Review: The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch and Ordinary Victories Part Deux

See me starting challenges all over the place?  It’s a new year and I am on the ball.

The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch, Neil Gaiman and Michael Zulli

I didn’t start out my Graphic Novels Challenge reading with quite the satisfactory bang that I was hoping for (probably because I didn’t start by doing the January mini-challenge but OH that is all about to change).  The Facts, etc., etc., disappointed me.  Illustrated by Michael Zulli, this graphic novel tells the tale of a strange night out, with a strange woman whose real name wasn’t Miss Finch.  The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch is a good title, if you’re writing that sort of story, edged with primness rather than ferality.  I thought maybe Gaiman was intending to play up the contrast? But it didn’t really work.

Essentially (spoilers for the whole!), Miss Finch likes sabre-toothed tigers; she goes out with the narrator and his friends; they all see a very strange circus; and she gets transported back in time to live with (and boss around) sabre-toothed tigers.  And then everyone goes home and thinks about how strange it all was.  As a short story, this is already rather thinly plotted.  Put it into comic book form and publish it as a hardback, it just (of course) makes this problem more noticeable.  Then of course, the whole thing is framed by the narrator’s remembering it, and it hardly seems worth remembering.

Not that – well, I mean, obviously if that happened in real life, you’d remember it and talk about it a lot.  It’s not every day that you go out with a woman and she gets zapped back in time and prevents sabre-toothed tigers from eating you all up, and then trots back into prehistoric times to hang out there forever.  But that’s all that happens.  The story is more about the setting, than the plot, and although Michael Zulli is a good illustrator and makes a very beautiful setting, that doesn’t make up for how essentially dull it is.  Nothing happens to the narrator at all.  You are never in fear of their lives or anything.  I just – I know that Neil Gaiman can do creepy stories, and the reason I know that is that I’ve read Coraline.  I wanted The Facts – that title is ridiculously long – I wanted the book to be creepy, and it was dull instead.  Bah.  Plus, I’ve read this Gaiman story before, with the theatre show.  Several times.  Better versions.

Ordinary Victories, Manu Larcenet

Onward to Ordinary Victories: What Is Precious, which I got for Christmas from my lovely mum and dad (along with the original Ordinary Victories, which I reread and found to be as wonderful as I had initially thought it was).  I shall have spoilers in this review, for the first volume as well as the second.  The protagonist’s father has just committed suicide (this happened towards the end of Ordinary Victories), and he, his brother, and his mother are all struggling to come to terms with that.  Marc’s girlfriend Emily is longing for a child, and Marc himself is still not sure of his place in the world – as a son or a potential father or an artist.  Which is to say, many of the same elements that I so loved in Ordinary Victories were present in What Is Precious, especially the juxtaposition of very strong emotions with the tiny details of everyday life.

I didn’t like it quite as much as the first volume, though, and I’m not sure why.  Maybe because I had expectations going into the second volume that weren’t present for the first.  Marc and Emily’s having a kid shifted the tone of the book.  I loved how Ordinary Victories was able to contain a lot of important, difficult issues, without giving the impression that it was Addressing and Attempting to Resolve them.  Once the kid shows up in What Is Precious, though, I lose all patience for the characters’ indecision and uncertainty.  That sounds very intolerant of me.  Another possibility is that I was cranky after reading Slaughterhouse Five.  I should have read The Ask and the Answer next, as a palate cleanser, and proceeded to What Is Precious subsequently.

Have you read either of these?  Let me know and I’ll put a link!

Odd and the Frost Giants, Neil Gaiman

Imagine my surprise when I discovered this at the bookshop!  The American bookshop because the book is here in America now!  Who knew?  It’s thrilling!  Odd and the Frost Giants is about a boy called Odd who has bad luck.  His father has drowned, and his stepfather doesn’t much care for him, and an accident with a tree has left him with serious and lasting injuries to one of his legs.  He runs away from home, into the forest, where he meets a bear, a fox, and an eagle, who actually are Thor, Loki, and Odin, cast out of Asgard by a Frost Giant who has Thor’s hammer and wants to marry Freya.  Odd helps.

