Family Reads: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

 Welcome to the inaugural post of Family Reads! Family Reads is a monthly feature where my mom, dad or sister and I read and discuss a book. Posts with a link-up go live on the last Sunday of each month, so feel free to grab the banner and join in however you like.

Reno: Neil Gaiman is a favourite author of mine. Moo took me to his signing and waited patiently for a few hours while I stood in line! Ocean became my new favourite Gaiman book during my first read and I brought it to Japan so I could reread it for the first time. 

Mom: My connection to NG is through my daughter. I recall years back seeing the movie Stardust and thinking that would make a great book. Oh, so little did I know. Years later I took that same  daughter to his book signing. When she says a few hours, please translate to 6.5 hours. His books are often topics of conversation in our home. I was excited when asked to read Ocean – I experienced first hand the imagination in the words NG puts to paper.

After explaining my rating scale to Mom, we both gave this book 5 stars. Mom says she would like to have a copy on her shelf to reread. Now, onto our discussion. We spent a couple hours on Skype chatting (mostly talking about the book, but with family interruptions and tangents include). I recorded and transcribed our conversation, then selected some highlights for this post (we talked about a lot). You’ll get more out of this discussion if you’ve read the book (spoilers ahead!). Here is some of our discussion on memory, children’s experiences, and relating to the story (and also, what might be the narrator’s name?).

I remember my own childhood vividly… I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let the adults know I knew. It would scare them. (Maurice Sendak, quoted at the begin of Oceans)

Reno: I was reading a blog post about whether the boy’s experiences are ‘real’ or not. Some people think it’s just the kid rationalizing what happened. But that quote at the beginning, especially, makes me think… That’s why he forgets his experience, because he’s an adult now, he can’t really believe that all happened. Does that make sense?
Mom: Yup. So when he’s back there, he remembers everything vividly, but when he leaves, his mind says “No, that’s too out there, it can’t be true.”
Reno: It’s like what kids experience isn’t as valid or real.
Mom: Right, like there’s no possible way it could be real. Like when you’re in kindergarten and you use all different colours for different things but as you get older you’re told you should only use this colour for that, because the sky’s blue and not orange.
Reno: YES, spot on! Just because you’re a kid doesn’t mean your imagination or experiences aren’t real or vaild.
Mom: Yeah, because we all experiences things in a different way.
Reno: That’s why everyone likes this book in a different way…because it’s ‘deep’.
Mom: Because everyone relates to it on different levels, how it’s ‘their’ story.
Reno:  Yes! That’s how I feel – “This book really speaks to me” and 5 million other people, in their own way. I think that’s part of why Oceans  stands out so much – we all love American Gods or Neverwhere for the same reasons, but we love Oceans perhaps for own ranging personal reasons.


Reno: What do you think of the main character not having a name? *Mom makes a face* Haha, Mom’s like “Wait a minute…”!
Mom: How does he not have a name?
Reno: He just doesn’t. He’s never named.
Mom: Oh! *flips through book* Okay, so you start reading and you just have this picture of a boy in your head. I never noticed that he didn’t have a name.
Reno: It’s so smoothly written. Maybe that’s one of the things that makes it more adaptable, like how you can put yourself in his shoes more.
Mom: Yeah! Well, for goodness sakes. If I had to say he had a name, I would have said Fred or something.
Reno: Hahaha, Fred, that sounds good. I was thinking something like…not Kevin, but maybe a K name…Tom? No, not Tom… Rick? No no, not Rick! Something British. Fred is pretty good, actually.
Mom: Fred is the only name I can think of him by.
Reno: Maybe I just think of him as Neil. Neil is pretty good, too.
Mom:  Well, I never gave it a thought that I didn’t know his name. I just knew. You just relate to him anyhow.

Reno: I think that’s good. I have a lot to work from.
Mom: Oh, do you? I didn’t feel I’d given you anything.
Reno: No no, there’s lots! Good job, Mom.
Mom: Thank-you! I enjoyed it. Did I tell you I’ve read The Book of Lost Things now?

