Wednesday, December 25, 2013

What I'm Reading: Song of the Vikings

Song of the Vikings, by Nancy Marie Brown, gives us the story of Snorri Sturluson, a wealthy and powerful Icelandic landowner of the early 1200s who at one point was as close as Iceland ever got to a native king.  He lived a full and dramatic life, but most importantly for us today, he was also a poet and a collector of the old Viking stories.  In his three main works he preserved the majority of what we now know of Norse mythology.

Snorri wished at one point to become skald, or court poet, to Norway's new sixteen-year-old King Hakon, who had come to the throne in 1220.  Up to that time, Scandinavian kings had always had skalds to entertain the court with tales of heroes past and to create the stories that would spread their fame and preserve their names for posterity.  To Snorri's dismay, however, young Hakon had no interest in the musty old Viking tales, preferring instead Latin stories about Christian heroes, like King Arthur.  On the theory that Hakon simply didn't understand them, Snorri decided to write a handbook to explain the forms and meaning of the traditional poetry and stories.

Hakon never did see Snorri's work, known as the Edda, but copies survived.  Without it, we would today remember only a handful of the Norse myths and our understanding of them would be fragmentary.  The Edda provides us with a framework, a complete explanation of the old Norse pagan view of the world and its gods, the world's creation and eventual death, the heroes and dwarves and elves that populated it.  It also teaches us how to read the elaborate, metaphor-laden skaldic-style of poetry that preserved the myths and histories.

Song of the Vikings is really three works in one: a biography of Snorri, as well as such a thing can be put together from our limited sources; a re-telling of many of the key myths he so loved; and a social and political history of Snorri's time, giving us the context we need to appreciate his life.  The final chapter is a commentary on how Snorri's work has shaped our modern artistic world, especially his profound influence on Richard Wagner and J.R.R. Tolkien, on Johann Herder, the "father of German nationalism," and on the nineteenth-century Gothic novel and the modern fantasy genre.

Before reading this book, I had a vague idea of Snorri as an old Norse storyteller, but I didn't realize just how critical he was in literary history.  I doubt most people have any clearer idea of him than I did, if they've heard of him at all.  This book is a corrective, and I highly recommend it to anybody interested in Norse mythology and its huge impact on the Western tradition.  I hope that doesn't make it sound like an academic tome, though, because this is also one of the most entertaining non-fiction books I've read in the past year.  Brown skillfully untangles the threads of Snorri's complicated life and has a nice way of illuminating its various milestones with the myths he wrote down.

Let me put it this way: Do you like The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings?  Well, this book explains where Tolkien got his ideas from, and in a style that Tolkien lovers will enjoy.  But this is perhaps even better, for it's real history, straight out of that age just after the Vikings when forceful, charismatic men furthered their ambitions for honor and wealth with swords and poetry.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

What I'm Reading: Roundup

Let's do another roundup of what I've been poking my eyeballs at lately.

Very Casual: A graphic novel collecting some of the strips and short cartoons done by Canadian underground artist Michael DeForge.  The mode of this I will term smart-ass surrealism.  Some narrative flow in some of the pieces, but often following only a dream-like logic.  At its most coherent it has a sort of 90s Kids in the Hall-style irony, as in the story of a street gang that gets its thrills from littering.  Banal situations such as eating at a diner or going to see a band at a club will include encounters with monstrous chimerical creatures or bizarre violence with no further explanation.  Some cartoons have no real point, just depictions of body morphing with erotic overtones.  If this were scary, one might call a lot of this body horror--limbs being cut off and the wound spouting replacement tentacles or genitalia, for instance--but it's played more for laughs.  Weird stuff for those who are into it, others should stay away.

Sandman, Vol. 5: A Game of You: Another graphic novel.  For those who don't know, Neil Gaiman has returned to comics with a new Sandman series, coming out now in single issues, and which will surely be collected in graphic novel-format next year sometime.  It is the first new Sandman work in 15 years or more, and a huge event in comics.  Before tackling the new issues, I've decided to go back and read a couple of the old collections I had never gotten to.

I've read Vols. 1-4, so this one was up next.  The Sandman is also known as Morpheus, or Dream.  This is the guy who visits you at night and gives you all those stories in your head.  He is the king of the Dreaming, a land made up of all the various nighttime places we go to and people and creatures we see there.  Vol. 5 concerns a woman, Barbie, who has always had vivid dreams, but has stopped dreaming since a certain man moved into her apartment building two years before.  Barbie misses her old dreams, which all took place in a fairy tale realm where she was a princess.  The people in this dream world miss her, too, for in her absence evil forces in the realm have taken over.  I guess it is no surprise that the man, her absence from this world, and her lack of dreaming are all connected!  Teasing out the connections will involve a trip deep into the fairy tale world, which is a metaphor for traveling into Barbie's psyche, and this adventure has wider implications for the Dreaming, as well, prompting the Sandman to get involved personally.

