Death’s Perspective – Lessons Born From Tragedy

I’ve been thinking about how we, as humans, respond to negative points in our lives.  Beyond my own sufferings, I’ve had several people in my life who have recently had to deal with the death of loved ones, loss of jobs, and other terrible detours in their travels through life and it has given me cause to wonder how they deal with it.

One of my solutions has been, since the tortures of middle school peers, finding a quiet, comfortable spot to read.  Sometimes I would put on music, other times I would revel in the sweet silence and the quiet rustle of flipping pages.

Regardless of the exact situation, my first instinct has always been to retreat.  My Fight or Flight-o-meter has always had its needle pointed directly at Flight.  In most situations of serious confrontation, I will (metaphorically and\or literally) curl up into a ball and hope it goes away.

This is a character flaw that I am entirely aware of.  And now I’m fairly certain I’ll be more critical about it in the future.

My other solution, for many years, was to write.  I’ve never had the talent to draw, nor the patience to learn how to play an instrument.  But I found in high school that I enjoyed putting pencil to paper and drawing out ideas and coming face-to-face with feelings I wasn’t aware of.

Eventually the stresses of college life blocked me up so bad that I still struggle to write to this day (as evidenced by my several near-abandonments of this blog in the last year), but I’ve still used books of all kinds as a way to work through my shit until I’m able to function like a normal human being again.

I’ve already posted previously about how I believe Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series helped get me my life back.  I still believe it.  Of course, I’m still not completely over what happened in December.  Coming that close one’s mortality is bound to give even the most mentally fit person an ongoing set of issues.  And I’ve never been one hundred percent mentally fit… But I have more closure than I had before and I once again have Neil Gaiman to thank.

I was given the chance to meet Neil Gaiman again here in Portland and I made it a primary goal to tell him how his comics rebooted my brain and allowed me to once again rejoin the throngs of people who hadn’t spent two hours huddled in terror in a tiny room with forty other people, wondering how long it would be before a crazed gunman figured out where we were and blasted his way in.

I believe I said something slightly more eloquent than that.  But maybe not.  It was close to 95 degrees outside that day and more likely closer to 100 inside the venue…  I think I spoke in full sentences.  I may even have had the presence of mind to talk about how Sandman was pretty much my Kübler-Ross model to make my way through the issues I was dealing with following the shooting.

Either way, Neil was incredibly gracious and kind in the brief interaction and I’m glad I was given the opportunity to explain what happened and to thank him for his part in my recovery.

It was later that day, when I was walking back to the train stop that I suddenly remembered another Gaiman tale that I hadn’t re-read in December when I was attempting to reorient my brain and thought processes beyond eating and sleeping to keep my body moving.  Some days I felt like a great white: keep swimming, or die.

After getting home, I asked myself many things.  The biggest question I had for myself was, “Why wasn’t this story the very first one you went to?” And I… don’t really know.

Death © Chris Bachalo Source: http://www.chrisbachalo.net/gallery-miscellaneous.html

Death © Chris Bachalo

“The Wheel” (illustrated by the wonderfully underrated Chris Bachalo) is a simple story, not epic in scope like Sandman.  It doesn’t follow the story of a tragic and tortured personification of Dreams.  In fact, the story, contained in five short pages and stars a young boy named Matt who climbs to the top of a ferris wheel because he plans to throw himself from it.  Why?  Well, Matt’s mother was killed in the 9/11 attacks and he wants answers.

And, because this is a Neil Gaiman story, the completely normal kid then meets some completely abnormal new friends. In this particular story, his two new friends are Death and Destruction, two of the Endless from Gaiman’s Sandman comics.

The story, being five pages long, appropriately hits on the five stages of grief.  The first two pages, denial.  The story isn’t true, but he’s going to tell it anyway.  He starts crying but insists that he’s fine.

Third page? Anger, of course.  Anger at God, which Destruction wisely attempts to have the boy realize that God, or gods, don’t make people do evil things… People do evil things. People choose to do evil things.

