the contextual life

thoughts without borders

book clubs for busy people :: american gods by neil gaiman

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for all of you who ever thought about joining a book club but were afraid you wouldnt have the time.  or for those of you too anti-social to sit in a room with people once a month to discuss plot, theme, and character, we here at the contextual life have found a way around some of the usual pitfalls.

the first question is usually what to read. how can a a group of people, even if they are friends, decide on one book? for our first selection, stephanie raved about american gods by neil gaiman. over dinner and through texts and emails she told me i needed to read it—that she couldnt wait to hear what i thought. i, being a longtime gaiman fan and just watched the stop motion animation adaptation of coraline, his young adult novel. so i thought, “why not?” and picked up a copy from my local indie bookstore. turns out, i liked it and wrote a review on this site, which my sister, tara, saw and decided to give it a shot as well. this was her first time reading neil gaiman and i was nervous.

as i did with stephanie—texting and emailing on a near-daily basis with my thoughts and speculations—i was getting texts from my sister while she read. and as with stephanie—as she hoped i liked the book—i hoped my sister would keep reading and come out at the end enjoying it too.

another problem book clubs face is when and where to meet. not living near each other and living busy lives, getting all of us in the same room to discuss a book seemed like a long shot. we all met separately, emailed questions and answers, and formed the discussion that follows.

so here it is, the busy person’s book club presents neil gaiman’s american gods:

contextual life: what was your first introduction to neil gaiman’s books? were you introduced to him by someone else?
stephanie: The first Gaiman book I read was Neverwhere. I worked in a bookstore through college, and all of my co-workers were into the Sandman comics and constantly talking about Neverwhere. One day I saw it on an endcap [the end of a aisle, for all you non-retail people] and picked it up.
contextual life: it must have been in the air at all the long island Borders because that’s when i got into him too. i think i read Neverwhere first as well and i think it was his Sandman comics—which i’ve never read—that put him on my radar as well.

contextual life: tara, you on the other hand have never read gaiman before but you have read some other fantasy authors.
who are they?

tara: Diana Gabaldon, Stephanie Meyer and Charlaine Harris

contextual life: stephanie, did you read fantasy before gaiman?
steph: Yes, I’ve always been a fan of trashy fantasy. That term is completely meant in jest—the writers that produce those types of books are unbelievably talented. I consider them the nerd’s answer to mass market/genre fiction. I think they were all born out of Tolkien—and there’s nothing at all trashy about Tolkien.

contextual life: do you consider gaiman fantasy?
steph: I would create a new genre for Gaiman, something that encompasses literary fiction, fantasy, and straight-up fairy tales. He doesn’t create entire worlds. I consider his brand of fantasy more like magical realism—he makes magical things happen on the street outside your window.
contextual life: i agree. he feels like he goes beyond the genre and it’s hard to put my finger on it, how to describe him. i think magical realism is a great way of putting it; he’s definitely literary and you can tell he’s inspired by fairy tales.

contextual life: what interested you about american gods? what was its driving factor for you?
steph: By the time AG was published, I was already a big Gaiman fan. I was interning at HarperCollins when the hardcover came out and I ran into his editor in the elevator on the day it was released. I happened to be holding a copy—I think she took it as a good omen (no pun intended) [one of Gaiman’s earlier books is called good omens]. She floated out of that elevator. Beyond being a fan, I’ve come to appreciate AG because it’s clear that an incredible amount of research went into putting that story together. It’s as much a study of pagan religions and mythology as it is a work of fiction.  It’s also a story about America; It deals with everything from the American road to popular culture.  I find all of these things compelling on their own, couple them with Gaiman’s ability to tell a gorgeous, intricate story in the grittiest of ways and it’s fantastic and original. Nobody will ever write anything like American Gods.

contextual life:  tara, we texted a few times while you were reading and i anticipated a few snags, what were some obstacles you faced while reading american gods?
tara: The mythology. Aspects of the book were to fantastical.  It was hard for me to draw parallels to my reality.
contextual life: that’s kind of what i was afraid of. you’re not one for religion and i wasn’t sure the references would grab you.

contextual life: stephanie, tara is a first time gaiman reader, what should newcomers be aware of before they read this book in particular? what should they know about Gaiman?
steph: Gaiman is clever, and AG is an undertaking. It’s not something you pick up whenever you happen to be in a waiting room.
contextual life: for me, as i mentioned just before, i didn’t want to spoil the mythological undertones by telling tara outright what was going on and there were times that i found myself telling her things after she’d read them. i guess overall, what i feel people should know going into this book is that while they don’t need a an encyclopedic knowledge of mythology and world religions, i’m pretty far from that myself, they should at least be aware that that’s the world neil is grabbing his thoughts and underlying theme from. he’s questioning the role of the mystical in america. can it survive here?

tara: so, what were some of the mythological and religious references?
contextual life: i have a pretty decent periphery knowledge of religion, less so mythology, but from watching that joseph campbell lecture, the PBS series that i think is just called joseph campbell, i became interested in the “hero’s journey”, that classic story of going through a trying time and coming out on the other end transformed. i tend to find a lot of that going on in fiction and i definitely saw it in this. there’s also the blatant grabbing from world folklore and reworking it into a twisted version that only gaiman could create. you have the leprechaun, the norse gods, and i believe there were some wiccan elements in there too—and one more that i dont want to mention because it might be considered a spoiler.

steph: speaking of the hero’s journey, Who do you think is Gaiman’s hero in AG? Is the hero the most compelling character?
If not, who is?

