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Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman review – nice dramatic narratives, but where’s the nihilism? | Books | The Guardian


With its chatty gods and gentle giants, Gaiman’s good-natured version of the mythos lacks brutal tragedy at its heart

Source: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman review – nice dramatic narratives, but where’s the nihilism? | Books | The Guardian

by Ursula K Le Guin

Any retelling of a tale from times long past must be an interpretation, a translation into language and concepts that the present audience understands. The original myth may have been told as uninterpreted fact, but later re-tellers are and must be conscious of who their audience is and the purpose of the telling. To what extent does this consciousness shape the choice of what’s told and the language that it’s told in? Interpretation may clarify, betray, reveal, deform.

For the Norse myths, we really have no original, only interpretations. Most of the material was first written down by a single monk a century or more after Christianity had outlawed and supplanted the “heathen” religion of northern Europe. Later came scholarly attempts to translate and present the stories so as to glimpse what the lost original versions may have been.

Then came use of elements of the mythos in drama and opera, free adaptations for modern readers, and the appearance of increasingly familiar tropes in books for young children, cartoons, graphic presentations, animated films, and so on. A luxuriant growth indeed from the few, fragile stems of medieval manuscripts, one of which lay hidden for several centuries in a barn in Iceland.

Their survival is remarkable, for the Norse tales are about as un-Christian as you can get: no all-powerful creator deity, no human virtue rewarded but courage in battle, and on the Last Day, no salvation for anybody. Their fascination for us may be this near-nihilism: a world created essentially by nobody out of nothing, an existence of endless warfare and the rivalry of brutal, dishonest powers, ending in defeat for all. In contrast, the classical myths retold to us through centuries of splendid verbal and visual art can seem pallid. The stark cruelty and essential hopelessness of the Norse stories suits the artistic taste of the last century, our hunger for darkness.

Neil Gaiman tells us that he first met the Norse tales in the graphic narratives that we go on calling comics or comic books, a stupid name considering the breadth of their subject matter. It is a medium well suited to the material: vivid, sparing of words, long on action, short on reflection though given to pithy wisdom. Heroes, shape-changers, battles, superpowers and superweapons – a half-blind wizard, an eight-legged horse, the battlements of Asgard, the Rainbow Bridge – all are perfectly at home in the world of comics.

Gaiman’s characteristically limpid, quick-running prose keeps the dramatic impetus of the medieval texts, if not their rough-hewn quality. His telling of the tales is for children and adults alike, and this is both right and wise, it being the property of genuine myth to be accessible on many levels.

The language of books loved in childhood retains an authority it is useless to question even when impossible to justify. I grew up with Padraic Colum’s Children of Odin, published in 1920, and the stories exist for me in the fine cadences of his prose. Gaiman’s version is certainly a worthy shelf-partner to Colum’s, and perhaps a better choice for a contemporary child reader, used to a familiar tone and a “friendly” approach.

Gaiman plays down the extreme strangeness of some of the material and defuses its bleakness by a degree of self-satire. There is a good deal of humour in the stories, the kind most children like – seeing a braggart take a pratfall, watching the cunning little fellow outwit the big dumb bully. Gaiman handles this splendidly. Yet I wonder if he tries too hard to tame something intractably feral, to domesticate a troll.

It all comes back to the matter of interpretation. In her 2011 book Ragnarok, AS Byatt used the Norse mythos to express her own childhood experience of world war and as a parable of the irrational human behaviours that result in mass ruin and destruction. Such interpretations are perfectly valid in themselves but don’t serve well as a retelling of the myths. They are more of the order of meditations on a religious text, sermons on the meaning of biblical stories. Gaiman does not use the Norse material this way; he simply tells us the story, and tells it well.