In a hold-over lesson from Sandman, The Endless (and also gods and their ilk) are simply reflections of humanity’s own psyche.  They were created by man to be the personification of our inner selves, but neither humanity, nor the world requires them to take action.  We all have choices to make and no one can make them but ourselves.

Then… bargaining.  This is more subtle (and I may be reading too much into it here, but… too late to stop now!), but Matt wants answers… and he’s willing to pay any price to get them… even if it means his death.

Then Death herself arrives and we start into the depression stage.  Destruction tells Matt, “Everybody dies.  Just as everything created is eventually destroyed” which naturally leads the kid to ask, “Then what’s the point of anything?”

Death, ever the sage tells him, “The point? Walk the world.  Help to feed the hungry, help comfort those in pain.  Do what you can to leave the world a better place.” And as soon as Matt begins his argument against her words…

The wheel lights up and starts moving.  Matt rides the wheel with the lights and sounds going, finds a happy memory of his mother and the ride has completely changed his perspective.  He’s decided to heed Death’s advice to ride the wheel.  Ah, sweet acceptance.

And it works!

It works really well… Mainly because the main character is a reader analogue.  Oh and a writer analogue.  Why do bad things happen? What is our appropriate reaction? Is there an appropriate reaction?  In the writing, Gaiman gets to work his way through the pain and confusion to get the answer.  And as a reader, so do we.

Well, maybe not The Answer.

There aren’t any answers to the Big Questions.  If there were, what would I have to keep me awake at night?

But “The Wheel” helped move me forward a few more steps toward some sort of final reconciliation of what happened.  Some days, that’s all you can do… Just keep moving forward.

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There’s A Downstairs In Everybody – Making Sense of The World With Sandman

I wasn’t sure I was going to come back this time.

My brain’s always so fried this time of year, but I had a whole slew of posts lined up and ready to go (well, in my head at least) and was all ready to have a productive, if predictable  December.  Blogging about comics (maybe finishing A Naked Singularity) and just kinda coasting through the rest of the year.

And then on December 11th, there was a shooting at the mall I work at.

I came out of the back room around 2:20.  Maybe twenty seconds later, I heard what sounded like a series of electrical shorts.  Maybe a clumsy electrician dropping a pack of light bulbs.  Somewhere between eight and ten pops, echoing from down the way.

Just seconds after that, I heard screaming and people were running.  A couple of employees and I herded some customers into the receiving area.

I then received a call on my store phone telling me to go close the gates to the mall.  I’m somewhat ashamed that someone had to tell me, but I’m also sane enough to realize that I was in a bit of a panic at that point.

Gates closed, we made sure the store was clear and retreated to the break room for just under two hours while we waited for the police to clear the mall itself.

Two people were killed that day.  In the three weeks since the shooting, I haven’t been over to where it happened in the food court.  In fact, I’ve only been out into the mall just once.  Having sat waiting for the mall gates to close, I feel as if I’ve spent enough time in those areas for a bit.

I pretty much dropped most of what I was doing with my life at that point.  I stopped reading the couple of novels I was reading, I stopped work on crafting a Christmas gift for my wife, and I generally found myself to be more tired and irritable.  Especially when customers were back in the store and complaining about the long lines, or long waits for returns.

But, thanks to an excellent team of co-workers, I’ve successfully navigated another holiday season.  At this point, I’m hoping it’ll be my last retail holiday season, but… I’m not making any decisions at the moment.

In the interim, my reading has been two things: Matt Fraction’s fantastic Invincible Iron Man comic (seriously, I love this!) and another revisit to the world of The Dreaming in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.

Why Sandman?  Well, in addition to it being the first long-form, on-going comic series that I loved… I always turn to it for good quotes.  Usually, I’ll find something in it (or in one of the two Death miniseries) that will help me with whatever I’m struggling with.  That and I can count on finding something new that I missed before.  A panel of art, a word or phrase… sometimes bits of foreshadowing, or callbacks that I didn’t recognize the last time I read it.

