Sunday, October 09, 2011

Fragile Things Readalong - Week 5

This week's stories to be discussed are:

The Problem of Susan
How do you Think it Feels

Last week, this week and next week there are stories in the reading that are not included in the edition that I have and there could well be more! Last week I managed to track down an audio version of the story but this week I didn't realise it until just now so haven't read it.

The fact that there are different stories in different editions for different countries puzzles me a little. In fact, it is something that puzzles me in relation to books as a whole, not just this short story collections.  The main reason it does so is because I often read the acknowledgements and there will be a nod to the US editor and the UK or Australian or wherever editor and I have to wonder what happens if the editors in the two different countries make different suggestions as to how they think a book can be improved and one doesn't like what the other suggests. Do they agree to disagree? Does the author have to choose which suggestions to take and then tell the other editor, sorry, this is just the way it is? What if there are different changes to be made in the copy edits for the two countries! Anyway, completely off track start to the post this week!

The first entry this week is called Locks and is a reflection on telling a young child a familiar story - Goldilocks and the Three Bears and on the lessons that we can learn from such a tale! Like a couple of the other stories in the collection this one is based on real life. More than either of the other two that we have read so far, I can hear Neil Gaiman talking to me, as though he is sitting across the table from me. I can hear the inflections, the smile in his voice as he relates this episode of telling his then two year old daughter the tale that is so familiar to so many of us growing up. "Again, again, again."

I also laughed at the lines near the end where he says:

These days my sympathy's with Father Bear.
Before I leave the house I lock the door,
and check each bed and chair on my return.
The Problem of Susan was my problem story this week. Neil Gaiman is certainly not the only author to take a swipe at the Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis. From memory Philip Pullman has had his fair share of things to say about the books and the fact that they are an allegorical representation of Christianity. I guess the thing that I find a bit distasteful about this story is not so much the fact that he is critical of the Chronicles of Narnia,  because lets face it Gaiman knows more about storytelling than I will ever know, but rather the obvious glee he gets from doing so and from taking the imagery and spoiling it in ways that would be completely unsuitable and unimaginable for the target audience of the book. I guess it just feels disrespectful of others beliefs. Christianity doesn't work for some, but there are a great many who it does work for and who might well be offended by the contents of this story.

At first I didn't realise that the Susan that the problem refers to is Susan from The Chronicles of Narnia, the Susan who gets left behind when the other members of her family enter the "new Narnia" because "she's too fond of lipsticks and nylons and invitations to parties".

I guess your reaction to this story may well depend a lot on your own religious beliefs and where you are at in life. I am a Susan! I was bought up in a religious (Christian) environment, but chose to walk away from the church for a number of reasons, not least of which being that the church failed to act on it's duty of care to two vulnerable young girls. I am perfectly fine with that a lot of the time and for the most part have absolutely no interest in going back to that life with the associated guilt and expectations and necessity to become something other than I am now. However, every now and again enough of the religious indoctrination that I had makes me wonder what if. What if it is true and what if my decision to be a Susan does lead me to missing out on "new Narnia" and then I don't think about it for years again and all is well!

Earlier in this book there were a couple of poems that didn't work that well for me and so I was prepared to make a blanket judgement to say that none of the poems were really going to do so. Instructions was the second poem in this week's reading, and I liked both of them, so obviously that isn't really the case.

This poem is a set of instructions about what to do if you find yourself in a fairy tale and their are nods to all sorts of fairy tales and mythology. I loved the references to earlier stories that we have read. For example,

"In the clearing beyond the castle the twelve months sit around the fire,
warming their feet, exchanging tales"

seems to be a direct reference to the story October in the Chair which we read in the first week of the readalong.

How do you Think it Feels is the story that isn't in my edition of the book. I will make more of an effort to find that story that is missing from next week's reading.

Head over to Stainless Steel Dropping to read Carl's thoughts about this week's reading and to find links to other participants.


  1. Marg, I've been frustrated to by having an edition that doesn't include four of the stories. I found them in the UK edition of Smoke and Mirrors, Gaiman's other short story collection, and decided that I didn't mind buying it on Kindle so that I could join in. I'm glad I did, because it has another poem in it which I like very much.

