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Neil Gaiman Is Doing It Right

18 Jul

Mr. Gaiman is having a very good year. In the UK, a new adaptation of his radio play Neverwhere kicked off in March to rave reviews on BBC Radio 4. He wrote his second episode of the long-running sci-fi institution Doctor Who, which aired in May, also to high acclaim. He is writing scripts for an HBO adaptation to his masterpiece novel American Gods, reportedly planned for six seasons with a respectable budget of $40 million per season. He has written his first video game, a gothic, cartoony mystery called Wayward Manor, due out in the fall. And 2013 saw three book releases for Neil: two children’s books, Chu’s Day and Fortunately, the Milk (forthcoming), as well as his first novel in eight years, The Ocean at the End of the Lane – centerpiece of a massive summer tour.

The tour for Ocean is particularly significant because it’s the last major U.S. tour Neil Gaiman plans to do. Ever. There are reasons for this, as I would soon learn for myself. But with that in mind, I really had no choice – if I ever wanted to meet the guy, this was probably my chance. So, I pre-ordered two tickets for the event in Saratoga Springs, orchestrated by Northshire Books in anticipation of their new store opening, and I planned a long Adirondack weekend for my lady and I. A book event, some camping, some beer stops, and a visit to my cousin in nearby Albany – it all seemed to fit together easily. I tuned the car up and made sure our tent had no holes in it. I ordered a couple of books online to get signed (first edition of Smoke & Mirrors, and a copy of American Gods for a friend in South Korea). All systems go!

Saratoga Springs is a tiny town with some cool (but higher-end) stores. There’s a spice and hot sauce shop, a bookstore with a lovely collection of fine books (teasingly out of my price range), fashionable boutiques, a store that sells nothing but olive oils and balsamic vinegars (all of which you can taste for free) – you get the idea. We meandered a bit, had a decent Asian lunch at Phila Fusion, then went to the Gaiman event at the new City Center, which I liked right away for its large free and centrally located parking lot.

citycenter

Much waiting and carousing with fans. Much shifting of butts in seats. And then Neil came on stage and he was funny and endearing and relaxed and a joy to listen to. He read from the new book and answered some questions. It was a good interview, conducted by Joe Donahue for WAMC Northeast Public Radio. You can hear the audio of the interview here.

interview

Then Neil Gaiman left the stage, applause resounding throughout the monstrous room, spirits high, smiles all around. And next, unbeknownst and unexpected, and through no fault of Mr. Gaiman, a tedious crucible began.

It was time for the book signing portion of the evening. Now, there were 1500 people at this thing. And nearly all of them were eager to meet Neil and get a book signed. How do you organize 1500 fans? Well, the coordinators decided to use a random letter system – everyone was assigned a letter with their copy of the book, and the groups would take turns alphabetically. All the A group, then all the B, etc. We were group F, and I think it only went up to G. I knew these sorts of events could go well past midnight, so it seemed that we had some time on our hands before we’d get to meet Neil. After watching the process for a while to get a sense of how fast things were moving, we decided to go get some Chinese food and come back, figuring we’d get back well before they called the F’s. Well. That apparently was a huge mistake. While we were gone, the coordinators had decided to completely abandon the alphabet system and make it a free-for-all instead. Everyone in the place had made a mad dash to get in line, and by the time we returned, we found ourselves at the very end of that line. This line now stretched all the way around the auditorium, down the hall, and then snaked through another conference room. It became clear that the rest of our night was now spoken for.

I don’t want to seem bitter, and I know orchestrating this event must have been challenging. Overall, Northshire did a fantastic job. But boy were we steamed at the time. We could have been out of there in a couple of hours if they hadn’t changed the line system. Instead, it was a little after midnight by the time we actually made it to the signing table. The reading had been at 6:00, and I had been saving our seats since 4:30. So all told, I spent about eight hours in that event hall, four of it standing in line. Not awesome.