But there’s always something.

So I decided… I’m going to read Sandman again… but this time, in whatever order I come to it.  So I pulled the second volume of Absolute Sandman off the shelf and read the “Game of You” arc first.  I’ve loved this arc the most since I first read the series.  In fact, just before the following picture was taken, I thanked Neil for writing it and told him it was my favorite arc in the entirety of Sandman.

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So Sandman it is.  I’ve learned that there’s a TON of people at my work who love Gaiman himself and Sandman more specifically.  I’ve learned that the Absolute copies of the series are just as heavy as I remember them… and just as great.  I still love the recoloring!  I’ve learned that there’s always more to learn about just about anything…

I’ve also learned that there are going to be triggers for me.  Putting up, or down, the mall gates.  Seeing groups of ambulances congregated in the same places.  Hearing fireworks outside of the house…

I may have learned more.  Right now I’m content with the feeling that things are getting better in my head.  I feel more well aligned than I have in more than a month.  I feel more positive about my life, my body, and my soul.  Most of all…I feel ready to take a short stroll around the mall…

Thanks Neil!  For Sandman, American Gods… pretty much everything.  Thank you for helping me in getting my mind refocused and back to as normal as I can.

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The Dark, Twisted Other… For Kids! Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s Mirrormask

Ok, so longest title ever, right?

And longest time ever for not actually making a post!

I know, I know, I said I was getting better.  And I am…  Probably.  Got this one ready to go with three more lined up that I hope to spread out over the next week… until I get too suspicious of the spell-checker doing a piss-poor job and just give up entirely.

Anyhow, if you haven’t been here before, you may not know that Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors.  I like reading him, listening to him, and even recommending him at the book store where I work.

More than anything, I like to recommend him at the book store where I work.

Why?

A lot of it comes down to knowing I’ll be giving some lucky person their first Neil Gaiman experience.

Mine… was Neverwhere about four years ago.  After being badgered by friends for close to a decade, I finally decided to try him out and fell in booklust.  After four years, several novels, almost countless short stories, and seriously crazy amounts of comics… I still am.

And if you team Gaiman’s writing skill with the illustrious illustrations of Dave McKean… My head might well explode.  And MirrorMask is no exception.

MirrorMask
Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean

Harper Collins
80 Pages
September 27, 2005

MirrorMask is one of several of Gaiman’s collaborations with McKean that is meant for children, joining Coraline and The Graveyard Book as one of my favorite children’s books from the last decade.

I will also come right out and say that if you’ve read any of Gaiman’s post-Sandman books, you really know what to expect up front… A child feels that he\she (in this case, a she named Helena) doesn’t fit in and wants to go on an adventure to some place else (in this case, the Real World, instead of the circus she works in), but eventually discovers that she was happier where she started out.

I think we’ve been over this before.  Hero’s journey, monomyth… ringing any bells?  Heck, we could even go German and add in the bildungsroman (and I will someday not transpose the “i” and the “u” in that word).

This is, basically, all Neil Gaiman does.  And he does such a damn good job that if you don’t like it, you can just get right the hell out of my blog right now.

All ten of you.

Anyway… Our story presents us with plucky heroine Helena, who wants to run away from the circus and, “join the Real World.”  Which is monstrously funny.  Don’t try to admit it isn’t.  I laughed.  Heartily, even!

The plot is everything you’d expect from a collaboration between this pairing.  It starts out sweet, adds some drama, lightens the mood ever so slightly before bringing. The. Hammer. Down.  And then we’re off to a magical dream land where everyone wears masks and the Prime Minister of this City of Light thinks Helena is evil.

But of course, it isn’t Helena.  It was her doppelgänger from the Shadow of Shadows known only as The Princess.  While searching for a special mask known as the MirrorMask, Helena and her erstwhile companion Valentine get into the normal scrapes…

They ride insulted library books to their destination.  They’re almost eaten by strange animals.  At which point, they’re saved by the pages of a Really Useful Book.  And, when things are at their darkest, the pair is saved by a flying tower (of course!).

