Book Review: Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman

I’m returning from my short hiatus on book reviews by reviewing the first book that got me started in writing.

When I first read Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman, I was just getting used to being a stay-at-home mom. I had tried being a part-time secretary at our church, but wasn’t doing so well handling it with a squirming baby in my sights all the time. I was tired and a bit lonely now that I didn’t have much daily interactions with adults.

But one thing I did was read a lot, mainly because our library in Roselle was awesome. they had a bunch of Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror anthologies that I got into, and one had the story Snow, Glass, Apples from Neil Gaiman. It was a riff off the Snow White story, and yet so simple, so elegant. Then I saw that the story came from Neil’s first collection of short stories, and the library had it, so I checked it out.

What sucked me into it right away wasn’t the stories. It was the introduction. I never read an introduction in front of an author’s collection of stories before. What set Neil’s intro apart from any other intro was that he took each story and spent a couple of paragraphs or so telling how he wrote it, where he got the ideas from, what or who inspired him. It offered fascinating insight into how he created each story–sort of like reading linear notes. And what was extra cool was that he actually put a story in the introduction. It was like a bonus buy-one-get-one-free.

I found myself flipping to the introduction a lot as I read through Smoke and Mirrors. When I read the background on Snow, Glass, Apples, on how he had read a story in the bath "I must have read a thousand times before…But that thousand and first reading was the charm, and I started to think about the story, all back to front and wrong way around. It sat in my head for a few weeks and then, on a plane, I begun to write the story in longhand…"

I read that and thought, really? Was that really all it took? Just an idea going around in your head? I had thought this because I had an idea of my own, rattling around, and I had been afraid to write it out because I was sure that the words that would come out wouldn’t match what was in my head. But somehow, reading that paragraph galvanized me to sit down and not so much care what came out, just see what exactly what would come out.  And what came out was Light as Gossamer, the first story I ever sold.

Reading Smoke and Mirrors now, for the second time, through the lens of a writer has been interesting. For one thing, I get now what Neil wrote about in the introduction, even though I’m still far from his level of writing. For one thing, I reading the stories now with a far more critical eye, looking at craft as well as story. And let me tell you, I am still light years away from his expertise. This will be a great book to study if you want to know the craft of the short story…and poetry too–Neil has several poems in here that already given me ideas. I’ve never even heard of a rondel before, but there is one, Reading the Entrails, right before the book starts.

There are stories inside that I deeply enjoyed just as much as the first time. I was delighted to read again We Can Get Them For You Wholesale, a dark comedy about a man who learns that the more people he can get killed, the price for killing them goes down.  Chivalry was another favorite–recently, NPR featured Jane Curtin reading the story on "Selected Shorts"; I highly recommend listening–it is just as funny and sweet as the written form. And Babycakes was just as chilling, perhaps even moreso since I recognized the format as flash fiction.

Then there were stories that became my new favorites. The Goldfish Pond and Other Stories is not SF, not speculative, not anything, yet it is reflective, brooding, and may or may not be true. I read When we went to see the end of the world by Dawnie Morningside, age 11 ¾, over and over again because the language was beautiful, bizarre, and so dark.

I remember reading Murder Mysteries it the first time and thinking, "a story within a story about angels. Cool."  This time, I read it, but Neil’s intro for it kept sticking in my head: "I tried to play fair with the detective part of the story. There are clues everywhere. There’s even one in the title." I wondered, why would he write something like that. So I went back and read it again. Then I read it a third time.  And then my mouth dropped wide open. Holy crap, how the hell did I miss that?

I won’t tell what the story is about, or what I missed. You just have to read it. But let me tell you, Murder Mysteries is now my new favorite in the book.

Mind, not all of the stories clicked with me.  Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar and Bay Wolf are in Clthulu mythos, but if you don’t know the mythos, most of it goes right over your head. I was able to recognize some of that in the stories now, but they still didn’t stick with much. And surprisingly, I found myself less impressed with Snow, Glass, Apples upon reading it again. Don’t get me wrong, I still love the story, and reading it was quite a pleasure, but it resonated with me less than the first time. Maybe it’s because I have since read other fairy tale stories that struck me just as profoundly. Or maybe because Murder Mysteries so blew me away.

On Writing by Stephen King is the best book for learning how to write from a writer’s point of view. But if you want to learn technique and craft in short stories, pick up Smoke and Mirrors. And don’t just read it; study it. See the different styles Neil use to tell a story, not just in short story format, but in poetry. This book is that inspiring.

This book rates five dead angels out of five. I do realize that I have yet to read his second collection Fragile Things. I’m almost hesitant to.  Smoke and Mirrors means a lot to me, so much so I got it signed by Neil Himself. One day, I’m sure I’ll get over my fixation of all things Neil, but in the meantime, I got a sestina to write using my son’s spelling list. And why the heck not?

Even more musings on the Gathering of the American Gods. This time with Neil.