And then we proceeded to talk about that one for half an hour 🙂 So, that’s it! That’s the end of my first Family Reads posts. I hope you enjoyed it. I’ll probably experiment with the format going forward; I’m not yet sure the best way to share the conversations. I had tons of notes that I wasn’t sure how to incorporate, and instead decided just to focus on what I thought was the most important part of our discussion. Going forward perhaps I’ll include more. Anyway, I definitely had a lot of fun talking about one of my favourite books with my Mom! Is there anything you would add to our discussion? If you’ve written a Family Reads post this month, add your link here. (pardon me while I figure out how to run this sort of link-up feature…)


The Ocean at the End of the Lane also counts towards the Re-Read Challenge.

WHEN I First Read – Shortly after publication, at the start of July 2013. I was traveling around Ireland at the time, so I didn’t devour it the day of publication like I would have at home.

WHAT I Remember – The feeling that this was Gaiman’s most personal story for me, and that it was a small story in an immense story.

WHY I Wanted to Re-ReadOcean is one of the precious few physical books I brought to Japan. I planned on rereading it this year because I hadn’t read it since its release (though I feel like I reread it when I got back home from Ireland [Sept. 2013], there’s no documentation of that). Mom said she was going to read it next, so I decided I would also read it for our first Family Reads.

HOW I Felt After Re-Reading – Very pleased that the story held up on reread. It was just as deep and magical as the first read.

WOULD I Re-Read Again – Certainly! This has potential to be an annual reread book (not sure, though.)

Have you re-read any of Gaiman’s works? What did you think upon rereading?

Dewey’s 24-Hour Read-a-thon: End of Event Meme

  1. Which hour was most daunting for you? I wanted and tried really hard to read when I returned to the hostel after a concert, which was during Hour 1 (9-10PM for me), but I was exhausted and distracted, so I only read for 20 minutes.
  2. Could you list a few high-interest books that you think could keep a Reader engaged for next year? Annihilation is definitely a good one. It had me hooked. (However, I started to read the sequel immediately, but I don’t think it’s as good a read-a-thon read as the first…)
  3. Do you have any suggestions for how to improve the Read-a-thon next year? None – keep up the excellent work 🙂
  4. What do you think worked really well in this year’s Read-a-thon?Although it completely slipped my mind as I got distracted by the Southern Reach trilogy, I liked the idea of a read-along! Next time I’ll remember to participate ^^;
  5. How many books did you read? I completed two books, read half of a third, and read a few chapters of a fourth.
  6. What were the names of the books you read? Annihilation and (half of) Authority by Jeff VanderMeer, Tuesdays the Castle by , and parts of The Riddles of the Hobbit by Adam Roberts
  7. Which book did you enjoy most? Tie between Annihilation and Tuesdays at the Castle
  8. Which did you enjoy least? Not being able to read while on the three hour ride back home this morning, and missing the opening and mid-way memes.
  9. If you were a Cheerleader, do you have any advice for next year’s Cheerleaders? I try to breakdown my cheering into chunks (for example, five or ten minutes every hour).
  10. How likely are you to participate in the Read-a-thon again? What role would you be likely to take next time? 90%! I know the next one will be in October and I’m attending two conventions that month…but somehow I’ll make it work! I had fun hosting a mini-challenge and reading people’s responses, so if I can think of a good idea for next time I’d like to do that again.

I overshot a bit by putting the same goal as last read-a-thon (nine hours). ^^; I forgot to consider I was going to have a lot less time to participate! I’m happy with what I did get in, though. Two complete books finished and just over six hours spent reading. Here are my reading stats:

  • Annihilation – 174 pages in 2.37 hours
  • Authority  –  210 pages in 2.38 hours
  • Tuesdays at the Castle  – 184 pages in 1.5 hours
  • The Riddles of the Hobbit  – 22 pages in 0.68 hours
  • TOTAL: 488 pages in 6.28 hours

How was your read-a-thon? Did you read any good books? 😉

Hour 23 Mini-Challenge: Share a Song

HUZZAH!! Welcome to Hour 23 of Dewey’s 24-Hour Read-a-thon! Give yourself a pat on the back, because you’ve done an awesome job making it this far. I’m glad you decided to take a pause and stop by here. My challenge features music. Take a moment to listen to a song or two, maybe get up and dance around a bit to keep awake! So, what’s the challenge? In the comments below or in a tweet (please @ reply fallingletters), share a song featured in a book you’ve read during the Read-a-thon. If no music is mentioned in your story, choose and explain why a song fits one of your reads. To kick things off, here’s a catchy tune that Jeff VanderMeer listened to while writing Annihilation, my first read today.

