Monthly Archives: November 2011

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

Title: American Gods
Author: Neil Gaiman
Year of Publication: 2001
Length: 592 pages
Genre: modern mythology
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4.5 stars

It almost goes without saying that American Gods is a fabulous book. If one person suggests Neil Gaiman to another, this is almost guaranteed to be the book put forth as the best starting point. And there’s a reason for that — despite its mythological focus, despite all the weirdnesses and oddities in it, despite the occasionally non-linear narrative and the seemingly disjointed side stories, this is an incredibly accessible book.

And yet, it’s one I don’t quite know how to write a review for. I’ve been trying for a while now, and somehow, it’s just difficult to sum this book up adequately. It has so many moving pieces, so many things that you might miss on the first, or second, or sixth read-through, but which strike you immeasurably the next time you pick it up. That makes the book a wonderful journey, but it also makes it difficult to review — not least because I don’t want to rob anyone else of the experience of finding those gems for herself.

The book, largely, follows the story of Shadow, a man just released from jail, where he was for three years for armed robbery. He’s released, only to learn that his beloved wife has died in a car accident. On his way home, he encounters Wednesday, a preternaturally knowing older man who offers him a tremendously ambiguous job. When Shadow accepts, he finds himself swept out of mundane reality and into a world far stranger than he had ever imagined. He discovers himself drafted into a war between old gods and new gods — between the mythological entities brought to America by immigrants over the generations, and the new gods of technology and convenience. The idea hinges on a concept which Gaiman explores in other works, notably in the Sandman series, that gods are created by human belief, that they are powerful and impossible to kill while people believe in them, but that when belief is weak, they can die — whether attacked, or by suicide, or by fading into nothingness.

Shadow travels across the country with Wednesday as Wednesday attempts to recruit gods for an upcoming battle. Along the way, Shadow finds himself targeted by the antagonistic, yet self-consciously fretful and defensive, new gods. He receives guidance from some of the old gods, as well as from some folklore heroes who aren’t quite gods, but are definitely more than men. He also has the protection of his dead wife, Laura, who has become walking dead, devoted to keeping him safe. There’s also an extensive subplot, where Shadow spends part of a winter assimilating into a tiny town in northwest Wisconsin — and stumbles into a tangentially-related mystery there. The plot of this book weaves and dodges and meanders, and so it’s hard to summarize much beyond that. You sort of just have to … take the journey.

Some of my favourite parts of this book, though, are the side stories. The Coming to America breaks in the narrative are all fascinating. In these sections, Gaiman explores different travelers to the American continent — from the first people to cross over from Asia all the way to a modern-day Arab salesman. As Gaiman and the narrative point out, Columbus did not discover America; people had been discovering America for thousands of years before him, and kept on discovering it after. We hear the story of the first Norsemen to land on the North American coast, who sacrificed to Odin here, and left their gods behind when they got massacred by natives. We hear the story of Essie Tregowan, a Cornish girl with a Moll-Flanders-esque background, who eventually winds up in a Middle Colony (I suspect, actually, probably somewhere near where I live), whose farm flourishes thanks to the offerings she makes to the spirits she brought over with her. We hear the story of Wututu, an African slave who eventually passes on knowledge of her voudoun gods to an apprentice who doesn’t value them. We hear of Atsula, a shaman of a prehistoric tribe, who questions her god and dies for her hubris.

I don’t just love those stories for the history, though Gaiman does craft each era, each culture, and each character masterfully. I also love what those stories, compiled together, say about America. We forget our gods. We forget where we came from. We forget our origins. And there’s something about Americans that we… we don’t believe as strongly as we might. We believe as a means to an end. We go through rituals because we think it’ll get us something. We lack the bone-deep, marrow-shaking certainty that the gods are out there, and have power, and will help or harm us as it suits them. (And yeah, I do include our most visibly religious faction, the Evangelical Christians, in this; I don’t know what they’re worshiping, but it’s sure as hell not the humble carpenter who told everyone to play along and be nice to each other). We keep the bits that are useful, slough off the rest, and proceed forward at an alarming pace. There’s something there about the American mindset of religion as a tool, about the cavalier way we treat these things. It’s one of those subtler threads that Gaiman’s so good at drawing between things — he doesn’t hit you over the head with the point, but he puts it out there and lets it happen in your head.

This book is a masterpiece, and I don’t say that lightly. It has a truly phenomenal scope and, I think, a phenomenal appeal. People who would not classify themselves as interested in fantasy or mythology, in history or historiography, will all find something to enjoy here — and may well get seduced by genres they never before thought appealing. Shadow is an everyman who is, in fact, not like any man — somehow universal and unique at the same time. American Gods is a fantastic exploration of both the American landscape and the American psyche, a look at the world we live in, how it shapes us, and how we’ve shaped it. If you’ve never read this book, you need to. If you have read it, you need to read it again, because it will have something different to tell you each time you return to it.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a World Tree somewhere south of Blacksburg to find.