Illustrated by Brett Helquist, who did the illustrations for Lemony Snicket’s books as well, Odd and the Frost Giants is probably the most cheerful and charming of all Neil Gaiman’s books, excepting I suppose Blueberry Girl.  It’s short and leaves you (leaves me, anyway) wanting to see more of clever, perceptive Odd.  I like it when characters are able to sort things out using only their words – mainly because, I guess, I myself feel very strongly that most things could be sorted out with words, if people would only cooperate.  The end was neat, but not too neat – exactly neat enough for the length and tone of the book, I felt.  Neil Gaiman has said that he has more stories about Odd to tell.  Hope so!

I have noticed that British authors seem to really love Norse mythology – Neil Gaiman returns to it again and again, Tolkien obviously loved it, and Diana Wynne Jones works it into her stories too.  To me, Norse mythology is just okay, definitely inferior to the cool and exciting Greek and Roman mythology.  Is this because I didn’t grow up with Norse myths?  Do you love Norse myths, hate them, or not care?  Is there a particularly wonderful Norse myth you want to tell me about that could serve as my Norse mythology gateway drug?

What other people thought: things mean a lot, Bart’s Bookshelf, Stainless Steel Droppings, Stuff as Dreams Are Made On, bermudaonion, Graeme’s Fantasy Book Review, The Wertzone

Let me know if I missed yours!

P.S. I keep wanting to write “Ood” instead of “Odd”.

Booking Through Thursday

I like this one:

This can be a quick one. Don’t take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you’ve read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than 15 minutes.

So here are my fifteen books that will always stick with me, more or less in the order in which they entered my life:

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis
Jane Eyre
, Charlotte Bronte
Emily Climbs, L.M .Montgomery
Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card
, William Shakespeare
The Chosen
, Chaim Potok
The Color Purple
, Alice Walker
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
, J.K. Rowling
, Eloise Jarvis McGraw
American Gods, Neil Gaiman
The Invention of Love, Tom Stoppard
I Capture the Castle
, Dodie Smith
, Julian of Norwich
The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Salman Rushdie

These are all books that left me breathless.  Is that what we were after?

Death: The High Cost of Living, Neil Gaiman

For a quick interlude between new books, I paused and reread Death: The High Cost of Living.  Neil Gaiman has written two graphic novels about Death, and this one’s the one that’s actually about Death.  Although Death: The Time of Your Life is also very, very good.  In this one, we get the story of how Death becomes a human once every century, for one day.  This time, she meets a bored, slightly suicidal kid called Sexton Furnival, and they go around town looking for fun.  They look for the heart of an old, old woman called Mad Hettie, and they see the very first gig of a singer called Foxglove (singing, incidentally, the Flash Girls’ “Sonnet in the Dark” under a different title, about which I was briefly outraged before I remembered that Neil Gaiman wrote the lyrics for “Sonnet in the Dark” so can hardly be accused of plagiarism), and they have some trouble with a crazy man called the Eremite who wants to keep Death captive.

This is one of the first graphic novels I ever read – actually, I believe I read it before I read the Sandman – and it’s a good way to ease yourself into graphic novels.  It’s well-illustrated, and it’s a sweet story.

Since I’ve just slagged off Neil Gaiman

Let’s have a bit of rejoicing for him!  The Graveyard Book won the Newbery!

Couldn’t have happened to a nicer book.  I’m so pleased.  Sometimes the Newbery books are shocking crapThe Graveyard Book is delightful.  Everyone should recognize that Neil Gaiman is a genius.  Everyone everywhere.  There should be a rule.  Hurrah!

“The Problem of Susan”, Neil Gaiman

While I’m in a talking-about-C.S.-Lewis groove, I might as well review this short story.  I reread it yesterday because I was thinking a lot about C.S. Lewis and Aslan and God, and leaving Susan behind when everyone heads into Aslan’s country.  And here’s what I came out of it with: This story hurts my feelings.  On C.S. Lewis’s behalf, my feelings are hurt by this story.

The main body of the story isn’t the problem.  I think the story is great actually.  It’s essentially a young reporter interviewing a professor of children’s literature, who (it’s very strongly implied) is the grown-up Susan Pevensie.  She’s talking about her life after her siblings all died, how she had to identify their bodies, and how she didn’t have much money following the death of her parents, and so forth.  There’s this tone of bewildered melancholy, and weary anger, which I thought was excellent.  These are points which I think need to be made about Susan from The Last Battle, because even making the argument that her crime was caring too much about girly things, and no longer believing in Narnia – even making that argument, the passage comes out damn sexist, whatever Lewis intended.  So hurrah for Neil Gaiman, putting a face on what Susan would have been going through back in the real world, while everyone she loved was frolicking around merrily in Aslan’s country.  (The other three Pevensies didn’t seem to bother much about her either.  I expected better from Lucy.  And Edmund, actually.  Their big sister!)

