Tag Archives: book reviews

“Norse Mythology” by Neil Gaiman

I had to travel for work recently, and this was the perfect book to read while on flights and in hotel rooms. It was a quick read, entertaining, and thought-provoking. Basically, everything you expect from Gaiman in the retelling of Norse myths. He took stories from the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda and presents them in his own voice. It works really well.

There is an abundance of the usual characters that we expect in the Norse myths: Thor, Odin, Loki, Freya, and so on. But Gaiman also treats us to some lesser-known players, and some of these stories have resonant similarities to other myths. For example, in the following creation story, Ask and Embla are created from the Ash and Elm trees, and the names conjure images of Adam and Eve.

Ve carved the logs. He gave them the shape of people. He carved their ears, that they might hear, and their eyes, that they might see, and lips, that they might speak.

The two logs stood on the beach, two naked people. Ve had carved one with male genitals, the other he had carved female.

The three brothers made clothes for the woman and the man, to cover themselves and to keep them warm, in the chilly sea-spray on the beach at the edge of the world.

Last of all they gave the two people they had made names: the man they called Ask, or Ash Tree; the woman they called Embla, or Elm.

(p. 34)

It is rare that I actually laugh out loud when I am reading, but it happened during this book (glad I wasn’t drinking coffee – it would have come out my nose). It occurred during the myth about the Mead of Poetry, which Odin, in the form of a giant eagle, stole from a giant, carrying the mead in his mouth and spitting it into vats back as Asgard. But that is not the whole story.

There. That is the story of the mead of poetry and how it was given to the world. It is a story filled with dishonor and deceit, with murder and trickery. But it is not quite the whole story. There is one more thing to tell you. The delicate among you should stop your ears, or read no further.

Here is the last thing, and a shameful admission it is. When the all-father in eagle form had almost reached the vats, with Suttung immediately behind him, Odin blew some of the mead out of his behind, a splattery wet fart of foul-smelling mead right in Suttung’s face, blinding the giant and throwing him off Odin’s trail.

No one, then or now, wanted to drink the mead that came out of Odin’s ass. But whenever you hear bad poets declaiming their bad poetry, filled with foolish similes and ugly rhymes, you will know which of the meads they have tasted.

(p. 151)

I will forever have this image in my mind when I read a bad poem!

Many of the myths in this book are symbolic for issues that we as conscious beings have to grapple with. A great example of this is when Thor wrestles an old woman and is unable to defeat her. This tale is symbolic for how we, aware of our mortality, have to wrestle with the knowledge of our impending death as we enter into old age.

“And the old woman?” asked Thor. “Your old nurse? What was she?” His voice was very mild, but he had hold of the shaft of his hammer, and he was holding it comfortably.

“That was Elli, old age. No one can beat old age, because in the end she takes each of us, makes us weaker and weaker until she closes our eyes for good. All of us except you, Thor. You wrestled old age, and we marveled that you stayed standing, that even when she took power over you, you fell down only to one knee. We have never seen anything like last night, Thor. Never.”

(p. 176)

Something that has always fascinated me about mythology is how recurring themes appear across various myths, regardless of the time and place in which those myths originated. A great example is the river which the souls of the dead must cross. For me, it symbolizes the crossing of the stream of consciousness, which we must undertake in order for our consciousness to return to the divine source.

Hermod the Nimble rode for nine days and nine nights without stopping. He rode deeper and he rode through gathering darkness: from gloom to twilight to night to a pitch-black starless dark. All that he could see in the darkness was something golden glinting far ahead of him.

Closer he rode, and closer, and the light grew brighter. It was gold, and it was the thatch bridge across the Gjaller River, across which all who die must travel.

(pp. 242 – 243)

This book is outstanding on so many levels. It is simple and accessible, yet brimming with profound wisdom for those who want to dive deep into the text. I highly recommend this to all readers.

Cheers!

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“Promethea: Book 5” by Alan Moore: On Consciousness and the Apocalypse

This is the final book in the series and the focus is on the shift in human consciousness that accompanies the apocalypse. In order to fully grasp what Moore is expressing, it is important to understand that the apocalypse is a symbolic end of the world. It is the end of reality as we perceive it and signifies the crossing of the threshold into the new stage of human evolution.

