Fragile Things Read-Along, Part the Fifth

Man. I think what I’m discovering more than anything while reading through this collection is that I know very little about fantasy. I’ve mentioned before and I’ll mention again this week that I’m sure I would like more than a few of these stories better if I just had any idea what Gaiman was talking about. And that’s good, on the one hand, because it inspires me to go learn new things, but bad, on the other, because that doesn’t help me understand or appreciate the stories now! Alas.

I get this one! I totally know what’s going on here! This is a cute little poem-y story about stories, “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” specifically, and the telling of them. Gaiman writes as himself, talking to his daughter about reading “Goldilocks” to her and how she would take part in the telling of the story and sometimes re-write the story, and that’s all cute and adorable. But then Gaiman also takes into account how it feels to be a parent reading the stories, and how there are always parts that read differently for adults (see: my reaction to Peter Pan earlier this year) and how it’s a bit sad to know that the adorable child will grow into a cynical adult who locks his doors to keep out strangers who might eat his porridge. This is definitely my favorite story of the week.

“The Problem of Susan”
And here is where I admit that my knowledge of the Narnia books comes mostly from the 2005 movie, which I didn’t pay terribly much attention to, and various references to the series in other things I’ve read. Which is to say that I don’t have any attachment toward Susan and so this story is entirely lost on me. What I gather is that Susan, who didn’t die in some train crash, has grown up to be a professor of literature, since retired. And she’s being interviewed about children’s literature by some young thing and Narnia comes up and that’s when I learned all that stuff about Susan, and then Susan gets sad or something and goes and has a nap forever. And the young thing has a dream about Aslan and the White Witch having the sexytimes and, um, okay. Ew. I’m not sure I want this one explained to me.

Props to the awesome poetry this week. I liked “Instructions” a lot because while I may not know a lot about fantasy stories past and present, I am certainly well-versed in fantasy conventions, and that’s what this poem is about. It is, as the title suggests, a set of instructions for what to do if you find yourself stuck in a fairy tale. Basically, don’t do anything stupid and be nice to everyone, which are not bad instructions in general. Also, there’s a cameo from my friends the months of the year, which is delightful.

“How Do You Think It Feels”
Um, yes. Least favorite story. Gargoyles. LOTS of sexytimes, including sort of with a plasticine gargoyle. Extra-marital affair(s?). Not my cup of tea. Things I did like: the reference to the narrator being “by far the older man” at 27 to his lady’s 20. The narrator getting totally shut down by his lady when he offers to actually finally leave his family for her. The lady getting eaten by the gargoyle. Can’t go wrong with people getting eaten, I say.

Fragile Things Read-Along, Part the Fourth

What an odd week of stories. We’ve got two ostensibly true stories, one story broken up into several even smaller stories, and another one of those stories that seems to require a little bit of homework to understand. Also, the return of the sodium yellow light, which really needs to be retired. On the plus side, I’m pretty sure I liked all of the stories this week, though I have yet to match my love for the first week’s. A girl can dream…

“Good Boys Deserve Favors”
I can totally get behind this story, about Gaiman as a double-bass-playing tiny person who didn’t like to practice. I never liked to practice my instrument as a kid, either, although I never had the opportunity to sneak a book into my “practice sessions” and I feel a little gypped. (I probably shouldn’t say that.) The climax of this story is interesting — the young Gaiman finds himself chosen to play his double bass in front of a potential school donor, and he just makes something up and manages to please most of the listeners, though it’s not clear just how good this made-up piece is. The fact that his headmaster described it as “modern, yet classical,” leads me to believe that it was probably very very weird, and that possibly the story is really about how Potential School Donors are not terribly discerning in their music.

“The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch”
Okay, this is another ostensibly true story, though in this one I think that “ostensibly” is the key word here. Ostensibly. Because what we have is the story of Ostensible Neil Gaiman getting dragged to the circus with some Ostensible Friends and an Ostensibly Crazy Person called Miss Finch, and then ending up (beginning up? Gaiman starts the story with the ending) without Miss Finch but with some delicious sushi. The circus is no regular circus, and no Night Circus either, but some odd conglomeration of things like knife-throwers and trick motorcyclists and fake hand-losers who take their guillotined fake hands and chase people around with them to the Benny Hill theme, apparently. But the real story part of the story is that geobiologist Miss Finch, who has all night been bitching about the circus and also the dangers of sushi, gets picked to have her wishes come true and suddenly saber-toothed tigers exist and the circus disappears. And even in the story, it’s not clear exactly why this happens… did Miss Finch really get her wishes? Was she a well-done audience plant? Was the whole circus some sort of elaborate joke on the Ostensibles? At first listen, I was a bit annoyed with the story for not giving me any useful exposition, but after reading it again I’m content to come up with elaborate exposition of my own and call it canon.

