Observing from beyond the solar system, a cultural outsider looks in.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Book review: Making Money (Terry Pratchett)

If laughter is, as they say, the best medicine, then I think the doctor might prescribe a Terry Pratchett book from time to time, at least if the doctor is a cynic who thinks it particularly healthy to laugh at the foibles of this world through the lens of a snarky imaginary one. Unfortunately, doctors today are too busy prescribing expensive patented pharmaceuticals, guaranteed effective by the salesman who takes them golfing.

Pratchett's Discworld is a carnival fun house mirror image of our own, but with fairytale creatures like dwarves, golems, and Igors (yes, that's plural) thrown in for good measure.

Making Money (Harper, October 2007) is typical Discworld fare in which Moist von Lipwig, "an honest soul with a fine criminal mind," follows on his success with reinvigorating the Post Office (in Going Postal), becomes the head of the Royal Mint and invents paper money. He also inherits the guardianship of the Chairman of the Royal Bank of Ankh-Morpork, and takes him for walkies every day (the Chairman is a dog).

Anyone in control of the money supply is naturally a bit of a target, so it must come as no surprise that complications ensue. Among other threats, the board of the bank is composed of a hereditarily wealthy family, the Lavishes, who are not exactly pleasant sorts.

The family's default leader seems to be Cosmo Lavish, who, like many of those born into the upper classes, has been trained by the Assassin's Guild. He also has an unhealthy admiration for Ankh-Morpork's ruthless, but sometimes beneficent dictator, Lord Vetinari. The chief cashier of the bank, Mr. Bent, is forbidding, ominous, and dull, and there may be something quite unnatural about him. It seems some sort of plot is afoot against von Lipwig and the Chairman.

A year ago, before this was published, I might have questioned the timely relevance of a satire about taking a banking system off the gold standard. That was a done deal long ago, and would seem to be mostly uncontroversial. With recent scares within the banking industry, however, an examination of the value on which our money is based, if any, seems timely. It's also much more palatable with tongue firmly planted in cheek, and preferably stuck there with toffee. It may even be fair to say, as Pratchett does, that "whole new theories of money were growing here like mushrooms, in the dark and based on bullshit."

Crazy as Pratchett's Discworld might be, it does ring frighteningly true. I ask you, who hasn't encountered a banker much like Moist von Lipwig?

" 'Well, I'm going to do my best to get my hands on your money!' he promised.

This got a cheer. Moist wasn't surprised. Tell someone you were going to rob them and all that happened was that you got a reputation as a truthful man."
If you haven't yet encountered Pratchett's Discworld series, I recommend it as light, enjoyable reading that will sometimes make you laugh out loud. I wouldn't rate Making Money as one of his best, but it's possible that's because I've now read several of his books and maybe the humor doesn't seem quite as fresh to me now. It must be extremely difficult to keep writing novels that deliver laughs on every page.

His earlier Witches Abroad, a delightful send-up of fairytales, which proposes that perhaps it's not always good for the heroine to marry the prince, is one of my favorites in the series. (The Discworld series does not need to be read in any particular order.)

Making Money is still well worth reading if you want a good chuckle at just how shaky the financial industry really is, or if you want to laugh in the face of possibly losing your shirt. With the economy seeming more uncertain every day, at least we can find some humor in it.

Making Money is currently available in hardcover from bookstores and all of the major online booksellers. It is due to come out in a mass-market paperback edition in October, and that can be pre-ordered now.

Sad note: In the course of writing this review, I discovered that Mr. Pratchett has been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. You can read his speech to the Alzheimer’s Research Trust Conference in the UK here. I hope that if you like his books, you’ll consider a donation to the Alzheimer’s Association, to help fund Alzheimer’s research.

