I was going to start this review with 'The latest from Neil Gaiman is ... ', but he seems to be publishing so much these days that I don't think I'd be telling the truth if I called it such, especially since this book has been out for a whole three months now. But there aren't many authors who publish as much material as Neil Gaiman currently is, who can maintain the level of quality he does.
Every year the New England Science Fiction Association (NESFA) releases a book of previously unpublished or previously uncollected material from the guest of honor at their annual convention, Boskone. Neil Gaiman was guest of honor at Boskone 39 in 2001, and this is that collection. The hardcover edition is limited to 2,000 numbered copies, the first 300 of which are signed (mine is number 1151, alas), and no further hardcover copies will be published.
The book consists of a hodgepodge of previously published writing. The first section is appropriately titled 'Mostly Introductions' and consists mostly of, well, introductions that Gaiman has written over the years, plus an odd piece here and there. Next comes a brief section on poetry, plus a short section of material he has written for Emma Bull's musical group, the Flash Girls.
The next section occupies half of the book and is a reprint of the Weblog that Gaiman wrote for eight months after he finished writing American Gods. It follows Gaiman as he works through the proofs and galleys and then as he goes on an international signing tour.
The final section of the book consists of five short stories that have appeared in various places.
One of the hazards of such collections -- and a hazard that NESFA hasn't always successfully negotiated in its past GoH collections -- is that, unless it consists entirely of an author's fiction, a lot of what is collected is 'occasional' prose: that is, prose that really doesn't do a whole lot outside of the original context in which it was published. Another pitfall is that the collection becomes voyeuristic as the reader is looking in on the writer as the writer muses on his or her craft. But as readers of such books know, most writers are not that skilled at analyzing how they write.
Luckily, however, most of the writing in this collection avoids such obstacles. True, there are some areas where one is left wondering exactly what value an introduction to X book has when read apart from the book, but for the most part Gaiman's prose style alone carries these pieces through.
But even were his prose style not enough (and it is! it is!) to make these pieces fun to read, Gaiman is insightful and retrospective enough to serve forth some quite meaty and interesting ideas on the relation of gender to comic art (in his 'Shameful Secrets of Comics Retailing: The Lingerie Connection'); why The Dark Knight Returns did and did not work as a comic book and how that reflects on the way Americans read (in 'The Dark Knight Returns'); and how one can read spiritual fantasy (in his introduction to The Screwtape Letters).
The Weblog, however, really carries the weight of the collection. It does so because within the span of 160 pages, we are treated to so many different topics, handled most deftly, while at the same time hearing Gaiman's voice and seeing his personality emerging. In the Weblog we see Gaiman discussing his frustration with journalists who don't read uncorrected proofs, but instead immediately put them up for auction on eBay; we get the official Neil Gaiman list of book-signing etiquette, as well as what his agent sends out to bookstores where he'll be signing; and we are treated to a history of the word 'blurb' as well as how the whole blurb industry really works (yes, there's a bit of you-scratch-my-back-I'll-scratch-yours involved, but it's mostly a circle of friends raving about each other's writings).
We follow Gaiman as his hand wears out signing his name thousands of times, and then his voice gives out just days before a series of interviews. The Weblog concludes shortly after September 11, so we are also shown a tender side of Neil Gaiman (something that he is not afraid to show up to this point, and that is always hovering just below the surface of his writing in general) as he worries about friends in New York and also ponders how he can help by using his celebrity status. (This is the author, don't forget, who seems to sell everything he has in his closet to support the Comic Book Defense Fund.)
My one complaint about the book, though, is that the proofing is atrocious. It is riddled with spelling and grammatical mistakes. Words are misspelled into other words ('seem' instead of 'seen', so a spellchecker wouldn't catch it), words are repeated, and commas appear in ungrammatical places.
For anyone interested in the nuts and bolts of mythic literature and its major purveyors, this book is definitely worth acquiring. It is not going to become a seminal piece of the conversation, but is a pleasant aside or coda to help us better interpret the words of a central contemporary voice.