What finally left me feeling dissatisfied is, paradoxically, the pleasant, ingratiating way in which he tells it. These gods are not only mortal, they’re a bit banal. They talk a great deal, in a conversational tone that descends sometimes to smart-ass repartee. This chattiness will be familiar to an audience accustomed to animated film and graphic narrative, which have grown heavy with dialogue, and in which disrespect is generally treated as a virtue. But it trivialises, and I felt sometimes that this vigorous, robust, good-natured version of the mythos gives us everything but the very essence of it, the heart.

The Norse myths were narrative expressions of a religion deeply strange to us. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are divine comedies: there may be punishment for the wicked, but the promise of salvation holds. What we have from the Norse is a fragment of a divine tragedy. Vague promises of a better world after the Fimbulwinter and the final apocalypse are unconvincing; that’s not where this story goes. It goes inexorably from nothingness into night. You just can’t make pals of these brutal giants and self-destructive gods. They are tragic to the bone.



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New York 2140: Kim Stanley Robinson dreams vivid about weathering climate crisis

In 2012, Kim Stanley Robinson published 2312, imagining how the world and its neighbors might look in 300 years, loosely coupled with the seminal Red Mars books, a futuristically pastoral novel abo…

by Cory Doctorow

Source: New York 2140: Kim Stanley Robinson dreams vivid about weathering climate crisis

In 2012, Kim Stanley Robinson published 2312, imagining how the world and its neighbors might look in 300 years, loosely coupled with the seminal Red Mars books, a futuristically pastoral novel about the way that technology can celebrate the glories of nature; in 2015, Robinson followed it up with Aurora, the best book I read that year, which used 2312’s futures to demolish the idea that we can treat space colonization (and other muscular technological projects) as Plan B for climate change — a belief that is very comforting to those who don’t or can’t imagine transforming capitalism into a political system that doesn’t demolish the planet. Now, with New York 2140, Robinson starts to connect the dots between these different futures with a bold, exhilarating story of life in a permanent climate crisis, where most people come together in adversity, but where a small rump of greedy, powerful people get in their way.

It’s 2140 and trillions of dollars’ worth of the world’s most valuable real estate is now submerged under fifty feet of water, resulting from two great “surges” where runaway polar melting created sudden, punctuated disasters that displaced billions of people, wiped trillions off the world’s balance sheets, and turned the great cities of the world into drowned squatter camps.

But it’s 2140, and the cities are coming back. The combination of financial speculation, desperate refugees willing to do anything to find shelter, and new technological innovations are spawning “SuperVenice”s where boats replace cars and high-rises connect to each other with fairytale skybridges, and pumped-out subway stations become underwater leisure clubs. No SuperVenice is more super than New York City, where the boats ply midtown Manhattan’s skyscrapers and everything from Chelsea down is an intertidal artificial reef where, every now and again, hundreds of squatters die as the buildings topple.

The forces of finance are deeply interested in the intertidal zones. These great cities were once the world’s ultimate luxury products and now they’re marine salvage, waiting to be dredged up from the tidal basins, dusted off and monetized. Yeah, there’s millions of inconvenient poors hanging out in them, but they’re a market failure, producing suboptimal rents on some seriously distressed assets that need a little TLC, capital infusion, and ruthless securitization to bring them back.

Robinson is a master of turning stories about zoning disputes and local politics into gripping, un-put-down-able adventure tales (his novel Pacific Edge remains the most uplifting book in my library). New York 2140 is a spectacular exemplar of the tactic: the financial shenanigans form a backdrop for submarine drone-wars, black-ops kidnappings, private security assassinations, non-state actor cyberwar and economic terrorism, buried treasure hunting, and big, muscular technologies from giant dredging barges to aerosolized diamond sprays.

But more than an adventure tale, New York 2140 is a vivid narrative about how our best natures can best natural catastrophes: how the goodwill, cooperation, and kindness of humans can overcome the wickedness, self-deception, and greed of humans.

