Thursday, June 30, 2022

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

Source of book: I own this.


Everyone had to read “A Rose for Emily” in high school, right? I have to confess, though, that is about all the Faulkner I had read. I decided to put The Sound and the Fury on my list for this year, in part because my wife had discussed reading an excerpt back in college - part of the narration by the developmentally disabled man, Benjamin. I figured I should experience that at least. Honestly, Faulkner isn’t my favorite author. I can see why he is considered important, of course, and he isn’t at all a bad writer. Rather, I think that I prefer Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty for my Southern Gothic literature. 

 I couldn't believe I found a picture online of the exact edition I own.

The Sound and the Fury is a fairly experimental novel, and didn’t initially sell well. Three of the four sections are told in varying degrees of “stream of consciousness” and jump around in time and place a lot, without much to guide one. The fourth is more straightforward, but it is about such a small period of time that it doesn’t really help to unravel the earlier parts of the story. There are two things that help with this. First is the Appendix that Faulkner wrote later, giving the history of the family before the story begins, and summaries of the characters, so that the reader can at least figure out who is who and what their individual stories are. Oddly, the Appendix is placed at the beginning of the book. In any case, this was helpful. I also confess to consulting Wikipedia for a more linear version of the story. 


The book tells the story of an aristocratic Southern family as it implodes. The Civil War freed the enslaved, although a few old servants still linger. The family’s wealth is slowly dissipating, as times have changed, and it has failed to adapt. 


The children each fail in their own way. Benjamin is mentally a toddler, and will never be able to care for himself. For the most part, his care is farmed out to the various black servants, but he is friends with his sister Candice (Caddy). She gets pregnant out of wedlock, and has a rushed marriage to another man. When he finds out she is pregnant with another man’s child, he deserts her. Quentin III is the smart kid, destined for college, and thus the family’s great hope. He attends Harvard, but feels his absence has meant he failed to protect Caddy’s virtue. After confronting the (probable) baby-daddy, he returns to Harvard and drowns himself. Jason is the most successful, but he too has failed. The funds raised from the sale of the family pasture (to be used as a golf course) end up going to Quentin III’s tuition, and Caddy’s wedding, and he is left with nothing. To make matters worse, he was promised a job by Caddy’s husband, but lost that when he deserted her. 


Caddy names her child Quentin, even though she is a girl. Due to the culture of the time, she is not allowed to raise her own child. Instead, her mother does. When Quentin IV comes of age, she runs off with a showman, stealing Jason’s cash from his safe. Well, some of the money is actually Jason’s, but most of it is money that Caddy sent for Quentin, which Jason has stolen because he sees it as his just due for the loss of his inheritance. 


So, that’s more or less the plot. The layout of the book is interesting as well. There are four total sections, the last of which is the shortest. The book starts out with Benjamin’s stream of consciousness, mostly about a particular day, but everything for his last 30 or more years is all muddled up, and people are kids again, and….well, it makes very little sense at all. However, it is excellent writing, and as an experiment of being inside someone’s head, it works very well. 


The second section is the stream of consciousness inside Quentin III’s head, before he commits suicide. Most of it is his exploration that day as he is undecided about his fate. But it also flashes back a lot, and isn’t that easy to follow either. Naturally, the thoughts are much more adult, more organized, and so on. But they meander just like an average adult’s thoughts - a recognizeable stream of consciousness. 


The third section is from Jason’s point of view. It is the most coherent of the first three sections, but it too has some stream-of-consciousness elements and flashbacks. 


The final section is in the omniscient third person point of view, but focuses on the lives of the servants on the day Quentin IV steals the money and disappears. 


One of the reasons the book is a hard read is that the Compson family is thoroughly unlikeable. Sure, one can feel sorry for most of them a little, but they are essentially a family steeped in selfishness, entitlement, and privilege. With the exception of Benjamin, they fail mostly because of their poor choices, with an assist from laziness and a refusal to take responsibility for their own actions. 


Really, the only one who shows any responsibility is Caddy, and society prevents her from having any way of redeeming herself. She supports her child, and tries to be involved (although Jason refuses to let her see the child), so I would say she is the most sympathetic character. We never get to see her point of view, and she is out of sight for most of the story. 


Benjamin is one who you want to sympathize with. And, to a degree, this is possible. But he also isn’t an “easy” disabled person at all. He throws tantrums, he cries a lot, he behaves inappropriately toward girls and women, and he seems every bit as self-absorbed as the rest of the family. No shade on Faulkner for writing him this way, though. This is one of those things people don’t say out loud about disabled children: they aren’t all sweet sunshine and roses. 