But after all of these annoyances and all of that waiting, I finally did get to meet Neil Gaiman. He signed my books and we had the briefest but nicest chat. I thanked him for sharing his wonderful brain with the world and for being committed enough to his fans to endure this absurd marathon of publicity. And he smiled a goofy, worn-out smile and thanked me for the same. There were so many questions I would have asked this prolific and multi-talented writer, but I wasn’t sure he’d be up for it, and I was a zombie myself by that point. I said take care and have a good tour, and he said “You too. Take care I mean. Not the tour part…” And we both sort of chuckled in exhaustion and that was that.

neil-tardis

Was it worth it? Absolutely. I have nothing but admiration for this guy, as an artist and now as a human being. He is known to endure long nights on tour, refusing to leave if even one person is still in line, and I’ve now seen the cost of that dedication. And that’s why I understand the reason this is his last one. However exhausting it was for me, I know it was a thousand times more for him. Connecting with your readers is an important thing – Gaiman has over 1.8 million twitter followers, for good reason. He gets it, and we know he gets it, and we love him for it. But when it stops being fun and starts being a test of physical and mental endurance, I can understand backing off a bit. Besides, I’d really rather he stayed home to write more and more awesome things. I’m just selfish that way.

So how is the new book, anyway? It’s a beautiful little book, only 56k words – quite short for a novel. But he makes every word count, and there are moments of beauty that I would argue can match some of literature’s greatest approaches to the human condition. The narrative is unique in content and tone, blending a sort of child-like frankness with the sobering profundity of life’s dangers and uncertainty. It’s very Gaiman, the mythical woven into the real world, and the subtle humor. There’s nostalgia, but it has an interesting layer of philosophy beneath it. How our memories shape (and trick) us, how our desires can create danger, and what it means to be loyal to the people we care about. Such a short book, but enchanting, surreal, and deeper than it seems.

~

60 Second Review – Mira Grant’s FEED

28 May

Feed (Newsflesh Trilogy, #1)Feed by Mira Grant
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a great book.

I don’t just mean great for zombie-philes or horror buffs, though they’ll surely find satisfaction here. If you have a penchant for flesh-eaters and catastrophic scenarios, this book will scratch that itch. But Feed is also just a great book period. It is very well-written, both in its language and structure. Mira Grant capably executes the suspension of disbelief while walking a self-made line between post-apocalypse horror, sci-fi, and political thriller. She makes some narrative decisions (no spoilers) that would have been disastrous in lesser-hands, but she pulls it off well. The exposition of the technology, society, and bureaucracy of this near-future was interesting and never felt forced. I enjoyed the way each chapter closed with a blog excerpt, reinforcing the story and atmosphere while further immersing us into the world. And I felt for the characters and cared about what happened to them, which, to me, is the number one victory for a work of fiction.

The headline of this book might read: Scrappy and Audacious Bloggers Tackle High-level Conspiracy and the Restless Undead. There is action and tragedy, a bit of humor and a bit of hope. The author’s attention to detail is impressive. The medical details are realistic for the genre, and the settings are logically thought out. Unable to eradicate the zombie epidemic, society adapts to live with it. It’s an America that has grown disconnected and fearful while clinging as much as possible to its past, with standardized blood-testing, gated communities, and a vigilant security culture. At the same time, it’s an America that is easy to recognize – ideological extremists make waves, while (literally) die-hard journalists who still believe in the value of truth fight for it with their very lives.

In short, Feed was a fun, interesting, and original read. Looking forward to the rest of the trilogy.

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Pirates and Book Piles

6 May

It’s been a particularly bookish weekend. I recently received an ARC of the novel Greenbeard by one Richard James Bentley, and it looks like a rollicking swashbuckler of a good time. Looking forward to reading and reviewing it tonight, with the auditory aid of epic metal-pirates Alestorm in the background, and the libatious aid of Pyrat XO Reserve. Both heartily recommended.

Aw yesh.

Aw yesh.

Saturday marked the first day of the spring Friends of the Library book sale, a bi-annual event during which I buy absurd quantities of lovely books and then promise my lovely lady that I will buy another bookcase so that they aren’t cluttering the floors. It’s one of our little traditions. This weekend’s haul included a lot of great fantasy stuff that I’ve been meaning to check out – Glen Cook, Joe Abercrombie, Brent Weeks – as well as some literary stuff from Calvino, Gorky, and Robert Walser. The prize was a thick edition of Icelandic sagas and a two-volume set of Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber! Yes, book sale month is my favorite time of the year.

The glory.

The glory.

The last development of this weekend was an idea to compile and possibly self-publish a humble cookbook. My S.O. and I are often asked about some of the recipes we have created and/or improvised, and I thought it might be a fun joint project for us. We have both always been very conscious of our food choices, and as such we have developed an interesting repertoire of dishes that are healthful and scrumptious. So I look forward to sharing that, and I think it could also be a good experimental toe-dip into the realm of DIY e-publishing. There is certainly a lot to learn there, and I always learn best by doing! Advice always welcome.

