Category Archives: Book Reviews

AMERICAN GODS and Magic

HarperTorch May 2002

“Then the lights went out, and Shadow saw the gods.”(pg.129)

Let me start out with that fact that my introduction to Neil Gaiman was going to see Coraline in 3D when it came out in 2009. I was amazed. I was enthralled. I put Gaiman at the top if my “Authors To Be Read” list. Alas, I did not get around to actually reading him until this year. (I know, I know but I just never got to him. Don’t judge!) I picked up a couple of his titles from Bogart’s. One was American Gods. I was amazed. I was enthralled. I loved every page of this book. I thought it was smart and funny. It was endearing and occasionally disgusting. Everything that a great mystery should be.

Gaiman’s style is just so cool. It reads much like a graphic novel in the sense that I feel his paragraphs would resemble a storyboard. Every line works toward giving you a total sense of not just the setting, but the overall tone as well. I could see each place that we found Shadow as a fully realized place in reality. I swear I could hear the breezes and feel the moon shining as I read. However, this does not lead to the book feeling drawn out like a Thomas Hardy novel, whose landscape descriptions could take an entire chapter and make the reader want to pull their hair out. Instead, it creates tension and intrigue. I also loved the small breaks in time and space with the additions of other voices from the American Experience. I capitalize that because each vignette seems to make up a separate essay on just that subject. They are just representations of the kind of lives that make up America. Most of the time they pertain to the story line, but others help define America. It never confuses you, just increases your understanding of what I believe Gaiman hopes to achieve with this novel.

The use of “magic” throughout the book is fun, but is also a rather subtle way at poking fun at religion. Shadow does slight of hand from the beginning and lots of the gods have a variety of powers from super strength to morphing their appearance. It helps that wonderful tension and intrigue grow since you never know what any character is capable of at any time. It also helps Gaiman with an easy way out of some sticky situations, but is still very believable. I love the use of magic in books, as long as it is woven throughout the story and doesn’t just pop up when it is convenient for the author. Gaiman does this brilliantly.

I also liked that Gaiman never has to explain the gods to you outright. Usually he just lets their personality within the confines of the narrative give you a context for the type of god that they are. There are no wordy explanations of where the god is from or what civilization worshiped them. A prior knowledge of the large pantheon of worldly god is helpful, but is not necessary. In fact, I learned a lot about gods that I only knew by name while reading this book. I felt educated by the end. Is that not what we want from any novel?  I liked so damn much about Gaiman’s novel that I have to stop myself from gushing any further. Read this when you get the chance. The size of it may intimidate, but please don’t let it. I promise it goes down easier than most.

If you liked this book, also check out…

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

If you like magic then you’ll love the concept of magical realism. And nobody does it better than Marquez. He may not have created it, but he certainly perfected it. There is any number of fabulous novels that I love of his. You can read the classic, Love in the Time of Cholera, which is beautiful and epic. Or you can also check out his last published novel, Memories of My Melancholy Whores, which is just a slim volume of beautifully written prose. I also loved his short story, “Man with Enormous Wings,” which was my first taste of Marquez . I went on to read so many others after that.

Thomas Pynchon

On the other hand, if you liked the mystery and absurdity of Gaiman then you’ll totally dig The Crying of Lot 49. It’s funny and smart and short. Most of Pynchon is like a million pages long, where Lot 49 is a much easier to digest. I read it in college and fell in love with Pynchon, only to realize that the rest of his publications were far more complicated and less accessible. So, Gravity’s Rainbow sits on my shelf and I can’t really say if you’ll like that one. However, read this one. You’ll enjoy the journey with Oedipa Maas just as much as Shadow, I think.

See you later, see you soon.

GLACIERS and the Quotidian

“There’s not a thing in the world that will not change, including you.” (Pg.69)

Strange that the most defining line from this novella comes from Isabel’s mother – a character that even the narrator does not understand. She is absent for most of Isabel’s life, and from most of the book. Yet, this line seems to define my interpretation of the story. Just as glaciers morph through stages of existence so too do human beings. There is much change and unrest in this story. From the life of Isabel as a child to her relationship with Thomas “Spoke,” so many small moments transform Isabel.

The first big transition for Isabel comes as a child when her father brings her into her first junk shop. The purchase of some old photographs impress upon her a love for the antique and worn down. This distinguishing trait moves through her whole life causing her to choose things from another era time and again. Even her job as a book conservator displays this quirk perfectly. It may even explain her attraction to Spoke. She says of him, “Everything slightly out of style, as if he had been away for awhile.” (pg.44) And an attraction she certainly has, hard. One of my favorite things about this story is the sexual tension that is threaded throughout. But Smith is careful to never tread into overtly graphic. Though, by the end, she wonders, “If I send him a pair of my panties, could he trade them for booze and M&M’s?” (pg.153)

Another thing I appreciate about this book is how I can truly relate to Isabel. She’s a girl about my age with extremely similar interests and beliefs. Smith makes a great effort to have the novel seem classic and yet she refers to New Kids on the Block and playing games like MASH. I was reminded of my own childhood often, which made me root for Isabel all the more. Smith says of her at one point, “Before Isabel could read, she loved books.” (pg.49) In the margin of the book I couldn’t resist writing “me too!” as if she could hear me across the pages. Even her tenuous relationship with her older sister has a realistic note to it, as we all have struggled with how to define our familial relationships at times. Their shared reaction to meeting their aunt and learning about the family was so familiar. 

This book really moved me. I felt it was well-written from start to finish, and it dealt with the small moments in life. It shows a moment in a character’s life so beautifully. The story only really takes place during one day, but we learn about Isabel as a whole person through a variety of flashbacks and shared memories with other characters. Storytelling is at its best for me when it is this fluid. Each part seemed to move the story forward and each detail important to the main theme. Even at the end, when Isabel finds out that Spoke has a secret, her reaction is so indicative of her character, “Isabel could implode.” (pg.119) Implosion means no harm to others. Even at her lowest she does not want to hurt the things around her. That’s why she saves antique items and why she is vegetarian–no harm to others. The thing I love most about this book are the great characters. Each one is interesting and dynamic, despite the modest length of this tome.

If you liked this book, also check out…

Raymond Carver

If the discussion of the quotidian aspects of a life really fascinate you then please read “Cathedral.” To put it in its most basic terms, it is the story of a husband and wife that host a blind man for dinner. However, it reveals more about the human condition than many long-winded novels. After reading you will find yourself staring at other people as they enjoy a meal. You will never look at a church or any impressive architecture quite the same either. I love all of his works, but this one has stuck with me for a long time.

JD Salinger

Let’s read a classic, too. Any of Salinger’s short stories are so good at making a really important statement with really fantastic characters in a short amount of time. His story “A Perfect Day for a Bananafish” endears the audience to its main character, Seymour Glass, in just a few pages. Even the little girl, Sybil Carpenter, is a fully-realized character and she only has a few lines. Read all of Nine Stories. In fact, read all of Salinger’s short fiction. It is infinitely better than Catcher in the Rye and you’ll find many more relatable characters than Holden Caulfield.

Thank you for joining our discussion! Let me know how you feel about any of these books or authors. If you have any personal recommendations please leave them in the comments.

See you later, see you soon.