A Modern World filled with Ancient Gods?

Like I said last week, every civilization develops its own mythology to answer its questions and confront its fears. As the needs of the culture change, so change the heroes we worship. So, what happens to the older gods when these newer icons are developed? Do they resent being forced into retirement or do they  transcend to a Sun City section of Mount Olympus where they can play endless rounds of shuffleboard and bore each other with photos of their descendants?  Did Odin develop a sub-section of Valhalla to house superannuated deities?  Is there an AARP for Gods?  You might think that’s a funny idea for a story but it’s actually a question Neil Gaiman posed when he wrote American Gods.  It’s also an English novelist’s perspective of America and a brilliant fantasy novel.
At the center of the story is Shadow Moon, a man with a past who once thought he had a future.  Instead, his wife and secure job die shortly before he can reach them and a man named Wednesday offers him work. Shadow is the perfect hero for this kind of adventure: he’s quiet, tough and shrewder than most folks realize.  Shadow is the kind of man Bogart played in the movies but he isn’t fighting the standard cops or robbers.  Instead, he and his new boss embark on a road trip filled with fights, kidnap and intrigue and they keep running into the oddest people.  Hey, it’s what you’ve got to expect when you go to work for an Ancient God.
Because Mr. Wednesday is a God or at least an American version of one.  Gaiman’s underlying idea is that when immigrants flooded what is now the U. S., they brought the old deities with them. This might have worked for a generation or two but a New Country worships different things and the New Gods have taken over. Odin and Ibis have been replaced by Tech Boy (the quintessential computer geek complete with a Matrix coat and bad acne) and Media, a Lucy Ricardo goddess who can be truly terrifying. There are lots of other super-beings, both old and new, and half of the fun of this book is realizing which one of the odd-balls is really a deity in retirement. Thing is, Mr. Wednesday wants the Old Ones to band together and kick the New Gods out of existence. Shadow’s job in this mess is to sort out who the real good and bad guys are and stop the carnage before it’s too late.
Yes, most of the characters in the tale are used to being worshipped but Shadow is the quintessential American Archetype of a Hero: he’s the loner who adheres to no moral code save his own and he’s on an unforgiving road to redemption. This hero never asks much for himself; instead others end up requesting his help. When he tries to give it to them, he’s often forced to break rules in order to do what’s right. This guy’s the outsider who takes on the corrupt political machine, the reporter or lawyer who won’t give up on a cause. If you like cowboys, Shadow is like Shane. If detective stories are your thing, think Sam Spade.  Shadow is one of these lonely guy/heroes and we’re lucky he has a sense of humor as well as sense because we see what happens through his eyes.
A word to parents: although this is by the man that wrote Coraline and The Graveyard Book, American Gods is not for kids.  It’s a huge, adult fantasy that snapped up some big time awards and now Starz is bringing the story to film.  It’s a big read, and a worthwhile one, but it’s a fantasy novel for adults.  Catch my drift?  I hope so.
This country has never been a place that likes to slow down. Americans are always searching for the Next Big Thing.  So maybe it takes an outsider’s perspective, a smart person willing to watch, like de Tocqueville or Gaiman, to give us a good analysis of our own culture.  It’s not an easy task because we’re the result of a billion different influences and, like I said, we tend to keep moving.  But, whatever our faults, we’re a dynamic society where there’s still room for opportunity.  As long as that’s true, we’ll remain the Goldene Medina for immigrants.  Even Immigrant Gods.

A Modern World filled with Ancient Gods?

Like I said last week, every civilization develops its own mythology to answer its questions and confront its fears. As the needs of the culture change, so change the heroes we worship. So, what happens to the older gods when these newer icons are developed? Do they resent being forced into retirement or do they  transcend to a Sun City section of Mount Olympus where they can play endless rounds of shuffleboard and bore each other with photos of their descendants?  Did Odin develop a sub-section of Valhalla to house superannuated deities?  Is there an AARP for Gods?  You might think that’s a funny idea for a story but it’s actually a question Neil Gaiman posed when he wrote American Gods.  It’s also an English novelist’s perspective of America and a brilliant fantasy novel.
At the center of the story is Shadow Moon, a man with a past who once thought he had a future.  Instead, his wife and secure job die shortly before he can reach them and a man named Wednesday offers him work. Shadow is the perfect hero for this kind of adventure: he’s quiet, tough and shrewder than most folks realize.  Shadow is the kind of man Bogart played in the movies but he isn’t fighting the standard cops or robbers.  Instead, he and his new boss embark on a road trip filled with fights, kidnap and intrigue and they keep running into the oddest people.  Hey, it’s what you’ve got to expect when you go to work for an Ancient God.
Because Mr. Wednesday is a God or at least an American version of one.  Gaiman’s underlying idea is that when immigrants flooded what is now the U. S., they brought the old deities with them. This might have worked for a generation or two but a New Country worships different things and the New Gods have taken over. Odin and Ibis have been replaced by Tech Boy (the quintessential computer geek complete with a Matrix coat and bad acne) and Media, a Lucy Ricardo goddess who can be truly terrifying. There are lots of other super-beings, both old and new, and half of the fun of this book is realizing which one of the odd-balls is really a deity in retirement. Thing is, Mr. Wednesday wants the Old Ones to band together and kick the New Gods out of existence. Shadow’s job in this mess is to sort out who the real good and bad guys are and stop the carnage before it’s too late.
Yes, most of the characters in the tale are used to being worshipped but Shadow is the quintessential American Archetype of a Hero: he’s the loner who adheres to no moral code save his own and he’s on an unforgiving road to redemption. This hero never asks much for himself; instead others end up requesting his help. When he tries to give it to them, he’s often forced to break rules in order to do what’s right. This guy’s the outsider who takes on the corrupt political machine, the reporter or lawyer who won’t give up on a cause. If you like cowboys, Shadow is like Shane. If detective stories are your thing, think Sam Spade.  Shadow is one of these lonely guy/heroes and we’re lucky he has a sense of humor as well as sense because we see what happens through his eyes.
A word to parents: although this is by the man that wrote Coraline and The Graveyard Book, American Gods is not for kids.  It’s a huge, adult fantasy that snapped up some big time awards and now Starz is bringing the story to film.  It’s a big read, and a worthwhile one, but it’s a fantasy novel for adults.  Catch my drift?  I hope so.
This country has never been a place that likes to slow down. Americans are always searching for the Next Big Thing.  So maybe it takes an outsider’s perspective, a smart person willing to watch, like de Tocqueville or Gaiman, to give us a good analysis of our own culture.  It’s not an easy task because we’re the result of a billion different influences and, like I said, we tend to keep moving.  But, whatever our faults, we’re a dynamic society where there’s still room for opportunity.  As long as that’s true, we’ll remain the Goldene Medina for immigrants.  Even Immigrant Gods.

