Friday, January 31, 2014

What a Father Will Do: Neil Gaiman's Fortunately, the Milk

Neil Gaiman's Fortunately, the Milk

Title: Fortunately, the Milk
Author: Neil Gaiman
Illustrator: Skottie Young
Publisher: Harper
Date of Publication: September 17 2013
What Goodreads has to say:
"I bought the milk," said my father. "I walked out of the corner shop, and heard a noise like this: T h u m m t h u m m. I looked up and saw a huge silver disc hovering in the air above Marshall Road."

"Hullo," I said to myself. "That's not something you see every day. And then something odd happened."

Find out just how odd things get in this hilarious story of time travel and breakfast cereal, expertly told by Newbery Medalist and bestselling author Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Skottie Young.

What I have to say:
As soon as I read the inside of the dust jacket, I knew that I had to read this book. I was already a huge admirer of Neil Gaiman after reading his novel Stardust, so when I saw that he had written a clever, humorous book about time travel and milk, I knew it would be good. And it was. The book is only 114 pages, with huge pictures that sometimes take up an entire page or two, and often not many words on a page, so it's a quick read, but I was smiling the whole time (and often laughing). As expected, the book was clever, hilarious, and fun, with whimsical illustrations that enhanced the reading experience. In short, it was a good book to read after you've just finished Les Miserables, which I had.

The story begins when the narrator, a young boy, and his sister discover that there is no milk in the house and thus that they cannot eat their breakfast cereal. Their mother being away (which is probably why there is no milk in the house), their father decides to go down to the corner store and buy some milk so his children can eat their breakfast. He leaves. His children wait for a long time. Then he returns with the milk. But when his children want to know why he took so long getting the milk, he embarks on a wild story that explains why he was gone so long: a story that includes aliens who are determined to remodel Earth, a time-traveling Stegosaurus, an angry volcano god, and bloodthirsty wumpires, among other things.

As this book was so short and mainly just a clever romp through time with a carton of milk, I don't feel that I have much to say about it. The most important thing is that it is very clever and very funny, and you should do yourself a favor by reading it. I think I can promise that you'll enjoy it. What follows are some of my favorite moments of the book, followed with more general aspects that I enjoyed. I'll end with the one criticism I have.

One of my favorite quotes from the book (and judging by the fact that it was the first quote that popped up in Goodreads when I typed in the title of the book, I'd say it was the favorite of some other people as well) is this one:
"If the same object from two different times touches itself, one of two things will happen. Either the Universe will cease to exist. Or three remarkable dwarfs will dance through the streets with flowerpots on their heads."
"That sounds remarkably specific," I said.
"I know. But it is science. And it is much more probable that the Universe will end."
"I thought it would be," I said.
Why do I find this so funny? It's hard to explain why we find anything funny, but I think that in this case it's the fact that the alternate option is so specific and so unexpected. For me, it is reminiscent of Douglas Adams, but more on that later.

I also loved the moment towards the end when the dinosaurs were singing some of "the great old dinosaur songs," such as "How Do You Feel This Morning When You Know What You Did Last Night?" and "Don't Go Down to the Tar Pits, Dear, Because I'm Getting Stuck on You," and, finally, "I've Got a Loverly Bunch of Hard-hairy-wet-white-crunchers." (A theme of the book is the fact that the dinosaurs exist before things have been given their modern names; hence coconuts are "hard-hairy-wet-white crunchers" and a hot air balloon is a "floaty-ball-person-carrier.")

Now on to some of the more general aspects of the book that I liked.

I felt like the adventure was very much in the spirit of Douglas Adams, and I think I even found a direct allusion to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy at one point. I could be wrong of course, but here's the passage:
"It was definitely locked. It had a huge padlock on it, and a sign saying KEEP OUT on it, in unfriendly red letters."
Compare (or contrast) this with Douglas Adams' description of the Guide, which has "Don't Panic" written on it in large, friendly letters. Anyway, the more general point is that I felt the whole story was very in keeping with the style and flavor of Douglas Adams. Obviously I love Douglas Adams, so I enjoyed this element very much.

Another fun thing about the book was how it poked fun (in an affectionate way, I think) at other books and genres. For example, when the father tells his son and daughter about the "wumpires" he encountered at a certain point in his time-traveling adventure, his daughter offers a suggestion:
“I think that there should have been some nice wumpires," said my sister, wistfully. "Nice, handsome, misunderstood wumpires."
"There were not," said my father.”  
 Clearly, Gaiman is both commenting on the prevalence of YA vampire romance - which usually features a startlingly handsome vampire with an amount of teenage angst - and rejecting these popular conventions for use in his own story. The simplicity and yet finality of the father's reply: "There were not," shows that the storyteller (and thus the author) will not even consider including these types of vampires in his story, even though he incorporated ponies earlier for his daughter's satisfaction. And this brings me to another point in the adventure when the author pokes fun at another story. When he encounters "a number of brightly colored ponies," the father asks one of them:
"Why are you a pink pony with a pale blue star on the side?"
To which the pony replies:
"I know...It's what everybody's wearing these days. Pale blue stars are so last year."
The father brings up a very good question - though the ponies misunderstand why he asks it - which is this: why are My Little Ponies unnatural colors and why do they have things like stars, hearts, and rainbows on their bums? As the pony obviously misunderstands his question, I suppose we will never know. But this moment represents another instance in the book when Gaiman pokes fun at other stories.

Before I finish and leave you to your own adventure with milk and time travel, I will note briefly the one thing in the book which I found disappointing. It concerns the ending, so if you don't want to find out what happens at the end (and I would suggest that you don't) go read the book and come back when you've finished it. Otherwise, read on.

***************WARNING: SPOILERS***************

I was disappointed by the ending. Only mildly disappointed, but still, disappointed. When the father touched the two milks from different times together, it was a great moment. Gaiman had tricked us into thinking that the main crisis had been averted and thus that the adventure was basically over. But it wasn't. It was a moment of tension and suspense, and everyone held their breath - and then the three remarkable dwarfs appeared and danced with flowerpots on their heads. This was disappointing to me. Why? I don't know for sure. Did I expect that the world would actually end and that that event would conclude this thus far lighthearted romp through time and space? Probably not. Did I want the world to end? Again, I don't know. I think that possibly my disappointment can be attributed to two things: the first is that this was a moment of great tension, unexpectedly sprung upon us after everything seemed safe, but which suddenly ended unsatisfactorily. All of the intensity was lost as soon as the dwarfs appeared, and the crisis was abruptly over. Second, as previously mentioned, one of my favorite lines from the book was the part about how, if you touch two things from different times together, either the universe will end or three dwarfs will dance with flowerpots on their heads. As I speculated, one of the things that made this line so funny was the unexpectedness and absolute impossibility of this result actually happening. So when it did happen, I felt like it almost undermined the humor of that line.

But, as I said, I was only mildly disappointed, and I still enjoyed the rest of the book. I thought it was very cute when the son told his father that he didn't believe his story: "Not. Any. Of. It." To which the father replies that he can prove the truth of his story - and sets the milk down on the kitchen table. Then he calmly goes back to reading his newspaper. Because journeying through time and space, escaping from pirates, wumpires, aliens, and volcanoes, saving the world, in short, risking your life to provide your children with milk for their breakfast cereal - is all in a day's work for a father.


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