Mort

MortMort, Terry Pratchett

We return to Discworld with Mort, following the story of Death as he goes through a mid-eternity crisis, and his chosen apprentice, Mort, as he decides whether or not to become Death. In the process we meet Death’s butler, his adopted daughter, learn about Afterlife and theology on the Disc, and watch Mort deal with the how to address that whole fate thing and how much we should mess with it.

Death is a recurring character in Discworld, having made cameos in the previous books, and giving him his own series was a good idea for a spinoff. It occurs to me that the reason almost endless spinoffs for something like Discworld can work is that, freed from the necessities of weekly episodes and annual seasons, an author can wait until he actually has a good idea to write a story. It’s a truth that serves books well and I’m grateful for it.

Mort is, well, not exactly a prequel but it does take place before the other books, with Rincewind of the first book making a brief appearance early in his wizarding career. It is certainly a stand alone book, however, that a person could pick up without fully knowing the world, although having a working knowledge of how exactly the whole thing works what with the world turtle and all does add a certain something. The only mild drawback I’d say is that, by making this a book anyone can drop in on, Pratchett does need to repeat some things.  It’s not so much a problem that he goes over the same information on the inner workings of Discworld, but he does seem to be overly found of a few phrases, such as how the light moves lazily on the Disc due to the magical field, that are used more than they need to be. But I suppose if one waits more than a week or so between reading his books it wouldn’t be as much of a problem. And it’s a bit hypocritical of me to complain about this when I was just criticizing a book for going too far in the other direction.

And, honestly, what complaints I may have are minimal. Pratchett’s skill at weaving a tale, his humor, and his deftness of dealing with what can be grim topics with wit and just a touch-hardly any, really, it doesn’t get in the way at all-of compassion is on full display in this book. It’s not everyone who can take a story about Death and turn it into a fun book that isn’t either too dark or too kitschy or too much of trying to make it be a whole thing and making a statement. Here it’s just that Death is, and he’s trying to get through existence as best he can, just as all of us are. I greatly enjoy the way Pratchett plays and subverts tropes, done throughout in this book. And he’s a clever writer. His descriptions of Death capture the doom and gloom and seriousness with a few creative twists, and he pulls us into scenes quite creatively. I’m glad I finally started reading Terry Pratchett. He’s quickly become a favorite for all of my light-hearted reading needs.

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Michael Tolliver Lives

michael tolliver livesMichael Tolliver Lives, Armistead Maupin

Armistead Maupin is known for his Tales of the City stories, a daily serial in the San Francisco Chronicle throughout the 70s, chronicling a unique time and place that will never be recaptured. People look back on these books with real fondness, and through it Maupin had a unique view point to capture the sexual revolution, the first glimmer of gay rights, and the destruction of the AIDS epidemic. Sadly, all of this is what I have picked up from reading *about* Maupin. I never read any of the Tales of the City stories. Instead, I picked up Michael Tolliver Lives, which catches up with a lead character several years on. Why did I start there? Because this was sitting there waiting to be taken at the Library Book Sale, my main source of reading material, and the others were not!

It’s a shame I didn’t read the others first, because then maybe I would have liked this book. Instead I felt myself unable to connect with any of the characters, not particularly interested, and thinking that everything felt superficial and like a caricature.

Michael Tolliver Lives catches us back up again with Michael Tolliver, an aging gay man who’s been in San Francisco from the beginning (he featured in the earlier books), now married to a younger man, running a landscaping and nursery business, and dealing with the death of his conservative mother in Orlando, FL, and his more-or-less adoptive mother back home in San Francisco. For all that, there didn’t seem to be much conflict or tension in the book, and everything proceeded as you’d expect. The book seemed to stay on the surface of the story. And much of this is because some of the conflict had already been introduced before, I’m sure. Much of the relationships were told, not shown—because it was just a reminder of what the reader should already know.

There were some people who apparently loved this book, but I think all of them are people who loved these characters from before, and enjoyed checking in. Some series you can drop yourself into. Some you can’t. This book was for people who had loved Tales of the City and looked forward to seeing what everyone was up to now. It was the reunion special. But just like I wouldn’t watch Fuller House without knowing the first one, don’t pick this up unless you already know and love Michael Tolliver and his life.

