack on his village that led to his capture, fascinating tales that really highlight the oft-played-down fact that Cudjo’s life did not begin as an American slave; he was forcibly taken from his life and thrown into another. The story moves on to his imprisonment and subsequent “selection” by American slavers, across the Middle Passage and on to his enslavement in America, his eventual settling in Africatown, and the tragedies of his life while free.

I listen to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History, and in one episode he analyzes why country music is so much sadder than rock music. His answer: specificity. Gladwell argues: “I think the thing that pushes us over the top into tears is details. We cry when melancholy collides with specificity.” And I can’t help but agree. Hearing about Cudjo’s life, the details that make a life story real and personal, is so much more powerful than objective histories and rolls of numbers.

And Hurston ups the ante of specificity with a strong infusion of concrete details of her own. She places the reader on Cudjo’s porch, eating watermelon and peaches with the two of them. And she ups the ante with authenticity. Like in Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston captures Cudjo’s own dialect, his own personal and cultural way of speaking. Apparently when Hurston originally wanted to publish this story, she was told she would have to translate the work into the common (aka white) vernacular. She refused.

If you haven’t read Barracoon yet, buy it now. If you haven’t read Hurston yet, what are you waiting for?

Happy 4th of July!

I hope those of you who celebrate this day have a fantastic time ….. and that no one gets a firecracker to the face. That’s no good. For anyone.

Here’s my and the kids’ post-workout, heading to the pool, group selfie. (Is there a word for group selfie?)

MVIMG_20180703_122104.jpg

The Color of Water by James McBride

colorofwaterThe Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride is the One Division, One Book pick for the 2018-2019 school year. Last year, we read Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok.

McBride’s memoir is a beautifully written tribute to his mother, Ruth, her history, her renunciation of her faith, her role as the white wife and mother in a black family. Ruth McBride is a woman to be admired. Raised in an intolerant Jewish home, Ruth defied the odds and became not only tolerant, but an unconscious activist, completely and utterly joining a culture, religion, and ethnicity removed from her own. And then she bore and raised 12 children. A dozen children. 12.

McBride’s prose is such a perfect combination of academic, literary, and real. The narrative switches chapter by chapter between vignettes told by Ruth and then chapters from James’ point of view, often with commentary on Ruth’s tales. I was often emotionally sucked into Ruth’s story, shocked out it by the switch to James, and then intellectually sucked in to James’ story.

There is a video called The Loving Generation: Checking Boxes which discusses how those of mixed race identify and why it’s important. The first of a four-part docuseries on Topic, this video tackles identity politics as well as the rise of interracial relationships by interviewing many mixed race individuals. I recommend viewing this video alongside reading McBride’s book as he talks about identity politics often in this work as he struggles to define himself – as do his brothers and sisters – in light of his mixed origins.

A definite thumbs up from me, and while I didn’t get it on the book lists for my Fall courses, I will definitely use this book in my Spring courses.

Sunday Post: They’re Scheduled

The Sunday Post hosted by the Caffeinated Reader is an opportunity to share with the blogging community what bookish things are happening in our world. So what have I been doing?

Blogging |Clearly, I have not been blogging. My last post was two months ago. Ah, life. And to be honest, regularly consistent posting was never part of my return to the blogging world. Still, I’m happy to say that for the next month, I have two posts per week already scheduled, and I’m banking on hitting like every other Sunday for an update post. So what’s in store for you readers:

Reading |Reviews and more reviews. I have scheduled posts up for Barracoon, Norse Mythology, How Full is Your Bucket, Sweetly, Stalking Jack the Ripper, Daughters of the Witching Hill, The Color of Water, Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It, all three books in Jeri Smith-Ready’s Shade series, and The Glittering Court. I have plans to start writing reviews for Girl in Translation and The Wicked + The Divine. Oh, and I just started reading Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

In other words, I may not have been blogging, but I’ve definitely been reading.

Visiting | And I’ve been playing with my kids and spending time with extended family:

kidsoncouch.jpg

We visited family in Iowa for a bit, then other familial Iowans came to visit us for a bit:
fishlips.jpgwe plan on celebrating the fourth with family and friends, and in August, over 20 members of my family will be staying together in three houses for our family reunion…which lasts for a week. That’s right. A week. Right before the Fall semester begins. I go back to work on the exact same day the last 8 members of my family fly back home.

A few more pics just for fun:

 

Black Ink: Literary Legends on the Peril, Power, and Pleasure of Reading and Writing

Blackink.jpgBlack Ink: Literary Legends on the Peril, Power, and Pleasure of Reading and Writing is one of the best anthologies I have read in a long, long time. Not only is it well-written, interesting, and important, it’s also extremely relevant to my field of study, my profession, and my passions.

A collection of 25 essays written between the early 1800s and the early 2000s, this anthology of Black writers’ perspectives on reading and writing is a lament for the struggles of those excluded from the literary world and a celebration of the power of that world.

The early essays move readers through the literary journeys of some of the most influential Black authors at the turn of the 20th century. Kept from reading and writing by practice and law, Blacks often learned in secret, protesting their restrictions and then using their newfound power to tell the world the truth about slavery and racism. This section on the Peril of Reading reveals the revolutionary power of words to communicate truth and effect change by excerpting works from The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, Up From Slavery, The Souls of Black Folk, and Twelve Years a Slave. Writing is activism.

The middle section, on the Power of Reading, contains 13 essays from writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr., and Toni Morrison, to name a few. This is a much broader cross-section of authors and topics than part 1 and attempting to effectively paraphrase them in their entirety is just not possible, nor would it communicate the breadth of force these essays possess.

I was particularly interested in Hurston’s “Books and Things” as I had just finished teaching her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. One of the topics the students discovered in researched discussion was Hurston’s contention that books by Black authors did not have to be about the Race Problem and that Hurston received quite a bit of flack for that belief and her practice of it. This essay touches on that theme and I was quite pleased to be able to share it with my students – despite the fact we had moved on to our next novel by that time. 🙂

The third section focuses on the Pleasure of Reading and Writing, featuring authors such as Junot Diaz, Roxane Gay, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. The final selection is an interview with Barack Obama on his relationship with reading. My favorite essay here is “The Danger of a Single Story” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who so beautifully argues the necessity of multiplicity and diversity in stories.

I teach American Literature since 1865 and while I missed the opportunity this time around, I will definitely be using these essays – possibly this entire book – the next time this class is on the schedule and I am fortunate enough to teach it.

Finally, I want to share with you this section from Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s essay:

“What makes these books special – “classic” – however, is something else. Each text has the uncanny capacity to take the seemingly mundane details of the day-to-day African American experience of its time and transmute those details and the characters’ actions into something that transcends its ostensible subject’s time and place, its specificity. These texts reveal the human universal through the African American particular: all true art, all classics, do this; this is what ‘art’ is, a revelation of that which makes each of us sublimely human, rendered in the minute details of the actions and thoughts and feelings of a compelling character embedded in a time and place.”

Nuff said.