“Strange Little Girls”
This story did not come across at all in audio, so I just skipped it and read through it later. The reason it fails in audio is that all of the pieces in it are just paragraphs, and you don’t get the print formatting that tells you, hey, these are all separate little stories and not actually about the same person. So it’s a bunch of little stories about different people, and actually they’re less “stories” than “snapshots” or whatever the print equivalent is. So, difficult to describe. I’ll just stick with saying that my favorites are “Love” (in which a woman totally gets a man in trouble with his wife) and “Heart of Gold” (whose structure just amuses me).

“Harlequin Valentine”
I liked this story a lot, even though I know nothing about harlequins outside of Harley Quinn and it is obvious that I am missing a lot of the subtler points. But with my second small-but-literal spit take of the book, at the point when I realized that was no paper heart pinned to Missy’s door, I couldn’t say no to the rest of the story. I really liked the Harlequin character, who is completely ridiculous and well-rendered by Gaiman on audio, and who gives his heart to a human called Missy for funsies, apparently, and then follows her around to see what she’ll do with it. Well, once Harlequin makes the mistake of telling her whose heart it is, Missy becomes my favorite character as she takes the heart and eats it with ketchup and hash browns so that she can become Harlequin herself, and leaves the erstwhile Harlequin to the human life. Ketchup and hash browns, people. I love it. And now I must go look up this commedia dell’arte stuff, because it is apparently delightful.

Fragile Things Read-Along, Part the Third

Well, I am pleased to report that we do not have a repeat last week’s intense befuddlement and annoyance. These stories are certainly not any more cut and dried, because that would be no fun, but at least I feel more internal sense-making and also some intrigue. I like to be intrigued.

Here’s where we stand:

“Going Wodwo”
I liked this the least of this week’s stories, probably because it’s one of those poem things and I’m still working on being a poetry person. It may happen, someday, but it hasn’t happened yet. But anyway, this twenty-line poem describes a person, well, “going wodwo,” or becoming, as the intro says, “a wild man of the woods.” I don’t quite follow the path of the story of the poem, nor does it have the delightful cadence of “The Fairy Reel”, but I will give the poem props for imagery. The first stanza reeled me in — “Shedding my shirt, my book, my coat, my life / Leaving them, empty husks and fallen leaves / Going in search of food and for a spring / Of sweet water” — and even though I don’t really get it, I really like the phrase “My skin will be / my face now.” Well, if by “like” I mean “am sort of really creeped out by.” Which I do.

“Bitter Grounds”
There is a lot going on in this story. The main plot, I suppose, is that there’s a fellow who up and runs away from his life, stops running temporarily to help out a random guy who subsequently completely disappears, then sort of decides to be this guy for a while. As you do. But there’s so much interesting stuff to think about as this plot moves along — the disappeared guy leaves behind an abandoned, totalled car that our narrator minutes previously had seen as intact if broken down. Disappeared Guy was an academic writing about zombies. Our narrator, while pretending to be DG, makes a new friend who also disappears, and some other new friends who may or may not exist. Like last week’s “Closing Time”, this story has an ending that I don’t quite understand, but this time I felt like the confusing ending at least fit with the story, instead of being completely jarring. Or possibly I am more forgiving when there are potential zombies involved.

“Other People”
As soon as I heard Gaiman say, in his fantastic voice, “‘Other People,'” I said to myself, “Hell is?” And I was SO RIGHT. I love it when that happens. There are no “other people” in this story, but there is Hell, and it is very hellish. There’s a guy, and he wanders into Hell, and he meets a demon who proceeds to beat the crap out of him with 211 different instruments of OW. And then, for good measure, the demon forces the guy to admit to himself every bad thing he’s ever done or said or thought or probably thought about thinking, over and over and over again. And from what I can tell, that is a LOT of bad things. Interestingly, I missed the important point of the story while ears-reading because I apparently had the attention span of a goldfish that day, but as soon as I started eyes-reading it yesterday I decided that this story was fantastic. This week’s favorite!

