American Gods

Everyone who knows me knows I love reading. That makes gift giving occasions simple. This Christmas, as always, friends and family unloaded their favorite recent reads. Now, almost two months into the year I’ve decided it’s time to put a dent in it. The next three weeks post’s will feature these books.


I had high hopes for Neil Gaiman. Several people very dear to me adore his work.

It is unfortunate then that I wasn’t a huge fan of American Gods. The best, albeit inarticulate, reason I have for this is that it didn’t ‘click’ for me. Throughout the novel I encountered small—at times insubstantial—issues that prevented the usual full immersion I enjoy while reading.

My number one issue: lack of deep mythological knowledge (let it be said however, that I found it blatantly obvious Shadow was Odin’s, a.k.a. Wednesday’s, son Baldr). I was never an ardent student but so many phrases or names invoked the tip-of-my-tongue response. Wherein, I felt like I should know more about whatever it was I had stumbled across. Time and again I couldn’t help but belittle myself for not knowing certain characters. “Wait. Who’s Bast again?” or “Oh Odin… I know about you. Wait… I guess all I really associate you with is Anchorman.

That lack of knowledge, given time, was easy enough to push past. What I could not get over was the writing. Too often I found Gaiman’s prose stifling and overly direct, a touch too on-the-nose for my taste. In response I told myself that what Gaiman seems to excel at is story, not writing. For, despite the occasional writing idiosyncrasies I continued to turn the page (and not solely because it was a gift or out of habit).

Yet even as I told myself this I knew I didn’t believe it. The story just wasn’t memorable. It has now been only two weeks since I turned the last page and I can’t even remember the climax. (There was a battle and… it ended, somehow). As a whole the novel felt stilted. It felt like a bunch of interesting set-pieces that were poorly woven into a story. Sure, I remember Johnny Appleseed and the taxi driving ifrit but I’ll be damned if I can remember how they relate to Shadow and the main through-story of the novel.

In short, I didn’t know what to make of this American Gods. Don’t take the above for a harsh reprisal of the novel. That I didn’t ‘get it’ doesn’t mean it was by any means a bad book. Moreover, Gaiman won’t be a one-and-done author—otherwise my girlfriend might kill me. Good Omens sits on my bookshelf and I expect I’ll pick it up late this year.

Rating: 3 out of 5 old gods

On deck: I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid

Currently reading: The Builders by Daniel Polansky

The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Jumping from Saunders to Tolstoy is about as severe a reversal as I can think of. In the span of a few days I went from laughing at jovial, yet pertinent satires to cogitating about an evocative, philosophical musing on life and death.

When I slid The Death of Ivan Ilyich back onto my shelf my initial reaction was: that was pleasant… and depressing. Depressing because the novella grapples with an idea I haven’t given much notice as a young man in his mid-twenties: the horror that your tenets of a ‘good’ life can easily change. Indeed, they are virtually guaranteed to do so throughout your existence. Sadly, there is no objectively ‘good’ way to live one’s life. If we devote ourselves to one moral aspect of life we deem necessary our attention must by some degree be withdrawn from another. A saintly life is nigh impossible.

That’s a sobering reality, particularly for the deeply religious among us that are eternally concerned with the afterlife. After all, how can we know how to truly live, or that we’ve lived a good life, until we’ve neared the end and have the chance to gaze back along our journey and analyze our deeds, the choices we’ve made given the options that were available, and which urges we succumbed to and which we overcame.

I think one of the most effective methods to hold back the screaming hordes of moral conundrums and existential questions we face is to read and analyze literature. Through it we can experience hundreds, if not thousands, of different lives and examine a multitude of philosophical approaches to life. I’m reminded of this quote from A Dance with Dragons:

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.”

The Death of Ivan Ilyich may not have solved any of my mysteries but I can confidently say I’m one step closer.

Rating: 4 out of 5 comforting butlers

Currently reading: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

On Deck: I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Ian Reid

Pastoralia

Saunders has that rare gift: an incredible sense of humor. He’s one of the few writers I’ve come across that is just continuously funny, not hit or miss from page to page or story to story.  In Pastoralia he uses that skill to mass effect. With a joke he casts a line, and with sarcasm and satire lures you in, and finally his stories get weird, serious, or both, but you’re already caught so you hold on and hope the fisherman is a catch-and-release sort of guy.

