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Kymm Coveney talks about Neil Gaiman's yen for the fantastic.

So what did you think of our latest BPP Book Club pick, Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys? Mike Pesca threw out some interesting questions in the segment this morning...if you've known Gaiman through his comics, do you like his novels as much? If you're African-American, or a black person from the Caribbean, do you think that Gaiman (who is white) pulled off a novel that is mostly about black characters? And if you're not a regular reader of fantasy books, did this one whet your appetite for more?

Let us know in the comments.

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I resonated most strongly with the tone of the book and the relationship between the brothers. My brother is also "that guy." Smooth with the ladies, and he is well known enough that he gets applause as he steps up to the mic he on karaoke night. The way Neil Gaiman captured the competition, the animosity, and the love between the brothers kept me engaged throughout. Given a similar situation, however, I'm sure I'd think twice about giving my brother his tongue back.

The style of the novel reminded me strongly of Kipling's Africa stories. (Likely not a new observation.) Not that Neil was emulating Kipling, but drawing from the same wellspring. His use of language including made up words like "ungloomed" and "skyscrapered" kept the narrative fresh, lively, and flowing.

The other thing that struck me about the book, especially given our recent discussions on race, was the unspecific race of the central characters. It took me a long time to come to the conclusion that they were probably black. After a while I stopped wondering about this though. If it wasn't important to the other characters in the story why should it be important to me?

Sent by Dave Wiley | 9:12 AM | 6-4-2008

I didn't see race in the characters until I saw the Anansi video and started reading American Gods (after Anansi Boys). The story itself really kept captivated and engaged me in the characters. Gaiman was raised in England, so maybe some of the ways that they handle race there could do with how he handled it. My husband and I watch a few British shows, and race doesn't seem to have such issues as it does here in America (for example: interracial couples).

I am a big fantasy reader (and unpublished fantasy writer) and I am slowly going through Gaiman's work. I started with his children's books first, then short stories, and now his novels. My husband and I are slowing collecting the eleven volumes of Sandman from our local comic book store. I have noticed that he takes a simple thing and turns it into an entertaining web of story. For example, he took Anansi, gave him a "human" life and all that comes with it, even death. Even as a "god", he still left his son with some of the same problems that any guy could leave his family with a little twist out of the ordinary. When I read it, I completely accept everything as real Big Charlie does. I trust Gaiman's story no matter how different it stands out from our everyday life.

I can't resist this one last comment: I loved the green fedora. Awesome.

Sent by Natasha | 10:15 AM | 6-4-2008

Gaiman weaves in and out of what is normally considered "normal." I think the matter-of-fact way that he deals with all the odd things in the book helps the reader with just accepting what's going on. At first, it seems like Fat Charlie is a regular guy who can't believe what's going on around him. He wails about people not understanding what's going on and how can they believe such a thing. Everyone else thinks he's overreacting which, after a bit, seems to calm him down. All the characters just accept whatever is in front of them and move on with what they've got.

I've read Sandman and wasn't sure what to expect in a Gaiman novel. Based on how the book started, I thought it wasn't going to have anything more fantastical in it than Anansi. Yeah, I was wrong. I was kind of having a hard time at first because I really didn't know what to expect, but by the time Maeve Livingstone became a ghost I thought "yeah, it makes sense."

I really liked that Gaiman didn't overtly foreshadow anything (I noticed the starfish comment early in the book and knew it would be useful but I didn't know how) and that typical fantasy novel language wasn't used. It was really grounded in real life and that was appealing.

Back to the wonderful lack of foreshadowing. There was no indication that the old women from Florida do witchcraft or voodoo or whatever it is they do. There was no hint that Maeve would become a ghost. It seems like most other books would mention tons of candles or weird herbs in the womens' houses or that Maeve was sure she still felt the spirit of her husband hanging around sometimes.

The grounded nature of the book made all the coincidences easier to take. With all the fantastical things going on, the fact that Rosie and her mom could take a cruise to St. Andrews and that Mrs. Higgler owns a hotel on that very same island seem par for the course. The ending with all the main characters in one place reminded me of "the drawing room scene" in Agatha Christie novels where everyone gets together and the detective tells everyone what's what.

