Review: Norse Mythology

Norse Mythology
Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a child I fell in love with the Norse myths through Roger Lancelyn Garden’s retellings. Many years Neil Gaiman, one of my favourite authors has released his own retellings. Obviously I was going to read it! I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting them after many years, and what better guide than Neil Gaiman. His love for these myths is clear and the gods come alive in his hands, especially Thor. Was fortunate enough to hear him at the book launch at the Festival Hall in London, and hearing him read Thor’s Wedding was a delight and helped hear this book in his voice as I read it, capturing the humour as I went. I still have questions about the myths that remain unanswered, but Gaiman’s task was not to add to the tales but simply retell them for a new generation following in the footsteps of the great Roger Lancelyn Green whose telling I and he grew up in.

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The Uninventor

I treated myself the other week to getting the latest book of short stories by Neil Gaiman, one of my favourite authors, out of the library. He’s a fantastic writer with many clever ideas and stories to tell. One of his greatest talents in my opinion is his ability to have fun with words, to play around with them. For example in one of his books he picks up on London Underground tube station names and speculates what it would be like if we took them literally. Just who is the Baron from Baron’s Court, and what is his court like anyway? Who or what is the knight of Knightsbridge and so on. Brilliant! Trigger Warnings, his new book, is full of such playfulness. In one of the stories he speculates on if you can have inventors, whether you could you have uninventors too? The main character is such a figure and the story tells about how he set out to uninvent all the inventions that have made the world a worse place since he was born (of course it’s foolishness to change the past before you were born, as Back to the Future warned us, all sorts of crazy family implications may occur). You know we were told that there’d be flying cars by now? Well, there were, but he uninvented them – the skies got just too congested. It’s just as if they’d never been!

This got me wondering, what would you uninvent if you could do so? What inventions or fashions do you think have made the world a worse place – serious or flippant, I’d love to know!

An alternative take on this story would be to ask not what you would uninvent but what you would undo. Are there things you’ve seen or heard you wish you hadn’t? Are there things you’ve said or done that you wish you could undo? I’m sure the answer for all of us would be yes despite protestations otherwise, we all have regrets, for all of us there are ‘if onlys’. Of course our regrets have a role in making us the people we are as we work through the consequences; to go back and undo the past would change us and others and maybe not always for the best. Adversary breeds courage, suffering character, and reflection on our wrongs and frailties can make us humble and perhaps a bit more gracious (perhaps taking liberty with Rom. 5:3-4 but I think it’s fair). Like the pearl, sometimes we need trouble to bring out the beauty in us. I think add much as it sounds a wonderful idea, being an undoer sounds far too dangerous to me! My vision and understanding is far too narrow.

Maybe this is where God’s wisdom shines. As Romans tells us, he uses all situations for the good of the believer (Rom. 8:28) – could this also include times when bring suffering on ourselves and others as will as when others are the cause? He forgives and forgets (PS. 103:7-12), whilst leaving us to face and grow through the consequences of our actions under the guidance of his Spirit.

Church Newsletter Article, 17.05.15

Book Review: Stardust

Stardust by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Finally picked up this delightful faery tale for adults by Neil Gaiman. Like all his books, I immediately fell in love with it. It has a whimsical playfulness that enchanted me as he took a traditional form and made it his own. It is not heavy duty, two or three quick sessions and you’ll be finished, although I dare say it has a lot to say once you let it weave it’s magic. What are the things that bind us today? How far will we go for the things we love? Thanks again Neil Gaiman for the magic you liberally sprinkle into our world, and for the way you open our eyes to the magic all around us.

