Norse Mythology: Neil Gaiman

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I have to admit, it was the cover that attracted me first to this book; second was the name-Norse Mythology and finally Neil Gaiman as the author convinced me that I should read it! And I am glad I did! I don’t know much about Norse Mythology at all, but I have definitely heard of Asgard and of Thor and his legendary hammer.

Before I started reading it, I was expecting the book to flow like the usual fictional novel in a linear pattern; but now that I have finished it, I agree that the small short stories was a better way to go. The book starts by introducing the usual players, then goes on to describe the beginnings, how Thor got his hammer and then the other stories which display the slyness of Loki, the stubbornness of Thor, and general the fickle nature of gods, ending with the end of the world.

As the book is written in short stories you can take breaks while reading but the book in general is pretty unstoppable once you start reading it. What I found very fascinating was even in the times when gods walked the earth, the characteristics of good and evil, weakness and strength, compassion and greed are timeless. Even the gods are not above these traits, and are not above death and mortality-even though they do tend to come back from the dead sometimes.

I love books on mythology because they make me think that maybe these ancient times did exist, who is to deny or accept that claim. Just as maybe Mahabharata existed in ancient old worlds, so did Norse gods. Maybe over time people have not forgotten their deeds, but because they seem so much larger than human lives, people have conveniently decided that this must be all mythology and legends; but who is to say that the legends did not exist years and years ago?

Escape while you can!

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Unless you have been living under a rock in the last few months, then you know the media has been buzzing constantly; first with endless US presidential election campaigning, then the US election night, Indian PM demonetizing the Rs.500 and Rs.1000 bills and then the final cherry on the top: Donald Trump winning the elections to be the 45th President of United States. While all the outside news has been constantly hammering on in my mind, the twists and turns of life and work have also kept me constantly busy.

For as long as I remember whenever life overwhelms me, I have turned to books and reading. Like Hermione in Harry Potter, when faced with a problem I have looked for answers in books and library. So it isn’t surprising that in whatever little time I have had lately I have read voraciously. When there is so much drama happening in real life, one doesn’t want to read anyone else’s life drama; even that of a fictitious character. So I picked up couple of books from science fiction and fantasy genre. Fantasy genre is one of my favourite genres and if the book is a fantasy thriller….my life is all set! I mean who is thinking about real life problems and presidential elects when you are hot on the trail of aliens trying to invade earth or a wizard trying to save humans!

For science fiction this time I tried a book called The Three-body Problem written originally by a Chinese author Liu Cixin and translated in English. I just finished it yesterday and it was one of the most interesting science fiction books I have read; it was mainly about how a group of people are sick of the current state of humanity and decide to invite a race of aliens to save the human kind. It resonated with me because this is exactly how I feel about human race today, where we are completely losing touch with our humanity. While realistic it was also thrilling, fun and educational. Today I picked up Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. I have never read any Ursula Le Guin, but have heard wonderful things about her writing and I am excited to start the book. The other one I picked up was Fool Moon by Jim Butcher which is the book 2 in the Dresden Files series. Most of the books in this series can be read standalone and I have read a couple of them in no particular order; but this time I decided to start reading the series in its right sequence.

I have always loved to read thrillers, mysteries and adventure stories.  I guess I have always looked for a way to escape the reality even if it is for a little while, if I can get a fun ride with a wizard or an alien during that escape I am more than happy to get on it!

Our Moon has Blood Clots-Rahul Pandita

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This was not an easy book to read and it is certainly not easy to review. It isn’t a story which you read in your free time and forget about it. It is a personal memoir of the exile of Kashmiri Pandits-a Hindu minority in a Muslim majority Kashmir valley. It is the story of how systematically Kashmiri Pandits were forced to flee their homes leaving everything behind, carrying with them only the hope that someday they will return back to their ancestral lands. In a matter of fact style, Rahul Pandita recounts the names of his pandit neighbors, family and friends who were forced to flee or killed or worse. It cannot have been easy to recount those terrifying days of childhood, but the author does it without any drama and fanfare. The recount of the cold January night in 1990 when the neighbourhood mosques start the anti-India and Azadi (freedom) slogans was terrifying to read. It is impossible to imagine the fear of the parents with 2 young children when they hear the mob outside their house shout out messages about turning Kashmir into Pakistan with the help of pandit women.