I am increasingly certain that these stories are an urgent political project. We are all prone to the availability heuristic, in which things that are easily imagined are considered more likely than things that are hard to imagine. Since the Reagan years, our overwhelming stories about humans is our greed and selfishness (indeed, these are virtues in the Randian conception of free market utopianism), and so whenever someone says, “We will need to cooperate with each other to solve climate change,” it’s hard to imagine — but it’s easy to imagine how, after the change, we can set up brutal, Mad Max-ian strong-man societies (see, e.g., The Walking Dead) where you’re either a cannibal warlord, or your dinner.

The space of stories we can imagine constrains the space of political solutions we’re willing to include in the Overton window. Vivid, engrossing tales about the best natures of humans overcoming the worst are a weapon against despair and cynicism — and may be the necessary precondition for the survival of our species.

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Changes In ‘New York Times’ Books Coverage, Explained

At a luncheon in Manhattan yesterday, ‘New York Times Book Review’ editor Pamela Paul, who oversees all books coverage at the ‘New York Times,’ laid out the newspaper’s vision for the future of its newly-unified books desk.

Source: Changes In ‘New York Times’ Books Coverage, Explained

by John Maher

At a luncheon hosted by the Publishers Advertising and Marketing Association (PAMA) at the New York Times headquarters on Wednesday, New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul explained the paper’s vision for the future of its books coverage.

Paul has overseen all books coverage at the New York Times since the paper’s executive editor, Dean Baquet, announced changes to the newspaper’s books coverage last summer. She has also previously spoken about some of the changes, including the unification of the paper’s separate books teams under one desk, and the deprioritization of reviews in favor of more custom-tailored and wide-ranging forms of coverage.

But after the Times eliminated a number of its bestsellers lists in January, many in publishing have found themselves asking questions about the paper’s coverage of books and worrying what the shift means.

“When I hear that [a media outlet is consolidating], as an outsider…my very jaundiced, skeptical take is, ‘Oh, they’re cutting back,'” Paul said. “That is actually not the case in this instance. It is the opposite.”

Paul stressed that the Times is actually expanding its books coverage, with the intent of becoming more “strategic” in how it covers particular books. Previously, the paper had three separate desks that covered books entirely independent of one another—the Business Day, which is where publishing reporter Alexandra Alter was assigned; the Daily Critics, comprised of Michiko Kakutani, Dwight Garner, and Jennifer Senior; and the Sunday Book Review—with very little communication between teams and some duplication in what was covered. That will now change, with all books coverage falling under a single Books Desk umbrella.

In simple terms, the Times is moving from a review-oriented strategy to a strategy that aptly covers categories that are of interest to their readers but are “review-proof,” or wouldn’t necessarily benefit from a 1,200-word review in the New York Times Book Review. (Examples include, with exceptions, mysteries, parenting books, business books, or health books.)

Previously, Paul said, the Times’ books coverage consisted “85% of reviews” with the rest being “a mix of profiles, industry news, features, and bestseller lists.” This approach, she said, resulted in “a lot of duplication.” In other words, at a Times that has rapidly expanded its digital strategy, the question will no longer be, she said, “Does this book merit a review,” but rather, “Does this book merit coverage?”

To this end, Paul noted that the Times has been, and will continue, hiring new writers and editors to write about books in different ways. Those editors and writers will be focused “across all genres,” Paul said, and covering—but not reviewing—books she feels the paper did not effectively cover in the past.

While Laura Marmor was brought to the Books Desk from the NYT Styles Desk as deputy editor of news and features, the biggest recent hire at the Books Desk was of new editorial director Radhika Jones, who came from Time magazine, where she edited features including the Time 100 Most Influential People. (Before Time, Jones was at the Paris Review.) Jones will be spearheading an upcoming redesign of the New York Times Book Review, which remains “central” to the newspaper’s books-related mission. The redesign will affect both digital and print and, Paul said, in an email to PW, be unveiled sometime this summer. David Kelly remains the deputy editor of the New York Times Book Review.