Jason, though, is such a piece of shit, I found him intolerable. Sure, he has a legitimate grievance about being cheated out of his inheritance, having to work in a menial job, and being taken for granted by the rest of the family. He also is a self-righteous boor, a thief, and a stalker. He is also nastily racist (although, to be fair, nobody white in this book except Benjamin - who doesn’t appear to have the cognitive ability to understand race - is innocent of this. They are all pretty bad.) 


All of which is why, in the end, I really rather cheered the disintegration of this fictional family. Good fucking riddance. A pox on your house. 


Faulkner seems to agree, as far as I can tell. He isn’t shedding any tears for the decline of the wealthy racist Southern family, but rather exposing the rot at its core. This may be why Faulkner doesn’t seem to be on the approved reading list for Fundies. After all, the Christian Patriarchy dream is to return to the Antebellum South. 


One disappointing thing about the book was that despite the multiple points of view, we never got one from a woman - and I think the women were potentially more interesting than the men. 


There were a few quotes I wanted to mention. This one is from Quentin III’s section, as he thinks about what his father said about virginity. 


In the South you are ashamed of being a virgin. Boys. Men. They lie about it. Because it means less to women, Father said. He said it was men who invented virginity not women. Father said it’s like death: only a state in which the others are left and I said, But to believe it doesn’t matter and he said, That’s what’s so sad about anything: not only virginity, and I said, Why couldn’t it have been me and not her who is unvirgin and he said, That’s why that’s sad too: nothing is even worth the changing of it. 


I would say that yes, historically, it was men who invented virginity. Although I think women care a lot about virginity too - it is a blunt weapon with which they hurt other women (usually the younger ones.) 


The other two quotes are on race, and I think they are also quite perceptive. The first one is also from Quentin’s mind, as he reflects on the damage the fact of Benjamin’s disability did to the family ego, and the place of black people in white consciousness. 


Dilsey [the old woman servant] said it was because Mother was too proud for him. They come into white people’s lives like that in sudden sharp black trickles that isolate white facts for an instant in unarguable truth like under a microscope; the rest of the time just voices that laugh when you see nothing to laugh at, tears when no reason for tears.


The idea of “white facts” is a close kin to “alternative facts” preached by Il Toupee - a world of denialism and fantasy. Faulkner is cutting close to the bone here. 


The final quote is from the final section. Quentin IV has disappeared with the money, which has puzzled everyone. It turns out, though, that some people know exactly what happened, but, for reasons, they haven’t said anything. This exchange between Dilsey, and the 14 year old Luster - usually Benjamin’s minder - is interesting. 


“I’ll bet she aint here,” Luster said.

Dilsey looked at him. “How you know she aint here?”

“Me and Benjy seed her clamb out de window last night. Didn’t us, Benjy?”

“You did?” Dilsey said, looking at him.

“We sees her doin hit ev’y night,” Luster said, “Clamb right down dat pear tree.

“Dont you lie to me, nigger boy,” Dilsey said.

“I aint lyin. Ask Benjy ef I is.”

“Whyn’t you say somethin about it, den?”

“Twarn’t none o my business,” Luster said. “I aint gwine git mixed up in white folks’ business.” 


I think Luster is smart here. No sense putting his head in that hornets’ nest, meddling in family dynamics. 


The Sound and the Fury was an interesting book. Not my favorite, but I appreciate what Faulkner did with it. His experiments work pretty well for what they are, but I can see why he decided to later add that appendix, because without it, I think I would have had a difficult time putting all the pieces together. I’ll probably read some of his other works as well, to get a better picture of his overall body of work. 


Wednesday, June 29, 2022

The Black Pearl by Scott O'Dell

Source of book: Audiobook from the Library


The younger three kids and I just got back from an epic camping trip of nearly two weeks and 3000 miles of towing. (And also between 50 and 60 miles of hiking, depending on the kid.) Because of that long period spent in the car, we listened to five audiobooks. I’ll try to get those reviewed over the next week or so. This is the final one.

Back when I was a kid, I read quite a few Scott O’Dell books, including his historical fiction about indigenous peoples, and his fictionalized book about John Wycliffe. I believe the kids have read a number of ones we have in our personal library, but the only one I actually read to the older ones back in the day was The Island of the Blue Dolphins. Despite O’Dell being of my great-grandparents’ generation, I find his books to be refreshingly respectful of Indigneous culture and largely free of the white supremacist assumptions that plague so many who were born in the late 19th Century. 


