Sunday, September 11, 2011

R.I.P. Group Read: Fragile Things

A Study in Emerald
The Fairy Reel
October in the Chair

from: Gaiman, Neil. Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders. New York: William Morrow, 2006.

Plans are such fragile things, always ready to go up in smoke at the mere mention of a match strike. You see, I'd planned to pick up this book at the library Thursday evening when I was working. I thought things at work might even be slow enough that I'd get a chance to start reading the first four pieces in the book for Carl's R.I.P. group read before I even got it home. Mother Nature had other plans (and hers are almost always less fragile than mere human plans). She proceeded to drench Lancaster County, PA last week with so much rain that we had extensive flooding all around us. The library was closed. I couldn't pick up my book. I couldn't even be sure the library would be open on Friday in order for me to pick up the book (it was, but at the time, the forecast was for the rain and flood warnings to continue well into Friday).

Sometimes, however, when a fragile thing breaks, something even better comes of it. (The heart often breaks and then gets glued back together by something far better than the thing that broke it.) I didn't want to miss this weekend of reading and posting my thoughts, and yet, with all the flooding, I had no real hope of getting out and getting a copy of the book. Then, I remembered that I'd seen the audio version of it while re-shelving materials at the library and also that I have two unused credits sitting in my Audible account. I searched for it, discovered it was only one credit, and soon had it downloaded onto my phone.

Not only was the day saved, but it was saved in a beautiful way. You see, Neil Gaiman himself reads the audio version of this collection of stories and poems. If I didn't already have a huge reader's crush on Gaiman, this would certainly guarantee its birth. He reads it beautifully: dramatic without being overly so, inflection everywhere it should be and nowhere it shouldn't, perfect pacing, and, of course, he has a lovely accent (to an American ear, anyway). You may be thinking, "Well, of course he reads it perfectly. He wrote it." But, believe me, I've listened to plenty of audiobooks read by their authors, and nothing has ever come close to this. I highly recommend your getting a copy and listening, which is not to say that I didn't, once the flooding was all over, still pick up the print copy from the library. I'm such a reader, and Gaiman is such a writer, that, as much of a joy as it was to listen to him tell his tales, I wanted to "reread," so to speak, parts of it to make sure I hadn't missed anything.

Here's what I thought of the actual pieces:

I don't typically read Introductions before I've read a book, because I've learned the hard way that they can include spoilers. Sometimes what they include might not be considered spoilers to most, but are to me, because, basically, I like to come to a book for the first time knowing almost nothing about it, if I can. "Oh, it's about a woman who lives in New York," is the sort of description I want. But, we were assigned the Introduction, so, even though Gaiman tells us we should read these pieces in any order we choose, I decided to start with it (especially since it's much easier to "read" an audiobook straight through like that).

Like everything else he writes, Gaiman certainly knows what he's doing when it comes to writing an Introduction. First, he gives us a little bit of background for the collection, where he got the idea for it and how it evolved, even how the title changed and why. Then he addresses each piece with brief annotations of how they came to be. There isn't a single spoiler. What there is is plenty of enticement. As I listened, I found myself over and over thinking, "Ooo, that sounds great. I can't wait to read it." If I ever find myself having to write an Introduction to something, I'm going to use this as a model.

A Study in Emerald
Well, really, how can you go wrong with a story of Sherlock Holmes meets the world of H.P. Lovecraft as put together by Neil Gaiman? Need I say more? Well, I can say one more thing, which is that I really ought to reread Lovecraft some day.

The Fairy Reel
This is the first poem by Neil Gaiman I've ever read (barring any poetry that has crept its way into Sandman comics. I can't remember any off the top of my head, but I'm quite sure it's there, especially in the third collection Dream Country). I'll (hope to) entice you to read it with these first four lines,
If I were young, as I once was, and dreams
and death more distant then,
I wouldn't split my soul in two, and keep
half in the world of men. p.28

Gaiman basically tells us, when describing a different poem in the book, that he understands some of his readers don't like poetry, that we can skip the poems in his book. Then he produces a poem that's so perfect that he could probably convert a million high school students who insist they hate poetry, and he claims it's "not much of a poem, really, but enormous fun to read aloud."(xiii) To make it even better, let Gaiman read it aloud to you. I, for one, am eager to read all his poetry now.

October in the Chair
This was my favorite of what we read for this week's post. It was the jumping off point for what would eventually become The Graveyard Book, a book I loved, so it was fun for me to see how the short story evolved into the novel. I absolutely loved the way Gaiman characterizes the months of the year, was disappointed to leave them in order to "hear the story," but was just as enthralled with the story-within-the-story the minute it got going as I was with them. (That may not make sense, but I'm trying hard not to spoil it, knowing full well that I may already have said too much. Sorry, those of you for whom I should've just said, "It's a story about October sitting in a chair.") This story beautifully highlights Gaiman's unique imagination and the wonderful way he views the world (or other worlds, as the case may be). Gaiman dedicates this one to Ray Bradbury, and I can see why.

