Review: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Review: Norse Mythology by Neil GaimanNorse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, mythology
Pages: 293
Published by W. W. Norton & Company on February 7th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

Introducing an instant classic—master storyteller Neil Gaiman presents a dazzling version of the great Norse myths.
Neil Gaiman has long been inspired by ancient mythology in creating the fantastical realms of his fiction. Now he turns his attention back to the source, presenting a bravura rendition of the great northern tales.
In Norse Mythology, Gaiman stays true to the myths in envisioning the major Norse pantheon: Odin, the highest of the high, wise, daring, and cunning; Thor, Odin’s son, incredibly strong yet not the wisest of gods; and Loki, son of a giant, blood brother to Odin and a trickster and unsurpassable manipulator.
Gaiman fashions these primeval stories into a novelistic arc that begins with the genesis of the legendary nine worlds and delves into the exploits of deities, dwarfs, and giants. Once, when Thor’s hammer is stolen, Thor must disguise himself as a woman, difficult with his beard and huge appetite, to steal it back. More poignant is the tale in which the blood of Kvasir, the most sagacious of gods, is turned into a mead that infuses drinkers with poetry. The work culminates in Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods and rebirth of a new time and people.
Through Gaiman’s deft and witty prose emerge these gods with their fiercely competitive natures, their susceptibility to being duped and to duping others, and their tendency to let passion ignite their actions, making these long-ago myths breathe pungent life again.

My Review:

Neil Gaiman’s retelling of the Norse myths should be required reading for anyone whose primary visions of Odin, Thor and Loki, derived primarily from Marvel Comics and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, just as the author’s once were.

Thor wasn’t half that bright, and Loki wasn’t nearly so handsome, although he was every bit as tricksy, and as compelling.

On the one hand, these stories of ancient gods from a world long gone seem like they might have little relevance for the 21st century. At the same time, there’s Marvel Comics, which mined these myths for pure gold. As has every fantasy writer of the 20th and 21st centuries, from J.R.R. Tolkien to Neil Gaiman himself.

These are the stories on which so much of modern literature (and TV and movies) are based, along with opera and many other forms of storytelling. These are the stories behind the stories.

Or at least what’s left of them. What we have, what the author has here to work with, are the written records of what was an oral tradition – stories told around the fire during the very long nights of almost endless winter, passed from skald to skald and mouth to ear, until they were finally compiled into the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda in the 13th century, long after the Viking Age whose tales they tell.

At least in this rendition, what we have is a loose connection of short stories, that the author has strung together, like pearls on a string, into an episodic narrative from the beginnings of Yggdrasil to the end at Ragnarok.

And while they no longer invoke the awe that they once did, the Norse gods are still fantastic.

Escape Rating B+: This collection, or retelling, or reintroduction to the Norse myths should become a classic, right alongside Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. It makes what often seemed like a conflicting collection of tales into a somewhat coherent whole, admittedly a whole like a slice of Swiss cheese, where some parts are missing, deliberately or otherwise.

But readers looking for Neil Gaiman’s particular voice in this collection will only find hints and snippets of it. These aren’t his stories, and that shows. But they are, undoubtedly, the inspiration for many of his best.

If you read American Gods and instantly recognized Mr. Wednesday, then you have already been exposed to these foundational tales, but this version is still definitely worth a read. If you didn’t see through Mr. Wednesday’s rather thin disguise, then you need to read this book before you dive into the upcoming series.

Ian McShane Starring As Mr. Wednesday In 'American Gods' TV Series
Ian McShane Starring As Mr. Wednesday In ‘American Gods’ TV Series

Review: The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder

Review: The Throwback Special by Chris BachelderThe Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: literary fiction
Pages: 213
Published by W. W. Norton & Company on March 14th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

Finalist for the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction
A slyly profound and startlingly original novel about the psyche of the American male, The Throwback Special marks the return of one of the most acclaimed literary voices of his generation.
Here is the absorbing story of twenty-two men who gather every fall to painstakingly reenact what ESPN called “the most shocking play in NFL history” and the Washington Redskins dubbed the “Throwback Special”: the November 1985 play in which the Redskins’ Joe Theismann had his leg horribly broken by Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants live on Monday Night Football.
With wit and great empathy, Chris Bachelder introduces us to Charles, a psychologist whose expertise is in high demand; George, a garrulous public librarian; Fat Michael, envied and despised by the others for being exquisitely fit; Jeff, a recently divorced man who has become a theorist of marriage; and many more. Over the course of a weekend, the men reveal their secret hopes, fears, and passions as they choose roles, spend a long night of the soul preparing for the play, and finally enact their bizarre ritual for what may be the last time. Along the way, mishaps, misunderstandings, and grievances pile up, and the comforting traditions holding the group together threaten to give way.
The Throwback Special is a moving and comic tale filled with pitch-perfect observations about manhood, marriage, middle age, and the rituals we all enact as part of being alive.