“It’s like she’s had some massive breakdown in her sense of what’s real. Maybe that’s what ‘end of the world’ means.”

Reality as we know it is only a shared perception. We are taught that a table is a table and a building is a building, and we filter our sensory input accordingly. The apocalypse, therefore, will be a collective shift in how humans perceive the world around us.

“Yes, space and time, our selves, our whole world… these things only ever existed in our perceptions. Now those perceptions are changing.”

There is a conception that when the apocalypse occurs, that it will signal the end of humankind, that we will all be magically transported from the earth to a heavenly place. This will only occur symbolically. We will still exist on this physical plane, we will still have to deal with life, but our perceptions will be vastly different.

“”I mean, it’s not like there weren’t going to still be questions and choices after the apocalypse. What, did we just think we’d all just go to heaven and there’d be no more problems, or diseases, or earthquakes? No, we all woke up one day after the world ended, and we still had to feed ourselves and keep a roof over our heads. Life goes on, y’know? Life goes on.”

The final chapter in this book goes deep into the exploration of consciousness and the symbols used to express it. Since it is impossible to study consciousness using the scientific method, we must turn to art and mysticism as ways to explore this aspect of ourselves.

“Both angels and imaginative thoughts, being phenomena not highly reliable under laboratory conditions, are equally outside the province of empirical science. Consciousness, unprovable by scientific standards, is forever, then, the impossible phantom in the predictable biologic machine, and your every thought a genuine supernatural event. Your every thought is a ghost, dancing.”

Moore goes on to assert that consciousness is dependent upon language and symbols, that without these tools, we as unable to grasp and understand our conscious selves. Words and symbols actually give our consciousness form and shape.

“Consciousness is an astonishing gift, too precious to be squandered on material concerns alone. And consciousness, modern theory maintains, is built on language. Before we’re conscious of something, we must have a word for it. The only reality we can ever know is that of our perceptions, our own consciousness, while that consciousness, and thus our entire reality, is made of nothing but signs and symbols. Nothing but language.”

I’d like to conclude by saying I have read a fair amount of comics and graphic novels so far in my life, and this series is by far the best that I have read. And the genre is perfect for conveying this type of deep metaphysical information, because, as Moore points out, the genre naturally communicates with both aspects of the psyche simultaneously.

“Pentagon studies in the 1980s demonstrated that comic strip narrative is still the best way of conveying understandable and retainable information. Words being the currency of our verbal ‘left’ brain, and images that of our pre-verbal ‘right’ brain, perhaps comic strip reading prompts both halves to work in unison?”

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“The Diary of a Teenage Girl” by Phoebe Gloeckner

This book is kind of a downer, but at the same time, it made me feel grateful. It’s the tale of a 15-year-old girl who becomes sexually involved with her mother’s boyfriend, which causes a downward spiral of addiction, mental illness, and self-loathing. As a parent, I am so very grateful that none of my daughters got this messed up.

What I really liked about this book is the way the author mixed mediums. While it is written in the form of a diary, it reads like a novel. In addition, the author included her own drawings, snippets of graphic novel style panel illustrations, and letters written by the characters. So it felt like a blend of novel, diary, graphic novel, and epistolary. For me, that is the book’s strongest asset.

As a regular journal writer, I connected with a scene where Minnie (the protagonist) ponders whether her journal writing is an act of creative expression.

Let’s take a little time out and be completely serious for a moment—my writing in this book has become a sort of habit, and a good one. I do think my writing has improved because of it. Would you or would you not consider this journal a creative endeavor?

(p. 65)

Personally, I consider any act of self-expression to be a creative endeavor. Journal writing, especially if one is exploring the deeper parts of the self, is definitely a creative act. Additionally, any practice that one gets writing hones the skill of crafting the written word.

One of the effects of addiction on a person is a deep feeling of isolation. Throughout the book, Gloeckner captures that feeling in beautifully sad words.

I left feeling like the center of the ocean, deep and quiet. Glowing particles of dust or old dead fish atoms slowly filter down from the top through the water. The sun gradually leaves them. They settle down later at the bottom, seven miles below. Dark. Heavy, heavy water.

