Thoughts on The View from the Cheap Seats, by Neil Gaiman

The View from the Cheap SeatsNeil Gaiman is one of those authors whose fiction has a distinct style. You can point to something he wrote and say with confidence, Neil Gaiman wrote that. It’s in the names he chooses, the subjects he writes about, the stories he weaves, and the language he uses as the strands to do so. After having read and loved many of his novels (Neverwhere, The Graveyard Book, Anansi Boys, and Stardust are some of these), and hearing his incredible speech titled Make Good Art, I was very excited to read his book of collected non-fiction, The View from the Cheap Seats.

The book is comprised of magazine articles, essays, speeches for various occasions, and book introductions which are grouped together in an order that generally flows from subject to subject. Some pieces are short, others are quite long, and some of them seem to overlap each other slightly. He writes about everything from his own fiction, authors he admires, his career in comic book writing, the internet, music, films, mythology, and his childhood.

Beginning with the dedication – “For Ash, who’s 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.” – I loved this book. It is filled with the wisdom and insights of a man who has dedicated his life to telling stories. From a young boy reading his way through the children’s section of the library, to the young man who discovered and devoured the science fiction genre and comic books, to the young journalist, to the comic book writer and finally the award-winning novelist he is today. This book is all at once a reader’s guide to great fiction, a quasi-memoir, a conversation about what makes a book great, but most of all it is a love letter to story telling and literature. Neil Gaiman is one of the great authors of our time (in my opinion), and getting to see the inside of his brain in this book was such a treat.

Right off the bat we are confronted with discussions about the importance of literacy, libraries, and the freedom to read whatever you feel compelled to read. Reading teaches you how to think, it exercises your imagination, and it teaches us that anything is possible. According to Neil, a child should never be forbidden to read a book, even if it is not necessarily what you want them to be reading. He says every book is a gateway drug into the next book, and eventually they will probably stumble onto things you do feel more comfortable with, while all along learning about themselves and the world.

I loved his discussions about what makes a genre a genre, and another piece on what the difference is between a children’s book and a book for adults. He comes at these questions from a place of pure curiosity, taking the questions down to their fundamentals and building up from there. Truly, what is the difference between a book for children and a book for adults? It is not easy to point to one criteria that makes the difference, is it?

There is a good chunk in the middle of the book to do with comics; how he read and collected them as a kid to his eventual career writing them, working with different artists, as well as reviews and introductions for them. I myself have never read comics or graphic novels at all, and while this was not my favorite section of the book, I still feel like I came away from it having learned a lot about them, and harboring a new curiosity to find one of the ones discussed to see what I might think of it.

Neil, like me (and you, I presume), is a lover of fiction. He shares the names of works and writers who have inspired him, books that helped shape him, and the stories of how he came upon them in the first place. His introductions offer new perspectives on works you may have read before, and have definitely sparked my interest in some books I’ve never heard of. His recommendations span throughout many genres including children’s, science fiction, horror, and classics so you’re bound to find something you’ll love as well as something that may be out of your comfort zone.

The one thing that surprised me the most about this collection was how much Neil Gaiman has done. He has been involved with magazines, newspapers, collaboration fiction, short stories, children’s books, novels, comics, as well as being the speaker at any number of conventions and events, he’s been asked to write about books in all different types of genres, as well as writing for music albums, film scripts, and essays. What hasn’t the man done? He has a curious mind, and is a true believer in art and creativity. He understands the impact one good book can have on a person, and more importantly, he wants everyone to be able to feel that incredible feeling.

If I’ve come away from this book with only one thing, it’s that I love Neil Gaiman. I already knew it, but I saw so many more facets of the man through this book, and it’s made me love him all the more. I highly recommend it for any reader.

E.

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, by Katarina Bivald

The Readers of Broken Wheel RecommendOne of my favorite books of all time is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. After I recommended that book to a friend (she loved it too), she told me she’d heard of a book often compared to it called The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend. Odd title, I thought, and immediately it went on The List. Then one day when I was very pregnant, I went to Target on a ‘Treat Yourself’ mission (which was really just me trying to do a lot of walking to get little boy out of me) and saw this book. Sold.

It’s the story of a Swedish girl named Sara, who goes to visit her friend Amy in rural Iowa. It is her first trip to America, and her parents are skeptical of letting her go in the first place, but the bookshop Sara had worked in recently closed down and she wanted to see the town her friend had written to her about so fondly. By the time Sara arrives in Broken Wheel, Amy has died. Not sure what to do next, the townsfolk of Broken Wheel rally to make sure Sara is taken care of for the duration of her stay. It is not the trip Sara had imagined, but in time she learns the secrets Amy had kept from her letters, and falls in love with the town.

First, let’s just get this out of the way: It does not live up to Guernsey. Not by a long shot, not for me. But, since that’s one of the greatest books of all time…I really didn’t expect it to.

It took me quite awhile to get into the plot. It was past the halfway point before I really felt like I couldn’t put it down. To be honest I was worried for awhile that the book was never going to strike a resonating cord with me. The writing through the beginning seemed to do a little too much telling and not enough showing, and I’m not sure if that has to do with the fact that it was translated from the original Swedish. Sometimes it’s the translation that’s ‘bad’ and not the story. Overall, it was very what-you-see-is-what-you-get; it didn’t have the depth either of character or of plot to really blow me away. However, by the end I was very interested in how the story played out, and it was a satisfying, sweet ending. For me there was just something a little bit odd about the whole thing that I can’t quite put my finger on. Maybe it was the cliches of a micro-community in rural America, or that some of the characters were a little bit over the top…and I’m still not satisfied with the title. But all of this is generally why I avoid contemporary ‘chick lit’ type books, it comes down to a style preference. You may love this type of book & love the style.

I did enjoy the fact that Sara and Amy’s relationship was based completely around their love of books & reading. Sara is a complete bookworm, and there are many passages throughout the novel about authors and books and how Sara feels about them. It’s always risky to do this in case the reader hasn’t read the books mentioned. If they have, there is a great payoff of camaraderie with the character for having thought the same thoughts or sparking a new conversation in the reader’s mind, but on the other hand, if the reader hasn’t read the mentioned books, there are some major plot spoilers. For me, there was a mix of both. I found her thoughts on Dan Brown to be especially accurate ;-) It does seem a little bit unfair for the author to assume that just because someone is reading this book, that he/she should be expected to have read ALL of the other books mentioned. Ultimately there are really only one or two passages with actual plot spoilers, the rest seem to just bring attention to books you may or may not have read – I can see some readers adding to their TBRs while reading this book.

This novel is very much in the chick lit/summer reads category for me. Purely entertainment. This isn’t the type of book that is going to change your life, but it’s a fun distraction from the every day and a fun book for people who call themselves readers.

E.

P.S. No one I’ve ever met in my entire life has made homemade corn dogs or sloppy joes. Just sayin’. These things generally come from the fair (or freezer section), and a can, respectively. It’s the American way.