Sent by Sarah Lee | 10:48 AM | 6-4-2008

I loved the book mostly because it is so different, and yet a part of, the world of American Gods. I really enjoyed the character of Mr. Nancy (among so many others) and the expansion of this aspect of his character, the relationship with Fat Charlie/Spider, I think adds so much when I re-read American Gods. This leads me into my question: Mr. Gaiman revisited Shadow, the main character in American Gods, in the novela Monarch of the Glen and has alluded to other American Gods stories that have not seen print. Without returning to Shadow, or even Mr. Nancy (though I do love him so), does Mr. Gaiman forsee another American Gods story/novela/novel or is his current scope to explore new territory as his forthcoming The Graveyard Book seems to promise?

Sent by Matthew | 12:17 PM | 6-4-2008

This was the first Gaiman work that I've read or watched and I plan to read more of his novels along with the Sandman series. I am an amateur fiction writer and I have been working on modern myths recently, so I really love the subject, the characters and the story as a whole.

The only criticism I have is that Fat Charlie's transformation seemed a bit sudden or without impetus. Spider had little irks of conscience almost from the start, Rosie had doubts early one, and Daisy had an identity clearly separate from her police status, but how about Charlie? Was it just the life or death situation in the restaurant with Daisy and Grahame Coats that finally pushed him over the edge in one moment?

I guess I didn't get the feeling of a radical shift after his song began his own inner transformation, and that there was no evidence of a changing in point of view for the song to be part of a more gradual awakening. In one section, Fat Charlie is a bumbling Englishman and in the next section he was Anansi's Child walking in grace. No bang between, no preceding arch to create continuity between the before and after.

Maybe it's just me.

Sent by Gerald henson | 12:17 PM | 6-4-2008

@Sarah Lee You beat me to the drawing room reference, but I thought that, too. And, like you, I didn't mind that it was so tidy because the characters were all very naturally following their motivations -- even with the supernatural events around them.

I did find some of the early chapters that focused on Fat Charlie a little hard to read in the same way the British 'Office' is a little hard to watch. I got that cringe-y feeling when you almost don't want to find out what happens next because you know it will be somewhere between embarrassing and disastrous. I guess that's good writing, because my response was deeply felt.

I would like to know more about Daisy, who was ultimately my favorite character.

Thanks, Sarah, for another great selection. 'Anansi Boys' was the first club selection I might have read if left to my own devices, and I'm glad I got to it sooner rather than later.

Sent by Seth in Kansas | 12:28 PM | 6-4-2008

Gerald Henson -
The way I took Charlies transformation from bumbling to confident was that in a life or death situation you'll do some pretty wacky things. The beginning of the novel talks about how everything was sung into existence. All the songs are Anansi's so, in part, they're his son's, too. Just getting the guts to go and do something that you know you already like to do is the hard part. Especially if it's part of the essence of who you are.

Seth -
You have a good point about the beginning being cringe worthy. I was wondering why, at first, I was having a hard time getting into it. I'd put the book down but I'd end up picking it up again. Really embarrassing situations make me shiver.

Sent by Sarah Lee | 12:54 PM | 6-4-2008

I am a big Neil Gaiman fan and wondering when will he write another novel?

Sent by Julia Havelick | 1:01 PM | 6-4-2008

I almost didn't read the book...the plot sounded too weird. But I read the dedication page and was intrigued! I love the book! The plot is great and I agree with Sarah, he handles the 'magic' so well it seems normal. I love the humor. I never thought about race until the Caribbean was mentioned and then only in relation to that 'witch'. Who cares what race anyone is? Is he a 'god' or not...that seems the more important question in the book...as well it should be. Thanks for the great suggestion! I can't wait to finish the book tonight.