But what about Neil? You ask. Did you get a chance to talk to him? Did he sign your book? What’s he like? Did you get to ask him that question that’s been buggin you all this time?

Hey, cut me some slack. This is the most I posted to the Cafe ever. I’m not used to this.

So. Meeting Neil. After seeing Harlan at the end of September, I didn’t really know what to expect other that there would be lots of other people who would also be eager to see Neil. At most, I figured the most I could hope for was saying I liked his work while he signed my book. But other than that, he’d pretty much be like Harlan Ellison was at Madcon, visible enough, but not that visible.

When I got there on Friday afternoon, I arrived with just enough time to tour the HotR for an hour. So I did, which was nice—I had been to the HotR before with my hubby, back when the thought of living in Madison would’ve had us howling in laughter (yeah, God showed us good with that). Went to the Infinity Room, admired the Japanese Garden. It was just like I remembered.

As I came out of the gift shop, looking for a way back to the parking lot, I was a little surprised to see it suddenly crowded with people. As I wondered what was going on, Neil Gaiman walked right by me in a black trenchcoat.

How do you know it was Neil if you never saw him in person before? You ask. No. Trust me. It was him. It was, beyond a Shadow, him.

To say I was startled doesn’t really describe it well. I’ve been to several cons now where I met well-known authors, passed them in the halls, talked with them after panels, had drinks with them at the bars (that’s my favorite part). I wasn’t really expecting Neil to, you know, be the same way. I thought he would be sort of, I don’t know, standoffish? Or Invisible? Or hiding in his room until the reading. Really, I wasn’t really expecting an hour after being at the HotR to look up and go Oh look, there’s Neil. Like it was the most normal thing in the world. It was disconcerting.

Now, granted, he did also mostly always had a entourage of people trailing him. Like Friday afternoon. I was pretty much heading in the same direction as everyone else. What could I do? I joined the entourage heading back up to the welcome center, as if I had every right to. Then I ducked out to the main entrance mainly to sit by the fountain in a daze while I thought: I just saw Neil Gaiman! Holy Crap!

And at that moment, Neil walked by and stood about five feet away, talking with some people, and I thought, Oh look. There’s Neil. And then I made a beeline for the parking lot, because that just got too much.

I drove to Spring Green, went to Culver’s, got a cheeseburger and fries for dinner. Remember that. It’s important.

The tent reading was awesome. I won’t go much into details because I can’t do it justice in these few words. He read. He answered questions. He said stuff that had me laughing and staring in awe and nodding in agreement, especially during the parts he talked about writing. Then it was done and those of us who had been scheduled to get their books signed surged to the welcome center. I slipped out one of the back exits, and in the dark, I looked around and oh look, there’s Neil right in front of me. No bodyguards or anything, merging right into the crowd going to view himself.

At some point, I stopped being surprised. Maybe it was after I got my book signed. I stood in line for two hours to have him sign a copy of Smoke and Mirrors, which was the first book of his I read and which inspired me to stop writing fanfic and to try my hand at original fiction. When I told him that, he looked up from signing and said, “It always makes me happy to hear somebody say that.” Or something to that effect.

Once I spoke to him, it got easier, because Oh look, there’s Neil became the mantra of the whole weekend. Really. It felt like I could pick up a rock, throw it in any direction, and nine times out of ten I’d hit him. It got ridiculous at some point. Because every time I turned around, oh look. there’s Neil.

Saturday morning, coming into the HotR resort with my friend Gretchen for the panels, oh look, there’s Neil heading to breakfast. “How’s it going?” I called out. “Tired,” he said. He snuck in to listen the American Mythology panel. Sat two rows in front of me. Oh look, there’s Neil, I thought, and went back to listening to the panel. He then left because he had to do the second round of book signings.

By the way, my panel went pretty well, I think. I was smart enough this time to go to the bathroom before the panel started, and I also made sure I had something to eat so I didn’t pass out. (Drove into Spring Green and got a cheeseburger and fries because I was pressed for time. Yes, this is also important.) One of the things I didn’t know, even though they said it right at the beginning of the panel, was that they broadcasted the panels live on the web. (I wasn’t really paying attention because at the time, I had replaced my oh look, there’s Neil mantra with looksmartlooksmartlooksmartlooksmart). They recorded all the panels, too, so that section where Webgoblin starts talking about the chatter online, and I’m startled, that’s genuine. All the panels are online, so you can see them. The start of mine is lumped in with Contemporary Mythology, which Patrick Rothfuss did. At some point this week, I’ll probably rewatch all of them, because if there’s anything I got out of this whole thing, it’s that I really like to learn more about mythology.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, you say, get on with it. Back to Neil.

