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Mythopedia: An Encyclopedia of Mythical Beasts and Their Magical Tales

I am not sure how I stumbled on Mythopedia: An Encyclopedia of Mythical Beasts and Their Magical Tales at NetGalley but I am glad I did.  I was able to get a digital review copy of the hardback book that will be published on Tuesday.

What is Mythopedia?

From the West African fable of Anansi the Spider, to Michabo, the magical hare who rebuilt the world and Tanuki, the sweet but troublesome raccoon-dog of Japanese folklore, Mythopedia is an encyclopedia of mythical creatures that covers legends, tales and myths from around the world.

Lovingly created by the illustration duo behind popular flipbook Myth Match, Good Wives and Warriors, this book contains pages upon pages of cultural folklore from around the world.

Organized by geography (The Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia & Oceania), it offers a basic overview of mythological creatures from all over the globe. Plus, colorful and imaginative illustrations.

Some of the creatures will be familiar (most likely those from The Americas and Europe but some from Asia and Africa as well) while others are strange and exotic (Grootslang: and elephant-snake hybrid; Aun Pana: a creepy monster fish from the Amazon jungle; or Encantado: a bizarre shapeshifting dolphin).

Review: Jack in the Green by Charles de Lint

Goodreads:
Jack in the Green
Jack in the Green by Charles de Lint
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
View all my reviews

 

Quick Take:

I stumbled upon Jack in the Green at a local library. Given my penchant for short reworkings of mythology, fairy tales, etc. this seem like a good fit.

But while this retelling of Robin Hood has its moments, it came off very one dimensional. It is interesting to explore what justice, even if it is of the vigilante sort, might look like in the barrio where power is corrupt and the wealthy gate themselves off from everyone else. What does law and morality mean in a world where the economy and the law is stacked against the poor and less fortunate? This could be fertile g

But too much of this novella comes off flat and obvious. Everything feels like a caricature; even if the setting is the American Southwest instead of England. The only scene I found all that compelling was the interaction between the gang and the bottle witch.

Even the resolution was too simple. Maria comes back to life, Jack defeats the bad guys (in a rather dark and cruel scene that nonetheless came off equally flat), and they live happily ever after. This came off as a sketch of a story rather than a flushed out one. Even short stories pack more punch than this.

Perhaps my expectations were too high but I came away disappointed.

In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell

I am sure you are all tired of hearing about my reading funk, my lack of mojo, and whatever other poor clichés and terms I can throw at you.  While in said funk, I tried to break out by reading something a little out of the ordinary.  In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell fits the bill. Although it does have some elements which are in my wheelhouse (archetypes, mythology, etc.)

In the House Upon the DirtIn this epic, mythical debut novel, a newly-wed couple escapes the busy confusion of their homeland for a distant and almost-uninhabited lakeshore. They plan to live there simply, to fish the lake, to trap the nearby woods, and build a house upon the dirt between where they can raise a family. But as their every pregnancy fails, the child-obsessed husband begins to rage at this new world: the song-spun objects somehow created by his wife’s beautiful singing voice, the giant and sentient bear that rules the beasts of the woods, the second moon weighing down the fabric of their starless sky, and the labyrinth of memory dug into the earth beneath their house.
 
This novel, from one of our most exciting young writers, is a powerful exploration of the limits of parenthood and marriage—and of what happens when a marriage’s success is measured solely by the children it produces, or else the sorrow that marks their absence.

My reaction? Hard to pin down.

Mythic, experimental, fabulist, biblical, there is a lot going on here. And of much of the novel I could appreciate it. But by the end I just wanted to find my way out and some closure. 2/3 of the way through and 300 pages seemed twice that. Some great language, descriptions and archetypal structures but didn’t work for me as a whole.

There is my 30 second review.  But in the name of fair representation (and laziness) allow me to offer some quote from other reviewers to give some perspective.

Anthony Domestico in the Boston Globe:

Bell isn’t much interested in psychological realism. His characters are primal and terrifying, driven by elemental forces — pride, anger, hunger — that they can’t really understand, let alone control. Eventually, the narrator learns that he is part of a larger, more timeless narrative: “upon the dirt between the lake and the woods, always there were two that appeared, and always the two made a single child.” The bear was once like the wife: a woman who came to this strange land in order to escape her old life. And the squid was once a whale and before that a man, always a “legion of possibility, a thousand shapes all wanting only to be made more.” Bell’s characters, that is to say, live in the world of archetype and myth, where recurrence and transformation predominate.