 

Well of Lost Plots

well of lost plotsWell of Lost Plots, Jasper Fforde

Jasper Fforde’s Well of Lost Plots is the third installment of his Thursday Next series, and it starts off more or less immediately where the former book, Lost in a Good Book ends. Thursday Next is a Jurisfiction Agent in a Great Britain similar to the one in our world, but with some notable differences.  Genetic engineering is quite common, and Thursday has a pet dodo she made with a home genetics kit. The series takes place in the 1980s, but the Crimean war is still raging. Wales is independent. Zombies, werewolves and vampires are all real, but more of a nuisance than anything else. Time travel is possible, but highly regulated by the Chronoguard. There are severe cheese shortages and cheese import laws. And the most relevant to the series, people take books seriously. Very seriously. Like, there is a special operations division, SO-27, dedicated to tracking down forged books and protecting literature. Oh, also, literary characters live in book world and have their own policing agencies to keep the plots as they’re supposed to be and sometimes people from the real world can enter the books and vice versa.

Well of Lost Plots is unique in the series so far in that it takes place entirely in the book world. And from here on out there will be SPOILERS for what has happened in the first two installments, and you have now been warned. At the end of Lost in a Good Book Thursday Next had been apprenticed as a Jurisfiction Agent policing book world rather than books in the real world, her husband, Landon, had been eradicated through time travel by the multinational Goliath Corporation, and she was somehow still pregnant with his child in this time stream. Thursday is less distressed by this part than many of us would be since her own father, a rogue Chronoguard agent, had been eradicated and still pops up in her life regularly. Sadly, Landon’s eradication seems to be somewhat more complete.

While she’s pregnant, and planning how to get her husband back, Thursday decides to take a break in Book World as a Jurisfiction Agent, subbing for a character in a seldom-read book while continuing to track down Page Runners (characters who escape their books), evading Grammasites (parasites who feed on words) and fighting off a plot to make all books far more generic and lifeless through what sounds suspiciously like e-books.

I’m constantly surprised that Jasper Fforde’s books are not far more popular. They’re incredibly witty and clever, the world building is truly impressive, and they are full of allusions and references that can only be understood for the overeducated types who have spent far too much time in our world’s paltry equivalent of Book World. There is absolutely no reason that nerdy hipster types shouldn’t be referring to Jasper Fforde constantly and bragging about how many of his jokes and references they understood. Each book is basically a novel of in jokes for literature and history nerds.

Well of Lost Plots is just as clever as the others, and Fforde is a talented enough writer to pull off all of this. It just works, you see. Oddly enough, Lost Plots was somewhat easier to understand than some of the others in the series, I thought, since it only takes place in Book World and one doesn’t need to try to keep track of all of the rules of both worlds. And, a further benefit for those of us who like to be in on the jokes, it sets up the Nursery Crimes series. One doesn’t need to have read one book to get the other, but having read The Big Over Easy definitely made me appreciate some of the bits of Well of Lost Plots more.

Anyone who spends too much time on books, especially classics, who enjoys being the smartest in the room, or who likes Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, or other witty British authors will likely enjoy all of Fforde’s work. He’s one of the more creative and imaginative authors I’ve read, and I’ve got the rest of the series waiting on my to be read shelf for the next year.

Cannery Row

Cannery Row  Cannery Row, John Steinbeck

A fairly short book, Cannery Row isn’t so much a novel as it is a sketchbook. Published in 1945, it takes place on a particular street in Monterey, CA, during the Great Depression. The book covers the characters and their goings on, a window into one particular place and time and the people making their lives there.

The ostensible plot of the book centers around Doc, a marine biologist who works at the lab in Cannery Row and is likely the most “respectable” person in the book. He studies the marine life and collects specimens, which he packs and sells to labs and classrooms around the country. Mack, the leaders of a very contented community of drunks and layabouts, decide to throw a thank you party for Doc to thank him for all the good he’s done for them and everyone else. Along the way this premise is used to flesh out the people and buildings who are to be found on Cannery Row.

Steinbeck is an evocative writer, able to set a scene or make you know a person with a few well chosen words or phrases. And he is an amazing observer of humanity. Steinbeck is a master of find a way to describe those aspects of people or humanity that are under the surface, the type that seem to go away when you look at them straight on, and find a way to describe them perfectly. It shows up in all of his books, which are populated with such poignant characters, but in a book where the story is the characters, his talent really shines.

