Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Review - The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman

Short review: A collection of eighty-five works of nonfiction covering a range of topics from book stores, to the comics industry, from boons to video games to movies, and from authors to refugees.

Pull up a chair and
Listen to Gaiman expound
On almost all things

Full review: The View from the Cheap Seats is an eclectic mix of selected nonfiction drawn from a wide swathe of Neil Gaiman's career. The works include the transcripts of speeches, introductions to books, memorials to departed writers, liner notes from albums, interviews, and pretty much every other form of writing that one can think of. The topics covered range from libraries to bookstores, from authors to books to music, and from comic books to refugee camps. While this volume is not a complete collection of Gaiman's nonfiction (assembling which would likely be a nigh impossible task), it does contain a broad spectrum of his work, both in terms of style and substance.

Normally, I would describe a volume like this as a collection of essays, but in the case of The View from the Cheap Seats, that would be a misnomer, as these are, for the most part, not essays, but other pieces of writing. The various pieces in this volume are grouped into ten broad categories, each with a relatively loose theme. Because these pieces appeared in a variety of outlets often separated from one another in both time and venue, many of them return to the same themes (and in some cases, the same anecdotes) so reading them one after another can be a little repetitive at times, as Gaiman returns to the same rhetorical well in one article after another. This is somewhat exacerbated by the groupings, as, for example, Gaiman's thoughts on what he believes generally have similar tempos and hit the same notes over an over again, which means that putting them all together in the same section has the effect of highlighting their similarities.

That said, this is Neil Gaiman's work, and as a result, it is almost all top notch, even when he does repeat himself a bit. The sections are: "Things I Believe", which are mostly speeches and articles in which Gaiman expounds upon some element of art, myth, or writing. "Some People I Have Known", which are either introductions to books or memorials to authors who have passed on. "Introductions And Musings: Science Fiction", which are introductions to books and one Nebula Awards speech. "Films and Movies and Me" which is basically Gaiman expounding upon film, mostly filmed work he has been involved in. "On Comics and Some of the People Who Make Them", which consists of articles about various comic book properties and creators as well as some insightful speeches about the genre. "Introductions and Contradictions" which is a grab-bag of introductions Gaiman wrote for books that don't really fit in any of the other categories. "Music and the People Who Make It" consisting of album liner notes, a couple of stories about Amanda Palmer, and his interview with Lou Reed. "On Stardust and Fairy Tales" a section that, given the title, has far less about Gaiman's Stardust than one would think, but a lot of commentary about fairy tale stories. "Make Good Art", which is the only section that is comprised of a single essay, whose title is the same as the section. "The View from the Cheap Seats: Real Things" the last and probably most personal section has essays that are clearly important to Gaiman but cannot really be categorized with the rest of the material in the book, and includes both his harrowing article about visiting a Syrian refugee camp and his intensely personal essay about the loss of his friend and collaborator Terry Pratchett. Every section contains brutal, brilliant, and insightful pieces in which Gaiman explores such a wide variety of topics that one has to wonder how he keeps up with all of them.

The most notable thing about The View from the Cheap Seats is that, with two notable (and entirely understandable) exceptions, Gaiman is relentlessly positive. I suppose it is kind of sad that a collection of writing that is almost entirely about how much the writer loves the things he is writing about is unusual in that regard, but it does make reading this book an enjoyable experience. It doesn't matter what Gaiman is writing about, he seems to always try to find what he loves in the subject. If he is writing about libraries and bookstores, he writes about the things that he loves about libraries and bookstores - even when writing about the creepy adult book store that somewhat inexplicably had a stack of old science fiction paperbacks on a back shelf. When he writes about books, he focuses on the part of the book that he found transcendent and sublime. When he writes about authors, he writes about the things they created that moved him.

Gaiman even generally keeps the tone positive when writing memorial pieces about authors, which he seems to often be having to do. It is probably a function of Gaiman coming to prominence at a relatively young age, but he seems to now be in the position of being the one who is called upon, by virtue of his relationship with the deceased, to write a tribute to an author or artist who has passed away. He is, to a certain extent, now in the role of being the man who remembers the great authors, artists, and singers of the past for those of us who were not fortunate enough to know them. For the most part, these memorials are sad and wistful, but focus primarily on what great art the departed made while they were alive, and how they touched the lives of others in beneficial ways. The one time Gaiman lets his anger at the loss of someone shine through is late in the volume, in A Slip of the Keyboard: Terry Pratchett, his essay about the passing of his friend and collaborator, but in the end he turns to focusing on the good things about Terry and leaves behind the fury at having him taken away too early.

The one essay which sees Gaiman angry is his piece about Syrian refugee camps titled So Many Ways to Die in Syria Now: May 2014. This is markedly different from the other works in the book, because its subject matter is the human tragedy playing out in dusty UN refugee camps in the Jordanian desert rather than books, music, authors, or artists. Without denigrating the rest of the work in this volume, this essay is definitely the most powerful and moving in the book, in large part due to the seriousness of the subject matter, but also because the plight of the Syrian refugees seems to bring out the very best in Gaiman as he works very hard to make sure their voices come through in his writing. Gaiman has done some news articles in the past, although most of his work seems to have been fluffy celebrity pieces - he did, after all, get his start writing a book about Duran Duran, but this article shows that if he hadn't moved into comics and fiction writing, he'd have been an excellent news correspondent.