Michael Schaub at NPR:

It’s hard to imagine a book more difficult to pull off, but Bell proves as self-assured as he is audacious. His prose, which manages to be both mournful and propulsive, is undeniable. While he’s been compared to authors like Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges, his style is very much his own, lacking any obvious antecedent. In the House contains passages far scarier than most mainstream horror novels, but Bell writes with a warmth, a humanity that renders the scenes gut-wrenching on an emotional level. Characters in fairy tales are often stand-ins for ideas, props used to illustrate a moral. Bell does a superb job of avoiding this trap, though; he writes about the family with both a clear sense of empathy and an expert novelist’s unblinking eye.

Bell’s novel isn’t just a joy to read, it’s also one of the smartest meditations on the subjects of love, family and marriage in recent years.

Carmen Machado in the LA Review of Books:

As the characters unhinge, the madness of the narrative, combined with the arch Biblical language, becomes dizzying. The most fascinating element of the plot — namely, the deficiencies of gender essentialism, and its human consequences — is buried underneath the noise of magic. The reader will want to follow the rope of the relationship through the novel, and will at times feel utterly abandoned in a world with few, if any, rules. In the end, the problem might be as simple as the text running too long — what is 300 pages could have easily been half that.

 […]

I am supportive of Bell’s career and a fan of much of his work, but I found this particular project to be messy and ultimately unsatisfying. Had I been reading the book for pleasure, I would have begun with great enthusiasm, but likely not made it to the end. That being said,  if the reader is willing to wander in the wilderness for a while, the central ideas that are so compelling early on in the text do return. The madness quiets, and the ending is interesting, though perhaps it is too little, too late.

Adam Langer in the New York Times:

Early readers of this book have compared Mr. Bell’s work to that of Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges, but though the author delves deep into the world of fabulism, he lacks both Calvino’s playfulness and Borges’s economy; he may be striving for fairy-tale wisdom and simplicity, but he does so at a novel’s length. You keep hoping for respite from the relentless claustrophobia of its narrator’s perspective — some flash of humor, some sympathetic character, some original insight. And yet, for the most part, these remain elusive. Mr. Bell does an admirable job of attempting to engender within his readers the same sort of alienation his couple experiences, removing them from well-known surroundings, taking them to a seemingly alien land. But throughout, the territory remains stubbornly familiar; one wonders whether a more conventional and concise treatment of this topic might have been equally if not more effective.

Obviously, I am more in the Machado & Langer then the Domestico & Schaub camp but hopefully these give you a flavor and some perspective.

An interesting experiment and with some worthwhile prose but something that didn’t quite come together for me. I might check out some of Bell’s short story work to see if that is a better fit.

The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness

Regular readers will recall that I am a fan of mythology and the reworking of mythological elements or stories.  So when I saw a few reviews for The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness I was intrigued. Here is the first sentence of the publisher’s blurb:

A magical novel, based on a Japanese folk tale, that imagines how the life of a broken-hearted man is transformed when he rescues an injured white crane that has landed in his backyard.

Had me hooked right there.  Throw in the fact that Ness is the author of a YA fantasy series I have been meaning to read for sometime and I was definitely hooked.

The Crane WifeGeorge Duncan is an American living and working in London.  At forty-eight, he owns a small print shop, is divorced, and lonelier than he realizes.  All of the women with whom he has relationships eventually leave him for being too nice.  But one night he is woken by an astonishing sound—a terrific keening, which is coming from somewhere in his garden.  When he investigates he finds a great white crane, a bird taller than even himself.  It has been shot through the wing with an arrow.  Moved more than he can say, George struggles to take out the arrow from the bird’s wing, saving its life before it flies away into the night sky.