All right. Let’s say you get an invitation from the coolest guy at school to come to his costume party. And let’s say that it’s not just you who got the invitation, but the entire school, except there’s no jocks or cheerleaders—the whole school is made up of nerdy, geeky, one-step-to-the-side-of-normal such as yourself. So it’s like this guy rounded up all the people you’ve ever wanted to meet, where, in normal life, they’re ordinary, maybe even overlooked, but on this one night they and you, by proxy, are the coolest people on earth. And then, let’s say that instead of his house, this guy gets the most bizarre, wackiest, the most inexplicable house filled with twist and turns and stuffed with what could be considered as junk, but on that night it takes on new levels of strangeness and wildness and just plain weird. And it all takes place on a crystal clear, dark, breezy Halloween Eve.

You already read about the carousel ride. What you don’t know is what happened after that.

After the ride, Neil wanders into the crowd. Yeah. It’s his party. I talked with Pat for a bit, then talked with a few other people as we wandered into the Organ Room. What is the Organ Room? It’s a big, big room with a big, big organ. With a whole bunch of windy passageways in it. And that’s all I’m going to say, because those words just don’t do it justice.

I go all the way to the bottom, and I get into a conversation with the woman who dressed as African Death, who was one of costume contest winners (really, she deserved it too. her costume was Absolutely  Amazing).

We’re going through the food station line that features Christmas dinner, which is in the book and I’m not particularly hungry for…when I see that they have opened the grill they serve at the bottom of the house, and guess what they’re serving?

That’s right. Cheeseburgers and fries.

For some inexplicable reason, this makes me very, very happy. Deliriously happy. So delirious that I forget that for most of the weekend, it was all I ate. So I grab the (free) burger and fries, then proceeded to tell everyone I meet that they had free burgers and fries. Including Neil himself.

(Yes, it occurred to me the reason why I was deliriously happy could also be attributed to the one sole mixed drink I imbibed during the contest. Granted, I don’t exactly what was in it (I had asked the bartender, oh, something fruity, and she proceeded to mix up something with pineapple juice and light rum, but I’m usually good with that), but geez, it was just one. I prefer to think I was just partaking the whole night in a numinously (which I just learned the definition of from my previous comments and plan to use it to describe the night from now on) breath-taking level of existence. And that’s the explanation I’m gonna stick with. So there.)

So I’m heading back into the Organ room, and it occurs to me to turn around and OH LOOK, IT’S NEIL, who’s smiling as a little girl is telling him what a wonderful time he’s having. He agrees then heads my way, telling his assistant that this had gone beyond his expectations, he’s having a blast, and I sense an opening:

Me: Yeah! They even have free cheeseburgers and fries!
Neil: So they do. Are you enjoying yourself?
Me: Yeah, this is absolutely awesome! Thanks for doing all this!
Neil: You’re welcome. How was your panel, by the way?
Me: It went pretty well. It’s amazing how much one can sound like an expert without really being one.
Neil: Oh, I understand. That’s gotten me through many a panel myself.

Now, you have to understand. While we’re talking, we’re going through the organ room, which has a walkway that winds up and up. I’m still carrying the uneaten cheeseburger and fries, and there is an entourage of people following us.

Neil: I was sad I missed your panel. I’d really liked to have seen it, but I was signing during that time.
Me: Webgoblin taped it, so I know it’s up on the web. You could watch it there. I got a very interesting question from someone who was watching online, about the use of song in Anansi Boys.
Neil: Oh? How so?

We then launched into a discussion about Anansi Boys and the use of song and how Fat Charlie not only used it to claim his lineage, but also his identity, which I never thought of before. I can’t remember exact details, but at some point, Neil asks his assistant where are we, and she don’t really know, but we keep walking, and at some point I had to pause because of the absolute surrealness of it all, because we’ve entered the Doll Room, and if you’ve ever been to the Doll Room at the House on the Rock, then you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

(First aside: it just hit me that this whole conversation about Anansi Boys was exactly what I wanted to talk to Neil about should I by chance ever run into him. It’s weird to read that post not knowing that I actually would personal talk to him about it.)

(Second aside: this is also the 2nd time that I got a chance to talk with a well-known writer, and walk around in an unusual setting while doing so.I’m hoping the next famous writer I meet would be Stephen King in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, but that’s too much to hope for.)

We reached the top of the room, and Neil looks up and says, “Ah, here’s a good place to stop.” So we stop. People start taking pictures, so I figured now would be a good time to get a picture too.  I put down my cheeseburger and while we’re getting our picture taken, Neil asks me if I heard the audio version of Anansi Boys, and I said I haven’t, and he says I should give it a listen and let him know what I think about it.

And that’s how I stood under the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse with Neil Gaiman discussing Anansi Boys while someone took our picture right in the middle of me speaking, but that’s okay because I was just so happy.

Afterwards, I sat down and watched as people came up and spoke to Neil. He was charming and gracious, talking with his fans, posing with them. At one point, another kid, this time an older boy, came up and told him about some place they found on the scavenger hunt (which took place during the panels). Neil was interested, and as he listened, I found myself thinking, when I grow up, I want to be a writer just like him.

