Re-Reading


Yes, I've been away from the keyboard for a few days. I'm sorry if I've fallen down on the job of providing content for y'all, but I must admit it's helped my wrists feel somewhat less overworked, what with all the typing and retyping of the novel over the last month or so.  (I mean, plunking out 135,000 words hurts.)

On the plus side, when I stop pounding words out, I'm also able to do more about pouring words in, and over the last week, I've been working my way through a variety of books I had already read, with varying results.

First was a nonfiction piece, Richard Ellis's The Search for the Giant Squid. It's a thorough examination of the facts we have about the world's largest invertebrate, as well as a reiteration of the crucial point that we don't actually have most of the facts about it. At the time of publication, no living giant squid had ever been observed or photographed in the wild (though since that time Japanese teuthologists have managed both to film one AND to retrieve a severed tentacle still fresh enough to grasp with its suckers.) With so little hard data, Ellis can either speculate (which he is not, I'm happy to say, willing to do much) or talk at great length about the hard data we do have, even if that data doesn't directly reference the giant squid. Though on first reading I didn't find it a problem, on this occasion it was painfully apparent to me that Ellis had a not-inconsiderable challenge in filling up 250 pages with this semi-relevant data. I rather liked his lengthy discussion of the giant squid's place in literature, film, and TV, but the chapter on squid taxonomy was dry in the extreme, and I'm one of those rare freaks of nature who actually finds the issue of naming organisms interesting; it also didn't help that it came so early in the book, threatening to derail Ellis's momentum completely. The final chapter, which deals with the various life-size models of giant squids that have been mounted in museums and elsewhere, was more interesting, but ultimately trivial in the discussion of the squid itself. All in all, though I learned a great deal about the subject (or at least as much as there was to learn) on my first reading, the book's flaws were distractingly obvious on the second go.

Such was not the case with Neil Gaiman's American Gods. I've been a fan of Gaiman's for two decades now, and I've gleefully re-read both Good Omens (his collaboration with Terry Pratchett) and his Sandman comics. This was my first repeat of AG, however, and I wasn't sure how it would hold up. I can remember upon first reading it that I was completely engaged, not even realizing that it's 600 pages long, but I was also occasionally unsure of where the book was going. (Admittedly, I was sometimes reading so fast that I missed some obvious information; for example, while I knew at once who Wednesday and Mr. Nancy were, I was not so quick on the uptake about "Low Key" Lyesmith. Duh.) This time, with the destination clear, I was able to examine the details of the journey with more care, and I must say the book holds up beautifully. Whereas on the first reading I felt as though the final chapters had a tacked-on feeling, what with the big hullabaloo being over, this time I felt they were completely in line with the rest of the narrative. I also got a much better feeling for Shadow as a character and had a more enjoyable time being in his head. It shouldn't have surprised me, given how much I love going back over Sandman, but I've got to say I have more appreciation for Gaiman's skills as a novelist, not just as a storyteller, now that I've had the chance to look over American Gods for a second time.

Finally, there was Max Brooks's World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, which I first read last summer and quite enjoyed. The bit of genius here is the approach; by letting the story of the ten-year war against the living dead into a Studs Terkel-style mosaic, rather than a single narrative, Brooks makes the story more plausible even as he gainst enormous amounts of control over it through his multiple narrators. He's free to discuss everything from the initial outbreak to the military response to the emotional attachments formed by soldiers to their canine zombie-detecting companions; he can tell complete short stories (such as the one about the downed pilot aided by a radio operator named "Mets Fan"), paint several pictures of the same character (the Indian military hero General Raj-Singh), or provide basic exposition in the voice of a character far more interesting than an omniscient narrator. It's a great bit of world-building. The actual zombies here are much the same as they'd be in anything from Night of the Living dead to the lastest horror comic, but Brooks's approach gives them a far more memorable presence here than elsewhere. You could almost say it brings them to life.

I've still got some new books to read this summer, including Tony Earley's The Blue Star (our school's community-wide summer reading book) and Dave Cullen's Columbine, but I have to say I've learned a lot from taking a second look at some old favorites.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on July 28, 2009 11:27 AM.

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