Paul also addressed concerns over the slashing of bestseller lists including mass market and comics. Regarding how the bestseller lists team compiles the lists, “their methodology has not changed,” Paul said, “and I can say that with a mix of total confidence and total ignorance.” She continued: “I will say, there does still exist that line between editors and the bestseller lists in that we don’t know their special sauce. We don’t want to know it, nor should we know it. We oversee them and they are part of our group, but we don’t interfere with that process.”

As for the reasoning behind which lists were cut, Paul said that cuts were made “strategically in a way that every book still has a chance to be on a bestseller list.” She then added: “There’s no book that doesn’t have a chance to get on there. It’s just that the competition is tougher.”

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James Lee Burke – The Jealous Kind review

The heavyweight champ returns to conclude his trilogy. Book review by Liz Thomson

Source: James Lee Burke – The Jealous Kind review

In the heat of a Texas summer, Aaron Holland Broussard comes of age. It’s 1952: the two world wars still cast their long shadows and, far away, the Americans are fighting the Russians in a proxy war around the 38th Parallel.

Aaron’s a good guy, an only child in a dysfunctional household – father a drinker, probably suffering what today we’d call post-traumatic stress disorder having gone over the top in the Great War, mother who’s been through the mill with all the grim treatments thrown at depressives back then. Aaron looks after his animals and plays his old Gibson, trying all the while to beat back the fear and anxiety with which he awakens daily. On a Galveston beach following the swim of his young life, he spots Valerie Epstein, beautiful and (as it turns out) brainy, arguing with handsome low-life Grady Harrelson in his pink Cadillac convertible, and falls “joyously, sick-down-in-your-soul in love”. In the blink of an eye as Valerie throws back Grady’s graduation ring and walks away, “like Helen of Troy turning her back on Attica”, Aaron has made himself a whole legion of enemies all of whom he is determined to vanquish in defence of his beloved.

Saber, a kid from the wrong side of the tracks, is Aaron’s best friend from school, a fearless prankster for whom nothing is too much trouble. Soon both boys are embroiled not just with teenage hoodlums but with mobsters, drug dealers and corrupt cops, guns-for-hire who’ll stop at nothing to make their point.

The Jealous Kind concludes the trilogy that began with Wayfaring Stranger and House of the Rising Sun, a story which draws on Burke’s maternal family lore. The author himself was born in Houston and spent his childhood on the Gulf Coast. His daddy worked on “the pipeline” in the days when, if you had a job, you were as they say “in tall cotton” and the American dream was opportunity not fantasy. Burke was born in 1936, so in ’52 he’d have been Aaron’s age. Like the young James, who wrote his first novel in an effort to pay off his college bills, Aaron too is a would-be writer, and like him plays the guitar.

Souped-up old cars, drive-ins and juke joints are the backdrop to a story that’s set in the still-segregated south, blacks and Mexicans outcasts in a society of Mob rule, with torture and beatings, arson and shootings – rough justice casually meted out by those whose machismo has been trampled. His experience in the trenches have made Aaron’s father, an amateur historian, fiercely anti-violence and he expects his only son to be a good guy. The two attend mass together and, like his dad, Aaron holds firm to the Catholic rite and the sanctity of the confessional.

Like all Burke’s books – including the score of novels featuring New Orleans cop Dave Robicheaux – The Jealous Kind is the story of a struggle between good and evil, the rich and the righteous. Fiction, Burke believes, must have a moral line or risk being inconsequential. His characters always indicate that violence is a defeat and if it is committed it is in defence of another. Like so many of Burke’s characters, including Robicheaux, Aaron is essentially the Good Knight, a young man on a pilgrimage toward redemption.