“Keepsakes and Treasures”
Oh, goodness, I am turning into one of those Parents Television Council people, aren’t I? I was all for the story when I thought it was going to be violence and sloppy eating, but then it took a turn toward the sex intercourse and I was like, “Oh, that’s gross.” I mean, I still read the story, but I really wanted more gruesome killing. Please don’t tell me what that means about me. Ahem. Anyway. Here’s an example of a story where I don’t know any of the background (Gaiman notes in the intro that this story is based on characters from a comic that I’ve never heard of), but the story was just fine anyway. To spoil everything, there’s an unnamed dude who works for this guy called Mr. Alice, and Unnamed Dude spends a lot of time and effort and Alice’s money to procure for Alice the most beautiful boy in the world for the sex intercourse and then after not very long the beautiful boy gets the flu and dies. And so this is really just a very rated-R way of telling a very universal truth, and even though I was like, “ew, cooties,” the way that Gaiman wrote the heck out of this story really sold it to me. There’s the setup of our unnamed narrator being a bit of a serial killer (sidenote: I did a small but very literal spit take at the dissonance between these consecutive sentences: “She was a looker, my mum. I didn’t know which one of the four was my dad, so I killed all of them.” FANTASTIC), and so also really completely disaffected by all the bad and/or weird stuff Alice has him hired to do, and there’s one scene that Gaiman wrote where I read it and I was like, “That’s weird, a little bit,” and then a couple pages later Gaiman writes this other little scene where I’m like, “Ew,” and then I remember that first scene and I’m like, “Okay, now I need to go take a shower, euucchh.” In a good way? I don’t know.

I’m not quite hooked on Fragile Things again, but I am feeling much much better about its chances for being awesome. How about you guys?

Fragile Things Read-Along, Part the Second

Whaaaaaaaaat is going on here? After a stunning round of stories last week, I am feeling utterly lost this week. I mean, I listened to all of these stories at least twice and read them once, and I still don’t get 75 percent of them. That’s not good!

On the plus side, they’re still read by Neil Gaiman and he can still read me the phone book if he wants.

“The Hidden Chamber”
According to the introduction, this is supposed to be a Bluebeard story. And Bluebeard is a… pirate? Let me go check Wikipedia. That is not a pirate. I am totally thinking of Blackbeard, aren’t I? Things are starting to make so much more sense. Let me read this entry a bit more. … Okay, I’m back, and this is actually pretty okay. Let me change my previous statement to 50 percent. Soooooo this is a sort of poem thing (which doesn’t quite come across in the audio because it’s free verse) about this fella Bluebeard who, as I just learned, is traditionally a guy what likes to kill his wives. But in Gaiman’s version, he’s all, no, no, don’t worry about the ghosts, and I totally don’t have one room in my house you’re not allowed into I don’t know what you’re talking about, and also I’m so misunderstood. He’s reformed, you see, but not in the way you might think, and the poem takes a turn toward the creeptastic at the end. I may need to take out a preemptive restraining order on anyone with a blue beard.

“Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire”
Well, okay, maybe 25 percent, because I think I get this story, I just don’t like it. It opens with the a “chapter” that goes, “Somewhere in the night, someone was writing.” Excellent start! Then it moves over to what is being written, which also doesn’t quite come across in the audio and it took me a second listen to figure out exactly how that worked. And what is being written is a sort of send-up of every horror/ghost/creepy story ever written, with an allusion to The Turn of the Screw and probably many other things that I can’t quite pin down. And it’s predictably bad, and then we go back to the writer, and the writer is all “I am failing at writing this slice-of-life Great American Novel where “American” equals “weird alternate universe where life is creepy all the time and those nice young men etc.” And so at first I am like, “Oh I see how this is a satire of creepy stories,” but then I am like, “Oh I see what you did there and I am not quite in.” Because the author is complaining about how his writing is just a send-up of the “classics” and not a view into daily tedium or whatever, except that Gaiman also writes the Auteur’s actual life as a send-up of the “classics” and so I think he’s doing a great job. And then, when the Auteur (spoiler!) decides to write “fantasy” instead, he’s just sending up a different genre so I don’t think he has improved anything. Okay, maybe 37.5 percent?

“The Flints of Memory Lane”
I get this one! And I kind of like it! But I can’t write as much about it because it’s so short! Anyway, this is just a quick telling of an anecdote from Gaiman’s life where he may or may not have seen a real live ghost faffing about in front of his family’s house. This of course doesn’t do justice to Gaiman’s writing, which conveys the creepiness of seeing a strange woman hanging around under a sodium lamplight, all oddly colored and also silent and also capable of disappearing while your back is turned. I’ve never had quite such a vivid experience, but I’m sure it would scare the pants off of me.