Then I looked down and realized that I was holding a cheeseburger I wasn’t really hungry for.

I could tell how I cursed myself for not turning my camera on when Neil put on a long, long, long scarf and hat and went off as the 4th Doctor a.k.a Tom Baker. Or how I met the only other African-American woman there, Amber and how we hung out for the rest of the night. Or how we wound up eating apple pie and listening to a band in the 50s room (Neil pointed it out to us and said, “look! Pie!” and indeed it was.) But that’s all I’m gonna write about. It’s all too much, and if I keep writing the little nuggets I remember, I’ll be here all month, and I got stories to write.

But one thing I will say. That weekend was the best Halloween ever.

Musing on a moment at the Gathering of American Gods at the House of the Rock, Halloween Weekend 2010

(Edit: Welcome to all the Cracked.com visitors. This was part 1 of my time at the House of the Rock. You can read more at Part 2.)

There was a moment.

There were many moments, in fact. The moment on Friday when, as Neil sat in a chair and read the House on the Rock chapter in American Gods, the wind billowed through the tent we sat under, causing the sides to heave and flap, as if we sat in the belly of a living, breathing beast.

There was the moment when on Saturday, after the costume contest and the raffle tickets had been called, and the rest of us headed down the ramp into the house proper, everybody dressed in feathers or make-up or robes or, in my case, billowing tea-stained wedding dresses, so full of bubbly giddiness we couldn’t even run, we glided, laughing and cheering and calling and gasping, full of terrible anticipation of the night before us.

There was the moment that happened that wasn’t even at the House on the Rock, when I drove home from the reading and turned onto 151, seeing the half moon hanging before me, and just then, just then, a streak of light pierced the moon and fell before I had a chance to blink.

There are all these delicious little moments. I haven’t even dwelled on the ones that happened with Neil. I’ll get to those in a bit.

But there was this one moment. One moment that I keep replaying in my head over and over since the Gathering. It’s the moment when I stepped into the Carousel room to watch the contest winners ride the carousel.

Now, see? Those words above, it doesn’t do it justice. It won’t mean anything to you, the reader, unless you’ve been to the House on the Rock, at which you’d know exactly what I’m talking about. But even then, even then, if you have just gone as a tourist, it can’t really touch upon the electricity and emotion I felt that night when I went through the doorway and saw the Carousel spinning in all its gaudy glory, with people on it.

On my camera I have a video I did as I entered the Carousel Room. You can see the lights, the drums, the carousel itself spinning. What you won’t see is me tilting my head back to look up at the myriads of full-sized mannikens with angel wings plastered all over the ceiling. The video doesn’t capture the full experience of the room. The lighting was dim and the music too loud and my hands too jittery. But you can see the Carousel.

How can I describe it? How can I described how a whole bunch of us, too many for me to count, dressed in costume, pressing around, watching our favorite author climb onto the carousel and mount the exact eagle/tiger he described in his book? To see lights that go on and on, the different creatures that loom out: elephants, satyrs, minotaurs—creatures too primal to be on a typical merry-go-round. And the music plays and the carousel turns, and you whoop and hollar with everyone…

It’s a moment I shared with hundreds of people.

It’s a moment no one else will experience ever again. Even if the House on the Rock do decide to open up the house again, it won’t be the same.

Today, I’ve been thinking about moments. I have a friend who spent the last two weeks in Capetown for the Lusanne Conference. Watching her updates on Facebook made me think back to when I went to Mozambique, and how we drove through a cornfield and I heard voices singing. We stopped and those voices surrounded us, until women appeared out of the corn, clapping, stomping, dancing. A similar type of joy.

Okay. Tomorrow, I’ll talk more about Neil. And the cheeseburger.

But for now, I give you a taste of that moment. It’s not the real deal, but it’s close enough.

And that’s how I stood under the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse with Neil Gaiman discussing Anansi Boys while someone took our picture right in the middle of me speaking, but that’s okay because I was just so happy.

Because, really, there’s no other way to describe it.

 

SDC16868

There was also a cheeseburger involved, but I didn’t allow it to get its picture taken.

The End.

 

(Well, no, not really the end. But it’s Halloween and I need to get into my costume one more time so I can pass out candy. I am getting so much mileage out of my wedding dress!)

LaShawn’s Con Schedule for 2010

You hear that? That sound? That rushing, schmoozing chatter slightly on the tipsy side? Yep, it’s here. Con season has arrived and I cannot stay away any longer. No more avoiding its phone calls. No more pulling down the shades and hiding on the floor hoping it would stop knocking and go away. No. This year, I plan to embrace cons so hard, I’m certain at some point I’ll awaken in its bed thinking, "What happened to my spleen? How come I smell funny? And why is that goat staring at me?"

Oh, don’t worry. I won’t go that crazy. But I’m not making any promises either.