contextual life: i definitely consider Shadow, the main character, the hero. he’s on a quest where the reason and details are unknown to him—it’s as if he’s going on blind faith and a sense of loyalty to a shady character, Wednesday. Shadow didnt choose this new development in his life; it was forced on him and he goes anyway. i found Shadow incredibly ambivalent and that was hard to handle at times; but it also added an interesting aspect of the novel. why doesnt he care? what does his ambivalence bring to the story? that was in my mind the whole time. even though he’s going through this major adventure, which you assume is odd to him, and he’s completely resigned to just going with it, he’s compelling because he feels real. you want to shake him sometimes and maybe scream at him to ask a question or two but he feels real—you can understand in some ways why he’s given up control over his life. as far as other compelling characters, for some reason i liked the guys at the morgue. oddly enough, the atmosphere surrounding them was kind of nice. they felt safe.

steph: At what point did you realize you liked the book?
contextual life: it’s funny, i knew the whole time that i liked it but it’s also a difficult and strenuous read. i definitely wouldnt call it a mystery but the mysteriousness of the characters and the vagueness of the story gives the book this incredible driving feeling and the whole time i was reading i was impatient, which isnt always an enjoyable feeling. so “like” is an odd word to peg to this book. it was stimulating and engaging, engrossing, but it was also frustrating.

contextual life: tara, i know you felt the same about wanting to know what happens and that kept you reading, what else did you like about the book?
tara: I liked the characters. I was dying to understand what was going on and how it would end. It had a lot of layers. It was a book that made you think beyond the words on the page and search for metaphors or hidden meaning within the story. It was a real challenge to read and made me feel like I was back in an English Lit class; not necessarily in a bad way.

contextual life: did this feel like an entirely new style to you?
tara: yes, it did feel like a new style. I felt the book was “out there” or maybe just more intellectual than I am used to reading. It felt hyper intellectualized compared to the books I usually gravitate toward. Vampire books in the fantasy genre tend to be straight forward and have plot lines that are both obvious and pedestrian.

contextual life: and steph, as someone who’s been a longtime admirer of gaiman’s novels, what do you like most about his style?
steph: I’m a fan of magical realism. I find the idea of lurking magic—the kind that’s hiding in the shadows behind the garbage cans—really appealing. Gaiman is not only ridiculously creative, he’s also funny, and there is a poetic quality to his prose. He puts light things in dark places (what’s darker than what’s real?), and that makes for serious intrigue. He also writes some really amazing characters.
contextual life: i get that poetic feeling too. some of his sentences are killer. they’re beautifully constructed and can be incredibly vivid. they paint the scenery.

stephanie: Have you come across any writers that you would consider comparable to Gaiman, in term of writing style? What do you think his strengths are as a writer?
contextual life: hmmm. definitely not . as far as my cursory reading of fantasy and whatever genre you want to throw him into, i havent found anyone like him . . . although i would suggest certain authors to gaiman fans because they are some of the more interesting in that gothy, fantasy world. poppy z. brite is one. i read her around the same time that i was starting to read gaiman. in the 3rd grade, my teacher, he was a born-again christian, read us the lion, the witch, and the wardrobe and i remember being taken with it. it sparked my imagination. there were a few times when i went into my closet in search of narnia. i think gaiman has that same power and i’d like to read c.s. lewis to see how the two compare.

stephanie: I know that AG was the first Gaiman book that you’ve read in a long time. Did anything about it take you by surprise?
contextual life: that’s a good question. it’s been a while and i feel that when i read him in the past, i wasnt as sophisticated a reader as i am now. i read for the story and nothing much else. this time around, although some of the writing in the beginning felt a bit clunky, i was surprised by how literary he is. some sentences were downright beautiful; and his ability to drag you into the scenery was more powerful than i’d remembered.

contextual life: similarly, tara, what felt new to you about this book from other books you’ve read in the past?
tara: I usually go for light reads. Working and raising kids doesn’t leave me with a lot of energy to absorb content that requires too much thought. This was not a light read for me. It took work to get through it and at times required outside assistance to grasp the deeper meaning. I read a lot of historical fiction or pop culture type books.

steph: You’ve read Stardust– which book did you think was more powerful? Do you think that setting fantasy in the modern day changes the reader’s approach/expectations? Does it change the genre? Do we read fairy tales and magical realism differently?
contextual life: i wish i had a better memory of stardust. i know i liked it and i remember it being more “feminine” than american gods; not that i’m one for the feminine voice or girlie subjects but there was a great love story in that one. given that, i’m not sure which is more powerful but i do think that they could be considered a different strain of fantasy. stardust was a dark, romantic fairytale.  it took place in a fantasy world where things were meant to be unreal. american gods, on the other hand, is set in everyday life but with a weird gauzy unreality superimposed on top. and i think we do read them differently. i think i “liked” stardust more, to bring up that word again, because it felt like escapism. you could kick back and enjoy the odd little story but with american gods it’s darker for some reason, there’s more you have to work with, and you can’t just check out and let the book do all the work.

contextual life: tara, i was hoping you would read stardust first but now that you’ve read american gods, would you recommend it to a friend?
tara: I would be cautious in recommending this book. The person would have to be open to trying new genres as well has have patience for when the book gets complicated.

contextual life: would you be open to reading other books by Neil Gaiman?
tara: Yes.
contextual life: that makes me happy. you should read stardust.

contextual life: and steph, what gaiman book do you recommend?
steph: All of them, seriously. They are all worth your time.

contextual life: if you could ask Neil one question, what would it be?
steph: What was your first cat’s name and where did you two first meet?
contextual life: what were you like as a child?


Written by Gabrielle

March 1, 2011 at 8:59 am

Posted in books

Tagged with , , ,

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