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?

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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!

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.

All Soul’s Trilogy

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Deborah Harkness is an academician and a historian, the fact which is apparent in her books. Discovery of Witches has the magic and thrill of the forbidden love and Shadow of Night takes us further beyond that romance and into the realities of loving your enemy. Both the books are amazingly well-written, with fleshed out characters and enough thrill to keep you turning those pages well into the night.

A Discovery of Witches: A Discovery of Witches starts with a young, inexperienced Diana Bishop accidently unearthing a long lost alchemical manuscript at the Bodelian Library in Oxford. This discovery soon puts vampires, daemons and other witches hot on Diana’s trail, including a biochemist and ancient vampire-Matthew Clairmont. With every creature desperate to discover the secrets of the alchemical manuscript, the book follows Matthew and Diana as they journey from Oxford, to France to Madison, New York to find the secrets buried since ancient times.

 It starts with Diana-a reluctant witch-accidently discovering the lost manuscript, which the creatures-witches, vampires, and daemons- are desperately searching for centuries. While the book has a little slow start, it grips you right from the first page. Diana Bishop is portrayed as a reluctant witch who is trying to break out of her witch heritage. She’s smart, strong, and strong-willed. Matthew Clairmont is a biochemist looking for reasons the creatures are dying out. Since time immemorial forbidden love has caught our fantasies and this tale of suspense and love between a witch and a vampire is no different. On one side is the congregation of creatures who will stop at nothing to get back the lost manuscript and avoid the union of a powerful witch and a vampire and on the good side are the creatures ready to kill and die so that others can live free. The book will have you fall in love with not just Matthew Clairmont, but the other characters including Hamish, Marcus, Sarah and Emily.

Shadow of Night: Shadow of Night begins exactly where The Discovery of Witches left off. With Diana trying to fit in the 16th century England and Matthew trying to keep her safe from the witch trials, the couple is having a tough enough time, without adding the congregation and Elizabethan politics. The second book of the trilogy, focuses on Matthew and Diana looking for a powerful witch to train Diana on her witchcraft along with the lost alchemical manuscript.

This is the book where Deborah Harkness’s background as a historian shines through. While reading the Shadow of Night, you don’t just read Diana and Matthew’s story, you are also educated about the England of middle ages, the important characters and a short course on Elizabethan politics. Her writing is crisp and detailed enough that you can picture the 1590’s London in your mind, but not so detailed that you are bogged down with descriptions. Again like in the first book, this one has well rounded characters, and story moves forward from London to France to Prague and back.

While many people have compared this series to Twilight, this wouldn’t be further from truth. The richness of Deborah’s writing will immerse you in the book and leave you wanting for more. It will leave you caring and loving the characters as if they were alive, and that is a mark of a good book in my opinion. The last book in the series comes out in July and I am excited, yet sad to see the end of All Soul’s Trilogy. Hopefully Deborah Harknesss has more in store for us. Don’t miss this amazing series. 

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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In, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” Rebecca Skloot tries to tell the story of the woman behind the HeLa cell line and her family’s struggles with the science of her immortality. HeLa cell line was created at the time when bioethics was an unheard concept and the experimentation on African-American population was at its peak. Rebecca Skloot writes in a narrative fashion starting with Henrietta’s visit to John Hopkins Hospital to get her ‘knot in the womb’ looked at. The author then goes on to describe a bit about Henrietta’s life- as a child and an adult- in Clover, Virginia and then Turner Station. The book describes the revolutionary science made possible because of HeLa cells and the lack of ethical considerations during the research on the African-American patients and the mentally ill patients. Finally, a large portion of the book deals with the Lacks’ continuous struggle with understanding the science behind immortal cells and with the balance between privacy and notoriety.

