The Heart of the Matter – Graham Greene

Only his own heart-beats told him he was guilty-that he had joined the ranks of the corrupt police officers-Bailey who had kept a safe deposit in another city. Crayshaw who had been found with diamonds, Boyston against whom nothing had been definitely proved and who had been invalided out. They had been corrupted by money, and he had been corrupted by sentiment. Sentiment was the more dangerous, because you couldn’t name it’s price. A man open to bribes was to be relied upon below a certain figure, but sentiment might uncoil in the heart at a name, a photograph, or even a smell remembered.

I’m going to absolutely give away the ending in this review, just so you know.

Scobie. Why did you do it? I kind of think I know, it’s not what James Wood told me it was, although I agree with his premise in his finale revealing introduction, in fact James Wood. Why did you do it?

Scobie is a great name, I couldn’t tell you why but it’s probably one of my favourite names in literature, something from my whimsy side there. Scobie is a straight up police officer in an un-named West African state during the war. He is overlooked for promotion and is split between the happiness of his job and the struggle to make his wife Louise happy. He finally achieves this by sending her away to South Africa where she is far removed from the bitchiness of their small circle. Before she goes though the newly arrived Wilson declares his love for her, and she rebuffs him.

Once Louise has gone it seems things will be better for Scobie, despite the suicide of another officer, he no longer has to coax Louise to a semblance of happiness, the heaviest of his responsibilities.

He could see in the driver’s mirror Ali nodding and beaming. It seemed to him that this was all he needed of love or friendship. He could be happy with no more in the world than this-the grinding van, the hot tea against his lips, the heavy damp weight of the forest, even the aching head, the loneliness. If I could just arrange for her happiness first, he thought, and in the confusing night he forgot for the while what experience had taught him-that no human being can really understand another, and no one can arrange another’s happiness.

Then the survivors of a ship wreck appear and Scobie, whose heart is drawn towards the unremarkable, falls for a young widow, Helen, who brings up a passion and love that long ago disappeared into familiar comfort for Louise. As Scobie flounders in his new found feelings, clashing as they would with his Catholic faith, he loses his anchor and starts to list in his own world, and slowly, inexorably, draws towards Yusef the Syrian merchant, who helps him in his own way. His is also under the watch of Wilson, who has an ulterior motive behind his arrival as a clerk.

He had no sense of responsibility towards the beautiful and the graceful and the intelligent. They could find their own way. It was the face for which nobody would go out of his way, the face that would never catch the covert look, the face which would soon be used to rebuffs and indifference that demanded his allegiance. The word ‘pity’ is used as loosely as the word ‘love’: the terrible promiscuous passion which so few experience.

After the affair lasts some time, Louise suddenly announces she is coming home and Scobie ends his relationship with Helen, but is understandably wracked by guilt as Louise wants to start afresh and thinks that confession for them both will help. As he flounders more and more, Yusef inadvertently pushes him over the edge and he sees only one way out.

EPIC SPOILER ALERT. And it’s here that I have a problem with James Wood’s introduction. He reveals that Scobie commits suicide before the book even starts, as part of his critique of how Scobie is a flawed character by Greene’s standards. On the one hand I agree with elements of his premise, on the other hand, he’s told me the ending before I’ve read it, and after finishing I feel he has influenced how I feel about the book. Wood’s believes that Scobie would not in reality have committed suicide, as the feelings that would have caused him to divert down this route would have lessened over time, using an argument from George Orwell, (either he would have had an affair long before, and his guilt would have lessened, or his fear of adultery being a mortal sin would have forced him to stop) and so he would of survived his own emotional storm in the face of his staunch Catholic beliefs.
My own feeling is that it’s Yusef, one of my favourite characters in the book, who finally pushes Scobie when Scobie goes to him for help late in the book.
Scobie’s unravelling starts when he lets off the Portuguese captain by burning his letter, and continues when he asks Yusef for the money to send Louise to South Africa. I felt that while he proclaims his suicide will allow Louise and Helen to be happy, that they will be better off without him, it is a way to convince himself that the suicide will allow his God to forgive him. For me the cause is the corruption of himself, of which Helen is merely a part. The erosion of his scruples are what drags him down, and his lack of trust following his own betrayal, sends him to Yusef who causes him more pain, and he can simply see no way back.