The prize will be one book of your choice from The Book Depository, value up to $15. This challenge will run through the end of the Read-a-thon. A winner will be randomly chosen from all entries (blog comments and Twitter combined). The winner will be contacted by Monday morning. Only one entry per person – please comment or tweet, but not both.

Enjoy your final hours of reading!

Review: Cooked by Michael Pollan

Author: Michael Pollan
Title: Cooked
Format/Source: eBook/library 
Published: January 2013
Publisher: Penguin
Length: 480 pages
Genre: Non-fiction
Why I Read: ‘New’ Pollan boo
Read If You’re: Interested in the art/history of cooking
Quote: “Elation, effervescence, elevation, levity, inspiration: air words all, alveolated with vowels, leavening the dough of everyday life” (258).
Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon

I didn’t pay much attention to this book when it was first released either because A) I thought I’d heard everything Pollan could say on the subject of eating or B) a book about cooking didn’t pique my interest too high. Well, touché – A) This isn’t a book about eating and B) I’ve become much more interested in cooking since graduating and fending for myself in a foreign country.

How was it that some burning coals and a single oak log had turned something you would never think to eat – dead pig – into something you couldn’t wait to eat? (95)

 When I read about food, I usually read books concerned with sustainability, health, or taste. In Cooked, Pollan focuses on the history and practice of cooking. Therefore, Cooked makes a lighter read than his other works. No need to fret about our health or the future of our species – let’s just explore and enjoy cooking for itself. History, philosophy and a helping of science (particularly in Part VI, about fermentation) fill Cooked’s pages. The topic lends itself to more poeticism than Pollan’s previous works, as he romanticizes the act of cooking and ruminates on its long history.

Gazing into the flames of a wood fire is mesmerizing; the flames seem to take control of your thoughts, deflecting them from any linear path. Gaston Bachelard, the idiosyncratic French philosopher, claims that philosophy itself began in front of the fire, flowing from the peculiar reverie that a fire inspires. (117)

 Pollan explains how cooking gave us more free time by allowing us to spend less time digesting (66). While I always how agriculture gave us more free time, I hadn’t considered how cooking did the same. He suggests cooking played an important role in our species’ development by allowing us to divert energy from chewing to thinking (67). He doesn’t dwell long on this theory, but I like the idea!

The above being said, health inevitably crops up in parts of the book that contrast commercial and home cooking. For example, Pollan questions the use of commodity pork in Joneses’ traditional, slow cooked barbecue (58). Pollan wants “…to pinpoint the precise historical moment that cooking took its fatefully wrong turn: when civilization began processing food in such a way as to make it less nutritious rather than more” (24). Doesn’t that just sound absurd?! I can’t comprehend it. It really all does come down to money (and I suppose a great deal of marketing). Frozen PB+J, are you kidding me? But then, just a few lines after the frozen sandwich mention, market researcher Harry Balzer argues “Take-out from the supermarket, that’s the future.” (196). Ehmmm….yup, the future’s here, I’m in that group. ^^; If I don’t have the time or creativity or desire to cook (whatever is the day’s excuse), I feel better getting a rotisserie chicken or a custom made sandwich from Safeway than going eat. But for me, that’s the key – such meals aren’t replacing home cooking. They’re replacing going to a restaurant, ordering in or eating Pizza Pops and carrot sticks.

Another significant example of how food processing has taken ‘its fatefully wrong turn’ is in the commercial bread chapter. Frozen PB+J is pretty absurd, but commercial bread takes the cake because it’s something so many people eat on a daily basis (discussed in Part III, Chapter II).  Pollans writes, “I had probably never really experienced the full potential of whole-grain wheat” (280) and I doubt I have either. Adding it to my ‘to eat’ list! 

Thousands of years on, we still haven’t discovered techniques for processing food as powerful, versatile, safe, or nutritious as microbial fermentation (313).

The final part of the book, “Earth”, explores fermentation. While my interest wandered during some of the scientific discussion* , I did find the overall section very enlightening. I’ve never considered the variety of fermented foods, nor really how they come to be.