So here’s a list of cons I’m either attending or am interested in attending. My hope is to attend all of them, but timing and funds are limited. However, my birthday is coming up next week, so if you’re looking to for something to give me a present—hint, hint…

OdysseyCon (April 16-18) Radisson Hotel, Madison, WI ATTENDING

Hooray! This is happening this weekend! Woohoo!

This was the first con I ever went to that introduced me to the wonderful world of fandom. Oddcon taught me that cons actually were fun, not nerdy and bizarre like I thought it would be. This year, I plan to return the favor by serving on a couple of panels. On Friday afternoon, I’ll do a reading (I’ll do an excerpt from either "She’s All Light" or "Future Perfect"—haven’t decided which one yet). Then Saturday afternoon, I’ll be on the panel "White Guys in SF"…because there aren’t enough white guys in SF…I guess. What’s cool is that I get to sit on this panel with Tobias Buckell, so my first panel experience will prove to be mighty interesting.

Following that, I will be on the "How to Submit your Writing" panel, because, what can I say? I know stuff about submitting stories to markets. And I get to sound like an expert. It’s not often I get to say that.

Besides that, I plan to do the usual schmoozing, hanging out, etc. Since it’s at the Radisson and it’s a small con, it should be real easy to find me. I’m probably the only person there with dreadlocks. 🙂

Wiscon (May 27-31), The Concourse Hotel, Madison, WIATTENDING

Last year, I could only attend one day, which was fun, but still. This year, I’m gonna be alllll there, baby!

I’m showing up on a couple of panels there as well. On Saturday, I’ll be on the panel discussing the book "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria" (I signed up for it because I happen to have that book, and it’s interesting considering that I was not one of those black kids who sat with other black kids. So that will be interesting.) I’m also going to be on "Internet Publishing: the graduate seminar", because again, I get to sound like an expert. And on Monday, I’ll be on "Pshaw! Psst! Aaaargh!!!" because I get to figure out how to best write "sighhhh…haaaahhh…shhh" and other sound effects. I also have an essay in the upcoming Wiscon Chronicles Volume 4, which would be available there.  And of course, I’m looking forward to seeing the Guests of Honor Nnedi Okorafor and Mary Anne Mohanraj. In fact, I’m looking forward to seeing all my SF Sisters of Color. So even though this is my second year, I’m going to be very busy at Wiscon. Exciting!

Madcon Convention (September 24-26) Crowne Plaza Hotel, Madison, WI

UNDECIDED

From what the website says, this con is starting up again after nine years. It sounds like a big one: they’ve managed to snare Harlon Ellison, who is a pretty big name in the SF field. To be honest though, I only heard about him last year, andwhat I heard wasn’t really all that great. However, I also watched Babylon 5 for the first time last year, and was quite astonished to find his name high on the credits.

So I’m intrigued to see this man in person, but I’m also a little leery. What helps is that Pat Rothfuss is also slated to be attend, which means it’s bound to be a most interesting weekend. Then again, it might be way to much. Still thinking it over. We’ll see.

World Fantasy Convention (October 28-31) Columbus, OHUNDECIDED

So I’ve been thinking about attending this now that I’ve been getting more into cons–

HOLD THE PHONE! HOLD THE PHONE!!!

I just got wind of this a few days ago:

American Gods celebration (October 29-30), The House on the Rock, Spring Green, WI<deep breath> OH MY GOD I AM SO GOING EVEN IF IT MEANS I HAVE TO SELL MY OWN BLOOD TO MALNOURISHED VAMPIRES!!!!!

This is big. No, it’s bigger than big. This is BIG BIG BIG!!!!

I’ve been to the House on the Rock. Few years ago, before my son was born. Before we moved to Madison. My hubby and I took a trip up there when we needed to get away for a staycation. I’ve seen the nautical room. I’ve seen the music machines, most of which was broken down. I’ve even seen the carousel.

And,I’ve read American Gods. I’ve also read the companion book too, Anansi Boys.

Oh boy. Ohboyohboyohboyohboy!

What do you do when you learn that one of favorite authors is going to be at an event 45 minutes away that is affordable, AND there will be literary panels AND a special reading and Q&A with him AND there will be a scavenger hunt AND a costume ball WITH full dinner buffet ANNNND a chance to get in a raffle which prizes includes a RIDE ON THE CAROUSEL AND IF I TYPE IN ANY MORE CAPS I’LL START TO HYPERVENTILATE–

Ohmygoshohmygoshohmygoshohmygoshohmygosh.

As you can see, I am pleased about this. I am also going. This is not open to discussion. I. AM. GOING.

This is going to be the bestest Halloween Weekend ever!!!!

Book Reviews: Various

I have a bunch of books piling up that I need to do reviews for, so I’m just going to do them all in one fell swoop.