The Black Pearl is a short book - only two audiobook discs. But it is a real gem. A pearl, one might say. Within the space of a short narrative, O’Dell creates a believable world, a small cast of characters, and a plot arc that feels perfect. 


Young Ramon Salazar is the son of a legendary pearl fisher and dealer on the coast of Baja California. Feeling frustrated at his father’s hesitation to teach him how to dive, he enlists the help of Luzon, an indigenous pearl diver who tells him of the existence of the Manta Diablo, a giant Manta Ray who is supernatural, transforming into a man, and jealously guarding his cave at the opening to the bay Luzon dives in. 


Ramon ventures near the cave one day, and brings back a huge oyster, which contains a giant pearl - the Pearl of Heaven, as he believes it to be. His father attempts to sell it, but, not getting his price, he donates it to the church, believing it will protect him and his fleet. 


This fails, however, and he is drowned in a storm, his fleet destroyed, and all except for one of his divers killed as well. The remaining diver is the swaggering braggart Gaspar Ruiz. 


Believing Luzon’s tales of the Manta Diablo, Ramon steals the pearl from the church, intending to return it to the sea. However, as he attempts to do so, it is captured by Gaspar, who wants to escape and sell it to become rich. He forces Ramon to accompany him. But their boat is stalked by the Manta Diablo, and Ramon knows it has come to retrieve the pearl. 


At this point, it is easy to see a few influences that O’Dell drew on for the book. The first is Steinbeck’s novella, The Pearl. It isn’t an exact retelling, since the Manta Diablo is not in Steinbeck’s version. The long chase in the boat is reminiscent of Moby Dick in a way, although again, I would say it is a general influence, not borrowing. 


O’Dell’s descriptions are wonderful, his characters well drawn with a sparse prose that doesn’t waste words. The plot never feels hurried, despite the short length, yet the pace never seems to slacken. Nothing is left out of the book that needs to be there, and nothing is in the book that is unnecessary. It is a truly excellent bit of writing. It was a runner-up for the Newbery in 1968, losing out to E. L. Konigsberg and From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler


The audiobook was narrated by Johnny Heller, who did an excellent job. 


Just a fun fact about O’Dell: his name was actually O'Dell Gabriel Scott, but a publisher accidentally put “Scott O’Dell” on a story - an understandable mistake - and O’Dell decided he liked it and used it as his pen name for the rest of his life. 


Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Crispin The Cross of Lead by Avi

Source of book: Audiobook from the Library


Since we listen to a lot of audiobooks during our road trips, I decided a few years back to use the Newbery Award list (including honor selections) for ideas for books I was not personally familiar with. This has been particularly useful for books published after the mid 1980s, since most of the contemporary ones were written after I stopped checking out children’s books from the library, and started on adult selections instead. Crispin the Cross of Lead won the Newbery in 2003.


I must say, I found this book to be a disappointment. Not only were the winners the year before (A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park) and after (The Case of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo) FAR better books, the two runner-up books we have listened to were also a lot better. (A Corner of the Universe by Ann Martin and Hoot by Carl Hiaasen.) Oh well, win some, lose some. 


The problems with the book, as far as I am concerned, are several. But first, a summary. 


The book is set during the run up to the War of the Roses. Crispin grows up poor, to a single mother (his father has supposedly died in the plague), bullied for reasons he doesn’t understand, and becomes an outcast orphan after his mother dies. Chased by the steward of the estate he is bound to, he flees, meets a minstrel who takes him in as an assistant, comes to know of his birth - noble, of course - and has to figure out a way of not getting killed. 


So, there are some good moments. The minstrel, nicknamed “Bear” for his great size, is a fun character. As he is a heretical freethinker, he has the chance to address some of the theological beliefs of that time (and ours.) And occasionally, the period setting is portrayed in an illuminating manner.


But the problems. Yeesh. Okay, so first of all, I’m not sure the world really needed another “aristocrat discovers his true lineage” story in 2003. Occasionally, this kind of story is done well. (I remember liking Jeri Massi’s books as a kid - but the one involving the true commoner who becomes a Wise Woman is clearly the best of the series.) I guess maybe it is an American trait to fantasize about being an aristocrat in the past, but I find the idea kind of meh. Now, if Crispin had discovered he was the illegitimate child of a minstrel, well, that has some potential. 


The next issue is that the book tries to be both historically accurate, and yet highly implausible. I do not understand using a very specific historical setting, going to pains to get so many details right, and then ruining it at the end with one of the least plausible endings I have read. I mean, go with a straight up fantasy if you want. But don’t pretend that two people manage to use a combination of hostage taking and negotiation to escape an impossible situation. And don’t have someone seemingly miraculously recover from a near fatal beating. This is the sort of thing you expect in a spoof like the wonderful The Princess Bride, right? But not in a book that has striven for accuracy before that. 