Of the volumes I've read so far, this was actually my least favorite.  The surface story concerning the journey in the fairy tale world is facile, and although Gaiman does have deeper concerns here, I couldn't find enough in the main story to keep me interested.  I did like Barbie's neighbors in the apartment building who end up joining her in the journey, especially a shy, mousy woman who lives next door who harbors an unexpected secret, and the lesbian couple upstairs are fun.  Still, I hope the next volume returns to the quality of the earlier ones.

Collected Poems of A.E. Housman: I don't know a lot about poetry, but I do have a few volumes that I own.  This one by A.E. Housman I like to get out every winter and read a few pieces from.  Winter seems like the right season, as the poems are almost invariably about death or lost love.  The wording is deceptively simple and precise, but each turn of phrase carries loads of meaning.  Here's a good one that seems fitting for the weather we've had here lately:


The night is freezing fast,
To-morrow comes December;
And winterfalls of old
Are with me from the past;
And chiefly I remember
How Dick would hate the cold.

Fall, winter, fall; for he,
Prompt hand and headpiece clever,
Has woven a winter robe,
And made of earth and sea
His overcoat for ever,
And wears the turning globe.

Monday, December 9, 2013

What I'm Reading: Cultural Amnesia

In an earlier post, I discussed a book I described as a "Shortcut to Smartness," by which I meant a book that so expands your knowledge and understanding in so many areas that it is like a college course in and of itself.  Here I have another book that fits that description: Cultural Amnesia, by Clive James.  James is a book and television critic who writes for various newspapers and magazines in Britain, as well as an essayist, novelist, poet, extensive world traveler, and general cultural commentator.

Cultural Amnesia is a collection of a hundred or so biographical sketches, mostly on political and cultural figures from the twentieth century--Albert Camus or Margaret Thatcher or Leon Trotsky, say--although there are entries as early as Tacitus.  It is James's belief that Westerners today are so distracted by technology, fashion, and celebrity that we are losing touch with the humanist, democratic values that built our society, and in danger of forgetting the lessons taught to us by the wars and political catastrophes of the last century.

Despite that overall thrust, each essay is liable to go off on any number of tangents as James's exceedingly well-educated mind wends its way through its topic.  One of the essays I read on this occasion, on Coco Chanel, French perfume maven and Nazi collaborator, included a discussion of how male children dress up in their mother's clothes, a comparison of the high-quality fabric in American soldiers' uniforms in World War II as opposed to their inferior counterparts in Britain and Australia, a paragraph or two on the greater shopping opportunities in the Soviet Union for ranking party members versus the average citizen, and concluded with a very wise discussion of the critical role played by small luxuries in everyday life and how communism denied those luxuries to its citizens.

And so each essay goes, with discussions of antique book sellers in Buenos Aires, the Marshall Plan, film noir from the 1940s, the aesthetic qualities of pornographic movies, how to talk a friend who's decided to write a novel out of it, the advantage of youth for a poet, why not to be embarrassed when you pronounce a hard word incorrectly, and on and on.  But I hope this doesn't sound too difficult to read--it's not.  Clive James himself is a somewhat intimidating figure, reading in five languages and referring to his personal encounters with many of the great figures of our age.  I mean, I consider myself pretty well-read and I feel like my lifetime of reading is about what he gets through in six months.  Yet his prose is easy and quite readable, and each entry is only five to ten pages and endlessly fascinating.

For those reasons, it's also a good book to pick up and put down.  It came out in 2007, and since purchasing it I'll pick it up once a year or so and read half-a-dozen entries over the course of a week.  This year, for example, I read the aforementioned Coco Chanel, Mao Tse-Tung, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Charles de Gaulle, Josef Goebbels, and Leszek Kolakowski.  That's the right way to read it, I think.  A couple familiar figures, a couple less familiar, and a couple I know only by name, if that.

Similar to Boswell's Life of Johnson, the first book in my "Shortcut to Smartness" series, I think this book would be perfect for a recent high school graduate before entering college.  A summer reading through this book would give a freshman an incredible advantage in historical sense and familiarity with the important people and themes of recent history.  But really, it would be good for anyone with intellectual curiosity and a love of dabbling in history, politics, and the arts, and its hard for me to recommend it highly enough to such a reader.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

New anthology available: Etched in Memory

Readers of this blog are surely aware that I'm a member of a very active writing group, the Writers of Chantilly.  What they may not know is that this year I edited the group's annual anthology, which just in the past week became available on Amazon and Kindle.

I am quite proud of my work on this, and I learned a lot from my first time as editor, about both the editing process and about writing.  Unfortunately, I do not have any stories appearing in this anthology, though I tried writing two.  The first took a twist (into erotica, oddly--never had that happen before) that I felt made it inappropriate for the book, and the second I was unable to finish.

For fans of my writing (all two of you!) I promise that next year's anthology will definitely have one or more of my stories.  In the meantime, I can heartily recommend this book as being crammed full of fascinating short stories and essays.  Here's the book's description from its back cover:

In this latest anthology from the renowned Writers of Chantilly, you will discover a variety of unforgettable stories describing incidents that have left an indelible mark on their participants. Some are from the past, some from the imagination, all are Etched in Memory.