The “I’ve Always Meant to Read That Book!” Challenge: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

americangods3Title: American Gods
Author: Neil Gaiman
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Harper Perennials
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Source: Print copy from my personal library
Number of pages: 588
First line: Shadow had done three years in prison.

Goodreads blurb: Shadow gets out of prison early when his wife is killed in a car crash. At a loss, he takes up with a mysterious character called Wednesday, who is much more than he appears. In fact, Wednesday is an old god, once known as Odin the All-father, who is roaming America rounding up his forgotten fellows in preparation for an epic battle against the upstart deities of the Internet, credit cards, television, and all that is wired. Shadow agrees to help Wednesday, and they whirl through a psycho-spiritual storm that becomes all too real in its manifestations. For instance, Shadow’s dead wife Laura keeps showing up, and not just as a ghost – the difficulty of their continuing relationship is by turns grim and darkly funny, just like the rest of the book.

Armed only with some coin tricks and a sense of purpose, Shadow travels through, around, and underneath the visible surface of things, digging up all the powerful myths Americans brought with them in their journeys to this land as well as the ones that were already here. Shadow’s road story is the heart of the novel, and it’s here that Gaiman offers up the details that make this such a cinematic book–the distinctly American foods and diversions, the bizarre roadside attractions, the decrepit gods reduced to shell games and prostitution. “This is a bad land for Gods,” says Shadow.

I tried reading American Gods a few years ago, and couldn’t make it past chapter one. Past one particular scene in chapter one, actually, a scene that still makes my skin crawl and gives me the shudders. Fortunately, enough people kept telling me how wonderful this book is, and my past history with Gaiman’s work was all positive, so I got past my creepy-crawlies and put it on the list for the challenge.

First of all, Gaiman is a master storyteller. He knows how to paint with his words, to draw you into the scene in a way that is almost cinematic. I could see the scenes as they played out (one of the reasons chapter one was so difficult for me!), and felt like I could hear the characters and sense what they were sensing. Gaiman’s characters are so unique and varied; the man must be a champion-level people-watcher. I can just imagine him taking bits and pieces from the people in his life and molding them into these exquisitely crafted characters.

Shadow is an enigma, a difficult character to grasp. He’s quite slippery, and yet honorable in his own way. He experiences the first portion of the book almost as an observer, and then is drawn into the intrigues and drama of the other characters until he becomes a vital participant.

The scope of this story is immense, and the idea of America being a place of left-over gods, those brought over from the Old World in the minds and hearts of immigrants, is fascinating. And then the new gods – the gods of media, fame, wealth, entertainment – how much they demonstrate the obsessions of the American people. This is truly a saga, a large book in the best sense of the word. I am so very glad I gave it a second chance.

If you have ever reviewed American Gods, feel free to leave the link below.

Posted in fantasy | Tagged | 11 Comments

Book Review: The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming

familyromanovTitle: The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia
Author: Candace Fleming
Genre: Children’s non-fiction, history
Publisher: Schwartz & Wade Books
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Source: Review copy from the publisher
Number of pages: 253
First line: On the night of February 12, 1903, a long line of carriages made its way through the Imperial Gates of St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace.

Cover blurb: He was Tsar Nicholas II of Russia: the wealthiest monarch in the world, who ruled over 130 million people and one-sixth of the earth’s land surface, yet turned a blind eye to the abject poverty of his subjects.

She was Empress Alexandra: stern, reclusive, and painfully shy, a deeply religious woman obsessed with the corrupt mystic Rasputin.

Their daughters were the Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Marie, and Anastasia: completely isolated and immature, girls who wore identical white dresses and often signed joint letters as OTMA, the initials of their first names.

Their only son was Tsarevich Alexei: youngest of the Romanovs, heir to the throne, a hemophiliac whose debilitating illness was kept secret from the rest of the world.

