Saturday, October 29, 2011

Fragile Things ~ Neil Gaiman, Week Seven

Late again, but are you really surprised?  So here are the details, last week's post, and this week's other posts.  Onward!

"In the End" is a reverse story of one of the Bible's Creation stories, in which someone seems to be rewinding the surveillance camera at the Garden of Eden.  Okay, that bit's my addition, but you get the point.  I like when people do clever little things with that particular tale and this is a clever little thing, so I liked it.  I would like to know how one takes away names, though.

"Goliath" is about a rather large person whose world keeps pausing, resulting in him accidentally meeting a member of the system maintenance team.  Then there's this bit where the CPU teaches him how to fly fancy new technology in the real world outside of the computer world we live in and he saves the real world à la Ender.  But then they're all like, we didn't bother figuring out how to get you out of that there plane but you've got like an hour of oxygen so that's cool.  And he's like, Alright but could you maybe plug my USB into the world I used to think was the real world again?  And he goes there (AKA here) and has this awesome life and then he's back in the plane and about to die but it's cool because he had that awesome fake life.  À la Second Life.

So I kind of like those stories where they're like TWIST!  This life you've been living is just an artificial construction performed to see if you can do something that we need you to do but it's a one-shot deal so we had to make sure.  And hey READER.  Maybe you've got the same shiznat going on.  Are ya scared??  Are ya?!  Because then I get to be pleasantly paranoid and mildly flattered and it's cool.  Though I think I prefer the Goosebumps story where the family's trailer gets detached and the kids end up at the creepiest summer camp ever.  Or the novel in which a 17th century village is actually a people zoo, which The Village ripped off.  This was okay, but the whole fighting the aliens thing was underwhelming.  And what was the point of him being so large?!  But I hate The Matrix, which "Goliath" was apparently written for pre-release.  And again I wish that Gaiman had actually come up with the idea for the stories in this book himself.  And also, meh.

"Pages from a Journal Found in a Shoebox Left in a Greyhound Bus Somewhere Between Tulsa, Oklahoma and Louisville, Kentucky."  GASP CAN'T BREATHE.  In which some creeper writes a journal while chasing an imaginary person named Scarlet who may or may not be him/herself around the United States.  It's odd, in an itchy kind of way.  There's something there - Scarlet seems to have some substance without actually being real - and you can't get away from it.  Then at the end, he writes "Remember" on a post card in lipstick and it gets taken by the wind, just like a postcard he found at the beginning, and you can see him stuck in a loop.  The best part is the question of why he has abandoned his journal?  And did he abandon everything else in the shoebox?  I liked this one.  Mysterious without just flat-out failing to tell you things.

OH WAIT A SECOND, I HAVEN'T READ THE LAST ONE YET.  HANG ON.

**dum dum dum**

**insert lame hold music**

**some Muzak**

**almost there**

**thinking**

**processing**

**three days later**

Okay, here it is.  "How to Talk to Girls at Parties" is the last story of this week's selections and the fifth to last of the whole collection.  It starts off rather dully, narrated by a 15-year old boy who's being dragged to a party by his more socially savvy friend.  At said party, they find dim lighting, hot girls, and weird music.  The girls his friend encourages him to talk to say weird things which he fails to hear because he's so worried about getting with them and behaves like a junior male chauvinist.  The girls are apparently tourists from another world/galaxy/something-or-other and one claims to be a poem which she starts to recite until his friend races out of an upstairs bedroom and drags him off, flipping out, and you never find out what happened up there.  The friend says, cryptically, "I think there's a thing.  When you've gone as far as you dare.  And if you go any further, you wouldn't be you anymore?  You'd be the person who'd done that?  The places you just can't go... I think that happened to me tonight" (269).  This is an interesting sentiment, especially when seemingly connected to teen sex by an apparently confident teen boy, but is that even what he's talking about?  Did he attempt to diddle her?  Did she diddle him?  Is it something completely other??  I'm not a huge fan of mystery created by not telling you things (see comment on previous selection).  The frame was a little dull but could have been saved and even justified by something interesting having to do with the poem-martians, but then we're just left hanging.  What is up with that?!  Also, I think that "The Places You Just Can't Go" would have been a much better title for this.