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Saturday, July 19, 2008

Book Review: Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician

In case the outdated word Negro in the title of Daniel Wallace's novel is as jarring to anyone else as it was to me, I'll start by saying that he's writing about the 1950s, when this word was in common use. Mr. Sebastian and Negro Magician starts out as if it were a story about racial prejudice and hate crime. The "Negro magician" of the title, Henry Walker, is an inept illusionist in a traveling circus. His white rural 1950s audiences love him because his amateurish show reinforces their own delusions of racial superiority.

"For a magician was nothing, really, the same way a cow was nothing. But a Negro magician or, say, a two-headed cow --- now, that was something... Jeremiah felt that Henry's inability to do anything truly amazing... might actually work in his favor, at least with the crowds of the small Southern towns where Jeremiah made his living."
The circus proprietor's calculation turns out to be correct, and Henry packs the crowds into his tent every night, at least until three racist white teens take him on a forced car ride he might not survive.

That's when the first of a long series of unexpected plot twists hits you. Like a masterful magic show, whenever you start to believe you know what's going on in this story, Wallace waves his magic wand and transforms it into something very different.

I had to read through to the very end before I could've told you what I think the book's main themes are. One of them is certainly illusion, "to seem but not to be." Wallace's magical misdirection leads the reader to believe the story is something other than what it is, again and again.

So what is this crazy story about? Is it about the nature of evil? Perhaps.

"For the real magician here was the devil himself, and this was his trick, his plan, same as it always was: to steal from man all that is lovely in the world, and to have it delivered to him via the hand of man himself."
After Henry disappears, his story is reconstructed from the recollections of his friends in the circus; none have the entire picture. Together, they construct a world where it's so difficult to know what's real that a person trying to navigate that world might lose his own identity.

Wallace is also the author of several other novels, including Big Fish, his debut, which was made into an excellent movie by director Tim Burton. Fans of Big Fish will recognize similar elements here; most of Wallace's characters continue to be unusual folks who live at the margins of society, and the world of folk tales and mythology still creeps into our own. Henry Walker's story at first resembles the legend of Delta blues musician Robert Johnson, who was said to have sold his soul to the devil in return for the ability to play the guitar, for example.

Wallace's prose is direct and plain, using basic vocabulary most readers will understand without a dictionary. He writes beautifully within that common language, which helps reinforce the folksy tone of his stories.

This is the second of his books that I've read, and I'd like to see more from him. I enjoy his inventive imagination.

I liked the book very much, but at times the use of multiple narrators was a bit confusing. The story would be running along nicely, then the narrator would interject their own reaction to the story. It was sometimes hard to remember who “I” referred to in a particular instance. I was momentarily distracted when I had to try to remember who had been speaking before the narrator went on about Henry’s life for many pages. This would have been less confusing if each of the characters had a more distinctive voice, but they all speak like Wallace writes.

My other complaint about this book is that it could have used a bit more attention by a good copy-editor. More than once I found myself scratching my head over the meaning of a sentence that had some grammatical flaw, such as an ambiguous pronoun reference. This didn't occur more than a couple of times, but when it did, it distracted from the flow of the story. I read the book in the hardcover edition, so it's possible that these small mechanical problems were fixed in the new paperback edition, which came out last week.



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Friday, July 11, 2008

Bored of Politics

Just a quick note to say that the focus of this blog will be changing, at least in the short term.

I'm bored of politics. I still care a lot about the problems that desperately need to be solved: problems like global warming, the health care crisis, ending the war in Iraq, and so on. It's just that I'm frustrated that no political solutions seem to be forthcoming, even when the problems themselves are so glaring.

I doubt that I'll be able to refrain from political comment or involvement, but I need to focus on things that feed my soul instead of steal from it. I think there will be much more attention here to literature and film than there has been in the past. I hope you enjoy the change as much as I intend to.