In the end, The View from the Cheap Seats is five hundred pages of Gaiman writing about the world around him, and mostly writing about the things he loves. To a certain extent this book can be seen as Gaiman's attempt to pass on the things he loves to the reader, hoping that by extolling their virtues, his enthusiasm will rub off on his audience. By and large, at least for me, this worked, and I came away from the book with a list of new writers to read, music to seek out and listen to, and movies to watch. This is an excellent survey of Gaiman's work, that is likely to appeal both to those who have never read any of his nonfiction work and those who are hardcore fans of his, and is definitely worth reading.

2017 Hugo Award Finalists

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Monday, November 13, 2017

Musical Monday - Big Bang by the Doubleclicks featuring Jonathan Coulton

In the Doubleclick's most recent album Love Problems, Angela seems to have opened up the floodgates of her thoughts on relationships and breakups and unleashed a collection of some of the most devastating nerdy songs that has been put forth. Big Bang is fundamentally a break-up song that tells the story of two people who long for the past, don't quite understand how everything went wrong, and resent the present. There isn't anything new or unusual about a break-up song - Taylor Swift has made pretty much her entire career out of break-up songs - but the difference here is that the Doubleclicks couch their break-up song in the language of nerdy references.

One might say that this is banal - break-up songs are common, and just taking a standard tale of a splintered relationship and draping it with imagery about the Big Bang and molecules is just doing something conventional with a genre-style facade. The thing is, I think this is not something ordinary, but is instead something quite valuable. Angela has taken something conventional and translated it into a language that will speak to a specific segment of the population. Phrasing stories and art in a way that it reaches a different audience is important. This is why, for example, you generally won't hear me dumping on romance novels - I don't care for them, but they speak to a particular audience. My science fiction and genre fantasy novels probably don't speak to romance fans either, even though there are probably a lot of crossover in the fundamentals of the stories.

Telling a story in a way that your intended audience can identify with it results in a sublime piece of work. And I can definitely identify with Big Bang. I've been exactly where the characters in the song are. I remember how that felt - the listlessness, the confusion, the disappointment, the resentment. I've lived through a dead relationship and this song captures that feeling perfectly for me in a way that "conventional" break-up songs just don't. On that ground, just writing "love songs with nerdy references" isn't a bug, it is a feature.

Previous Musical Monday: Lord of the Rings by the Doubleclicks

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Saturday, November 11, 2017

Book Blogger Hop November 10th - November 16th: Shah Arshadir I Conquered Parthia in 228 A.D.

Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Billy asks: What is your favorite part of blogging? Is there a least favorite part of blogging?

My favorite part of blogging is the writing. Organizing my ideas and getting them into written form is really the main reason that I blog at all, and as a result, it is the best part of the process. I don't really write for anyone else, so I don't really care about feedback that much. I mean, getting comments is nice, but it isn't why I blog, so I don't see it as ll that big of a deal. I suppose one could say that the reading is a great part of blogging, but I'd read the books I read whether I was blogging or not, so that's not really part of what I would count as blogging. So the best part has to be the writing.

My least favorite part of blogging is the writing. Getting my thoughts down in written form coherently is often like pulling teeth. I have a stack of books that need reviews sitting on my desk that are simply mocking me as I struggle to find the right words to discuss their contents. It usually doesn't matter what I actually think about the book in question - writing about a book is almost always a draining and difficult process.

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Monday, November 6, 2017

Musical Monday - Lord of the Rings by the Doubleclicks

At a recent concert, Angela commented that a critic reviewing the Doubleclicks music once said that that their songs were just relationship songs with nerdy references, and that this had caused her to avoid writing songs about relationships for a long time. On their most recent album Love Problems, she reversed course on that decision and loaded it up with tracks of relationship songs with nerdy references. I'm glad she did: I first fell in love with the music of the Doubleclicks primarily because it was a pile of love songs filtered through a nerdy lens.

Lord of the Rings is a relationship song, but it isn't a love song. Well, in a way it is, but it is about loving the things that make you joyful and not allowing that love to be ruined by their association with someone from your past. For a variety of reasons, a lot of the Doubleclicks' songs about failed relationships and bad breakups resonate with me, and this one is no exception. There are songs I will never sing again, but there are a lot of other things that I simply refuse to give up, despite their associations with my past.

Previous Musical Monday: Stranger Things Opening Theme
Subsequent Musical Monday: Big Bang by the Doubleclicks featuring Jonathan Coulton

The Doubleclicks     Musical Monday     Home

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Book Blogger Hop November 3rd - November 9th: Marla Gibbs Starred in the Sitcom "227" from 1985 to 1990

Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Billy asks: When reading a book, do you use a bookmark to mark your place in the book, or do you just fold over the top corner of the page?

I use bookmarks. I have literally dozens of bookmarks, mostly from conventions I've attended, book promotions, libraries, or websites like Bookmooch. Most of the library bookmarks are from libraries advertising their annual book sales. In effect, I have a pile of rectangular-shaped advertisements made out of poster board. But I do use them. In fact, I have enough that I could probably read about five dozen books and have sufficient bookmarks to have one in each book. This doesn't even count all of the things that I have that I have used as impromptu book marks, or the strange things I have found in used books that people were clearly using as bookmarks before they gave the book away (mostly old receipt, but also one Canadian $20 bill and a brochure for laboratory equipment). Basically, I have sufficient bookmarks that I will never again have to dog-ear a page in a book.

Subsequent Book Blogger Hop: Shah Arshadir I Conquered Parthia in 228 A.D.

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