For the first time in so many years, I’m not in utter misery looking into the New Year. 2019 holds great promise and hope for me. As unexpected as that is to say, it comes as a great relief. Books and lists are the great constant. The great coping mechanism of all time, making lists. It was like the sun shone only on me the day I realized I could combine the two and keep my sanity.
One blissful weekend in August when I was hanging out with other geeks and nerds who loved what I did my vague dissatisfaction was temporarily banished. I went to panels about writing, met authors (and a real live astronaut), sat in lines with others and talked about writing. Frequently amused that wherever there was a line, we all had some kind of device out in order to read. My device was dead tree style.
Exhaustion was my companion the entire con, but gods I was happy. Happy? How could that possibly be? When WorldCon 76 San Jose was over, the sticky film of vague unrest returned. Barf, I thought (or words to that effect, anyway). Inklings filtered through my overtaxed, hyperalert brain.
When great ideas hit it can feel like a jolt of lightning, adrenaline flowing through my spine. This idea was quieter. An author I met at WorldCon started posting about teaching writing. And so I asked, “do you have something for me?” His probing questions finally got me to the bottom of my unrest. “I want to learn to read and write about books better.”
And that’s how I found a mentor, and made the last quarter of 2018 happy. Best decision of my life ever. It’s not just the reading and writing which have evolved. Unexpected personal growth came at me like sunshine filtered through open doors. Even on the hardest of hard days when I think I can’t even get out of bed, and the writing is like carving bricks of granite with my bare hands, I know I’ll be good. Discovering the weird joys of LitCrit have given me a new dimension of meaning.
It is nearly impossible to pick just a few great books from 2018, but here’s my attempt at defining the seminal books for me.
2018 Books by the Numbers:
26 unique publication years
40 unique author names
19 female authors
23 male authors
26 new to me authors
98 books new to the stacks
48 new to the stacks read
7 new to the stacks Pearl Ruled
The Handmaid’s Tale by Atwood, Margaret
Even more relevant today than when first published, Atwood’s description of a dystopian, Puritanical society with no agency for women chills. My review will focus on the use of Scripture as justification.
Speaking of feminism … Elma’s a wonderful example of all any human could be; blind spots and social anxiety and all. Mary Robinette Kowal is as kind and generous as I had hoped. An hour with her and real live astronaut, Kjell Lindgren was more than I’d expected. Excitedly waiting for two more Lady Astronaut books.
Because I am stubborn and refuse to read what “everyone” else is reading, it took an essay in The Methods of Breaking Bad, and some serious prodding from a trusted friend to read Toni Morrison’s classic. Best opening line ever, “124 was spiteful.”
Bintiby Okorafor, Nnedi Binti: Home by Okorafor, Nnedi Binti: The Night Masquerade by Okorafor, Nnedi
Nnedi Okorafor’s brilliant story about a young African woman who breaks tribal taboos to go to university on another planet. My review will focus on the bigotry Binti encounters on her quest.
Alexander Watson’s writing is elegant as he tells the tale of refurbishing a wooden boat and sailing her from Texas to Ohio. His is the most polished debut I’ve read and I’m forever grateful he asked me to review it.
How Fiction Works by Wood, James
Every writer, every critic, every anyone interested in reading and writing needs to read How Fiction Works. My review focuses on why critical reviewers should know about craft in order to write better themselves.
Title:American Gods Author: Neil Gaiman Published: 2001 Publisher: Harper Torch Twitter: @NeilHimself What’s Auntie Reading Now?picture Publisher’s Blurb: Released from prison, Shadow finds his world turned upside down. His wife has been killed; a mysterious stranger offers him a job. But Mr. Wednesday, who knows more about Shadow than is possible, warns that a storm is coming — a battle for the very soul of America . . . and they are in its direct path.
“This isn’t about what this is,” said Mr. Nancy. “It’s about what people think it is. It’s all imaginary anyway. That’s why it’s important. People only fight over imaginary things.” (p. 427)
Neil Gaiman’s American Gods has a simple premise. The old gods are dying as people forget them and create new ones. As simple as that may sound, the story is rich and complex, exploring the relationship of people to their gods, and of the gods to their people.
Shadow Moon gets out of jail early to take care of his wife’s affairs after she and his best friend die in a car accident. We later find out they were having an affair. Shadow accepts this news numbly and spends the rest of the story allowing events to move him along.
On the plane home, he meets the persistent Mr. Wednesday, a somewhat shabby old man who keeps offering Shadow a job. When Shadow finally accepts, he’s told that he’s expected to just do whatever Mr. Wednesday tells him to do.
Mr. Wednesday, later revealed as Odin, is recruiting the old gods to a final battle with the new gods (Media, Technology, Drugs, etc.). One of those meetings is with Mad Sweeney, an Irish leprechaun. Mad Sweeney teaches Shadow how to retrieve gold coins from thin air. It is one of these coins which Shadow places in his wife’s coffin as she is buried. The coin brings Laura to life, and she follows Shadow on his adventures, offering a Greek chorus commentary along the way.
The final battle occurs when Shadow Moon offers himself as sacrifice after Wednesday is killed. Shadow is hung from the Tree of Life (Yggdrasil) for nine days and nights. During the tasks Shadow performs on his vigil, he learns that Mr. Wednesday and his former cell mate Low-Key Lyesmith (Odin’s son, Loki) have been playing a long two-man con meant to generate an all out battle between gods so the old gods would die in Odin’s name, making him powerful once again.
Shadow returns to the battlefield, explaining this to the gods, who all disappear.
And yes, of course, I have oversimplified the story. American Gods is nearly 600 pages long. In preparing for this review, I visited many websites which go into the story, the characters, the symbolism, etc. more deeply than I do.
Having read it twice, and expecting to read it many more times, the surprises of the familiar never stopped. And as with all good stories, I just followed along. Or, as Shadow Moon says,
I feel like I’m in a world with its own sense of logic. Its own rules. Like when you’re in a dream, and you know there are rules you mustn’t break. Even if you don’t know what they mean. I’m just going along with it …” (p. 90)
It’s not necessary to be familiar with all the gods to enjoy this story. There were many I didn’t know, like the Slavic god Czernobog and his relatives the Zorya Sisters, the story never faltered. Mr. Wednesday was up to something and he was involving everyone he ever once knew.
The concept of people creating their gods and bringing them from their home land to a new land is intriguing. It seems obvious to me now. Even the Christians did it. But we often overlook the diversity of the United States, missing the stories of so many who have come in the hope of a better life.
Of course we brought our gods with us. The gods are the familiar, the tether which we hold on to as we try to make sense of the unfamiliar surrounding us. This idea shouldn’t be new, nor should it be shocking.
If it makes you more comfortable, you could simply think of it as metaphor. Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all …
Religions are places to stand and look and act, vantage points from which to view the world. (p. 508)
Neil Gaiman uses this idea in American Gods, to illustrate how each of us has a story, and it’s often different from our neighbor’s story. New gods shove their way in, pushing the old gods aside. This is one of the most fascinating themes in the book. How does your god differ from mine? Is mine a new god, or an old one? And have I morphed mine into something different in order to survive the times in which I live?
This is the beauty of Gaiman’s work. He touches on these ideas in all his books. And American Gods focuses on it with charm and wit.