So, this week was 50/50, which is better than some other weeks.  Only one week to go!  I actually haven't even started the selections for tomorrow's post, so I have no idea how I'm going to manage that, but we can always hope, right?  I hope at least to get it up by Monday, AKA the last day of the RIP challenge.  I'm going to go read right at this moment.  Really.  I promise I won't sleeeeee.........

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Some H.P. Lovecraft Stories

For the RIP challenge's Peril of the Short Story, I have mainly been reading Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman (as six posts should have made obvious by now), but I also decided to read some H.P. Lovecraft on the side.  This is my first experience with Lovecraft, who I had barely heard of up until a short piece about him that I used when tutoring for the SAT.  At that time, I developed some interest but mostly dismissed him as a genre writer (how awful!), but when this challenge came up and I saw that Lovecraft was a big inspiration for Gaiman, I decided to give him a shot.  I can tell you that this was an excellent decision and one that I would recommend for all you Lovecraft virgins out there.
Okay, I should probably amend that statement.  If you're not the kind of person who gets a certain amount of pleasure from tiptoeing to the bathroom in the dead of night, convinced that something's going to grab your ankles, and are likely pee the bed rather than risk it, you probably should just skip right over Lovecraft.  If, however, you like a good scare on those nights when you've got the apartment to yourself, then get your scared little butt to the bookstore, because this is some good reading.

While reading Gaiman, I can't really see the Lovecraft inspiration, but while reading Lovecraft, I can see what Gaiman is drawing from.  Lovecraft likes the first-person narrator, all of whom have the same sort of conversational honesty while delivering the most disturbing of truths that Gaiman shoots for in many of his stories.  However, I don't doubt Lovecraft's narrators, or at least not their sincerity.  There is something so engaging about them that works really well in the short form.  The stories and situations he creates don't need more space: they are a glimpse of the horrifying, incomprehensible but disturbing to the core.  And they're more than just ghost stories - they are literature in their scope and execution.

One complaint that I suppose you could have about Lovecraft is that he reuses a lot of themes and plot elements.  In only five stories, I've noticed that he uses a lot of rats and semi-human creatures who feast on human flesh (I told you it wasn't pleasant), but he employs them so well that I really don't mind.  It (oddly) reminds me of a quote from Gilmore Girls: "You don't dictate to an artist, you don't tell him what to do.  I mean, no one ever walked up to Degas and said, 'Hey, pal, easy with the dancers, enough already.  Draw a nice fruit bowl once in a while, will ya?'"  Rats and semi-cannibals are Lovecraft's art, they're what he does - and that's cool with me.  They're also probably the two things most effective at giving me the willies on the way to the bathroom.

If you're still not convinced, here's the first story in the collection I bought, "The Rats in the Wall."  It is ridiculously excellent and well worth a read.  It involves an American man who discovers his ancestor's British home, centuries of rumors and fears, and secrets buried deep.  Also kitty cats.  To get the best experience, I suggest you print it out, wait until it's dark out, turn out all the lights except for the one on your bedside table (a flickering candle will do), and curl up in bed with it.  Question: Is it weird that getting scared is so much fun for me?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Fragile Things ~ Neil Gaiman, Week Six

Okay.  Week Six.  You know what it's about, so I'll just give you the requisite links and get on with it: last week, the challenge, the host, and this week's posts.  Does anyone else find themselves resolving weekly to write about each selection as they read it and then not actually doing it and being angry about that every Sunday?  Yeah.  Anyway.  Onward!