But, oh, the bits in italics, which framed the main story, hurt my feelings so much.  (Even though I can see how the story would have been incomplete if he had just taken those bits out.)  I’m excerpting a bit, which is rather explicit, so don’t read it if that’s going to bother you.  Aslan and the White Witch have made a deal to divvy up the Pevensy kids, the boys for her and the girls for him:

The lion eats all of her except her head, in her dream.  He leaves the head, and one of her hands, just as a housecat leaves the parts of a mouse it has no desire for; for later; or as a gift.

She wishes that he had eaten her head, then she would not have had to look.  Dead eyelids cannot be closed, and she stares, unflinching, at twisted thing her brothers have become.  The great beast eats her little sister more slowly; and, it seems to her, with more relish and pleasure than it had eaten her; but then, her little sister had always been its favorite.

The witch removes her white robes, revealing a body no less white, with high, small breasts, and nipples so dark they are almost black.  The witch lies back upon the grass, spreads her legs.  Beneath her body, the grass becomes rimed with frost.  “Now,” she says….

And when the two of them are done, sweaty and sticky and sated, only then does the lion amble over to the head on the grass and devour it in its huge mouth, crunching her skull in its powerful jaws, and it is then, only then, that she wakes.

Not something I often say, and not something I really ever want to say, but shut up, Neil Gaiman.

At first this was just a kneejerk reaction.  As an adult I recognize that sometimes Aslan is a bit smug and aggravating, but still there is this huge part of me that just finds him safe and comforting.  I identified really strongly with Lucy when I was a kid – I think because when you’re a kid, people often don’t listen to you, and nobody would listen to Lucy about Narnia – so I also identified with her relationship with Aslan.  Also, when I went and woke up my parents with nightmares, they would tell me that Aslan would blow my bad dreams away.  You know, like he blew away Eustace and Jill in The Silver Chair, most terrifying Narnia book ever; and that’s what I would imagine when I was falling back asleep.  In fact I still do.  So I was never going to take kindly to something like this.

However, on an intellectual level – and, disclaimer, I don’t know if this response is any fairer – but this business with Aslan and the Witch just seems mean-spirited.  Not because I mind things in which God doesn’t come out too well – for a while I was absolutely entranced by the His Dark Materials books, so much so that I bought all three of them, in hardback, right after I finished The Amber Spyglass; and Angels in America is one of my favorite plays ever (brother’s from the homeland!), as well as being one of my desert island movies.  (Hm, I seem to have Angels in America on the brain – could be my subconscious signaling me to read it again.)  I’m Catholic, but as a trend I really don’t mind when God is portrayed negatively, when it reflects the author’s beliefs and attitudes about the world.  I figure, God is tough.  God can take it.

“The Problem of Susan”, to me, is a whole different question.  It’s not an assault on God; it’s a specific, personal assault on one specific person’s affectionately rendered depiction of his beliefs.  C.S. Lewis wrote Aslan to reflect his experience of God, and as I’ve said, that man loved God like nothing else.  Whether you agree with him or not, he wrote Aslan with such absolute sincerity and love.  I think it is unkind to take such an honest expression of someone’s religious devotion, and do this with it; no matter how much you disagree with him, or find his beliefs about women/God/whatever, to be damaging.  It makes me feel all yucky to read this part of the story – a reaction I don’t think I’ve had to something I’ve read since this horrible book I got for my eleventh birthday, the contents of which I don’t remember at all, but which upset me so much I hid it under the couch and still couldn’t sleep knowing it was in the house so I got up and threw it in the trash and poured wet coffee grounds on top of it.

I’m not pouring wet coffee grounds on top of “The Problem with Susan”.  I just wish Neil Gaiman had been more respectful of C.S. Lewis.  And I say this as a girl who likes dressing up pretty with stockings for parties, and has been from a young age completely displeased with how Lewis dealt with Susan in The Last Battle.  (Y’all should see the sexy, sexy yellow dress I got for Christmas.  You know how hot Kate Hudson was in her yellow dress in How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days?  This dress is just like that.  But my hair is longer.)

