Book Review: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

The Graveyard Book
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

*SPOILER ALERT* Although the title might sound a little bit creepy, the graveyard is intimidating only if you have the misfortune to be one of the live human characters in the book. Generally, the ghosts who live in the graveyard are witty and hilarious. The living people are funny too. For example, here are the thoughts of one of the living characters, Scarlett Amber Perkins, when caught in a life threatening situation:

page 258. “If I get out of this alive, I’m going to force her [Mom] to get me a phone. It’s ridiculous. I’m the only person in my year who doesn’t have her own phone, practically.”

As always, Neil Gaiman grips the reader and doesn’t let go until he’s shaken your world completely. I could feel him walking through various graveyards checking to make sure there was a ghoul gate in every one of them, checking the inscriptions on the headstones imagining characters to life. His descriptions are so vivid that when Bod walks through his home, you are there with him. The characters earn the reader’s trust as they earn the trust of other characters, and when they betray them, they betray the reader.
There are things we think about when we think of a graveyard, of ghosts, of the dead. Things we aren’t sure about. These are the things Neil Gaiman takes and crafts masterfully into the world of the people of the graveyard.

page. 174. “Fear is contagious. You can catch it. Sometimes all it takes is for someone to say that they’re scared for the fear to become real.”

People who die leave an echo of themselves in the world of the living. The people in Neil Gaiman’s graveyard have the ability to access the world of the living in a way which is kind of an eerie explanation to that echo. They can fade – meaning, they can be present without being noticed. They can dreamwalk – enter people’s dreams and sometimes even create a dream. They can create fear and haunt. It is fascinating to question these experiences we have as living people, but through the eyes of the dead.

Characters
There are a few different kinds of creatures in the world: the living, the dead, and of course the most intriguing characters – the ones in between.
1. The protagonist – Bod, is a living boy, but he lives in the graveyard and therefore has the ability to do what the dead who live there can. In his reality the lines between living and dead are blurred, and his mind is so open he believes anything is possible.

page 167. “Someone killed my mother and father and my sister.”
“Yes. Someone did.”
“A man?”
“A man.”
“Which means,” said Bod, “you’re asking the wrong question.”…”the question isn’t ‘Who will keep me safe from him?’”
“No?”
“No. It’s ‘Who will keep him safe from me?’”

Bod’s abilities to behave like the dead come from him having the “Freedom of the Graveyard.” I think the Freedom of the Graveyard is the privilege given to those who have already died, thus been relieved of the fear of death. It is freedom from the fear of the unknown.

2. Silas, Bod’s guardian, is neither living nor dead, and it’s not entirely clear what he is, but here’s what we do know about him:

page 32: “I want to be like you,” said Bod, pushing out his lower lip. “No,” said Silas firmly, “you do not.”
page 194. “There are ways to kill people like me,” he said. “But they do not involve cars.”

3. The third intriguing character is the villian, the man Jack. While he is clearly alive, he also has some mysterious abilities which living people usually do not possess. The book opens with Jack committing a murder. His motive is not clarified until the very end, but he creates a kind of paradoxical cycle of events: if he had not tried to kill the boy in the first place, then his reason for wanting to kill him would not exist. It reminded me of two of my favorite pieces of literature: Harry Potter and Shakespeare’s Macbeth. If Lord Voldemort had not tried to kill Harry, he would not have created his own worst enemy. If the witches had not predicted that Macbeth would become king, he may not have tried.

There are also legends relating to the world of the graveyard, the ancient. The first, the Lady on the Grey, was so convincing I googled it to see if it was something I should have known about. The second, the legend of the treasure – the brooch, the goblet, the knife – was not entirely explained, but everyone in the world seemed to know about it. They did not, however, know about the Sleer – the guardians of the treasure. The sleer were a particularly interesting entity because you never knew exactly what they were. Whether the sleer is good or bad depends on what you want: power, or freedom.

The story is amazing, with such a shocking twist I actually gasped out loud while reading it. It says it’s a book for children, but come on – we all know the best books for grown ups are kids’ books.

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Why Math?

Q: Isn’t math boring?

A: Sometimes. As in any field of study, there are rough areas you have to plough through in order to get to the truly fascinating stuff. All the math which is taught through the end of high school is like that. They only teach the basics, the raw and often ugly tools you need in order to unlock the world of mathematics. For example, trigonometric identities are horribly tedious, but you have to know them well in order to understand why eiπ+1=0, which is unbelievable once you see it happen. Sal Khan says about that equation, “If this does not blow your mind you have no emotions.”

Q: Why mathematics?

A: Mathematics is the stuff my brain is made of. It’s not for everyone. I love the way everything connects and works out (assuming you solve the problem). The way the unit digits of square numbers create a palindrome. The way the prime numbers are the symbols of originality. The way everything in the world can be represented or explained by mathematics. There’s a kind of harmony to numbers which can only truly be seen if you dig deep enough. So that’s what I’m doing here. Digging deeper.

Q: Why not music?

A: Yoyo Ma, the world renowned cellist said about music that it is a discipline one never stops learning. Even if you don’t study with a teacher, you never stop learning. I’m playing in the university orchestra and of course I still sometimes do karaoke on the piano. I wanted music to remain something I do because I love it, and not because someone’s paying me. Neil Gaiman says he’s never regretted things he’s done for reasons other than money, but if you do something just for the money, and you don’t get the money, what do you have? It’s difficult to make a living as a professional musician, so I chose to have music in my life but not rely on it as a source of income. (I am not criticizing people who do! I ‘m just saying this was the choice I made.)

Q: What’s it good for?

A: Well, what is any BA good for? The reality these days is that a bachelor’s degree does not guarantee work. It also does not guarantee better pay, although hopefully, if you do get a job, it should allow you to be paid more. Assuming there are jobs available, the jobs you can get paid more for with a degree in mathematics are mostly in finance, business or High Tech. High Tech managers have noted that they would just as soon take a person with a degree in Mathematics as a person with a degree in computers.

Q: So you want to be a math teacher?

A: I’m sure I will find myself in education somewhere along the way, however, being a teacher is not my final destination. If all I wanted to do was teach math, I would not need a degree in math.

Q: What are your plans for the future?

A: I don’t know yet and that’s okay.