But despite my petty annoyance at James Wood, I enjoyed The Heart of the Matter. Greene depicts his characters with the just right level of depth, and even characters such as Father Rank, Wilson or Yusef are painted with enough detail to allow them to greatly contribute to the story without being major players. Yusef especially I felt was a great counter point to Scobie, and a book centred around their relationship would have potentially been just as interesting.
I can’t say it’s my favourite Greene novel, and I would certainly recommend reading the introduction after you’ve finished, but if you like Greene, you’ll like Scobie.

He had known police officers whose nerves broke down in the effort to separate a single grain of incontestable truth; they ended, some of them, by striking a witness, they were pilloried in the local Creole papers and were invalided home or transferred. It woke in some men a virulent hatred of a black skin, but Scobie, had long ago, during his fifteen years, passed through the dangerous stages; now lost in the tangle of lies he felt an extraordinary affection for these people who paralysed an alien form of justice by so simple a method.

 

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One River – Wade Davis

Schultes was an odd choice to become a sixties icon. His politics were exceedingly conservative. Neither a Democrat or a Republican, he claimed to be a royalist who professed not to believe in the American Revolution. When the presidential election results are published in his local newspaper, The Melrose Gazette, there is always one vote for Queen Elizabeth II. A proud Bostonian, he will have nothing to do with one New England Family. He will not use a Kennedy stamp, insists on calling New York City’s Kennedy Airport by it’s original name, Idlewild, and will not walk on Boylston Avenue in Cambridge, now that its name has been officially changed to John F. Kennedy Boulevard. When Jackie Kennedy visited the Botanical Museum, Schultes vanished. Rumour had it that he hid in his office closet to avoid having to guide her through the exhibits.

Take a lot of plants, trees, seeds, some of them hallucinogenic, some known, lots unknown, a dog, Botany’s answer to Indiana Jones, his brightest student and another wide eyed yet equally capable student, Rubber, Orchids, Coca, a cast of incredible and wonderful characters and a sizeable chunk of South America and slowly drift down the Amazon river, from one end to the over, from one tributary to the next, and you have, well you have a lot more than One River, I have to say.

Much like the river of the title, I imagine anyway, this is a big, sprawling book that seems to be a biography, a travelogue and a study of medicinal and hallucinogenic plants mashed in a great mortar and pestle and pressed onto the pages. Ostensibly dedicated to the memory of Tim Plowman, Wade Davis has written a detailed biography of Richard Evans Schultes (who has become a hero of mine on the basis of this book), as well as the histories of rubber and Coca and their impact, the lives and roles of Indians in the Amazon basin and beyond, and their incredible knowledge and understanding of the world around them. Along the way he travels with Tim, throws in the histories of Richard Spruce, a bit off Alfred Russell Wallace, the Inca’s and even a little bit of Peyote.

What this meant was that while reading, I drifted in and out of interest. Just when I got into the life of Richard Schultes, we were back with Wade Davis. Just when you remember what Davis was doing the last time we were with him, we were back with Schultes, or spinning off with a detailed history of whatever it was that Davis was talking about at that point. In complete naivety I came to the book to read about the Amazon and despite thinking I would enjoy the travelogue parts, it is in fact the biography of Schultes that I grew to love, a man with a passion and curiosity for plants that drove through almost any obstacles that nature or man placed in his way which I could only admire more and more throughout the book. Davis also gives detailed history or everything relevant to the narrative. Indeed, the exploits of the rubber barons, particularly  Julio Cesar Arana were horrific, and made uncomfortable reading, yet still fascinated me, particularly after all those years of hard work were ended by petty shortsightedness of the US government.

It is the sheer breadth of the book that makes it feel like an encyclopedia while reading. The Latin plant names, and technical botanical terms which at the same time piqued my interest in botany, but not quite enough and so kept me at arms length. The switching between Schultes and Davis would have been easier to keep pace with without the additional history of subjects related to where they were or what they were doing, this all made One River feel like three different books.

Until.

Until I finished. Then it became a great book, filled with seemingly endless information on the Amazon rainforest, and it’s human and flora inhabitants and the adventure for their discovery and their impact on medicine, and in the case of cocaine and rubber, on society and technology across the whole world.