The next morning, a shaken George tries to go about his daily life, retreating to the back of his store and making cuttings from discarded books—a harmless, personal hobby—when through the front door of the shop a woman walks in.  Her name is Kumiko, and she asks George to help her with her own artwork.  George is dumbstruck by her beauty and her enigmatic nature, and begins to fall desperately in love with her.   She seems to hold the potential to change his entire life, if he could only get her to reveal the secret of who she is and why she has brought her artwork to him.

I found it to be a lyrical and imaginative story. Granted it requires the “suspension of disbelief” but if you can just let the story flow the mix of fantasy and folklore is beautiful. It includes an insightful portrayal of relationships and family and an ethereal folktale about love and violence.

It is a rather unique mix of styles and approaches, however, and not everybody will get swept up in it as I did.

Ursula K. Le Guin in her Guardian reviewhad this to say:

The tremendous effect of the sliced-up-book-and-feather artworks on everyone’s emotions isn’t made very believable, and the passages where deep mythic chords are struck ring less true than the scenes having to do with ordinary London life. The merely human characters are vivid and likeable, the story is lively and often quite funny. Momentum slackens only in the long passages of unbroken, unascribed, brief-line dialogue. Where a play or film script might use [Pause] or [Beat] as a signal to the actors, these dialogues repeatedly use ellipses-in-quotes: “…” Is the reader expected somehow to perform these silences? A script isn’t a narrative; it’s a quite different way of telling a story, and for me these dialogues, even when clever, fail to work as part of a novel. But expectations change with generations, and the reduction of human relationships to a back-and-forth table-tennis bounce of bodiless voices may be perfectly satisfactory to readers who spend a lot of time on a mobile phone.

In contrast, Paul Di Fillipo

This artful, jumpy narration, to my sensibilities at least, harks back more to the YA approach of keeping a boredom-intolerant teenage reader heavily invested in a cascade of swift events. It’s definitely not the chin-pulling, deliberately protracted, lugubrious pace of much adult literary fiction. And yet Ness’s themes, attitudes, and topics are markedly “adult.” Loneliness, regret, betrayal, disappointment, an inability to make one’s exterior life and circumstances match one’s hidden interior portrait, a sense of false steps and no turning back — until a miracle occurs and is met receptively.

I will agree with Le Guin that the “straight” mythological sections seemed awkwardly woven into the story at times but I liked the dialog and found the book readable and lyrical.  It didn’t seem to be striving for cool as Le Guin believes.

I do wonder if perhaps the novel would have been stronger with less mythology in the foreground and instead merely hinted at the myth and let the supernatural or speculative lurk in the background. The characters are so well done and yet aspects of the writing ethereal and mystical. I think he could have left the folklore connection floating but felt rather than so bluntly described.

But as is I found it a wonderful read. Perhaps not surprising given my penchant for both myth and fantastical young adult fiction.  So if you have an interest in either of those areas or both, this would be a must read to my mind.  But it doesn’t require that interest to be enjoyed.

 

The Woken Gods by Gwenda Bond

You know me, I like mythology and interesting characters so I was excited check out The Woken Gods by Gwenda Bond. Add in the fact that I “know” the author from blogging, twitter, etc. made it a must read.

Synopsis:

Five years ago, the gods of ancient mythology awoke around the world.

This morning, Kyra Locke is late for school.

Seventeen-year-old Kyra lives in a transformed Washington, D.C., home to the embassies of divine pantheons and the mysterious Society of the Sun. But when rebellious Kyra encounters two trickster gods on her way back from school, one offering a threat and the other a warning, it turns out her life isn’t what it seems. She escapes with the aid of Osborne “Oz” Spencer, an intriguing Society field operative, only to discover that her scholar father has disappeared with a dangerous relic. The Society needs it, and they don’t care that she knows nothing about her father’s secrets.

Now Kyra must depend on her wits and the suspect help of scary gods, her estranged oracle mother, and, of course, Oz–whose first allegiance is to the Society. She has no choice if she’s going to recover the missing relic and save her father. And if she doesn’t? Well, that may just mean the end of the world as she knows it.

And I have to say it was a fun read. The mythology aspect turns out to be an interesting backdrop to the story. I wish the gods had played a more prominent role but the story is really focused on the lead character and how she maneuvers through this complex world of gods, family and friends. A nice blend of action, relationships and suspense; with a dash of humor too.

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