I also found it disappointing that a book published in 2003 had a sum total of one supporting character who was female. Really? You have over six hours of audiobook, and the female innkeeper is all you can come up with? Everyone else is male? 


So yeah, too many disappointments to make this book worth recommending. Ron Keith does a good job narrating it, but there is only so much one can do with a story that just isn’t compelling. 


Monday, June 27, 2022

Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

Source of book: Audiobook borrowed from my brother.


The younger three kids and I just got back from an epic camping trip of nearly two weeks and 3000 miles of towing. (And also between 50 and 60 miles of hiking, depending on the kid.) Because of that long period spent in the car, we listened to five audiobooks. I’ll try to get those reviewed over the next week or so. This is the third one.


Regular readers of this blog will know that we love Terry Pratchett, and that he has been a big part of our road trips for a number of years. A full list is at the bottom of this post. 

 We are almost done with the audiobooks my brother was able to find on CD over the last few years. The good news is that a project is underway to re-record ALL of the Discworld books, using multiple narrators, and keeping the books intact as fully unabridged. This is, to say the least, fabulous news. While the classic Nigel Planer, Stephen Briggs, and Celia Imrie recordings are excellent, they are unfortunately difficult to find, particularly for the books in the middle of the series. With a resurgence in popularity for Pratchett, perhaps because of the success of Good Omens, the will appears to be there to create a definitive set available for all. While I have yet to listen to any of the new ones, friends who have give them a hearty thumbs up. 


Raising Steam is the last completed novel by Pratchett before his death. Technically, The Shepherd’s Crown is the last, but it was not entirely finished before its posthumous publication. This book is in the “industrial revolution” series, like The Truth, but also features the reformed con-artist-turned-bureaucrat Moist von Lipwig as a central character. 


There are two basic threads in the plot which intersect repeatedly through the book. The first is the creation of the first locomotive and eventually railway network in Discworld, connecting Ankh-Morpork with other cities and countries within the “European” sector of the disc. The second is the rise of ethno-fundamentalism among the dwarves, leading to internecine conflict, terrorism, and calls for genocide of the goblins and trolls. 


Okay, so how does all this come about, and how does it fit together? 


To start with, Dick Simnel, a young engineer, decides to carry on the work of his late father in developing a working steam engine. Simnel Senior blew himself up in the attempt, but Dick figures he has a few things his father didn’t: knowledge of mathematics and a seemingly magical device called a “sliding ruler.” Using his ability to reduce the awesome power of steam pressure to numbers, Dick makes safety relief valves the centerpiece of his work, along with pressure gauges and carefully calculated strengths. As a result, his contraption doesn’t blow up. 


Meanwhile, unrest is brewing in the Dwarf homeland of Uberwald. (Also home to vampires and Lord Vetinari’s mistress.) Young Dwarves are leaving the mines to find work in the multicultural Mecca of Ankh-Morpork. And so are Trolls and Goblins, the old enemies of the Dwarves. Worse yet, the Goblins are turning out to be highly skilled at certain professions, particularly the new telegraph system, the Clack, causing the Dwarves to feel they are being potentially “displaced” by people they thought were their inferiors. Worst yet, the next generation is growing up in that melting pot, and takes for granted having friends who are Goblins and Trolls and even Humans. 


For some Dwarves, this is the potential end of the world, and they - the Grags - form an ethno-fundamentalist group, built around the worship of their god, Tac, and calling for racial and cultural purity. 


So, does this sound familiar yet? I mean, it fits Wahhabist Islam pretty well. But also American White Evangelicalism. I cannot overstate just how brilliant Pratchett is in repurposing the rhetoric from these extremist groups in our own world and using it in Discworld. I wanted to quote whole passages at length, honestly. 


So how do the stories intersect? Well, Dick is just an engineer, and he needs a capitalist to put up the funds to actually get a railroad running. So, he sells his idea to the ever-amusing shit magnate (literally) Harry King, who sees a chance to not only expand his wealth, but also create a legacy that smells a bit better than his core business. 


The initial demonstration of the locomotive - Iron Girder (say it like a female name, and you have the idea) - brings out crowds, and lots of attention, and word of it gets to Lord Vetinari, who is intrigued and concerned. 