All in all… I loved this book!  I will readily admit to being biased… Gaiman and McKean could collaborate on a project about the lesser known turds of the Amazon Basin and I would find it fascinating.

But for all the familiarity to the characters and the various tropes that Gaiman is so incredibly willing to fall back on… There’s a sweet little story about a girl growing up… paired with frightening illustrations of giant floating elephants, evil queens, and an entire world made up of people with masks who don’t look quite right…

If you’ve read the book… see the movie!  If you’ve seen the movie… read the book!  I read the children’s version (and loved it), but I’m also away of a twice-as-expensive adult version that contains a crapload of extra stuff, so… it is always good to have a dream to chase.

Or a nightmare…

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Top 5 Summer Reads – Massive Slacker Edition

So I haven’t been quite as busy with posting as I hoped I would be during the summer.  Super-sorry.  And because I’m so far behind, I’m going to give you guys a post that you don’t deserve…

Here’s a (sorta) quick Top 5 list of my favorite books that I’ve read (or re-read) so far this summer:

5. The Sandman: King of Dreams by Alisa Kwitney

King of Dreams is one of many books written about Neil Gaiman’s fantastic series Sandman.  Authored by Alisa Kwitney, the book is one of the few volumes on the series that should be required reading alongside the ten trades (or four Absolute volumes, if you’re crazy like me).

While some of the illustrations aren’t new, there are bits of ephemera from various artists (including a really nice collection of early drawings from the pre-Sandman days).  Pick up the Sandman collection, Hy Bender’s Sandman Companion, and this volume and begin waiting for Gaiman’s upcoming Sandman prequel illustrated by JH Williams.  2013 can’t come fast enough.

4. The Waste Land and Other Poems by TS Eliot

The Waste Land and Other Poems has been my favorite collection of poetry since I accidentally stumbled upon TS Eliot as an angst-ridden sixteen year old.  The Wasteland and The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock are two of the finest examples of the genre, and the way Eliot plays with literary allusion in conjunction to his maddeningly complex and layered style will forever be burned into my brain.

And, likely, Prufrock will haunt me to my grave…

3. Saga by Brian K Vaughn and Fiona Staples

What can I say about BKV?  His comics work stands far above that of most mere mortals, and his new series, Saga is no different.  Saga tells the story of two aliens who fall in love… and unfortunately are on differing sides of an intergalactic war.  

Romeo and Juliet is the first comparison, but Vaughan has already brought in bounty hunters, bizarre aliens, and some truly hair-raising scenes that are drawn beautifully by Fiona Staples.

They’re just about ready to release issue 5 (WEDNESDAY!!!), so there’s still time to jump in on this one early!  Y The Last Man and Ex Machina were both fantastic, creative, and high-minded literary comics that are becoming increasingly rare… Check out Saga now before you regret it!

2.5 Dial H by China Mieville and Mateus Santoluoco

OK this is a cheat… but I forgot about this comic until I started writing about Saga.

Dial H is a reboot of an old DC property titled Dial H For Hero.  And that’s the extent of what I know about the original series.  The reboot is part of the New 52 from DC Comics… I could go on about that, but I’ll leave it alone, mainly because Dial H is so damn fantastic.

Our hero is Nelson Jent, an overweight slacker who one day finds himself turned into an oddity named Boy Chimney after attempting to make a phone call from an old pay phone.

Each issue thus far (we’ve reached #4) has been exciting, funny, and well illustrated… not to mention that you actually get a story instead of the crap DC has been mostly shoveling into their other New 52 titles.

Plus, Brian Bolland does the covers.  What’s not to love?

2. A Hologram For The King by Dave Eggers

This was going to by my number one… but it was outvoted by my mind.  We’ll get to that later, though.

