Required Reading: American Gods

Here’s another Required Reading post from Penny Mattern. This is one of my favorite books from one of my favorite authors and I strongly recommend it.


I recently re-read  American Gods by Neil Gaiman. When I did, I rediscovered just how terrific it was, and decided I wanted to write it up for the Required Reading series.

This “Required Reading” series, like its companion series “Required Listening,” has never seemed to me to be necessarily about popular books, bestseller books, or long-declared but nowadays little-read classics — although any of those might find their way to it, because they meet the criterion of having bowled the reviewer over. And “bowled over” is exactly what happened to me when I read American Gods, a while ago in its original American publication, and just lately in its Tenth Anniversary edition. This is a book you absolutely have to tell someone else about, once you’ve read it.

So far so good: we have the superb writer Neil Gaiman, he of the fecund imagination, astonishing narrative technique and unmatched prose style.  Perhaps you’ve seen films made from his books Coraline and Stardust. Perhaps you saw the film Mirrormask by Gaiman and Dave McKean and the Jim Henson Company. Here’s a list of his work in many media, including his famed work as the author of the Sandman comic book series. He is, as that page points out, a “prolific creator of works of prose, poetry, film, journalism, comics, song lyrics, and drama.”

American Gods is a marvelous, multi-faceted book, depths within depths, gods and people and myths wrapped in puzzles and enigmas, grand plans and narrow escapes, and can be looked at, in one way, as a caper mystery in the guise of a road trip — but set at the intersection of everyday right now and an overlay of gods and forces of special but limited powers, of dreams and visitations, of plot and counterplot, toughness and tenderness, brute force and sharp skills, action and reaction, even, quite literally, Sturm und Drang (storm and stress).

A fantasy mystery?

A long time ago, grandmaster Isaac Asimov took on the challenge of writing science-fiction mysteries.  It had long been said, Asimov tells us in the introduction to Asimov’s Mysteries, that there was no good way to do that, since the writer could simply give the detective some sf device  — a “pocket-frannistan”  — that could solve the mystery.  Or, worse, the writer could create a future history that, as part of the story’s imagined past, is sprung on the reader to yield the solution.

As Asimov put it, the best traditional mystery writers “…stuck to the rule of being fair to the reader.  Clues might  be obscured, but not omitted.  Essential lines of thought might be thrown out casually, but they were thrown out….  The fictional [sf] detective can make use only of facts known to the reader in the present or of “facts” of the fictional future, which will be carefully explained beforehand.”

I see American Gods as a “who’s really doing what to whom?” mystery, a whydunit as well as a howdunit and whodunit.  It keeps you wondering, What’s going on here? and What could possibly happen next?  and then exceeding your wildest expectations when you find out.  It defies easy characterization, and is one of the most enjoyable books to read, at every level.  Everything counts — names, incidents, characters, identities, roles, actions — and you, reader, turn the pages, almost unable to pause, in your desire to see what comes next.

I picked it up because Neil Gaiman wrote it, and I love his books.  I read it because its title puzzled and intrigued me.  I stayed with it because, by then, I could do no other: like its protagonist, Shadow, I was pulled along. As a reader, I had no way to predict what would happen next, and who (or what) someone would turn out to be, or in what form they might pop up next.

Gaiman tells us the “…things it has in abundance, like history and geography and mythology, like dreams and confidence tricks and sacrifice, Roadside Attractions and lakes and coin magic and funeral homes….” and more, much more.  But, as with any work of genuine art, it’s impossible to characterize it in a few words — and like most great books, it is not merely its plot, its story, its characters, or its milieu, but something involving all of them, and more.

What you need right now, reader, whoever you are, is a copy of Neil Gaiman’s award-winning American Gods, preferably in the Tenth Anniversary edition, the one that says “Author’s Preferred Text” on the title page. Buy it in whatever format you like (ebook or print), or get out the one you bought a while ago, but just read it (or re-read it). Even better, get it in ebook form and enjoy the ebook extras as well as the novel: the diary excerpts, in which Mr. Gaiman explains all the tasks remaining to getting a book out and sold that come after finishing the writing and getting it to the publisher. Or just read that journal.

The printed The Tenth Anniversary Edition is an ‘author’s cut’ that includes additional material. The Tenth Anniversary edition ebook  has optional audio of Mr. Gaiman reading his essays, and actors reading selected excerpts from the book.

Amazon: American Gods: The Tenth Anniversary Edition

Also: original edition (including Kindle)


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2 Responses to “Required Reading: American Gods”

  1. Kyle says:

    This is a fantastic book and it works for me on two levels.

    As a writer, I’m fascinated by how Gaiman wrote in such simple prose while without losing the evocative beauty of his America. Fantasy writers trend toward flowery description to paint a picture, but Gaiman some how kept things sparse, while wholly bringing the reader into his world.

    As a reader, I’m enchanted by the clash of old mythology with America’s younger folklore. The old gods, though violent, have a sense of dignity and objectivity that matches the old world. The American gods are wild, subjective and irreverent. It’s a clash of generations on a grand scale that I found engrossing.

  2. […] Required Reading featured author Neil Gaiman. Gaiman is a remarkable author, someone who really has a voice. It’s clear, articulate, and […]

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