Well, fancy seeing you here on a Saturday! Ready to get our first book club underway?
As I mentioned a little over a week ago, we’re going to attempt to start up an online book club of Bad Books Good Times readers on the side, and just kind of see how it goes! We’re reading Neil Gaiman’s new novel The Ocean at The End of The Lane, and today we’re discussing the first four chapters, because four seemed like a good number. So, first of all, 1) I’ve never read any Neil Gaiman before, so this is going to be new to me, and 2) I’ve never been in a book club (the fact that I was an English major in college doesn’t count), so this is going to be new to me. Of course, it’s an online book club so I don’t know if that actually would have been helpful anyway.
So, basically, leave comments! I’d really like to see discussion happen and see what people do and don’t like to talk about, so feel free to take the conversation in any direction you want in the comments. I’m just gonna try to get the conversation started. Respond to what I have to say, respond to what other people have to say, let’s see what happens! Okay, I’ve probably made my point by now. So let’s go!
Right, so I know I’m here to not bash books, for once, but this prologue really didn’t do much for me. His looking back and suddenly remembering his childhood wasn’t as interesting a frame as I was hoping for, although now that I write and think about it, I guess that does set up at least one element of the mystery – why did he not remember his childhood until he came back here? Okay, so, uh, maybe it works better than I thought. I’m good at leading a book club, guys!
I guess my main complaint is how the narrator really lays it on. The language is pretty and I like that, but it gets to be a bit much at times, especially when it bleeds directly into how the characters talk and it feels a little unnatural? Like when the narrator (wait, does he have a name? I only just noticed this. OH GOD I’M TERRIBLE AT BOOK CLUBBING) goes into the Hempstock’s farmhouse and talks to the woman there:
“Yes. I do know you, young man,” she said. I am not a young man. Not any longer. “I know you, but things get messy when you get to my age. Who are you, exactly? […] You were Lettie’s friend? From the top of the lane?”
“You gave me milk. It was warm, from the cows.”
It was warm? From the cows? Who talks like that?
Okay, for all my complaints about the prologue I was immediately drawn in to the first chapter.
Nobody came to my seventh birthday party.
So, it’s learn-a-weird-fact-about-Matthew time: birthdays make me kinda really sad and I have no idea why. It’s not like I ever had a birthday party that nobody showed up at or anything, the concept of children’s birthday parties just really bums me out. Like, did any of you guys watch Smallville? There was this one flashback to Lex Luther’s childhood where nobody was at his birthday party, and he was just sitting at an empty table wearing a birthday hat crying and there were all these hot dogs everywhere at this empty table. It was depressing! I have no idea what I’m talking about. This shit is sad. I feel for you, unnamed narrator!
Although though he bounces back from it really well. Again, I like the surrealism going on with touches like this – how people in this book aren’t quite behaving like real people. Like when the opal miner accidentally kills the cat and replaces it with another random shitty cat and he’s like “Always pay my debts” like he did the nicest goddamn thing anybody’s ever done for a kid whose cat he just accidentally killed. The fuck was that shit? This first chapter was brutal. I loved it.
There’s more of the surreal people not acting like real people when we meet Lettie and the Hempstocks, but it’s even more so with them. Obviously, since they’re the supernatural people. I like how subtle their weirdness is done at first with their impossible knowledge of the details of the coal miner’s suicide (which was a passage I really liked) and little details like how they’re the oldest farm in the region because it says so in the Domesday Book, which, I mean, I guess that could be a real life thing. England’s a really old place and people maybe do know records that go back ridiculously far like that. There’s just nothing like that from an American perspective. Hell, most of my understanding of the Domesday Book comes from the Where In Time Is Carmen Sandiego? computer game.
Also, I want to draw attention to the burnt toast bit.
Quote I Wanna Talk About! #1
At home, my father ate all the most burnt pieces of toast. “Yum!” he’d say, and “Charcoal! Good for you!” and”Burnt toast! My favorite!” and he’d eat it all up. When I was much older he confessed to me that he had not ever liked burnt toast, had only eaten it to prevent it from going to waste, and, for a fraction of a moment, my entire childhood felt like a lie
It’s little things like this that make me really love what the theme of childhood is doing in this book. How such a small detail, even one that you probably already knew deep down was bullshit, shapes your understanding of the world when you’re a kid. There’s this one Calvin and Hobbes strip where Calvin is musing about how “When you’re a kid … You live with your parents and … you grow up thinking whatever they do is ‘normal.'” And then at that point Calvin’s dad comes back from his ten-mile, 6am run in a blizzard, and Calvin retracts his statement, saying “Maybe ‘normal’ is too strong a word.” Like, he knows this is bullshit, but he also knows that this is the shape his world has taken. Like the narrator just has to know that burnt toast is terrible, but also knows that his dad liking it is part of his illusion of normalcy. And given how supernatural this is all going to get really soon, the illusion of normalcy is a pretty important theme here.
Also since we’re talking about Calvin and Hobbes and toast, since I can’t stay on topic, here’s one of my favorites that is about that.
So maybe money is a theme in this book? I have no idea. This kind of confused me, how suddenly people are being punished with money, even though the guy deserving of the punishment is dead? I have no idea if this is going to stick around either or veer off into something entirely. What were your thoughts? I’d like to hear from someone who focused more on the money in chapter three than the toast in chapter two, because I totally focused on that.
I love how dark and graphic the bit with him finding the coin choking him in his throat is though. I’m a little confused why he’s so chill about it. Although it’s interesting how there’s like two different levels of people not acting like real people that really becomes a thing here. Because there’s the narrator and his family and the opal miner, who behave just a little off (the cat thing still being my main example), and then you have the Hempstocks who are pretty much straight-up weird.
“Mother!” she said. “Giving the boy honey. You’ll rot his teeth.”Old Mrs. Hempstock shrugged. “I’ll have a word with the wigglers in his mouth,” she said. “Get them to leave his teeth alone.”
“You can’t just boss bacteria around like that,” said the younger Mrs. Hempstock. “They don’t like it.”
There’s a great balance between the supernatural (control over the natural world, the cutesy “wiggler” name) and the real (that the other one is all, what, cut the crap, they’re goddamn bacteria). It really draws the former into the latter and makes the supernatural gritty. Still no idea what’s going on on the whole though.
This chapter kind of confused me. Like… I don’t know why it didn’t confuse the narrator more? There’s way too much crazy shit going on in this chapter for him to just kind of roll with it.
Quote I Wanna Talk About! #2
“My kitten was run over,” I told Lettie. “It was only little. The man who died told me about it, although he wasn’t driving. He said they didn’t see it.”
“I’m sorry,” said Lettie. We were walking beneath a canopy of apple-blossom then, and the world smelled like honey. “That’s the trouble with living things. Don’t last very long. Kittens one day, old cats the next. And then just memories. And the memories fade and blend and smudge together…”
I think I can see the theme in this quote! I like how blunt it is, though. Actually, it’s mostly just that last sentence that makes this for me. Usually people talking about change over time and being left only with memories don’t take it out to the point where the memories do the same thing.
So for next time
So leave your comments and let’s get some discussion going! Talk about some of the quotes and ideas I wanted to talk about, suggest your own, talk to other people. I’m just really curious what the very first one of these might look like. Definitely bring up things you want to talk about. I’m just starting the discussion. (But we are talking about this people just not acting like real people thing, because I like that.)
And leave me some feedback as well, on that note. Let me know what you thought of this first Good Books, Good Times post. Anything you want more or less of?
As for next time, let’s say let’s read another four chapters and see how that works out. So read chapters five through eight, stopping at nine, for next week.