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3000 Puppets in a Warehouse

In an abandoned warehouse in Chicago hang decaying three thousand marionettes. Sound like a scene from a chilling horror movie? It might do, but this was the discovery of Joseph R. Lewis, a producer and director. Together they make the lost family of Ralph Kipniss America’s last great puppet maker and puppeteer, from the line of puppeteers reaching back to Czarist Russia. A terrible sequence of events led to his being unable to pay for the warehouse in which they were stored, illness, fire, depression and debt, and with no home to house them in he was forced to abandon them, and so there they sit to this day. Recently this treasure trove was rediscovered by Lewis when a neighbour suggested he might be interested in some dolls he knew of. Realising their value, not so much financial as cultural, has started a campaign to raise the funds required to pay off the debt and to form a museum in which to display them so that they are not lost and forgotten. You can find out more here.

In the Guardian on Wednesday Polly Toynbee wrote about changes in the way English was taught in schools in the UK. Her concern was that recent changes to the syllabus emphasis grammar at the expense of an appreciation of literature and reading. She foresees a time when an understanding of many classics of writing were lost and forgotten such as Austin, Orwell and The Bible, and an understanding of the rich heritage they have provided us, and is campaigning to prevent this.

These two news stories got me wondering about how the Bible is seen in our culture today. For many it is a historical treasure, lost and abandoned in the warehouse of the past like those three thousand marionettes. For others it is a cultural artefact that needs to be rescued and restored so that it can be displayed in some museum so people can appreciate its beauty and its part in our history. This maybe is a step in the right direction, but it misses the point. Puppets are not made to be displayed! They are made to be used, to put on plays, to tell stories, to live and dance. So it is with the Bible. It is not meant to be confined to the past and admired from a safe distance through a glass screen. No, it is meant to be read, to live, to dance, to tells stories and be used. It may be ancient, but it belongs in the here and now, as active and dynamic as ever.

The Power of Reading (Neil Gaiman)

Just picked up a link to Neil Gaiman’s Reading Agency lecture 2013. Fantastic talk on the power and importance of reading. Covers a wide range of topics from imagination, children, China, Apple, invention, pleasure, prisons, ebooks, libraries, empathy, truth, obligations, day dreaming, the future and the dead! Listening to this I repeatedly found myself declaring ‘Yes!’ out loud, even though I’m sitting at home in front of a computer screen on my own.

The power of sharing stories and learning about and expanding our understanding of ourselves, our world and our God through them is something I’ve become increasingly convinced about. We can accumulate so much information, be given so many rules and guidelines, but only stories, spoken, read or sung, take in not just our brains, but the hard-wiring of our being, changing who we are and our capacity to embrace and appreciate our surroundings. To me it is no wonder that Jesus spent so much time telling tales and so little time giving lectures.

Like Gaiman, I spent much of my childhood in libraries with my head in a book, and upon returning from them, my head would remain in a book until all the books were read (fairly soon after) and I went back for more. They are far from being stuffy places (although some could do with a does of fresh air). They are amongst the most subversive, revolutionary, life changing and liberating places I know.

Anyway, enough of my waffle, go listen to what the man himself has to say…

Love the quote about Einstein and fairy tales – still reading them to myself today in the hope that it might just work in the end!

Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was the second of my holiday books, and one I had deliberately left aside to savour when I had the time and space to do so. I picked up my copy of the book the day before it was released, at a promotional talk by Neil Gaiman in London in conjunction with the Royal Soceity of Literature – see my blog for more on that and a link to a recording of the event on their site. I make no bones about being a Neil Gaiman fan, Neverwhere and Coraline being two of my favourite books. There is something about his playfulness with language and ideas that appeals to me, a whimsical childlike joy of the exploration of ideas and language. I could have read it on the train home, I wanted to, but time away provides the space not just to read a book, but to do so in an unrushed way with room to think and enjoy it.

