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Book: American Gods

July 31, 2008

Ladies and gentlemen, now THIS is a Book Worth Reading. With a capital B. This breaks into my Top 10. I don’t even know what my Top 10 is exactly but if I did, this would be on it.

Quick synopsis: Shadow, a mild-mannered guy in prison for a secondary role played in a robbery, gets out on the same day that he finds out his wife dies. At loose ends and fresh out of prison, he is taken under Mr. Wednesday’s wing, and adventures ensue. You see, immigrants to America have been bringing their gods with them for years, but then they stopped believing in them. Abandoned them. And the gods were forced to take day jobs, fade into the background… become small. New gods arose, the new gods of technology and modern culture. And a war is brewing. And someone is stirring up trouble with a big stick…

I’m terrible at synopses. But anyway. This book? It’s fantastic. I have a minor interest in mythology, and it was fun to try and identify who some of the gods were. Some have kept their names (Horus, for example). Some have taken on nicknames (Wednesday, Mr. Ibis). The clues are cleverly dropped, but it’s not necessary to spend the whole book puzzling over who each god is, because Mr. Gaiman does a nice job of wrapping that into the story. I did have to pause often to look various gods up on Wikipedia, and that made the story that much richer.

So what made it so great? It’s terrific on many levels (so many layers of greatness made it so very enjoyable). First, of course, it’s a great plot. All these different gods from all over the world, here in America, brought over by believers. Secondly, the characters themselves were so artfully drawn. Shadow: a shadow of a man, not fully himself, not fully alive — until it’s almost too late. Wednesday: an old shyster, a grifter, a plotter, a charmer. Rotten and yet irresistible. The host of supporting characters: Mr. Nancy, Mr. Ibis and Mr. Jacquel, Easter, Horus, Loki… and I just loved the Slavic gods: gruff Czernobog, the lovely Zorya: Vechernyaya, Utrennyaya, Polunochnaya.

And weaving its way through the rest of the story, the mythical aspect, what is happening Backstage — how myths are played out in real life, in dreams, in our humanness. It was so beautifully done and so rich, I just loved it.

I think my favorite characters were the funeral directors, Mr. Ibis and Mr. Jacquel and of course the cat Bast. So gentle and shrewd, respectful of the dead, so kind to Shadow, who was in over his head most of the time but somehow managed to grasp what was happening in the nick of time.

Shadow is also a great character — flawed but yet not irrevocably, growing into himself but not as a boy does into a man, but as a man does — away from his past mistakes and into his best self.
And of course Wednesday: you old trickster, you troublemaker. What a rotten guy. But I missed him by the end.

Disappointments? Perhaps that the climax was a little anticlimactic. I suppose the climax happened before the big Thing (won’t spoil it if you haven’t read it) — but the showdown kind of let me down. There was also so much mythological richness towards the end, it was so packed, I feel like I want to read it all again to try and understand it better.

Also, the thing with Hinzelmann? At the very end? What the heck was that? I didn’t quite get that, either. Why the sacrifice of a child each year? I need to read up on that more.

Anyway. After I started this book, I thought to myself, how have I missed reading this so far? It was published in 2001, and I can’t believe I somehow haven’t read it before now. I read Jim Butcher but not this? I can see this becoming one of those books that kids find in high school, read, and become utterly transformed. This is one of those books that stays with you.

Here’s a nice round up of many of the gods in the book. It’s really fascinating to read up on them and compare them to the characters in the book. Ooh, and I also loved the thunderbirds. Very much.

So anyway. For sheer richness and fantastic storytelling, I give this book an A++. Extra points for geeky mythological coolness, and Stephen King-like small-town vignettes.

Now, the question I always have at the end of the book. What next? I have Anansi Boys, but apparently (according to the jacket) that is “slapstick fall-down funny” and I don’t know that I’m in the mood for that. I have Outlander sitting there, recommended to me many times over. I have a huge pile of other books TBR. I really need to make a TBR list. I can’t believe I don’t have one. I might read Outlander simply because I’ve heard so many people tell me that I have to read it. The new Twilight book is coming out next month and I need to find someone to borrow it from. I have a feeling it’s going to be a looooong wait at the library. 🙂

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