Tag Archives: american fiction

WBN 11: American Gods

I’m steadily working my way through the nation’s 100 favourite books according to World Book Night’s poll in 2011. Find out more about this challenge and check my progress here.

It’s a really good job I love Neil Gaiman’s writing – if it wasn’t my cup of tea, this challenge would be a complete nightmare. This is the third of the five on this list, and it’s by far the most ambitious and impressive so far. It’s an absolutely massive book, almost the American equivalent of Neverwhere in the way that it takes an average person and plunges them into an underworld they never knew existed.

Gaiman has written the story of the gods that followed their pilgrims to America, and then languished, forgotten and unworshipped. The Norse gods are the stars of the show, but some of the obscure Russian gods are by turns hilariously or ethereally diverting. The main character, Shadow, is unapologetically severe and aloof, but all the same he proves himself to be a man worthy of our attention. Despite the daunting length of the book, and the epic journey that Shadow takes, I remained engaged and interested in the sprawling narrative.

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WBN 29: Room

Room is a beautiful Booker-nominated book narrated by a boy called Jack, who is five, and who was born in captivity. His mother was kidnapped before he was born, and kept in a steel lined garden shed where she is repeatedly raped by her captor. In order to protect him, Jack’s mother raises him to believe that only what is inside their windowless shed – which he calls Room – is real, and everything he sees on their tiny TV is just pretend.

I could just write, READ IT, and be done here, but I suppose that would be a rather shameful effort at a blog. So I’ll tell you why you should read it:

1. It will make you cry, like a little child, and that’s so therapeutic

2. It will make you think about how humans behave, and what we do because we want to, and what we do because we’re socialised that way

3. You will love the characters, like they are members of your own family, and it will almost hurt to close the book when it’s finished…

4. …Except, you’ll be feeling completely uplifted by the story, and you won’t stop thinking about it for days and says.

5. When you’re done, you can call me, and we can talk about it, because you’ll need to get your feelings out. But only if you know me already, else, that’s weird.

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WBN 31: We Need To Talk About Kevin

This might seem like an odd thing to say, but after reading Frankenstein I really felt I had to go back to an old favourite to kick myself back into action. And this is the one I picked. Yes, I know it’s about a high school massacre, yes, I know, it’s so depressing, yes, I know, it’s a bit pretentious, even. But I love it. I think I just find Eva, the main character, really identifiable. She over analyses things to a painful point, like me. She loves to travel, like me, and she’s a huge over achiever, just like I wish I was! It’s uncanny.

I think this book speaks about something really important. Despite the many, many people who are making a conscious decision not to have children now, it’s still considered to be the norm that a couple will fall in love, get married, and after a year, maybe two, pop out a couple of kids. And it will be wonderful, perfect, completely idyllic, really. You’ll probably just about die of happiness. I really like the way this book says, hang on, that’s not actually right for everyone.

The main thrust of the story is the nature vs nurture debate. Does Kevin kill his fellow students because he was born evil, or was he not raised right? But the interesting journey is not Kevin’s, from conception to birth through to the massacre, but Eva’s. Her narrative may not be reliable and she may be writing with good old 20/20 hindsight, but she tells a remarkable tale, and describes some chilling scenes that stay with you for good.

People are always telling me they wouldn’t recommend it to someone who is about to have/has just had a baby. Personally, I say that’s tosh, it’s fiction, but I suppose those baby hormones I hear so much about might be messing you up a bit. So, proceed with caution, babymakers.

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WBN 21: The Notebook

I know that I’m going to mortally offend whole swathes of the population here, mainly teenage girls, but, I’m sure, a few adults too, BUT… I thought this book was one of the worst written I have ever come across. I borrowed it from the library, and I actually took pictures of a couple of pages so I could still laugh at them after I returned it.

And I had to cringe when the almost 30 year old, engaged, female main character claims to have never slept with anyone, even her fiancée, because she didn’t want to sleep with anyone but her childhood sweetheart who she was only with for one summer and never saw again, then goes on to have a completely incredible transcendental experience with said childhood sweetheart, who of course, is a guy. So he’s slept with loads of girls. I’m not sure that any of this is quite what I would choose to teach the target market of 14 year old girls, exactly.

Having said that, I’m really *not* a book snob. Honestly. I’ve enjoyed a lot of Jodi Picoult and Sophie Kinsella, and I think that if this gets teenage girls interested in reading, then brilliant. Keep churnin’ em out, Mr Sparks. And even if you’re an adult and you enjoy this, then own it! Read whatever you want! I watch far too many cheesy American sitcoms to judge anyone for enjoying literature that isn’t ‘worthy’ or ‘highbrow’ or ‘literary’ enough. Those words don’t even mean very much.

And, the story. It wasn’t terribly believable, and it was a bit contrived, and there wasn’t really a lot in the way of twists and turns, but it is terribly romantic, and it does turn out very nicely in the end. I can’t say I’ll be flocking to pick moreSparksnovels up, and I definitely wouldn’t be letting this anywhere near my top 100, but more power to the massive internet campaign ofSparksfans that did get it in there. At TWENTY-ONE. ABOVE THE HANDMAID’S TALE. AND LITTLE WOMEN. AND TESS OF THE D’URBERVILLES.

But, you know, whatever. Like I said. Totally don’t mind. Not a literary snob. No sirree.

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WBN 25: Little Women

For a book that’s essentially about four painfully pious girls trying to be good, Little Women is having a hell of a run. It’s a book I must have read upward of twenty times, but I enjoy it every time. When you look at it objectively, it should be a terrible, terrible book, but the characterisation is just incredible. The four main characters – the March girls – are so intricately drawn that I can’t help myself, I get pulled in every time and I laugh and cry along with them.

The thing is, it seems obvious to me that Jo is by far the best character, and the one you’re meant to identify with (and allegedly the one that Alcott based on herself), but if you ask someone else they’re just as likely to name Amy, or Meg, or Beth as their favourites.

This is one of several children/young adult novels in the top 100, which also includes Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, I Capture the Castle and The Secret Garden. There’s just something about the best of the books I read when I was eleven and twelve that carries me along, and whilst I’m engrossed in the story in a very similar way to when I was younger, I enjoy it in such a different way. I was brought up in a religious environment, and exposed to quite conservative values, and back then reading about girls who were essentially confined to marriage and babies didn’t really seem odd. Now, as a twenty five year old feminist, I can absolutely pine for Jo as she struggles to be more than society wants her to be, and cheer for her when she rejects rich, handsome Laurie’s proposal because she doesn’t love him.

If you like Little Women, and you ever get ten minutes free, read Louisa May Alcott’s Wikipedia entry, and challenge yourself not to immediately buy all her biographies on Amazon. She sounds like a pretty awesome woman…

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