Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Haruki Murakami (trans. Philip Gabriel), Dorothy L. Sayers

I haven’t updated this blog since last October, due to considerable laziness on my part. But that doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned it, and I shall try my best over the next few days to catch up on the backlog. In this post, some notes on the books I read from October to November 2005.

Thud!, by Terry Pratchett: Another Sam Vimes book in the Discworld series. Pratchett has that rare gift where he manages to satirize serious social issues in our world (ethnic conflicts, religious extremism, prejudices in all its forms, etc.) but also creates a uniquely Discworld flavor. Both the dwarfs and the trolls do remind me of various immigrant groups here, but what’s also striking is that Pratchett’s dwarfs and trolls are never made to map exactly to real-life counterparts. The dwarf culture has a specific Discworld context—how everything revolves around their original occupation of mining—and likewise for the trolls. It is those details of worldbuilding that really defines for me Pratchett’s strengths as a writer. Ironic isn’t it that I appreciate Pratchett most for writing good fantasy rather than good satire? Anyway, I particularly liked the concept behind Thud. The most crucial moment in the book would have to be when the dwarf Helmclever, who works for the grags but secretly is a master at the game, breaks down:

“It was the club the troll Mr Shine gave me for winning five games in a row,” he wailed. “He was my friend! He said I was as good as a troll so I should have a club! I told Ardent it was a war trophy! But he took it and bashed that poor dead body!”

Actually, the more and more I think about it, the more and more complex this novel becomes. It touches on so many issues: second-generation dwarfs wanting to go back to their roots to be more “authentic”, Brick’s drug problem, Vimes finally forced to employ a Black Ribboner in the Watch, the way history is changed and rewritten…One of these days, I’ll reread it again, even if it wouldn’t quite make it as one of my top favorites in the series. I’m so excited about the last scene though; I’m convinced that Ankh-Morpork will have a new subway system by the next book.

Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman: The general consensus seems to be that Anansi Boys is the most mainstream out of all of Gaiman’s novels so far, or at least the one most likely to have mainstream appeal. Same universe as American Gods, by which I mean that it works by the same rules and assumptions; otherwise the characters and tone of writing are all very different. I think what’s most notable is that Gaiman doesn’t seem half as dark as he usually is: not even Tiger really creeps you out the way his creations do in other books. I still liked the book though. I thought there was a playfulness to the story that was in keeping with Anansi himself.

Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami (trans. Philip Gabriel): All right, to be entirely honest, I didn’t like this book as much as I did the two Murakami novels I’ve read before. Actually, the disappointment mostly lies with the last third or so. The chapters alternate between two storylines, one from the perspective of Kafka Tamura (a first-person narrative) and one following an old man who can speak to cats, named Nakata (third-person). The two apparently divergent narratives do end up intersecting in various elusive connections until they collide—and while I can’t exactly explain the collision, I must say that the aftermath was what disappointed me. Usually, at the end of a Murakami novel or short story, I might feel that I couldn’t explain (not in rational terms anyway) everything that happened, but I always did feel as if I understood it on some nonverbal level, that at the very least the story had some sort of thematic coherence with no loose ends hanging out. Kafka on the Shore however ended before I was ready for it to be over. The ending unraveled, if that makes any sense. That isn’t to say that I didn’t like the entire book; for most of it, I was (as usual) enraptured by the writing and the characters. It’s so odd how matter-of-fact Murakami’s writing is (I would call it almost “bald” at times) and yet how precise—it renders his most fantastical ideas a psychological realism that bowls me over whenever I read his novels. I didn’t sympathize much with Kafka—he is the character I understood least in the entire novel, and I wonder if that may have to do with the first-person narration—but everyone else was vividly real, especially Oshima and Nakata, who are ironically enough the most unusual (if we were to talk in terms of people we are actually likely to meet).

Gaudy Night, by Dorothy L. Sayers: What I have to emphasize about Gaudy Night is that it’s not a mystery. Oh, to be sure, there is a crime, or rather a series of crimes, with an unknown perpetrator, as well as a detective, Harriet Vane, who looks for clues and questions witnesses or suspects to discover the criminal. But the book isn’t about the mystery at all nor its solution; the book is about women and how it is possible to be both an independent human being and to be specifically female, in every sense of the word. It is a difficult problem even now. I was startled to realize how much of Harriet’s own doubts and concerns applied to me in the here and now. The American lady who believed in the marriage of intelligent women to intelligent men (the influence of the American eugenics movement, no doubt), the dons of Shrewsbury who choose academia over marriage and motherhood (and hence are perceived to be unnatural women), the young college girls who preoccupy themselves with beaux, and most of all Harriet herself, who must come to terms with her relationship with Peter Wimsey. The resolution only comes when Harriet finally realizes that Peter will not force her to make a choice and that it is possible to be in love with a man without losing one’s own personal integrity in the process. As obvious as that sounds, it’s more difficult to realize than one would imagine. Love by itself involves loss of autonomy, and when women are forced, by external circumstances, to be socially and economically dependent on men, emotional dependence becomes all the more dangerous. It takes a lot for Harriet to realize that she can afford that risk. It’s not only a matter of whether Peter himself would or would not subsume her—clearly he is too much a gentleman to deliberately do that to her the way her former lover did—but a matter of whether she could trust herself.

Wimsey drops his frivolous facade almost for good here. I wonder if that’s due to Harriet or simply his evolution as a character. It’s interesting to see him from the perspective of the people who knew him, like his nephew St. George or his old college classmates. Gives him much more dignity too; like Harriet, we were too used to Peter to realize just how impressive he appears to others.

One final note: I really liked reading about Shrewsbury dynamics because so much of the college system in Oxford uses the same terminology as the system here. But the atmosphere is extremely different. Our Houses don’t have that sense of character, the shared community, the rarefied touch of academia. It’s true that my university exists in a bubble, but I can’t say that it really has the ivory tower atmosphere. People are focused on studying for exams, but so much of our mindset is oriented towards a professional future; while I do believe that students at heart do enjoy knowledge for its own sake, this mentality remains personal rather than social.