Non-fictional writing is always a balancing act between keeping the facts correct and keeping the story interesting. Writing about science with bioethics being a primary concern in the book is always dicey. I definitely enjoyed having a mental debate about the ethical ramifications of the HeLa cells. Does anyone really have a complete right over their cells and tissues – especially when discarded; as with the HeLa cells which are from a cancerous cervical tissue? Science has come a long way from the plague epidemic of the middle ages to eradication of small pox by vaccinations; but a lot of it has been on the back of the unaware, vulnerable populations. Science has always exploited the easily available, vulnerable sections of society from kids to prisoners to sharecroppers. These immeasurable contributions have led modern science to where it is today and none of the scientific discoveries would have been possible with the regulations today. Of course, that doesn’t make all the wrongs done in the name of science right, but this ethical debate will never end, and it shouldn’t but that’s the story for another blog.

The sections of book relating to the Lacks’ ignorance and struggle about Henrietta’s immortal cell line- were the most uncomfortable for me. While the author tries to show that she was trying to help them tell their story, it felt as if she was exploiting them for the sake of the story (which probably was needed and is true). While reading the book, it felt that a connecting link was missing which makes the reader feel deeply about the characters and their struggles. In spite of spending many years trying to understand and write about Lacks’, the reader feels the disconnect between the author and her subjects. The only section of the book that didn’t come off ‘manufactured’ was the section about Elsie Lacks and the research on epileptic patients. Also no one can deny the fact while HeLa launched many careers and discoveries; Henrietta’s family continues to fight for doctors and insurance money. But again the chances of the family ever receiving any kind of monetary help for the cells are nil.

Overall, for those interested in the science behind the HeLa cell line I am sure there are better books out there. For others who want a humanitarian story, probably this is worth a read.

 

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!

Yuganta-Iravati Karve

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This is a second book in recent times that I have read about Mahabharata, and each one is diametrically opposite to the other. While the Palace of Illusions reads like a novel written by an amateur, Yuganta is disturbing and thought-provoking compilation by an expert.  Yuganta literally means End of an Epoch/Age. Yuganta is an analysis of Mahabharata by Dr. Iravati Karve. She was an anthropologist by education and in Yuganta she presented a complete analytical picture of the characters and personalities in Mahabharata.

Dr. Karve has analyzed the main characters of Mahabharata namely Bhishma, Dhritrashtra, Vidur, Kunti, Gandhari, Duryodhan, Arjun, Yudhishtir, Karna and Draupadi and of course Krishna. Surprisingly her analysis on Krishna is everything but reverent.  At the same time she explains the various Sanskrit terms, the caste system during the time of Mahabharata, the Kshatriya philosophies and code of conduct, and also draws parallels to the Greek philosophy.

In her analysis all the characters have shades of grey with none of them being completely bad nor fully good and right. While Duryodhana has always been considered villain, he has his good moments. And Arjun and Krishna while always being considered on the side of justice and good, have done some completely inhumane and unethical deeds. Her character analysis makes one think that Mahabharata actually did happen in 1000BC instead of being a mythical epic.  

I especially liked her analysis on concept of Hinduism, and Lord Krishna.  According to Dr. Karve, Krishna wasn’t considered God in those times, instead he was an incredibly clever statesman and a dear friend to Arjun. The relationship between him and Arjun wasn’t one of a devotee and God, but more like that between intimate close friends.  Krishna in those days drank, made merry, ate meat (including beef) and probably had women followers. Especially interesting are her musings on how and when Krishna became a God like figure and when did people start considering cow a scared holy being! Considering that Krishna was a Kshatriya and liked to hunt, it probably isn’t a stretch of imagination that his clan (Yadavs) did eat part of what hunted including cattle. 

As Hindus we have been raised thinking that Krishna is an all encompassing god and that cow was his favoured animal and is holy and not to be eaten. I will not deny that reading about him being a mere human and mortal did not disturb me, didn’t matter that rationally I know God is obviously a figment of our imagination. We invented a superior being who holds our fates in his hands, thus giving someone higher up the power to right our wrongs and someone to hold on when the world starts to go horribly wrong. Inspite of rationally knowing everything most of us hold on to the concept of religion and higher being. 