"My Life" is kind of a poem, though really just prose broken up, told in the second person to somebody who keeps buying the speaker drinks whose effect on the speaker is apparent.  He tells of the ridiculousness of his childhood and it's okay but honestly, the amount of time it took me to remember what the thing was about should tell you volumes.  Either about the story itself or about how little attention grad school allows me to commit to my own endeavors...

"Fifteen painted Cards from a Vampire Tarot" was actually a pretty enjoyable collection of vignettes based on images from a tarot deck.  I assume that it's a work in progress, because the card numbers span from zero to twenty-two, skipping a few, and Gaiman promises in the introduction to finish the other seven.  I liked this because each little vignette is on its own but some characters seem to carry over and it included creepiness and oddnesss and sex and life, and it works.  I also like the idea of bringing to life an object like that.  Plus, tarot cards are kind of cool.

"Feeders and Eaters" is apparently the story of a dream that Gaiman had and though it seems a little too logically constructed to be the exact dream, it does carry that unreal dreamlike quality in which it kind of makes sense at the time but doesn't really.  It also carries with it an excruciatingly unpleasant image which impressed me based on how well I could imagine it.  This is another story within a story, and the setting of the outside story is perfect: an late-night, mostly empty diner, attended only by those you're least likely to want to talk to.  I imagine a sputtering lightbulb.  Really, it's quite a vivid story.  If you don't like to read about kitties getting hurt, though, this story is not for you.

"Diseasemakers Croup" is kind of clever and amusing and kind of irritating because you're all like "oh that's clever, a disease that only infects hypochondriacs and makes them talk all crazy and what the hell does that mean oh wait the narrator's got it haha oh my god I wish the sentences would make sense I'm getting tired of this make it stop" and then you read the intro and you're like "OH!  It's in a story collection about fictional diseases I would like to read it in that context because that way it would be more fun and have you ever thought about how maybe ALL of these stories would be better in their original contexts because that's what they were written for right? and maybe that's the problem with completist collections like this because yeah you've got everything that writer's written since the last time he put together one of these but the only connection they have is their author and is that really enough? because collections of short stories are more enjoyable when they're written to go together and I'm not just talking about connected short stories but stories that work together which these really don't and maybe that's why I'm having a hard time with this collection and thank goodness for that last story because it worked on its own and not all of these do."  And then your brain gasps and wishes for more punctuation.

Give me a break, I just had two glasses of wine.  Until next week, folks.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Catching Up

Ten o'clock on a Friday night that I've dedicated to studying and preparing for a paper and a presentation?  Perfect time for playing catch-up on the blog.

So, I've pretty much been a terrible blogger lately.  I haven't done a Meatless Monday post in week, I have two books and some short stories in the queue to be reviewed, I've barely been keeping up with my substandard Fragile Things group read posts, and my time spent looking at other people's blogs is restricted to the ten minutes I allot myself on my ipod in bed in the mornings and before I go to sleep, of which there is no evidence because I hate typing on the ipod.  Suffice it to say, I'm doing a poopy job of balancing blogging and school.

I am reading though, and not just stuff for school (though that's the vast majority).  I drag myself through the Fragile Things readings through sheer will-power, and have even managed to get in a few H.P. Lovecraft stories, which are really freaking good.  Maybe after I hand in my paper I'll write about them?  Hopefully.  I also just finished listening through the entire Harry Potter series on audiobook and just started a re-listen of Neverwhere, which, happily, is reminding me that Neil Gaiman is also awesome.  I think he is better suited to longer narratives.  Oh!  So the first time I listened to Neverwhere, there was something wrong with the files and they kept skipping around and it was a pain in the butt.  So much so, that the first time I attempted a relisten, I gave up because it kept happening.  Since then, I converted the files to audiobooks and guess what!  There's a prologue.  Nope, I did not know of its existence my whole first listen, which makes me wonder what other surprises are in store for me.  Thanks to the hours I spend walking to and from campus every week, it shouldn't be long before I find out.