Michael Connelly has called James Lee Burke “the heavy-weight champ” while for Stephen King he’s a “gorgeous prose stylist”. He is both of those things and more, his writing richly expressive and his ear pitch-perfect for the jive talk of the punks and pachucos and the white trash who people his novels. Passing references speak volumes: Grady’s father is reading “a collection of essays by Harry H Laughlin”, America’s leading eugenicist, while Aaron reflects: “The great gift of the government to our generation was the WPA program known simply as the bookmobile. Those of us who loved books didn’t learn to love them at school; we learned a love of literature by reading the adventures of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys and Richard Halliburton.”

That’s Burke speaking for sure, the old-fashioned left-wing Catholic who believes that Jesus was a radical egalitarian. Donald Trump will be grist to his literary mill.

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PW Picks: Books of the Week, December 7, 2015

This week at Publisher’s Weekly: a bibulous Southern preacher’s perverse quest for sainthood, plus how human perception is changing.




Sophia by Michael Bible (Melville House) – Bible’s short, comic novel, which relates a bibulous Southern preacher’s perverse quest for sainthood, is full of small miracles. The Reverend Alvis T. Maloney is a Rabelaisian figure, the “lazy priest of [the] town’s worst church,” whose irrepressible appetites lead him into distinctly unholy alliances with his parishioners and the Holy Ghost, about whom he has recurring erotic dreams that would make John Donne blush. Whether he is a man more sinned against than sinning is an open question, but his desire to follow his own unorthodox righteous path is undisputed. The plot is almost secondary, though there is an excess of it: a cross-country chess tournament tour with Eli, a prodigy and Maloney’s “redneck Virgil”; an attack on a suburban house involving a hot air balloon; and a game of wits with a blind bounty hunter chasing Maloney and his pregnant lover from “the great Southern Bohemia” to New York City. Bible shrewdly pairs his maximalist comic style with a minimalist form. The novella is composed of short, paragraph-long scenes that are variously poetic, bawdy, and zany.

The Verdict

The Verdict

The Verdict by Nick Stone (Pegasus Crime) – This propulsive legal thriller from Thriller Award–winner Stone (Mr. Clarinet) centers on the arrest and impending trial—seemingly a certain prosecutorial slam dunk—of multimillionaire hedge funder Vernon James, a poor West Indian immigrant’s son, for the murder of the young blond whose strangled body is found in his luxury suite at the London hotel where only hours earlier he accepted an award from the Hoffmann Trust, a liberal umbrella organization, as “Ethical Person of the Year.” James’s predicament should come as catnip to Terry Flynt—at 38 hanging on by his fingernails to a job as a lowly legal clerk—who blames James, his former childhood best friend, for getting him booted out of Cambridge and starting him on the downward spiral of booze and depression that nearly destroyed his life. But, as Flynt is stunned to discover when he’s tapped to work on the defense team, his feelings are significantly more complicated, especially once the evidence he starts to uncover suggests that James might be innocent.

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The best recent science fiction – review roundup

Eric Brown on Chris Beckett’s Mother of Eden; Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet; Stephen Palmer’s Beautiful Intelligence; Ian Sales’s All That Outer Space Allows; SL Grey’s Under Ground; Alex Lamb’s Roboteer

by Eric Brown


Chris Beckett won the 2013 Arthur C Clarke award for his novel Dark Eden, about the survival and adaptation of human colonists on a world without light. The sequel, Mother of Eden (Corvus, £17.99), begins generations later, charting the growth and political divisions between the colonists. It follows the rise of Starlight Brooking, a humble fishergirl, and her quest to bring equality and revolution to Edenheart, a settlement ruled by a conservative patriarchy. Beckett doesn’t do traditional heroes and villains: Starlight Brooking is contradictory and flawed, at once brave and vulnerable, and likewise his villains are portrayed with sympathy and understanding. He also eschews easy answers and formulaic plotting; where a hundred other writers would have Starlight triumph over her enemies, her victories are on a more profound and personal level, and not without tragedy. Mother of Eden is a masterpiece.

