Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Stories, and more stories - Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman and Patakin by Nina Jaffe

 Fact - I am a huge fan of Neil Gaiman. Fact - I am a huge fan of the Norse myths. So when Neil came out with his retelling, I was thrilled, excited and pre-ordered his book, Norse Mythology. I waited months, and months, and months. And it arrived in February. I dove into the book with great abandon. And I was a little surprised.

 You KNOW Neil Gaiman knows his myths. Not just the Norse myths, but also the Greek myths, Japanese myths, the list could go on forever. You can see it in the layers of his graphic novels The Sandman. You can feel it in Neverwhere, and taste the Norse myths in Odd and the Frost Giants. Neil Gaiman is one of the most talented writers out there. His characters are deep, the mood is intense, even in some of his picture books (Wolves in the Walls). There is humour in his writing, great style, and knowledge.

 I was sorely disappointed in Norse Mythology. At times the writing is geared to young readers, but in the next moment it seems aimed at an older readership. He talks about poop, then says piss.The writing is choppy, in the way Oscar Wilde can be choppy - Neil Gaiman is not choppy!
Having said all this, the book is a fairly good retelling of the Norse myths, but it is not Gaiman's best writing. I ask myself if this book was edited, and if so does the editor still have a job?
Would I recommend it? Sort of. Not the hardcover. Get the paperback. If you are a huge fan of Neil Gaiman, maybe. If you have young readers or listeners who want to know more about the Norse gods, probably. Otherwise I highly recommend one of my favourite books of the Norse stories - Kevin Crossley-Holland's The Norse Myths. It has everything the Gaiman book does and more. It might not be as cute as Gaiman's, but the Norse stories are not meant to be cute. Funny in places? Yes. Cute? No. Crossley-Holland's might be a little more dry, but they are myths and the book is well written.

Another book I finished this year was originally published 2001 and written by storyteller, folklorist, and drummer Nina Jaffe: Patakin, World Tales of Drums and Drummers. (Pronounced pah-tah-KEEN, the sound of hand hitting a drum.) As a drummer this book was of great interest to me and was recommended by Tim Van Egmond for a bodhrán tale it contained. Although most of these wonderful stories are traditional I discovered the bodhrán tale from Ireland was not a traditional tale, but one created 'for the drum' by Nina and features the legendary drummer Stevie Mac! The edition I got included a CD of some of the tales (not all ten). The introduction, five tales and epilogue are well told by the author and are augmented by the percussion featured in the story, and flute and vocals. The amount of research that obviously went into this book must have been great. You know there is more that was not included, and I for one, would be interested in seeing all the notes and research that went into this wonderful little book. Drums and their stories hail from Ghana, Fiji, Korea, India, Ireland, Haiti,Venezuela, Mexico and include a tale from te Inuit people and a Jewish story. With explanatory notes, a glossary, bibliography, discography, recommended resources and publications and further reading, if you like drums and folk tales, this is a must have book! If you are, or know a music teacher who love their drums, compliment their collection of books by adding this one! A well researched, nicely illustrated collection of tales indeed.

Both of these book reviews were unsolicited.
© 2017 Simon Brooks

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Here's To 2017, and a book review - Gossip From the Forest

The book I am going to review, is a must have for anyone who loves forests, fairy tales, and/or storytelling. But first...

Last year was pretty amazing. We got a dog - oh wait. That was late 2015. I performed at 100 venues. Some of these venues were multiple performances. I presented again at the National Storytelling Network Conference and met some truly wonderful people there. I have seen some very talented storytellers from all over the USA.

I moved my studio out of my office, to a more sound tight location. I got to see, with some friends, David Francey perform in New Hampshire and got to visit family back in the UK.

I fell in love with the Ramayana, read Stephen Mitchell's free translation of Gilgamesh along with a slew of other great (and not so great) books. And I started on my own book which we are hoping will be out in September.

One book I have not quite finished yet, which I am greatly enjoying, is Gossip from the Forest: the tangled roots of our forests and fairy tales, by Sara Maitland. I have not read anything else by her yet, and her writing is superb. I think I can it is mouth watering. The book is about forests in the UK and Grimm fairy tales. Starting in March, Maitland visits a different forest each month (per chapter) and talks about its ecology and/or culture and how (European) fairy tales are of the forest. At the end of each chapter, she retells one of the Grimm fairy tales. Sometimes the stories are a simple retelling with a new riff, but others are very different. Fans of Angela Carter will notice an echo, but these retellings are all Maitland. Those who are not fans of Carter, you may well like these.

Last night I finished Chapter 9: November - Kielder Forest, Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf. The Keilder Forest is in the very north of England, on the border of Scotland. Kielder is a heavily managed forest, Maitland talks about how the Forestry Commission, established in 1919 after World War One, has changed their mandate over the years and have not done a terribly good job up until recently. She talks about clear cutting, or clear felling, and it's pros and cons in these British forests. She writes how the forests are managed and how recently the way they are looked after is similar, in a way, to how forests were managed in the Middle Ages, only with very modern technology.
Burley in the New Forest, 1991, © Simon Brooks, 2017
Sara Maitland seemed to have a slight fear of forests, which she puts down, in some respect, to the love of the old fairy tales. She shows how we were once very connected to the woods, and the woods themselves are not to be feared. Indeed not all the animals and people there are to be feared either. Often there are helpers, it is a place to escape to. There is no need for panic on entering a forest, but there are things in the woods to be fearful of.

Maitland discusses how people are still deeply connected to some forests in their work, and how communities still use them. The work Maitland has done in research is thorough. The things I have learned from this book has been and will be useful to my work as a storyteller and writer. The history in this book is far from dry. Being born and raised in the UK I have spent a great deal of time in three of these forests - the Forest of Dean, the New Forest and Epping Forest. I know these woods and their vibe, if you will. It was wonderful to revisit them through Maitland's words.

If you like woods and fairy tales, then this is a must-have book. Sara Maitland's writing is, as I have said, superb and her reasoning and research is impeccable. The retellings of the stories (Thumbling, The White Snake, Rumpelstiltskin, Hansel and Gretel, Little Goosegirl, The Seven Swan's Sister, The Seven Dwarves, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf, The Four Comrades, Dancing Shoes, and The Dreams of Sleeping Beauty) are creative and powerful. These alone will have you look at folk and fairy tales in a new light and might inspire you to retell stories in a new way. Her points of view and how they can be used to make a tale come to life, should inspire you to give a different spin on a story or go deeper with it.

My copy came from the UK and was first published in 2012. My 2013 paperback has the ISBN number 978-184708-430-9 and can be found at Amazon
Start the year off with a great book!