My Review:

To paraphrase Thoreau, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and die with their song still inside them.”

This is the story of a group of 22 middle-aged men who get together, once a year, to re-enact a single, disastrous football play, and let that song out, just for a brief moment of their lives.

The idea behind this story almost seems a bit absurd. This group of men has created a fairly elaborate ritual where they spend a weekend together in a very middling hotel and replay one memorable football scrimmage from 1985. The night that quarterback Joe Theismann of the Washington Redskins suffered a career-ending compound fracture while being sacked by New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor. In the replays, you can hear the bones snap, and it’s still enough to make you sick to your stomach.

And this bunch of guys replays that tape over and over, so that they can get their parts just right for their actual replay on the field.

It’s a gathering of men who otherwise would have nothing in common. We don’t know how they originally came together, or why. All we know is that this is their one moment, every year, to be someone else, and to experience a little piece of the world through someone else’s eyes playing someone else’s part.

And through the rituals of the weekend, they reconnect with each other, and with themselves.

Escape Rating B: I found this book quietly interesting, but I’m not the intended audience. Although the friend who recommended it certainly is. I do remember that play, it was during a period of my life when I used to regularly watch football. I don’t anymore, and for the reasons why, take a look at my review of Monsters. I just can’t get past the cost.

The Throwback Special is, as I said, a very quiet story. We don’t know how these men originally got together. We also don’t see any more of their regular lives than they choose to reveal to each other over the course of the weekend.

What we do see, and what is fascinating, is the way that they each interpret and reinterpret every single event and every word that is said to them, or that they say to one another. Every moment is evaluated and reevaluated for threats, implications, and inevitably misunderstandings. Every man seems to be worried every second about how they perceive and are perceived by the others. Every interaction is analyzed for its possibilities of one-upsmanship and being set one-down in response. No matter how successful and in control any of them appear to be, the reality is that they are all insecure and uncertain every minute.

And they hide all their humanity behind a borrowed uniform and a worn helmet, while letting just a tiny bit out.

As a woman, I don’t know whether this portrayal of the men’s thoughts and fears is real or imaginary. But if there is a partial reality hidden there, it makes me sad. And it does what literary fiction is supposed to do. It makes me think.

Review: Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary Roach

Review: Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary RoachGrunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary Roach
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: military science, nonfiction
Pages: 276
Published by W. W. Norton & Company on June 7th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

Best-selling author Mary Roach explores the science of keeping human beings intact, awake, sane, uninfected, and uninfested in the bizarre and extreme circumstances of war.
Grunt tackles the science behind some of a soldier's most challenging adversaries—panic, exhaustion, heat, noise—and introduces us to the scientists who seek to conquer them. Mary Roach dodges hostile fire with the U.S. Marine Corps Paintball Team as part of a study on hearing loss and survivability in combat. She visits the fashion design studio of U.S. Army Natick Labs and learns why a zipper is a problem for a sniper. She visits a repurposed movie studio where amputee actors help prepare Marine Corps medics for the shock and gore of combat wounds. At Camp Lemmonier, Djibouti, in east Africa, we learn how diarrhea can be a threat to national security. Roach samples caffeinated meat, sniffs an archival sample of a World War II stink bomb, and stays up all night with the crew tending the missiles on the nuclear submarine USS Tennessee. She answers questions not found in any other book on the military: Why is DARPA interested in ducks? How is a wedding gown like a bomb suit? Why are shrimp more dangerous to sailors than sharks? Take a tour of duty with Roach, and you’ll never see our nation’s defenders in the same way again.

My Review:

This review will be posted on Veterans Day 2016. Some years I write something about the holiday and the history behind it. My post for 2012, titled Remembrance Day, – Veterans Day, is still one of the most read items that I have ever posted.

This year I’ve chosen to review a book about the unsung heroes, scientists and researchers, who do the unglamorous and often stinky work that helps more soldiers come back as live veterans instead of dead heroes. It is research that delves into some of the odder corners of science and technology, and comes with not just a necessary dose of gallows humor, but often with a bit of slapstick as well.