“Closing Time”
I absolutely do not get this story and I need someone to explain it to me. Please. From what I have gathered, this is a story wherein Our Narrator is swapping ghost stories with a group of friends. Check. Then he tells one wherein he meets a group of boys and the boys dare Our Narrator to knock on a playhouse door and then Our Narrator dares them to go into the playhouse, whose door opens and closes by itself, and the boys are never seen again and that’s creepy. And then after the story is told, it turns out that one of the listeners is one of the story’s boys and he’s all, “our dad was kind of a weirdo and my one brother killed himself and I just got out of the loony bin.” And I just… I don’t get it. I don’t understand how this latter bit goes with the narrator’s story, and I don’t understand how all these tangents the narrator goes on have anything to do with anything and… yeah. I got nothing. Help?

I am so not excited for reading the next four stories, because I fear they will be as baffling as most of these, but I have a feeling that as soon as I start the next one I’ll be hooked again. What do you guys think?

Fragile Things Read-Along, Part the First

Dudes. I have discovered an awesome secret. Neil Gaiman is not only a fantastic author, but a fantastic narrator as well! And I have proved this scientifically by using BOTH my ears and my eyes to read this book. That’s right. I’m doing the homework twice! I’m Hermione Granger! Anyway, this started off as an accident, of the “Oh crap I’m not going to have time to read four stories by Sunday because it’s already Thursday but hey my library right here has the audiobook I can yoink after work and listen to during work tomorrow [a day passes] hey these are pretty fantastic stories but I think I need to read that ‘Fairy Reel’ one because it went by kind of quickly oh hey while I’m here I think I’ll read the others again too” variety…. That’s never happened to you? Right. Anyway. I think I’m going to keep on with the dual reading because these stories are quite short and I can.

So. Yes. Here are the four splendid things I read in the last couple days:

It’s a good thing I went back and eyes-read the introduction, because it did not translate well to audio. Gaiman goes through the book and tells the story, long or short, behind each of the stories in the collection. Some are just like, “I was commissioned to write this for another project that you can go buy if you want because it has awesome authors in it,” others are like, “I wrote this and no one liked it and then I wrote it again and it was better,” and one includes a short story of its own that seemed to come out of nowhere on the audio and makes much more sense in print. It has served to make me very excited about some of the stories I’ll be reading in the weeks to come.

“A Study in Emerald”
It’s been about four years since I read A Study in Scarlet, and about that many months since I watched “A Study in Pink” (sidenote: omg I cannot wait for series two!), so I can’t tell you exactly how these three stories diverge, but I can tell you that they are similar enough, and particularly “Emerald” and Scarlet are similar enough, to fool you a little bit. Which Gaiman does, with, I imagine, an evil laugh. “Emerald” is the same story you know, with the meeting of our two protagonists, and Lestrade needing a bit of help with his German, but then, as is mentioned in the introduction, it takes a bit of a Lovecraftian turn. And while I’m sure I’m missing a lot of nuances, not knowing The Lovecraft, I still found myself very intrigued with this sort of alternate universe Holmes story.

“The Fairy Reel”
The introduction’s description of this: “Not much of a poem, really, but enormous fun to read aloud.” Gaiman is being a little modest, here, as I found this a fantastic poem when I eyes-read it about three times in a row, but he is also telling the truth that it is so much prettier when you just ignore the words and let the rhythm and the sound of Gaiman’s voice wash over you. After just listening to it, I was like, “Husband! Sit still and listen to this poem!” It is much meant for sharing.

“October in the Chair”
So, first, October is my favorite month of the year for many reasons, probably firstly because it’s my birthday month! So I can tell you that Gaiman got it wrong — October is a lady, not a gent. But I will forgive this mistake, because the story that October tells is creepy and wonderful. It’s the predecessor to The Graveyard Book, which I need to re-read, and you can see the bits and pieces Gaiman takes from it, but it is also a perfectly strong story on its own of a boy who runs away and decides that anything is better than going back home. Which, on the one hand, I’m like, “That’s terrible! Go home!” and on the other I’m like, “Dooooo it.” So, conflicted. Also, Gaiman’s voices for the other months, especially June, are hilarious and not quite inflected in the print. Another point for ears-reading!

I am so excited for reading the rest of these stories, especially now that I have them on audio. I may have to ration myself to a story a day, though, lest I get so excited I finish it all in one go!