[Book Review] American Gods

 American Gods / Neil Gaiman (American Gods)
"Is nothing sacred?
Days before his release from prison, Shadow's wife, Laura, dies in a mysterious car crash. Numbly, he makes his way back home. On the plane, he encounters the enigmatic Mr Wednesday, who claims to be a refugee from a distant war, a former god and king of America.

Together they embark on a profoundly strange journey across the heart of the USA, whilst all around them a storm of preternatural and epic proportions threatens to break.

Scary, gripping and deeply unsettling, American Gods takes a long, hard look into the soul of America. You'll be surprised by what - and who - it finds there..."
This is one of my all time favorite books.  I re-read it every few years, though I have discovered that I must keep the readings of American Gods and Anansi Boys spaced out as I have found that reading them too close together sours my enjoyment of the other.  It is a book about America but not really about anyone's life in America, rather it is about what lives have created.  The writing is clever and thought-provoking, and has kept me re-reading this title for over 10 years.

I managed to get American Gods as a library book club pick for this Spring. I'd be lying if I said I was not nervous about presenting one of my long-standing favorite books to a book club, particularly one that is known for having literary tastes at times quite divergent from my own.  Also, anyone else notice that you're never quite so aware of how much and how graphic the sex is in a book until after you decide to share it with people?  Part of my preparation for this discussion was to re-read American Gods with conversation in mind.  I can easily carry on a discussion about this book without guidance, but in this case I'm looking to draw other people into their own discussion and merely act as a moderator rather than a lecturer.  With that in mind, and through a few discussions of my fellow book-discussion leader, I generated a list of questions to spark debate.

Discussion Questions:
  • What genre would you classify this book as?  It has won the Hugo Award for Best SF/Fantasy Novel, the Bram Stoker Award for Best Horror Novel, the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel, the Nebula Award for Best Novel, and has been classified as Fantasy, Novel, Fiction, Children's literature, Horror, Science Fiction, Speculative fiction.
  • What do you think of this novel as a story of discovering America? 
  • Who is your favorite character?  Who is your favorite god?  What draws you to them? 
  • What do you think Laura means when she tells Shadow that he is not alive?  What do you think about the idea of someone living but not alive?
  • Is Mr. Town and company are human?  Were they ever human?
  • Did Laura dedicating Loki's death to Shadow affected anything?
  • Is a limit/capstone on belief?
  • Is Shadow still human (was he ever fully human) at the end of the story?
  • What do you think of the idea of new gods?  Of the idea of cultural and personal elevation of concepts/events to something equivalent to holy or scared?
  • Are some locations are innately powerful, or are they created (can they be created)?  What is the effect of ignoring a place's power, or lack there of?  What makes a place of power, and why are some places important to multiple cultures and religions?
One of the really neat things (to me) about American Gods is that the really odd things are based on truth (or at least on significant research into the myths and beliefs of various cultures).  Gaiman didn't make up gods, and he didn't make up the locations.  The House on the Rock and Rock City are real places.  If you're curious about all the gods/avatars/beings that are in American Gods someone has put together this pretty awesome resource listing them all and a little about them.  It isn't perfect, but updates are made, and at the very least is a great starting point for further research.

I knew going in that at least one participant gave up early on, reportedly at the "talking vagina" scene.  I'm guessing that she means the scene where Bilquis envelops her John.  That scene is admittedly a bit bizarre, and while there isn't any vocal genitals the other sex scenes seem like even less of a match.  I found out after the discussion that one of the participants summarized the book to one of my co-workers as all "sex and (non-sexual) secretions."  I knew this book was going to be a bit of a stretch for some of the participants, it is not always a comfortable book to read, and in my experience it is rare for every single person in a book club/discussion to like the pick.

We had a really awesome book discussion, and perhaps my favorite part of it was that some of the participants who did not like the book were engaged and wanted to finish the story.  We also had new people who showed up specifically because the book was American Gods which is something we are looking for.

Some comments from the group:
This was literature... This was really a thinker!

How would you define 'partially human'

Gods that immigrants brought had human attributes, the gods we worship are things... We always want another trick.

What are our sacrifices costing us?  Giving up life so alive but not living.

I can't imagine criticizing this book... Need to reread because there are just so many layers... You see it one way, then he gives you five ways of looking at it.

Is there just people playing both sides?

He [Gaiman] manages to make comments about society without being judgmental.

I can't believe he's not American, he got everything.

Sacred places exist without any human intervention.
Can places be created though?  What about ground zero, is that sacred or did the 'sacrifice' make it sacred?
What about the differences between holy places and powerful places?

For a weird hard book... I didn't expect to like it... Should reread... Like reading a classic...

Not a book I'd want on my bedside table, too hard to sleep, too much to think about.

Belief is not limited, but our attention is.
It felt like a great book discussion to me, though the highlights were more about the concepts of the book than the book itself (which I find does to happen when discussing American Gods).  I did spend a bit of time helping fill in knowledge gaps concerning the book - in particular the parallels between Shadow holding Odin's Vigil and the Crucifixion of Christ, the implications of the choice of "Mr. Wednesday" as a name, and about Mr. Wednesday's missing eye.  I've gotten too used to discussing American Gods with people who have at least an active interest in mythology & folklore if not a background in Comparative Religion.


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