By this time Waterton was familiar with the work of Brodie and Bancroft, and one morning he decided to experiment with their technique. He began by injecting the poison into the shoulder of a female donkey. In ten minutes the creature appeared to be dead. Waterton, being rather accomplished with a blade, having bled himself on at least 136 occasions, made a small incision in the animals windpipe and began to inflate its lungs with a bellows. The donkey revived. When Waterton stopped the flow of air, the creature once again succumbed. Resuming artificial respiration, he nursed the animal until the effects of the poison wore off. After two hours the donkey stood up and walked away. This treatment marked a turning point in the history of medicine.

It wasn’t until towards the end of the book that I thought of the Indiana Jones comparison for Schultes, and I’m pretty sure it’s a comparison he himself would of not appreciated, maintaining as he did in the book that he hadn’t known any adventures. Yet his journeys up and down rivers and through jungles far outstrip giant rolling boulders and alien crystal skulls. Travelling for days to get treatment for Beriberi and malaria, then continuing with his collecting showed an almost stubborn refusal to let these inconveniences to get in the way of the job in hand. He believed and appreciated the knowledge and expertise of the native indians, making great efforts to understand them and their worldview, which was sometimes completely alien to what he knew and understood himself.

These traits influenced both Davis and Tim Plowman, who spent his life researching Coca, before the narcotic derivative took over the known world and forever tarnished a nutritional stimulant used by people for thousands of years before it became a good time drug for everyone. He actually managed to trace it’s evolution throughout the different locations in South America.

Coca had been found to contain such impressive amounts of vitamins and minerals that Duke compared it to the average nutritional contents of fifty foods regularly consumed in Latin America. Coca ranked higher than the average in calories, protein, carbohydrate, and fiber. It was also higher in calcium, phosphorus, iron, vitamin A, and riboflavin, so much so that one hundred grams of the leaves, the typical daily consumption of a coquero in the Andes, more than satisfied the Recommended Dietary Allowance for these nutrients as well as vitamin E. The amount of calcium in the leaves was extraordinary, more than had ever been reported for any edible plant.

So in the end I struggled, I forced myself to finish it before the new year, but it was worth it all. Now that I’ve finished I will delve back in to various bits, particularly one of the final chapters which contained interesting history on the Inca’s. If you like travel writing, you’ll like bits of this, if you like history, you like some of this, if you like biography, you’ll like most of this, If you like botany, you’ll love this. If you like to read about a real life adventurer (Don’t call him Indy) then you’ll definitely love this.

The best way to Oaxaca from the capital was to take the train; there was no road. If a train was scheduled to depart at seven in the morning, you would phone the station at ten and ask when the seven o’clock train was leaving. “At one,” might be the response. That meant you began to pack at three and make your way to the train station around half past four. At six, with tremendous fanfare and not the slightest indication of concern or embarrassment, the dispatcher would ring a bell, signaling the conductor, whose high, piercing whistle left the platform whirling with commotion. At seven in the evening, or slightly before, the train would make it’s way slowly out of the station.

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Compass – Mathias Enard

‘The Danube is the river that links Catholicism, Orhodoxy and Islam,’ she added. ‘That’s what’s important: it’s more than a hyphen, it’s… it’s…a means of transportation. The possibility of a passage.’
I looked at her, she seemed to have entirely calmed down. Her hand was resting on the table, a little closer to me. Around us, in the inn’s lush garden, between the vines on the trellises and the trunks of black pines, waitresses in embroidered aprons were carrying heavy trays loaded with carafes that overflowed a little as the girls walked on the gravel, their white wine so freshly drawn from the cask that it was frothy and cloudy. I had wanted to discuss our memories of Syria but instead I found myself holding forth on Danube by Magris. Sarah…

I’ll be honest, I have no idea why I picked this up. It could be the promise of the East, the direction my own internal compass has been pointing to recently, or the promise of music, it might have been the stark blue cover, or possibly the mention in an article or on a podcast, but pick it up I did. What I will also be honest about, is that I can’t exactly say why, but I absolutely loved this book.

Franz Ritter, digesting the knowledge knowing the illness that silently works inside him, tries to rest and sleep but instead his mind fizzes over the implications and so he daydreams and reminisces over his life as a musicologist with a fascination and love of the Middle East, and Compass becomes a love letter to Syria and Iran while the needle of Ritter’s own compass returns to the regular yet seemingly always distant Sarah, a constant companion of his adult life, who he recalls with tender love as if she were a long lost wife, while at the same time knowing he was always an admirer standing on the side, looking in.