To make sure that the City is able to properly leverage the new invention, Vetinari decides to send Moist von Lipwig to keep an eye on it, and keep it in line. Moist is the perfect man for the job. As a former criminal, he knows a thing or two very useful to a capitalist enterprise. (He has already been instrumental in the rise of banking and the post office.) For one thing, he can….negotiate. And negotiation becomes a key necessity when it comes to convincing a skeptical public of the utility of the railroad, and, crucially, negotiation rights of way. (Discworld apparently doesn’t have indigenous peoples who can be easily displaced along the route.) 


To assist in the key corporate issues, King and Lipwig bring in Thunderbolt, a troll who has become a highly skilled lawyer. These four then are able to work together to make the enterprise a success. 


But one other thing: Moist is married to Adora Belle, who is a bit of a proto-Eleanor Roosevelt sort. She has made friends with the Goblins who man the nearby Clacks tower, and is able to bring on a group of them to assist with the railroad - and specifically the laying of a line across a neighboring country, Quirm (essentially France) - which involves taking out the gangsters that rule the wastes (Harry’s goons do that) and enlisting the now liberated Goblins in the enterprise. 


Meanwhile, the Grags have decided that since progress is bad, and Goblins are bad, they should be burning the Clacks towers, destroying the railroad, and murdering the workers for both. 


The Low King of the Dwarves, a progressive sort who sees resisting progress as certain cultural death for Dwarvekind, is off on a diplomatic trip to Quirm, when the Grag leader stages a coup and declares himself leader of the Dwarves - and death to infidels, of course. 


Vetinari realizes that this jeopardizes the carefully negotiated truce among peoples - as well as his own legacy as a peacemaker - and decides on a bold plan. Moist von Lipwig is informed that the railroad will be transporting the Low King back to Uberwald. This will both head off the coup and give Vetinari a seeming miracle. And, perhaps, the railroad will rake in the profits as a result. 


Getting this done is not easy, of course, because the railroad is not, technically speaking, completed. And also the Grags are determined to stop it and murder anyone who stands in the way. It is up to Dick and his army of engineers to take care of the technical stuff and run the train through. It is up to Harry to provide the muscle to go along with the very motivated Goblins in defending the train. It is up to Moist to iron out the diplomatic difficulties - and pitch in to fight when necessary. And to perhaps commit an illegal act or two if all else fails. 


At the risk of major spoilers, I have to note one final theme which comes into play late in the book. Dwarves, as is commonly known within the fantasy world, are not all male. But, because they all have beards, and form a fairly chauvinist society, nobody knows who the females are. And that includes other Dwarves. 


So, near the end, the Low King “comes out,” so to speak, as a woman…and a pregnant one at that. This is shocking, of course, but the result is that a number of other important Dwarves likewise come out as female, with the defeat of the Grags leading to a society that is more egalitarian in more than one way. 


I want to hit a few highlights in the quotes, of course. 


“I have to ask, sir...Why does it have to be done like this?"

Vetinari smiled. "Can you keep a secret, Mister Lipwig?"

"Oh, yes, sir. I've kept lots."

"Capital. And the point is, so can I. You do not need to know.” 


Lord Vetinari is in so many ways the Machiavellian ideal of a despot. He wields pretty absolute power, but he knows that he can only retain that power by being the consummate politician. He is ruthless, indomitable, and calculating. But he also reads people - and The People - really well. So he rarely has to use his despotic power, relying instead on more subtle pressures and manipulations - and also on allowing a significant amount of freedom. In this book, he notes that he could simply outlaw railroads or otherwise prevent them from happening. For now, at least. But he decides instead that whatever he personally thinks about progress, the wise ruler learns to work with it, and channel it as needed. 


“The aristocrats, if such they could be called, generally hated the whole concept of the train on the basis that it would encourage the lower classes to move about and not always be available.” 


Just one of the fascinating lines in this book that very much parallels our own world. The railroads played a huge role in creating a global world - and also in leveling the cost of experience, which led in turn to the rise of organized labor and the final end of feudalism. There is no way to mention all the Easter Eggs in this book, but fortunately, someone already did it on the Discworld Wiki. I should also mention Railroaded: The Transcontinentals, if you want to read up on railroads in our own world – specifically the great American railroad project.


Several quotes come to mind regarding the Grags, the ethno-fundamentalists. 


“I understand the ways of people and the way of the world. Everything is mutable. Nothing is unchangeable. A little give and a little take and a little negotiation, and suddenly the balance of the world is back on track again; that is what politics is for. But the politics of the grags consists only of ‘Do what you are told, we know best.”


