Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Terry Pratchett's Guards, Guards!

One has to appreciate Terry Pratchett's Discworld series for what they are, which is to say, very enjoyable pieces of fluff, that are sufficiently long to last you through a trans-atlantic flight, and sufficiently involved that you actually care what happens to the characters (more than you care about your neighbour's discomfort, seeing how you are hogging the armrest between your seats). After Agatha Christie, Pratchett is by far the most satisfying airplane author. Between pop culture references transplanted into his own private absurdist dream and a few digs at modern fantasy fiction, you won't notice that bad Adam Sandler movie either.

I confess that my initial impression of Discworld books was far from favourable: it began with Soul Music. I was a little too young for the 80s music references, and the little book toppled over under the weight of unfunny bland prose. Some years later it was explained to me that to enjoy these books one needed to Really Get the pop references: enter Shakespeare. The next batch of Pratchett books I've tried was about witches, walking forests, and similar macbethian trinkets. It was funny; it was rousing; it was imminently forgettable. As a rule, these books follow one sub-stratum of the world: for example they can be book about witches or books about Rincewind.

So what about this particular Discworld nugget? Well, it is a book about Ankh-Morpork guards. Enter Carrot, the earstwhile dwarf, err, human who grew up as dwarf and has as much sense of humour as one. He comes to a large city and joins the Nightwatch, stunning its colourful placid members and its resigned though competent Captain. Havoc ensues. The book is a hodge-podge of jokes based on stereotypes of a simple lad coming to a large city, and a nice simple nobody possibly being a king. It is also about a competent but indifferent nobody waking up from his complacency and performing above and beyond expectation. And, oh, the dwarf jokes. And they are head and shoulders above those of Peter Jackson.

Phillip Pullman's His Dark Arts

This trilogy of books (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass) was recommended to me as an antidote to Harry Potter series. Pullman's books predate Rowling's blockbuster, and they certainly seems to have influenced it. But where Harry treads lightly, Lyra stomps loudly, leaving debris in her wake.

As you already figured out, the protagonist of His Dark Arts is a young girl who grew up in Oxford, and whose parents, to say the least, are shady characters (the word 'evil' is about to roll off the tip of my tongue). Disastrous events seem to be happening in Lyra's world, and she's hell-bent (literally) to discover why. The McGuffin du jour is Dust, a strange substance that seems to be somehow related to that minute difference that makes us human and not ape.

While main characters of the book are children, such weighty topics as multiplicity of worlds, religion, and the origin of human consciousness are considered. The author is obviously an agnostic (or an atheist, perhaps) . Do not even consider reading this book if you are violently christian. The organized religion, christian especially, is largely the villain of the piece. In my not so humble opinion, the book is a breath of fresh air among theme-light or chritianized young adult literature. The same people who thought Harry Potter books should be burned, will think that the plates with which His Dark Arts were printed should be melted.

The books themselves are sublimely entertaining, even though the last one is a letdown, where the author cannot resist hammering his ideas into reader's heads with some rather massive sledgehammers. They are also more than a little terrifying -- in the second book vampiric ghosts that quite graphically suck consciousness from people are introduced, for example. But they are by far more fun than Potter books. There are also only three of them, and considering the last time I have read an already completed fantasy series -- this is quite an achievement by itself.

Friday, June 11, 2004

Madelein Allbright's Madam Secretary

It is incredibly refreshing to read commentary by a political figure that is intelligent, well thought-out, capable of irony and self-deprecation on one hand, and sarcasm on the other. The last couple of years made us forget that there are politicians capable of constructing complete, gramatically correct English sentences with legitimate English words that actually mean something, instead of platitudes about evil-doers and non-sensical tautologies like "These are things we don't know we don't know" (courtesy of Mr. Rumsfield, of course). Madam Allbright's book is a breezy read, happy and amusing in places, sad and poignant in others.

Here life is plenty interesting, from her family's flight from Chekhoslovakia to her ascendancy among Washington's elite. The book ends up bursting at the seams without her once mentioning what she had for breakfast. Especially sad for me is the story of her family's double-flight from their homecountry, and her discovery of jewish anscestry. While some people claim a general gullibility and impossibility of such a thing being kept hidden, from my personal experience I know that to not be true: my parents did their best and I never heard the word "jew" until some visiting friends casually asked my parents about it at dinner, when I was already in high school. Needless to say, I had no clue.

If you never read a political autobiography (not a genre I am normally a fan of), do give this one a try. Nested between an interesting life story and a heap of political anecdotes are descriptions of events that happened sufficiently recently that they are still remembered well. Having read this book, I have much better understanding of all interconnections, meaning of certain events, and their effects, as well how certain processes work (the failure of israeli-palestinian negotiations, among other things). Allbright's book is like a piece of history written too soon, of which we are a part of.

