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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Book review: "Fragile Things," "Smoke and Mirrors," "Murder Mysteries," and "Anansi Boys," by Neil Gaiman

Reposting these from elsewhere...

 Lots of good stuff here - even the lesser stories are good, and I don't think there's a single one that I flat-out didn't like. I wasn't really thinking of the stories (and a few poems) as creepy until I found that I was just a little antsier than usual riding the bus home at night and crossing the dark street to my front door. At some point, I also noticed a nearly uncontrollable urge to look over my shoulder while sitting in rooms alone, but it was short lived (I think). A few of the stories are downright scary, while some are just a little unsettling (or maybe upsettling, as Gaiman would say). Some are funny - there's a lot of humor in these pages - and almost all have an element of sadness. Gaiman writes things that want to be thought about, and they usually succeed in that.

My thoughts on some of the stories:
Monarch of the Glen - Last story in the book, but I read it first because it features Shadow, from American Gods. That boy never learns. Unsettling and beautiful (sometimes simultaneously), I suspect the tale will be as hard to shake as the cold damp that pervades it.
The Mapmaker - An excellent little story, hidden in the also excellent introduction.
A Study in Emerald - Gaiman describes it as Sherlock Holmes meets H.P. Lovecraft. I recognized the Holmes, and now want very much to read Lovecraft. Though I expect to be disturbed by it.
October in the Chair - Fabulous and upsettling. I'm totally stealing that word.
The Hidden Chamber - A poem about love, and also something scary that you can't quite put your finger on. Which might be a little redundant.
Forbidden Brides...- One of the more comical entries in the book, it features ghosts, a scary old house, a few mysterious ladies, and the horror of a marriage gone stale.
The Flints of Memory Lane - A great little ghost story, and probably the reason I was so nervous coming home that night.
Closing Time - Downright scary, in the best way possible - I have no idea what happened, but I know it was awful. And I no longer want a door knocker on my imaginary house, because I'd never be comfortable going in.
Other People - Brilliant.
Keepsakes and Treasures - It's hard to know when something will cross the line for me. I'm not particularly prudish, or easily offended, but there is definitely a too far. This one started off dark and disturbing, but I was game. It became not totally ok with me, then went straight to no-zone. It's a good story, but not one I needed in my head.
Good Boys Deserve Favors - When I was young, I used to daydream that something very similar to this would happen to me. It never did, but I sometimes wonder if I just gave up on the instruments too quickly.
Strange Little Girls - Little stories written to accompany Tori Amos' CD of the same name. Good as stories, and a reminder that I haven't really listened to that CD.
The Problem of Susan - A well done and quite disturbing response to what Gaiman calls the "disposal" of Susan Pevensie in the Narnia books.
Instructions - There are several poems included here. This is my favorite, I think. I begin to believe that I would turn around at the well, and it saddens me. You can hear Gaiman read the poem here.
Feeders and Eaters - Deeply, deeply disturbing. And good. And disturbing.
In the End - I'd love to read the Bible that ended with this. Something about this story made me think that Dinesen would have enjoyed it. I think, in fact, that Dinesen would have enjoyed much of Gaiman's work that I've read, which is, in my mind, a high compliment.
How to Talk to Girls at Parties - This story is to awkward parties what Buffy the Vampire Slayer often was to high school. If I'd read this in high school or college, I'd have thought of it every time I went to a dance or a party. Even as an adult, is there anything stranger or scarier than wandering through a gathering where you don't belong, wondering what strange creatures these are? How do I talk to them? And when they speak, why does so much of it sound like nonsense, or a language I don't speak, and can't, therefore, hear the meaning in?
It's best that I didn't read this way back when - I might have given up on the enterprise altogether. Or spent all the gatherings thereafter wondering if anyone was a poem.
Sunbird - I thought I knew what was coming, and then I didn't, and then I sort of did, but it still surprised me a little. Good stuff, one of the lighter entries.
Inventing Aladdin - My other favorite poem. I think I like the majority of "Instructions" better, but the last line of this one is pure genius. Gaiman writes elsewhere that he believes we owe it to each other to tell stories. Here, he suggests that we owe it to ourselves. Amen, Neil.

This is an earlier collection, and the stories were mostly enjoyable, but I didn't enjoy them as much as the ones collected in Fragile Things. For the most part, these stories are entertaining, but less captivating - I thought this set was good, where I feel the other was great. Maybe these are just less my style. Or, maybe Gaiman's style in the other collection is more to my liking.

There are standouts, though - the one hidden in the introduction is, again, excellent (it's called The Wedding Present), as is Snow, Glass, and Apples, the chilling final story, which may have forever ruined the fairy tale it recasts (not a huge loss - I never particularly cared for that one). For pure chills, the best of the lot is Don't Ask Jack (not surprisingly, jacks-in-boxes are going on The List, right alongside door knockers). Murder Mysteries is probably the one I will want to think more about - I wished, when it ended, that there had been more of it.

A graphic novelization of the short story of the same title, which worked really well for this story. There are some changes to the text, mostly small ones, but some of them actually strike me as important. Looking forward to checking out the radio play version.
Anansi Boys is very good book, as much about stories and the telling of them as it is about a particular story, that of Fat Charlie Nancy and his family. The resolution is not wholly satisfying, but it's not wholly unsatisfying either - like American Gods, the very ending felt trite, though not quite wrong. All in all, though, It's a fun read, and also a thoughtful one, full of great lines about stories (and songs) and what they do. 

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