RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Terry Pratchett

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

Posted on

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.

Advertisements

New Year’s Eve and the Last Twelve Books

Posted on

Well, it’s New Year’s Eve again. One year ago tonight (not to the minute or anything–I think it was later in the evening), I was sitting in my kitchen in Concord, NH writing a blog post about the five best books I’d read in 2013 when I decided I should read 50 books in 2014 and blog about them all.

Guys. I really sucked at the blogging part of that.

It’s the first time I’ve ever really made a resolution. I mean, maybe when I was little, but never before had I made a serious this is something I’m going to do next year commitment on New Year’s Eve. And I put absolutely zero thought into whether it was a reasonable thing for me to do–I figured I probably read at least a book a week. Actually, it was probably more. I think I spent a lot of the past few years taking a weekend and binging on a YA trilogy and rereading series that I’ve read a few times already and just fly through. I wasn’t figuring that a book a week was accurate to what I was doing at the moment. I was figuring that a book a week would be a good goal. Because if I’m reading too much more than that, then I’m clearly not challenging myself at all. And honestly, the books that took me a whole lot longer than a week were the ones I got the most out of.

I keep writing more, but I really wasn’t intending for this to be a reflecting-on-the-project type of post. I’ll do one of those soon when I discuss my 2015 project.

So this year, I’m having my favorite kind of New Year’s Eve. Reading and writing and maybe a little Mario Kart and some Chinese food. And the first thing I’m going to do is finish up last year’s resolution and blog about the final twelve books.

I didn’t read 50 books this year. Officially, by my notebook, I read 52 books this year. You could be really picky and say that since 1Q84 was three volumes in the edition I had but more commonly only one it should only count as one, but then I would point out the number books that I did not record. I read most of What If by Randall Munroe, Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores, and about 500 billion picture books but it seemed ridiculous to count every single Elephant and Piggie in my end-of-the-year tally. Anyway, even if you’re being picky and refusing to count 1Q84 as more than one book, I still read 50 books this year. (And my boss, aka the owner of a bookshop, says it totally counts as three books since they’re individually bound, so nyah.)

Anyway! Here are the final twelve.

Book 39: A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami

Here’s the thing about reading Murakami. When you finish, it’s so easy to put the book down and get lost in questions about specifics, such as: What the fuck just happened? But if you do that, you’ll miss the point of his books. The story—the plot, the actual things that happen in the book—those things aren’t the point when you read Murakami, I don’t think. Those things make the point. And there will be some point in your future, whether it be five minutes later or eight months later, that you suddenly completely forget whatever you’re doing at the moment and say: OH! Because you figured it out. You realized what the point was. And not only did you realize what the point was, but you realize that it’s so applicable to your life at this very moment, because his books don’t make stupid small points. (In fact, he doesn’t try to make points at all, which is probably why whatever I figure out in terms of the points always seems super relevant.) If you’ve read this book, or if you’ve read 1Q84, let me know because I would love to hear what you got out of them.

Book 40: A Darkling Sea by James L. Cambias

If you’re a science fiction fan, you’ve got to read this book. It’s about a group of scientists, human scientists, living in a research lab base on a planet that’s entirely under water (or some other sort of liquid, not sure if it was actual water), studying on of the native species there. But there’s another alien species out there that makes laws about this sort of thing, and the rule is that they can’t interfere, they can’t even let the species they’re studying know that they’re there. And the species they’re studying, it turns out they’re sentient, they’re intelligent, they’re scientific. And the thing that is so cool about this book, that brought it from being a pretty good science fiction story to something amazing, was that you get to hear each point of view. Each species has one representative with POV chapters. So instead of the whole book being about humans looking at the other, we get to think about ourselves as the other and realize that our point of view isn’t the only one that matters. And it was just so cool. I’ve been recommending it to everyone.

Book 41: Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

I really, really like Saladin Ahmed. I follow the guy on Twitter, and his tweets either crack me up or make me think hard about something or, on a not-irregular basis, both. His book, The Throne of the Crescent Moon, was really good. I enjoyed it. It’s a fantasy detective sort of novel—well, he’s really a ghul hunter and not a detective, but it follows the same general idea—set in a medieval made-up Middle Eastern city. I loved the idea from the first time I heard about it, because, well, does anyone else get a little sick of everything in science fiction and fantasy being so…western? So that was this book. It was kind of like if you took the Dresden Files, except instead of making it about a wizard detective in modern-day Chicago, you made it about a ghul hunter in medieval Dhamsawaat. The characters are complex and multi-dimensional, with detailed lives and thoughts going on behind their ghul hunting ways. The world is built well around the characters, too—I really liked that, while magic was a fact of this world, it wasn’t there only for the convenience of our main characters or villains. It was built into life in the city. Now, you might be reading this thinking, Rachael, this sounds like the sort of thing you’d love but up there you wrote that you “really enjoyed it,” which, I mean, I read your blog and you love saying you love books! And you’re right. I do love saying I love books, and I would be lying if I said I loved this book. I really liked it, and I wanted to love it, but characters had a touch more religious fervor than I generally like in my fantasy. So, since I was comparing to The Dresden Files already, if you’re a fan, imagine: Michael is Dresden’s constant companion through the entire series, but rather than responding the way he does to Michael’s religious comments, Dresden also talks about God a whole lot, just in a slightly different way. Now, I get that it’s completely reasonable within the context of the story for the characters to be highly religious. I didn’t think it didn’t make sense. It’s just not really my thing. On that note, however, I am very much looking forward to the next in the series.

