Short Fiction Friday: Neil Gaiman’s “A Calendar of Tales”
BRIEF SUMMARY: Inspired by answers to questions posted on Twitter, Neil Gaiman has crafted twelve short works of fiction, one for each month of the year.
PROS: Delightfully interactive storytelling platform; can be read all at once or parceled out to make the experience last; showcases Neil Gaiman’s talent at crafting short fiction; nice variety to the stories in mood; tone and subject matter.
CONS: All good things must come to an end; stories won’t change the opinion of those who are not fans of Gaiman’s fiction.
BOTTOM LINE: A highly recommended reading/audio experience.
On February 4th 2013 Neil Gaiman embarked on a fantastic art project in partnership with BlackBerry and millions of his fans. He tweeted twelve questions to the world, one for each month of the year. From the tens of thousands of responses he received, Neil picked his favourite answers and wrote twelve short stories inspired by them. Releasing these back to the world, Neil asked people to contribute art to illustrate the stories.
“A Calendar of Tales” is a great and largely successful experiment by an author using the social media platform to interact with his fans and allow them to be the muse for twelve works of short fiction. The stories, with accompanying audio read by Neil Gaiman himself, sometimes fit squarely within the stereotypical personality of a particular month and at other times simply use the month as the setting for the story being told. While mileage will vary with a project like this, I found each story to be interesting and engaging. The stories work well both as individual parts and together as a whole. Neil Gaiman is one of those authors whose work generates a wide range of opinions. Fans adore him and his works and others do not understand what the fuss is all about. I am admittedly in the first camp. Gaiman and his works opened up a completely different realm of genre fiction to me and although I pride myself on being a discerning reader who is not afraid to discuss the Gaiman works that I do not enjoy, I must also admit that some bias towards his work is bound to color my review. From my viewpoint these stories are a highly recommended reading/listening experience.
The stories representing each month are fairly short and I limited myself to saying little about them so as not to spoil the experience. Each story is inspired by a question Gaiman asked on Twitter and a response that he chose. I have included the question and chosen answer at the start of each mini-review. I have not rated individual stories, simply the project as a whole. For those interested, my favorite story was the “October Tale”. I liked each one of them but the best to me, outside of October, were January, April, May and June.
The website is highly interactive with the opportunity to read each story, or listen to Neil reading it, or, as I did, do both. Neil Gaiman is a fabulous audio book narrator and I was surprised to discover just how fast I myself read while attempting to read the story along with Neil’s pacing. I feel that audio book narration provides a more naturally paced experience and I’m determined to train myself to slow down and enjoy the words playing out in my head rather than being in such a rush to get to the next page.
Neil asked: “Why is January so dangerous?” @zyblonius replied: “Because an aging veteran just retired, to be replaced by a dangerously unqualified youth, no more than a babe in arms.”
In a the rush of a new year a young boy enters the fray, finding himself alongside a battle-hardened veteran. The boy struggles to gain his composure, training not yet settled into routine, as the world comes apart around him. The story is intense and fast-paced while managing to create a couple of likeable characters. I had assumptions about where the ending would go and was surprised when it thwarted expectations.
Neil asked: “What’s the strangest thing that ever happened to you in February?” @TheAstralGypsy replied: “Met a girl on beach, searching for her grandma’s pendant, lost 50 years ago. I had it, found previous Feb.”
It is interesting how our life experiences inform our thoughts and feelings about the month’s of the year. I have always lived in the Midwest. So for me, February is not about beaches and sand but is about cold, possibly snow, and the last gasps of winter. This story has a nice science fictional element or two including interesting ideas about time.
Neil asked: “What Historical figure does March remind you of?” @MorgueHumor replied: “Anne Bonny and her rapscallion heart, dreaming for a ship of her very own.”
One probable end for the female pirate who was reportedly never executed. March is a month of change, with melancholy giving way to the first signs of Spring (in the Western Hemisphere) and there is a twinge of that melancholy in this story. Stories of pirates and sailing the open seas carry with them the kind of romance and adventure that make them attractive stories for those of us far removed from that era in history. It is nice to think that this may have been what happened to Anne Bonny while at the same time being just a bit disappointing when thinking about “going down in a blaze of glory”.
Neil asked: What’s your happiest memory of April?” @NikkiLS replied: When the ducks would trust us again; my father & I fed them fresh bread stolen from the inn he worked at.”
A delightful tale of trust and deceit. If you have ever heard the seemingly irritated quacking of a flock of ducks on the pond then you will be able to hear their voices perfectly in the indignant anger of the group featured in this story. I will never listen to that sound in the same way again. This story nicely showcases Neil Gaiman’s sense of humor and, like many of his stories, has a poignant and biting line near the end that will make you think.