Award-winning author Candance Fleming brilliantly showcases the extraordinary lives of the royal family, from their opulent ubringings to the crumbling of their massive empire, and finally to their tragic murders. Using captivating photos and compelling first-person accounts throughout, Fleming deftly maneuvers between the extravagant lives of the Romanovs and the plight of Russia’s poor masses – the starving peasant farmers, the factory workers toiling long hours for little pay, and the disillusioned soldiers fighting in the trenches of World War I. Readers will be transported back to a remarkable time when both a family and an empire came tumbling down.

I picked what I thought was the worst possible time to be reading a work of non-fiction: in the middle of a family visit with my sister and her boys. In my experience, nonfiction requires a bit more concentration, more of a quiet atmosphere, in order for me to become engaged and not get distracted while reading. Fortunately, The Family Romanov reads like a stirring work of historical fiction, and I was able to shut everything out and simply read (whenever a few minutes presented themselves).

This was my first experience with the work of author Candace Fleming, and I am absolutely thrilled to find a writer who is passionate about history and is writing compelling nonfiction books for teens. Before I started, I knew a little bit about the Romanovs – enough to know that I was interested in learning more – but that was about it. As I read, I was immediately drawn into the story of this family, and was compelled to keep reading right up until the end, even though I knew the doomed fate that awaited them.

One thing that kept going through my head as I read was how ill-equipped Nicholas was to rule. His father had excluded him from matters of state, and so when Nicholas became Tsar, he had no idea how to run the country. And even though he had good advisers around him, he ignored their counsel and made very poor decisions. He often left the running of the country up to his wife, Alexandra, who was in the thrall of the mystic Rasputin, and who chose to completely ignore the state of the nation as it crumbled around her. So many times Nicholas could have made decisions that may have changed the course of history, averted the Soviet Revolution, and given Russia a chance at a true democracy. Instead, he chose to hide his head in the sand, to ignore the plight of the majority of his citizens, and therefore stoke the fires of revolution.

If you are at all interested in the fall of the Russian Empire, and the tragic story of the Romanovs, this is a must-read. I am looking forward to reading Fleming’s book on the Lincolns next.

Posted in children's non-fiction, history, non-fiction | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

The Sunday Salon – August 3, 2014 (plus, wrapping up July’s reading)

sundaysalon2Lately: Whew! This past week simply flew by. More time with my sister and her boys: trips to the park, the movies, and the lake. Then yesterday I drove three-and-a-half hours west to take Marni and her boys to meet her husband Hans. Now things are back to normal, and I have a couple of busy weeks ahead of me. I’m planning to spend Monday and Tuesday reading and relaxing, but then things get busy again. I’m beginning to think that this summer is just going to be that way, and I might as well accept it.

Reading: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver; The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman; We Were Liars by E. Lockhart; Above the Dreamless Dead: World War I in Poetry and Comics edited by Chris Duffy

Recently finished reading: American Gods by Neil Gaiman and The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming

Watching: My mom took my sister, Marni, and I to see Maleficent on Tuesday, and I absolutely loved it. Then Marni and I watched Mansfield Park, which I also enjoyed, even though it bore very little resemblance to the novel.

I haven’t been blogging much, or listening to audio much, but I’m hoping that this will change now that our household has downsized back to its normal eight members. I also have a bunch of lesson planning to finish – I am typically done by this point in the summer, and I’m not even close this year! I do have several reviews coming up in the next two weeks – if I can only find time to write them. Sigh.

What are you doing this first Sunday in August?

Books completed in July:
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving – 5 starsmy review
The Fever by Megan Abbott – 4 starsmy review
Love Poems by Charles Bane, Jr. – 3 starsmy review
Evergreen by Rebecca Rasmussen – 5 starsmy review
The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon (audiobook) – 4 starsmy review
Never Coming Back by Tim Weaver – 4 starsmy review
No Book but the World by Leah Hager Cohen – 3 stars
American Gods by Neil Gaiman – 4 stars

Posted in sunday salon | Tagged | 10 Comments