Sent by Amy Farris | 1:48 PM | 6-4-2008

I seriously don't know where to begin because I just liked this book so dang much. I get the reader who didn't buy Charlie's transformation, but I was so ready for him to transform that I simply followed along with what seemed inevitable. I guess my question for Neil Gaiman would be, how aware was he of the whole Joseph Campbell hero quest myth idea and did he feel compelled to go down that narrative track? Also, I want to know if Graham Coats started as a minor character who was really fun to write and grew from that into the villain or was his villainy part of the plan all along?

And for the rest of the clubbers--this book reminded me in some ways of Annie Proulx' "The Shipping News," maybe only because Fat Charlie is such a sad sack and because he becomes so much more than that. I loved "The Shipping News," too. Anybody else?

Sent by Tricia, NPR | 1:52 PM | 6-4-2008

Tricia, I am so with you on "The Shipping News." Love that book.

Sent by Sarah Goodyear | 2:21 PM | 6-4-2008

Anansi Boys was my first visit to Neil Gaiman's world. Since listening to Anansi Boys a couple of years ago, I've read or listened to almost all of Neil's stuff except for the comics. (Adore the short stories!) Neil is an awesome teller of his own stories, too, so I have oftentimes listened to the audio version. Having said that, looking back, I still think it was best to have Lenny Henry bring his sense of fun and his painless British and Caribbean voices to Anansi Boys. (Yes, listening to audio books can be painful.) I would have missed a bunch of stuff without him. The audio is immediately a different world from the printed version. I get a sense that Lenny is a big Neil fan, too, and thus did a great job of keeping it a Neil story.

Most of the places Neil writes about are unvisited by me. Someday I'll get to the Caribbean and such. In the meantime, I can easily believe that Neil has been there. Neverwhere is my favorite of Neil's novels because of the sense of place (London Below) and the mischief lurking throughout. Oddly enough, I'm reading a very old non-fiction book called "Chapters In The History Of The Insane In The British Isles" written in 1882. After touring the abandoned hospital and unsavory sewers with Neil in Neverwhere, I feel like I've already been there in another time.

Sent by TeresaF in Northern California | 4:13 PM | 6-4-2008

Question for Neil:

You description of sibling rivalry fit my brother and me perfectly. How did you manage to do this when your bio makes no mention of a brother?

Sent by Dave Wiley | 5:14 PM | 6-4-2008

I am wondering...

There are many gods to chose from in American Gods universe, but why write a book about Anansi's sons? And will we hear more stories in the future (especially since all stories are Anansi's)?

Sent by Natasha | 5:20 PM | 6-4-2008

I was completely and utterly drawn into the book from the start.

Being a comic fan from my youth I suspended my disbelief immediately and accepted it all - the other world, the talking animals, the 7-legged clay spider, the taxi that never made it home - hook, line and sinker. I felt for Fat Charlie and actually did think it a normal progression that in the end he could sing. In the beginning the story of his dad's karaoke-death embarrassed him, but later, at the wake, he envisioned himself singing Dock of the Bay perfectly (but didn't make it due to alcohol). Yet Daisy said the next morning that his song in the taxi on the way home was lovely. She saw the evolved Fat Charlie before he did. And by the time he retrieved the tongue for Spider, it was clear he had heroic qualities. After all, he had the hat: the key to self-confidence. (Neil G. could make a killing by selling Green Fedora hats on his website.) A last side note, I loved how he sang his boss into the cave to torment the tiger into eternity. Great comic element.

And maybe I missed a big clue, but are Spider, Fat Charlie and Mr. Nancy black? It doesn't change the story but I didn't notice any clear references.

Thanks for the great book choice. This was definitely my favorite of the three. The other two had endings that disappointed me, and this ending was truly a finale, like in a stage show or movie. Everything was wrapped up nicely.

Sent by Rebecca | 6:14 PM | 6-4-2008

The problem with genre fiction is that one tends to treat it more lightly than "real" fiction (remembering the chick lit discussion), but the longer I leave Anansi Boys behind, the more I think I ought to reread it. Despite all the gods and bird-women and mediums and ghosts, there are real-life puzzles to be worked out.
Mrs. Higgler accuses Charlie: "I tell you your father was a god, you don't even ask me what god I talking about." I feel that accusation myself, as I look back at my parents, and as I watch my daughter walk "blindly" into her own foibles, ignoring my hard-won "knowledge".