Ever line you read hits you, because these are not just random names you are reading on the page of a book; these are real people, names with faces who once had dreams and lives same as you; the lives that were snuffed or irrevocably changed in the name of religion and ethnic cleansing. No it is not an easy book to read, but it has to be read to realize that human beings are not really human. History has shown us that time and again, human beings will kill and maim each other at the slightest excuse. Sometimes for land, sometimes for god and sometimes for the power; the excuses change but the outcome doesn’t.

Like most refugees, the Pandits will also probably will never return back home; and if they do what will they return back to; terror and discrimination or peace?

Hammered-Kevin Hearne

Hammered by Kevin Hearne is the third book in The Iron Druid Chronicles. The concept of an Irish Druid and all the related mythologies fascinated me when I started the first book Hounded. It was interesting enough that I immediately went ahead and read the second one Hexed. But somewhere by the time the second book ended, I lost my interest in the series. I picked up this third book Hammered just because I saw it in my Goodreads feed and wanted to give the series another shot.

Hammered starts right off the bat with Atticus’s crazy trip to Asgard. He somehow makes it back to Tempe but not before causing some serious damage. It seems like his thousands of years of quiet existence is about to end and nothing will be the same from here on. He has agreed to take Leif Helgarson to Asgard to get his revenge on Thor-thunder god. They meet up with additional powerful beings on the way, each one of whom has their own reasons for being on this crazy trip to kill the thunder god.

The story flows well enough and is very readable if you ignore the little incongruent details. I think there was no reason to include that scene with Jesus and the Hammer of God. Yes it was important to include that warning, but I am sure the author could have delivered it in a different way. I think that’s when it started to get a little too far fetched for me. It was pretty naïve for Atticus to think that all he was doing was helping Leif get to Asgard and that he wouldn’t be required to fight! I agree that he was doing was keeping his word to his friend, but his reactons seemed very naïve in most situations.

My favorite bits have always been Atticus’s conversations with Oberon and his interactions with Granuaile. It makes me wish I had a pet with whom I could communicate in private, how much fun would that be! I felt the action scenes were written well and the picture in my mind of Atticus wielding his sword makes me sigh happily! Overall the story flowed well enough to keep me entertained. The end of this book intrigued me enough to keep going with the series for now.

End of an Era

Daily Post-Off the Shelf

I love re-reading books. Even though I have a ‘to-be read’ list stretching a mile long, I like to think that I can take time out to re-read the books I have loved. Yes, you can’t look at the book with fresh eyes anymore, but I re-read to re-capture the essence of the book and sometimes to remind myself of my own thoughts and feelings the first time I read the book.

The one that would be on my first re-read list would be Yuganta by Iravati Karve. It was recommended to me by someone whose tastes and opinions matter a lot to me. Yuganta literally meaning ‘end of an era/epoch’ was originally written in Marathi (Indian language) and then translated to English. Yuganta is an analysis of Mahabharata by Dr. Iravati Karve. It presents a complete analytical picture of the characters and personalities in Mahabharata. Her analysis on concept of Hinduism as a religion which used to be modern in ancient times and its current regression in the modern times is very enlightening.

My second re-read would be The Class by Eric Segal. I have re-read it twice before, but there’s something about that book which touches my heart. It reiterates for me the concept that our hi-flying education doesn’t teach anything of importance like friendships, kindness, and ability to accept failure.

I hope I get a chance for these re-reads soon!

