book review: norse mythology

Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology translation is a fine little basic sampler book of tales about Thor and Loki and Freya and all that lot. I realized reading it how much the Marvel Comics versions of Asgard have warped my brain around this mythos, but yeah. They’re fine stories. There are bits where the Gaimanish language pokes through more than others, which I liked even if it felt a little anachronistic. This felt more like Fortunately the Milk… Neil Gaiman rather than American Gods Neil Gaiman, if that makes a difference to you.

If I had a lot of Norse myth stuff I might have stronger opinions on which stories were included and which weren’t but like I said, most of my knowledge comes via Kirby so I’m no expert. I didn’t have a book of Norse myths on my shelf before and now I do. eems like a win.

book review: american gods

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is one of my favourite stories ever. It’s about a man who gets pulled into a conflict between America’s old gods (Odin, Anubis, Anansi, leprechauns, et al) and its new (Television, Automobiles, the Internet). There are digressionary tales of people who brought their gods to America, but the main story is about this con artist who’s enlisted this guy to help defend the old ways.

One of the things it doesn’t deal with is the modern political dimension of religion. There’s a bit where they talk about the churches on every corner having nothing to do with holy sites where you have to make something, some sort of sacrifice. There’s an offhand comment about what a lucky son-of-a-virgin Jesus was, all stealing Mithras’ birthday and everything, but the political realities of America are left out. There is no discussion of Islamofascism or any of that political religious shit you can fill up with in the real world news. But there are paragraphs like this that make me love this book so much:

None of this can actually be happening. If it makes you more comfortable, you could simply think of it as metaphor. Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all: God is a dream, a hope, a woman, an ironist, a father, a city, a house of many rooms, a watchmaker who left his prize chronometer in the desert, someone who loves you – even, perhaps, against all evidence, a celestial being whose only interest is to make sure your football team, army, business, or marriage thrives, prospers, and triumphs over all opposition.

Religions are places to stand and look and act, vantage points from which to view the world.

So none of this is happening. Such things could not occur. Never a word of it is literally true. Even so, the next thing that happened, happened like this:

There are more bits in there that I love, but the other day I watched a TED talk on metaphor and this bit leapt out at me. At work last night I was telling someone about the Pynchon bit about metaphor in V that goes:

Fausto’s kind are alone with the task of living in a universe of things which simply are, and cloaking that innate mindlessness with comfortable and pious metaphor so that the ‘practical’ half of humanity may continue in the Great Lie.”

That’s in the middle of a big chunk on the importance of poetry, which was worth the price of admission for me. So yes. Metaphor. Belief. Interesting stuff.

And this new copy of American Gods I received (in trade, not as an Xmas present) is signed by Neil Gaiman himself, from when he was in Winnipeg last month. I don’t have to get my 1st edition all banged up rereading it. So that’s cool.

But yes, American Gods is a great story. I’ve heard that there are people who don’t like it, and I honestly can’t understand why. I mean, I can understand the fact that some people don’t like beautiful wonderful things and would prefer to live in gray boxes without feeling or thinking about anything, but I don’t understand why someone would be like that. No accounting for taste I suppose.

that was a long goddamned day

I’ve been reading 2666 but because it’s divided into five parts, I’ve been breaking it up with other (lighter) books in between. (I owe you teeming handfuls a review of American Gods; it’s coming.) Right now I’m reading The City and the City and I just love it. It’s about a crime that happens in a city where there’s another city right there sharing the same streets but they’re in different countries and in each city you aren’t allowed to see (or interact with) the things that are happening in the other. Things aren’t invisible; you are not allowed to see them. If you look at someone/thing in the other city too closely you’ve broken the rules and the all-powerful group that deals with Breaches comes and takes you away. Possibly to kill you, but I’m not done the book yet (I’ll review it for reals when I am).

This organization, Breach, is so powerful they could act with utter impunity, but if it’s not an emergency they have to follow the rules and be asked to handle things. I like this common idea of powerful entities having rules to follow. Vampires can’t cross running water. Police need a warrant. Breach must be asked. But. I don’t care about the little guy breaking the rules. In fact, I expect it, and get sort of sad when the powerless person doesn’t try doing something other than follow the rules. I’m having a weird time with how few people agitate against Breach in The City and the City. There are some, but I keep on wanting to shout at everyone, “You can see things! You shouldn’t have to unsee them!” But it’s a book and the characters (thus far) are well enmeshed in their setting.

A lot of fiction I read deals with the individual and celebrates the individual, especially in the face of power. For example, there’s an article I linked to a long time back about Murakami always wanting to be on the side of the egg not the wall, and you know how I feel about Murakami stories. Yesterday I watched a National Film Board movie from the 60’s called “Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen.” He was all young and bright-eyed. In one bit Pierre Berton is trying to get young Leonard Cohen to say what he stands for, what great idea drives him, what issue burns in his soul. And Leonard Cohen says, “No idea; I just check if I’m in a state of grace.” His companion explains that Leonard Cohen is talking about the task of the individual to live one’s own life, but Leonard Cohen is sort of dismissive. I like that.

Of course, it’s easy to “identify” with the powerless when you’re a white guy with a beard and a Mac.