Friday, June 04, 2004

Isaac Asimov's I, Robot

It is unfair, perhaps, to put I, Robot in the category of books newly read, for I have first read it in Russian translation some twelve years ago. About a month ago, I saw a preview in the movie theater for a Will Smith movie based on Asimov's book. In the preview, robots were fighting humans, Will Smith was your typical man in black in a role of glorified Cassandra. I was puzzled: my vague memory of the book consisted of some quiet introspective pieces rather then bombastic Us vs Them confrontations. I asked a friend of mine with better memory, who confirmed that indeed, the original I, Robot had no war. Indeed, its main protagonist was a woman. I realized I needed to read the book again -- and I am very glad I did.

The book is written a series of short stories chronicling the development of robotics on Earth. The author "interviews" the leading robopsychologist, Dr. Susan Calvin, about the state of the field and the company she worked for most of her life, starting from rudimentary robots to very human-like ones. Each chapter revolves around some controversial ethical and cultural aspects of robot existence: there is one on the nature or religion, there are some on what is essentially robot racism. There are also pieces on what amounts to program debugging (my software engineer's heart is singing). The book is engaging, and the characters are lively, including the robots. Some of the humans are stereotypically drawn, but inoffensively so, especially considering that the book was written in the fifties.

"Robots are basically decent," - says Dr. Calvin in one of the stories, and indeed the issue of "human nature" is put under a microscope in this book. If one thinks of the book as one about human race, robots become just a plot device to expose our imperfections, weaknesses, ungrateful and sometimes violent nature. The question of whether robots are more perfect, and what is more important, creator or creation, arise.

This low-key book very successfully juggles a lot of interesting ideas and questions. With this one book, Asimov has become a giant of science fiction writing (sorry, Foundation fans). Between him, and other writers like Alfred Bester and Ray Bradbury, it sometimes seems like the fifties and sixties really covered most of the interesting topics associated with our future. As for the movie, and our seeming violent undesire to consider complex issues, consider this: the new edition of the book has Will Smith on the cover and a tagline "One man saw it coming." And one man, indeed, saw it coming -- our militant ignorance. His name was Isaac Asimov.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Jostein Gaarder's Sophie's World

Sophie's World was published in 1991 and became a gigantic success. It is one of the most successful Norwegean books ever published. The movie that followed on its heels, featured an unusual for Norway hollywood-size budget, and tanked rather spectacularly, though, perhaps, unsurprisingly. This book is a primer in philosophy, it intermingles chapters on greek philosophers, sparsely bookmarked, with interaction of a fourteen year old girl, Sophie, and her philosophy teacher. Its spartan style does not really lend itself to anything visual, but its philosophic quirk is easy to swallow, and is has a rather nifty if slightly cliff notes quality to it.

The book has a simple plot about a little girl and her teacher, written for the benefit of young adults. The teacher instructs Sophie in philosophy until it comes a point that, through study of philosophy and reality, they realize that their reality is not quite what it appears to be. In something of an Alice in Wonderland cliche (Lewis Carrol's characters are mentioned here on numerous occasions), it turns out that they are all characters in a book written by yet another character of the book, who himself doesn't seem aware that he is in the same predicament that he's placed his own characters in.

It is to the benefit of this book that it is unpretentious, and while the philosophy parts of it are so much less bland then the ones describing life of a fourteen year old norwegean girl, the concoction goes down smoothly. I admit that after several attempts made during my teenage years to read Bertrand Russel, I find this book would have been an ideal substitute, a perfect, and only mildly biased introduction to philosophy. And while it is a little late for me now, after reading this book I have discovered that I would really like to read more Kant and Sartre. Perhaps this book would jog your memory too, so consider it an extended philosophy book catalogue with vingettes.

Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow

This eight hundred (800) page juggernut of a book is considered to be the ultimate example of a great contemporary american novel. That certainly seems to be the consensus among the more artsy and educated literati. Anyone who manages to finish this book should certainly feel proud. And if it doesn't come off looking as a Sisiphus stone, it's even better.

I was told of this book some five years ago. A great book, a really fantastic book. But I haven't finished reading it, my friends would tell me. After a year, I still didn't know a single person who managed to plow through its colourful and ponderous prose to its bloody ending. I was a young graduate student then, rather full of myself. I had to have it. Moving glacially, in a cacophony of sound and twirl of colourful characters, that seemed to exist just for the sake of strutting up and down the pages, the book went from making little sense to making even less sense. I would strain for pages and chapters and days to pull some thread through the hilarious episodes described on its pages. All to no avail.