Neil asked: “What is the weirdest gift you’ve ever been given in May?” @StarlingV replied: “An anonymous Mother’s Day gift. Think about that for a moment.”
It started with a Mother’s Day card in May, received by a woman who had no children, and continued through the year with month after month of the bizarre and unexplainable. Gaiman’s protagonist, utterly British in my mind, faces the onslaught with stoic resolve and appears to not be too frazzled by the whole affair. I couldn’t help but be a bit jealous of her unexpected adventures.
Neil asked: Where would you spend a perfect June?” @DKSakar replied: “A refrigerator. Summertime always makes me wish they’d make large refrigerators that people could squeeze in.”
Amen to that! Although it is hard to complain as we’ve had a very mild Summer here in the Midwest.
What happens when your parents disagree on EVERYTHING? Well for one thing, you and your sister end up with silly hybrid names that practically guarantee a life of teasing. They also cannot agree on a vacation destination and the compromise they come up with this time is ridiculous…but then, what else can you expect from parents?
Neil asked: “What is the most unusual thing you have ever seen in July?” @mendozacarla replied: “…an igloo made of books.”
On a hot July day a man’s wife walks out on him and his solution to his loss is to build an igloo in his backyard, made out of books. This strange reaction to loss is followed by a fracturing of the man’s reality. Lovers of books as physical objects may consider this to be a horror story, especially at the end, yet it instead a look at how we handle both loss and redemption with an ending that made me smile.
Neil asked: “If August could speak, what would it say?” @gabiottasnest replied: “August would speak of its empire lasting forever whilst glancing, warily, at the leaves cooking on the trees.”
Anyone who has experienced a blazing, unquenchable August heat will find themselves remembering similar Augusts (if you are not experiencing one even now) while longing for the cooling embrace of Autumn. I’ve often wondered what goes on in the minds of those people that you see in a natural disaster–flood, fire, hurricane–who stubbornly refuse to leave their homes amidst mounting evidence that the will not be safe there. This is one possible explanation.
Neil asked: “Tell me something you lost in September that meant a lot to you.” @TheGhostRegion replied: “My mother’s lion ring, lost & found 3 times over…Some things aren’t meant to be kept.”
A gift to a son from his dying mother proves to be a burden in that it is continually lost but then returned again in increasingly unusual and unsettling ways. This story fits perfectly for one in a month given to the winding down of Summer and the oncoming dark of Autumn and then Winter. It is an amusing story with something dark and foreboding gleaming dully just below the surface.
Neil asked: “What mythical creature would you like to meet in October? (& why?)” @elainelowe replied: “A djinn. Not to make a wish. But for the very best advice on how to be happy w/ what you already have.”
When the djinn is released from his bottle to grant three wishes, he is flustered to find a woman for whom wishes hold no temptation, a woman content with who and what she is and has. It takes a while for the djinn to understand and with understanding comes change. The chosen Twitter reply tells exactly what will happen in this story, but despite being armed with that the reader is left feeling a great warmth of satisfaction from a well constructed and wholly satisfying tale.
Neil asked: “What would you burn in November, if you could?” @MeiLinMiranda replied: “My medical records, but only if that would make it all go away.”
From a poignant response comes a tale in which a woman returns from a garage sale with a red hat and a brass or copper brazier, promptly putting them away and forgetting about them. As the days and month’s pass her health deteriorates and she enters the month of November knowing that her time is at an end. In an effort to rid herself of anything that might be a burden or embarrassment to her family she retrieves the brazier and begins burning her items from her past, with surprising results.
Neil asked: “Who would you like to see again in December?” @Geminitm replied: “My 18 yo-runaway-self so I can show her that I find someone to love & own a home of my own – it did get better.”
A young homeless teen is out on the streets, following the advice given to her to sleep during the day in places where sleeping was okay, and to keep moving at night. Good advice, but difficult on the cold nights in December. When she sees a woman who looks lost that might just be a good mark for spare change, she approaches her and discovers someone familiar and yet someone she has not seen before. Neil’s “A Calendar of Tales” ends with a story of hope, even in a place and situation where it all appears hopeless. A fitting tale for the month of December.
Be sure to check out the website. In addition to the printed and audio versions of the story there are a host of images as well as videos created by fans in response to each story. There are some really nice quality works here. You can also download a PDF e-book version of “A Calendar of Tales” on the site.
Filed under: Books
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