When the captain of the Wayfarer starship is offered a job travelling to a faraway planet that could make him and his crew financially secure, he agrees despite the dangers involved.Such a precis might suggest that Becky Chambers’s first novel, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99), originally self‑published and shortlisted for the Kitschies awards, is an action-adventure space opera. But this is a slow, discursive novel of character as the motivations of the diverse and likable crew, comprising humans and aliens, are laid bare for the reader’s delight. It is a quietly profound, humane tour de force that tackles politics and gender issues with refreshing optimism.

Stephen Palmer’s marvellous ninth novel, Beautiful Intelligence (Infinity Plus, £8.99), posits a beleaguered 22nd century in which oil has run out, water is scarce, and in a neat inversion of the contemporary world order, Europe is an economic ruin and Africa the promised land. Two techno wizards abscond from a Japanese laboratory, each attempting to develop artificial intelligence according to their own philosophies – one based on the social intelligence theory of consciousness, the other on a linguistic approach – but billionaire tech-mogul Aritomo Ichikawa will stop at nothing to get them back. What follows is a thrilling chase across a ravaged Europe, a burgeoning North Africa and balkanised US, interleaving excellent action set-pieces with fascinating philosophising on the nature of consciousness. A gripping read to the poignant last line.

More at:*gdnbooks

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Book review: John D. MacDonald Before Travis McGee

Book Review: John D. MacDonald Before Travis McGee – WSJ.

There’s a special kind of poignancy—amounting at times to pure excruciation—in seeing a great writer get famous for his worst books. When people bring up John D. MacDonald, they are almost always thinking of the dopey series of adventure stories he wrote about a Florida beach bum named Travis McGee. Ignored and forgotten are his early novels, 40 of them, which he poured out in one decadelong creative rush in the 1950s—thrillers, crime dramas, social melodramas, even science fiction—that taken together make him one of the secret masters of American pop fiction.

John D. MacDonald

John D. MacDonald

There is some hope that the situation may be about to change. Random House is engaged in a major effort to make almost all of MacDonald’s work available again. Inevitably, pride of place is being given to the McGee series, now reissued in spiffy trade paperbacks—all 21 of them, written between the early 1960s and MacDonald’s death in 1986, identifiable by their cutesy color-coded titles (“Darker Than Amber,” “Dress Her In Indigo,” “Pale Gray for Guilt”) as though they were a noir-inflected line of designer paint chips.

They were meant to be commercial products, and their main appeal today is nostalgia. They’re a kind of mausoleum of postwar American machismo. McGee is the classic wish-fulfillment daydream: an idler on a permanent vacation, who lives on a houseboat on Florida’s Atlantic Coast. He is tanned, ruggedly handsome and muscular; irresistible to women (something about his rueful romantic melancholy and his preference for athletic, commitment-free sex); and intimidating to men (in the late and feeble “Free Fall in Crimson,” where McGee should by rights be filling out membership forms for AARP, his superior masculinity awes and humbles a motorcycle gang).

In novel after novel, nobody ever bests McGee, nobody ever seriously challenges him—though the bad guys do sneak up behind him and knock him unconscious so many times you wonder if he needs a neurologist on speed dial. Meanwhile, the action keeps grinding to a halt so McGee can vent his opinions on contemporary life: the best power tools, the perfect cocktail, the proper way to set up stereo speakers, the menace of air conditioning in grocery stores. These opinions are notable mainly for their unconscious philistinism—as when the perfect dinner menu proves to be this staccato bark: “medium rare, butter on the baked, Italian dressing.” No real man in those days ever ate anything but steak, potato and salad.

But then there’s the rest of MacDonald’s oeuvre. Random House is issuing these in a jumble of paperback reprints and e-book exclusives, but at least they’re there, and no longer need be scrounged out at ruinous prices from the secondhand market. These are the books MacDonald did before he invented McGee, when he was trying out every conceivable pop genre of the postwar market, from soft-core sex comedies to psychological horror.

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