Aside from this note found in the article on Balzac, I don’t remember Sarah ever talking to me again about those photos of Istanbul snatched from the rain and from oblivion – I returned depressed to Cihangir, I wanted to say to Bilger (who was having tea at our place when I arrived) that archaeology seemed to me the saddest of activities, that I saw no poetry in ruin, or any pleasure in rummaging through disappearance.

Enard somehow made reading a luxury for me, I deliberately took my time reading this. If I got into bed and could barely keep my eyes open it remained on my bedside table. I chewed the words slowly, the flavours on each page savoured before the next. From the first page I inhaled and soaked up the prose. Long, lush, sumptuous sentences with any number of commas, reminding me of Saramago, while the myriad of recollected references brought back Roberto Bolano, and for me the match was perfect. Strangely what I kept thinking about, was that I believe I’m the only person I know who would enjoy this book, which stripped down, is a long list of literary and musical references with a splash of Middle Eastern history. Yet Enard made it so much more than that, as an painfully honest Ritter recollects his own failings and foibles while being generous about those he remembers with fondness and affection. What emerges is a man with a deep love of music, and a tender story of unrequited love between two people who seem suited, but somehow never take the step into a relationship at the same time, and so remain together but apart.

Another subtle touch by Enard is that the story reads and feels like it is an old story, set in some halcyon era of intellectuals and the glory days of spending endless days on a shoestring budget travelling the world as a scholar. Yet it is very much set now, and the odd comment on the bombs damaging Palmyra or the state of Syria jarred my mind which had lapsed into some olden heyday.

Compass was a book that I did not want to end, but which has led me to a new (for me) author who I look forward to discovering and exploring further.

The location of the Zenobia Hotel was extraordinary: on the side of the ancient city, you had before your eyes, scarcely a few dozen metres away, the Temple of Baal, and if you were lucky enough to get one of the rooms that overlooked the facade, you slept so to speak in the midst of the ruins, your head in the stars and ancient dreams, lulled by the conversations of Baalshamin, god of the sun and dew, with Ishtar, the goddess with the lion. Here reigned Tammuz, the Adonis of the Greeks, of whom Badr Shakir al-Sayyab the Iraqi sang in his poems; you expected to see the oasis covered in red anemones, born from the blood of that mortal whose only crime was to be too beloved of goddesses.

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Nemesis – Misha Glenny

Given all these outgoings, Nem recognises the importance of restoring the business to the flourishing enterprise it became under Lulu. How to do so is a colossal challenge. The police later tell me that he quickly developed an excellent reputation among medium and large wholesalers for being a good payer, and accessible. One of these, a Bolivian, told them, ‘Rochina is like a party – you go with coke and they’ll buy it on the spot with cash. You get there, you have women, funk parties and the business is sorted out then and there, cash with no awkwardness.’ The dealer then contrasted this with selling in Sao Paulo to the PCC. ‘It was terribly tedious.’ he remembered. ‘You pitched up with stuff to sell and they would then make you wait in a hotel for ten days before they’d see you. At your expense, of course!’

From A Whole Life to a real life on another side of the world.  Nemesis tells how ‘Nem’ asks the ruler of his favela for money to save his daughters life and offers to work to repay it, leading him to eventually take over the favela himself, the drugs, the deals with the police, the usurpers and rival gangs, until he is the most famous and feared criminal in Brazil.

Reading Misha Glenny’s fascinating and enthralling account, you would be forgiven for thinking that his imagination was greater than that of Neil Gaiman or George R. R. Martin. The absolute fearlessness and impunity of the criminals, the incompetence of the police matched by their voracious appetite for corruption and behind it all the mastermind, painting himself as a good guy in a bad world.

At the beginning of the book, Glenny asks if Antonio Francisco Bonfim Lopes was the spider or the fly in Rio’s dirty web, by the end of the book you are no clearer, although there’s a wry smile on your face. Nem learnt from his predecessor Lulu that a peaceful environment was good for business, and so tried to keep the peace in Rochina as much as possible, including keeping his young security detail from being trigger happy and keeping the police out. His move from every man to drug kingpin comes from his calm intelligence which is reflected in his handling of most situations throughout his life. While the initial portrait of a normal man driven to extremes by circumstance is valid at the beginning of the book, Nem comes to fully embrace his life before looking for an escape towards the end of his time in Rochina.