Cannery Row reminds me of nothing so much as Richard Brautigan, in all the best ways. He’s not nearly as absurd, and all of Steinbeck’s sentences make sense, but the book also doesn’t feel entirely real, either. Cannery Row seems to exist just next to our world, the way much of Brautigan’s writing does. But at the same time it’s easy to put oneself there. I smell the tide and feel the cold water when reading of Doc’s excursions the same way I smell loam and feel Northern California fog when I read Brautigan.

I adore this book. Steinbeck is always a joy to read, but it can be hard to be joyful when reading his stories. Cannery Row is a departure from those, although similar to books such as Tortilla Flat, which played with the same concept and location but with a different group of characters. It’s not that it’s all slight, as there is much going on under the surface of the story, but the book doesn’t deal with heady subjects, just the basics of living and the many different ways people go about that. It’s a delightful novel, with beautiful language, and that radiates with love for its subjects. A truly wonderful experience to read.

The Constant Gardener

ConstantGardenerbookcoverThe Constant Gardener, John Le Carré

Oftentimes before I write one of these essays I look at other reviews of the book to help muddle through my own thoughts. Nothing helps me to sharpen and clarify my opinions after all as much as disagreeing with someone else. I look at reviews especially when it’s a) been a while since I finished the book and I want to refresh my memory and/or b) if it’s a book that came out more than a few years ago as I like to be reminded of the climate when it was released.

When reading reviews of The Constant Gardener I noticed two main things. Firstly, that every reviewer had to write about The Constant Gardener in relation to other books by John Le Carré. I haven’t read anything else by Le Carré–although I have two other books of his on my to-be-read shelves–so I’m afraid it will have to stand on its own for me. Secondly, that the reviewers all commented on this new type of book that Le Carré had struck upon, a novel that explored the wrong doings of corporations (as opposed to the cold war spy novels of previous years), and one that was meant to motivate people to action. The reviews all wonder whether this sort of intrigue, a person against a corporation, a book that was meant to anger us about an industry, could possibly take off. It’s so strange to hear now, when fighting against an evil corporation is the standard in so many novels and movies. I had no idea Le Carré was such a trend setter.
On to the book itself, read with none of that background knowledge, it was a very engaging read. Justin Quayle, the constant gardener of the title, is a quintessentially British character, quiet, gentlemanly, courteous, and content as a foreign service officer drifting along for his career. The kind of man who can be easily overlooked, with the best description being that his politeness is easily mistaken for weakness. A character I recognize as someone to be admired from many of the British mysteries and suspense novels I’ve read. His beautiful young wife, Tessa Quayle, who many suspected was having one or more affairs, is brutally murdered at the start of the book, leading Justin to search for the real reason she was killed, and carry on her work.

The book takes on, in a rather roundabout and fictional way, pharmaceutical companies, corruption with both donor nations and developing nations, and the use of donations and people in the developing world as guinea pigs for new drugs. This is what Tessa and Dr. Arnold Bluhm–who the rumor mill said she was sleeping with–had been tracking, with Tessa trying to find a way to bring attention to their bad works within the British government, naively insisting on working within the institutions.

And this was my biggest issue with the novel. Tessa is portrayed throughout as an activist, highly moral, tenacious, and brilliant (and rich and gorgeous and so on and so forth. She is the point of the whole novel and the plot point for Justin to start his part of the story, after all.) She is forward thinking encrypting her communications, sending additional letters to family for others to find, etc. And yet, the report that would expose these bad deeds, that Justin is trying to piece together, is never found. I just found it so difficult to believe that this brilliant lawyer, knowing that she’s fighting an amoral corporation with many resources and no scruples about silencing critics, wouldn’t have created a fail safe and sent the report off somewhere. Left a key for Justin to a safe deposit box? Mailed copies to her brother? Anything. It didn’t ring true to me. Apologies for nitpicking, but I’m afraid it’s what I do.

The second part that I thought didn’t quite work was this apparently brand new notion of a novel that would motivate people to future activism. Le Carré was obviously sincere about this, and wrote a follow up bit that’s in the book about how all of these pieces are true in their own way, and that these bad acts are happening around the world and primarily in Africa. However, the companies and occurrences were too generic in the book for me to feel that I could use them as a jumping off point, the activist groups fictionalized as well. There needed to be a bit more docu- to the -fiction for it to really work as the rallying call he intended.

