American Gods

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman cut his writing teeth in the graphic novel genre with landmark books like The Sandman, before turning his attention to ‘serious’ literature ie books without pictures in. American Gods – his first ‘proper book’ had been suggested a few times previously in book club and eventually it popped onto the table and stuck.

And I’m really glad it did.

It’s worth highlighting that this book is massive in a couple of ways. Firstly it’s around 600 pages (which would normally have us running for the hills) and secondly the scale and sweep of the storytelling is metaphorically huge.

American Gods is based around an elegantly simple and highly original premise that the global diaspora that gravitated to America over the last 200 years all brought their gods with them. These gods became as much a part of the birth and growth of the United States of America as the people did. Then, as generations passed, these traditional gods became more and more marginalised and discarded when ultimately new gods took their place – gods of television, machinery and the internet.

What an idea.

These forgotten gods then continued to live amongst men, as men, forlorn and desperate to find relevance in a world that has moved on. The Norse gods loom large and are central to the development of the narrative leading to the perhaps inevitable battle between good and evil. As the story unfolds, we encounter all manner of mythical beings –  from ancient Egyptian gods to Irish leprechauns. It sounds bizarre and it is.

Gaiman’s visual style of writing suits this subject matter beautifully and he brings alive the characters in vivid detail. If you were to pigeonhole this book it would be in the fantasy horror genre but to do so would be a huge disservice to the ambition of the author. It’s more than a cult title for geeks – it delivers brilliantly original storytelling to a wider audience.

Shadow  – the enigmatic blank canvas of a central character around which Gaiman constructs this otherworldly book. I was frustrated that he didn’t build him out further but the point was made in the book club that perhaps that was the author’s intention to create a central character that was almost a cipher. I’m not sure I buy that 100% but you know what, I forgive him as the rest of the book is so engaging.

I have to say I consumed this book eagerly, each page urging me on although at times this ‘author’s edition’ of the book felt a little indulgent but that’s a minor quibble for me. All in all this is a fantastically satisfying book and I was not surprised to learn that a HBO style TV series is planned. American Gods is tailor made for adaptation as it’s bang in the sweet spot of the cool genre of high production sci fi horror like True Blood, Dexter, Walking Dead and Heroes. If you like them, you’ll love this.

Highly recommended. 9 out of 10.

A Man In Full

 

This is the book club book that never was.

It was selected on a drunken evening in Rome or Madrid, I can’t quite remember which, but it turned out that it was a monster. That is lots, and lots, and lots of pages not a horror story. I eagerly snapped up a used copy on Amazon for about £1 including postage and then when we had realised the error of our ways, we swapped mid stream for a second, less taxing choice. We’d never done that before or since so in itself that was something. I can’t remember what we swapped it for, but this book has lain dormant on my bookshelf, daring me to read it, with its sun bleached edges and faded countenance.

It’s sheer girth mocks the casual reader. At over 800 pages it’s a real piece of literature. Tom Wolfe is a proper American author, a serious writer.

The book just exudes challenge: have you got the stamina and wherewithal to read me and not only that, do you have the time to take me in?? I’m a book that requires investment – do you have what it takes? I’d thrown it in to my bag on our recent holiday in the vague hope that I would get it started in case I ran out of other books. But I made good time on the others and I had a day or so to give it a bash.

This book requires the attention of the reader. The characterisation is off the scale – to a depth I’ve not read in a long time. Where one author is content to sketch out a back story over a page or so, Wolfe insists on a chapter at least. His characters are so beautifully etched they put a Leonardo drawing to shame, there are simply no questions about motivation at any stage. In some ways it reminded me of a book from an earlier age – almost Dickensian in the commitment the author required from his reader. Complex, rich  plotting ranging from rich bankers to poor  immigrants, from real estate tycoons to gridiron football upstarts bring alive an incredibly well researched, rich tapestry of American life set in the deep South of Georgia.

In some ways it’s an old-fashioned book, with oddly stylised sections that to me age the language – but the narrative constantly drives and challenges the reader to take sides, despite the scale of the story and sheer volume of the text.  As each piece of new information arrives, the reader is asked to make a judgement. What starts as a classic story of a man, success, hubris and downfall turns into a deeply philosophical take on the human condition.