So, was it worth the wait? Yes, definitely. The story if fun and the language up to his usual haunting style. For the benefit of those that have read others of his books, this is definitely in the Coraline camp. It details the adventures of a book loving boy after a discovery that changes everything that was familiar (treading carefully so as not to introduce spoilers as much as I can). My children would understand and enjoy it on that level. But there is more going on here than just that. It is also a highly personal book, memories of Gaiman’s, people, places and events woven into the magical world he creates. There is, alongside this, a final third level, an exploration of the loss of childhood and the difference between adults and children. It is this that I think will draw me back to the book for a second reading and may end up shunting it into the 5 star category as I read it reflecting more perhaps on what is says about this than just the fun of the basic story.

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I am the Good Story

On a recent interview for BBC Radio Four’s Today Programme (29th Oct), the children’s author Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials trilogy) discussed his latest book, a retelling of 50 of his favourite Brothers Grimm fairy tales to mark the bicentennial of their first publication. He was joined by Neil Gaiman (American Gods, Coraline, Doctor Who) who explained that these dark and scary stories were important as they warn us through fantasy that there are monsters out there that we need to be wary of.

This discussion highlighted one reason why sharing stories is so important. One of the major roles of stories is that they help us to explore with issues that we may face in life, to work through what they might involve and how we can respond to them, in a safe way – similar to children playing ‘let’s pretend’ in order to make sense of the world around them.

Some authors recognise this power in stories and so deliberately set out to harness the power of story to shape our thinking. C.S. Lewis is a prominent example, his Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe series being a ‘fantasy’ retelling of his understanding of the Christian gospel. Pullman is another, some might describe him as ‘the anti-Lewis’, an atheist using fantasy to warn of the danger of organised religion.

I am aware that there are many Christians who would ‘boycott’ his books because of this, avoiding them because they are dangerous. I can appreciate why they have this stance. Although I disagree with the portrayal of God within them, there is a ‘prophetic’ aspect to them if we can see past the ‘shock value’ to what he has to say about religion and ask ourselves if his criticisms have any weight to them.

Because of his stance, it might be seen as surprising that during the interview he claimed that there are three books that every child should read, ‘There’s Grimm, there’s The Arabian Nights and there’s The Bible and I think those are the three great repositories of stories that everybody ought to know about. It’s a great shame if someone reaches adulthood or puberty without knowing those stories, without having read those stories at least once.’

I am not surprised. Whatever your view of faith, you can’t get away from the fact that the Bible contains a collection of fantastic stories from the political machinations and prophetic visions of the Old Testament to the parables of the master story-teller Jesus himself – not to forget his own story. There’s also a wealth of good common sense wisdom stored in within; whatever our world-view, we can all gain from reading it. But the Bible is, of course, more than just a depository of thrilling yarns and wise sayings, it is one of the main ways in which God himself reveals himself today – he too knows the power of a good story. He is the Good Story.

As the Bible Soceity commented on their website, ‘We’ve been saying it for a while, but it’s great to have Pullman, a self-declared agnostic atheist, saying that we should all read the Bible as a formative experience. We couldn’t agree more.’ Nor could I!

You can listen to the BBC interview again here:

Church Newsletter Article 11.11.12

Review: Good Omens

Good Omens
Good Omens by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Read this many years ago, and seeing it in the library thought I’d pick it up and give it another go. So how did the end of the world as seen through the comedy eyes of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman seem a second time around? I still thoroughly enjoyed it. There were laugh out loud moments, and I remain very fond of the four Motor Bikers of the Apocalypse. If you haven’t read it before give it a whirl, and play like me the guess who wrote what game!

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Review: The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was lent this by my daughter after she had read – ‘read this Dad, I know you’ll like it’. Of course she knew I liked Neil Gaimn and so it was a fair bet from the start. Not surprisingly I loved it! A wonderfully quirky story about a boy who is adopted by the ghostly inhabitants of a graveyard. I especially enjoyed the epitaphs by which the various ghosts are introduced by after their names. Another highlight is the line drawings which do a lot to build up the atmosphere.

It’s a quick read, and not everything is explained – and that is ok, adding to the mystery. Although it’s a children’s book, don’t be put off by that, I’d say all ages would enjoy it.

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