“Dionysus” by Walter F. Otto (1965)

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Welcome to the cult.

“All of antiquity extolled Dionysus as the god who gave man wine.”

Mythology is something that has always interested me, in particular the Greek myths. I’ve read a few stories about them, and I’m writing one too, so I thought it was about time I did some research and looked up the history behind one or two of them. At least, that’s what ended up happening – I didn’t quite plan it like that.

I bought this book under the assumption that it was about the myths and would tell me all the wacky adventures that my second favourite Greek god Dionysus (Hermes, in case you’re wondering) had got up to. He was the god of madness, hedonism and wine, after all, so there were bound to be some stories. What I instead got was basically a textbook that was more suited to someone reading classical studies.

I’m not going to even suggest that the book is a laugh a minute, but it actually turned out to be pretty interesting. Dionysus appears to be a late addition to the pantheon, although no one’s quite sure where he came from. He only became one of the Twelve Olympians because Hestia gave up her seat for him. He was actually half-mortal, the son of Zeus and human Semele, and was actually born from Zeus’ thigh. (Don’t ask.) Surrounded all his life by women, he threw parties and gave people the gift of wine to that they could let loose and forget their inhibitions. However, he was also the god of insanity, being insane himself, and provoking in his female followers an animalistic nature that caused them to eat their own sons.

He is associated with the bull, snake, panther and goat, and was notable for once entering the Underworld, finding his mother and bringing her back out again, a feat that no other god ever seemed to pull off. He was a symbol of life and death, and there exists a constant duality around his personality. Some believe that he and Hades were actually one and the same.

The book is intriguing and goes into some detail that I would otherwise never have found out, but at the end of the day, it is a textbook and so there are some very dry passages and also far too many untranslated Greek terms. Still, if you’re really into your mythology, it’s worth a skim.

This has been a niche post. Carry on.

“What In God’s Name” by Simon Rich (2012)

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Working in Heaven can be Hell

“The CEO leaned back in his swivel chair and flicked on his flatscreen TV.”

Escaping the reign of the Nazis, I moved into a book that was far more light-hearted. I’ve said before that I have a weird addiction to books about the nature of God, as I love people’s endless takes on something we know nothing about. In this particular version, he is CEO of Heaven Inc., a company that deals with the affairs of Earth and makes sure that everything runs smoothly. However, recently he’s been phoning it in and is far more concerned with who wins sports events than answering prayers or fixing wars.

Eliza has just been promoted from the Prayers Department to an Angel in Miracles where she meets Craig, the only other person in Heaven who actually appears interested in his job. Eliza discovers that the prayers she spent so long organising have never even been touched by the CEO. Furious, she confronts him and tells him that if he’s not interested in the job anymore, maybe he should just quit.

And those simple words could spell trouble for the Earth and its inhabitants…

Simon Rich has featured on this blog already this year, and I’m fond of his work. He writes with sharpness and a brilliant sense of humour, mixing up the banal and the fantastic with such skill that it appears precision engineered. God, the CEO, is perhaps one of the sweeter versions of the character I’ve ever seen. Although clearly still capable of horrible things, he does seem to genuinely love his people. Craig is a great example of someone who has grown to love his meaningless job, and Eliza is a classically strong female character whom you want to get to know. There’s also Vince, a brash Archangel who puts on an act of bravado but scratch the surface and there’s  a lot more than that to him underneath.

There are also a few human characters here, in particular Sam and Laura. The things that the angels put them through are almost undeservedly cruel at times, but it is all for the greater good.

The novel deals with the nature of miracles and coincidence, about the abuse of power and the knowledge that our time is finite. The jokes are deft and smart, and while the story ends on a somewhat predictable note, there are some brilliant reveals along the way, in particular the explanation of what the criteria are to actually get a place in Heaven.

A frothy, easy-to-read novella with a lot of heart.

“Angelmaker” by Nick Harkaway (2012)

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Beware the bees.

“At seven fifteen a.m., his bedroom slightly colder than the vacuum of space, Joshua Joseph Spork wears a longish leather coat and a pair of his father’s golfing socks.”

And thus begins a two page explanation of the acquisition of said socks. Who else could it be, but Nick Harkaway.