As far as Charlie's "transformation" goes, I think the answer to that is also given early on: "You want to know if Anansi looked like a spider? Sure he did, except when he looked like a man.
No, he never changes his shape. It's just a matter of how you tell the story."
That sentence is charged for me on many levels, the simplest being that Charlie's story was told from the standpoint of a loser, but it certainly could have been told differently, by a different narrator.
Makes me wonder how I'm telling (singing) my own story (song), and how I just might be able to change my life by telling it a little differently.

Sent by Kymm in Barcelona | 6:36 PM | 6-4-2008

To me, Anansi Boys reads like it's made for the movies; well written, it flows and grips the reader. With humor, suspense and fantasy it opened my eyes to a whole new genre of writing. So glad I read it! I'm reading American Gods now too.

Sent by LaVonda | 6:40 PM | 6-4-2008

@Kymm in Barcelona, Your comment gives rise to one of my questions for Gaiman, which is: Does it bother him that his work is considered "genre" fiction and therefore might be overlooked or looked down upon people who like to read "literary fiction"? Does he even find those distinctions useful or real?

Sent by Sarah Goodyear | 8:04 PM | 6-4-2008

There was no need to state that the Nancy family are black- Anansi is an African god, of course he's black. What other human race would he be?
I did have some trouble figuring out Rosie, specifically because her mother's personality made me picture her as a white woman. Don't know why that was so automatic.

Sent by Aine Whelan | 8:52 PM | 6-4-2008

Any of y'all who want to ask Neil Gaiman a question need to e-mail or twitter me. Just twitter the BPP and give me an e-mail address or a phone number or email me directly at pmckinney(at symbol)npr(dot)org. We're talking to him at 11 a.m. eastern tomorrow, so you have to be available by phone then. Thanks!

Sent by Tricia, NPR | 9:00 PM | 6-4-2008

My question: In the Thank Yous at the back of the book, it says that he told the story to someone who convinced him that it would make a good book. (Sorry for not knowing who, I already took the book back to the library) What was the story? Was it a shortened version of the finished product? Maybe it was the story of Anansi and Bird that's in the middle of the book?

Sent by Sarah Lee | 9:08 PM | 6-4-2008

I really loved this book. It was my first Neil Gaiman and I've gone on a bit of a binge since this one. I loved that ultimately the story we read is another one of Anansi's. Loved the dance on the beach.
I thought that the idea of everyone having a song was quite striking. My question for Mr. Gaiman would be: How does one not endowed with Godly lineage find it--metaphorically or otherwise?

Sent by Tony Pearson | 9:09 PM | 6-4-2008

When I started this book, the name, Anansi, kept haunting me. Where had I heard that name before? Then it came to me! Singer/Songwriter Raffi had an Anansi song for children, "Anansi, he was a spider; Anansi,he was a man, Anansi,he was a clever one........" and so on. Anyway, I thought the book was well written but not my taste especially. One really has to be a fan of this type of fiction to read lots of it. I enjoyed this taste, but am ready to move on. What's next?

Sent by Deana | 9:17 PM | 6-4-2008

Sarah: What a great question. I am writing a novel which is a cross between fantasy, science fiction, and historical. I tremble when I think about where to try to shop it around. How does Neil see his work, and did he ever have to "shop" a novel to a specific audience against his instincts?

Aine: I assumed that everyone in London was white, and Rosie's mom just cemented that - she seemed so "white" in her dislike of food -- anorexia is more prevalent among white women, isn't it? Culturally, I can't see a black woman having those kind of hang-ups. I suppose I have baldly revealed my own prejudices, but I find it interesting, too.

Natasha: you made me feel better. I think you raise a good point about Gaiman being raised in England and how he handled race. Interracial couples seemed to be more accepted. So why couldn't Rosie and her mother be white? I don't think it is important to the story, but I think it is OK, ultimately, that I saw them that way.

Another question for Neil is, how does he see his characters' race? Or does he? Who among us is right?