That is literally the mantra of Fundamentalism here in the US - including a majority of the US Supreme Court now. No negotiation, or accommodating competing interests. Just “we win, ha ha ha.” The problem when you forsake politics as the means of resolving issues is that you end up with “politics by other means.” 


“However much we disdain the word ‘politics,’ one of its most useful aspects is the stopping of bloodshed.” 


The problem that the Religious Right in the US is finding is the same that the Grags had: if there is any other alternative to be seen, people find them. It is extremely difficult to form a truly closed society where nothing from outside gets in - in fact, it seems to either require becoming an impoverished hermit kingdom (North Korea) or a petro/mineral-state, where the only source of income from outside is oil or metals. (The Middle East and parts of Africa.) Otherwise, control is at best a delusion.


“The grags came down heavily on those who did not conform and seemed not to realize that this was like stamping potatoes into the mud to stop them growing.” 


I also have to mention a line that I couldn’t find online for some reason. There is a scene when a Grag tries to sabotage Iron Girder (who seems to have become sentient), only to be vaporized by steam. Death reaps the pink cloud, and the Dwarf realizes he is dead. He tries to cheer himself up with the idea that Tac is going to reward him, but Death knows better. Recall that in the Discworld, you get the kind of afterlife you believe in….according to the actual rules of your religion, though. So, Vorbis the Exquisitor finds he is facing judgment according to the harsh standards he has judged others by. Mr. Pin latches on to the belief that if he has a potato, he will be reincarnated. And so he is…as a potato that gets fried into crisps


Death turns to the dead Dwarf and says, “Tac may be….merciful.” 


This is the thing. So many white Evangelicals/Fundamentalists have chosen to follow not just the spirit of Matthew 25, but even the very letter of the law to get themselves sent to hell. They could not do a better job if they made a life study of it. I have no idea what I believe about an afterlife these days - if one even exists. But the most satisfying one looks like a combination of what Pratchett and Neil Gaiman have envisioned in their fiction. It would be justice if people had to be judged by the standards they insist on judging others (hey, someone famous said that?) And justice would also require some sort of purification and restitution process, otherwise victims would have to just live with their abusers in unchanged form. 


There were also so many good lines on progress, and how everything new was once suspicious, before becoming old and necessary. Pratchett can’t resist some great wordplay, of course. 


“And in this doleful mood he ventured to wonder if they ever thought back to when things were just old-fangled or not fangled at all as against the modern day when fangled had reached its apogee. Fangling was indeed, he thought, here to stay. Then he wondered: had anyone ever thought of themselves as a fangler?” 


“New things, new ideas arrived and strutted their stuff and were vilified by some and then lo! that which had been a monster was suddenly totally important to the world.”


Not all Discworld novels get into European politics, but this one does. Uberwald is kind of a mashup of Eastern European stereotypes, from “Transylvania” to the Czech Republic. But in this one, it is fun to hear about Quirm, which gives Pratchett a chance to (good naturedly) poke fun at the French in the grand British tradition.  


“When the humours were handed out, Ankh-Morpork got the one for joking and Quirm had to make do with their expertise in fine dining and love-making.”


And, I have have to end with one of my favorite lines in all of Discworld: 


“Don’t force me to draw my own conclusions. I do have a very big pencil.”


In context, this is when “drawing conclusions” is definitely a matter of understanding the obvious implications of someone’s actions, not an attempt to avoid thinking. So the line is more of an accusation than anything else. I think I will have to start using it for myself. 


I have yet to listen to or read a Pratchett book I didn’t like. This one was a lot of fun, hilarious at times, but with the usual more serious themes. Pratchett comes down firmly on the side of multiculturalism and equality. And of everyone being “people.” To him, Dwarf and Goblin and Troll and Human - it’s all just “people” - and if people spent less time obsessing over their racial, ethnic, and cultural identities - and instead just, well, lived them, the world would be a better place. As his progressive Dwarves note, they are not somehow less “Dwarf” because they accept and support other peoples. In fact, they are in many ways more “Dwarf” because they are free to celebrate the good of their culture without trying to “defend” it, or preserve some imaginary quality of “purity.” 


In our troubled times, where the Grags seem to be winning, for now at least, writers like Pratchett enable us to have a vision for a better future. 




The Terry Pratchett list:




The Colour of Magic

The Light Fantastic


Faust Eric

Unseen Academicals


Tiffany Aching:


The Wee Free Men

A Hat Full of Sky


I Shall Wear Midnight




Equal Rites

Wyrd Sisters




Guards! Guards! (Stupid abridged edition, which is an abomination.)


