More and more as I read Neil Gaiman's work, I find myself thinking that Neil Gaiman would make an excellent friend. It's not that he's famous or a briMore and more as I read Neil Gaiman's work, I find myself thinking that Neil Gaiman would make an excellent friend. It's not that he's famous or a brilliant writer that makes me think so, but that there's an honesty and sincerity to his work that makes me feel like that honesty and sincerity comes through in his personal life, as well. This is especially true of his nonfiction, which has a style that's conversational and personal, drawing you in as if you're sitting across from each other at a dinner table.
By habit, I'm not much of a reader of short stories. It's not that I dislike shorter works -- I've read some novellas that are better than some of the longest books I've read -- but anthologies and collections take me longer to read because I feel the need to sit and think and digest what I've just read before moving on to the next book in line. I make exceptions, of course (Neil Gaiman is one of but a handful of my "Read all the things!" authors), but for the most part, I'm more interested in standalone works than anthologized works.
The View from the Cheap Seats, being nonfiction, isn't a collection of short stories, but it is a collection of short works, most of which are written to make you think, so the same rule applies. Reading one essay or speech or introduction or appreciation or review and then diving into the next one is a bit of a shock, like going from the hot-tub directly into the pool. They require processing and appreciating, especially when Gaiman hits you with something profound, like "...discontent is a good thing: people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different, if they're discontent" (and there are a lot of those "something profound"s in this book). As the book progresses into appreciations and reviews, they become easier to read through, but the different themes and focuses of the pieces force you to slow down and take your time with the book.
(That being said, I finished this book in four days, which isn't a record, but neither is it an insignificant amount of time.)
Also, Gaiman writes with lots of commas, emdashes, and parenthetical asides, forcing the reader to pause at each one. This isn't a bad thing (at least, I hope not, since I'm a frequent users of all those things, as well), but it's interesting to note that he acknowledges this habit in one of his pieces. It's not an exaggeration to say that Gaiman has had a huge impact on me as a reader and a writer, so it's not outside the realm of possibility that I picked up these techniques from his works. Besides, I've realized I have a habit of picking up on other people's verbal tics and incorporating them into my own speech, so it's not like I haven't done this sort of thing before.
My usual approach to reviewing anthologies and collections is to write a brief thought about each piece, but here, I've foregone that approach. For one, not all pieces here are worthy of a summary or review (not that they're poorly written or anything like that; some are just so short as to not be noteworthy in the literal definition of the word, and others are about works about which I lack the proper context to evaluate); for another, there are over one hundred pieces in this collection. Writing something about each piece would grow repetitive, and wind up being longer than the average person would want to read.
What you can expect, though, is Gaiman's usual analytical probing of all things story, his own and others. Whether he's talking about the business of comics, Cassandra-like to a room full of publishers, meeting people who are friends and idols (sometimes both), or giving us a peek into how he develops his stories, his insights are keen, his observations apt. Even if I don't know enough about the authors and stories for which he writes introductions, I can't deny that he has an understanding of story that he shares with his reader. That understanding will likely drive readers to pursue some of the books and authors he writes about in these pages.
Because this is a collection of nonfiction pieces written over twenty years, it's inevitable that readers will find repetition. We will, more than once, hear about Gaiman's yearly end-of-school trip to the comics shop that was in someone's basement; we'll revisit his inspiration of and research for American Gods at least twice; and we'll even see more than one version of the same speech, as he develops them over time and experience. For casual readers, this might be a little annoying, but I'm not sure that this book is intended for casual readers. The View from the Cheap Seats is for people who want to know more about Gaiman and what makes him special, and what makes him special is his unique voice, his personable approach, and his profound understanding of story.
The final section of this anthology collects his writings about real people, and that understanding of story applies here, too, as an understanding of story requires an understanding of people. He tells us the story of Amanda Palmer as half of the Dresden Dolls, of the lives of Syrian refugees, of an author out of place and unwilling to be at the Oscars, of another author seen as a jovial fellow whose writings were fueled by anger and fury. Because this is what Gaiman does best: tell stories. Whether the people whose stories he tells are fictional or real is irrelevant; he tells, and we listen.
One thing I really really like about this book is that one of my pet phrases for the last twenty years has been "Fiction tells us the truth by lying to us", and in one of the first pieces in the book, Gaiman writes "Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all." It convinces me we'd be like this if we ever met in real life....more
I've heard that we fear what we don't understand. By that logic, the more we understand something, the less we should fear it. To prove that this isn'I've heard that we fear what we don't understand. By that logic, the more we understand something, the less we should fear it. To prove that this isn't true, I present to you What If?, Randall "xkcd" Munroe's attempt to scare the bejeezus out of everyone.
