Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Dear Terry Pratchett

Just a note to say, thank you again, Terry Pratchett, for all the joy you have given me. I happened to have The Fifth Elephant on my iPod, and idly started listening to it again.
Gracious me, what a delightful treasure. How I remember reading this one for the first time, on the train to New York, and being overwhelmed by that absolutely boffo scene where Lady Vimes, in a difficult spot, bursts into full operatic song– a long and moving aria from Bloodaxe and Ironhammer of the Dwarfish Ring cycle (as remembered from her girlish school days, when she had sung the role of Ironhammer). And the attendant dwarves, completely won over by her interpretation, actually break into tears–which they wipe away with their little pocket hankies (made, of course, of chain mail, as are all their accessories). I couldn’t help bursting into hearty guffaws at that last detail. Splendid stuff.

Dear Terry Pratchett, how we miss you.
Image result for bloodaxe and ironhammer


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This morning’s story

Such weather! Yesterday we were basking in almost tropical warmth, and this morning buffeted by snow flakes on the morning commute.
As the snowflakes blew by, I was listening to a terrible story. This is not a story I will recommend to anyone, so violent, so bloody. The Malazan Book of the Fallen is a series that well illustrates the term Grimdark–dystopian fantasy of a particularly grim outlook. Plus, it is gigantically long–TWELVE books, for heaven’s sake. But I was ravished by the excellent writing and vivid imagery–such invention! The names themselves were entertaining–Icarium and Mappo Runt, Coltaine of the Crows, Whiskey Jack and the Bridge Burners.
The terrible violence gave me nightmares, but the people were so real, so fine.
Well, well, there is no excuse for it, and I am ashamed for listening to such stuff.
And of course, I can stop anytime.
It was the death of Coltaine that colored the morning commute. Coltaine of the Crow clan is a brilliant and powerful general–in this world, the rank is called Fist. Fist Coltaine did the impossible, rescuing tens of thousands of refugees from certain death–escorting them across an entire continent of howling wilderness, protecting them from ravening armies in the midst of a bloody uprising. In the end, he brought them to a place of refuge–but he was killed along with his horsemen, right outside the city walls. Betrayed, left to die by the people he had saved. Crucified, literally.
A phrase suddenly sang in my mind, ‘mio superbo guerrier’, sung by Desdemona to Otello. Coltaine is indeed a supurb warrior–laconic, immensely strong, supremely talented–and, a good man. I mourned his death. And thought of the untold millions of men his story was based on.
Image result for painting warrior on horse

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Last week the radio opera was Nabucco, Verdi’s grand reworking of the biblical Nebuchadnezzar story. As it happens, I had just come across this very man, in the midst of a giant history of the ancient world. He is famous for going completely crazy and thinking he was an ox:
“he was driven from men, and did eat grass as oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, till his hairs were grown like eagles’ feathers, and his nails like birds’ claws.”

In the opera, the madness is the result of a spectacular bit of blasphemy–“Non son più re, son dio!” (I am not KING, I am GOD!)–whereupon there is a giant thunderclap and the next thing you know, there he is on hands and knees eating grass.
In addition to this crowd-pleaser, the opera features the famous Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves (“Fly, Thought, on Golden Wings!”) which you will probably recognize if you hear it. Not, so far as I am concerned, with any particular enjoyment. The opera ends with Nabucco converting to Judaism and the bad queen poisoning herself. What can I say–Verdi, after all.

The book in which I came across the mad king (History of the Ancient World, by Susan Wise Bauer) is a valiant attempt to find humans in history–the author eschews the passive voice, to which she attributes the stultifying tedium of many historic texts: “Civilization arose in the Fertile Crescent…” As much as possible, she quotes from texts and inscriptions, and often, amidst all the turbulence, plotting and war there is a sudden and surprising glimpse of a living breathing human being.
Mostly, I will own, phenomenally NASTY living breathing human beings. The instances of ghastly violence are numerous, a rich source of stories for all our modern day fabulists–red weddings, beheadings, blindings, betrayal, and general mayhem: all carefully set down on the clay tablets or carved onto plinths and obelisks.
WITH illustrations.

Here is Sennacherib the Assyrian king, telling of his victory over the Elamites:
Like the many waters of a storm I made the contents of their gullets and entrails run down upon the wide earth. My prancing steeds, harnessed for my riding, plunged into the streams of their blood as into a river. The wheels of my war chariot, which brings low the wicked and the evil, were bespattered with filth and blood. With the bodies of their warriors I filled the plain, like grass.
You don’t want to hear the part about what he did to their delicate body parts (=tearing them like the seeds of cucumbers in June).
These non-stop wars always end with a city being burned and the inhabitants either massacred or led off in chains.

You know, it occurs to me that the one business guaranteed to succeed in ancient times would be chain manufacturing. Well, that and weapons manufacturing.
Not so different from today, actually…

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When I was a little girl, my father read to us every night–such riches he gave us! The books he read us became part of our culture, the world as we knew it. Among many others, he read us Kipling’s Jungle Books, which I loved then as I do now. Mowgli’s adoption by the Seeonee wolf pack in the face of the bad tempered tiger Shere Khan, his training by Bagheera and Baloo–“We be of one blood, ye and I” –the stories were twined into my childhood system of belief.
So when I saw good reviews of a new Jungle Book movie, I thought righty-ho! I shall see that!
Netflix obligingly sent it to me, and I slid the DVD into my machine.
This is Disney, after all.
Yes, there are simply gorgeous visions of the Indian jungle, astonishing images. The birds, the animals, the very leaves on the trees–beautiful, breath-taking. This is state of the art computer graphics, based on detailed real life observation, and undeniably appealing.
The film makers have decided that they can do better than Kipling in writing the story. My oh my, how very wrong they are.
The dialogue is so puerile, the story so imbecilic, the characters so infantalized–I was horrified, saddened. I snapped the disc out of the machine, thrust it into its little envelope and sent it on its way back to Netflix.
I hope modern children will read the wonderful book, and eschew the pitiful Disney travesty.

