Tag Archives: Neil Gaiman

Mythology and Poetry

I have been reading right along this past month or so, but I have not taken the time to tell you all about it. Here are two brilliant offerings for those looking for a break from novels.

Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman

Norse Mythology

Neil GaimanWhat could be better in the deep midwinter than to read tales of the frigid North country? Here are many of the ancient songs, retold by a master storyteller. Sure, you could go see Thor in 3-D, but Gaiman shows him in all his pre-Spandex strength and bluster. Loki is despicably charming, whether he is truly helping the other gods or just saving his own unworthy hide, and all the characters speak in conversational, contemporary English. Although this is a friendly introduction to the Scandinavian tales, it is not for children. The gods, after all, were grown-ups, and they were not always—in fact, they were rarely—virtuous.

Devotions, by Mary Oliver

Devotions

mary-oliver-c-mariana-cook-2012-1-I had come upon Mary Oliver’s poetry in other collections, including Kwame Alexander’s Out of Wonder, reviewed here, but I had never read an entire volume by her before. I couldn’t decide among her many books, and so I was glad to start with this collection of poems from her entire body of works (so far) called Devotions. Most of Oliver’s poems are meditations on nature, and here they are collected from newest to oldest. They are simple and evocative, sometimes drawing upon her Christian faith, and the words flow from a long lifetime of living outdoors. The ocean figures largely here, but lest you picture a Caribbean island, Ms. Oliver and her partner live in chilly New England, with its hardy wildlife and pebbly beaches. Her poetry spoke to me so deeply that I asked for and received a copy of her latest volume, Felicity, for Christmas.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of Norse Mythology, and I read a library copy of Devotions before I received my own copy of Felicity. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Fortunately, the Milk, by Neil Gaiman

ImageMum is leaving town to give a lecture on lizards, and Dad is in charge of the two kids. Dad’s talents include newspaper reading and tea drinking, but, unfortunately, he uses up all of the milk. In the morning, the kids have no milk for their Toastios, so Dad goes down to the corner shop to buy some. He is gone a very long time, but when he finally returns, what a story he has to tell!

It seems that he walked out of the store, milk in hand, only to be sucked up into a spaceship with green, globby aliens who insist that he sign over the rights to the Earth so that they can redecorate it. He refuses, like a proper Earthling, and heads toward a door with a “Do Not Open” sign. One of the aliens warns him that if he does, he will “let the space-time continuum in.” He opens it anyway, and as a result, he is whisked into a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy– inspired adventure in a time machine balloon, meeting pirates and dinosaurs, cannibals and sparkly ponies. Fortunately, the milk was always at hand, even playing a key role in freeing him from his enemies. In the end, not only does he provide milk for his children, but he also saves us all from inhabiting a planet covered with pink plastic flamingoes and decorative plates.

This delightful little book is too long for a bedtime story, but too short for actual chapters. Every page is filled with Skottie Young’s hilarious, scribbly pen-and-ink drawings, which convey the tone of the text perfectly. Cannibals could really scare a young child, but these cannibals are ridiculous with just an edge of menace. Readers will pore over the brilliant details.

Neil Gaiman is a prolific author and has won the Newbery Medal in the past for his middle-grade novel, The Graveyard Book. The Newbery Committee does not allow pictures to be considered when deciding on the eligibility of the work, but even on its own, the text tells a terrific story. Considered against other offerings, however, it is probably too slight to win the medal this year. That is not to say that your family will not enjoy it immensely! Imaginative kiddos from five to twelve will giggle and roll their eyes right up to the teasing conclusion. Adults, too, will enjoy this tale of a dad who will go through harrowing trials just to bring his children breakfast.

Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

ImageA middle-aged man goes back to his rural English home for his father’s funeral and decides to take a walk down the lane for some quiet time. When he reaches the spot where a miner had committed suicide in the family car when the man was eight years old, he is suddenly plunged back into memories of those events that began his friendship with Lettie Hempstock, an eleven-year-old girl who lived on an old farm with her mother and grandmother.

After the miner’s death, odd things begin to happen. The boy finds money all over the place, but it is old-fashioned money that is no longer in use. Once, he finds a silver shilling lodged in his windpipe as he wakes from a dream. When Lettie hears about these happenings, she decides to take things in hand before someone is hurt, and she knows just where to find the creature who is causing the trouble. Lettie, who is probably not really an eleven-year-old girl, tells the boy not to let go of her hand, but he accidentally lets go—just for a split second—and in that instant, his heart is pierced by an icy shard.

No one writes horror more beautifully than Neil Gaiman. The book’s small size and child narrator may tempt you to believe that this is a children’s book. It is most assuredly not. It is an exquisite nightmare, punctuated by solid, English hominess. After being forced to go into his bathroom to perform stomach-churning surgery on himself, the boy goes on to read a whole series of what appear to be Enid Blyton novels, full of ordinary boarding school stories. Although he has witnessed otherworldly terrors, he is comforted by a hearty English dinner in the farmhouse with Lettie’s mother and grandmother. This is so quintessentially British. I read Enid Blyton, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and Patricia St. John as a child, and part of their message seems to be that if you give children good, plain, English food and send them out into the fresh air, everything will come ‘round in the end. Unless, of course, the creatures outside want to kill you. And what is Daddy doing in the drawing room with the nanny? And what is the nanny, exactly?

ImageGaiman’s children’s novels, such as Coraline and The Graveyard Book, are deservedly decorated, but even his adult novels often have a childlike quality to them, a deceptively innocent air. This novel certainly does, as does Stardust. They are rather like fairy tales with even more of an edge than the Brothers Grimm. Gaiman seems never to have lost his memories of what it is really like to be a child. He has great sympathy for children, and does not consider childhood to be a carefree time. In the 2012 Zena Sutherland Lecture, he stated:

Children are a relatively powerless minority, and, like all oppressed people, they know more about their oppressors than their oppressors know about them. (Find this in his journal here.)

Many of the worst situations that children in his novels face come as a result of the negligence or bad choices of the adults who were supposed to protect them. On the other hand, he also portrays wonderful, caring adults, such as Lettie’s mother and grandmother. Lettie is an ageless character, in many ways, and when the boy opines that grown-ups are not afraid of anything, Lettie says:

I’m going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world. (P. 112)

I can highly recommend this enchanting and frightening tale to older teens and adults. If there is an audiobook in the works, do plan to listen. Neil Gaiman has a wonderful voice, and he reads most of his own audiobooks. In the meantime, you can go to YouTube and watch his commencement address called “Make Good Art” which was also made into a book that I recently gave as a graduation present. As a matter of fact, I think I’ll go listen to that speech again right now!

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. My gushing opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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