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Monthly Archives: March 2015

Losing an Author, and Read Harder Book 2: A Retelling of a Classic Story

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I hope that, by now, everyone knows that the beloved Sir Terry Pratchett died recently. I hope that people know that, because for a few days after I found out (which was pretty much as soon as the articles started going up, I think), I kept accidentally being the bearer of horribly depressing news when I went to talk to people about my feelings. And then I’d get a rather odd look from my fellow Discworld “fan” who has no idea why, when they compliment my Discworld shirt, I respond with immense sadness. (I put “fan” in quotation marks because, I mean, I feel like fans would know.)

I’ve never lost an author before. I mean, I’ve read books by dead people, of course. And I’m sure authors I’ve read books by have died in my lifetime since my reading of their books. I don’t really know. Or if I do, it’s something I find out much later, and say, oh, well, that’s unfortunate, she was good. And, to be completely honest, I’ve never quite understood the hysteria surrounding the death of a famous person. Please don’t leave angry comments, but: When Robin Williams died last year, and everyone I know began acting like he was their favorite actor to ever have existed when I know for a fact that a few weeks ago they had said something about how he’s not all that funny anymore, and suddenly they’re in full mourning–well, I grew up listening to the Evita soundtrack, and there’s a certain song that gets stuck in my head. Please know that I’m not saying that Robin Williams’ death wasn’t horrible or sad. He suffered from terrible illnesses and I really do hope that whatever happens after we die, he’s found peace. I do. But I didn’t feel it personally, and I had a hard time believing that all the hysterical mourners on my Facebook wall did, either. But after losing Sir Terry, I think I get it a bit more.

I think the first time I ever saw a Discworld book, I was in middle school and some girls I knew loved them. They were geeks, so I kind of wrote them off as books for geeks, completely ignoring that I could basically recite from memory every Harry Potter book. I came across them again in high school, again in the hands of geeks (different geeks, since it was a different school), but suddenly I had found that these geeks were my close friends, and oh, wow, I’m a geek, too! So they started lending me their books. I read a few and, honestly, I wasn’t thrilled with them. I didn’t dislike them, though, so they lent me more. I soon realized that I wasn’t all that into Rincewind (and, well, Sir Terry himself never recommended starting with A Color of Magic and The Light Fantastic, so maybe that’s not my fault), but I really liked the others. I read EricThe Wee Free Men, Small Gods, and a couple of others, and I soon found that my worldview had changed completely. I wasn’t brought up with religion, but the way things worked in Small Gods made a whole lot of sense to me, and I still look at theology through that lens. Still, though, I wasn’t what you’d call a Discworld Fan. I had read a few of the books and mostly liked them. I borrowed a copy of Good Omens from a teacher who then got fired so I never had to give it back. It’s still on my shelf.

It wasn’t until college that someone gave me the right Discworld books, that I read about Sam Vimes and Granny Weatherwax and Moist von Lipwig, and I realized I’d been going about it all wrong. My copies of the City Watch books are almost as beat up as that copy of Good Omens, I’ve read them so many times. The pages are dog-eared so I can always find the funniest bits, though when I lend them to people they always kindly unfold the pages for me because they know that, as a book lover, I must hate it when pages get like that. (In a $30 hardcover? Yes. In a $7.99 paperback with frayed corners and 12 cracks in the spine that I’ll have to replace with the new taller edition anyway so the shelf lines up right? No.) I devoured the first two books in the Long Earth series, and finishing the rest, well, I’ve got a 2’4″ stack of books I have to make some headway on before I can buy anything else, but I can’t wait to get to it.

So even though I’ve never returned to the Rincewind books–until tomorrow, that is, when I will finish the book that I’m reading (A Slip of the Keyboard, Pratchett’s collected nonfiction, because how could I have picked up anything else?) and pick up The Color of Magic again, this time as an actual Discworld Fan–Pratchett’s work has been a huge influence on my life. Half my thoughts about life are in the form of sarcastic footnotes. The City Watch series is something I’ve been able to share with Mike, who better hurry up and read Night Watch and then Thud! because those two are my favorites, and I love being able to share books with someone and laughing hysterically at 1:30 in the morning at the suggestion of naming a future potential child we may have Dorfl.