Mary Roach’s latest work of nonfiction, Grunt, is all about the crazy ideas that help soldiers survive, whether on the battlefields or off. The problems and conditions that the author investigated are usually not remotely glamorous. They often delve much too deeply into realms that most of us would rather not think or talk about.

Reading the chapter about research into the causes and prevention of diarrhea over dinner was probably a mistake on my part. But she does manage to make the most mundane, and occasionally odoriferous, topics utterly fascinating.

So many of the issues explored in this book, from sleep deprivation among submariners to the potential for loss of life on SEAL teams because one member has dysentery at an inopportune moment all do impact on not just combat readiness but also on combat survivability.

Pilots in World War II were afraid of being shot down into shark-infested waters. Really. There was a lot of research into developing shark repellent – all of which failed fairly miserably. And turned out to be unnecessary. Sharks seem to be interested in prey that won’t fight back. They went after lots of dead pilots and dead or dying shipwreck victims, but healthy pilots swam for hours in shark infested waters with very few casualties. Sharks are capricious – there were a few.

The research on terrible smells was much funnier, but still had a deadly purpose. Trying to determine both which smells would completely distract enemy combatants and developing ways to deliver the stench without getting it on the messenger was hilarious. And often wrong headed in multiple ways. And yet, if an enemy could be so overcome by “Stench Soup” or the hilariously named “U.S. Government Standard Bathroom Malodor” that they can’t manage to draw their weapons, they could be disarmed and captured with much lower loss of life – at least as long as the “good guys” were wearing gas masks.

The scenarios that the author investigated ranged from the nearly sublime, uniform materials that can survive fire but not cook their wearer in the desert – to those ridiculous possibilities of stench warfare. But there is plenty of seriousness here as well, for example as she delves into the problem of making a vehicle that will keep its passengers alive if it drives over an IED. The chapters on genital transplants are medically interesting, psychologically fascinating, heartbreaking and slightly crazy making all at the same time.

But every investigation covered in this book, from the stink to the sharks to the maggots, all serve one goal. Bringing more soldiers back alive, and finding ways for them to return to civilian life with the best quality of life possible.

Reality Reading A-: This is a great read. The chapters are all compelling reading, and generally short and sweet (or stinky). There’s just enough detail not just to whet the reader’s appetite (or occasionally kill it) but also to show why the seemingly mundane is so important and worthy of government funding.

All in all, a fascinating read for the day.

Review: Then Comes Marriage by Roberta Kaplan

Review: Then Comes Marriage by Roberta KaplanThen Comes Marriage: United States v. Windsor and the Defeat of DOMA by Roberta Kaplan, Lisa Dickey, Edie Windsor
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: history, legal history, nonfiction
Pages: 336
Published by W. W. Norton & Company on October 5th 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

Roberta Kaplan’s gripping story of her defeat of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) before the Supreme Court.
Renowned litigator Roberta Kaplan knew from the beginning that it was the perfect case to bring down the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer had been together as a couple, in sickness and in health, for more than forty years—enduring society’s homophobia as well as Spyer’s near total paralysis from multiple sclerosis. Although the couple was finally able to marry, when Spyer died the federal government refused to recognize their marriage, forcing Windsor to pay a huge estate tax bill.
In this gripping, definitive account of one of our nation’s most significant civil rights victories, Kaplan describes meeting Windsor and their journey together to defeat DOMA. She shares the behind-the-scenes highs and lows, the excitement and the worries, and provides intriguing insights into her historic argument before the Supreme Court. A critical and previously untold part of the narrative is Kaplan’s own personal story, including her struggle for self-acceptance in order to create a loving family of her own.
Then Comes Marriage tells this quintessentially American story with honesty, humor, and heart. It is the momentous yet intimate account of a thrilling victory for equality under the law for all Americans, gay or straight.

My Review:

This book, like yesterday’s review book, Grant Park, is about a day when the universe changed.

That book centered around the election of Barack Obama. This one concerns events that took place after Obama was elected, events that probably would have taken a lot longer under a different administration.

On March 27, 2013, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments concerning the case of United States V. Windsor, the case that struck down DOMA, the Federal Defense of Marriage Act, as unconstitutional. Windsor became the precedent that enabled courts across the U.S. to strike down state statutes that attempted to restrict marriage. This past summer, in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, marriage equality became the law of the land.

forcing the spring by jo beckerThen Comes Marriage is the third book that I have read about this case and its aftermath. Last year’s Forcing the Spring (reviewed here) is an account of the other marriage equality case that came before the Supreme Court in 2013, the case against California’s Prop 8. In some ways, Then Comes Marriage feels like the other side of that story, as the reporter who wrote Forcing the Spring was embedded in the other legal team. And though she interviewed the principals in Windsor after the fact, her coverage of the Windsor case is naturally not as complete as it is for the case that she was personally involved with.