Book 43: Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

Before I start talking specifically about Raising Steam, I want to talk a little about Sir Terry Pratchett. He’s hard to talk about right now because talking about him makes me sad and angry. For those of you who don’t know, Pratchett has early onset Alzheimer’s. I’m not sad and angry because I want more Discworld books than he will be able to write. I mean, I do want more, I want them to keep going forever, but that’s not why I’m sad and angry. I’m sad and angry because, over the years, I’ve read so many of his books and they have given me so much that I absolutely hate knowing what he’s going through. It’s awful. Of course, he writes about it better than I ever will, and I urge you to read some of what he’s written—both about living with Alzheimer’s and choosing to die.

Anyway. Raising Steam. Guys, this book was amazing. My two favorite Pratchett characters are Sam Vimes and Moist von Lipwig. I bought this book knowing it was part of the Lipwig series, but having no idea that Vimes would play such a major role! (Uh, I mean. Spoilers. Not big spoilers, though. Shh.) This is the third Moist book. The first, Going Postal, was about con man Moist von Lipwig after he’s saved from his execution only to be sentenced to a career as Postmaster General in a city where the postal system is a complete joke. Not surprisingly, a former con man is perfectly suited to government work. In Raising Steam, Moist has been a pillar of the community for a number of years when someone invents a steam engine. Like everyone else, Moist is drawn to the shiny new technology, but Lord Vetinari gives him a task that seems impossible…but is it?!! When I read these, I feel just like someone in the book: An outsider, looking in, completely enthralled, wondering how Moist is going to pull this off, completely convinced that he’ll fail, because how could he succeed? And it’s wonderful. If you want to read this book, though, I highly recommend starting with Guards! Guards! and reading all the Vimes and Moist books (at least) before starting on this one; you really need the context of both stories.

Book 44: Bathing the Lion by Jonathan Carroll

This book was so good I added a sixth star to my rating system. It was like Neil Gaiman, Philip K. Dick, Haruki Murakami, Roger Zelazny, and China Mieville all had a brain baby and this was it. I read it while on a family vacation to visit my grandfather in Florida and at some point my brother asked what it was about, and I was about two thirds of the way through at that point, and I just—well that’s a really good question, I have no idea yet. If you don’t like being slightly unsure of what’s going on when you’re reading, or if you don’t like subtlety in your endings, this book won’t be for you. For everyone else, I still can’t tell you what this is about because there is literally no way to do that without spoiling the ending, so let’s just say it’s about humanity. It’s about the absolute necessity of human passion and curiosity and creativity. The one downside is that it’s only 280 pages. Over way too fast. (Also, has anyone ever taken a book on an airplane and had it grow? Like, even the guy sitting next to me commented on it. It tried to expand. Sadly, it didn’t grow more pages.)

Book 46: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

I kept having to turn back to the front of this book where the author’s picture is located because, every few pages, I’d become absolutely convinced that “Robin Sloan” is a pen name that John Green used to write an adult book. I absolutely loved it. (I’m still wondering if authors who use pen names sometimes use a fake picture to really pretend it’s not them.) You’ve got a narrator who’s kind of in a weird point in his life, and he’s got this weird crazy group of friends who all have one completely random and very specific thing, and he meets this crazy weird fun quirky brilliant woman, and then weird stuff happens and there’s a crazy adventure and you learn something important about life when you’re done reading it. It’s so much fun, and you won’t be able to put it down, and then when you finish it you won’t be able to shut up about it for a while. Oh, and this is important: There’s nothing in this book that would make it inappropriate for anyone for whom John Green’s books are appropriate.

Book 47: Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross

There’s a science fiction book club in my town, and this book was the first book I read for it that I was actually able to make it to the meeting for. (The first meeting after I joined was about Neuromancer, which I read recently enough, but since the meeting was at a member’s house and he was cooking, I wasn’t about to show up and say, hi, you’ve never met me before, give me your food, I hated this book that you love. The second was for A Darkling Sea, and it broke my heart to be stuck on an airplane on the way back from Florida when they had that meeting because I loved it.) Everyone in the club who finished the book liked it, but no one seemed to have loved it. However, it did have a fascinating idea behind it that a lot of space opera fails to consider or creates an explanation around. Traveling faster than light seems like it’d be completely impossible. So let’s say, in a few thousand years, we’re at a point where people are scattered all over the universe. Traveling from one planet to another could take hundreds or thousands of years. So, in the book, they’re not human, they’re kind of post-human androids that can basically go into sleep mode for most of that time. Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is, what does that mean economically? Like, let’s say I hire someone. I pay them a certain amount to come do a job for me, and it takes them 400 years to get here. I’m still here and they’re still there because we’re kind of robots with uploadable consciousness, but what about the money? Economic systems and values change quickly enough that by the time they can use the money, it’s worthless. So in Neptune’s Brood, Stross writes about that. What does that mean? What systems might be put in place to avoid that? How could those systems fail? So if you’re into science fiction and economics, this is the book for you. If you’re not so much into economics, you might struggle through it at points, but it’s still a good story and fascinating to think about.