I have been managing to feed myself for the most part, though it's included a lot a salads and PB&J sandwiches.  I'm going to try to get back to the Meatless Monday posts, but since I'm not a very creative chef and most of those are for me anyway, I'm not going to make it a priority.

Does anybody have any advice on balancing graduate school, two part-time jobs, and general housework while still making time for blogging?  I'd love to hear how you all do it.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Fragile Things ~ Neil Gaiman, Week Five

It's Monday and that means I'm a little late for my weekly Fragile Things post in honor of the RIP VI group read, hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings.  If you missed my last post, here it is, and here's a link to the posts by the rest of the group.

This week's readings were two poems and two stories.  The first selection was "Locks," a poem about a man telling his daughter the story of Goldilocks who, apparently, was originally an old lady.  This poem was sweet and I really loved this bit:

"There was a little girl, called Goldilocks,
for her hair was long and golden,
and she was walking in the Wood and she saw --"


"-- cows."  You say it with certainty... (178)

It's such a cute moment, in which a small child combines her own experiences with a familiar story in an attempt to make sense of both.  In the poem, Gaiman demonstrates the relationship between a father and his child and a man and his story, combining them into one.  You can feel the love that Gaiman has for his own daughter behind his words.  A lovely start to the week...

...which it seemed, at first, would continue into the next selection.  The first story was "The Problem of Susan," which is about, apparently, the problematic way that Susan is disposed of in the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis.  Apparently she doesn't get to go to Paradise because she likes lipstick?  I haven't read the series, though I always mean to, so I wasn't 100% clear on this but anywho.  I really liked how the story began: it is told from the waking and dreaming perspectives of two women, a retired professor of children's literature and a journalist writing an article on her.  The journalist is haunted by how Susan is denied Paradise when her family (or other kids? not sure) dies in a train wreck, a fictional horror that the professor lived.  Susan can't stop the obsessive momentum that sends her headlong into this topic, and the professor responds with her own experiences of identified the mangled remains of her family, until finally she asks the journalist to leave.  I liked the back and forth and how the professor slowly melts into Narnia as her body dies, but then suddenly the journalist goes back into a Narnia dream in which Aslan the lion and the White Witch consume the four children and then engage in cunnilungus, to which I said W. T. F.  I didn't have a problem with the purposeful sex in "Keepsakes and Treasures," which many other disliked, by this sex just seemed gratuitous and to have no place in the story.  Gaiman says in his introduction that he wrote this story after a long illness - maybe this was some weird dream he had while sick?  I have no idea, but its purpose in this story is baffling to me and ruined something that I was really enjoying.  I do now, however, want to read Narnia even more than before, but I don't thank Gaiman for that.

Up next was poem #2, "Instuctions," which, as Gaiman tells us in his introduction, is a set of instructions for navigating a fairytale.  It featured some stories in this collection, like the twelve months telling stories and the door with the imp on it.  It kind of suggests a navigable fairy tale world which was interesting but fell a little short for me.  I think it would have been more compelling if it had intentionally included every story in the collection and had appeared either at the beginning or end.  The middle of the collection seemed like an odd spot for it.

Finally, there was "How Do You Think It Feels?" a thoroughly non-fantasy story about a man who cheats on his wife and is fully willing to leave both her and their twin daughters for a younger woman who gets bored of him as soon as he decides to commit to her.  Ho-hum.  The one bit I notably enjoyed was when he talks about the differences between his daughters and you can tell how well he knows and loves them (flashback to "Locks") - but apparently not enough to stay with them.  In the end, he gets back with the now-older younger lady for one last night, and then she vanishes afterwards and he decides that he will be fine without her.  It wasn't a bad story, just not particularly interesting or compelling, particularly as part of this collection.