Speak Now by Kenji Yoshino (reviewed earlier this year) also covers the Prop. 8 case, but from the perspective of a married gay lawyer who was not professionally involved in the case but would be impacted by the result.

I found it interesting that both the Yoshino book and this one take their titles from ages old references to marriage and being married. The other title is a play on the part of the marriage ceremony where the officiant addresses the audience regarding whether anyone can show just cause to stop the impending marriage with the phrase “speak now or forever hold your peace”.

Then Comes Marriage is part of a childhood taunting rhyme, “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes someone with a baby carriage.” Because after the recent rulings that someone could be a man and woman, two women, or two men. Love is love and marriage is finally marriage.

But this book, as written by the lawyer who argued the Windsor case, starts at the very beginning. And in this beginning are Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer, two women who pledged their love to each other in 1967, at a time before the Stonewall Riots when they secretly hoped but never expected that the marriage that Thea proposed to Edie could ever be celebrated in the U.S. Although they were not able to marry in the U.S., Edie and a terminally ill Thea flew to Toronto in 2007 to get married.

The U.S. recognizes marriages conducted in Canada, but DOMA prevented the U.S. from recognizing Edie’s marriage to Thea. So when Thea died in 2009, the Federal government and New York State presented her with a whopping $600,000 bill for inheritance taxes. Taxes that Edie would not have had to pay if Thea had been Theo or Edie had been Eddie. But not, at that time, both.

Edie chose to fight. This was her case. But she won for everyone.

Reality Rating A-: It’s pretty clear to anyone who has read my reviews of Speak Now and Forcing the Spring that I am for marriage equality. So I was predisposed to like this book from the outset.

As a narrative of the case, it reads differently from Forcing the Spring. That was a legal thriller to rival anything by Grisham. It’s also different because the stars in the Prop 8 case were the two lawyers who argued the case.

In Then Comes Marriage, Edie Windsor is the center of the story. Unlike a lot of civil rights legislation, no one went shopping for a perfect set of plaintiffs to represent the spectrum of the case. Edie had a very specific grievance, and she wanted things to be set right. While the money was important, the real issue was that the government said her marriage did not exist, that her 40+ years of living with, loving, and supporting Thea did not count, that they were legally strangers to each other.

When the story of Edie’s life with Thea is portrayed, it is crystal clear to the reader just how wrong that was. Also the legal case was very clear and relatively simple. The marriage was legally conducted in Canada. The U.S. recognizes Canadian marriages as valid. What was the rational basis for treating Edie and Thea’s marriage differently? And the court came to the conclusion that there wasn’t one.

While the story of Edie’s life felt relevant, the book begins with a section on the lawyer’s life, and how and why she ended up arguing this case. While it seemed fitting that the author’s motives, thoughts and feelings were interjected into the story of the progress of the case at frequent intervals, I wasn’t sure that she was the place to start. The back-to-back biographical sections made the beginning of the book drag just a bit.

But once the case starts proceeding through the courts, the narrative tension mounts at a gripping pace. Even though we know how the story ends, the process of getting there still had me opening the book in unlikely places, just to see how things were going. I felt like the protagonists did while waiting to read the rulings, peeking at any interval just to get in a few more words.

The author’s description of the aftermath of the case reads like a victory lap. And so it should. Edie Windsor, and the author, made the universe change.

Review: Data and Goliath by Bruce Schneier

Review: Data and Goliath by Bruce SchneierData and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World by Bruce Schneier
Format: hardcover
Source: publisher
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: current events, history, internet, politics, technology
Pages: 400
Published by W. W. Norton & Company on March 2nd 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

Your cell phone provider tracks your location and knows who’s with you. Your online and in-store purchasing patterns are recorded, and reveal if you're unemployed, sick, or pregnant. Your e-mails and texts expose your intimate and casual friends. Google knows what you’re thinking because it saves your private searches. Facebook can determine your sexual orientation without you ever mentioning it.
The powers that surveil us do more than simply store this information. Corporations use surveillance to manipulate not only the news articles and advertisements we each see, but also the prices we’re offered. Governments use surveillance to discriminate, censor, chill free speech, and put people in danger worldwide. And both sides share this information with each other or, even worse, lose it to cybercriminals in huge data breaches.
Much of this is voluntary: we cooperate with corporate surveillance because it promises us convenience, and we submit to government surveillance because it promises us protection. The result is a mass surveillance society of our own making. But have we given up more than we’ve gained? In Data and Goliath, security expert Bruce Schneier offers another path, one that values both security and privacy. He shows us exactly what we can do to reform our government surveillance programs and shake up surveillance-based business models, while also providing tips for you to protect your privacy every day. You'll never look at your phone, your computer, your credit cards, or even your car in the same way again.