As a book, though, I found it compelling-despite my issue with the MacGuffin at the center–and a suspenseful novel. Le Carré can craft a page turner, that is for sure, even if it’s a page turner far more subtle than other suspense or spy novels we might be used to. And I enjoyed the characters more than I thought. For anyone whose seen the movie, don’t let it discourage you. The relationships as written in the book made far more sense, Justin was more compelling, the various characters on the periphery were more rounded and intriguing, and overall I wanted to keep reading. Le Carré is not an optimistic man, I fear, and this book was no exception, and despite his novel decrying the neo-colonialism of capitalism and humanitarianism, there’s still more than a whiff of old colonial feeling in the book, leading to an air of sadness over the whole affair. It kept me thinking about the book well after I’d finished, though, which I always take as a good sign. I look forward to finishing the others on my to be read shelf and taking on some of his classics.

The City and the Stars

the city and the starsThe City and the Stars, Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke is the best writer of the “Big Three” sci-fi authors, speaking in terms of the craft of writing. Better than Asimov, far better than Heinlein. He and Bradbury are probably the best of the classics. Clarke’s interesting to read as well, though, because he foresees societies that really are different than our own, and, setting him apart from others, his future societies are often relatively free of conflict. His books are rarely violent, and barely any conflict. They slowly move forward with people more or less behaving decently, and even most of those who don’t still trying to do the right thing. They’re carried forward almost entirely by the writing and new ideas. One almost gets the sense he finds classic story elements of violence, distrust, and other conflict get in the way of the ideas he wants to pursue, with how quickly he rushes in in each book to explain, “Those silly problems of jealousy and anger weren’t a problem anymore! And no one would consider hurting someone. Now, on to the real meat of the story.”

That being said, if you read too many of his books in a short period of time they can start to get a bit tedious. The first time you read a book where nothing much happens and humans have become exceptionally advanced and everyone more or less gets along it’s rather refreshing, and it seems like such a brave choice from the author. After three or four you kind of want something to happen.

The City and the Stars is much farther in the future than most of Clarke’s books, an incomprehensible one billion years in the future. The main character, Alvin, lives in the self-contained city of Diaspar, where all decisions have been outsourced to artificial intelligence and humans study, produce art, wander the city, talk with one another, and whatever else they would like to do, with no concern for money or need until they decide they’d like to have their intelligence returned to the central computer and returned at a later date. Interesting to consider the way science fiction authors of the past considered automation–Clarke would have been all for a universal basic income and incredibly productive robots. I believe Asimov and many old “what does the future hold!” Disney cartoons thought that was the goal, as well.

The artificial intelligence for Diaspar controls everything, including the mix of personalities in the city, and every now and then they throw in a “unique” such as Alvin, someone who is a brand new personality mix rather than an old one retrieved from the archives. As a “unique” Alvin isn’t terrified of leaving the city of Diaspar, which all others are afraid to do. No one ever travels outside the city walls. He does, finding a new city, Lys, which limited their use of robots and instead perfected the human mind and telepathy. Two paths for humanity. There’s more that comes after explaining why most humans left earth, why some stayed behind and created the only two cities left on earth, Diaspar and Lys, and something about a galactic intelligence-another Clarke staple-but honestly the first half of the book was the most interesting.

I enjoy Clarke. I am heartened by the obvious hope he has for humanity, and it’s rather curious to read Utopian rather than dystopian science fiction these days. His writing, as I mentioned, really is excellent. I find myself hoping he’s right that we can make a good future for ourselves. It usually puts me in a better mood. Plus, this is also a fairly slim volume, so it was a quick read. For future reading, though, I just think every now and then I need some action.

Zeitoun

220px-ZeitounZeitoun, Dave Eggers

Imagine, if you will, a time when the threat of terror attacks has led to a drastic curtailing of civil liberties, and discrimination and oppression of Muslims. When it comes to immigrants, Muslims, and other people of color, law enforcement seems to operate with impunity. And many key government appointments seem to be held by staggeringly incompetent people with no actual qualifications. In fact, many historians are saying that the current president will go down as possibly the worst in history.