The title novella and first story of the collection, Pastoralia, was hands down the best novella I’ve ever read. The story which centers around a worker, in a failing theme-park/museum, who must pretend to be a caveman in a sort of live-action museum diorama, fires on all cylinders. It is satirical and hilarious, has an intriguing premise that kept me interested, and every character feels unique (I quite liked the child museum-goer that acts well above his age and disparages his parents—”I want to stab you daddy”). When I finished it I thought there was no way to top it but after I finished the book I thought it was one of the weaker stories in the collection.

I can’t tell you how long it’s been since the last time I laughed out loud at a book and Saunders managed to accomplish that every few pages. There are two characters who stole the show: Tom Rodgers, Seminar founder in the second story Winky—who reminded me of Tom Cruise’s character from Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia—and Bernie, the undead Aunt from Sea Oak, who finally has a rebellious streak. Together they cemented in my mind the notions of Saunders’ hysterical majesty.

The story The End of FIRPO in the World ranks among the most devastating I’ve ever read and is one I doubt I’ll ever forget. By the time I got to this story I’d happily read 127 pages of satire and light-hearted jokes. As in all good satires the preceding stories were poignant and thought provoking but they didn’t make me want to put the book down and sit in silence. I’m at a loss of what else to say here other than: its only ten pages, go read it.

By the middle of the fifth story, The Barber’s Unhappiness, I started to piece together a picture of Saunders as an author and what he’s concerned with in this collection. This is by no means a complete thought, merely an initial impression, but it seems to me Saunders is concerned, in a grand sense with the ‘American Dream’.

The ‘American Dream’. You know, that outlandish thing that’s become so embedded in our mythos, our story of what it means to be American, that it seems normal? The thing that tells us that being an American means you’ll be rewarded beyond your wildest dreams. That’s the story. You come to America, the land of opportunity, start your own business, and succeed.

But that expectation doesn’t match up with reality. It’s not easy to succeed but we all think we’re one small step away. If only I could do this one thing, get rid of this one thing that’s holding me back… Like the protagonist of Winky who knows without his sister living with him and dragging him down he’d be killing it even though his sole source of income is soldering computer parts for a whopping forty-seven cents a pop. Life unfortunately isn’t that simple.

Pastoralia isn’t great because it’s funny. Its great because Saunders can take the above idea that’s chock full of cynicism, and is kind of a downer, and turn it into something uplifting. His stories give me hope for mankind and his character arcs have meaningful conclusions that showcase the goodness of the human spirit.

 

 

Rating: 5 out of 5 Gold Hat’s

Currently reading: The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy and American Gods by Neil Gaiman

On deck: I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid

The Fifth Season

Image result for the fifth season nk jemisinThe Fifth Season was a hell of a ride. Too bad that every copy of its sequel, The Obelisk Gate, at the public library has enough holds on it to keep it from me until the end of time. Thankfully, I’ve got a couple dozen unread books on my shelves. I guess those will have to tide me over until The Stone Sky, the final installment, releases later this year and I inevitably buy all three.

The true magic of the novel wasn’t orogeny but N. K. Jemisin’s writing and voice. I was wary when I opened the book to find it written in second-person. I’ve only read several books that employ it and I’m always amazed by it. The amount of skill it requires and its effect is staggering. Done properly, second person, by calling ‘you’ the reader out, draws you more into the work than any other trick of the trade.

Not only does Jemisin pull off second person but she also flips between second and third person with every chapter break. Most authors can do this and do it just as well. What I found most impressive was her ability to throw in omniscient interjections that doesn’t come across as contrived but helps form a cohesive narrative across four-hundred plus pages.

Even with clever use of perspective-shifts in most circumstances I should have disliked this book simply because she didn’t tie-off all the three narrative lines by the end of the book. Now, open-ended endings are fine and I certainly don’t think every question has to or should be answered but there has to be some conclusion. As it stands The Fifth Season just… ends. Or rather, it ends with another question. I understand it’s a trilogy and the final volume will be out shortly but now all I can do is wonder, every day, what comes next. I’d rather wait for all of the books to be released in one glorious.