Yes, I haven’t posted in a while which is nothing to do with laziness and everything to do with spending two weeks in the Angelmaker universe. Harkaway is the favoured author of my friends Jonny and Kristina and it is from them that I got this book. I enjoyed Harkaway’s first novel, The Gone-Away World despite its density, and was told that this one was very similar. Not wrong.

This is the story of Joe Spork, a clockwork repairman who hides away in a quiet bit of London, hiding from his history and his father’s reputation, his father being the infamous Mathew ‘Tommy Gun’ Spork, criminal mastermind, gangster supreme and controller of the Night Market. Joe just wants a quiet, easy life. Since his father’s death, he has taken after his grandfather and decided to stick to clockwork, something he finds beautiful and fascinating. But one day he receives two strangers into his workshop – Mr Titwhistle and Mr Cummerbund. They are seeking something that they believe is in Joe’s possession. Joe doesn’t know anything, until his companion Billy Friend returns in his life with a job for him.

This is also the story of Edie Banister, the eighty-nine year old former spy who, unlike Joe, never sought out the quiet life but has found it thrust upon her. Still sprightly with all her marbles and a blind pug called Bastion for company, she is left with her memories and her concerns that the things she once fought to preserve no longer exist. But her life too is thrown into turmoil when three strangers turn up in her flat. She kills two of them and goes on the run.

The book then tells the story of the Apprehension Engine, or Angelmaker, a doomsday device that works by letting people see the truth. The inventor is Frankie Fossoyeur, who happens to be both Joe’s grandmother and Edie’s lover. Long since dead though, Frankie has left the instructions on how to operate the machine with the only people she ever trusted. More importantly, only they then have the key to turn it off.

There’s a lot happening in this novel, even without two-page tangents on socks, tommy gun mechanics or cinemas for elephants, but it all comes together so marvellously. The story flips between Joe’s struggle to stay sane in this new world where he is being stalked by black-veiled monks, and Edie’s history, her relationship with Frankie and how she served her country while disguised as James Banister. Edie has done battle with Shem Shem Tsien, South Asian dictator who is on a mission to turn himself into God by performing all the acts that God performed in the Bible. Edie and Joe become entangled as they fight to stop the Angelmaker and save humanity.

This book also features the second greatest train in all of fiction, the Ada Lovelace, a doomsday device that functions with clockwork bees, the greatest lawyer in the history of the world and a brilliant collection of criminals and lowlifes who you cannot help but love and admire. Great characters like Mercer and Polly Cradle, Sister Harriet Spork and Ted Sholt are unforgettable and, despite their many flaws and nasty habits, become instantly likeable.

The writing is dense, but once you’re into it, it does eventually begin to flow. You may just need a chart to keep track of exactly who everybody is and how they know one another, because I’m still not sure even now if I’ve got the whole thing right. Still, if you like good characters and driven plot in a believable world of unbelievable events, this is well worth your time.

“The Waterproof Bible” by Andrew Kaufman (2009)

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The Waterproof Bible

No frogs were harmed in the making of this book.

“The limousine taking Rebecca Reynolds and Lewis Taylor to the funeral had stalled in the middle of an intersection.”

I discovered Andrew Kaufman a couple of years ago with his novella, now a cult classic, All Of My Friends Are Superheroes. Last year, I encountered him again with another novella, The Tiny Wife. So, when I found his name again in Waterstone’s, I picked up the book without even questioning it. He writes with magic, and his ideas are so beautiful, brilliant and romantic that I can’t help feel a pang of jealousy whenever I read him. I wish I’d come up with some of these ideas, although I daresay I’d be unable to achieve what he can.

The Waterproof Bible is the story of three individuals. The first is Rebecca, who naturally broadcasts her feelings to everyone around her. If it’s a particularly strong emotion, you could be three or four streets away and share in her emotion. However, she’s managed to solve the problem by trapping the emotions into personal objects, although that then leaves her with boxes upon boxes of stored emotions that span her whole life.

The second is Lewis, whose wife, Lisa, has just died. He is finding it difficult to grieve, so skips out on the funeral and goes to stay in the second-best hotel in Winnipeg. There, he gets a very important haircut and encounters a woman who claims to be God.