Yes, 2005 was a different time. A time many of us miss now, but I think that’s because we’ve forgotten how frightening it really was. Zeitoun is a good reminder.

Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers, takes place in New Orleans right before and in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina. The title character, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, is a Syrian-American immigrant, a Muslim, and a builder and general contractor in New Orleans. When Katrina is coming, while his wife evacuates with the kids, he stays behind to watch over the property. He and some friends spend the days after the hurricane boating around the streets, helping to rescue neighbors, deliver water and supplies, and help abandoned pets. Amazingly, when help finally comes, he and his friends are arrested by the National Guard and held for 23 days without notifying his family, or giving him access to a lawyer.

This is a narrative non-fiction, along the lines of What is the What, and I find that Eggers is particularly adept at this. I know it’s popular to dislike him-partly because he gets all prickly about criticism-but he is a talented writer and story teller. And his particular style does well in highlighting huge, intimidating problems in a manageable way, relating to one individual, and what abstract concepts-like civil liberties-or major news stories-like the civil war in Sudan-actually mean.

I found Zeitoun fascinating. I was and am a very politically involved, politically aware person but had actually not heard about the renditions in New Orleans after Katrina, or that this was used in another front to push what is allowable in the fight against terrorism. But wrapped up in the horror of the lack of planning pre-hurricane, the lack of effective response, the fact that a white suburb and their police force blocked black residents from entering, and law enforcement shot people looking for food, apparently the government did find time to send in the National Guard to look for terrorist. The response to Katrina was even worse than many of us knew.

I’m incredibly glad that I read this book, and was reminded of how things were, and which fights under the Trump administration are new, and which are ones that we never finished during and after Bush. It may seem that this is a book that would only be timely for a little while, and perhaps in popular view it is, but I always find it useful to read topical books much later, or popular fiction from decades ago, or historical books that go into the daily life rather than major events, to remember what we so easily forget from our history. It’s important that we don’t let such events fade into the background. Partly for when it seems we’re in a more dangerous time, so we can look back and remember that politicians and newspapers always say we’re in the most dangerous time. And partly so that we can be on the look out for real dangers—like the destruction of civil liberties—and know the warning signs and how to fight back. And so we remember what was tried before and failed, and don’t get suckered by it again. (Those last two are things that the U.S. in particular needs to work on.)

I think that in writing this review I need to also explore the controversy surrounding the book. In short, in the two years after Zeitoun was published, Abdulrahman Zeitoun and his wife, Kathy Zeitoun, separated, with his wife citing abusive behavior. He was eventually arrested for plotting to have his wife and her son killed. This is, obviously, horrific behavior. And from what I was able to tell, Eggers refuses to seriously address these issues since writing the book. However, I do not think that they undermine the book, and, from what I can tell, other than suggesting that Zeitoun may not have been the “perfect victim” of the police state, do not dispute the main facts of the book: that he stayed behind in New Orleans, that he and his friends were helping others in the days after the hurricane, and that he was eventually arrested on suspicion of being a terrorist and held for 23 days with no access to a lawyer or his family.

Kathy Zeitoun has said that the presentation of their relationship was true at the time the book was written, while at the same time saying there had always been some violence. She also said that Zeitoun became more violent and radical in his Islam after his detention. It is not unbelievable that someone who had been through such an ordeal may have seen their behavior altered dramatically. I am not defending his violence at all or trying to deny or excuse attempted murder. Only that it can be the case that the presentation in the book was mostly true, and that Zeitoun, while doing good things for others after Katrina, is not actually a great person and only deteriorated after his detention.

If that ruins the concept of the book for some people, I understand, and I didn’t know about it until after I finished the book and started looking up other reviews. If I’d known it before, it would undoubtedly have colored my opinions when reading it. However, I still recommend the book for the reasons I listed. It’s an engaging and highly readable story, and it covers a topic that we should all remember. A major American city was destroyed because of incompetence, the citizens continued to suffer because incompetence was compounded by racism, and in the midst of this we found time and resources to seek out and arrest Muslims we suspected of sneaking into a flooded city. As we find ourselves again being told to fear the others and accept leaders who know nothing of governing, told, indeed, that one of the most competent and inspiring presidents we’ve had was destroying the country simply by being other, it seems a very timely read indeed.