The structure of the large gangs controlling the favela’s, the influx and influence of drugs is reported in detail by Glenny, giving colourful and relevant background to life in the favela’s and even outside, as two officers spent years collecting and collating data on one of the most secretive bosses in Rio’s underworld, who had different phones to talk to different people and who bought the loyalty of the favela by providing basic goods and services in the absence of any state apparatus. The rules and behaviour of the favela’s were both horrifying, such as microwaving, and incredulous in turns, if the boss picks a girl, once he got bored and put her down no one else was allowed to touch her. However when Nem is confronted by his wife and his girlfriend, he threatens, sulks and runs off, this even when he was at the peak of his powers.

As the favela changes gangs, as people try to leave but find they can’t, as the few honest and capable members of the police close in, Nem starts looking for a way out that would guarantee the safety of his family (including all women and children) and it’s largely thanks to the incompetence of the civil and military police that he somehow manages to achieve this.

Given the interest generated by the myriad of documentaries about El Chapo, the success of shows like Narco’s I would be surprised if more people don’t ending reading this, it’s a brilliant book that gives a detailed insight into a life that I can barely imagine, and yet is everyday for the city of Rio. A massive thank you to Misha Glenny for researching, interviewing and writing this, an important and fascinating read into the marvellous city’s underbelly.

Later that evening, once word of his arrest spread, Simone went to his mother’s apartment, where the clan was gathering. Everyone was crying and lamenting the news of Nem’s detention. ‘Except, of all people, Dona Irene, who was sitting there perfectly calm sipping a beer,’ Simone recalls. ‘I imagined she, as his mother, would have been among the most upset of all.’ Amidst the hubbub, Simone heard her say quietly, ‘Well, it was a little quicker than I thought.’
‘Sometimes,’ I tell Antonio on my last visit to the jail, ‘I can’t help thinking that you planned the arrest yourself.’ I leave the sentence hanging. He doesn’t say anything, but he looks at me and gives me a cheeky smile.

 

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A Whole Life – Robert Seethaler

Egger felt Marie’s body next to his. He put his arm around her shoulders and heard her quiet breathing. On the other side of the valley the glowing lines swooped across the hillside in arc after arc, or closed in rounded shapes. Right at the end a single dot lit up above the I on the top right, and Egger knew that old Mattl himself had clambered across the scree to ignite the last bag of paraffin. FOR YOU, MARIE stood inscribed on the mountain in huge flickering letters, visible for miles around to everyone in the valley. The ‘M’ was rather crooked, and there was a piece missing, too, so that it looked as if someone had pulled it apart in the middle. At least two of the bags had apparently failed to catch fire, or hadn’t been set at all. Egger took a deep breath: then he turned to Marie and tried to make out her face in the darkness.
‘Will you be my wife?’ he asked.

I actually don’t think it’s possible to get a more opposite book to American Gods than A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler. While pretty much everything happens in American Gods, hardly anything happens in A Whole Life, yet it is just as compelling and enjoyable, but in a completely different way.

Say hello to Egger, who lives, apart from when he’s sent to war, in the same village, or just outside it, in quiet solitude. He works on the early ski lifts and meets a girl and starts a family before the mountain decides that’s not for him. He spends the rest of his life on his own and Seethaler takes the ordinary and makes it extra ordinary, the simple and makes it beautiful and poignant, and balances it all perfectly.

As Egger gets older he witnesses the change in the village. His experience of being at the front during the war is told simply, yet you feel the sheer emotion of it, even as it’s treated as just another chapter in his life. His love for the mountains and the nature surrounding him bring comfort and an anchor to his life, and the trials that it brings him at one point or another. For me the moments that have lingered after finishing are the teacher that Egger tentatively connects with without knowing really why or what to do, and his realisation that he’s spent his entire life in the village. The bus trip he takes, was, to use the words of Jim Crace from the cover, Heart-rending.

A Whole Life is a slim book, yet Seethaler manages to literally cover a whole life in it, one that, blends every experience into human existence regardless of how joyful or painful it is, and is beautiful and compelling to read because of that.

One clear autumn day, when a roll of sandpaper slipped out of his hand and sprang down the slope like an impetuous young goat before eventually sailing out over a spur of rock and vanishing in the depths, Egger paused for the first time in years and contemplated his surroundings. The sun was low, and even the distant mountaintops stood out so clearly that it was as if someone had just finished painting them onto the sky. Right beside him a lone sycamore burned yellow; a little further off some cows were grazing, casting long, slim shadows that kept pace with them step for step across the meadow. A group of hikers was sitting beneath the canopy of a small calving shed. Egger could hear them talking and laughing amongst themselves, and their voices seemed to him both strange and agreeable.