The third is Aby, short for Aberystwyth, who has stolen a car and is driving across Canada to save her dying mother. She’s nervous, not a particularly good driver and very uncomfortable out of the water. Oh, yeah, and she’s green with gills and has lived in the Atlantic Ocean her whole life, where she reads her Bible and follows Aquaticism teachings.

The three characters stories intersect neatly, although the chronology is a little confusing at times, leaping back and forth to show events from more than one point of view. The oddness of some of the situations within the novel (aquatic humans, tiny women swimming in glasses, a radio that broadcasts advice to the owner) are simply taken in their stride, as they’re so novel and compelling that you don’t have the urge to question them.

In all three of his books, Kaufman writes about romance – a very real romance in very unreal circumstances. Although this is not a love story, there are definitely undercurrents about the power of love, and what it can do to ordinary people. I really do think that the best word to sum up Kaufman’s writing is “beautiful”. There’s a marvellous innocence about it, about people facing impossible odds but never giving up, simply getting on with it.

This book is for anyone who believes in love, or feels that their life needs just a little more magic in it. Therefore, it’s for practically everyone.

“There Is No Dog” by Meg Rosoff (2011)

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there_is_no_dog_uk

Then who has been doing their business in my garden?

“Oh glorious, most glorious glorious! And yet again glorious!”

Aside from attending a Church of England primary school and having occasional flirtations with the notion of the Greek gods being worthy of my worship, my relationship to religion is minimal. I do not believe in a god and remain atheist. However, perhaps it is this part of me that has led me to discover and devour so many books about the nature of god. Over the last couple of years I have read Mr G, The Second Coming, The Initiate’s Blog, Good to be God and a few other novels that deal with God, Jesus or the Creation. This has bought me to this book here, There Is No Dog.

In this instance of creation, our God is actually called Bob and is an eternally nineteen-year-old lazy, self-absorbed, sex-obsessed, selfish, destructive  and apathetic teenager. (Seeing now why making people in his own image was such a mistake?) Given the job of creating the planet by his mother, Mona, and with his personal assistant Mr B as his only support, he set about making Earth in a mere six days, filling it with all manner of animals and plants, including humans, and then pretty much retiring, already bored of his creation, unwilling and uninterested in answering the prayers of those he has made.

He spends his days with his pet Eck (a penguiny sort of beast with a trunk and grey fur), avoiding doing any work, while Mr B dedicates his life to trying to jolly Bob along, and answer the few prayers he is capable of answering. Things have been tough for a long time and then only get tougher when Bob discovers a human called Lucy. She is rather pretty, a religious virgin and works at a zoo. And Bob is absolutely and utterly in love with her.

True love never did run smooth, but it runs rougher than usual when you are immortal and the object of your love is a human you created. Bob’s moods cause havoc with the weather on Earth, leading to widespread flooding and displacement of the masses. But Bob doesn’t care – he just wants Lucy. In the mean time, Mona has got herself stuck in another poker game and ends up gambling away Eck to another god, with the promise that he is delicious. Bob cannot deal with so many problems at once and everything begins to fall apart as Bob, Mr B, Mona, Lucy, Eck and Eck’s saviour Estelle, struggle to get exactly what they want, regardless of how others feel about the situation.

The characterisation of the humans is flimsy at best. At no point do I feel much compassion for Lucy or her colleagues, in particular Skype, who seems a waste of pen and ink in a book like this, mere padding. In fact, a lot of the book seems to padding – a collection of briefly interesting moments strung together hurriedly by irrelevance. There are some nice touches, certainly. Mr B is a maravellous creation and one whom I can accept willingly. Bob himself is also great as an explanation for all the rubbish that happens on Earth. And even Eck is adorable. There is also a rather touching sub-story about Lucy’s mother and her reciprocated love for the vicar, in a relationship that can’t go anywhere.

All in all, while the writing is good and there’s something unique about the whole thing, I can’t say I was captivated wholly. There feels like there’s something missing, only I couldn’t exactly tell you what. It wasn’t the sort of book I’d put aside an evening to read, but if you’ve got nothing better to do, then it’s more worthwhile than sitting about watching reality television.

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