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Classical Compendium, by Philip Matyszak

Title: Classical Compendium: A miscellany of scandalous gossip,
bawdy jokes, peculiar facts, and bad behavior from the ancient Greeks and Romans

Author: Philip Matyszak
Year of Publication: 2009
Length: 192 pages
Genre: history / nonfiction
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 4 stars

Matyszak has a great approach to history. He displays it not as staid, overworn stories of famous individuals, but as the real experience of ordinary people — sex, violence, whiny complaints, and all. Matyszak’s Rome is not a land of starched white togas and squeaky-clean marble; his is the Rome of garish dyes and roughspun tunics, of squabbling neighbours and petty disputes, of bad behaviour and its often quite public shame, and, most importantly for the reading experience, of dry wit, frank judgments, and explicit language. I’ve previously read Matyszak’s Legionary, and I hope to read more of his books in the future, because I so appreciate his voice.

In the Classical Compendium, Matyszak has combed the annals and anecdoates for the best tidbits, juiciest gossip, and weirdest tall tales out of Greco-Roman history. And there is, no doubt, some strange stuff in there. Matyszak’s scope includes travel, the military, religion, love affairs, animal lore, odd jobs, criminal records, and even the customs surrounding death in the ancient world — and some of most notable suicides and murders. He also sprinkles the text with traditional jokes from ancient Greece, many of which could be told today without anyone having the slightest feeling of anachronism.

You’ll learn about silphium, a plant worth its weight in gold for its medicinal uses, which included cough syrup and fever relief, as well as birth control and abortifacent; it went extinct sometime in the first century. You’ll find aphrodisiac recipes, and love poems guaranteed to win a woman’s heart — alongside invective poetry guaranteed to drive her away, if that’s your aim. Pompey had trouble with elephants, chameleons live on air, dogs got crucified once a year, and Julius Caesar had a horse with toes. Augustus Caesar imposed strict morality on his people, but couldn’t govern his own family (as anyone who’s watched I. Claudius knows). You’ll learn about some of the ancient world’s most bizarrely specific jobs, like anti-elephant infantrymen, pig igniter, theatre shade operator, professional informer, and phallus manufacturer. If you have someone you desperately need to curse, the ancients have some delightfully specific recommendations. Everyone from commoners to emperors sought advice from the oracle, for questions as big as whether to go to war, as small as “Will I retrieve the mattresses and pillows I have lost?”, and as universal as “What have I done to deserve this?”

What all of these tidbits bring to life is the idea of an ancient world that was full and lively, in some ways as sophisticated as our own, lacking only our technology. It’s a treasure trove, the gems of which illuminate a world long gone, alien to us in some ways, but alarmingly familiar in many others. Matyszak’s books are fantastically educational, but eminently readable and entertaining as well. This isn’t a stuffy recitation of dates and famous names; this is people, as they were and as they still are. And that, to me, is the very best kind of history.

This book got 4 stars instead of 5 mostly because I wish there had been more things in here that I didn’t already know. I would say the book is probably half-and-half information that was new to me versus information that I’ve picked up somewhere along the way, either in school or just in my own trawling of historical topics. I also think that, because this book relies more heavily on the primary sources, there’s less of Matyszak’s sense of humour coming through than there was in Legionary, and I missed that. The Classical Compendium is, well, exactly what it says: a miscellany, bits and pieces out of the original authors or generally summarised, without a lot of connective material or commentary. Still, it’s thoroughly delightful, and a wonderful historical reference book. Every lover of the ancient world should have this on her shelf.

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Sandman, Volume 4: The Season of Mists, by Neil Gaiman

Title: Sandman, Volume 4: The Season of Mists
Author: Neil Gaiman
Year of Publication: 1992
Length: 224 pages
Genre: graphic novel – fantasy / magical realism
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4.5 stars

First off, I apologise for the lack of reviews lately; NaNoWriMo has been consuming most of my post-work hours, leaving me little time either to read or to compose reviews.

In Volume 4 of the Sandman graphic novel series, the focus is initially — and for the first time — on the family. That is, on the Endless, on their interactions with each other. Though we’ve seen some of them before — and though one, known here only as the Prodigal, is still missing from the count — this is the first time we get explicit descriptions of each and his or her duties. Destiny calls a meeting, because it is destined that he will. Desire picks a fight, which leads to Dream deciding that he needs to go free Nada (remember her?) from Hell, even though it may cost him his own existence.

He prepares himself for battle, knowing that he challenged and offended quite a few demons, not to mention the Lord of Hell his-infernal-self, the last time he was down there. But when he arrives, he finds Hell… empty. Abandoned. And Lucifer Morningstar announces that he’s giving up the shop — that after 10 billion years, he’s had enough. It’s a tremendously inventive look at that character, accompanied by a wonderful commentary on human nature as it relates to religion and the idea of damnation. Lucifer complains:

Why do they blame me for all their little failings? They use my name as if I spent my entire days sitting on their shoulders, forcing them to commits acts they would otherwise find repulsive. “The devil made me do it.” I have never made one of them do anything. Never. They live their own tiny lives. I do not live their lives for them.