Okay, don’t let my little rant get to you. I truly did enjoy this novel. I just want to know EVERYTHING. Give me all the answers N. K. Jemisin. Somebody else that I know please read this so we can talk about it.

Rating: 4 out 5 stone-eaters

In Progress: Pastoralia by George Saunders, American Gods by Neil Gaiman

On Deck: The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy

East of Eden

screenshot-2017-01-31-at-9-15-41-pm-edited“We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil.”

From this concept Steinbeck constructs his greatest work, East of Eden; a sprawling narrative that not only covers some fifty years of American history but generations of two families- the Trask’s and the Hamilton’s. Plenty of works are compendiums of this sort, overwrought histories interspersed with tenuous personal relationships that act as the novel’s ineffective glue. Few authors succeed and fewer still churn out a novel this impressive.

“No story has power, nor will it last, unless we feel in ourselves that it is true and true of us.”

Herein lies the magic and the power that elevates this story and allows it to succeed where others have failed. At the same moment a reader can be swept across centuries, experience the country through war and the mundanity of life, examine the motivations of dissimilar people, they can still find something applicable to themselves to grasp onto and claim as their own. I have yet to come across another novel that so eloquently ponders the human condition and so perfectly addresses the fundamental concerns of the individual than East of Eden.


I owe my grandparents a debt of gratitude, one I don’t think I’ll ever be able to repay. A decade ago, when I was a runt in high school, they stopped for a visit and left behind a trade paperback of East of Eden. This small gesture came at a crucial moment in my life. After a childhood of voracious reading I was in the throes of a several-years-long reading drought. In that edition, which still holds an esteemed position among my shelves, I discovered Steinbeck, found new ways to think of the world, and rekindled my love of reading.

Many times in recent years I’ve thought of revisiting Lee and Samuel but never quite mustered up the courage. Fears bounced around my head. All to the tune of: what if I don’t like it anymore? Last month I caved and with my girlfriend as a reading buddy I began again. I took it slow, almost a month-long read-through, and loved every moment. In high school I enjoyed it. Now I was able to appreciate it.

I remembered that during my first read I had a respect for Samuel, a friendly pull toward Lee, and a hazy camaraderie with Adam. By Chapter 2 it struck me why I felt such a kinship with Adam.

“Young Adam was always an obedient child. Something in him shrank from violence, from contention, from the silent shrieking tensions that can rip at a house. He contributed to the quiet he wished for by offering no violence, no contention, and to do this he had to retire into secret-ness, since there is some violence in everyone. He covered his life with a veil of vagueness, while behind his quiet eyes a rich full life went on.”

He was me. Or, he shared a staggering amount of his personality with me. Perhaps that’s why he didn’t occupy my thoughts as often as Sam and Lee’s philosophical discussions have—because, in a sense, I lived with him every day.

I’m realizing now as I begin to put my thoughts together that I could work my way through East of Eden chapter by chapter in nauseating detail but no one would enjoy that. Instead, here’s a few fleeting thoughts on what I find to be the two most meaningful moments of the novel.

There’s a reason everyone who’s read East of Eden adores Samuel Hamilton. He has a way of bringing forth those ideas that have jostled around in the recesses of your mind, looking for ways to escape, into your awareness. Take Samuel’s musings on greatness and love.

“There you have the difference between greatness and mediocrity. On one side you have warmth and companionship and sweet understanding and on the other—cold, lonely greatness. There you make your choice. I’m glad I chose mediocrity…”

Few things have had such an impact on my life as those words. It would not be an understatement to say that many decisions in my life can be traced back this idea.

During this read-through I came across this passage provides extra meaning to the previous. There are, as Samuel puts it, two choices to make. Which path suits you?

“In uncertainty I am certain that underneath their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved.”

* * *

A quick aside for those curious about the name of this blog. Now you have half the puzzle solved—Samuel’s happy acceptance of mediocrity. As for the other half… well, I simply love penguins. (Did you know a group of penguins is called a waddle? How neat is that?)