Peddling My Passion: Dream of an Aspiring Bookseller

20 Mar

People who know me know I have an unyielding, unreasonable, possibly unhealthy love of books. My personal library is over a thousand volumes strong, and they tend to come in a lot more than they go out. It’s a passion I’ve grown into naturally throughout my life, but recently it occurred to me that this passion may have another dimension to it. A profitable dimension!

I’ve talked to many booksellers over the years, always with a sort of wistful envy that they get to devote their energy to the buying and selling of these great treasures. Then, while recently attending a ridiculously huge and amazing book sale, I met a seller who reminded me an awful lot of myself. Similar age, similar back-story, and now he was making money dealing books out of his house with his girlfriend. Livin’ the dream, as far as I’m concerned. This got me to thinking: I know books. I know the internet. I’ve sold things. I could make a neat side business with this, add “book-slinger” to my many epithets. I’ve always liked to have multiple hats.

So, at the next ridiculously huge and amazing book sale, I bought some extra stuff, with the intent of selling rather than collecting. Then I culled some of the more valuable books from my own collection. This gave me a tidy little stock, enough to get started with. Today I am working on researching values and making a database. I’ve also been thinking a lot about the philosophy of selling books, and how it involves knowledge and trust and research and community. And the more I think about it, the more I realize: I can do this! I can have fun doing this!

Stay tuned, book-lovers. Stay tuned.

books1

10-second review of my latest read

15 Mar

Anansi BoysAnansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

No one blends the real and the fantastic like Neil Gaiman. The more I read of him, the more I believe he is one of our greatest living story-tellers.

Anansi Boys is a story of family, fable, and finding one's voice. Neil's own narrative voice is effortlessly captivating, as he weaves a tale as tight and multifaceted as a mischievous Spider's spindly web. His characters are full and loveable, his humor and sensibilities endearing, and his trademark spins of reality full of fun and simple wisdom. Can't recommend this modern classic enough.

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Awesome Project Plug: Book Crossing

6 Mar

Books are amazing things. They are like spider silk connecting us to a web that stretches through time and space. And one thing I love is the magic of stumbling randomly upon a book that ends up really changing you. Sure, the digital-age affords us undreamed-of choices and access, with everything we imagine we want only a click away. But there is much to be said for old-fashioned serendipity, the chance encounters that alter our course out in the real world. Finding an unexpected book is a lot like forging an unexpected friendship. You weren’t looking for it, but now that you have it – what happiness! Each experience forges us anew, and sometimes we don’t know what we love until we find it.

Who knows why we pick the books we pick. Maybe a title triggers something in your mind. Maybe the author is familiar. Maybe the cover attracts you. Or maybe you find a worn paperback on a park bench and just start reading. When I was on the road a lot, I would leave my finished paperbacks in strategic spots to be enjoyed by the next random wayfarer. And I still love to give books away, and have them given to me. There is nothing like an unexpected book gifted by a friend, or a complete stranger.

What I like about used books particularly is how they can travel. When I hold one, I like to imagine the “life” of it, how it ended up in my hands. Which brings us, at last, to the point. There is a project called Book Crossing where you can print a special label for a book and “release” it out into the world, following its journey with the website. People who find the book can enter the ID# on the site and talk about how they found out, what they think of it, and where it is now. I think this is pretty damn neat, and I’d love to see it catch on!


Read and Release at BookCrossing.com...

A Review of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood

21 Jan

Wise BloodWise Blood by Flannery O’Connor
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was my first by O’Connor.

Story and theme aside, there is something about her style that is very addicting. I found myself speeding through this book in two days. Her prose has a no-nonsense directness that is amplified by the occasional (cunningly apt) metaphor, and by her darkly human characters – grotesque, self-serving, dishonest, indifferent, cruel, desperate.

Much is made about the author’s religious views, but in O’Connor’s uniquely questing artistry, what comes to the fore is not doctrine, but rather the tangled root of her beliefs, which really reflect a universal problem of seeking meaning.

Our protagonist is Haze Motes (a name which I learned references a Biblical passage regarding judgement – “do not remove the mote from your neighbor’s eye without first removing your own”). This allusion to eyes is part of the central concern of the book, that of vision (and blindness). Haze’s eyes are described like a sacred mystery by the young girl who is fascinated by him, eyes that “don’t look like they see what he’s looking at but they keep on looking.” Haze is constantly looking, but rarely and reluctantly at the external world.