 

years best fantasy

Year’s Best Fantasy 7

Now that The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror is defunct, I  have to look for a new anthology. At the library, I saw Year’s Best Fantasy and figured, well, might as well start with something a little familiar. Also, I saw it had Peter S. Beagle’s Four Fables (which you can hear in separate miniature episodes at Podcastle). Plus, the cover looked really cool.

The stories in it are okay. Only a couple really stood out to me as really, really good, besides the Beagle stories.  Show Me Yours by Robert Reed was a revenge story I had to read twice; not because it was hard to read, but because once I got to the ending, I wanted to catch the details I missed before. But my favorite story was Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter (Fantasy) by Geoff Ryman. Had I gone to the Beer and Marmalade party at Wiscon, I would have fangirled him on this story. Great supernatural tale of ghosts and redemption.

I’ll keep an eye out for more of this anthology. Maybe I’ll try the science one next. Three Fables out of Five.

Love is an orientation

Love is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community by Andrew Marin

This is a book I picked up at InterVarsity Press back when I went to the Multi-Ethnic Publishing Seminar. I’ve been searching for a good Christian book that deals with the topic of gays and lesbians, and I believe this one is it.

Andrew Marin starts off the book by sharing his own story. In college, three of his best friends came out to him. At first, he did the typical Christian response, you can change back, you could go to hell, etc. After that, when he realized that wasn’t going anywhere, he decided to immerse himself fully in their culture to try to understand them what they were going through. In his words, he decided to become "the most involved, gayest straight dude on the face of the earth". So he hung out a lot in gay bars and clubs in Boystown, Chicago (which I’ve actually been to a couple of times. Long story.)

I like this book because instead of your typical "ooh! All gay people are going to hell. End of story!" viewpoint most Christian books take, Marin presents God’s word in how it’s viewed by gay Christians. He lays out the key Biblical passages that are the controversial to both gays and Christians and gives the cultural relevance for each. He admits there are passages where he simply doesn’t know about, but the point is not to show who’s right, but to bring both sides to the table to show what each group believes.

But what I liked most about this book was that he brings back the word "love" to the foreground. Marin emphasizes having true relationships with the GLBT community, not just lip service. He strongly encourages Christians to look past sexual orientation and focus on real friendships. And he reminds the church: it is not up to us to "fix" gays, or even to make them Christian. All God requires of us is to love them. Can we trust Him to do the rest? "Do our churches really give the impression that GLBT people have to be fixed before they are allowed to attend?" Marin asks. "Can we give love to (and be loved by) those without pretty pasts? Can we allow for God’s redemptive cycle to work in people’s lives without ever knowing the ending?"

There are some technical terms Marin use that went over my head, and he does mention his foundation a lot.  But this is a book that needs to be read by all Christians, I think, both gay and straight. Five Manholes out of five. And it’s a bar in Boystown, you perverts.

 Little Brother

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

I’ve been hearing a lot about Doctorow. How he is pioneering the "giving the whole book away for free" trend that’s been happening. Naturally, his YA story Little Brother was on the website for free, and it was a B&M pick, so I downloaded it.

Once you get past all the introductions and the copyright rants and the bookstore shoutouts, there’s actually a pretty action-packed story here, at least in the beginning. Marcus Yallow is a typical teenager—he’s into video games and the net, he bucks the computer systems at school, and he got the cocky attitude that screams thinks he knows pretty much everything adults don’t. If Daniel went to his school, I think I would put a kibbosh on any blossoming friendship between them.

Marcus one day skips out of class with his friends to be part of an ARG in downtown San Francisco. As they nearly get busted, a bomb blows up the Golden Gate Bridge. Marcus and his friends get rounded up by the Department of Homeland Security. After being humiliated and tortured, Marcus gets released but is warned that DHS is watching him. And one of his friends is missing.

I had often wondered what a youth rebellion would be like in this time and age. In the 60s there was the Woodstock generation who demonstrated against Vietnam. This generations’ idea of demonstrations seem to be turning their icons a certain color to show support for demonstrations happening far, far away.

Doctorow does an excellent job of showing Marcus using his mad l33t skilz of hacking to fight the system, in this case, his own country. Towards the end, however, all the constant action became cartoonish and unbelievable to me.  What scares me about books like these is that , since it takes place in post-911, it’s likely that this story could possibly happen. But then its gets too much into itself for its own good. Too heavy on the "freedom fighting" when all you have is a bunch of kids getting together for a party, no matter how good it is. Not a bad book, but still, a bit much. 3 Xboxes out of 5.

American gods

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I wish I can do a whole post on this, but like I said, I have a backlog of books to do. But I finally got around to reading this, and I only have one things to say. This is probably the first book I ever read where The House on the Rock is used as a gods stomping ground.