(p. 107)

As much as this book is disturbing, it does end on a more optimistic note. Without giving away too much, Minnie ends her diary by deciding to start a new one, which reflects the start of a new chapter in her life.

This diary is almost full. The binder rings can barely hold another few pages but I didn’t get a new diary binder yet. Maybe I’ll go downtown to Patrick’s…they probably have a nice serious-looking black binder with heavy-duty rings that won’t burst open. That’s what I want. I want to get a good one.

I haven’t been writing at all because I’ve been waiting to start a new diary. A brand-new diary is like a brand-new life, and I’m ready to leave this one behind me. But since I don’t have a new binder, it’s just too bad: I’ll have to tack a few pages onto my old life.

(p. 285)

Our lives are stories that are being written every moment, and at the risk of sounding cliché, we can change the story or turn the page any time we want. That is the beauty of life and one of the things that gave me hope in my personal dark periods.

Thanks for stopping by, and have an inspired day.

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Final Thoughts on the Qur’an

As I was nearing the end of the text, my wife asked me if I had any thoughts as to why so many people are turning to the Qur’an for spiritual and religious guidance. I thought about it and told her that in my opinion, it is because the text is very simple and offers practical guidelines on how to behave. There is mass appeal in simplicity. And in fact, the Qur’an asserts that the messages are being presented in a way that the people of this time and place can easily understand the lessons contained within.

We have explained things in various ways in this Qur’an, so that people might take notice…

(p. 177)

We have made it easy to learn lessons from the Qur’an: will anyone take heed?

(p. 351)

The following is an example of a practical lesson from the Qur’an. It addresses hypocrites and how one should deal with them.

When the hypocrites come to you [Prophet], they say, ‘We bear witness that you are the Messenger of God.’ God knows that you truly are His Messenger; God bears witness that the hypocrites are liars—they use their oaths as a cover and so bar others from God’s way: what they have been doing is truly evil—because they professed faith and then rejected it, so their hearts have been sealed and they do not understand. When you see them [Prophet], their outward appearance pleases you; when they speak, you listen to what they say. But they are like propped-up timbers—they think every cry they hear is against them—and they are the enemy. Beware of them. May God thwart them! How devious they are!

(p. 374)

As a whole, this is definitely not my favorite religious/spiritual text. There is a lot that just does not resonate with me. But I am glad I read it, because I feel like I have a better understanding of the Muslim faith, and because I did gain some insight from the text.

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The Qur’an: On Consciousness and Perception

The exploration of consciousness and perception is something that fascinates me, and is something I search for within all spiritual texts that I read. During my reading of the Qur’an, I came across some interesting passages concerning consciousness and perception that are worth sharing and contemplating.

The first passage addresses the myth of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. After eating the fruit, they become conscious of their physical state of being.

But Satan whispered to Adam, saying, ‘Adam, shall I show you the tree of immortality and power that never decays?’ and they both ate from it. They became conscious of their nakedness and began to cover themselves with leaves from the garden.

(p. 201)

There are a couple things I find interesting about this passage. First, there is a connection established between “immortality and power” and human consciousness. It is consciousness that makes us divine beings. Also, there is an implication that consciousness is immortal, that it lives on after our bodies cease to exist. This is a concept in which I firmly believe. The other thing that intrigued me about this passage is the subtle difference between the Judeo-Christian version of the story: in this version, Eve does not tempt Adam to eat the fruit. In fact, it almost seems like a reversal, that Adam gave in to Satan’s temptation and then gave the fruit to Eve also.

So, if consciousness if immortal, what happens to it after we die?

God takes souls at the time of death and the souls of the living while they sleep. He keeps hold of those whose death He has ordained and sends the others back until their appointed time: there truly are signs in this for those who reflect.

(p. 298)

The way I interpret this, when we die, our consciousness is reunited with the divine, which is the source of our consciousness. But also, when we sleep and enter the realm of the subconscious, we also temporarily merge our consciousness with the divine. I feel that this also happens during states of altered awareness, such as during meditation or under the influence of mind-altering substances.

Then what is the role of perception in all this? We are constantly exposed to spiritual and mystical experiences, but too often we are caught up in our lives to notice when these occur. The Qur’an offers a great parable describing this.

