Terry Pratchett, Steven Brust, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Haruki Murakami (trans. Philip Gabriel), Dorothy L. Sayers, Neal Stephenson

Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett: Another Ankh-Morpork novel along the lines of The Truth, i.e. a look into the chaos that explodes when the Discworld equivalent of a modern-day convenience develops. Vetinari at his absolute best here. There’s definitely a gentle parody of that 50s film stereotype of the con man who ends up doing good deeds in spite of himself (The Music Man and Guys and Dolls come to mind). But of course, Pratchett has gone far beyond the mastery of just parody and satire, and his latest novels, especially since Night Watch have had a sort of punch to them that make them even better to read. Moist von Lipwig was rather charismatic, but I must say that it’s the subcultures of Discworld that fascinated me most: the clacksmen on the Grand Trunk, Stanley as pin connoisseur, Dearheart as golem activist, the Guild of the Postmen with their initiation rites, etc. (Discworld is as unreal a place as you can imagine, and yet Pratchett never resorts to stereotypes to create humor. How does he do it?) The scene that moved me the most: the golem who had carried his undelivered message for millennia passing away in the fire.

Sethra Lavode, by Steven Brust: All I can say is, I felt like crying at the end of this book. Poor Khaavren! I must admit that most of the storyline with the Jenoine and the Duke of Kana didn’t really interest me all that much, and I was even starting to get a little tired of Paarfi’s neverending exposition and circuitous dialogue, but the ending reminded me why the books hooked me in the first place. Ultimately, it was Khaavren’s story we were reading—how he lived and changed—and while there is a happy ending, there’s also irreversible loss.

His Grace of Osmonde, by Frances Hodgson Burnett: I must say, I never knew that Burnett wrote any books for adults, and it’s kind of odd reading a very characteristic Burnett novel with typical Burnett characters, except that there’s an actual love story involved. His Grace of Osmonde seems like a cross between Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy. I didn’t quite like Osmonde with his impeccable chivalry, and I think Burnett is a little too fond of children upon whom “Fortune seems to smile from birth” (Cedric from Little Lord Fauntleroy, Sara from A Little Princess) but are forced to endure hardships that the cruel world inflicts on them. I mean, I enjoyed both those Burnett books, but they don’t hold as dear a place in my heart as The Secret Garden, where bitter, sullen Mary and sickly, paranoid Colin actually seem like real children, full of imperfections. They are not wholly likeable, which perversely makes me like them better. In any case, I also didn’t quite like the foreordained quality of the romance here—wherein Clorinda is the only possible woman worthy of the shining perfection that is Osmonde—although I suppose the arbitrary circumstances that keep them apart make it truly tragic. I really did like the ending; a nice change from Burnett’s usual instinct to moralize. Good people are sometimes forced to do bad things. I never would have expected her to put in such a twist.

Sputnik Sweetheart, by Haruki Murakami (trans. Philip Gabriel): Oh, what to say about Sputnik Sweetheart. The writing literally overwhelmed me from the very first paragraph. More so than Norwegian Wood, which may be due to the different translators (I read Philip Gabriel’s translation of Sputnik Sweetheart and Jay Rubin’s translation of Norwegian Wood). The book seems relatively normal until about halfway through the book, when Sumire disappears, and Murakami becomes progressively more and more surreal until you don’t know what’s metaphor and what’s literal anymore. But of course, that’s not the point. You aren’t supposed to ask, wait, what’s really going on, because that isn’t what’s important. It shocked me how comprehensible the book was. I mean, usually with avant-garde writing, there’s a certain leap of thought required before it makes sense, that is to say, it takes a little time for it all to sink in, but not so here. Sumire disappearing, Miu’s hair turning white, the strange music on the hilltop: it all made sense. Although now that I try to articulate what it meant to me, it comes out sounding rather flat and banal. I was a bit disconcerted by the sharp transition when the narrator returns to Japan, and in fact, a part of me wondered at first if those final chapters were even necessary. And then I realized that the break in the narration, almost like a snap, is exactly like the narrator’s own transition. This kind of writing awes me to no end. Murakami’s style (at least from what I can tell in English translation) is deceptively simple, open, even dryly humorous (I forgot to mention that he’s really funny, which is not exactly what one would expect from the summaries of his novels), and yet this sensation of something powerful. I wrote in my LJ that it’s hard for me to say that I “like” Sputnik Sweetheart because the experience can’t be classified in those categories of liking or disliking. The analogy used: “when you glimpse yourself in the mirror and see yourself as a stranger, not-self, and yet the person you see is intimately familiar.” (Oh dear, to think that I would resort to the conceit of quoting myself.)