Eggers is a true master as storytelling and crafting relatable characters, and Hologram is no different.  Alan is a salesman.  Or was, before all the economic bullshit the world had been thrown into.

Now, Alan is sitting in a hotel in Saudi Arabia, hoping to impress King Abdullah with hologram technology so that when the King’s city is built, all tech will be provided by the company Alan represents.

Alan is an everyman, and a bit of a post-modern Willy Loman.  Divorced, broke, and on the verge of giving up, Alan is on his last chance.  As he adjusts to the customs of a new culture, he also has to deal with family issues, the death of friends, and a general feeling of obsolescence.

The book also pretty much has the best designed cover of just about anything in my collection… so you should definitely buy it just for the gorgeous graphic design work on the cover.

1. The Fault In Our Stars by John Green

If you ever need to convince a friend that teen books have value beyond the section they’re shelved in (I’m looking your way, Jonathan Franzen), don’t hand them Hunger Games (I’m begging you!), give them a John Green novel!
I’m not even going to justify this statement with a plot.  Just know that The Fault In Our Stars is not only the best book I’ve read in the last twelve months… it is one of the best books that I’ve read in the last decade.
A bittersweet tale, Green impresses, not only with the way he subverts our expectations as readers, but also with his incredibly subtle literary references and not-so-subtle pop-culture references.  He weaves them together so well with the story he tells that you’ll be stunned.
And also crying.
Not that I did.
*sniffle*
 I’ll be back in a few days with a more in-depth discussion of A Hologram For The King and The Fault In Our Stars! I also hope to dig into a few more books in the coming days to talk about!

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Neil Gaiman Month!!! Part 6 – Scaring Kids… And Adults! #2 – The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book
Neil Gaiman (illus. Dave McKean)
Harper Collins
320 Pages
September 30, 2008

I’m dispensing with the introduction on this post because… well, it was meant to be a part of the previous post on Coraline, but… then the monomyth took over and it went a bit overlong and I knew I had a bit to say about this book too, so… we’ve got our own post.

To start:  The Graveyard Book is a little bit scary. I would argue that it isn’t as scary as Coraline (which I finished in one sitting and found it difficult to sleep after reading).  The Graveyard Book is also a more mature book than Coraline in that a lot of the lessons presented are meant for older children (though they could certainly apply for younger children as well).  Similarly, the language used in the book is also aimed at older children, so keep that in mind if you’re considering this book for your little one.

As I stated in the Coraline post, what I particularly enjoy about these books is that Gaiman doesn’t shy away from difficult scenarios or situations.  To wit: the start of this novel has a mysterious man named Jack murdering our protagonist’s entire family.  Our protagonist, Bod, is but a baby (about a year old) who toddles away from the house and into a nearby graveyard.  The baby is taken in by a pair of ghosts who, with the help of the rest of the cemetery, raise him to adulthood.

I should say now that The Graveyard Book bears many similarities to another book with a similarly simplistic title, The Jungle Book.  For instance, the idea of a toddler being taken into the care of a non-human group that raises him.  And, like The Jungle Book, each chapter is a separate story (though all of the stories in Gaiman’s book have the same protagonist, unlike Kipling’s which have multiple).

Unlike Coraline where I felt the best part of the story was showing children that difficult situations can be overcome, the best part of The Graveyard Book is easily the heart.  The characters are easy to make an emotional connection with, especially Liza Hempstock (by far my favorite secondary character in the novel).

The good characters are good, the evil characters are evil and there isn’t really a lot of gray… and it works really well.  Instead of having some kind of sympathetic villain, we have Jack (or in reality, a whole group of Jacks, calling themselves the Jacks of All Trades).  They’re a large organization of people who are looking out for their own best interests and, through a series of murders, magic, and secret planning, are looking to keep it that way.

One thing I particularly enjoyed in the novel is how it treats creatures that would normally be frightening.  For instance, Bod’s guardian in the graveyard, Silas, is the only non-ghost that lives there.  Though it is never stated outright, the observant reader can easily intuit that he is a vampire.  Similarly, one of his teachers (Miss Lupescu) is a werewolf, and they are both part of a group called The Honour Guard who fight to protect the world when necessary (the group also includes a mummy and an ifrit, two other mythological creatures that could be scarier if they weren’t on the side of good).

In the end, though, much of what I appreciated in Coraline are the same things that I appreciated in The Graveyard Book.

Gaiman isn’t pulling punches just because he’s writing for children:  The book starts with a murder and has a lot of unscrupulous people (adults and children) who are trying to pull one over on Bod (or even trying to kill him), and there are many fearsome creatures that Bod encounters that wouldn’t be out-of-place in adult novels (though some are treated in a humorous way).

The two protagonists are also similar in that they generate a lot of sympathy for themselves.  Coraline is a stronger character, by far, but Bod pulls his own weight and it really is enjoyable to watch him grow up, and see him dealing with rather everyday ideas in a more fantastical way.  Each chapter is its own self-contained story and most can be read as a separate entity (though the penultimate chapter does require knowledge of the previous ones to make complete sense) and Bod is one of my favorite characters from children’s literature because I see a lot of myself in him (which is probably the point).

So that’s gonna tie up Neil Gaiman month here at Books & Bits.  The American Gods posting I was going to do just won’t fit in… so maybe next month, maybe later on in the summer.  April will bring Poetry Month, some bits to make up for missing Small Press Month here in March, and a feature or two one another favorite children’s author, John Bellairs.

From there?  The moon.  More books, more 8-Bit Rage… Even a book\video game double post of likes the world has never seen!

Neil Gaiman Month!!! Part 5 – Scaring Kids… And Adults! – Coraline

If you can’t tell at this point… if there’s anything I love more than a Neil Gaiman book, it’s probably a Neil Gaiman book illustrated by Dave McKean.  Much of the time, the illustrations really complement the words, but in the case of Coraline and The Graveyard Book… I would argue that the illustrations make the books.  With just the words… they’d probably be scary.  But McKean’s illustrations (especially the ones found in Coraline) bring the scary parts to an entirely different level.

From his works with Gaiman (Mr Punch, Violent Cases, Sandman covers) to other comic writers (Morrison’s Arkham Asylum, various Hellblazer covers), or his own work (Cages, Celluloid), McKean’s varying style usually carries a level of wrongness that seems off, if not downright frightening.

Paired with Gaiman’s messed-up ideas and terror inducing prose… well, you’ve got a match made in heaven.

Coraline
Neil Gaiman (illus. Dave McKean)
Harper Collins
176 Pages
July 2, 2002

The best thing children’s literature can do is give children a mixture of excitement and a thought-provoking story.  This isn’t to say that leisure reading isn’t important for children as well, but children should experience at least some challenge when they’re reading.  And… that’s why I love these two books.  Adventurous, exciting story-lines with important life lessons mixed in.

In addition to this, these are children’s novels in the classic sense of a Black Beauty or A Wrinkle in Time (or one of my favorite children’s authors John Bellairs) where the novel doesn’t shy away from the idea that bad things could happen.  They don’t coddle kids, but present situations where child protagonists overcome overwhelming odds and have actual character development.

What a novel idea.

(ha ha, book puns)

Coraline, which celebrates its Tenth Anniversary later this year, has been popular enough to be a feature film and a comic book adaptation, from frequent Gaiman collaborator P Craig Russell.  Beyond this, it has even entered the classroom and is being taught to school children.  It also won the Hugo Award for Best Novella, the Bram Stoker Award for Best Work For Young Readers, and the Nebula Award for Best Novella.

Of course, popularity and awards mean nothing if it isn’t well-written, or interesting.

But it is!

Coraline Jones is a young girl beset by boredom.  On a rainy day, she suffers to find something to do.  Despite her parents working out of the home, they never have any time to spend with her.  Her mother cooks out of packages, and her father cooks from recipes full of disgusting things.  Worst of all… everyone and everything is so boring.  Her mother won’t even let her buy colorful clothes for the coming school year.

Not to mention, none of the neighbors are able to get her name correct… how frustrating!

In response, she becomes an adventurer and explores around the house they live in.  She starts in her own apartment, counting things and noting small details, including a locked room that leads to a walled-off hallway.  Hm…

The next day, she leaves to visit the two women who live downstairs, Miss Spink and Miss Forcible (from their descriptions, they seem to represent the archtypical crones from traditional mythology… but nice ones!).

As she leaves her apartment, she is stopped by the Crazy Old Man Upstairs (later revealed to be named Mr. Bobo) who tells of the mouse circus he’s training to play musical instruments.  He also warns her that the mice have foretold of coming trouble, but Coraline ignores his advice.

When she arrives downstairs, the two women read Coraline’s tea leaves and warn her of coming danger as well.  Because of the negative tea-reading, they provide her with a stone coin for protection (hello again, monomyth!  So nice to see you again!) and send her on her way.

From there begins the next part of the monomyth, the travel into the unknown.  After her parents disappear and the police are condescending, a stray black cat (the helper and the eventual mentor from the monomyth!) leads Coraline to the locked door and sends her down the new found hallway.

The hallway, without the brick wall, is exceptionally long (sorta reminiscient of the seven-and-a-half-minute hallway from House of Leaves) and leads to… Coraline’s own kitchen.  Inside… is Coraline’s mother.  And father.  Oh, except they don’t look quite right… the main difference is the button-eyes sewn onto their faces.  And the Other Mother’s creepy hands and hair.  Creepy, creepy, creepy!

At this point… I’d be remiss to really carry on with the monomyth analyzation because… well, I’m just not prepared.  Plus, at this point the book has some strong deviations from the Hero’s Journey and… it wouldn’t be fair to discuss it that way without a fuller period of research (some day, perhaps).  And on top of all that… I didn’t intend for this to go in this direction… I just started noticing things and couldn’t stop…  So… sorry!

I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention Dave McKean’s art at this point in the story.  McKean’s art creates a creepy counterpoint to the words that the movie just didn’t capture, especially the Other Mother’s button-eyes, jutting chin, and creepy countenance that are showcased at the start of Chapter 3.

The breakdown of the Other Mother that occurs as Coraline continues to undermine the witch’s plans is particularly disturbing, especially the bumper image at the start of Chapter 9, which shows the Other Mother swallowing the key back to the other world.

Like I said at the start, though, the greatest joy I had when reading this book came from Gaiman’s unflinching attitude to creating a horror novel for children.  As the epigraph from the incomparable G.K. Chesterton tells us, the most important part of any fantasy (or in his case, fairy tale) is not that the child learns that monsters are real… but instead that the dark creatures one meets in stories (and also in life) can be beaten.

Through her ingenuity, confidence, and intelligence, Coraline is able to overcome a frightening, terrifying situation and she even learns a lesson about how, sometimes at least, a little bit of boredom in one’s life can better than she thought.

Neil Gaiman Month!!! Part 4 – Tricksters, Tigers, Trouble – Anansi Boys

Have you ever read a book by an author you really like only to find it… lacking?  Good examples of these in my reading history include The Road to Los Angeles by John Fante, Pulp by Charles Bukowski, and The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides.  None of them are terrible books in any way, but… compared to other works by the authors, they’re not as good.

For the last couple of years, Anansi Boys was that book for me in my Neil Gaiman library.  In fact, I came in here ready to talk about how disappointing it is… how similar the character of “Fat Charlie” Nancy is to Richard Mayhew, from Gaiman’s superior debut novel Neverwhere.  I was going to talk about how predictable much of the plot was, and how derivative the novel felt as a whole…

But then I re-read it.  I figured I owed the book (and Gaiman himself) at least that much.  And you know what?  I really enjoyed it this time around.  We’ll get into why I think this is below.

Anansi Boys
Neil Gaiman
352 Pages
William Morrow
Sept 25, 2005

So… Anansi Boys.  Even typing out the title gives me a bit of a cringe at the tip of my spine.  The title bugged me since I first saw the book at the first bookstore I worked at back in 2006, before I even knew who Neil Gaiman was (funnily enough, I remember disliking the title because I didn’t know how to pronounce it, but kept thinking it sounded too much like “Nancy Boys” for me to take seriously).  My, how things change.

To wit:  At that point, I had a dislike for fantasy.  I read the plot on the back and put the book back without a second thought.  And I forgot about the novel, pretty much entirely… even after I read Neverwhere and Sandman and greatly enjoyed them.  And then I found a battered, old remainder copy of the book at a Goodwill here in Portland and thought… A book of Neil Gaiman’s is certainly worth $3… Why not?

So I came to own my first Gaiman book.  This was about two years ago, not long after I completed my first reading of Neverwhere.  Upon finishing Anansi Boys I found the two main characters to be too similar, their arcs as characters to be almost entirely the same, and the supporting cast (particularly Rosie and Spider) to be less compelling than Door or The Marquis from Neverwhere.

Then I put the novel on the shelf and slowly surrounded it.  Next came the Absolute Sandman volumes… Then Black Orchid, Prince of Stories, and Interworld.  Soon, (all one purchase) signed copies of American Gods: The Tenth Anniversary Edition, Coraline, Odd and the Frost Giants, and The Graveyard Book.  And I read and re-read these books once or twice each while Anansi Boys just sat there.  I didn’t feel bad about it either.  I just wrote it off as a sophomore slump novel (though I was incorrect… Anansi Boys is Gaiman’s fourth novel… fifth if you include the illustration-less version of Stardust… whoops) and let it sit.

But after re-reading American Gods for about the third time… I came to enjoy the brief moments of Mr Nancy, and particularly laughed aloud at his mention of his son, whom Nancy claims he can recognize parts of Shadow, the protagonist of American Gods.  And it got me thinking… I should give Anansi Boys another chance.

So I have.  And honestly?  I love the hell out of it now.  Gone are my concerns about the similarities between Richard Mayhew and Fat Charlie (in fact, I can’t even figure out why I thought they were so bloody similar to begin with) and I’m not so miffed about the parallels in their plotting because… well, Gaiman often writes using Campbell’s idea of the monomyth (that is, the Hero’s Journey).  In fact… pretty much all his novels have at least some aspects of the monomyth  and Shadow from American Gods and Morpheus from Sandman are pretty much dead ringers for the whole idea…

So much of this novel is done well.  From the dichotomy between Fat Charlie and his brother Spider, to the slightly off-kilter humor, to the perfect annoyance one feels at Grahame Coats’ constant stream clichés (and the eventual disgust one feels as he descends further into madness).

I will admit that I found some sentences required one or two readings to be fully understood.  I would even go so far as to describe a couple of sentences as a bit clumsy.  But Gaiman hits some very Douglas Adams-esque metaphors that showcase the level of humor of the novel, and also the differences between Anansi Boys and its predecessor American Gods.

The book alternates well the scares and humor, but the most crucial thing to remember about this novel (and this is true for a good deal of Gaiman’s oeuvre) is that it is first and foremost a story about stories… where they come from, why we tell them, and the truths and lies we tell ourselves to make it through our everyday lives… and even more importantly the ones we tell ourselves when our lives turn to shit.

Neil Gaiman month is almost all wrapped up here at Books & Bits!  And that greatly saddens me.  But I’ve got about one more week of posts to go… so look forward to a double post about Coraline and The Graveyard Book (with maybe another children’s book or two tossed in for good measure), something on American Gods, and… well, maybe one or two more… believe it or not, I’m almost all out of Gaiman content to write about!