And then they die, and they come here (having transgressed against what they believed to be right), and expect us to fulfill their desire for pain and retribution. I don’t make them come here. They talk of me going like a fishwife come market day, never stopping to ask themselves why. I need no souls. And how can anyone own a soul? No. They belong to themselves…. They just hate to have to face up to it.

After chivvying out the last few stubborn souls (including Breschau, and when Lucifer tells him, “No one cares any more, Breschau. No one remembers. I doubt one mortal in a hundred thousand could even point to where Livonia used to be, on a map”, I would just like to point out that I am that one in a hundred thousand. I mean, maybe not precisely, but it was a Baltic state, somewhere in the Latvia-Estonia region) and recalcitrant demons, and having Morpheus cut off his wings, Lucifer locks up — and throws Morpheus the key. He makes Morpheus custodian of what he calls “the most desirable plot of psychic real estate in the whole order of created things” — and he proves right, for claimants waste no time in coming a-calling.

Representatives from many different pantheons show up: Odin, Thor, and Loki for the Norse, looking for a way to avoid Ragnarok; Anubis, Bes, and Bast for the Egyptian; three demons displaced from Hell, led by Azazel, who offers to trade, giving Morpheus Nada as well as another demon who had offended Morpheus in the past in exchange for the return of their property; Susano-o-no-Mikato for Shintoism; manifestations of Order and Chaos; two angels, Duma and Remiel, from the Silver City, there, Remiel claims, simply to observe; and Cluracan and Nuala of the Faerie, asking that Hell be left empty, so that they will no longer have to pay their tithe. Morpheus tells them that he will hear each delegation in turn, and then make his decision. Ultimately, Morpheus decides to remit Hell to its original creator, and hands the key over to Duma and Remiel; the damned return, and things go on much as usual — except that now, under the direction of the angels, the overtones are now of purifying, not punishment, because they love the souls they now have charge of — which, as the damned note, makes it so much worse.

But that doesn’t settle issues for Dream. He still has to contend with the demon Azazel, who threatens to destroy Nada in revenge for Morpheus’s decision. But in the Dreamland, Morpheus has supreme power, and he defeats Azazel and sets Nada free. They have an appropriately anticlimactic conversation — what do you say to an old lover, ten thousand years later? — and Nada decides that she would like to forget all and live again. Morpheus grants her request, causing her to be reborn in the body of a Chinese boy. Still in the Dreamland, Loki tricks Susano-o-no-Mikato into taking his place in his own personal hell; when Morpheus learns of this, he frees the Shinto god, but agrees to let Loki remain free as well, putting an illusion in his place, with the understanding that Loki is now in his debt. Finally, Morpheus finds himself saddled with an unexpected burden: Nuala, who had been offered up as a gift by the Faery Queen, and who cannot now return home without causing offense. Dream agrees to let her stay, but strips her of her glamour, revealing not the beautiful, haughty blonde, but a small, pointy-eared, mousy-haired girl. The collection wraps up with Lucifer on an Australian beach, discussing the sunset with a local man.

This is one of my favourite volumes in the Sandman series, though possibly for all the wrong reasons. What I love about this story is not, ultimately, the larger arc. I love the details. I love seeing gods from different  pantheons interacting. I love meeting Nuala. I love the toast of Hob Gadling, which I never fail to bring out at parties:

To absent friends, lost loves, old gods, and the season of mists; and may each and every one of us always give the devil his due.

There’s an odd poetry to this volume. Perhaps appropriately for a story featuring Lucifer Morningstar, there’s an almost Romantic sensibility to the language — which is often entirely at odds with the grotesque and gruesome artwork. Lucifer both is and is not the Byronic hero; appropriately for the original rebel, he refuses to conform to anyone’s expectations. He is, perfectly, a nonconformist, refusing even to adhere to the usual picture of nonconformity that latter ages have painted for him. That sense of the language fitting the character and situation continues through the rest of the issues, down to the lettering for the speech bubbles of each of the various visiting pantheons. Gaiman gives each of them a unique voice — whether tangentially polite, like Susano-o-no-Mikato, thunderingly direct, like Thor, floridly gracious, like Cluracan, or purringly sensual, like Bast. No one representative actually gets that much stage time, but you still finish the volume feeling certain you know who these individuals are — both within the confines of their mythos, and out of it, in the less-cleanly-cut world of Sandman.

The only real off-note for me in this collection is the side story taking place at the boarding school, when the closing of Hell apparently means that the dead start coming back. I just find it rather dull, and don’t think it really adds anything.

Overall, this is a great story, and it sets up so much for the rest of the series. So many characters will return, so many deals struck or rejected will become important again, and so many things hinted at will be revealed in full later on. The Season of Mists opens up the universe to a larger expanse, and we also see more of Morpheus ruling his realm. The Dreamland gets some more rules and structures — not to mention new inhabitants. The Season of Mists is a great, strong installment in the series, a detailed and well-crafted exploration of the mythos of Gaiman’s universe.

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