Okay.  This marks the end of my C.S. Lewis apologetics.  You will not hear another peep out of me about C.S. Lewis.  I am reading his letters but I won’t say a word.  Coming soon: more Sandman, more Shakespeare, the seventh Harry Potter book for heaven’s sake, the interesting book about virginity I am reading, and hopefully some Susan Hill, since every book blog on my blogroll seems to be reading Susan Hill recently.  But no more of the Sally Lockhart books.  I’m tired of them because everyone died, and the Eleventh Doctor has pretentious hands.  Also maybe some science fiction.  I feel myself getting into a very science fictiony mood.  We’ll see how that plays out.

Season of Mists, Neil Gaiman

Aw, Season of Mists is great.  I like it so much.  It makes me nostalgic for Past Jenny, who was young and dumb and had yet to discover most of her now-favorite films and music and TV shows (including, of course, the other six volumes of Sandman).  Oh, wow, that’s really, really true.  I hadn’t discovered Joss Whedon yet, or The Office, or Doctor Who; I hadn’t yet seen any of my current five desert island DVDs (fifth series of Buffy, MirrorMask, Empire Records, Angels in America, and Before Sunrise); I didn’t know the Decembrists, the Shins, Neko Case – I’m amazed at Past Jenny.  What did Past Jenny do to pass the time?  Sheesh.

Anyway – wow, I’m just amazed at how many awesome things I have discovered since I left high school – anyway, this is the fourth Sandman book, and it starts out with Dream’s family getting together and sniping at each other until Dream finally decides that it was unfair of him to condemn his ex-lover to hell forever, just because she didn’t want to be his queen.  So off he goes, to fight the hordes of hell and get her back – it’s so Dream – and when he gets there, Lucifer has decided to shut down hell.  He gives the key to Dream, and takes himself off; and suddenly Dream is the center of attention from every deity and supernatural power ever, because they all want Hell.

I really don’t like the story where all the dead people come back to the public school.  I seem to recall someone telling me that Neil Gaiman went to Whitgift, in Croydon – it has peacocks and wallabies and flamingos (hee hee hee), but I am beginning to wonder whether it was possibly COMPLETELY SCARRING.  British public schools sound awful.  And not-public schools don’t seem to be any better.

Neil Gaiman’s obsession with gods, which will come to a head in, no surprises, American Gods, is all too evident here.  You have the Egyptian pantheon, a delegation from the faerie, the Norse lot of Odin, Thor, and Loki, angels from heaven in a supervisory capacity, and demons from hell; they all have things to offer Dream.  Neil Gaiman’s obviously having fun with all of them, and it is fun – Thor’s hitting on Bast, and two of the hell demons are having an affair, and a sinisterly lettered little girl from the hordes of chaos giggles when someone gets made into sausages.  It’s fun, and it wraps up tidily at the end.  Except for the bit about Loki.  That’s going to turn out worse than you think.

I am trying to decide whether I want to read A Game of You.  I have to be in the mood for A Game of You, and I’m not sure I am in the mood for it.

Dream Country, Neil Gaiman

Evidently the stress of writing a nice coherent plot in The Doll’s House proved temporarily too much for Neil Gaiman, and he took a break to write some single-issue self-contained stories.  And these are some damn good stories.  Except I don’t like “Façade”.  I remember not liking it so um, I sort of skipped it this time.  I know!  I could read “24 Hours” but not “Façade”?  I don’t know what’s wrong with me.

No, actually, I know exactly why I did that.  Lately I’ve been getting ready for bed around eight, then lying in bed reading for several hours.  I collect three or four books that I might feel like reading, climb up onto my bed (it’s a loft bed, so once I’m up there, I’m generally too lazy to come down before morning), and read until I can’t keep my eyes open anymore.  And last night, when I was reading Dream Country, I had Season of Mists sitting enticingly on the pillow.  So when I got to “Façade”, I just couldn’t stand the idea that there was this one story – a story I don’t even like – standing between me and the first issue of Season of Mists, probably my favorite single issue from a complete storyline (as compared with the self-contained stories), because I love it when the Endless all get together and hang out (though I hate how Delirium is drawn in this one).

Now I feel guilty.  I will probably go back and read “Façade” this evening, out of guilt.