But then it occurred to me that, in fact, all four elements were represented in the beer-making process. The barley is first cooked over a fire; the grain is then boiled in water; and the beer, after fermentation, is carbonated with air. Beer is the complete four-element food. Which, I realized, is exactly the sort of insight you would expect beer to sponsor. (393)

I cringe to admit I didn’t think of the privileged position one must find themselves in to be able to enact Pollan’s recommendations until I read Bee Wilson’s review for the New York Times. Thoughts of all the free time I’ll have to cook when I return to Canada preoccupied my mind. I’ve been interested in food and cooking for about four years, but university commitments prevented me from ever indulging that interest (so I tell myself…). That ‘free time’ I’m imagining comes from not being a full-time student or employee. This is not a place one wants to find themselves in for a lengthy period of time – indeed, for me, it’s a transition stage. Who knows how I’ll feel about taking a couple hours a day to cook when I once again find myself in university or with a full time job (though I like to think once I’ve learnt to really enjoy ‘slow cooking’, I’ll divert time from other activities to be able to cook more during busy times).

It seems to me that one of the great luxuries of life at this point is to be able to do one thing at a time, one thing to which you give yourself wholeheartedly. Unitasking. (202). 

Then again – okay, so some people are short on time because they’re forced to work all the time but some people are like me, ‘short on time’ because they want to do so many things and can’t focus on just one. “When chopping onions, just chop onions” (189). I should hang that in my kitchen! I admire and try to adhere to the principles of Buddhism and meditation but I still rush around far too often. Maybe cooking will be the thing that grounds me. I suppose this is the angle Pollan comes from, but given his careful acknowledgment of gender politics throughout the book, he might have acknowledgment how one must have some privilege to engage in the kind of cooking he advocates.

Each of the different methods I learned for turning the stuff of nature into tasty creations of culture implies a different way of engaging with the world, and some are more sympathetic than others. (411)

 The Bottom Line: Love food but are tired of reading about issues like sustainability or health? Just want to read about cooking? This is the book for you.

Further Reading: 

*Whenever I read a big food book, my mind tends to wander around this part – about 75% into the book. Is it because I’m tired of a big book or is it because the books are structured so that the sort of parts that don’t’ interest me come in at 75%? It’s a chicken or egg question, maybe.

    Dewey’s 24-Hour Read-a-thon

    It’s that time of year again – the spring Read-a-Thon will take place on April 25! This is my fourth time participating. It’s a busy weekend for me. The Read-a-thon starts at 9PM Saturday night my time, but that night I’ll be at concert out of town. I won’t be able to participate much until I return around 10AM the next day (if only reading didn’t make me carsick!). This will be my last read-a-thon in Japan. I’ll miss being wide awake for the ending, but I’ll be happy to be back in a closer time zone to other Read-a-thoners. I’ve been collecting a variety of library ebooks to be potential reads. Here’s what I have so far:

    • Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
      • Library ebook. My sister’s pick for Family Reads next month.
    • The Yellow Wall-Paper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
      • Gutenberg ebook. The chosen book for the first read-a-thon read-a-long 🙂
    • Quiet by Susan Cain
      • Library ebook. I don’t usually go for non-fiction during a read-a-thon, but I like to keep it an option 😛
    • Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George 
      • Library ebook. Seems like a fun middle grade read, perfect for a reading marathon!
    • Doppler by Erland Loe
      • Library ebook. Recommended recently by my best friend. Looks short and funny, another good read-a-thon pick.
    • Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
      • Physical book. I want to reread it soon, so I might start during the read-a-thon.

    I’m also first or second in line for Bone Gap, Salt & Storm, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and The Power of Myth, so those might come in before the weekend.

    My snacking plan will be similar to last time – emphasis on Cheerios and Coca-cola 🙂 I’ve again saved my monthly bag of popcorn for this. I’ll probably make a baked oatmeal and bagels a few days ahead to munch on throughout the day.

    I was very happy with my participation last year, so I’m setting the same goal – 9 hours of reading. I’ll also do a bit of cheer-leading again. Oh, and I am hosting a mini-challenge for Hour 23 so be sure to check it out, especially if you need help staying awake! You can find me participating here, on Twitter, and on GoodReads. Will you be joining in the Read-a-thon?