    The missing story was my other problem one for the week - in fact, I thought it so graphic that I just skimmed it. But Carl had some positive things to say about it, so I'm wondering if I should have read it more thoughtfully.

    I'm an agnostic, but I still found the treatment of the Narnia books distasteful, and as though something treasured had been sullied, although I used to argue with my husband about "the problem of Susan" (he very much took the Philip Pullman line).

    I loved both the poems, especially Instructions. The reference to October in the Chair made me smile.

  2. I agree with you about Locks. You can really feel Gaiman's presence in that poem, more so than in other pieces in this collection. I love the image that this poem evokes, of a young girl and her father enjoying story time right before bed. :)

  3. The only thing I didn't like when I read Narnia as a kid was that it felt incredibly preachy. I think that religious allegory can be cool in creating a multi-layered story, but at the same time there's a certain point when it begins detracting from the story, and that's what I felt happened with Susan. I saw the scene with Aslan and the Witch as Gaiman's attempt to say that even Narnia could be corrupted, and that Susan wasn't in the wrong comparatively. Same with the lion eating people--it seemed to me to as a warning about power.

    It's surprising that different editions omit certain poems, and I'm sure that's frustrating!

    I loved "Locks"... it reminded me of when my friends and I re-watched Disney movies and were shocked to see how many things went over our heads when we were little.

  4. I loved that line referring back to October in the Chair! I feel like I need to re-read the Narnia series and then re-explore The Problem of Susan. Of course I'll be skipping the graphic sex parts, though. ewwy.

  5. Amanda, I read the whole series of Chronicles of Narnia about 6 years ago. I am thinking that I could possibly reread the last book, but not the whole series.

    Bookswithoutpictures, CON are definitely very preachy.. Whether Susan was in the wrong or not will definitely depend on your religious views. Was she wrong or did she just grow up and move away like so many church kids did - certainly the ones I knew did.

    Dooliterature, his presence was very strong in that one.

    GeraniumCat, I don't think I will make too much of an effort to track this weeks missing story down if it is another graphic one.

  6. I have to admit that I don't understand short story collections having different contents in different countries. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me.

    It is such a pleasure to hear Gaiman read "Locks" in the audio version. If you can ever track down a copy it is worth it just for this. I like this poem so much, it has so many things to say about stories and relationships and parenthood. I just love it.

    I think the biggest problem I have with some critics of Lewis is that they seem to take the line of reasoning that was trying to trick people into taking in a religious message. I disagree. He was very open with the fact that he was writing a Christian allegory. Whether this kind of preachy book should be given to kids is of course something everyone is entitled to their opinion about. But I don't think Lewis should be vilified because he was trying to write a preachy book. If anything the publishers of his work, particularly after his death, should be given that blame if any blame is to be had. I find Pullman's comments about Tolkien and Lewis to be so filled with venom that I have no respect for him at all. And I don't respect Gaiman's feelings about Lewis' stories because he crosses a line with the sexual and cannibalistic treatment of the religious figure in the stories.

    I was hoping everyone who has been "meh" about the poems would like this week's offerings. I think they are both so fantastic.

  7. Marg, I also find it weird that different countries have different versions of the book out there. It seems a little strange to have so many different additions out there, and I wonder how it would go if someone wanted to read the uncut version, with all the stories in it? Seems like a very strange thing for the publishers to do!

  8. How weird that different editions of the book have different stories (says the one who used to work in publishing and should know about such things but doesn't. Oh well, it was a different sort of publishing). I loved the Susan story but basically only because Neil answered the question I've asked so many times as a reader, which is, "Yes, but whatever happened to so and so?" I did, like you and Carl, think that Gaiman cheapened it with the sex and violence, but still, I liked it. It's weird: I'm a practicing Christian, and I've enjoyed immensely other stuff by Lewis, but even as a kid, I didn't like the Narnia books.

    I forgot to mention, in my own post, how delightful it was to make that connection between "Instructions" and "October in the Chair."

  9. I really enjoyed both of the poems, too.

    That's really annoying that your book is missing stories... It seems a bit strange to me that if you live in one country you get to read more than another country...