The Poisoner’s Handbook

The Poisoner’s Handbook by science writer Deborah Blum is about the birth of forensic toxicology in United States in early 20th century against the backdrop of prohibition and depression era. This book is primarily about pioneering efforts of Charles Norris – first chief medical examiner of New York and Alexander Gettler; his chief toxicologist. Together these two scientists changed the face of toxicology in the laboratories and in the courtrooms. They established the field of toxicology, bringing it the reputation it deserved and using scientific evidence to bring the poisoner’s to justice.

The book starts with a prologue about the lack of sufficient tools or methods for detection of poisons in early 19th century. It then describes the major poisons, starting with simple chloroform in early 1900’s and ending with thallium in 1930’s. Each chapter in the book is dedicated to a poison and the book progresses in the chronological manner, indicating the various important stages in the scientific development.

I have always been fascinated by forensics. While in undergrad school for pharmaceutical sciences pharmacology and toxicology was one of my favorite subjects along with organic and general chemistry. There is something very earthy and basic about getting your hands dirty while working in the lab. This book talks about the time when there were no hi-tech scientific instruments like mass spectrometers and liquid chromatography systems. Alexander Gettler invented his own analytical and detection ‘wet chemistry’ methods using his instincts and solid chemistry knowledge. He worked and published papers on poisons like methyl alcohol, cyanide, carbon monoxide, chloroform, thallium, developed techniques to find the minimum lethal doses of these poisons, refined the then existing analytical techniques-all this while being underpaid civil worker. The book talks about Charles Norris’ persistent troubles with the then mayoral authorities of New York, his constant struggles for getting higher budgets for medical examiner’s office and his initial troubles in getting the judicial system to allow scientific evidence in the courts.

It is a very well written and well researched book. It reads like a medical thriller as the reader constantly thinks how is Gettler going to detect this new poison! It imparts the right knowledge without sounding pedantic or too technical, it gives all the details but with the ease that a layman will understand. I am grateful to Deborah Blum for writing this book, otherwise I would have never known about these amazing ordinary heroes who fought so hard in their labs to make this world a better place. Anybody with an interest in chemistry with or without the chemistry background should be able to read and enjoy this book.

Just young not adult

Before the City of Bones, Vampire Academies, Hunger Games and Harry Potters…there was Enid Blyton- Famous Five, Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys-at least for me! Only in those days it was called teenage fiction and not young adult or YA; as it is more popularly known to many.

That was when the teenage books were written about adventures at school or with friends at your family island. Teenage books were about finding lost treasure or solving a small town mystery not about falling in love at age of 14 with vampires and saving the world! I remember reading my first Nancy Drew called Password in Larkspur Lane at age 10 and being so fascinated with this 18-year old girl detective. I admit Nancy had a boy-friend, but that didn’t come until later books and it was always so subtle. It was so much fun being 13 and discussing the handsome Ned Nickerson with your friends. A little later I started reading Hardy Boys which none of my girlfriends liked but I loved them, especially Frank Hardy.

I could probably not re-read Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys again, but I could re-read Enid Blyton any time at any age. My favourite Enid Blyton series were Malory Towers and Five-find outers. Malory Towers follows a group of girls at a girls’ school called St. Clare’s and has six books in the series. It follows the main heroine Darrell Rivers from age 12-18. The book consists of her friendships, pranks and journey through school. It is something that any teenage girl could relate to, but I especially found it fun because I went to a convent school just like Darrell Rivers. Five-find outers was another favorite series consisting of a group of kids who solve small-town mysteries.

These books had fun, mystery, characters and above all innocence found only in a 14-year old. These books were not of a 16-year old trying to kill kids like in Hunger Games. The series which was closest to the old style was Harry Potter. It was full of fun, adventure, magic and still innocence on so many levels. These days everywhere you turn there is a new young adult urban fantasy book coming out next month! Urban fantasy genre is a lot of fun to read, but not with a teenage kid trying to behave like a 30-year old and saving the world. There are good coming of age books out there like “Tell the wolves I’m home”, but they are few and far in between. How about we leave the world saving and falling seriously in love to adults and let the young adults be just young!