And now, on to next week's readings...


Carl V. Anderson said...

So glad you stumbled upon the audio version. It is wonderful. That is how I am "reading" the book this time. (and just to mention it, if you love The Graveyard Book, you ought to hear Gaiman read it. Wow!)

Listening to Gaiman read this poem could certainly go a long way towards making people stand up and at least momentarily pay attention to poetry. He does a marvelous job with it.

I have read a lot of Lovecraft but still have a great deal of it to go. I didn't get to any last R.I.P., that I recall, and I need to dive back into my collections this year.

Glad you enjoyed October in the Chair so much. Isn't it fantastic? So creepy yet so good. So sad at times and yet there is a bit of happiness in there as both lonely boys could just end up being friends.

As I was reading Donald's thoughts on what it might be like if he were to return home I kept thinking of that scene in A Christmas Story where Ralphie dreams of going blind from Lifebuoy soap and coming home to the weeping and apologies of his parents and brother.

These first were fun and there is more fun to come!

Susan said...

I'm having really bad (salacious) thoughts about hearing Neil Gaiman reading me poetry! Even the idea of it is rather like a private poetry session with the man. It's a wonder the screen isn't burning up here!

I'm really glad you're getting a chance to read/hear this collection. October Chair was one of my favourite from the collection. Doesn't the ending just get you, the decision of the little boy? the dark house where something waits? I found it a bit chilling too, which I loved.

I don't own an audio book, period, listening is my weakest skill. Though, I could almost see myself wavering just to get this audio book. No, that's not drool on the side of the desk......

Glad, very glad, you are not flooded out!!

litlove said...

What lovely serendipity! I love audio books, but generally just listen to golden age crime on them (over and over - it's so relaxing!) I haven't read Neil Gaiman although I was considering doing so for the RIP - perhaps I should listen to him instead?

Emily Barton said...

Carl, by commenting on A Christmas Story, you reminded me that I meant to remark on both the stories of Joseph (of "technicolor dream coat" fame) and the Prodigal Son when talking about "October in the Chair" and forgot. One of the thing that awes me about Gaiman is how well-versed he is in folklore.

Susan, a few years back, I decided that listening to audio books might help improve my overall listening skills. Not sure if it's worked, but I've enjoyed the experience. If you ever do decide to try it, yes, I'd highly recommend letting Gaiman give you your own private poetry reading.

Litlove, most definitely, listening to Gaiman would be a great introduction to him.

Ellen said...

You're the second or third person to mention how good the audiobook is. I'm not normally a person who can listen to books on tape but...I think I'm sold on this one. Hearing Gaiman read the poems would be perfect, since I tend to rush through them - even read I was reading the fairy reel, going back and forth to reread, part of me wanted to rush ahead to the next story.

Anonymous said...

Ooooh, I used to live in PA, lol.

I don't mind reading an intro before a book, provided it's the author's own intro and not other commentary. I actually missed "The Mapmaker" until I read other people's posts because I was going to read each intro with the story so I wouldn't get them all confused...

I loved "The Fairy Reel" as well, and am excited to get to the other poems in the book!

Anonymous said...

I've never been a big audio book fan, but hearing everybody rave so far about the audio version of Fragile Things, I just had to go request it from my local library! I can't wait to let that sexy man read me some wonderful short stories! I'm glad to see you enjoyed The Fairy Reel - a beautiful little poem, in my opinion! Can't wait to hear what you have to say next week!
- Chelsea

Jennifer said...

I listened to Neverwhere read by Gaiman and I agree, he did a great job. His narrative and storytelling voice merge wonderfully.

Lilian Nattel said...

I don't read badly, but I find it a challenge to read vividly for even a short reading. I can't imagine doing my own audiobook. I'm hooked! This goes on my list.

Emily Barton said...

Ellen, I tend to rush when reading, too. Listening to the book is a great way to slow down. Enjoy!

Books Without, where in PA? I've been here for four years. I think you're right: it's other commentary that's usually problematic.

Chelsea, you won't be disappointed!

Jennifer, his voice adds an even more dreamlike quality to it all, doesn't it?

Lilian, I think you have to be somewhat of an actor to pull it off, because I agree that reading vividly for hours would be very hard. Or maybe he takes tons of breaks? Anyway, I'm sure you'll enjoy it.

Stefanie said...

Hold on, working in the library? Did you make a cool announcement that I missed somehow? As far as the book goes, I don't need convincing. I'm already a Gaiman fan and have the book somewhere around the house. So let's get back to this working at the library thing. :)

Emily Barton said...

Stef, yes, I am working part-time at our little local public library (a case of volunteer work leading to real work) and loving it. I guess I need to post something about that here. I put it up on Facebook, but we all know how reliable that is!

Stefanie said...

How so utterly awesome for you! I missed the Facebook announcement I am rarely there so that I missed it is no surprise.