Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Fragile Things/City of Beasts

What a joy it is to read a Neil Gaiman book. He's so inventive, brilliant and witty, and his prose is impeccable. But it's the characters in any given Gaiman book that stay with you, and make you think, laugh, cry or ponder. Like any art that is real and of the best quality, a book by Gaiman will have you reflecting on the people you've read about and their story's impact on your life for years to come.
I have been a fan of Gaiman's since I first read his Sandman series back in the late 80s early 90s. Full disclosure, I am NOT a graphic novel/comic book fan, and never have been. But a friend of mine at Wilsons Book Store in St Petersburg, Florida, told me that I should pick up a graphic novel by Neil Gaiman, because he was doing something different--taking myths and legends and folktales, and crafting literary graphic novels that were intellectual and fascinating, especially to those who like classic literature, like myself.
I took his advice and got hooked on his "Death" series, because Death was portrayed as a spunky goth chick, and Dream, her brother, was a Rick O'Casic-looking poet who had a wry turn of phrase and a genius for getting his family members out of trouble and helping hapless humans at the same time. The literary references were fun to spot, and the storylines riveting.
I read Coraline and Stardust and Neverwhere, and felt as if I'd fallen into a dream-state with each one. Then I got ahold of American Gods, and I knew that though I was not at all fond of several of the main characters, that this world Gaiman had created was unlike any other, and his character Shadow a modern day titan I could sympathize with, instead of envy. Gaiman placed some of the events of American Gods at the House on the Rock in Wisconsin, and, having visited there myself, I'd have to say that it is such a bizarre and fascinating house/museum, that it is perfectly suited to be a meeting place for unemployed gods. Around the time I first began reading the Death series, I found a book called "The Faces of Fantasy" and lo and behold, Neil Gaiman graced the cover of the book. He really has no right to be that handsome and talented at the same is just not fair. Something about the gleam of mischief in his eyes made me go all wobbly at the knees back then, and I realized, as I read "Fragile Things" one of his short story collections, that I have had a raging crush on the man for years. How can any sane woman not get all steamed up over a tall, dark and handsome man who also writes tender poetry and soulful ballads disguised as short stories? He's got a killer wit and a marvelous sense of humor, too, which places him firmly in my pantheon of "Men I'd Love to Lick." That's him there, standing next to Steve Jobs (brains, charisma and impeccable taste), Sting (brains, beauty and tons of talent), Alan Rickman (brains, oozing sex appeal and even more talent) and all the hottie guys on StarGate Atlantis, particularly Mr Momoa.
At any rate, I highly recommend "Fragile Things" because each story delights or frightens or comforts the reader in a different way.
I can't say the same for Isabelle Alende's "The City of Beasts." Meant as a Young Adult title, the novel takes place in the steamy Amazon jungle, and the protagonist is an American teenage boy who starts the novel as a spoiled and sullen youth, but ends it as a new man, full of values and standards that he gleaned from the natives of the jungle. Sound cliche'd? It is. The whole dang novel is just one cliche after another, and the author makes an even larger mistake in talking down to the reader, as if anything but black and white characters who have the obvious good or evil motivations would somehow be too much to fathom for teens. If I had read this book in my teens, I'd have been furious. It has the standard "all whites are stupid and imperialistic" and "all adult whites are greedy, evil, mean, stupid or all of the above" with the expected flip side that all the natives/Indians are mysterious, wise, magical and good. The prose is flooded with overly obvious observations, and the last half of the book is so predictable I could have put it down after page 150 and still explained to you exactly what was going to happen to the main character. Allende shouldn't try to get into the head of an American boy, as she ascribes feelings and motivations to him that just don't wash. Though I can appreciate the fact that mankind is clear-cutting the jungle and mining/ruining its land at an alarming rate, I don't think that equates to the natives there automatically being the noble savages who have cures for every disease that they won't share with all those greedy white people. I know there are people and organizations who are trying to save the Amazon, and who are working to save the environment as well. Not everyone in the industrialized world is an evil robber baron in search of gold or the fountain of youth. All these issues are more complex than the way they are presented in this book, and youths deserve to have a full spectrum of characters and themes to think about, instead of having the black and white hat argument presented to them on a silver platter. I would give this novel a pass and try for something more realistic and honestly written.
Happy 4th of July!

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