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Modern Gods: A Novel by Nick Laird
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Modern Gods: A Novel

by Nick Laird

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This book is told in two intertwined stories: one in Ulster (Northern Ireland) and one in New Ulster (New Guinea). The first is the much better of the two is about a woman who discovers on her honeymoon that the man she married is a former terrorist. The latter is about her sister visiting a native religion / culture in New Guinea. The point seems to be that the creed of an "eye for an eye" is universal. To me the second story was not that interesting and has been told before. But clearly Laird is a talented writer. ( )
1 vote ghefferon | Nov 1, 2017 |
Nick Laird's third novel, and the first of his I've read, is the story of the Donnelly sisters, Liz and Alison. Liz is an academic who lives in New York but whose romantic life has stalled; she is returning home to Ballyglass in Northern Ireland for Alison's second wedding, to Stephen McLean, an apparently mild-mannered, stable, helpful sort (a relief, after her first, alcoholic husband). Stephen has told Alison he has a past, but she did not want to know details. The day after their wedding, the details come out on the front page of the Sunday Life: Stephen was one of the "Trick or Treat" killers, two masked men who went into a pub called the Day's End and killed five people during the Troubles - he was an early-release prisoner as a beneficiary of the Good Friday Agreement. At this point, the intertwined stories diverge: Alison goes on honeymoon with Stephen, still trying to sort out her feelings, and Liz flies off to New Ulster in Papua New Guinea with a tiny crew from the BBC to film a segment on a "cargo cult" led by a woman called Belef.

This is almost two books in one, the stories become so separate for much of the second half of the book. Both of the women are at crossroads in their lives, and also dealing with the aftereffects of their father Kenneth's stroke and the news that their mother Judith's cancer has returned. (Also, their little brother Spencer has been having an affair with his best friend's wife, who is also the assistant at their family real estate business.) Stephen and Alison's story is the morally thorny and therefore more interesting one, but Liz is the more compelling, curious character; I can imagine a book taking place entirely in Northern Ireland, with Liz, not Alison, married to Stephen - though Liz would have listened when he first wanted to tell her about his history.

Guardian review: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jul/08/modern-gods-nick-laird-fiction-review

Quotes

She wanted to sift her life through her fingers, to weigh the thing and not find it wanting. To find that everything was worth it in the end. (Judith, 26)

Home was like climbing into a suit that was made of your own body, and it looked like you, and it smelled like you, and it moved its hand when you told it to, but it wasn't you, not now. (Liz, 46)

Maybe everything led back to this exchange. Some small initial tilt in direction will cause, over time, a great distance to arise between the intended destination and the actual one. (Stephen, 48)

For how could you live here and not be sad? It was absurd: You didn't "believe" in something if you were born into it. You accepted it, you acquiesced, you submitted, you lost - and you gave up the chance to become yourself, to come to conclusions of your own. (Liz, 51)

What was wrong with her? Why did she always have to be right? (Liz, 126)

Of course he regretted it. His life, his whole life...But how could you draw a line between what he regretted for himself and what he regretted for others? (Stephen, 183)

"I don't see what the point is," he said eventually.
"I want to talk about it," Judith said quickly. "That's the point. Don't I get to talk about it if I want to?"
...
She had the sudden sense that in all their years together she had failed to get a single point across. If they dovetailed together, if they fitted, it was only because she had deformed and shaped herself out of all recognition. (Judith, 203)

Belef defied the surface of things. She resisted the men of the world....Belef offered her some clarification, some reply, some understanding of the world system as it really was beneath the sheen of its accepted and inequitable surface. (Liz, 208)

Writing quickly in a notebook is like whispering furiously into someone's ear; anyone else in the room assumes you're talking about them. (215)

Since then pain had come and done what pain does to a face. (232)

She was tired of being on her own. She didn't want to have to stop herself from walking into oblivion. Where was her partner? Why was she always alone? (Liz, 243)

Cities dealt exclusively in human time: working hours, last minute, the final call. But out here one encountered other kinds: insect time, bird time, grass time, fern time, the time it took a river to erode a hole in a rock so it looked like the seat of a tractor, the time it took a cloud to pass across the blue roof of a clearing... (259)

"And wanting something badly enough makes you see it everywhere. Religions involve mapping our desires onto objects." (Liz, 261)

Lying is work but righteous fury is so easy, can be slipped on like a coat. (Ian Hutchinson, 267)

She was there and here. Carrying the wounds of there and the weight of here. How small the body felt for what it had to hold; memory and experience and pain. How continually one must fold and trim the soul. (Liz, 298)

What divides us is nothing to what joins us. (Liz, 299) ( )
1 vote JennyArch | Aug 25, 2017 |
The description of this book reads in part, "Both Liz and Alison are looking to be reborn, to be cleansed in some way, and the dramatic journeys that they take form the backbone of this compelling novel about trust, intimacy, complicity, religious belief, and the bonds of family life." I don't think that the person who wrote that summation actually read the book. Neither Liz nor Alison is "reborn" or "cleansed" here, and no one takes a journey (although they do both need to examine their own contributions to unfortunate events). The book opens with a terrorist attack on an Irish pub, in which several people are killed. The way in which this incident is woven into the story was the most interesting part of the book for me.