So it was another underwhelming week, but I'll stick with it - only three more weeks to go.  I've also been reading some stories by H.P. Lovecraft which are so freaking good.  I plan to write about some of them later this week but let me just say now - I can see where Gaiman gets his inspiration but at least in terms of short stories, he does not live up to his master.  Lovecraft has me picturing monsters under the bed.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Fragile Things ~ Neil Gaiman, Week Four

On to week three of the Fragile Things group read.  If you don't know what I'm talking about, go here.  If you missed my week three post, which I only managed to put up yesterday, you can check it out here.  Check out the rest of the participants' reviews here.  And off we go!

This was, thankfully, a poetry-free week.  Our first story was "Good Boys Deserve Favors," a story that a man tells about his childhood in which he made half-hearted attempts to play the double bass, mostly because of the incongruity between its size and his own.  This was an odd story.  Odd, because even the narrator didn't seem sure what the point of it was.  He frames it as a story he has never told his children - "I would be hard put to tell you quite why not" (134).  The story was relatable - I myself have been that child whose musical ambitions have not matched my efforts (I failed to practice the flute).  Other than that, though, I was left asking "and?"  It's not a bad story, just one that I did not connect with, I suppose.  Its role or purpose in the collection is a mystery to me and Gaiman failed to illuminate it, as it is missing from the introduction.

"The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch" is another testament to Gaiman's love of the long title and the use of prepositions.  It also fits much better in the collection, telling of the disappearance of a prim and irritating biologist biogeologist at a second-rate circus.  The story is broken into chunks based on the rooms of the circus, and sometimes the text of the narrative interacts with the subheadings, which was pleasantly unexpected.  The story is strange, asking questions it does not answer, like why the narrator and her friends get into the circus for free, and how the circus manages to raise prehistoric beasts at Miss Finch's command.  I don't mind unanswered questions however - it is the way of life - and I enjoyed this little story.  It made me wonder.

"Strange Little Girls" was an underwhelming experience.  Apparently Gaiman wrote these ten vignettes to accompany a Tori Amos album in which Ms. Amos creates a persona for each song, each of which Gaiman turned into a character sketch.  Unfortunately, these didn't go beyond the level of character sketches for me and while interesting, I needed a bit more.

Finally, "Harlequin Valentine" tells of Harlequin's Valentine's Day, beginning with him nailing his own heart to his crush's door with a hatpin, and ends with him working as a line cook named Pete in a small-town diner.  Though I knew nothing of Harlequin before beginning this, I did not mind - Gaiman does a good enough job portraying the character that I did not need background knowledge.  And Missy, the object of Harlequin's affections, is great too - her reaction to finding a heart nailed to her door is to put it in a ziplock bag and tidy up.  She later tricks Harlequin into losing his identity, assuming it herself.  This is a lady I want to know (though now that she is Harlequin, I'd probably do better to leave her alone).

We're halfway through and thus far, it seems that this collection is very hit or miss for me.  I read another collection of stories by Gaiman years ago, Smoke and Mirrors, and I remember feeling similarly.  However, I've read two of his novels - Stardust and Neverwhere - and loved both.  Judging by the fact that most of these stories seem to be commissions, perhaps novels are really his craft, and what I should stick to in the future.  However, I've had enough enjoyable experiences with this collection to finish it out - I just hope the second half is a bit more satisfying.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Fragile Things ~ Neil Gaiman, Week Three

Okay, so it would seem that being a full-time MSW student and a blogger are not terribly compatible.  By which I mean that I missed not one but two planned posts and it took me five days to even acknowledge that fact (though I did notice at the time, there just wasn't anything I could do about it).  Likewise, I apologize for being a terrible blog-friend and not having a chance to read other people's posts.  I will try to atone but I can't make any promises until the semester ends.

I'm going to let this week's Meatless Monday pass us on by, since that's my own thing and it has no specific agenda other than to get you to stop eating that chicken-fried steak (don't lie, you know you are).  However, I do want to make up for the Fragile Things post so that I'll be all caught up come tomorrow.  For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about (though that's probably nobody since everybody and his mother is doing this), I'm reading Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman for the RIP IV challenge hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings.  This is the third week, meaning stories 9-12.  Check out week two here.