I should have saved this book for Halloween. It is possibly the scariest thing I have read in a long time, and all the more frightening because it is true.

Two things keep running through my head about what is outlined in this book. One is a play on this quote from George Orwell’s 1984. It’s not that “Big Brother is watching you”, but that “Big Brother and all of his pesky little brothers are watching US”. All of us. Every single one of us. All the time.

And that the late Walt Kelly, creator of the comic strip Pogo from the late 1940s until the early 1970s said it best, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Data and Goliath gives readers a clear picture of just who Big Brother and all his little brothers are, and a good idea of what they are collecting when they watch. We also get to learn all the pesky justifications for why they watch and collect. Also what they do with what they collect, and how secretive and obfuscatory they are about their true purposes and their abuses of our privacy and any attempts at oversight.

Just as fascinating are all the things that are being done in the name of security that actually make us less secure in addition to making us less free. Some of that is truly scary.

The author doesn’t leave us without hope. This book is definitely a call for action, so there are plenty of ideas that can be implemented to address this streaming away of our privacy that claims to, but doesn’t actually make us more secure. The irony is that our increasing lack of privacy makes it easier, in fact downright simple, for those who wish to maintain the status quo to know in advance that we are moving against them, and for them to move against us, with all the power of the state at their backs, first.

Can we manage to get enough watch placed on the watchers in place before they make it impossible?

Reality Rating A-: The text is occasionally a bit dry, but the abuses of technology that it outlines are enough to keep the reader on the edge of their seat in spite of that. Because this is all true, and it’s enough to scare way more than your socks off.

One of the things the author makes abundantly clear is that we are all being watched, as in surveilled, all the time. Having a cell phone is enough to do that. Cell phones tell their carriers, and then anyone who has access to that data, where we are every minute of the day, within a couple dozen feet. From knowing where we are, it can then track who is around us, and from that, it can tell where we work, where we sleep, who we sleep with, where we eat, what we do for fun. Other tracking systems track what we buy and where we buy it, whether online or in real space. Anything we buy with a credit card is tracked. And even if we pay cash, cameras at the store we went to show what we bought and when we bought it.

The descriptions of just how easy it is to diagnose someone’s medical conditions by tracking their movements and their purchases shows just how easily one’s privacy, even about the most private things, can be breached.

And for those who say that there is so much information that no one could be looking for them in particular. Well, that may be true. But, if the government is looking for someone who is in your vicinity, your information will be scooped up and analyzed. And kept. If ten years from now what you bought or wrote today is deemed questionable, it is possible that something you forgot long ago could come back to haunt you.

For those who say that if someone has nothing to hide, they have nothing to fear, the arguments against that logic are pretty easily demolished. We are human, we all have things to hide – from the child who tells their parents they brushed their teeth when they didn’t to the worker who is searching for another job and doesn’t want their employer to know to the spouse who wants to hide a present or a special announcement until the right moment to the people organizing a surprise party. These are all things we want hidden, and none of the them are illegal or even guilty secrets (except maybe the non-toothbrushing child, but didn’t we ALL do that?)

As the author makes very clear, one of the big issues about this push-pull between surveillance and privacy is that we are often not aware how much of our privacy has been stripped away, or how much data is collected about us and how it can and will be used either against us or to sell us stuff that big computers are able to figure out that we might want based on all the tiny details they know about us.

Or to put it another way, we are not the customers of Google or Yahoo or any other search engine, we are the product. We get free search, and those companies collect data about us which they sell. We’re not the shepherd, we’re not even uninvolved bystanders watching as the sheep go by – we ARE the sheep. If you want to learn about all the ways that the sheep are being tagged, and who is looking at all the tagging and tracking data generated by the sheep, this book is a great place to being your search

There is always a question about “who watches the watchers”. In this book, the author provides the answer, and that answer is “no one”. And that makes me very afraid indeed..