I read Anansi Boys last October, and I had an inkling that American Gods tied in with it. Boy howdy, does it ever. American Gods is a darker, perhaps more bloody story than Anansi Boys, but the two books are definitely two sides of the same coin. Both deals with men who suddenly find themselves in extraordinary circumstances. Both find themselves pulled into the realms of the gods. Both even have the Anansi character showing up (in fact, it was fun to see how "Mr. Nancy" alludes to his ‘no-good’ son). And both have tales, lots of tales, from myths to fables to tall tales. In fact, I would say that that Anansi Boys is omake to American Gods in terms of its humor and lightheartedness (and yes, there are some dark moments in Anansi Boys, but the ending was a lot more fun than American Gods).

What I loved about American Gods the most was that it seemed that Gaiman made this as a love letter to the Midwest, especially, of all places, Wisconsin. Madison gets a nod as well as Chicago, and all these little towns in Illinois, Wisconsin, Missouri (though does Missouri count as Midwest? I’m not sure…) There’s a chapter where the main character, Shadow, spends a cold winter in Lakeside, which could be any town in Northern Wisconsin. Having experienced some of these towns, I could completely picture it. Would this book qualify as urban fantasy, or small town fantasy? Hard to say.

But I do know one thing. This is a great book. Definitely worth buying. 5 coins out of 5. And be sure to keep an eye on your coins. Like gods, they can disappear without you even knowing it.

Book Review: Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

So after this year of reading books for weeks, maybe months at a time, I finally get Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys and what do I do? I devour it in a week.

It sucks because this was a book I wanted to read slowly. Getting a Gaiman book is always a treat, and I’ve been wanting to read this one for a long time. I feel like I’ve sit down to a nice filet mignon dinner, smelled it in great delight, then somehow channeled Cookie Monster: plates and knives flying everywhere, going “ARRRRRRRnyum-nyum-nyum-nyum!”, until I come out of my gluttonous haze, hair mussed, crumbs and fragments everywhere, thinking, “Wha? huh? Where’d it goooo?”

The reason why I read this book so fast was it drew me in, mainly because Gaiman always tell a good story, but this was a story using nearly an all-black cast. But it’s not blatant, with his characters talking slang and stereotypically putting their love groove on–well, okay, there’s Fat Charlie’s father, but I deal with that in a bit.. In fact, in the case of the main characters, you don’t even know they’re black until you’re well in the book. Fat Charlie, by all accounts is a proper British gentleman who just so happens to be black. I’m pretty sure his fiance is also black, mainly because her mother has been described as “a skeletal Eartha Kitt”. There’s also a point in the book when her skin is shown to be brown, but you’ll have to read the book to see which part she shows (it had me cracking up all the way off my futon).

So we have the British black, and then we have the Florida black, which mainly consists of old black women, who takes care of things after Fat Charlie’s father dies. They pretty much act, well, like old black women, and I was impressed by how Gaiman handled them without letting them slide into stereotype.

But what is this book about? It’s about stories. It’s about myths. It’s about African tales that most of us had forgotten about, which briefly made its reappearance in the Brer Rabbit tales, and then sunk back into obscurity. It’s also about the power of family and being horribly, horribly embarrassed by them, and passing on that legacy, for good or ill.

Fat Charlie, aka Charles Nancy, is a man who is puzzled all the time. He just wants to live a normal life, but he never seems to really enjoy that life. He lives it just for something to do. However, he does know he wants to stay away from his crazy father, who drinks and dances and wears goofy fedoras. It was his father, in fact, who called him “Fat Charlie”, and though Charles detests the name, whenever someone finds out about it, it always sticks.

When his father dies in a spectacular use of karaoke and a crooked finger, Charles suddenly learns he has a brother named Spider, who is the exact opposite of Charles: he’s smooth, he’s eloquent, he’s debonair. Things happen around him. And it appears that he’s the one who inherited most of their father’s powers. For their father was Anansi, the trickster spider-god.

I understand that this book is a companion to American Gods, which I have not read yet, but this one has more humor. That’s certainly the case. There’s a lot of wit and fun, starting with Spider deciding to have fun with Charles’s life, to Charles discovering  his own self. There’s birds and ghosts, and that annoying boss whom you can hear the insincerity in his catchphrase, “Absatively!” There’s also stories about Anansi, which may or may not be true (one story had me scratching my head, thinking, I could’ve sworn I read that once as a Grimm’s fairy tale…)

The only time I got pulled out of the story was when Charles Nancy landed in jail. Being a black person, if such a thing happened to me, I would have been deeply worried on how it would reflect on me as a black person overall. After all, the statistics are significantly higher for black people to go to jail more than white people (I remember my hubby once showing me that the ratio of black men in Wisconsin sent to prison over white people was 17 to 1). However, there was an absence of that worry in Charles Nancy. Part of me wondered if it had to do with it being that Charles was completely overwhelmed by everything that was happening to him (losing his job, his fiancee, not to mention his closet space turned into a bedroom set in a completely different part of the world). But another part of me wondered if this was because, Gaiman, being caucasian (though a British one at that), didn’t have the experience to consider it. Or maybe he did and chose not to make an issue of it, choosing to keep the book light in nature. Which makes sense. I suppose I’ll have to ask him that the next time he’s in Madison. 