Industrial Revolution:


The Truth


Other Discworld:


Small Gods




The Carpet People


Dragons at Crumbling Castle

Good Omens (with Neil Gaiman)


Saturday, June 25, 2022

Gifts by Ursula Le Guin

Source of book: Audiobook from the library


The younger three kids and I just got back from an epic camping trip of nearly two weeks and 3000 miles of towing. (And also between 50 and 60 miles of hiking, depending on the kid.) Because of that long period spent in the car, we listened to five audiobooks. I’ll try to get those reviewed over the next week or so. This is the second one.


I was kind of randomly looking for interesting audiobooks on our library website, and decided to see if there were any Le Guin books. Unfortunately, most of her books from the 1970s and 80s were not in that format, but at least this one and the second book in the series are. I decided to give it a chance, and it was indeed a good book. 


I have previously read and posted about two novels from Le Guin’s Hainish series, The Left Hand of Darkness, and The Dispossessed. In addition, my second kid wrote her big 11th grade English paper on Le Guin, and has read a whole lot of her writing (most of which we were given by a colleague of mine who was downsizing his library.) It seemed to me that my kids are all old enough to enjoy her writing, so I decided to give this one a shot. 


Gifts is the first in the Annals of the Western Shore series of young adult novels. Written in her 70s, the first came out in 2004, and the last in 2007. 


For the most part, Gifts is a coming-of-age story, with themes revolving around power and its use and abuse. It also, like so many of Le Guin’s books, examines the question of what a person is to do when they do not fit into the systems and categories of their society. 


It is hard to describe the exact genre of this book. I don’t think it fits neatly into either Science Fiction or Fantasy, although it is usually grouped in the latter category. In some ways, it could be said to be “historical magical realism” perhaps. The society in which the book is set resembles ancient times here on earth. The centers of civilization are city-states, connected and disconnected by trade and warfare, as the case may be. To the north are the “Uplands,” a sparsely inhabited area characterized by tribalism, proto-feudalism, and constant violence. The various clans (and their respective territories) are ruled by “brantors,” the aristocracy of that area. The Brantors are different from the commoners in that they have “gifts” - hence the title. These gifts vary from those allowing a person to see into the minds of others, to healing, to communicating with animals, to, in the case of the protagonist’s family, the ability to “unmake” things. As Orrec, the young man who tells the story, and his childhood friend, Gry, eventually come to realize, the gifts in practice seem now to be used for violence - to defend one’s homeland, but also in aggression and expansion of power. 


“In Gifts, the powers of magic are kind of warped. They are mostly used aggressively and destructively and defensively, actually. You know, it’s like having that secret weapon that they use against each other. It’s all gone kind of sour.”


Gry, who is in essence a wise woman in this story, although the unusual young one, and one who sees her own character development as important in the story too, theorizes that originally, all the gifts were “positive” - that is, that for healing and nurture and creating, rather than the “negative” forms many have taken, to be used for destruction, power, and control. 


Orrec, born into a family that should have the gift of “undoing” - essentially killing or destruction (in the case of non-living things), comes of age and finds that he does not have the gift. This is probably due to the fact that his father married a “lowland” woman - one without a magical “gift” - although it is clear that she has other gifts. In the course of the story, Orrec is led to believe that he has a “wild” gift, that is, one he cannot (yet) control, In order to prevent destruction, he agrees to be blindfolded for a time (which becomes years) so he cannot accidentally kill at a glance. As he [spoiler] comes to realize later, this has all been false. He has no magic, and his father faked the destruction in order to both encourage his son, and to create fear among his malevolent neighbors. 


Gry too has a problem. Her family gift is “calling” animals. This goes beyond a mere ability to be a fantastic breeder and carer of livestock, and she is expected to call wild animals at the hunt. Kind of supernatural bait, so to speak. But Gry does not want to do this. She feels it is an abuse of the gift, an unethical way of interacting with the natural world. So, the two of them, by the end of the book, have to make the choice to find their way in life with the gifts they do have. For Orrec, this is the ability he inherited from his mother - that of a storyteller and a poet. 


Le Guin is a great world builder and storyteller, and this book feels well plotted and paced. The characters are memorable and complex, and feel natural in the specific society they are found in. The role of women is examined, of course, this being a patriarchal society, but one in which the females have magical gifts too, and thus cannot be relegated to domestic duties. 