Sent by Ellen Wilkin | 10:03 PM | 6-4-2008

The book reminded me of Tom Robbins style (e.g. Jitterbug Perfume, Skinny Legs and All, Still Life with Woodpecker, et al.) which is a great thing. Gaiman is able to combine the normal life and the fantasy in a way that everything seems quite natural and you lose yourself in the characters and plot instead of focusing on the fantasy aspects. I also liked how the plot seemed to have been well thought out from the beginning and not written on the fly to where the end justifies the means as many books seem to be.
This was an excellent choice for the book club which exposed me to an excellent new writer who I was only aware of through the movie Stardust (definitely worth seeing if you haven't).

This was and excellent choice for the book club which exposed me to an excellent new writer who I was only aware of through the movie Stardust (definetely worth seeing if you haven't).

Sent by Jason Helvey | 1:24 AM | 6-5-2008

@Deana We're going to be revealing the next book on Friday's show...and it will be something quite different! Stay tuned.

Sent by Sarah Goodyear | 7:36 AM | 6-5-2008

Upon further reflection, the end of this book reminds me of Madeline L'Engle's science fiction. In both the character's actions affect others in unexpected and supernatural ways. The idea that we can help others thru our own struggles against evil is very uplifting and empowering.

Sent by Amy Farris | 8:43 AM | 6-5-2008

@Sarah and @Deana, We just started talking about possibly rejiggering things, so we may actually wait until early next week for the reveal--don't be disappointed if we don't get to it tomorrow, we'll still give you plenty of time to get reading!

Sent by Tricia, NPR | 9:22 AM | 6-5-2008

@Tricia, Ah, the suspense builds. That's good.

@Ellen Wilkin, another thought about genre and how it is sold. Take a look at the mass-market paperback cover art for Anansi Boys: http://tinyurl.com/57vyuq

Compare with the cover for the new trade paperback that came out in January--a more "literary" edition that has the words "A Novel" as the subtitle: http://tinyurl.com/6nq5y7

Seems to me the publisher was trying to get people who don't naturally turn to fantasy to pick up the new edition. It worked on me.

Sent by Sarah Goodyear | 9:41 AM | 6-5-2008

Sarah G: Wow. That is amazing. The cover of the hardcover edition was more mainstream (http://www.amazon.com/Anansi-Boys-Novel-Alex-Awards/dp/B000FIHZB4/ref=ed_oe_h) It certainly set my expectations.

I guess you can't judge a book by its cover.

Sent by Ellen Wilkin | 10:42 AM | 6-5-2008

One thing I enjoy about the stories is how little he explains or bothers to work out in a mundane "nuts and bolts" kind of way. For example, he introduces gods wandering in the general population and leaves it at that -- there is no proverbial hand waving to explain how that is possible, such as magic, psionic power, alien technology or so forth. It is just there, take it or leave it.

If I had a question for him it would be, "In your writing, to your credit, you usually stick reasonably close to real traditional legends and myths. Why do you believe so few authors do that?"

Sent by Robert Sullivan | 11:34 AM | 6-5-2008

My question for Mr. Gaiman is this: Why do U.K. authors attach themselves to the mythological side of writing? Is it really more of a cultural difference, that is to say, are the stories and traditions more varied across the pond then here?

Sent by Jeffrey Hayes | 12:02 PM | 6-5-2008

I thought it was a great book. More limited a story than American Gods, but more fun for that. Although they are similar books American Gods is more the epic story, and this one is more the joyful romp.

But I really wanted to point out if you haven't heard it, you have to search out this book on CD, as read by Lenny Henry. Run to get this now, if you've been dismissive of books on tape, because it isn't reading, or other reasons, this one will change your mind. Lenny Henry performs the book, bring to it a level of performance that becomes an art form in its own right. Plus he is the voice of Fat Charlie, exactly as it should be. Fantastic, loved reading the book, loved hearing the book on tape.

Sent by Douglas Smith | 1:10 PM | 6-5-2008

I'm not a member of the club but I love Neil Gaiman. I fell in love when I read Stardust and become head over heels after reading American Gods. Those of you who have not read Good Omens should pick it up, you would love it.