Though, as I said, the images are gorgeous.

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Whenever life seem bleak, and I wonder why I linger on this earth, I pick up a book by dear Sir Pratchett, and he blows away the despair with a blast of sheer joy. Wyrd Sisters came to hand last night, and I found myself chortling away in no time. This book is set in a small northern kingdom–whose king is murdered by a close relative! Who’d have thought the old man had so much blood in him? There is many a Shakespearean echo, including one of those Shakespearean fools:

“Why sirrah,” he quavered, “why may a curdled fillhorse be deemed the brother to a hiren candle in the night?”
The duke frowned. The Fool felt it better not to wait.
“Withal, because a candle may be greased, yet a fillhorse be without a fat argier,’ he said.”

OH HAHAHahaha!
And then, here is Magrat (her mother was not so grate at the spelling) who is frolicking in the meadows, picking herbs:

” Here’s Woolly Fellwort”, she said. “And Treacle Wormseed, which is for inflammation of the ears”. . .”And five-leaved False Mandrake, sovereign against fluxes of the bladder. Ah, and here’s Old Man’s Frogbit. That’s for constipation.”

This just cracks me up.
Though I admit that those unfamiliar with the Swan of Avon might not find it so damn funny.

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Long ago, Seth gave Lawrence the first book in George Martin’s enormous and completely riveting series and it engrossed us both—I could barely force my eyes off the page long enough to do my job, do the chores, take part in quotidian life.

One after the other, we read them all.

George Martin– a singularly unprepossessing man physically, but with a powerful dominion over the fantasy world– had us in thrall. He was not a man to abide by the kindly conventions observed by favorite authors of more gentler ages—he felt no obligation to keep alive the characters we came to love, and had no scruples over describing scenes of a nastiness previously unrivaled. In my reading at least.

So why–?

I don’t know why I kept on reading. Richness, depth, complicated renditions of believable and interesting people, perhaps.

In any case, I couldn’t stop, as I said.

Recently, I decided to watch the excellent series made of the books—with Bertie nearby to shield me from the more ghastly scenes. And dearie me, there is enough burbling blood to float a navy–MANY times has Bertie kindly allowed me to hide my face in his furry back.

However, last night I saw the scene I remembered and had, I realized, been waiting for: when the young queen walks into the funeral pyre of her beloved lord, thinking to immolate herself– and finds instead the miracle. Three little dragons have hatched from the three precious eggs she cherished so long, which she placed in loving sacrifice on the bier of her dead king. In the morning, the fire dead, she is discovered by her people–alive, unharmed. She stands, mother of dragons, while the fierce little creatures bugle their piercing calls and flex their gorgeous wings. And all her people fall to their knees, and worship her as a goddess.

Sometimes, the movies get it right.

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The Death of Nighteyes

In the book I am reading, the world contains different kinds of magic. One of these magics is called the old magic, the beast magic, which joins a particular person and a particular beast–perhaps a woman and a hawk, perhaps a man and a wolf. It is a bond so close, it transcends ordinary companionship. They speak mind to mind, they dream each other’s dreams.
In this story, a young man rescued a wolf cub from a cage, and they formed this bond, and lived through many exciting adventures together. But men live longer than wolves, and today, as I listened to the story, it came to the part where the wolf must die.
I was so moved I could hardly bear it–true, true, stories of death and parting loom particularly dark for me. So there I was on the subway, trying to restrain my grief–sobbing on the train, SO NOT THE THING.

Here is the scene. The man and the wolf are exhausted, sleeping–it has been a terrible battle, but they were successful, and the kingdom is saved. But the wolf was too old for such exertions, and was badly wounded.NightEyes_1 (1)

He stirred first. I nearly woke as he rose, gingerly shook himself, and then stretched more bravely. His superior sense of smell told me that the edge of dawn was in the air. The weak sun had just begun to touch the dew-wet grasses., waking the smells of the earth. Game would be stirring. The hunting would be good.
I’m so tired, I complained. . . Rest a while longer. We’ll hunt later.
You’re tired? I’m so tired that rest won’t ease me. Only the hunt. I felt his wet nose poke my cheek. It was cold. Aren’t you coming? I was sure you’d want to come with me.
I do. I do. But not just yet. Give me just a bit longer.
Very well, little brother. Just a bit longer. Follow me when you will.
. . .But my mind rode with him, as it had so many times. . . swiftly we left the camp behind. . . We walked the spine of the hill, smelling the morning. . . there would be deer in the forested creek bottoms. They would be healthy and strong and fat, a challenge to any pack, let along a single wolf. He would need me at his side to hunt those. He would have to come back for them later. Nevertheless, he halted on the top of the ridge. The morning wind riffled his fur and his ears were perked as he looked down to where we knew they must be.
Good hunting. I’m going now, my brother. He spoke with great determination.
Alone? You can’t bring a buck down alone! I sighed with resignation. Wait, I’ll get up and come with you.
Wait for you? Not Likely! I’ve always had to run ahead of you and show you the way.
Swift as thought, he slipped away from me, running down the hillside like a cloud’s shadow when the wind blows. My connection to him frayed as he went, scattering and floating like dandelion fluff in the wind.
. . . “Wait!” I cried, and in shouting the word, I woke myself. . . my fingers buried deep in his coat. I clutched him to me and my grip sighed his last stilled breath from his lungs. But Nighteyes was gone. Cold rain was cascading down past the mouth of the cave.

From Fool’s Errand, by Robin Hobb

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