Le Guin’s thoughts about power and how it can be abused is excellent. If one has power, what are the responsibilities? Is it a betrayal of that gift to refuse to use it? What if, like that of undoing, it can only be used for destruction? This isn’t just about magic and fantasy. If a man is large and strong, is he obligated to use that size and strength to kill in battle? If a woman is fertile, is she obligated to have as many babies as she can before her body disintegrates? Is violence the only option? Is expanding one’s territory (or wealth) the only legitimate goal? Is there a third way? 


There is also the question of value. What is the ultimate good? Is it that constant accumulation and preservation of power, territory, wealth? Or does goodness reside in something less tangible, such as the stories that Orrec’s mother tells? 


 I think one of the best parts, though, is the relationship between Orrec and Gry. I am a bit of a sucker for romances in which the two parties are friends first. For Orrec and Gry to grow up as best of friends, and organically grow into lovers, works well in this world where marriage is usually a matter of strategic alliance - to preserve the gifts to the next generation. Le Guin also makes it clear just how equal this relationship is. Indeed, the other good marriages in this book are all fairly egalitarian. Gry’s parents, if anything, are the reverse of patriarchy - her mother clearly is the strongest person in the family, and Gry will also take that role someday. Orrec’s parents, with their mixed marriage, seem to be one of the few true love matches, despite the auspicious beginning of their relationship. (He made a raid on a town to the south, and asked for a woman to go back with him. She agreed, to escape her family, who wanted her to be a temple virgin.) But for Gry and Orrec, it is clear that they complement each other, with his poetic passion balanced by her wisdom and thoughtfulness. As someone in a similar marriage, perhaps this resonated a lot. 


In retrospect, it is amazing just how good Le Guin was for so long. Her career stretched more than 50 years, and these later books do not feel in the least bit mailed in. Heck, she didn’t take up poetry until her senior years. I love authors who never lose that flame, who, if anything, grow as writers right up to the end. 


I am glad we have another of these books in audiobook format, although I wish the third was available as well. 


The audiobook was narrated by Jim Colby, who seems to be everywhere (Audible alone has 15 pages of his books) and for good reason. He is a reliably fine narrator with a pleasant voice. I also appreciate that the audiobook version had good compression, and short tracks. 



Friday, June 24, 2022

The Miracle at Speedy Motors by Alexander McCall Smith

Source of book: Audiobook from the library


So, the younger three kids and I just got back from an epic camping trip of nearly two weeks and 3000 miles of towing. (And also between 50 and 60 miles of hiking, depending on the kid.) Because of that long period spent in the car, we listened to five audiobooks. I’ll try to get those reviewed over the next week or so. This is the first one. 


First off, just an amusing issue with the audiobook. The cover blurb has little to do with the actual book - it seems to combine one plot element from this one with others from…some other book we haven’t read yet. That said, the audiobooks read by Lisette Lecat are always wonderful. 


In this installment of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, we have further hijinks involving Mma. Ramotswe, her sidekick Mma. Makutsi, her husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, and the rest of the usual suspects. Mma. Makutsi and her fiance, Phuti Rhadiputi, teeter on the edge of misunderstanding again, this time over an expensive bed that won’t fit through the door. Charley, the apprentice, actually does something useful - and in a true miracle, says something nice about Mma. Makutsi. A woman who was adopted (and is now without living family) hires the agency to find her birth family, if possible. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni looks for a miracle for his adopted daughter, and more. 


At this point, so many books into the series, there is starting to be some repetition, at least of phrases and descriptions, which I suppose is to be expected in such a long-running series. But as usual, these are great for making the miles go by, with their languid pace, loveable characters, and optimism that most conflicts can be resolved with empathy and wisdom. 


It looks as though Mma. Makutsi’s nemesis from her days at the secretarial college, Violet Sephotho, is becoming a recurring villain in the series. She is a jealous woman, and in this case starts writing threatening letters to the agency. Because the book avoids simple characters, it is clear that Violet has her causes (if not valid excuses) for being a jerk, which is how Mma. Ramotswe defuses the situation while being both gracious and firm. 


I expect that we will continue to listen to one of these a year or so on our travels. 


For those who want to read the entire series of posts:


 #1 Ladies Detective Agency series:


The Tears of the Giraffe (#2 in the series)

Morality for Beautiful Girls (#3)

The Kalahari Typing School For Men (#4)

The Full Cupboard of Life (#5)

In the Company of Cheerful Ladies (#6)

Blue Shoes And Happiness (#7)

The Good Husband of Zebra Drive (#8)


Sunday Philosophy Club series:


The Sunday Philosophy Club


Professor Dr. Von Igelfeld series:


Portuguese Irregular Verbs


Other books:


La’s Orchestra Saves the World