This gets 4-3/4 spiders out of 5 (yes, that’s my rating. What of it?). This is one of those books makes me wish I was a famous writer so I could write it myself. Maybe one day, when Hollywood realizes that the world is more multi-cultural than they think, Anansi Boys will get made into a movie. I have hope. Hey, if we can get a black president into the White House, then certainly we can get an all-black cast fantasy movie. It’s just a matter of time, that’s all.

Oh, and by the way, Neil, I am absolutely serious. The next time you’re in Madison, WI, let me know. I’m dying to buy you a cup of coffee so I can pick your brains out about Anansi Boys and writing in general. Well, not necessarily pick your brains in that way…

When to write and when to polish (and when to wax poetic…)

So last week I was listening to the Adventures in Scifi Publishing episode where Shaun Ferrell interviews Neil Gaiman. Towards the end of the podcast, About 30 minutes in, to be exact, Neil said something that troubled me a little. It’s part of the advice every writer gets nowadays–to write, and write every day. That part, I have no trouble with. What Neil said next, though, did. He said, and I quote:

“It’s much, much better to go off and write 10,000 words filled with glorious mistakes than to think for three weeks and write a 1500 word little jewel, then polish that jewel for the next month or two until it glows, and you have one perfect little thing. While, someone else has written 30,000 words that probably won’t be usable, but they’re 30,000 words better now. They’ve made 30,000 words worth of cool mistakes that they won’t be making again.”

This bothered me because At first, I was pretty irate. Who does Neil think he is? How dare he–an established, well-known famous author with several books under his belt–tell me–a part-time secretary, full-time mother trying to juggle writing time with housework/preschooler’s naps–how to be a writer? It’s easy for him to say “write something every day”. He doesn’t have kids running through a tiny two-bedroom apartment throwing train tracks everywhere and complaining every five minutes, “I’m bored. This is boring. I’m boooooored.” (By the way, can you guess what Daniel’s new word of the day is?) Don’t he realize that I got to take whatever time I can get? I don’t have the luxury to pick and choose what I work on. Hey, if I was an established, full-time writer, I’d sit on my butt and churn out stories every day, revise a few more stories, find markets for them, send them out, and still have time to clean the house, cook dinner, read to my son, fly to the moon, solve crime, negotiate for peace in Sudan, stop global warming…

Mind you, now, these were the very first thoughts that came to mind when I heard Neil say that.

I’ve been thinking about it ever since. At this very moment, I am juggling two revision projects–one of which I’ve been revising over and over since last November, trying to get it as perfect as possible before sending it to…well…actually I need to find a market for it. Granted, it’s not a 1500 little jewel–it’s more of a 12,000 honking big jewel I’ve been polishing for quite some time. And since I’ve been revising it, I’ve done little else in writing–just that and Willow, really. Haven’t worked on any new stories or essays. Haven’t sent anything new out. In fact, this Agony Booth recap I started a week ago is the first new anything I’ve done since…since…

What was the last story I worked on?

Of course, I can make excuses. I can say that I was so stressed out at the beginning of the year with preparing our house for sale that it sucked my creative juices dry. The only way I could stay sane was to edit my existing stories, and it helped me out to focus solely on them. Actually, I won’t make that an excuse. That stressful time really did help me focus better on my story.

But at the same time, one can only revise and revise and revise without getting worn down. I need to have that spontaneous feeling again of whipping up a story out of thin air. I need to get back to the delight of wondering what word I will put down next. And I’ve been taking steps in doing that. I’ve been pushing myself to do more freewriting. Actually, I’ve been attempting to ease myself into it since July, and so far, it’s been a bit better. I just need to figure out timing and all.

When I first started this post, I was going to dispute Mr. Gaiman’s statement by saying, “You can write, write, write all you want. But what use is it if all those words are sitting on your computer, never to be polished into a story?” However, now I have to admit; he’s right. I need to start writing again, and by writing, I mean writing new stuff. It’s in the new stories that you learn how to write better because you are constantly working with new material to play with.

But I would further add that writing should be balanced with revising. At some point, you do have to take a story and polish it. You don’t see editors asking for first drafts of stories. They want something that’s your very best. And to be really honest, I like my stories to be jewels. It’s how they stand out. At least, I like to think they do. And then you have to submit. Because after all that work, if it’s still sitting on your hard drive, what good does it do you?

Write. Revise. Submit. Finding the balance between the three. ‘Course, there will be times when you can do only one. You may get so drained out of a family crises that you may just want to just revise something. Or not work on anything at all. That’s the best thing about writing–it’s pretty flexible to whatever circumstances you’re in.

Now if the whole Obama/McCain election was just as flexible, we’d be in good shape.