I love how he weaves good qualities into "bad" characters and bad qualities into "good" characters. He highlights how life really works in that way because no one person is completely good and no one person is completely bad, we all have a lot of work to do. I love how he places people of all backgrounds, races, and ethnicities in major roles in his stories.

I'm slowly building up my collection of Neil Gaiman and I cannot wait to have the chance to read them all.

Sent by Yolanda | 4:56 PM | 6-5-2008

I've been in love with Gaiman's work since first reading his Black Orchid in college, back in the 80's. He is able to take the fantastic, the horrific, and the mundane and make it feel real and intriguing. His Sandman stories are brilliant works, even more so as he tailored each piece to fit the style of his collaborating artists. Gaiman has a wonderful command of language and character, which shines through here in Anansi, as well as his other novels and graphic novels.
I know Neil started out as a music journalist, and you can see those journalistic skills at play with his observations of people. He has seen real life out-of-this world characters and the person inside. He has translated this to his fictional characters. His Death, from the Sandman stories, is a true delight. Fat Charlie, his brother and father share those endearing traits.
I have enjoyed Gaiman's novels with equal pleasure as I felt with his graphic work. His short pieces are even more engaging.
As to the genre classification of his work, Gaiman has always expressed pride in interviews that I have read. He is quick to cite genre influences, such as Dunsany, Alan Moore, Michael Moorcock, and Douglas Adams. Gaiman has remarked about comics; how prose can be art, and pictures can be art, but when the two are put together, people argue as to whether it is art. With Gaiman's work, I can assure you it is.
I continue to look forward to each new piece from Gaiman, and also thank him for introducing me to the wonderful world of Terry Pratchett, his co-author of Good Omens. The world needs more authors who can make even the Apocalypse sound like a good time.

Sent by Jeff | 8:04 PM | 6-5-2008

Anansi Boys is the best Douglas Adams book I ever read, perhaps the best he never wrote. I felt at times that Niel must have been channeling Adams; the comedy so familiar and outlandish.

Sent by Alan Smithee | 10:49 PM | 6-5-2008

Neil Gaiman is over-rated

: - p

Sent by Jody Sol | 10:59 PM | 6-5-2008

I don't usually read fantasy/sci-fi novels, so I'm glad this book got on the BPP book club list. I had fun reading this book and thoroughly enjoyed it for the reasons others have already described. But one thing about it I truly loved is Gaiman's warmth and respect for his characters, which comes through the story. All the different characters in the book come across authentically and against a backdrop of an author who has empathy and affection for them. It was refreshing and made for an uplifting and fun read.

Sent by Kate Kenealy | 11:55 PM | 6-5-2008

I am new to Neil Gaiman and have never been a fan of fantasy novels. I loved this book and will be reading American Gods next.

I also wanted to mention that I didn't see race or even culture that much in this story. I am white with Southern and Western heritage. In my mind, Gaiman's characters were alot like some eccentric people I know.

Sent by Sharon | 9:40 AM | 6-6-2008

I absolutely LOVED this book! My husband has been bugging me for YEARS to read the Sandman comics, and I never had any desire and many friends have bugged me to read American Gods. I saw the movie Stardust (amazing!) and vowed to read some Gaiman but never got around to it. Luckily, I've been a faithful BPP book club member since the beginning and they MADE me read Gaiman. I absolutely adore writers who sprinkle magic into everyday lives and occurances, like Alice Hoffman books. I'll definitely be devouring more Gaiman soon (after our next selection perhaps).

@Amy Farris- I totally agree about L'Engle!

Sent by Guinnevere | 2:32 PM | 6-7-2008

Something has been bugging me since my post, and that was the sneaking feeling that I got the song name wrong. Just for the record, the Karaoke song where Dad died was "I Am What I Am", the song that Fat Charlie was too drunk to sing was "Unforgettable" and the song he got right was "Under the Boardwalk".

Whew. I feel much better now!

Sent by Rebecca in Berlin | 2:49 PM | 6-16-2008