What he is looking for is a truth that the Church no longer provides him. A derelict veteran, he finds a calling to become a vocal anti-theist, even while his conflicts and behavior show him to have an indelibly “religious” persona in spite of his denouncements – a backwards nihilist monk, committed to his own special mission. He becomes an anti-preacher, trying to open people’s eyes to the needlessness of their moral suffering, yet really projecting his own sense of being lost. He is reactive and materially indifferent. And he occupies his own world, inwardly focused on his concerns for redemption and truth. Other characters try to penetrate this world, to see what is behind those eyes, attracted to his suffering. The last quarter of the book brings the author’s ideas together beautifully in a suddenly tightened knot that left me feeling a touch breathless.

Flannery O’Connor is brilliant at layering symbolism and exploring an idea from seemingly casual, tangential angles. Her depth catches you suddenly and off-guard, like realizing you’ve tread too far from the shore. I am looking forward very much to exploring more of her work.

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Some poetry volumes lately occupying my attention

16 Mar

I have a weird relationship with poetry.  95% of what I read seems manufactured, tedious, whiny, pedantic, or all of the above.  Yet I often find myself writing what could only be called poetry, and I’ve been doing it since middle school.  To steal an idea from Kundera’s The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts – poetry is a selfish art, compared to prose.  Where fiction (good fiction, anyway) explores the universal, poetry is the projection and plumbing of one’s own inner world.  “…a lyric poet is only the most exemplary incarnation of man dazzled by his own soul and by the desire to make it heard,” Kundera observes.  I agree with him, and I suspect it’s one reason why I have such a hard time with poetry itself.  It is not an easy thing to really inhabit another’s inner world, even for only the length of a poem, and it’s a rare feat to produce poetry which can transcend this natural obstacle.

There are a handful of poets whom I really love.  Perhaps my nature is simply especially compatible with their natures, or perhaps they are just gifted enough to stand out.  In any case, poetry is admittedly not my field or my forte, but these are some folks who make my probably-too-short list.


Jim Harrison – Probably the one living writer I’d most like to meet in my life.  I’ll sound like a gushing fan boy here, but Harrison has a well-defined appreciation for all of the right things: red wine, good women, rivers, crows and garlic.  He is a suitor of the natural world, walking and wooing the forests of Maine, the deserts of Arizona, and the mountains of Montana.  And he transmutes these appreciations into poetry which can by turns exalt, provoke, levitate and then cut to the bone.  His volumes of verse are the ones I read most regularly, and the ones I most often recommend.

“There is no “I” with the sun and moon.
Time means only the irretrievable.
If I mourn myself, the beloved dead,
I must mourn the deaths of galaxies.”

Saving Daylight


Federico Garcia Lorca – Lorca was a beloved Spanish poet of the early 20th century.  He is a treasure for the Spanish-speaking world, and the literary world at large.  Lorca was a man of deep passions, and his poetry ranges from love sonnets to tales of gypsy life to revelries of the sea.  His death at the hands of Spanish fascists at the onset of the Civil War inspired a worldwide opposition by artists around the world to Franco’s tyrannical regime.

“The sea
smiles from far off.
Teeth of foam,
lips of sky.”

The Selected Poems of Federico Garcia Lorca


Hermann Hesse – Hesse is definitely my favorite German writer, and possibly my favorite writer period.  His novels The Glass Bead Game, Siddhartha and Narcissus and Goldmund were life-changing for me.  So naturally, when I stumbled upon a slim paperback of his poetry many years ago, I had to snatch it up.  But what began as a completist’s impulse soon became a surprising pleasure.  Here is my recent review, on Goodreads.com:

PoemsPoems by Hermann Hesse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

James Wright has done the world a service in translating this slight but potent volume of Hesse’s verse. The dreamy tone and fantasy of Hesse’s poems are well-reserved, and his lyricism shines brightly as ever through the translation. While some will find these poems to be simplistic, even juvenile, I think that seeming naivety and emotional honesty is exactly what gives them power. Where his novels explore the heights and depths of the mind and spirit, his poetry is pure, heartfelt and impulsive. My only disappointment is the meager size of the offering. I’ve no doubt that Wright chose well when selecting which poems to translate, but it would be nice to see a new talent take the baton and translate all of Hesse’s poetry for an English audience.

“The Lake has died down,
The reed, black in its sleep,
Whispers in a dream.
Expanding immensely into the countryside,
The mountains look, outspread.
They are not resting.
They breathe deeply, and hold themselves,
Pressed tightly to one another.
Deeply breathing,
Laden with mute forces,
Caught in a wasting passion.”

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