The focus of the book is the Donnelly family, including the parents Judith and Kenneth, who both have serious health issues, and their grown children Liz, Alison and Spencer. Liz is an anthropologist living in New York who comes to Ireland for the second wedding of her younger sister Alison. Alison is marrying Stephen, a man with a tragic past, and she really should have listened to him when he tried to tell her about it before the wedding. After the wedding their marriage is severely challenged. Spencer's sole contribution to the book is to have a boring affair with a married woman. His character is given short shrift here and I have no idea why he was included in the book. There is also a dog who Liz smuggles into Ireland and dumps on her parents while she goes to New Guinea. The dog then disappears until the final pages of the book.

Liz has been asked to fill in as host of a BBC documentary on a religious movement in New Ulster near Papua New Guinea. A woman called Belef has started a new religion there, combining local religions with Christianity. She communicates with the dead, including her daughter, in order to obtain the cargo that she sees going exclusively to the white people. Belef is a grieving mother who is part insane and part shrewd. The chapters of the book dealing with the film crew, the Christian missionaries and Belef and her followers were my least favorite.

I found this book disjointed. Both the Belef story and the Irish story (to a lesser extent) deal with the role of religion in people's lives. Both Belef and Judith use religious rituals to deal with death, grief and illness. Religion is also a source of violent conflict in both settings and divides the Protestants and Catholics in Ireland and the Christian missionaries and Belef in New Guinea. However, I thought that the religious linkage didn't completely tie the two parts of the book together. I think that I would have been happier with just the Alison/Stephen storyline.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher. ( )
  fhudnell | Jun 20, 2017 |
This is not a book to read for entertainment, it’s one to read for education, for philosophical reasons.

If you have an emotional attachment to Ireland and its history, it’s a bloody painful one to get through.

The novel opens violent and bloody so the first impression you’re given is one of monsters especially with the Halloween theme placed over the scene and no explanation given for the massacre. Interspersed throughout the story you’ll suddenly come across a small story snuck in about one of the people who was part of that massacre then the main story picks up again so faces are put with the bodies from that horrific opening. Eventually an explanation is given late in the book as to who was involved and why.

One of the best lines is when a supporting character is trying to comfort another and tells her “I wish someone would explain Northern Ireland to me,” and the main character replied, “Me too.” That pretty much sums up the history and turbulence in which this story is set; no one, not even those who live there, can ever fully wrap their hearts and minds around it.

At its heart this is a story about the messiness of families, relationships and trying to navigate a world where boundaries don’t exist or move as fluid as water. Thrown in early, the author highlights the generational issue when it comes to dating that it seems increasingly newer generations of people are deciding at an exponential level that the ‘norms’ of dating mean to have sex with whoever is available regardless of gender and monogamous relationships exist only in history books; that could just be a thing in the States and not the rest of the world. The rules of motherhood were one of his better introspections on human behavior because any parent being honest with themselves would agree they made perfect sense.

At times he used the “f-word” so often I wondered if he had quota or if he was trying to create a drinking game – take a shot every time it appears. Since a good chunk of the story is set in Ireland he did at least use phrase and terminology appropriate for the country and people which is appreciated though I’m sure if Americans read this they’ll need to keep google open to understand what he means or we’ll be having reviewers claim Laird’s homophobic for using the word “fag” because they didn’t know that means “cigarette” in the UK. You shake your head but I’ve seen it.
The reader needs some kind of familiarity with what has happened, and on a smaller level continues to happen, in the North of Ireland to truly appreciate the story. Even small things will lose their humor if they don’t understand passages like when he describes his characters leaving County Derry and the context as to why the sign showing they’re leaving the area has been defaced. Or how another sign sums up so accurately the convoluted politics of the area and times: “In Texas murder gets you the electric chair. In Magherafelt you get chair of the council.”

For me the hardest part to read was when one of the characters tries to justify what he did by saying, “They were killing us for being Protestant, just for existing. We had to strike back.” I’m an Irish Catholic who lost family at the hands of Protestants simply because my family is Catholic. Our whole country was being run for hundreds of years by people who wanted to kill us, exterminate us, just for being Catholic; it was a genocide that England has never been punished for. Laws were created and enforced making everything about us illegal even into the late 1900s; so we began to fight back. It’s always been hard that for years, even now, they justified what they did and called us terrorists for fighting for our right to exist. All they had to do was let us live and treat us as equals and none of this would have happened.