Wolfe is clearly a literary master. A supreme storyteller in the classic American style, telling vast stories beautifully highlighting the social and financial inadequacies of our modern times. But I think the book comes off the rails at the end, with a cod philosophical ending that’s deeply unsatisfying and quite unbelievable. Sure, it draws the reader to a compelling conclusion and epilogue that ties it all up neatly but without giving the game away, I’m not sure it does justice to his meticulous build up.

But it was nourishing, like a meal that had to be savoured as opposed to rushed. Not perfectly consistent in every single way, but remarkable all the same. I felt at times like I wasn’t really worthy of the skill of the author, much like in a fantastic restaurant where the skill and talent of the chef  is wasted on us mere mortals.

Well worth a read – if you fancy I have a third-hand, dog-eared copy going free to a good home.

Fifty Shades of Pantone Grey

Couldn’t resist this little bit of word play tomfoolery with Pantone grey swatches after I saw them today in the studio.

Apologies if you were expecting a no-holds-barred raunchfest review of this quite remarkable literary phenomenon.

And no, I haven’t read the book yet.

And yes, Mrs D has.

 

In the meantime, here’s some more greys – not Pantone this time but with supposedly evocative names, probably from a range of paints. Anyway, should keep you going.

The Second World War by Anthony Beevor

This weighty tome was one of my recent holiday reads in France. Not the usual airport trash that I would typically consume whilst lying around drinking rose in the sunshine admittedly, but a book of such scale, intellect and ambition that I could have only tackled it on holiday with time on my hands.

I’ve read a couple of Beevor‘s books before on D-Day and Stalingrad and knew what to expect – the grand sweep of war told with masterful poise with the human tragedy of conflict seeping through at every twist and turn.

Growing up in the seventies, the second world war was never that far away from my consciousness and war films, models and a father obsessed by all things military certainly made an indelible impression on me. as such, I find myself more than a little bit interested in all things WWII.

In the past I’ve been interested in different elements of the second world war conflict from D-Day to the Holocaust and Pearl Harbour to Hiroshima, but to be honest never seen the entire picture which this book certainly sets that out.

From the build up to war in Europe, to its devastating aftermath in Nagasaki, the story is told in unflinching detail and Beevor is the kind of historian who brings his facts alive with real stories, anecdotes with relevance to the modern reader.

The recent trend for ultra realism in cinematic representations of conflict aside, the second world war for me has always been about tales of derring do and I guess the ability to show the real face of war was simply unavailable to film-makers in the fourties, fifties and sixties. I suspect there was even a lack of appetite for this type of representation. With notable exceptions like the landmark seventies documentary The World at War, it’s very rare that the story is told in its entirety.

This book does not shy away from describing the most brutal conflict the world has ever seen in graphic detail and it’s in these descriptions that Beevor really does hit hard, depicting a world almost indescribably violent that to modern readers it almost beggars belief. On top of that, it covers the major events and themes of the second world war, how they influenced each other and in turn, how the conflict grew into a war with the largest loss of life ever seen on the planet.

Beevor effortlessly moves from the political to the personal, telling the everyday stories alongside the strategic decisions. His narrative is lucid and engaging particularly with less well-known stories like the rape of Nanking with honesty and sympathy.

Reading this book in Northern France on holiday was an experience in itself, particularly as the book moves inexorably towards D-Day and the defeat of the Axis Powers. The French countryside we drove through providing plenty of evidence of the conflict after seventy years with memorials and military graveyards.

This was a monster-sized book that really did require will power to get through but Beevor was up to the task of keeping the reader enthralled in the unfolding tragedy and global drama of the second world war. He transformed his meticulous research into a series of dynamic narratives and gripping real-life stories.

Highly recommended.

Song of Achilles

This month’s book club choice was this year’s Orange Prize winner Song of Achilles by Madeleine Miller. The last Orange prizewinner we read was Bradford author Joolz Denby so we were overdue a female prize -winning author.

Song of Achilles tells the well known story of Achilles and the siege of Troy in a polished and vivid way through the eyes of Petroclus, Achilles’ long term companion and in this telling of the story, his lover. I’ll be honest and admit that I’m no Greek scholar and my knowledge of ancient Greece, its gods and their stories is sketchy to say the least, but on the upside, this meant that Song of Achilles was very new to me. The book is based on The Iliad by Homer which tells the story of Helen of Troy, sieges, ten year wars, Hector and Achilles and all that stuff of antiquity.