* * *

I’d like to end on… well, I’d like to end on the ending. Timshel. At this point its cliche to rave about timshel and I almost feel I should have a cup of home brew in hand while riding a unicycle through the city’s latest fair-trade boutique while I do so. Nonetheless and for those who don’t know:

“timshel—’Thou mayest’—that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world.”

Lee’s scholarly adventure to uncover the meaning of the Hebrew word and the discussions it provokes provide some of the finest reading you can find. It is my uninformed opinion that timshel leads to and yields the most thoughtful, meaningful, and carefully constructed ending to a novel.

There’s so much more to say but I’m not the one who can adequately set down what needs to be examined. So let’s end it there. If you haven’t read East of Eden yet I beg you to give it a chance.

5 out of 5 sips of ng-ka-py

Up next: The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin

On Deck: Pastoralia by George Saunders

P.S. I fell ill yesterday and thus pushed this post back to today, a day late. If above there are any idiosyncrasies or stupidities I’ll gladly let that bear the blame. Next week, I’ll resume the regular schedule of Monday posts.

On Writing

Halfway through last year I began to write for fun. I quickly realized that I was pretty awful. I can construct sentences reasonably well, have never had trouble spelling, and have a decent grasp of grammar (let’s see how many errors I make now) but cannot, for the life of me, get what’s in my head onto the page.

By the end of the year I was writing enough that I wanted a little bit of help. If I was to continue I didn’t want to cringe every time I reread a story of mine. I also didn’t want to trudge through textbooks or grammar manuals. This is a hobby after all.

With that caveat in mind, On Writing was far and away the most recommended writing book I came across. Every list I sifted through and every article I read mentioned it. I couldn’t avoid it so I gave it shot.

This is the first of King’s work I’ve read and boy, it was phenomenal. The love of his craft shines through and punches you in the face. It’s infectious. If I didn’t know any better I’d say I’m now an aspiring novelist. That I’m not by any means speaks to the power of the written word.

On Writing is chock full of motivation and advice that I’m sure I’ll reference years. This in particular stood out: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” Read and Write. One thing I’ve always loved and one newfound passion. Read and Write. That, Mr. King, I can do.

Rating: 5 out of 5

In Progress: East of Eden by John Steinbeck and The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin

On Deck: Pastoralia by George Saunders

The Farthest Shore

The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin, 1972

Finished: January 8

About five years ago I had the pleasure of reading The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin. By the end of the first chapter I knew it was destined to become one of my favorite books. As soon as I turned the last page and set it down I ran to my local library and checked out every book it had in Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle (four of the six I had yet to read). I tore through those, foregoing sleep and more than a meal or two, and entered the Great Le Guin Drought of the 2010’s.

For years I forgot about The Dispossessed and I thought nothing of Le Guin. Then, a couple months ago I was reading through some fantasy book recommendations online and came across something called A Wizard of Earthsea.

That was how I learned I was an idiot. Somehow, throughout my fantasy filled youth, I had missed A Wizard of Earthsea. I couldn’t help wondering how my life would have changed if she joined the ranks of Lloyd Alexander in my young head.

Thus I was more than a little disappointed when I wasn’t the biggest fan of the first book in this trilogy – A Wizard of Earthsea. For whatever reason it fell flat. Thankfully I have what I usually call a problem. I can’t not finish a book or a series. No matter how much I hate it (Heart of Darkness) I will slog through every word.

I happily came to find that each book in the series was a marked improvement on the previous installment. The Farthest Shore — the final book in the series— had everything I had hoped the first book, or any fantasy book for that matter, could be. Wise old wizard, youth destined for greatness, dragons. Oh wait, the first book had all of those too… Perhaps, I read the first book at a bad time and didn’t fully immerse myself in Earthsea.

I’ve tried over the past two days to elaborate on why exactly The Farthest Shore was so amazing. Many ideas have come to mind but none could adequately capture the point I hoped to make. Suffice it to say that Le Guin is at her writing and storytelling peak in this book. If you’re a fan of fantasy I would say that it should be toward the top of your list and ‘required reading’ of sorts. If you’re not a fan of fantasy but love the art of writing: ditto.

Rating: 4 out 5 Lorbanery Silks

In progress: On Writing by Stephen King and East of Eden by John Steinbeck

On deck: The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin