Season of Mists, Neil Gaiman

Aw, Season of Mists is great.  I like it so much.  It makes me nostalgic for Past Jenny, who was young and dumb and had yet to discover most of her now-favorite films and music and TV shows (including, of course, the other six volumes of Sandman).  Oh, wow, that’s really, really true.  I hadn’t discovered Joss Whedon yet, or The Office, or Doctor Who; I hadn’t yet seen any of my current five desert island DVDs (fifth series of Buffy, MirrorMask, Empire Records, Angels in America, and Before Sunrise); I didn’t know the Decembrists, the Shins, Neko Case – I’m amazed at Past Jenny.  What did Past Jenny do to pass the time?  Sheesh.

Anyway – wow, I’m just amazed at how many awesome things I have discovered since I left high school – anyway, this is the fourth Sandman book, and it starts out with Dream’s family getting together and sniping at each other until Dream finally decides that it was unfair of him to condemn his ex-lover to hell forever, just because she didn’t want to be his queen.  So off he goes, to fight the hordes of hell and get her back – it’s so Dream – and when he gets there, Lucifer has decided to shut down hell.  He gives the key to Dream, and takes himself off; and suddenly Dream is the center of attention from every deity and supernatural power ever, because they all want Hell.

I really don’t like the story where all the dead people come back to the public school.  I seem to recall someone telling me that Neil Gaiman went to Whitgift, in Croydon – it has peacocks and wallabies and flamingos (hee hee hee), but I am beginning to wonder whether it was possibly COMPLETELY SCARRING.  British public schools sound awful.  And not-public schools don’t seem to be any better.

Neil Gaiman’s obsession with gods, which will come to a head in, no surprises, American Gods, is all too evident here.  You have the Egyptian pantheon, a delegation from the faerie, the Norse lot of Odin, Thor, and Loki, angels from heaven in a supervisory capacity, and demons from hell; they all have things to offer Dream.  Neil Gaiman’s obviously having fun with all of them, and it is fun – Thor’s hitting on Bast, and two of the hell demons are having an affair, and a sinisterly lettered little girl from the hordes of chaos giggles when someone gets made into sausages.  It’s fun, and it wraps up tidily at the end.  Except for the bit about Loki.  That’s going to turn out worse than you think.

I am trying to decide whether I want to read A Game of You.  I have to be in the mood for A Game of You, and I’m not sure I am in the mood for it.

Year of the Griffin, Diana Wynne Jones

I didn’t exactly mean to read this.  I am still intending to read all of Shakespeare’s plays, which I had forgotten about until just now.  I am in the middle of rereading the entire Sandman.  I have a whole bunch of books out of the library about sexual ethics and other interesting things – art controversies, STDs, Bohemians – and instead of reading any of those things, I’ve been reading Diana Wynne Jones.  Once I read The Dark Lord of Derkholm I yearned and yearned for Year of the Griffin and couldn’t concentrate on anything else.

In Year of the Griffin, Derk’s youngest griffin daughter Elda goes to University to learn how to be a wizard.   The book is all about the troubles that she and (mostly) her University friends have.  All of her friends have troubles.  Lukin is an impoverished Prince, and his father doesn’t want him to come; Felim has crept away from the Emirates in secret and has assassins after him; Ruskin has been sent by a tribe of dwarf revolutionaries; Olga is the daughter of a totally wicked pirate; and Claudia is the half-sister of the Emperor of the South, and she is a half-breed so the Senators all don’t want her.

Completely good book.  The characters I liked from The Dark Lord of Derkholm are back in this, and the ones I don’t aren’t.  The students are taught by teachers who don’t want them thinking freely, and they all become very clever at thinking of the possibilities their magic has.  Hurrah for free thinking!  I love Diana Wynne Jones!

The Dark Lord of Derkholm, Diana Wynne Jones

I love the hell out of this book.  I read it to my sister when we were younger.  It’s all about this world, and it’s a fantasy world, and a bad, wicked man called Mr. Chesney is using the entire world to give people from the real world tours.  And so the entire world has to do what he says: the elves have to pretend to be wicked, and the wizards have to be Dark Lords and be defeated by the tour groups dozens of times every year; and the cities have to get sacked.  And some wizards get tired of this, so they ask an Oracle how to stop it, and the Oracle says to make this one guy, Derk, the Dark Lord for that year.  It’s very unfortunate for Derk and his whole family.  He’s the kind of wizard who invents animals, like intelligent flying talking horses, and he has two regular children and five griffin children that he made; and they all have to get all crazy with setting up the tours.  It’s very trying for everybody.

I like this book.  Diana Wynne Jones wrote it after The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, which was an amusing send-up of those sort of sword-and-sorcery fantasy novels that are all over the place these days.  Tall elves and everything.  The Tough Guide to Fantasyland was the first book I read by her.  I picked it up on my way out of the library, ages ago, just because it was on a display case, and it made me laugh.  Then when I went back and looked up her name on the computer – it was like a dream.  I should have appreciated it more.  She’s written dozens of books, this woman, and I love her.

I’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent there – sorry.  It’s just not often that something like that happens, and I’m sad that I was young and innocent then, and didn’t appreciate how amazing it was.  Anyway, The Dark Lord of Derkholm sort of came out of the Tough Guide, because Ms. Jones had written it as if the world were being toured, so Dark Lord is about the people whose world is being used.  So it’s equal parts funny (because of all the tropes that the tourists (us, in a way) expect to see, and that the people have to work incredibly hard to give the tourists), and distressing, because here they all are, destroying their entire world year after year.  Bit of a chilling concept.  Neil Gaiman would have ended up with a much creepier book, if he had written it.

I just love Diana Wynne Jones so much.  And this isn’t even her best book!  It’s not one of my favorites!  But I like it a lot.  It’s a very Diana Wynne Jonesy book.  The first time I read it, I thought it was idiotic and boring and I couldn’t finish it; and the second time, the same thing happened; and the third time, I became addicted and couldn’t stop reading it.  A fairly typical experience when I first started reading Diana Wynne Jones.  Couldn’t tell you why.

Dream Country, Neil Gaiman

Evidently the stress of writing a nice coherent plot in The Doll’s House proved temporarily too much for Neil Gaiman, and he took a break to write some single-issue self-contained stories.  And these are some damn good stories.  Except I don’t like “Façade”.  I remember not liking it so um, I sort of skipped it this time.  I know!  I could read “24 Hours” but not “Façade”?  I don’t know what’s wrong with me.

No, actually, I know exactly why I did that.  Lately I’ve been getting ready for bed around eight, then lying in bed reading for several hours.  I collect three or four books that I might feel like reading, climb up onto my bed (it’s a loft bed, so once I’m up there, I’m generally too lazy to come down before morning), and read until I can’t keep my eyes open anymore.  And last night, when I was reading Dream Country, I had Season of Mists sitting enticingly on the pillow.  So when I got to “Façade”, I just couldn’t stand the idea that there was this one story – a story I don’t even like – standing between me and the first issue of Season of Mists, probably my favorite single issue from a complete storyline (as compared with the self-contained stories), because I love it when the Endless all get together and hang out (though I hate how Delirium is drawn in this one).

Now I feel guilty.  I will probably go back and read “Façade” this evening, out of guilt.

Anyway, the other three stories are very, very good.  I like “Calliope” the best.  It’s not that I don’t like the other two – I do – but I just like “Calliope” way the best.  “Dream of a Thousand Cats” is a smidge too – I don’t know, I think it takes itself a tiny bit too seriously, considering how whimsical a story it is.  And “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is gorgeous and delightful, and no wonder it won a prize, but I am not in love with Sandman’s treatment of Shakespeare.  I love Shakespeare.  AND HE WAS NOT FRANCIS BACON AND HE DID NOT MAKE A DEAL WITH DREAM AND HE WAS A GENIUS BY HIMSELF OKAY?

Calm down, Jenny.

Anyway, I think “Calliope” is great.  I adore the brief one-panel vignettes you see of Richard Madoc – chatting up a girl at a party and telling her he does consider himself a feminist writer – then going home to the woman he’s keeping prisoner so he can be a genius.  And as well, this story casts Dream in a better light than we’ve really seen him.  His last two encounters with women haven’t been nice: condemning Nada to hell forever and ditching Lyta Hall all pregnant and despairing.  I’m always glad to see him being helpful to Calliope and screwing up Madoc’s life permanently – though without the vindictiveness I would have expected.  (This is change on his part.  Watch how it will remain a theme.)

Next up: Season of Mists.  I love Season of Mists.  It was my favorite for a few weeks in June 2004, and although I now like other volumes better, this one still holds a special place in my heart.

The Doll’s House, Neil Gaiman

Ooh, this volume is spookier than I remember.  It’s a bit hard to explain the plot, which is intricately linked to other storylines, but in short, it’s about a girl called Rose, who is looking for her little brother.  A number of other people are milling around: G.K. Chesterton, a woman who’s been pregnant for several years, a serial killer with teeth in his eyes, women with enormous spider collections, and that makes it interesting.  Still, essentially it’s all about Rose.  She has multicolored hair and numerous connections to the previous volume.  She is also a vortex, which means that she can break down the walls between everybody’s dreams.  In case this does not sound alarming, Neil Gaiman makes it really, really disturbing.  Like, much more so than the serial killer convention.  (To me – but I’m very attached to my dreams.  I’d be interested to know what other people think.  How disturbing do you find that scene where all of her flatmates’ dreams start melting into each other?  Particularly with Barbie and Ken?)

When I first started writing this review, I was going to say that two of the issues included in this volume don’t really go well with the rest of the book, but then I realized that was nonsense.  They both go very very well, “Tales in the Sand” and “Men of Good Fortune”, because they give you a really vivid sense of Dream’s mercilessness and isolation, and how both of those things can play into what’s going to happen in the rest of this volume.  As well as what’s going to happen at the end of the series, which – hey – is pretty impressive.

Gilbert is such a wonderful part of The Doll’s House.  I love Gilbert.  I think it is so nice of Neil Gaiman to have given his fictional G.K. Chesterton the chance to really actually rescue a damsel in distress, which G.K. Chesterton seems to have greatly wanted to do.  G.K. Chesterton charms me.  I would say that G.K. Chesterton accounts for a higher percentage of the quotations in my commonplace book than any other author – funny how I don’t own a single thing he wrote.  But he’s delightful here.

Still not the best, but Neil Gaiman is clearly finding his voice.  The theme of storytelling that runs through the Sandman continues to be developed here.  Neil Gaiman is always good with that theme.  Hm, and so is Martine Leavitt.  Creating yourself by the story you have about yourself.  That’s a good theme.  When it is handled well in a book, I nearly always like that book.  Maybe always always.  I’ll have to think more about this.

Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates

I got this for Christmas.  Dorothy Parker really liked it, but I didn’t think I would, due to the sadness.  On the other hand, I thought, it has layers, and I like layers.  On the other hand, they are layers of misery and depression and unlikeable characters; which is to say, not my favorite type of layers.

Revolutionary Road is all about this couple, Frank and April Wheeler (I just wrote Frank and Alice.  Twice.  Why does that sound so right?), who used to believe in their own independence of thought and action, but now they are living boring, stifling lives with two children and a white picket fence (so to speak) in 1950s suburbia.  They are always trying to maintain the illusion that they are somehow above these lives, better than their neighbors in some way, so the book is about the breakdown of that illusion.  Frank, who is in more denial about its illusory nature than April (I wrote Alice again!  Is there a couple called Frank and Alice that I can’t think of?), is the one whose point of view you get throughout the book.  And anyway they decide to move to Paris to escape from being boring.

See, it’s nifty.  It’s all about the ways that your freedom leads you into captivity, the tiny reasons for the things you choose, and how they can set you down a path to entrapment and stagnation.  Like, okay, when April gets pregnant with their first child, she comes to Frank and tells him all the steps she’s taken to finding how to abort it.  And Frank doesn’t want the baby either, but he’s mad that she acted so independently of him, so he decides to make a fuss about it, and they end up keeping the baby.  Which he didn’t want in the first place.  Voila, they are halfway to their life of suburban misery.  It’s that tension between freedom and confinement that drives the book.  All very interesting.

I really, really, really didn’t expect to like Revolutionary Road.  The whole time I was reading it, I was trying to think up interesting things to say about it, so that when the person who gave it to me asked whether I liked it, I’d be able to deflect the question by being insightful without actually saying whether I enjoyed it or not.  And for a while I really didn’t like it, because Frank and Alice – GOD.  Frank and April – just weren’t doing anything, apart from fighting and moaning about how lame their lives were.

BUT.  SPOILERS.  I read the end (after I’d got about ten pages in), so I knew April was going to abort her baby and die.  And that actually made the whole book much better, knowing that.  (My philosophy is proven right once again!)  Because Revolutionary Road is a tragedy, where you know it’s all going to end badly, but still, it always seems like it could turn out well – or at least okayish.  She is putting so much momentum into going to Paris, and you think it has to work out, because she wants it so much.  But no.  Too bad for her.  Anyway I don’t know if I will ever read this again, but it ended up being a really good book.  I copied a great big long passage of it into my commonplace book.

Longbottom.  Frank and Alice Longbottom.  Quite right too.

Harriet the Spy, Louise Fitzhugh

This weekend I did a lot of things I’ve been meaning to do for awhile, including covering my paperbacks with contact paper.  And in the process of doing this, I got started reading Harriet the Spy, which I haven’t read for ages and ages.  What a good book it is!  Harriet is an eleven-year-old girl who wants to be a spy, and she goes around spying on people and writing down everything she sees, and trying to figure out grown-ups.

I identified so strongly with Harriet when I was a kid.  I once got into huge trouble for writing a mean note to this girl in my class (she was called Jenny also, which may have contributed to my irritation with her), and after my principal fussed at me for an hour and said my note was chilling and made me cry, I got home and my mother said “So what we’ve learned is – never put anything in writing.”  A lesson I took much to heart.  I completely stopped writing my stories down on paper and took to writing everything on the computer, in documents with long complicated passwords; and when I reread Harriet the Spy not long after, I felt superior to Harriet.  Silly, silly Harriet, I remember thinking, putting things in writing when she clearly should not.

One thing Ms. Fitzhugh does terribly well is to convey how confusing adults are.  The adults in this book are completely incomprehensible, which is so true about being a kid, that thing of often not having any idea at all what all the grownups are on about.  And asking questions was so frustrating because they didn’t understand what you were really asking.  That comes through nicely in this book.  If you’ve never read it (which hardly seems possible), you should read it.  It cemented the nothing-in-writing lesson for me, and as well taught me about Dostoevsky at a very young age.  Harriet the Spy.  Check it out.  The Long Secret is also quite good, but I didn’t like the book about Sport.  Whatever it was called.

Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me, Martin Millar

Yes, yes, I finally caved and read this.  I have been delaying gratification for quite a while, but I just couldn’t resist the siren call of this book anymore.  It has been sitting so alluringly on my bookshelf.  Last night I was reading The Sixteen Pleasures and suddenly it became clear to me that if I went another second without reading Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me, my brain would explode.  (Nothing against The Sixteen Pleasures, which I’m enjoying.)  I am beginning to entertain the notion that my great dislike of everything else I’ve been reading is all to do with the fact that I really wanted to be reading Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me.  I mean really reading it, not reading two pages and then putting it away, delaying gratification some more.

Anyway, it was definitely worth the wait.  What a totally excellent book.  Martin Millar is brilliant.  It’s weird because last year around this same time I didn’t care about Martin Millar at all, and now when people ask me who my favorite author is, Martin Millar springs immediately to mind.  I wish Neil Gaiman and Martin Millar had a Time-Turner like Hermione and they could sit around and turn back time all over the place, and write dozens and dozens of books for me to read.  That would be great.  Right now there are only, like, four?  five? books of Martin Millar’s that I haven’t read already.  Four or five is an extremely small number.  I have to dole them out to myself slowly, one by one, over several years, to prolong my enjoyment.

(But not the sequel to Lonely Werewolf Girl.  When that comes out I’m going to buy it straight away.)

Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me is all about a young Martin Millar being in love with a girl called Suzy, and going to see Led Zeppelin play a gig in Glasgow, and then talking about it many years later with his friend Manx.  I liked it a lot.  (Spoilers) He mentioned Buffy and the geeky girl met Led Zeppelin and got advice about life from Robert Plant.  How good!  An altogether totally pleasing book.  And I didn’t even read the end before I got there.  (Not the right kind of book for that to be necessary.)  This book was funny and also poignant.  I like the word poignant.  I never get to use it enough.

I’m a bit sad that I’ve read this book and now I haven’t got any other Martin Millar books to read.  Our library only has books I’ve already read.  But at least now I’m not yearning for it tragically, and hopefully I will be able to enjoy other books.

Or maybe I will just watch Doctor Who a lot, as it’s Christmas and I’m trying to make my big sister who is just home from law school learn to love Doctor Who like my younger sister and I do.  This would be more successful if the TV at my parents’ house were in the living room, not the bedroom, because the living room is more comfortable to watch films in.  I am pleased about starting the fourth series, as I got tired of Martha not being fierce enough (she was always much cooler when the Doctor wasn’t around), and Donna looks like she will be clever and make the Doctor laugh but not put up with any crap.

P.S. Just can’t say this enough.  Thank you, Neil Gaiman, for writing an introduction to The Good Fairies of New York and making me decide to read it.  Also, thank you, Amazon.com, for bringing up The Good Fairies of New York when I did a search for Neil Gaiman, because otherwise I wouldn’t have known it existed.

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, Elizabeth McCracken

My God, this book was sad. It was so, so, so sad. It was just so unrelentingly sad. Even when she wasn’t particularly talking about anything sad, still it was incredibly sad. I cried a lot, especially at the end. And I’ve never even had a baby! Imagine if I had had a baby and I read this book, which is Elizabeth McCracken’s memoir about how her baby was stillborn. That would have been way much even sadder.

However, it was well-written and interesting. And it had lots of good bits, and Elizabeth McCracken endeared herself to me forever and ever and ever by saying this about New Orleans from her visit there in 2007 (I believe it was 2007):

Spring had arrived just ahead of us, in the form of actual blossoms – magnolias – and the weird kudzu of flung-from-floats Mardi Gras beads in the trees. The city was all blue skies and light breezes and raw nerves and melancholy. Most everyone we met was on edge, some so heartsick we worried, even if we hadn’t met them before. They seemed frozen. Something had happened. It had been a year and a half, and if you weren’t in the middle of it you might lose patience: New Orleans, why can’t you get over it? We were very sorry for you for a while. Now there are other things to be sad about. It’s not your time anymore. Pull yourself together.

Of course it felt familiar, as wretchedly presumptuous as that sounds. … The people we saw, old friends and strangers, had left and come back, and now they were waiting for the next disaster, the next murder, the next hurricane, the next levee failure, the loss of their home, the revocation of their homeowner’s insurance, and still of course at the same time they had to hope. Hadn’t they come back for that reason, because they hoped?

Me, too: same place, remembering the disaster, trying to believe it would not come for me again.

Ouch. It made me sad to read that. Poor New Orleans. That whole “City That Care Forgot” thing now depresses me hugely. But as a Louisiana girl I was glad she said that, and as a girl from a high-anxiety family I was glad she said this:

Our religion is worry; we performed decades of it.

And this was good:

Now what I think that woman in Florida meant is: lighter things will happen to you, birds will steal your husband’s sandwich on the beach, and your child will still be dead, and your husband’s shock will still be funny, and you will spend your life trying to resolve this.

As for me, I believe that if there’s a God – and I am as neutral on this subject as is possible – then the most basic proof of His existence is black humor. What else explains it, that odd, reliable comfort that billows up at the worst moments, like a beautiful sunset woven out of the smoke over a bombed city.

Elizabeth McCracken is a good writer, so I enjoyed reading the book, but it was very, very, very sad, and I will probably never find it necessary to read it again. Still, I really liked the things she said about grief – so maybe I will read it again. I can’t decide. This is the second (or third?) book this month that I’ve read about on Caribousmom‘s website and then really liked a lot, so thanks for that!

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Aw, this book was so sweet.  I feel like I’ve been hearing about it everywhere I turn, but I think initially I read about it on Caribousmom – apparently ages and ages ago, as she reviewed it in July.  My mother owns a copy, and I borrowed it from her and lost it, so I was in a panic about where it could be, and then the other night I was at home and I saw it on her bookshelf.  Apparently I brought it over to my parents’ house to read and then left it there.  I’m such a spaz.

Well, this book was really very, very sweet.  It’s all about post-WWII England, specifically the Channel Islands, specifically the Channel Island of Guernsey.  Writer Juliet Ashton becomes interested Guernsey’s occupation by the Germans during the war, and decides to write a book about the people there.  The book is such a dear, nice book, with all these excellent anecdotes in it.  I love anecdotes from Back In The Day.  I love reading about the brave, brave, brave British during World War II.  I love epistolary novels.  There is no bad here.  I wish the author, Mary Ann Shaffer, had lived longer so I could have read interviews with her in which she could have said where she got all these anecdotes from.  Because I am interested.

So yeah, you should read this book.  It’s nice.  Not unflawed, but really such a nice book, it’s well worth reading.

I just had – I mean – well, okay.  You know how I said it was unflawed, and then I didn’t say what any of the flaws were?  That’s deliberate, because the flaws, you know, they were few and not distressing, and it was such a nice, nice, sweet, pleasant book that I didn’t want to mention them.  But I just have to say that the whole Oscar Wilde thing – well.  I mean, I’m thrilled, of course, for it to be more widely known that Oscar Wilde’s full name was Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde.  Insofar as that goes, I’m enchanted to have the subject brought up.  Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde.

The only thing is that – minor spoilers here, I guess? – the only thing is that those letters that they have that are written by Oscar Wilde, they’re supposed to be from 1893.  Ninety-three.  The man would not have signed a letter O.F.O’F.W.W.  Not in 1893.  He didn’t do that anymore.  It was a whole thing – he said he was born with five names and he had shed all but two, and he wanted to someday be just known by one of them.  (Darling Oscar Wilde.  His 108th anniversary of death is approaching.)  I’m not saying it’s beyond the realm of possibility that in 1893 he would have signed a letter that way, but he had stopped doing that absolutely by the time he married Constance (before that actually, but this works as a benchmark), and that was, what, nine years? before these 1893 letters were supposed to have been written.  And I mean, yes, fine, that doesn’t by itself make it impossible that the letters would have been genuine, but you’d think somebody would have said, Hm, this is curious.  I certainly thought it was curious, a word I here use to mean TOTALLY IMPLAUSIBLE.

I have now officially said more about the implausibility of the date of some letters that aren’t even a major plot point, than about the book itself.  But I can’t help it!  It bothered me so much!  After I finished the book I went upstairs and fetched my Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde – yes, I own one – and looked at the signatures on every letter from 1893, just to make sure I wasn’t wrong.  (I wasn’t wrong.)