But all in all, it is a very thought provoking essay. It makes one think about how the society which was so culturally and morally forward could end up being what Indian society is today.

The Hangman’s Daughter

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Oliver Pötzsch’s ,” The Hangman’s Daughter” is a historical thriller set in small Bavarian town. It starts with Jakob Kuisl being a young boy assisting his father with an execution. The story then begins with murder of children in the Alpine town where Jakob Kuisl is now a hangman. The murder suspect is a midwife who is accused of practicing witchcraft. In the mean time more children are killed and the citizens of our good town start whispering about witches, sorcerers and devils. Amidst the mounting hysteria and fear of witchcraft the hangman races against time to save the children from being killed and midwife from being staked alive. Helping him in his deduction are his head-strong beautiful daughter Magdalena and a young physician Simon who is smitten with his daughter.

While the murder plot is somewhat loose, the atmosphere and history surrounding the story are described genuinely and brilliantly. The author has perfectly captured the 17th century mindset about witch craft and women. The cruel society where a hangman is necessary to do all the dirty work but talking or socializing with him brought bad luck and where any woman with slightest knowledge about herbs and health was looked on with suspicion, has been described well by the author. The best part for me was the location of the story which was set in a small Bavarian town in 17th century. Historical fiction very often gets based in Elizabethan England and it gets a tad boring for me. Since Pötzsch himself descends from line of Kuisl executioners from Bavaria, he knows what he is writing about. The characters could use a little more fleshing out, especially the villains but he has done a good job of characterizing Jakob Kuisl, an executioner with unusual compassionate nature.

Overall it is a well-written historical fiction which will not disappoint if read with an open mind. I am looking forward to reading more books by Pötzsch.

Song of Kali

“Some places are too evil to be allowed to exist”-with this ominous line begins the story of Robert Luczak in the dark novel called ‘Song of Kali’ by Dan Simmons published nearly 28 years ago in 1985. I admit that I have read just one other book by Dan Simmons and while I am not a fan, I found the premise of this book very intriguing. The story is about an American poet who travels to Calcutta, India to interview a famous poet who has surfaced back after missing for 8 years. He takes his Indian wife and child along on the short trip. The events that follow in Calcutta disillusion him to the extent that he dreams of nuclear annihilation wiping away entire Calcutta.

While Dan Simmons has woven a very fast paced story, as a Hindu I was seriously offended by some of the aspects of his narration. One of the main issues with the story is the portrayal of Goddess Kali in such a negative light. The story mentions Robert Luczak is knowledgeable about Rabindranath Tagore, his poems, and other aspects of Indian mythology. So there was no reason to believe that he did not have a deeper understanding about Goddess Kali. Kali is a multi-faceted goddess with the combined powers of all the other gods. She is supposed to be the destroyer of evil and Lord Shiva’s partner. She is sometimes Durga, sometimes Parvati and sometimes Chamunda. It was blatantly wrong to forget all the aspects of the Goddess and label her as the evil ‘bitch goddess Kali’. My other problem with the book was I couldn’t find any motive for everything that had happened to Robert Luczak. From the beginning to the end it seemed as if the guy was a pawn of some elaborate game plan. If anyone reads this book and understands the motive please explain it to me!

But despite all this, I would still give the book 3 stars for its sheer grittiness, and it’s insight into the dark human psyche. Towards the end the book completely redeemed itself. 28 years ago when the book was published, the author felt that the world had gone crazy and dark and that is true more so ever today. With kids being murdered in their classrooms, to the Middle East crisis which seem to escalate every day, to the religious fanatics who want to kill everyone it does seem that the ‘Age of Kali’ has began and that the end will not be pretty. The most profound thing that I read in the book was comparison of the darkness of human psyche to the black holes. In the black hole, time, mass and space have no meaning similarly, in this age the human inhumanness seems equally senseless. This book isn’t meant for the soft-hearted and for those who see life with rosy glasses. Yes, it is very dark it’s one of those books which stay with you after you are done with it. One of those that keep you awake at night.