As an Irish Catholic it was interesting reading the dynamics in an Irish Protestant family because if you didn’t know their religious leanings they very well could have been from the other side. Their struggles, their faith, their chaos and confusion with the politics of the area as well as how they feel regarding their own who use violence is exactly the same as us. When one of the characters is being interviewed for his part in killing innocent people just because they were Catholic he sounds so justified, even thrilled, I felt my soul break from the pain then fill with rage; it may be a fictional story but these kind of people and these events really happen and that’s where the emotional attachment hits thanks to Laird’s descriptive writing. It would have been easy to fall into old genetic patterns and just hold onto that hatred if Laird hadn’t shown that just as with Catholics there were Protestants who were truly good people who wanted nothing to do with the violence and maybe we needed to remember we can’t continue to judge and punish them for their religious beliefs if we want the same.

I only had two issues overall with the book. One was with the Part 2 of the story where one of the characters goes off to New Ulster to research a cult like group where Christians are painted as invaders destroying indigenous cultures (which they have) and are willing to cause death to spread their faith (something I’m not even going to touch). I didn’t really get why the author included this storyline as it didn’t seem to have anything to do with the bulk of the book unless it was just because the place she went to was called “New Ulster” like it was some kind of tie in to the Ulster in Ireland. Apparently the author just made that place up as I can’t find anywhere in Papua New Guinea called “New Ulster”. I guess you could stretch and say it was like a mirror to the Catholic-Protestant multi-centuries war in Ireland as you have an invading Christian faith bent on wiping out the existing people but whatever it still felt like it was 2 separate books meshed together and imperfectly at that.

The other issue I had was the bias towards Protestants being the innocent victims who were wrongly being murdered by Catholics. Although Laird did paint nearly all but one of his Protestant characters as having some humanity and not being pro-murder towards Catholics there was still never anyone pointing out WHY the violence and issues even existed; it’s not like Catholics just woke up one day and decided “Hey we’re bored let’s set off some bombs or shoot up people!” It’s a verifiable truth the history is a convoluted mess but you can’t explain anything or tell a story properly without showing both sides. ( )
  ttsheehan | Jun 5, 2017 |
In Nick Laird’s new novel, Modern Gods, the politics of Northern Ireland runs parallel to that of Christian missionaries and an indigenous religious cult in New Ulster, Papua New Guinea. After a bad first marriage, Alison marries Stephen, only to later learn of his involvement as a member of the Irish Republican Army in a mass shooting. Her sister, Liz, also escaping a bad relationship, agrees to host a documentary for the BBC on the Story and its leader, Belef, and travels to Papua New Guinea, only to become enmeshed in the struggles there between the two religious factions. I found the alternating stories interesting, but the ending somewhat dissatisfying. Although describing her marriage, I do think Alison sums it up best. “A second marriage meant substituting old ceremonies and traditions with different ones, meant trading in the old gods for new, but Alison couldn’t help it; she didn’t believe in it any longer. She’d lost her faith and found the new gods were false gods.” ( )
  bayleaf | Jun 2, 2017 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0670025143, Hardcover)

From an award-winning author who writes with “a wonderfully original and limber voice” (The New York Times)a powerful, thought-provoking novel about two sisters who must reclaim themselves after their lives are dramatically upended

“Encompasses deep – the deepest, thorniest – questions of faith and redemption, fate and forgiveness.” – Michael Chabon

Alison Donnelly has suffered for love.  Still stuck in the small Northern Irish town where she was born, working for her father’s real estate agency, she hopes to pick up the pieces and get her life back together.  Her sister Liz, a fiercely independent college professor who lives in New York City, is about to return to Ulster for Alison’s second wedding, before heading to an island off the coast of Papua New Guinea to make a TV show about the world’s newest religion.

Both sisters’ lives are about to be shaken apart.  Alison wakes up the day after her wedding to find that her new husband has a past neither of them can escape.  In a rainforest on the other side of the planet, Liz finds herself becoming increasingly entangled in the eerie, charged world of Belef, the subject of her show, a charismatic middle-aged woman who is the leader of a cargo cult.

As Modern Gods ingeniously interweaves the stories of Liz and Alison, it becomes clear that both sisters must learn how to negotiate with the past, with the sins of fanaticism, and decide just what the living owe to the dead.  Laird’s brave, innovative novel charts the intimacies and disappointments of a family trying to hold itself together, and the repercussions of history and faith.

(retrieved from Amazon Sun, 09 Apr 2017 16:20:23 -0400)

"An award-winning author who writes with "a wonderfully original and limber voice" (The New York Times)--a powerful, thought-provoking novel about two sisters who must reclaim themselves after their lives are dramatically upended Alison Donnelly has suffered for love. Still stuck in the small Northern Irish town where she was born, working for her father's real estate agency, she hopes to pick up the pieces and get her life back together. Her sister Liz, a fiercely independent college professor who lives in New York City, is about to return to Ulster for Alison's second wedding, before heading to an island off the coast of Papua New Guinea to make a TV show about the world's newest religion. Both sisters' lives are about to be shaken apart. Alison wakes up the day after her wedding to find that her new husband has a past neither of them can escape. In a rainforest on the other side of the planet, Liz finds herself becoming increasingly entangled in the eerie, charged world of Belef, the subject of her show, a charismatic middle-aged woman who is the leader of a cargo cult"--… (more)

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