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Book Review: The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

There is no question that Salman Rushdie is a gifted storyteller. The mysterious fairy tale he weaves in his new novel, The Enchantress of Florence, certainly kept my attention right up until the end. The language used here is beautiful and lush. Consider the wonderful image conveyed in the opening passage:

“In the day’s last light the glowing lake below the palace-city looked like a sea of molten gold. A traveler coming this way at sunset – this traveler, coming this way, now, along the lakeshore road – might believe himself to be approaching the throne of a monarch so fabulously wealthy that he could allow a portion of his treasure to be poured into a giant hollow in the earth to dazzle and awe his guests.”

Throughout the book, there is a fascinating structure created by echoes of similar (often magical) events reverberating through time and space. The book consists of stories within stories within stories, and at times seems to be more about the storyteller’s art than anything else.

“All men needed to hear their stories told. He was a man, but if he died without telling the story he would be something less than that, an albino cockroach, a louse.”

That this passage mentions all MEN may be more telling than Rushdie would wish it to be, especially for a novel purporting to center on the story of a woman.

The titular enchantress is a Mughal princess who disappears from her own land and eventually makes her way to Florence, Italy. The story is never truly and directly told from her perspective, however, and the second major focal point is the odd Western man calling himself the Mogor dell’Amore who arrives years later at the court of the Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great to tell her story as it concerns him.

Throughout all the multiple layers of story are women, mostly courtesans and prostitutes, who are described mostly from a male perspective and consequently never seem quite real. The author seems to know this, at least subconsciously, since one of these women is actually an imaginary bride the Emperor invents for himself. The women in this novel are male fantasies, for the most part, or in a few cases male nightmares, but not real women. In fact, many of the female characters even carry the names of objects: Skeleton, Mattress, Mirror, and even Palace of Memories.

Rushdie does make an effort to describe a more complex character in a few of the female characters, specifically the “enchantress,” but they remain two-dimensional. They are beautiful and (fill in the blank), but usually only one or two other characteristics.

That the women in the book seem unreal to the last is a factor that lessened my enjoyment of the story. At times I felt that Rushdie was not just describing sexist cultures of the past, but was in fact being sexist himself. Perhaps, however, the Emperor’s fantasy wife is an indication that Rushdie does not mean these women to be real, but only to describe men’s reactions to women.

I saw a second major flaw in the ending, which I will not describe. I’ll just say it’s problematic. The general nature of the problem is that in a book that has been a magical fantasy all along, the author suddenly gets over-concerned for believability at the end; he creates a “logical” explanation for one of the book’s major mysteries, and the logic simply doesn’t bear much examination. The book would have remained more internally consistent, in my opinion, if the sense of wonder and magic were simply allowed to carry the day.

This book has been getting a lot of attention, with two reviews and one other article in the New York Times alone. Though some other reviewers have also been less than impressed with the book, it’s interesting that there seems to be no consensus on why it doesn’t quite work. The criticisms I have offered here differ greatly from what I read in the New York Times from other reviewers.

David Gates finds that it’s the magical or supernatural aspects themselves that are the problem. After quoting from the opening passage, as I have also done, he states:

“And sure enough, that’s where he began to lose me. I’m probably not Rushdie’s target audience: in literature, at least, I find the marvelous tedious, and the tedious — as rendered by a Beckett or a Raymond Carver or even a Kafka — marvelous.”
I can’t agree with this perspective. I experience quite enough of mundane reality in real life. I want magic in my fiction. I do find that it has to be grounded in reality, however, at least by characters that seem like real people thrust into extraordinary circumstances. For me, it’s not the magical aspects of the book that fail, but those that are supposed to touch base with reality and don’t.

Michiko Katukani calls the construction of the book “conventional” and “academic” and concludes that the book is “devoid of magic.” He also thinks “the novel gains narrative momentum in its final chapters.”

I can’t agree with this, either. I do think the book has a strongly magical quality, but I think it falls apart toward the end.

I can’t truthfully say that I didn’t enjoy reading this book. I just wish it had been better. In spite of its flaws, you may enjoy it, if you want a reading experience that will transport you to exotic locales and a world of magic.

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