Book Review: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

I heard a public radio interview with Neil Gaiman where he mentioned that the the original idea for The Graveyard Book (2008) came from seeing his 2-year old son riding a tricycle through a cemetery.  I knew I had to read this book since I live adjacent to a park-like cemetery and often take my toddler there for walks.  After waiting a long time to get the book from the library wait list, it did not disappoint.

The book tells the story of a boy raised by the spirits of graveyard denizens after his family is murdered in a terrifying opening chapter.  Named Nobody Owens, or Bod for short (for after all he’s the only one in the graveyard with a body), the boy grows up with ghosts, vampires, werewolves and other spooks as family and friends.  Gaiman is wonderfully imaginative in creating the graveyard society where people from different eras (dating back to Roman times) interact but remain true to their times.  There’s also a social divide between those buried in the graveyard proper and those in the potter’s field and the witches and suicides in unconsecrated ground.  Interesting too is that the dead are frozen at the age they died so while they don’t change their relationship with Bod changes as he grows older.

The novel develops episodically, each chapter a self-contained story of Bod at a different age.  In these stories Bod encounters frightening and magical aspects of the world of the dead, makes his first tentative excursions into the living world, and under the most extraordinary circumstances Bod deals with the ordinary concerns of a growing boy.  My favorite story is the sweet tale of Bod trying to make a grave marker for a young witch executed centuries earlier.

I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed with the conclusion.  Without giving away too much it involves a prophecy and an ancient secret society and is just too neat and tidy.  In a book full of the supernatural this part defied by suspense of disbelief.  Yet, I think The Graveyard Book transcends this narrative problem as it is both wonderfully fresh and imaginative and yet seemingly steeped in old-fashioned story telling tradition. In an afterword, Gaimain mentions that the book is modeled on Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book which may contribute to it’s timeless quality.  This is definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year and an invitation to read more of Gaimain (I’ve previously read Good Omens which Gaiman co-authored with Terry Pratchett).The graveyard book / Neil Gaiman ; with illustrations by Dave McKean.

Publisher: New York, NY : HarperCollins Publishers, c2008.
ISBN: 9780060530921 (trade bdg.)
0060530928 (trade bdg.)
9780060530938 (reinforced) : $18.89
0060530936 (reinforced) : $18.89
Description: 312 p. : ill. ; 22 cm.
Edition: 1st ed.

Book Review: Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks

Musicophilia (2007) by Oliver Sacks tells the stories of people with neurological conditions that involve music, and a study of the human brain and music in general.  The book relies largely on case studies of Sacks’ patients and others in the annals of medical literature, and more uniquely on Sacks’ own experiences.  Cases include people who have musical hallucinations more powerful and persistent than the ordinary earworm,  people with physical and neurological disorders who excel at music, and the unique role of music in therapy.

I found the book repetitive both within itself and to the previous Sacks’ book I’ve read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.  It’s as if Sacks just keeps piling on examples of the same or similar disorders without really coming to a conclusion or a big picture.  I guess I expected more from this book, and Sacks certainly has fascinating stories to share, but I think he needs a ghost writer.

Musicophilia unabridged library edition by Oliver Sacks. Books on Tape (2007), Audio CD

Reading James Joyce’s Ulysses, part III

“Scylla and Charybdis”

This episode is thematically near and dear to my heart.  Set in the National Library of Ireland (which I’ve also failed to visit) it features literary debate on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, plus stuff about fathers and navigating between two extremes.  And it’s often satirical and funny.

–Bosh! Stephen said rudely. A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.

Portals of discovery opened to let in the quaker librarian, softcreakfooted, bald, eared and assiduous.

I like this passage both for Stephen Dedalus’ naive understanding of genius and how it transitions to the entry of the librarian.  I think I should rename this blog “Portals of Discovery.”  Then there’s this nice ribald pun: “If others have their will Ann hath a way.”

Then there’s this passage that takes a jibe at John Millington Synge: “The tramper Synge is looking for you, he said, to murder you. He heard you pissed on his halldoor in Glasthule. He’s out in pampooties to murder you.”  I like it because it reminds me I had a cat named Pampootie when I was  child.

And then there’s this: “He laughed to free his mind from his mind’s bondage.”  Heavy, man, heavy.


“The Wandering Rocks”

Holy cow!  19 different citizens of the city of Dublin perambulate its labryinthian streets and have there own thoughts and actions monitored.  If this book couldn’t get any more obtuse.  I do feel a spark of pride that I immediately knew that the “dreadful catastrophe in New York” was the General Slocum disaster.  It’s amazing how much history is connected to this one date, 16 June 1904. By a nice coincidence there’s a mention of my last DailyLit book, The Woman in White.

Back to the General Slocum disaster, here’s the money quote from Tom Kernan:

I smiled at him. AMERICA, I said quietly, just like that. WHAT IS IT? THE SWEEPINGS OF EVERY COUNTRY INCLUDING OUR OWN. ISN’T THAT TRUE? That’s a fact

Buck Mulligan claims that Stephen Dedalus will write something in ten years, not at all coincidentally the same year Joyce would publish his first book The Dubliners.   By the way, why did all the college professors make us read The Dubliners and nothing else by Joyce?  I probably would have understood this better in a classroom setting.


“The Sirens”

Music rules over this episode.  Music in lyrics, music in speech, music in writing.  Musical instruments and words that are synonyms for musical instruments are everywhere.

A duodene of birdnotes chirruped bright treble answer under sensitive hands. Brightly the keys, all twinkling, linked, all harpsichording, called to a voice to sing the strain of dewy morn, of youth, of love’s leavetaking, life’s, love’s morn.

That’s poetry that is.  I really feel like I’m starting to get it here.  I see the characters and places.  I feel the rhythms.   Good golly, Ulysses is making sense!  Of course I draw upon my experience in music pubs with attractive barmaids.

There’s this humorous bit about math and music too:

Numbers it is. All music when you come to think. Two multiplied by two divided by half is twice one. Vibrations: chords those are. One plus two plus six is seven. Do anything you like with figures juggling. Always find out this equal to that. Symmetry under a cemetery wall. He doesn’t see my mourning. Callous: all for his own gut. Musemathematics

An mp3 of “The Croppy Boy” sets the mood.

The end of this episodes tests the fallacy that classic literature cannot be crude and funny as Bloom breaks wind while reading the final words of Roger Emmet.  Once again there’s music in it, which reminds me of the old ditty:

Beans, beans, the magical fruit.
The more you eat, the more you toot.
The more you toot, the better you feel.
So eat your beans with every meal!