American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Sorry this one took so long to get up! My time in Spain is winding down, meaning I’ve had less time to read and less time to write as I give life here one last burst of energy. I finished this novel about a month ago, maybe more, so it’s not all fresh. Excuse any vagaries from memory failure.


Earlier this year when I asked my friends where I should start if I wanted to start reading Gaiman, American Gods was the immediate choice for all of them. From what I could gather, it was a good introduction to the style and ideas of Neil Gaiman. They were all correct.

What I found in this novel was a well-paced story of accessible (but still fantastic) fantasy that was deeply researched, interesting, funny, and full of delightful prose.

American Gods is an important read for writers, especially, because of a skillful balance that Gaiman has discovered. He seems to have stumbled upon the exact correct proportions of funny, shocking, sad, rewarding, and compelling with this book. This is one of very few books I’ve read that can consistently use dream to such great effect, developing characters and driving forward the plot. I’m particularly impressed with how appropriately he handled a few specific moments, including two big character deaths.

SPOILERS:

The death of Wednesday: When one of our central characters, Wednesday was killed by the new gods, I had to set the book down for a moment. I was suspicious. His death was abrupt, unceremonious, and felt rather cheap. I didn’t feel sad or upset, so much as disappointed. I invested a lot into him, trying to figure out his character and guess his next move and the way he died didn’t satisfy me. If it had been left at that, I would not have felt happy with this death. Then I worried, because there was a tugging notion in the prose and the procedure that made me believe Wednesday would come back. That’s disconcerting, because tricking a reader and bringing a character back/faking a death is often cheap and unsatisfying. I was worried Gaiman wouldn’t pull it off. IMO, he did it just right. The two-man grift, the partially, temporarily successful attempt at resurrection offered enough closure, fully developed Wednesday as a character, and ultimately left me content with his demise.

The death of Shadow: I felt similarly about this death. It just didn’t feel like Shadow would stay dead, and that was scary, especially because he was human and there were no special tricks up his sleeve that I could conceive of. I was immensely satisfied with Shadow’s spiritual journey through the underworld and with his decision to fade into nothingness. Because we reached that stage of acceptance with Shadow, it made his resurrection enjoyable because we were able to watch his negative reaction to being torn from nothingness and thrown back into life.

These are certainly two of the most interesting deaths/resurrections I’ve read in a long time. And feeling my reactions to them as they happened taught me a great deal about what a reader wants and needs from character death.

Probably the greatest thing I appreciated about this novel, though, is the immense amount of detail Gaiman offered us about the environments, the minutiae, and the belief systems he presented us with. I have an enormous bag of respect waiting for Gaiman should he ever choose to claim it, because of how impressed I was with the research that went into this book.

With that said, though, I wasn’t completely satisfied with the scope of the religions and cultures he represented. Of course, it would’ve been impossible for him to meaningfully represent every culture of the world in a 600-page novel, but most of the big characters from mythology were the easy choices, coming from popular European myth. It would’ve been nice to see a few more less popular, less anglo-centric gods be given fleshed out stories or characters. There was almost nothing from South America. Does that count as part of the barren America?

Which brings me to the subject of Native American representation. Gaiman justifies his plot-integral proposition that gods don’t thrive well in the Americas by stating that native religions were truly more about land-worship and idols than the creation of gods. I know little about most native religions, but 1) that’s a broad statement and 2) that just doesn’t seem fair. Can we truly say that or is this a case of misrepresentation and the molding of a culture to the author’s needs? I’m inclined to say the latter.

Despite my qualms with representation in this book, I did love it. I wouldn’t call it a master piece, but I would call it a brilliant piece of art that we can look to for inspiration.

Now, I’ve got a question about one part of the book that escaped me. Maybe someone can offer an opinion.

Toward the end, when Shadow is underneath the ice, passing out, he sees a vision of Whiskey Jack, the buffalo god, and the thunderbird god. They seem to be beckoning him, but as Hinzelmann grabs Shadow’s hand and rescues him, the gods turn away and seem to abandon him. Am I interpreting that right? If so, what is their reason for leaving him behind? Has he betrayed them by surviving or has he been tainted because the kobold saved his life? What’s going on here?!? It’s the one part of the book I couldn’t grasp and it’s been eating at me for weeks.

Please, someone, help me.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Mondays on the Dark Night of the Moon by Kirin Narayan

I’m a sucker for folklore and fairy tales. I feel like everyone says that. Well, I say it too. Combine that with a predisposition to whimsically splurge buying books and a University Bookstore sale, and that’s how you get your hands on a copy of this gem. Narayan was a folklorist at the University of Wisconsin, my alma mater, and I suppose she used this book in one of her classes. Someone sold it back to the bookstore I couldn’t be happier with their decision.

Narayan has collected here a sample of Kangra folktales told in the mountain dialect of northern India.

Here’s the soundbite on the back cover:

Twenty-one tales of women’s ritual power and adventure quests

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At first, this deterred me from reading the book. I was a different person then and didn’t fancy myself interested in women writers. Classic, right? If you’re reading this post and have reservations about this book because it’s about tales of women’s ritual power and adventure quests, please rethink a lot of things, but especially this book. I finally found the right time in my life to read this and here is what I found.

I opened the volume expecting the formulaic foreword, introduction, translator’s note, table of contents, and twenty-one back-to-back stories with occasional footnotes. What I encountered was a study on storytelling, relationships, culture, and character in an innovative form I’ve never heard of or seen. Yes, Narayan has included a preface, introduction, and afterword, but that is where the similarities with my expectations end. The tales storyteller Urmila Devi Sood recounts are short, usually five pages or less. The book is 225 pages long, leaving about 115 pages unaccounted for based on how I imagined the book.

As it turns out, each story is individually prefaced and followed by Urmilaji (the respectful name Narayan uses for her cohort) and Narayan’s contexualization and explication of the stories, mixed in with a delightful amount of Narayan’s beautiful and exact prose. While they sit together through seasons and temperamental weather, Urmilaji weaving stories she learned from her father and her community, Narayan transcribing, recording, and offering opinions, we see the two grow very close. Their respecting, admiring relationship is in stark contrast to the cold, often neglectful relationships between women in the various stories and we see in full detail the common struggle of a woman in Kangra society, divided between two homes, taking on the numerous duties the mother-in-law once held.

The story told outside the stories is as touching and compelling as the masterfully told and translated folktales themselves. Right from the first, I was grabbed by these wonderful tales. A few of the stories stand out as exceptional, even among the high average quality of the collection: “Across the Seven Seas,” “The Twelve Years of Affliction,” “Love Like Salt,” and “The Devouring Demoness.”

As the end draws near, Narayan and Urmilaji, now intimately comfortable with one another engage in enrapturing dialog about the final stories and Narayan recounts their conversations fondly. In my opinion, this isn’t a collection of folktales. It’s a reflection on Narayan’s fieldwork and a closely personal examination of how relationships develop. It’s a piece of fieldwork unmatched by any I’ve seen. I became deeply entrenched in the frequent meetings of the two outstanding women.

By the end of the last chapter, I was nearly in tears.

Read this book.

Mondays on the Dark Night of the Moon by Kirin Narayan