This book, however, uses the grand sweep of an ancient story to tell a very intimate story – the love between two men, Petroclus and Achilles. Together since boys, their love develops naturally into a full blown relationship which is very tenderly portrayed by Miller. This is a very sensual and sinuous story that draws the reader into a magic realism world where gods and men share the earth, have relationships, love and fight each other. I particularly liked how the author describes with nonchalance the sea nymph Thetis popping up everywhere (she was Achilles’ mother) with pantomime villain regularity. This book is all about the relationship which happens to be played out against an ancient military backdrop but it could have been set in modern day New York and I’m not sure it would have a difference. Miller is exceptional at painting a fantastically rendered backdrop, but what she really loves is Achilles and Petroclus.

Whilst I was drawn into this book by the engaging characterisation and beautiful writing, I felt ultimately it didn’t tell me anything new about the human condition. It was fascinating to see hubris played out on a demi god scale when Achilles refused to fight the Greeks, and only when his lover is killed by Hector does he see the folly of his behaviour. Thousands of years may separate our eras but not a lot of things change in human behaviour.

This is a brisk and exciting book that is very easy to read and urges the reader on at every page turn. But for me it felt very shallow and I struggled to find the depth and insight that nurtures with great literature. I scored it a 7 out of 10 which may seem like a relatively high score but in truth this was a very entertaining book that although it had many failings, I enjoyed it immensely, looking forward to picking it up as the story reached its inevitable tragic conclusion.

One flew over the cuckoo’s nest

This is the most popular post on my blog by a country mile. And I have no idea why. Perhaps it’s because it’s a popular search term for students or perhaps it’s just one of those books people like to read about.

I thought I’d revisit the review I wrote on the book especially since I saw the movie fairly recently. The book is still pin sharp in my mind some months later and the mood and style of a book is often the thing that endures for me. On top of this, the characters were so beautifully etched that they still shine in my minds eye.

The first thing to note after a late night showing of the cinematic adaptation is that it is actually a very good translation of the book. Of course it won oscars and it featured some incredible performances notably Jack Nicholson with unknown (at the time) actors delivering beautiful performances. All these years, I resisted reading this book because I thought the film would have ruined the book but do you know what? I don’t think it would have. OK, I accept that I did it the other way around which is usually the recipe for disaster but not in this case.

Worth reading the book and seeing the movie then, I don’t think that it matters which order. You choose. They are both telling the same story but in very different ways.

Anyway – here’s my original blog post on the book from earlier this year…

This month’s book club is the less well-known book of the rather famous movie. Most people of a certain age – ie knocking on a bit – will be very familiar with the Jack Nicholson starring, oscar laden celluloid version of the book by Ken Kesey.

But I had reservations about reading this book – I won’t lie.

These reservations were simply that I know the film too well. I’ve seen it countless times – admittedly a few years ago – but the film is a piece of powerful and iconic film making. I was talked round in the end, or perhaps I caved in. Either way, we read it last month.

The first thing to notice is that the book is written from the Chief’s viewpoint. As one of the inmates of the mental hospital, the story being told from his perspective is very different and refreshing from the beginning. The rest of the book has been faithfully told in the film version albeit with the lack of intensity and depth found in literature. Kesey wrote this book in the late 50′s and it speaks of that time – America changing and coming to terms with that change, the onset of the liberal 60′s with all the free love and drugs culture that came with it. It’s a gripping tale of a rebel who gets a bunch of dysfunctional people to function again in some way and it’s a story of sacrifice and human spirit.

The face of Jack Nicholson looms large on every page and although Kesey’s central character doesn’t really resemble Nicholson, it’s hard to shake him off. The true sign of brilliant casting and acting I think. I came to the conclusion that the book was very, very good and that if I’d read it before I’d seen the film it would have scored much higher. I’m not a huge re-reader of books and as a consequence the fact I knew the story well softened the body blows it contains. I scored it a not too shabby 8/10 but it could easily have been a 10.

If you’ve not read it, or not seen the film either, I can highly recommend you read this book.

One word of warning: in the canon of blokey books we have read on our blokes book club, it doesn’t get much blokier. It’s not PC and it contains some language and attitudes that are probably best left in the late 1950′s – but well worth a detour from any sensitive chick lit you might have on the go.