Even if they saw a piece of heaven falling down on them, they would say, ‘Just a heap of clouds,’ so leave them, Prophet, until they face the Day when they will be thunderstruck…

(p. 346)

We are always surrounded by signs of the divine spirit manifest in our world. Often, all we need is a slight shift in our consciousness and we begin to perceive what has always been there. If we are rushing about in our cars, or distracted by our cellular devices, when we look up, all we see is a heap of clouds. But if we slow down, take some deep cleansing breaths, and then look up at the sky, we notice something we failed to see before, a bit of heaven in our plane of existence.

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Environmentalism and the Qur’an

Throughout the Qur’an, it is repeatedly stressed that God created the heavens and the earth. The impression I got from reading the text is that God expects the believers to show the same honor and respect to the earth, which God created, just as God expects the believers to respect and honor the words he has passed to humankind through the various prophets. There is also an emphasis on the Garden where the faithful will be taken following the Day of Judgement. The Garden is described as a place of beauty with clear streams and abundant fruits and vegetables, clearly an indication of the joy, comfort, and blessings that a healthy environment provides.

There is a strong passage in the text where God points out the interconnection between things in the natural world, and warns of the destruction that will come if humans thought their arrogance come to believe that they have power and dominion over God’s creation.

The life of this world is like this: rain that We send down from the sky is absorbed by the plants of the earth, from which humans and animals eat. But when the earth has taken on its finest appearance, and adorns itself, and its people think they have power over it, then the fate We commanded comes to it, by night or by day, and We reduce it to stubble, as if it had not flourished just the day before.

(p. 130)

The Qur’an emphasizes the importance of heeding the signs and warnings that are made clear.

Ever closer to people draws their reckoning, while they turn away, heedless: whenever a fresh revelation comes to them from their Lord, they listen to it playfully with frivolous hearts.

(p. 203)

As I read this, I immediately thought of the climate change deniers, who scoff at the prophetic warnings of the scientific community and forge ahead heedlessly, impelled by greed and short-sightedness. We bring destruction upon ourselves when we fail to heed the warning signs that present themselves to us. In my opinion, God (however you interpret God), science, nature, are all presenting us with a prophetic warning: we do not have power over the earth and we need to act respectfully and nurture this planet. The choices we make right now will determine whether we inherit the Garden, or a place of desolation and suffering.

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Jews in the Qur’an

I have been struggling with the mixed messages in the text regarding people of the Jewish faith. At some points, God affirms His covenant with the Israelites and states that the Qur’an is intended to reaffirm what was handed down through the Torah. But then there are other passages that are highly critical of the Jews, and if taken out of context, are easily used to justify anti-Semitic sentiments.

Here is an example of where God speaks favorably in regard to the Jews.

Children of Israel, remember how I blessed you. Honour your pledge to Me and I will honour My pledge to you: I am the One you should fear. Believe in the message I have sent down confirming what you already possess.

(p. 6)

Compare the previous passage with the following excerpt.

How evil their practices are! Why do their rabbis and scholars not forbid them to speak sinfully and consume what is unlawful? How evil their deeds are! The Jews have said, ‘God is tight-fisted,’ but it is they who are tight-fisted, and they are rejected for what they have said.

(p. 74)

Finally, Jews are depicted as being the most hostile toward Muhammad and the followers of the faith.

You [Prophet] are sure to find that the most hostile to the believers are the Jews and those who associate other deities with God;

(p. 75)

So having read the introduction to the text, I am aware of the importance of the context of these passages. My understanding (and I am not a scholar, so it is just my limited understanding) is that the text is critical of a certain group of Jews who aligned themselves with the Arab Meccans who persecuted Muhammad and his followers. It is unfortunate that snippets of text are pulled and used out of context to justify ideologies, which I believe happens way too often. And this goes for other religious texts too, such as the Bible and the Torah. Human history is brimming with instances where quotes were cherry-picked from these texts to justify what I would consider non-spiritual acts.

In all fairness, the text is also critical of Christians and Pagans. I’m not sure I whether I will explore those aspects of the text. Honestly, there are some spiritual and inspiring passages that I have noted which I would like to focus on in future posts. I’d much rather look at the positive and spiritually uplifting aspects of the text. That said, I will try to get another post up soon. Cheers!

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