Book 48: The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

I very nearly read this entire book in a weekend, but I didn’t quite finish it, and then the week started, and the week was crazy and weird and I barely had any spare time so it took me a while to finish after an initial whirlwind of addiction (and a whole lot of exasperation when I really just wanted to sit down and read but had too much other stuff to do). It takes place in the early 1900’s in China, beginning in a first class courtesan house owned by an American woman named Lulu Minturn. The story centers around her daughter, Violet, as she grows up an outsider and is forced to face circumstances beyond her (or her mother’s) control. Over time, she begins to understand some of the decisions her mother had needed to make. In classic Tan style, it’s a beautiful story of the love that families have for each other, and it manages to be that without being even remotely boring. I absolutely loved it and I’m already looking forward to Tan’s next book. (I’m pretty sure I’ve read everything Amy Tan has ever written. I don’t think that’s true for very many authors who have written more than a book or two. Amy Tan and good ol’ JK are the only ones I can think of at the moment.)

Book 49: Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

SO GOOD. (I’m becoming incoherent, huh? I can’t wait to go to bed!) I’ve decided that I’m going to continue buying any book that looks remotely interesting and has a quote from a review by Neil Gaiman on the cover, because seriously, I am never disappointed. This book is about a young hacker in yet another made up Middle Eastern city. He writes a code that shouldn’t be possible, then comes into possession of a book that shouldn’t exist, and finds himself on the run in the company of his next door neighbor, an American student, and a possibly evil djinn. This book has something for everyone—some politics, some love, some magic, some technology, all with well-rounded, interesting character and some beautiful writing. I absolutely loved every second of this book. It was about the importance of ordinary people doing things to try to change the world, even if they don’t think what they’re doing will matter, because everything matters. Or, you never know what will matter. It was wonderful.

Book 50: Dawn by Octavia Butler

How have I never read Octavia Butler before? I’m so disappointed in myself. This book was absolutely wonderful. I felt like I was reading a perfect episode of Doctor Who (except, you know, without most of what makes it Doctor Who). It’s science fiction, but the science is alien and so far beyond any understanding that we have of science right now that it seems almost like magic as you’re reading. And it’s about humanity, again, and I really think that all the best science fiction and fantasy is at its core about being human. Lilith has somehow managed to survive a world-destroying war, along with a small number of other humans, all of whom have been taken by an alien race onto their ship. But the aliens are going to use the humans to change themselves, and in doing so, change the humans and the future of humankind. As soon as I finished this I went and got the rest of the series and I’m looking forward to reading a whole lot more Octavia Butler in the future.

Book 51: The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

You know what I said earlier, about eventually saying OH! and understanding what Murakami’s book was about? I finished this two days ago. That hasn’t happened yet. I’m still in the “…what?” phase of having finished a Murakami book. This one in particular is strange. It’s got a jacket that goes the wrong way around it. The font is huge and it’s got pictures taking up about half the pages, and the whole thing reads a bit more like a piece of art than anything else. It’s appropriate for younger audiences, but I’m not sure I’d agree that it’s a kids book like at least one review I’ve read. It’s definitely not a full-length novel—I think it’s a novella, or possibly a novelette, though I’m not sure what the difference is. Anyway, I’m looking forward to having my moment of epiphany and reading it again when I do.

Book 52: The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

Have you ever read a book that took place in a town where you lived? This book was extremely weird, because it took place in Concord, NH, where I lived for three years until this July. And damn does this author get Concord. It was so much fun to read it and say, yes, I know that place, I’ve been there, oh that restaurant where the people were having lunch makes the best burgers ever, and if you said the streetlight at Warren Street works I know exactly which intersection you’re sitting at, and that weird science fiction movie series is exactly the sort of thing that movie theater would do. It’s a pre-apocalyptic detective story. A giant comet has been discovered heading directly to Earth, and impact will occur in about six months. People all over the place are committing suicide, but when Detective Palace comes across what looks like another hanger, sometimes seems off. Most people think he’s crazy for pursuing it as a case, given the end of the world, but he’s got sort of a Batman complex and is determined to do his job. It had just enough science fiction in it to intrigue me, but I’m really not sure which shelf this belongs on. I read it in approximately two days and can’t wait to start book two.

 

Okay, readers, that’s all for 2014! I’ll be back soon for some big reflections on this year’s reading and details about what I’m doing next year, but for now, it’s almost midnight and I have plans tomorrow, so I’ll be watching the clock (well, no, okay, I’ll be reading) for a little longer and then going to bed. (Sorry about the lack of pictures and links here. I might come back and edit them in later, but I’m really not committed to it. I’m tired and I might actually have the flu and it just doesn’t sound like that much fun.)

Does anyone have any book-related resolutions?