Master and Margarita

I’ve just finished this month’s book club book  — Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.

Wow. Wow. Wow. What an incredible book. I almost don’t know where to start; such was the impact it has made upon me.

I had left a lot of pages to read this week to hit book club deadline but Bulgakov took me on a breathless journey through the natural and supernatural, effortlessly mixing magical realism, horror, comedy, satire and social commentary. I don’t recall a book so bold in its ambition for quite some time. Here’s the thing: I certainly didn’t expect this journey from this book but it has so many facets and functions on a narrative level incredibly well – rolling along at a rollicking pace, twisting and turning.

First up, I absolutely loved the interplay between Stalin’s Moscow and biblical Judea – at first I thought this was just an enjoyably random flourish but as the story unfolded about the master’s book about Pontius Pilate, it was a touch of genius. The intimate portrait of Pilate and Yeshua (Jesus), the subsequent execution and beyond were powerfully written and provided a poignant counterpoint to the chaotic shenanigans going on in Moscow when Satan comes to town.

At first the Russian name thing – everyone is called Ivan – slowed me a little but as the story develops, but Bulgakov clearly identifies and describes each character so vividly that I found it really easy to remember who was who (which hasn’t always been the case with other Russian literature).

The translation and language used was fantastic. It captures a period language perfectly that really contributes to the overall experience and my version was from Penguin Books translated by Richard Povear and Larissa Volokhonsky. I particularly admired how they used odd words when they could have used more straightforward ones: in one place when describing how someone was ripped off by another instead of using conned or swindled (which in themselves are good slang options) they used ‘diddled’. This made me laugh and this happens all over the place. By contrast, another sublime example of language is where the soldier finally kills Christ on the cross, Bulgakov employs the incredibly economic and powerful ‘..he pricked his heart with a spear…’

Brilliant.

The broad themes of greed, corruption, lust, desire, jealousy, envy, pride (smack bang in seven deadly sins territory) were all there to see and Bulgakov uses these to shine a light on atheistic communist Moscow of this time. I think he uses the allegory of the devil coming to Moscow as a way of describing how he felt evil has been visited upon the people in the form of Stalin’s oppression. The mysterious Woland (Satan) and his crew bring out the very worst of the people with pinpoint accuracy and deliver retribution in all manner of forms from turning Roubles into whimsical wine labels to dishing out instant death.

So what about Woland and his outlandish cohorts Behemoth, Azazillo and Koroviev? What a vividly drawn bunch of characters – at once spine chilling and hilarious. Quite apart from the fact they were meting out appalling justice all over the place, I liked them immensely. The dark world of this demonic retinue was beautifully drawn and allowed the reader to picture it in every detail. Stunning images were created like a desktop globe with real oceans and wars taking place on it to a live chess set with Kings swapping places with Bishops – delightful. Terry Gilliam sprung to mind.

The enigma of Woland, almost enticing us to empathise with him near the end, the dark comedy of Behemoth the black cat, the iciness of the assassin Azazello and the Beetlejuice-esque Koroviev…all wonderful.

And what of the eponymous Master and Margarita? Well for me it was all about Margarita, particularly in the second book. Her pure love for the master outlives her sensuous transition into the supernatural. The ointment rubbing, apartment smashing, broomstick flying, witch transformation is up there as one of the most exhilarating passages I’ve ever read. Satan’s spring ball where all manner of denizens of the underworld turn up was a virtuoso set piece too – I lapped up every macabre, fantastical detail.

So – a complex book, doing lots of things, all on different levels. As one of our number said, a book to be studied for sure.

Master and Margarita has a touching love story at the heart of it (with a satisfying, otherworldly happy ending) told against the backdrop of razor sharp social commentary. There is a series of sub plots play throughout highlighting the moral and spirituality dimension of life in a city that isn’t supposed to believe in Satan (or God for that matter).

Bulgakov doesn’t shy away from the big themes – redemption, retribution, responsibility and ultimately good versus evil. But he doesn’t just dish these up without charm or context – he wraps them in an engaging, entertaining and ultimately daring package.

Masterful.

Note: I scored it 10/10 – which doesn’t happen very often for me (Grapes of Wrath and Frankenstein being the only books to get full marks previously).