To be fair, I don't think it's Munroe's intention to do this. In fact, judging by the list of questions he printed that he didn't answer, he restrained from answering the questions that would have kept most people up long past their bedtimes. But considering that most of his answers end with the end of the world, the end of civilization as we know it, human extinction, or just your own death, it's not exactly something to read to your kids as a bedtime story (though I know a couple of medical doctors whose kids regularly read books about the various ways to die, so what do I know?).
The amazing thing about this book isn't that it answers these questions, but that it answers these questions in the most rational way possible. The book reads like an ode to the scientific method, and anyone with a slight interest in science as a working field of knowledge will find a lot to like in this book. In fact, much of what I found most fascinating about this book were the various factoids that were buried within these serious answers. For instance, did you know that it's possible to fill an entire stadium to the brim with ants and only account for about 1% of all the ants in the world? I didn't, that's for certain. And given that ants give me the heebie-jeebies (mostly due to my being allergic to them), I'm not entirely sure that this was something I wanted to know.
But you know what's even more amazing than that? It's that Munroe can write about these complex subjects in a way to make them perfectly understandable to laypersons. It helps that he has the background for this sort of thing (the dude used to be a NASA roboticist, after all), but that he has the ability to explain these concepts without a bunch of big words and pages and pages of math reminds me a bit of Richard Feynman. One doesn't have to have an advanced degree in math or science to understand his answers; one just has to have the curiosity to want to know more.
To me, that's what this book really is -- an ode to curiosity. Munroe opens the book with a story from when he was young and curious, and how the answer to his question shaped him as a person. Just because the logistics of his answers aren't possible doesn't mean one should stop thinking about how to solve a particular problem. As this book shows, you can learn a whole lot about other, practical things if you keep trying to figure out how to answer that impossible question....more
It’s odd to come around to this graphic biography by way of everything else Judd Winick has done. I remember “The Real World,” and I even remember seeIt’s odd to come around to this graphic biography by way of everything else Judd Winick has done. I remember “The Real World,” and I even remember seeing a few episodes from the season where he was a cast member (I remember Puck, but that’s about it), but I came to appreciate the writer/artist through Frumpy the Clown. And I wouldn’t even have discovered that strip had I not stumbled across a collection of the strips in a clearance book store.
Both Frumpy the Clown and Barry Ween, Boy Genius have a sense of lunacy about them, so it was somewhat surprising to read something that was so deep and serious. There were moments where that lunacy came through, but only in the moments in the story where that emotion shone through. And let’s be frank: In the real world, those moments of lunacy are few and far between. But the difference in tone also wasn’t that surprising, because even in his other two major works, Winick manages to impart a real seriousness amid all the wacky antics that happen to his characters. It’s just that the story he tells about Pedro carries a certain weight that requires a more serious tone.
And what a story it is. The beauty of stories, fictional and otherwise, is that while the writer brings the story to the page, the reader is the one who brings the emotion and the perspective that can make it effective. Brilliant writers can draw that emotion out of their readers, but our own emotional response to a story depends on what we’ve experienced ourselves, and how that relates to the story that’s being told. Pedro’s story is inspiring on many different levels, but for me, it resonated because it talked about how we’re seen after we die. The last few lines of the story are, “But not a day goes by that I don’t think of him. I guess that’s his legacy. That we remember. We honor those we love by remembering them.” And the story suggests that the more good we do, the more we have to offer to other people, then the more we are remembered, and the more impact we have on others in our lives, even after death. It transcends ideas of faith and spirituality and reminds us that there are plenty of ways that we can make a difference in the world.
The story is one of courage and honesty, and for that alone, people should be reading this book. Winick’s artwork sometimes doesn’t seem appropriate for the subject matter (his style is more cartoony than anything else, and while that works perfectly for Frumpy and Barry Ween, it sometimes seems out of place in this serious story), but one can really see the difference in the way he approached the artwork in this story. It seems to have more gravity, but at the same time, it creates an odd dissonance between the story and the art. It’s a small gripe, and one that didn’t break my connection with the story (it still brought me to tears at the end), but it’s something to mention.
I understand that this book is now required reading for some high schools, and I’m very much in favor of that decision. While it tells Pedro’s story without flinching, it also tells the author’s story of how he dealt with the idea of having a friend with AIDS. He doesn’t shy away from admitting his initial reluctance, and I think that’s probably one of the crucial points in the story. We, as people, fear what we don’t understand, but once we have a reason to come to understand something as complex as AIDS, such as coming to be very close to someone who lives with it, we learn to have more patience and understanding about it.
I highly recommend this story to anyone. Like Markus Zusak and The Book Thief, Pedro and Me was the story that Judd Winick was born to write....more