A few years later I bumped into another graduate student, in mathematics, a stereotypical concert-attending above-mentioned literati. He saw me at my yearly attempt to put a dent in Gravity's Rainbow, and very happily proclaimed that it is a truly fantastic book, and, oh, how much he loves it. Just don't try to make sense of it, he said. It will all make sense at the very very end.

That's how I finished the book. Ladies and gentlemen, just go with a flow. It is a ridiculous glorious exercise in futility of a book, which is entirely worth reading. In Russian, such things are termed "Theater of Absurd." Don't ask me what it is about. To describe it is to a) spoil it b) say nothing about it. It's about the rocket, different angles of the rocket, mythical angle at the rocket, insane characters doing insane things with and for the rocket. It's quite whimsical, rather obtuse, but all in all quite worthwile.

José Saramago's History of the Siege of Lisbon

I acquired this book while passing through Atlanta airport. The usual piquant collection in the airport bookstore treated me to the latest bestsellers, 5th volumes of various fantasy epics, romance novels, and business books. But among them was this book - an accident no doubt, likely contributable to the Nobel Prize that José Saramago won recently.

I love to read. My roommate, another Reader, would find me at five in the morning in the kitchen of our flat, desperately trying to finish last few chapters of Yet Another Book. So I bear special fondness to books that are about book readers and book writers. My particular favourite, as one can tell from the description of this blog, is Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler. Two kinds of sad melanholic thoughts are perpetually associated with my reading addiction. One, that I will never read all the books that are out there. Two, that I will never be able to write anything comparable to some of the best books I've read. My feeling was always, that the only reason to write something would be if I could be sure it would be of some quality.

History of the Siege of Lisbon is about all of those concerns. The main character is a proof-reader; someone who read books his entire life for living, and now, in his 50s, a lonely sad character with his life tapering off until a book he reads (called, of course, History of the Siege of Lisbon) reignites some internal curiosity in him. He puts a big fat NO in the middle of a sentence describing the momentous decision of the crusaders to help out portugese with the abovementioned siege, and his life suddenly acquires meaning. He starts to write his own book, and his life stops being a sequence of "deleaturs."

Saramago's writing quirk is that of no sentence, except for the last in a paragraph, endng in a period. They all end in commas. They are all run-in sentences flowing into one another, which makes the few dialogues in the book rather interesting. Mostly, they are internal dialogues of the proof-reader with himself, his relationship with the city where he lived his entire life. Both, the city and him, passive entities until they get connected by the book he writes. A discovery on both sides.

The book is hard to get started on, and it is a character book, where people are few, and some inanimate objects acquire almost life-like stature. But it is beautiful and touching book, though perhaps ironically much less bombastic than its name seems to imply.

Paul Auster's Moon Palace

I started reading Moon Palace more then a year ago. With my life in a depressing slump, I knew that I could count on Paul Auster to provide a dose of characters who are similarly wallowing in self-pitying depression and just as full of themselves. Characters teetering on the edge of insanity though never quite outright insane, and always ending badly. In this respect, Moon Palace is no different. What Auster does with exquisite ease is to sketch out large themes into his books in a manner that is at the same time graceful, uncomplicated, but thoughtful.

Moon Palace is about the character or M.S. Fogg, an orphan that starts the book as a student in Columbia University, teetering toward personal collapse, in his mind, and then financially, and afterwards bodily also, all of it prompted by death of his only relative. While several more colourful characters are introduced throughout the book, it is all about his search for some tangible connection between his past, present, and future. All of it fragile. All of it extremely mutable. All of it dependent on accidental events in life, coincidences (some less plausible than others, alas), personal behaviour, and tendency of people to just "float" in life, rather than actively participate in it.

The surprising part is how wide the "stable state" is in life. Life most often tends to figure itself, if not for the best, at least for something livable. Disasters mitigate themselves, with or without intervention of the sufferers. Jobless people eventually find jobs, homeless people manage to eick out meager existence, but do not often starve to death. Having just watched "Touching the Void," a movie about two mountaneers who suffer a mishap on way down a mountain range in Patagonia, and survive, I was wondering how active most people would behave if circumstances hit them hard. Perhaps, it is because the ones that did not make it, go silently into the night and never make such a colourful story.

As for Auster, alas this book is more of the same for him. There is a certain kind of character novel that he does so well, but he is a hostage of his own genre. This book reminded me much of Leviathan, and somewhat of New York Trilogy. It is a nice book, which, ironically, has many book-loving and book-writing characters, many of whom live through reading or writing the books, but for Auster proper, original it ain't.