I want to start it off by saying that I liked this set of readings much better than the last.  And I shall follow that by saying that I did not like the poem that we started out with.  The lack of rhythm and broken, awkward phrasing in "Going Wodwo" just didn't do it for me.  It's funny, because I used to really love poetry like this, with random breaks and whatnot, but I've lost my pleasure in it.  Rhythm and sound games are what I want and if they're not there, I lack interest.  I did like the idea it gave, of merging with the forest, but I did not like the half-line, "I must be nuts."  This could have been something for me, but it just didn't work.  Honestly though, I'm here for the stories, so I don't mind.

I did, however, like "Bitter Grounds," the story that comes next.  Here, we follow a narrator on a bizarre trip around America in which he befriends a professor who soon disappears and assumes his identity, then has sex with some shaman-like woman in New Orleans (some other stuff happens too).  We learn very little about the narrator's background and though the content of the story implies that he is unreliable (is he even alive?), he inspired my trust.  I like this kind of "scary" story because it is definitely disturbing but for a reason that's not so clear.  The unknowability of the situation and the way that the narrator seems both so close and so distant left me with a sense of lingering unease more profound than zombies at the door.  "Bitter Grounds" definitely earns a reread, partially because it's good and partially to more fully understand it, though sadly I don't think I'll manage it for a while.

Next up was "Other People," a disturbing loop of a story in which the foreign becomes the familiar.  A man is transformed from tortured to torturer, all by reliving the story of his life until he found the truth of it beneath all the layers of what he thought he knew about it.  The thought that this subhuman comprehension could so destroy a man is horrifying and believable.  The only thing lacking is the story of what the man in his life did to deserve this fate after death, but I would argue that that's the point - it could be anything.  It could be the crimes of a tyrant or a serial killer.  It could be whatever your life has been.  Though Gaiman doesn't acknowledge it in the introduction, this story reminds me of No Exit by Jean Paul Sartre.  Hell is not exactly other people here, but it is what you have made it.  Great, and thought-provoking.

***Surprise story!  I finally reached the point in the introduction with the freebie story that I've heard so much about.  "The Mapmaker" is tucked in between the blurbs Gaiman wrote about the stories and poems in the texts.  It begins confusingly, with a musing on tales and maps and how the best description of them are the story and lands themselves, making the tales and maps useless.  This culminates in the line "The tale is the map which is the territory" (xix).  I read this a couple of times and it just made my head spin, so I read on.  The story takes the form of an oral myth, telling of an emperor of China who seems set on squandering his empire's fortune on perfectly scaled and detailed reproductions of it, first in miniature and then in life-size.  The story was odd and not quite as compelling as I'd like until I went back to the first paragraph: a map can never capture the truth of the place, a retelling can never capture an experience.  The original stands alone, always.  I didn't love the story of the emperor, but I did find the idea behind it fascinating, though I don't know if I agree.  The tale and the story are two different experiences, and difficult to compare.**

Finally, there is "Keepsakes and Treasures," an absolutely chilling tale of a man who avenges himself of the men who raped his mother and potentially fathered him, and then reveals his participation in the sexual subjugation of others, for his own and others' pleasure.  This is no ghost tale - it's a story of how real people can go terribly wrong and it is all the more disturbing for that.  Like Gaiman admits in his introduction, I want to know more about this horrifying character and am glad to hear that he will be making another appearance in the collection.  Oh, and I'll leave you with this idea from the story: the richest men in the world aren't the ones you've heard of.  The richest men in the world can pay a person more money than you can hope to earn in your lifetime to make sure you've never heard of them.  Scared?  Me too.

It seems that what I liked about this week's reading was the departure from the fantastic.  Though the story in hell is unknowable and the story of the emperor is unlikely, these stories address human nature in a way that is far more disturbing than some of the stories we've seen thus far.  Who needs goblins when you have human beings??