Reading A Slip of the Keyboard is eye-opening in a way that feels similar to how I felt when Small Gods made so much sense to me eleven years ago. I want to write, and I’m realizing that I’m going about it all wrong. I’m reading all the wrong things, and, well, I’m not going to stop reading the things that I love, but there’s a lot of stuff out there aside from science fiction and fantasy, a lot of nonfiction, classics, mythology, science, whatever, that could inform me as a theoretical writer much more than just reading the types of books I want to write. You don’t bury an apple tree to grow an apple tree.

So thank you, Sir Terry, for all that you’ve given to me and the world. I cried a whole lot (awkwardly, at work, but fortunately with a boss who also loves him and understood), but I realize now that you also helped to create in me the mechanisms necessary to deal with this. You taught me that “a man’s not dead while his name’s still spoken,” and that DEATH is actually not too bad a guy, and maybe this is heaven and when we die we’re actually being born, and that after you die, you’ll end up wherever you believe you’ll end up. And I’m hoping that you’ve ended up on the Discworld, and that if you have, it’s somewhere that can offer you Truth, Justice, Freedom, Reasonably-Priced Love, and a Hard Boiled Egg.

All the little angels rise up, rise up,
All the little angels rise up high!
How do they rise up, rise up, rise up?
How do they rise up, rise up high?
They rise heads up, heads up, heads up,
They rise heads up, heads up high!

(If you’re just here for my update on my Read Harder challenge, I’m not remotely sorry about all that. But the other part’s starting now.)

In the winter, I like to read fairy tales. Not necessarily classic fairy tales, but books that make me feel the way I imagine Lucy first felt when she stepped through the back of that wardrobe into a snowy Narnia with a lamp post sprouting out of the ground in front of her. I think I’ve inextricably linked that scene and snowstorms in my mind, which is why I always feel like something magical is going on when it starts to snow, while real adults just sit and complain about the shoveling. (At a certain point every winter, though, I’m over it. It’s pretty, but it can go to Hell.) It’s for this reason that I decided my second Read Harder Challenge book should be a retelling. There are so many retellings with so much magic in them, I knew I’d find the perfect one. So one kind of dismal and slow day at work, as I walked around neatening up shelves, I pulled a few off and read the backs, hoping to find the perfect fairy tale retelling to fulfill this slot on the challenge. And then something jumped out at me. Something I’d bought ages (okay, months) ago and had sitting on my TBR shelf at home just waiting for me. Something I’d been meaning to read since I did an independent study in epics back in college. The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood.

Not a fairy tale. Not what I was looking for or expecting to want to read. But the perfect book nonetheless.

When I say I did an independent study in epics, what I mean is that in the course of three months, I read The Odyssey and two modern epics that are heavily based on it, one of which was Ulysses, and guys, if you ever want to hate yourselves, design an independent study that you need a good grade in to graduate that requires that you read Ulysses in a month. And understand it. I guarantee you’ll never want to look at the book again. That’s besides the point, though.

At some point, something happened, some discussion occurred, and my professor recommended The Penelopiad to me. I hadn’t read Atwood at that point, so while I vaguely remembered the title, I wasn’t about to rush to the store to get yet another book based on The Odyssey. I’d had quite enough, thank you. But I’m pretty sure the discussion that led to this recommendation was about the maids. I’m pretty sure I didn’t like their death. So now, all these years later, I’m happy to say that Margaret Atwood didn’t like it, either.

The Penelopiad is a slim volume where Penelope recounts her experiences while her husband was on his famed Odyssey from a safe distance of a few thousand years, which she’s spent mostly in the sort of afterlife she believed in. The book was surprisingly straightforward. Penelope’s been planning this story for thousands of years; she’s not about to waste her time making things convoluted for us. She has something to say, and she’s finally ready to say it, and what it is is her story. Her side of the events. What she was doing the whole time he was gone. How she ran the household, built it up, tricked people who needed tricking, raised a frankly thankless son, kept an eye on the suitors while keeping them at bay, and how she lost everything for it. How the suitors took most of what she had, and when Odysseus returned, he took the rest, her twelve favorite maids who acted under her orders and were loyal to her throughout. All for the crime of having been raped.

The maids get their say, too, though not in the way you might expect. They’re the Chorus. They appear between chapters and sing a song, or tell a story, or, in one instance, give a university lecture on their significance to the story of The Odyssey.

If you’ve ever read The Odyssey and you’ve ever got a little free time, this book is worth picking up. It’ll present some new ideas, and those ideas that aren’t new will be put under a different light. Atwood doesn’t make much up, really; she tells the story so obviously lurking in the background of the classic–so obviously that most of us never really even notice it.