The Past We Leave Behind

I remember a few things about my first trip to Disneyland.  I loved riding the flying elephants with my Dad and I screamed all the way through the Sleeping Beauty castle, terrified that Maleficent would appear.  I don’t recall much more of that day but memories are like overstuffed closets; if you pull out one or two items, you’ll be surprised what you’ll find underneath.
The hero in The Ocean at the End of the Lane  has similar holes in his memories.  He’s driving down roads he doesn’t remember to a childhood home destroyed long ago.  Some neighbor ladies remember him and, at his request, take him to a duckpond  behind their farmhouse.  He stands by the pond, remembers someone called it “an ocean” and the memories crash in like a wave.


Water’s important in this story, as is memory, and all the things we don’t know.  As a child, our hero knows he was lonely but he doesn’t know what makes loneliness bad.  So, other children play with each other while he stays inside and reads books.  What’s wrong with that?  His parents said they’ve lost their money but what he knows is they’ve rented out his bedroom; he’s not really aware of all the stress this puts on the family.  He knows the new babysitter is evil but his parents and sister can’t see that.  Only the neighbor ladies named Hempstock seem to understand everything.  How old these women really are or  or how they tend our fragile world is another unknown but our hero knows they’re the people he needs when he lets an “Other” into our world.  Only the Hempstocks can save him or the world and they’ll need their duck-pond ocean.
Part of the charm of this book comes from the idea that a child may have a truer vision than an adult.  Any adult worth their junior high science classes know there are very few inland oceans and none the size of a duck pond.  Yet, a seven year old has the imagination to see beyond the facts.  Who has the clearer vision, the adult whose memory has been drilled out and re-stuffed with knowledge or the youngster who sees the magic and potential all life conveys?  Does the adult forget because he’s seen so much or because he blocks out what he lost as a boy? 
Gaiman is one of those amazing authors that writes for multiple age groups and in different formats.   The Ocean at the End of the Lane could be read aloud to children but it’s story for adults, at least adults who like a bend in reality.  Read it and see what memories come out of your closet.

When the door to the unknown opens

Every once in a while an author comes along that recalls the viewpoint of a child.  Not any child in particular, only what it was like to always be the youngest person in the room, with the most amount of instruction, whose opinions carry the least weight in a family.  Because, along with being loved and read to and coddled and warm, that’s what it feels like sometimes when you’re a kid.  Anyway, Neil Gaiman knows that.  Like Roald Dahl and T. H. White and Lewis Carroll before him, he remembers how even loved kids sometimes want more from their lives, more attention, more influence, more glamor.  And he puts this in his books, along with what comes from granted wishes.  The man’s written many terrific books but if you’re not familiar with his work, may I begin the acquaintance?  Let me introduce you to someone special, a girl named Coraline.

Coraline is a girl with a problem.  As a matter of fact, she is bored.   Her family’s moved into a very old house that has been turned into apartments and her parents have focused on their work.  Her folks love her and care for her but, right now, they’re too busy to pay much attention.  The neighbors aren’t bad, but they’re grown and they always mispronounce her name and predict she’s going into danger.  This is not what a young girl wants.  Nope, Coraline wants some attention, and a mother who cooks, a father than listens and a look in the apartment next door.   There’s a brick wall and a locked door between that empty flat and hers, at least there is until Coraline sneaks out the key, opens the lock and the bricked wall she once saw has vanished…so Coraline goes exploring.  Like Alice through the Looking Glass, she finds a world much like her own until you get to the details.  Here, the folks pays attention and the toys are all alive and the “other mother” cooks and looks at the world through sewn-on, shoe-button eyes.  There’s something not right with this world even with all these improvements and Coraline returns to the real world before they can change out here eyes. And this is where Coraline leaves Alice behind.

Now I love the Alice books.  From 5th grade through 8th grade, I re-read them continually and I can still recite Jabberwocky by heart.  But Alice’s adventures are bordered by her workaday world.  When the story needed to end or got too complex Alice would wake and the Red Queen and Mock Turtle would vanish.  Magic couldn’t follow her back.  But Coraline eventually realizes opening the door let the “other world” into hers and real parents are no match for the Other-Mother’s schemes.  In order to return to her world, Coraline has to save it, with the aid of a cat and her brain.   Well, there’s a whole lot more but you’ll need to read the book.

Coraline’s perfect for anyone who is waiting or for folks who’ve yearned to explore the unknown.  If you remember feeling curious about the other side of the world or wondering what’s inside a stone, spend an hour or two with this brave adventurer.   And remember to watch your step and avoid people with buttons for eyes.