Our book this month, Neil Gaiman's American Gods.
I must say, I very much liked the central conceit of the book - immigrants from all over the world came to America bringing their gods with them. Now most of these gods are fading away through lack of interest, and because America has created a new set of gods who draw their power from wired technology.
I felt that I was reading the book on behalf of a much younger self (15? 16?) who was still into superhero comics, read science fiction and fantasy and would have loved Gaiman's magic. It isn't so much that the desire for magic fades as you get older, but that as a reader you get a great deal more demanding. And while I found American Gods and enjoyable, light read to consume over lunch, I was resentful that it was taking time away from "meatier" reads that would have tickled the grey matter a bit more, and thus been more satisfying.
The central character, Shadow, is released from prison early after his wife is killed in a car crash and offered a job by the mysterious Wednesday, who as we learn later, is actually an incarnation of the Norse god Odin. There's an epic battle brewing between the old gods and the new, and Shadow and Wednesday begin a road-trip through the heart of America to rally the troops in preparation for it.
Gaiman himself says about the writing of the book:
I didn't really know what kind of book I wanted to write until, in the summer of 1998, I found myself in Reykjavik, in Iceland. And it was then that fragments of plot, an unwieldy assortment of characters, and something faintly resembling a structure, came together in my head. Either way, the book came into focus. It would be a thriller, and a murder mystery, and a romance, and a road trip. It would be about the immigrant experience, about what people believed in when they came to America. And about what happened to the things that they believed.In our discussion last night it soon became apparent that none of us felt that the plot of the novel hangs together convincingly. You never really get a handle on the "badies" and the final battle, the climax of the book, turns out to be a damp squib rather than the anticipated firework display.
But there are some excellent episodes in the novel, and much of the talk last night was about our favourite bits. All of us enjoyed Gaiman's journey into the soul of America, and particularly the Lakeville subplot (very Twin Peaks!) where Shadow discovers the perfect small town, without crime or unemployment ... but why is it that young girls keep disappearing?
The night visits from Shadow's dead wife Laura were both chilling and darkly funny. The part where Zorya Poluchnaya (the strange sister who spends most of her life asleep) reaches into the night sky to pluck the moon and offer it as a coin to Shadow is truly moving.
I know that I won't be able to ever watch reruns of The Lucy Show without being afraid that Lucy will talk out of the TV set to me!
I loved the way that gods take human form and are forced into the seamier side of American life - the Queen of Sheeba is a prostitute, Egyptian gods Thoth and Anubis become undertakers, Bast the cat becomes a woman in Shadow's dream and seduces him (but the rough tongue is a dead giveaway!) ... and my very favourite story is that of the gay djinn taxi-driver!
The book evoked some pretty mixed reactions from the group, although most did enjoy it. (Thumb voting - 7 thumbs up, 3 thumbs down, 1 abstention.)
Would I recommend it? (Do I need to? Gaiman has an awful lot of fans, y'know!) Yes, but it will probably appeal to younger readers rather more than to cynical old fogeys like us. The style is very simple (though entirely effective) so it would be a good book to bridge the Harry Potter to more adult stuff divide for readers who haven't managed to move beyond yet.
I'm looking forward now to reading some of Gaiman's short stories.