Oops! And Read Harder Book 1: Something Someone Recommended

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Way back on December 31st, I mentioned my new project for 2015, which is Book Riot’s Read Harder challenge. And I’m doing it, and it’s going very well, but I may or may not have also said something about how two blog posts per month seemed totally reasonable. Well. That was probably true, for most people, you know, just not when you’re me and you’re planning a wedding and also just not really spending a lot of time on the computer. So now it’s March 1st and I haven’t written a single update on my project. And I really do spend a whole lot of time on this blog apologizing for failing to update it more frequently, which would be a little more appropriate if I believed that many people read it, so I think I’m really apologizing to myself. Sorry, self, that you are so bad at maintaining any sort of update schedule here; you really need to get your priorities straightened out. Especially since these will most likely not be ridiculously long posts.

The first book I selected to fulfill a requirement on the Read Harder Challenge list was a book someone recommended to me. Finding a book to fulfill this requirement really wasn’t difficult, because, well, most of the time when I pick up a book, it’s because someone said it was good. Frequently, it’s because another author (cough*Neil Gaiman*cough) that I like said it was good and it’s right there on the cover for everyone to see. However, in this instance, I figured I’d go with something that an actual person whom I actually know recommended, and, to make the challenge more interesting, something that wouldn’t normally find its way onto my reading list. Fortunately for me, Christmas had just happened, and for Christmas I got just such a book: eaarth by Bill McKibben.

I read fiction almost exclusively, so to pick up a book about science—as much as I love science—was a little intimidating. The last science class that I took was a Genetics and Ethics class when I was in college, which was the first semester Mike and I were dating—five and a half years ago—and, well, it didn’t go well. Mostly because there was no prerequisite listed, so about half the class took it as a “gotta fulfill my science requirement, this seems like it’ll be liberal arts-y enough to not be boring,” and I was one of that half. It was not liberal arts-y. It was a 200-level genetics class half full of people who hadn’t taken biology since freshman year of high school. Mostly, it didn’t go well, and that was with a med student boyfriend to help me out. I imagine lots of people didn’t pass.

Eaarth, however, was surprisingly accessible. Bill McKibben has a message for the world about climate change—mostly, “It’s here, god dammit, now will you morons do something?”—and he wants it understood by the masses. I was surprised at how the book pulled me in right from the beginning, and even more at how much I didn’t know about this crazy important issue, like how we’re already above the threshold of carbon in the atmosphere to sustain life as we know it, and at the rate we’re going, we’ll be completely screwed by 2050. Everyone talks about this issue like the real problem is still far away, but this isn’t an issue for our great-grandchildren. That’s 35 years. The plankton is already dying out. Climate-related disasters are happening all over the world, the effects of which we in the US have a hard time seeing if we’re not looking for them. We need to make some changes.

Part one of eaarth was scary, but part two was hopeful. We’re on our way to completely screwing ourselves, but McKibben makes some suggestions as to how to slow this process down, and they’re mostly suggestions that I liked. It mostly has to do with hunkering down in our communities and taking what might seem like a few steps backwards. More local farms and backyard gardens—even if you don’t have a whole lot of space, companion planting can help your garden produce a whole lot more food than you’d imagine. (Of course, I live in a place with almost no soil, so that’s fun and exciting.) Shop locally as much as possible. I mean, fewer UPS trucks driving around with half the world’s Amazon orders piled up in the back can’t possibly be a bad thing, right? And we’re at a point where we can put down roots locally and still be in touch with the rest of the world. I was thrilled to find that McKibben is a huge fan of the internet because, well, so am I.

Did I like the book? It’s hard to say. It was interesting. In a way, it was very easy to read—it didn’t take me any longer than most novels I pick up, and I understood what he was talking about. However, it was also very hard to read in the sense that it was terrifying. It pissed me off. And I’m bad at being pissed off at one thing, so, like, I’m pissed off because of this book, which leads me to being generally pissed off about almost everything, which, despite my being from Massachusetts, is not my default state. I didn’t love that, but I think I needed that, because I immediately turned the (oil) heat in my house down from 70 to 64. I mean, I can put on a sweater. I’ve made some changes. And this summer, if the ground ever thaws, maybe I’ll plant some tomatoes and see what happens from there.

I’ll be back…well, you know, eventually to tell you all about my second selection in the Read Harder challenge. I’m not telling what I picked yet because I want to keep you on your toes, but it’ll be a retelling of a classic tale.