Anyway, the other three stories are very, very good.  I like “Calliope” the best.  It’s not that I don’t like the other two – I do – but I just like “Calliope” way the best.  “Dream of a Thousand Cats” is a smidge too – I don’t know, I think it takes itself a tiny bit too seriously, considering how whimsical a story it is.  And “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is gorgeous and delightful, and no wonder it won a prize, but I am not in love with Sandman’s treatment of Shakespeare.  I love Shakespeare.  AND HE WAS NOT FRANCIS BACON AND HE DID NOT MAKE A DEAL WITH DREAM AND HE WAS A GENIUS BY HIMSELF OKAY?

Calm down, Jenny.

Anyway, I think “Calliope” is great.  I adore the brief one-panel vignettes you see of Richard Madoc – chatting up a girl at a party and telling her he does consider himself a feminist writer – then going home to the woman he’s keeping prisoner so he can be a genius.  And as well, this story casts Dream in a better light than we’ve really seen him.  His last two encounters with women haven’t been nice: condemning Nada to hell forever and ditching Lyta Hall all pregnant and despairing.  I’m always glad to see him being helpful to Calliope and screwing up Madoc’s life permanently – though without the vindictiveness I would have expected.  (This is change on his part.  Watch how it will remain a theme.)

Next up: Season of Mists.  I love Season of Mists.  It was my favorite for a few weeks in June 2004, and although I now like other volumes better, this one still holds a special place in my heart.

Possibly the nicest dream I have ever had

I dreamed that I was at Barack Obama’s inauguration with the Endless.  IT WAS AWESOME.  It was so good that I turned off my alarm twice in order to carry on having the dream.  (I never turn off my alarm.)  I was very chummy with all of the Endless, except that Dream didn’t really want to chat.  This led me to wonder whether I was one of the Endless.  I didn’t see Despair or Desire, so I was probably one of those two, if I was anyone.  Destruction was ridiculously huge, but very friendly.  Destiny was surprisingly forthcoming with information about the future; Delirium was surprisingly fun to hang out with; and Death was just as lovely as you might expect, and she let me borrow her hat.  I have never enjoyed a dream this much in my memory.  It was completely disappointing to wake up and discover it was just a dream.

The Doll’s House, Neil Gaiman

Ooh, this volume is spookier than I remember.  It’s a bit hard to explain the plot, which is intricately linked to other storylines, but in short, it’s about a girl called Rose, who is looking for her little brother.  A number of other people are milling around: G.K. Chesterton, a woman who’s been pregnant for several years, a serial killer with teeth in his eyes, women with enormous spider collections, and that makes it interesting.  Still, essentially it’s all about Rose.  She has multicolored hair and numerous connections to the previous volume.  She is also a vortex, which means that she can break down the walls between everybody’s dreams.  In case this does not sound alarming, Neil Gaiman makes it really, really disturbing.  Like, much more so than the serial killer convention.  (To me – but I’m very attached to my dreams.  I’d be interested to know what other people think.  How disturbing do you find that scene where all of her flatmates’ dreams start melting into each other?  Particularly with Barbie and Ken?)

When I first started writing this review, I was going to say that two of the issues included in this volume don’t really go well with the rest of the book, but then I realized that was nonsense.  They both go very very well, “Tales in the Sand” and “Men of Good Fortune”, because they give you a really vivid sense of Dream’s mercilessness and isolation, and how both of those things can play into what’s going to happen in the rest of this volume.  As well as what’s going to happen at the end of the series, which – hey – is pretty impressive.

Gilbert is such a wonderful part of The Doll’s House.  I love Gilbert.  I think it is so nice of Neil Gaiman to have given his fictional G.K. Chesterton the chance to really actually rescue a damsel in distress, which G.K. Chesterton seems to have greatly wanted to do.  G.K. Chesterton charms me.  I would say that G.K. Chesterton accounts for a higher percentage of the quotations in my commonplace book than any other author – funny how I don’t own a single thing he wrote.  But he’s delightful here.

Still not the best, but Neil Gaiman is clearly finding his voice.  The theme of storytelling that runs through the Sandman continues to be developed here.  Neil Gaiman is always good with that theme.  Hm, and so is Martine Leavitt.  Creating yourself by the story you have about yourself.  That’s a good theme.  When it is handled well in a book, I nearly always like that book.  Maybe always always.  I’ll have to think more about this.