It’s been some time since my last actual review. I’ve been busy lately, true, but not much more than usual. I’ve actually been reading quite a lot. But now I squeeze reading into smaller bits of free time, it’s harder to find time enough to also write.
I considered writing about The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley, a delightful book already reviewed on Re-E by Ola, 5 years ago. I read it quite recently and it proved to be just as good as she claimed. Good enough I might even agree with the 9.5/10 score, and my opinion is not sufficiently different to warrant a separate post.
Then, I remembered I recently read The View from the Cheap Seats – Gaiman’s selected non-fiction. I’ve already written about a similar collection of Pratchett’s texts, and Gaiman’s foreword to that one is included here, so we have a nice connection.
Author: Neil Gaiman
Title: The View from the Cheap Seats
For Ash, who is new,
for when he is grown.
These were some of the things
your father loved and said
and cared about and believed,
a long time ago.
Yes, that’s exactly what this tome is about. And the English edition’s cover show it in a very nice way. We get into what created, inspired and moves him, at least from his perspective. American cover actually looks pretty good, but standard. And the seats there do not look that cheap 😉
It took me some time to pick this up, as it’s over 500 pages. Bought back when it was published, in 2016, it waited for its time. Recently, I decided I will always have a volume of essays or suchlike on hand, for when I have time enough for just a little bit of reading. But I ended up reading this exclusively, from the first page to the last.
This is a king of book published for people already familiar with its author. To appreciate it, you need to enjoy his style, and be at least sympathetic towards his causes. It’s not a political book, but some politics is there. It’s mostly autobiography though, music, books and comics.
This really is a volume of selected non-fiction. Speeches, press articles, forewords… some written in the early nineties. some quite recent. It’s divided into ten parts, and their titles tell the reader what’s to be expected. Some things I believe, Some people I have known, Introductions and musings, On comics and some of the people who make them or Music and the people who make it, to name only some of them.
I like Gaiman. I like most of his things I’ve read and I like the persona he lets us see in his public appearances. I like his taste in music. On Spotify, I have several playlists based on his recommendations. He taught me to appreciate Lou Reed (I listened quite a lot, Tori Amos, and thanks to him I discovered The Magnetic Fields. And Amanda Palmer, here they perform together. I like his views on genre, on value of art. There are some writers I adore as writers, Gaiman is one of the few ones I also follow as public intellectual.
American Gods is a statement about America, Good Omens delve quite deep into history and religion. It’s not party politics, but it’s often story with meaning that can be easily applied to the very real world around us. his friendship with Terry Pratchett was no accident.
As he declared himself:
“I still don’t think of myself as a hugely political writer,” but explained a bit about his personal politics, saying that “in British terms, I am somewhere in the fuzzy middle, of ‘why can’t we all be nice to each other?’, and ‘I really don’t like people exploiting other people” – yet in American terms, he said, “that puts me so far to the left of any political party that my politics out there are considered irrelevant”.
Gaiman started as a journalist, and there are traces of it in here. Even as an established writer, he occasionally interviewed his colleagues, such as Stephen King. I conversation I really like, not included in this selection, but available on New Statesman page, is with Kazuo Ishiguro soon after he published The Buried Giant. Ishiguro was baffled by something that often happens to literary writers that ventured into the realms of genre:
Kazuo Ishiguro: I felt like I’d stepped into some larger discussion that had been going on for some time. I expected some of my usual readers to say, “What’s this? There are ogres in it . . .” but I didn’t anticipate this bigger debate. Why are people so preoccupied? What is genre in the first place? Who invented it? Why am I perceived to have crossed a kind of boundary?
NG I think if you were a novelist writing in 1920 or 1930, you would simply be perceived as having written another novel. When Dickens published A Christmas Carol nobody went, “Ah, this respectable social novelist has suddenly become a fantasy novelist: look, there are ghosts and magic.”
In the beginning, there’s a bit about Gaiman’s history as a reader and a beginning writer. Not directly, but through small text dealing with such topics as libraries, favourite genres, risks of reading some books too early – as a kid he read whatever he could get, not caring about suggested ages, and I have to admit I always had the same approach. Which later led him to suggesting a King novel to a daughter apparently not ready, and made me show Coraline to my niece a year or three too early. I still believe that most books can safely be read earlier than official age categories would allow. In the words of Gaiman:
There were things I read as a boy that troubled me, but nothing that ever made me want to stop reading. I understood that we discovered what our limits were by going beyond them, and then nervously retreating to our places of comfort once more, and growing, and changing, and becoming someone else. Becoming, eventually, adult.
According to Gaiman genre novel is one where the tropes of the genre are the centrepiece, without which the reader of the viewer would feel cheated, the rest being additions that lead you from lone cowboy riding into town to the first gunfight, or I could add, from a farmboy learning sword fighting to a battle with evil wizards. Genre is a set of assumptions, a loose contract between the creator and the audience. Which does not automatically make it bad literature, obviously.
American Gods tell us, among other things, how Gaiman sees the role of myths in culture. Here, we have a much shorter version, so he has to spell it out loud:
Myths are compost. They begin as religions, the most deeply held of beliefs, or as stories that accrete to religions as they grow. (…) and then, as religions fall into disuse, or the stories cease to be seen as the literal truth, they become myths. And the myths compost down to dirt, and become a fertile ground for other stories and tales which blossom like wildflowers.
It’s also mentioned how modern myths help us deal with complexities of modern world, and, unsurprisingly, how that can be translated into literature 🙂
But mostly this is a book that inspired me to expand my ever growing TBR even further. More than that! I actually read quite a bit already.
My first Chesterton (The Man Who Was Thursday, excellent! feels quite modern, and also like a crossover of Jerome Jerome and Conrad)
A few Eisner comics – of various quality, I have to admit, but overall – a win.
And now I’m finally reading Viriconium. Gonna take a while, it’s a tough one, but a powerful book, with unmatched atmosphere.
Even more were added to the list for future reading… some already bought.
It’s a treasure chest of many different things that do not have to be read all at once. Some of them are heart-warming, some inspirational, some might make you sad. I say they’re worth it.