Monday, January 23, 2017

Read Books? Wait…What?

Sacchi Green

I admit it. I’ve spent all too much time lately reading media news, or, most often, social media news. My longest time away from the Internet was Saturday when I joined the Women’s March in Northampton, MA, which was great exercise for body and soul, but still firmly planted in the world of politics and protest.

Books were not on my mind at all, except—a fairly big except—when I was driving. I try to always have a book on CD  from the library on hand in my car. Lately I’ve been going back and forth between two that could scarcely be more different.

One is After the Quake by Haruki Murakami. Yes, I was inspired by Lisabet’s post last week, and luckily the Amherst library had a copy on CD of his short story collection. I’m only halfway through the book, which means three stories out of six, but I can understand perfectly why the blurb on Amazon includes the term “mesmerizing.” The prose draws me into the kind of state I find from some music. It holds my attention without drama, keeps me at a distance and involves me, both at the same time. I can’t tell how much is due to the original writing, the translation, or the very good narration, but the combination somehow works.

The stories are theoretically inspired by the earthquake in Kobe, Japan in 1995. The connection is tenuous ,and sometimes just a fleeting thought about mortality, but each main character in the stories I’ve read so far feels that something is lacking, that he or she is empty inside, which surely involves at least a subconscious preoccupation with mortality. The endings are ambiguous, as I expected; one seems slightly tilted toward the positive, one toward the tragic, and one doesn’t need to point in any direction.  If I were reading this description of the book I wouldn’t expect to enjoy it, yet the writing, its cadences, complex simplicity, glimpses of deep feeling in those who don’t think themselves capable of feeling, really hooks me and keeps me listening.

I do need a change from it now and then, though, so I switch to something worlds away, Terry Pratchett’s Raising Steam from his Discworld series. I’ve read this one before, but Pratchett is worth re-reading, and it saddens me that he won’t be writing any more books, having died last year.

The series is at once a fantasy with intricate world-building, a sharp satire on earthly politics, culture, and human foibles, a treatise on social justice, and among the funniest things I’ve ever read. Proceeding from a more or less medieval condition and rapidly evolving technologically (after a fashion) to the point where steam engines are being perfected in the current book, the society progresses bit by bit. All the various sentient species, humans, dwarves, trolls (made mostly of stone,) vampires (converted to drinking coffee,) werewolves, and eventually even the previously despised goblins (who turn out to be the cleverest of all when given the chance,) take their equal places in the overall population, and in the Watch as well, the police force of the largest city, Ank-Morpork. Diversity is at its peak.  All the vanities, bigotries, stupidities, absurdities, of our own civilization are still there, being skewered by Pratchett’s wit, but so are heroism, compassion, fellowship, and all the comparative virtues we possess, and we can bond with appealing characters as complex and often confused as we are ourselves. I tried to think of a quotation to use here, but no single one will do it, so I’ll just resort to the one most often cited by Pratchett fans. The people of Discworld believe it to be mounted on the backs of four elephants who are standing on the back of a giant turtle cruising through space. When a lady at a social gathering is asked what she thinks is under the turtle, she replies confidently, “It’s turtles, all the way down.”

Well, maybe you have to be there. Or rather, read there.

Uh-oh, I’ve got to go now. Somebody may be wrong on the Internet! Or there may be some new scandal or outrage that I need to know about! I can never catch up, though, because there are always outrages and scandals, all the way down.      

12 comments:

  1. I've enjoyed some Pratchett as well; but, for the record, the "turtles all the way down" thing is actually not his original gag. It's an old chestnut (apparently with no clear provenance, judging by Wikiquote):

    https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Turtles_all_the_way_down

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    1. Thanks! I should have looked that up, since I'd wondered about it when I started coming across the phrase at sf/f conventions.

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  2. Listening to narrated books while driving sounds like a good use of your time. I'm glad you were at one of the Women's Marches, Sacchi. My spouse Mirtha watched the one in Washington on her laptop -- amazing. I've heard good things about Terry Pratchett, and second-hand copies of his work are available for cheap, so I prob. need to dip into the Discworld series. So many books, so little time!

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    1. Northampton, MA never met a march it didn't like. I've been to its Pride March many times, which goes right past the store I used to own there, but I've tended to regard many of the smaller marches as being mostly a matter of preaching to the choir. So was this one, but with far-reaching importance.

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  3. Happy to hear Murakami has a short story collection out there. I'll get a chance to sample his writing without committing to a longish work. Thanks for that, Sacchi!

    And, man, did we lose a lot of super-luminaries last year. I'll have a small bit tomorrow on Jim Harrison and Katherine Dunn.

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  4. You people are really selling me on Murakami lately! I picked up the book Lisabet wrote about but haven't had a chance to read it yet. It sounds awesome!

    I've read 3 books by Pratchett because people keep speaking rapturously about him. They have left me cold, I'm afraid. I'm sure in a few years I'll try another one simply because everyone always insists that Discworld is so great. I may just not get it though.

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    1. I've been in your shoes so many times, Annabeth, and—speaking just for myself here, not presuming to push this onto your own experience—I've come to hate the way peer pressure makes me feel like I'm supposed to apologize or fault myself for not liking something that's generally popular. As it happens, I enjoyed Discworld (not immensely, but enough to read a few of them); but there are a zillion other things that I don't like that almost everyone in my world loves. And no one is going to succeed in shaming or blaming or DSM-ing me, however deliberately and aggressively, or however unconsciously or subtly, for not liking something that I happen not to like. It doesn't mean I don't understand it; it doesn't mean I'm dissing it (I can recognize that something has merit without personally enjoying it); it doesn't mean I'm deficient somehow; it doesn't mean I haven't "tried hard enough" or "given it a proper chance." It just means our tastes, as individuals—even individuals within some kind of subculture— are personal and complicated and nuanced and, good grief, we don't have to like all the same things.

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    2. Some of Pratchett's books are more appealing to me than others. I was about to say that the earlier ones are best, but then I remembered that some of my favorites, especially the Tiffany Aching books about a girl coming to terms (on her very own terms) with being a witch are relatively recent.

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  5. I think the only Prachett I've read was a joint effort between him and Neil Gaiman. Discworld sounds like fun.

    And I definitely did not intend to put pressure on anyone to read Murakami! I haven't read After the Quake, though.

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    1. Don't think of it as pressure, but as welcome suggestions.

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  6. By the way, Sacchi... I think you've got to disconnect a bit from the current media firestorm. It's just going to make you feel terrible.

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  7. I'll feel terrible anyway, but main problem with this addiction to social media is how much time it devours. Well, that makes me feel terrible, too, but I've been able to resist when i really had a deadline to meets there's that.

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