The Five Red Herrings, by Dorothy L. Sayers: To be entirely honest, I found this mystery to be rather tiresome and not one of Sayers’ best. Too many suspects, too many details, too many detectives. We didn’t even have much opportunity to at least enjoy Wimsey’s conversation, which used to be a delight when the mystery itself fell short of expectation. Also, I do like attempting to solve the crime along with the characters, but not when I’m forced to juggle timetables in my head. I daresay real detectives have to deal with these kinds of messy mysteries all the time, but that doesn’t mean that they necessarily make good narratives. Oh well, I managed to finish it in the end though. The solution to the crime was equally disappointing.

Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson: Snow Crash is one of those books that when you look at it piece by piece, you wonder how the story ever managed plausibility in the first place, but when you look at it as a whole, you find it absolutely cool anyway. Hackers! Mesopotamian mythology! Linguistics! Viruses! Seriously, Stephenson comes up with the most awesome (if far-fetched) ideas. The first chapter, by the way, is a brilliant piece of writing: if you read it out loud, you notice the rhythm he’s built into the narration. The puns are…kind of obvious and bad, but I forgave him anyway. I also forgave him for equating glossolalia with fanaticism and mob mentality (not that I can exactly blame him, but “speaking in tongues” does not send you off into a mindless euphoria). Oh yes, and Stephenson’s definition of agglutinative language is incorrect as well. But quibbles aside, the whole Asherah idea—the impulse to conformity, and not just conformity but irrationality being transmitted as a virus to which human brains are particularly vulnerable—reminded me of Dawkin’s original concept of the “meme”. Also, the Babel phenomenon being responsible for inspiring human diversity was pretty interesting too, especially considering that I’m taking a course on language acquisition taught by a Chomskyite professor. The Metaverse was well designed although I wish Stephenson had included some more notes on how the user interface worked. I mean, how exactly does Hiro get his avatar to fight in the Metaverse? Is it tied into his actual physical movements? Wouldn’t that be kind of limiting? I mean, imagine if he had to stand still but his avatar had to walk? Or is it connected directly to his brain? Eye movements? Hand movements? Yes, I do obsess over worldbuilding details like these. Juanita is awesome although the way Hiro perceives her is definitely different from the person she really is, I bet. Also, why on earth does Hiro keep changing from washed-out delivery boy to hacker legend to kenjutsu master to some sort of secret agent to way too many personas for one individual? He can’t be that talented. I would call him a Gary Stu except it occurred to me that Hiro Protagonist reflects how men (or at least many males of my acquaintance) see themselves: a mix of both unrecognized genius and insecure failure. Anyway, the reinterpretation of religious history in terms of Enki’s nam-shub might require gross generalizations but what a brilliant idea nonetheless.

Have His Carcase, by Dorothy L. Sayers: A much better mystery than Five Red Herrings even though again there was much agonizing over alibis and timetables. At least the solution was quite clever this time, and it all fit together pretty well, even if the cryptography seemed a little excessive. I mean, are murders, even premeditated ones, ever that elaborate? Of course, that’s beside the point because no matter how interesting the sleuthing, what this book really is about is Harriet and Peter, and Harriet’s inability to reconcile her need for independence with her very genuine affection for Peter. The author makes it more than obvious that she loves him back, but nonetheless, we must watch the painful dance. Oh the difficulties of being a Modern Woman! I must say that this book is the first where Lord Peter’s been so consistently wrong in his theories, even if he comes up with the right answer in the end.

Comments (2)

  1. coffeeshot wrote::

    I say, do you actually manage to read 7 full length books a month? That’s pretty impressive!

    Friday, November 4, 2005 at 04:23 #
  2. admin wrote::

    Oh no, not at all. I read these books over the period of two and a half months (August to early October). And even that was rather uncharacteristic, since I usually have little time for pleasure reading during the academic year. I just didn’t get around to updating my blog until this point.

    Friday, November 4, 2005 at 10:20 #