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American Gods – Neil Gaiman

‘Lady Liberty.’ said Wednesday. ‘Like so many of the gods that Americans hold dear, a foreigner. In this case, a French woman, although, in deference to American sensibilities, the French covered up her magnificent bosom on that statue they presented to New York. Liberty,’ he continued, wrinkling his nose at the used condom that lay on the bottom flight of steps, toeing it to the side of the stairs with distaste – ‘ Someone could slip on that. Break their necks,’ he muttered, interrupting himself. ‘Like a banana peel, only with bad taste and irony thrown in.’ He pushed open the door, and the sunlight hit them. The world outside was colder than it had looked from indoors: Shadow wondered if there was more snow to come. ‘Liberty,’ boomed Wednesday, as they walked to his car, ‘is a bitch who must be bedded on a mattress of corpses.’

Well…Well, where do I begin with this. I confess my book loving friends that I did this wrong. I watched American Gods the TV series on Amazon before I read the book! I know, never watch before you read. But Lovejoy was in it. And I’ll be honest, because you know, if you can’t be honest in your blog just where can you be? I’d never really been interested in the book until I watched the TV series. After after I finished the series I sat there and thought, without a doubt that was the weirdest thing I have ever seen.

I bought the book, with the TV series cover, that is in fact, the directors cut equivalent, that it includes some 700 billion extra pages (the actual number may differ from this).

It’s my first Neil Gaiman book and I loved it. I loved the storytelling, a real world George R. R. Martin crossed with David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, you can just read and read and read and never want to put the book down, even when you don’t have a clue what is going on. but for you I will attempt to summarise (Cue spoiler alert). SPOILER ALERT.

Shadow Moon is getting released from jail, and he can’t wait to see his wife. Except for his wife is dead after being killed in a car accident with his best friend who coincidentally was her lover. So, heartbroken, Shadow is released early and after a little coercion, signs up to work for Mr Wednesday. As if someone who literally asks you what day of the week it is and then calls himself after that day isn’t suspicious at all. But you know, Shadow just doesn’t care right now.

Mr Wednesday is, well he’s different, and special and oh by the way did I mention he’s the Norse God Odin? Shadow slowly works this out until it’s pretty much smacking him round the face, as Wednesday starts rounding up the old gods, gods that have travelled across the sea from the old countries to the land of the free, for a ding dong with the new gods, technology, media, television etc. Shadow realises he is caught up in something beyond his comprehension, but also that his involvement is not completely by chance. Meanwhile, Laura, Shadow’s deceased wife, realises now she’s dead that she does in fact love Shadow and comes back to tell him and also help him with some new found supernatural powers. I mean, how does that work? Well the leprechaun has the answer there, obviously.

So while the old and the new square up, Shadow is having weird dreams and meeting even weirder and wonderful, and not so wonderful people, and trying to keep his head down and wrap his brains around everything, particularly why his dead wife is back and keeps talking to him.

I will confess further that I got slightly lost at the end, regarding Whisky Jack and the Buffalo man but that’s probably me being so excited I skim read some crucial points along the way, such is the pull of Gaiman’s story telling and my appalling attention span.

If you enjoy fantastic story telling, read this. To be honest you can watch the first season of the TV series which deviates from the plot somewhat, but I would still read the book first, because, well because I’m a book lover the book is pretty much without exception, always better than the celluloid adaptation. Gaiman includes lost of historical stories of how the gods were brought over from the old countries and slowly forgotten or replaced, and it all ads up to what is unquestionably an engrossing incredible epic of a book.

There was a girl, and her uncle sold her, wrote Mr Ibis in his perfect copper-plate handwriting.
That is the tale; the rest is detail.

There are stories that are true, in which each individual’s tale is unique and tragic, and the worst of the tragedy is that we have heard it before, and we cannot allow ourselves to feel it too deeply. We build a shell around it like an oyster dealing with a painful particle of grit, coating it with smooth pearl layers in order to cope. This is how we walk and talk and function, day in, day out, immune to others’ pain and loss. If it were to touch us it would cripple us or make saints of us; but, for the most part, it does not touch us. We cannot allow it to.

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