Neil Gaiman and Michael Chabon on Sir Terry Pratchett

This is a great interview from Neil Gaiman on his friendship with Terry Pratchett and how they collaborated for Good Omens, filmed the day after Pratchett’s death. He shares some great stories and does a short reading.



One of my favourite bits happens around the twenty minute mark when Gaiman mentions Pratchett’s goal to make people understand that funny and serious are not opposites, that the opposite of funny is simply not funny. I think that’s something that really struck me when I was reading his books early on. It’s a common misconception that a story loses any insight into the human condition as soon as comedy or fantasy or science fiction are introduced, which shows not just a failure of imagination but a laziness as well. Anyone who has ever taken the time to read Pratchett (or many other authors who work in those genres) will understand that was precisely the focus of all his novels.

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Legion: Skin Deep

Skin Deep (Legion, #2)Legion: Skin Deep by Brandon Sanderson
Published: 2014
Narrated by: Oliver Wyman
Length: 04:23

This is the second novella in Sanderson’s Legion series. I managed to grab both as they were temporarily available as free downloads through Audible when first released, but they’re worth spending a credit or two on as well, if you’re fine with the short length. He has a third planned, but no release date announced yet.

I love the premise of these stories. Stephen Leeds is a problem solver for hire. If you have a problem, he has the knowledge and the skills needed for a solution, as long as you’re fine with him conversing with people you can’t see. He does this because he has an entire team of hallucinations in his head, all with distinct personalities. Many people know this and consider him to be mentally unstable, but these are actually caused by his mind trying to deal with his genius.

Each hallucination, he calls them aspects, embodies a set of skills or area of knowledge. When he needs to learn a new language or skillset, he can skim through a few books and a new aspect will soon join the team. It’s a neat idea, one that could be awful in the wrong hands, but Sanderson executes it perfectly. He takes the idea in directions that are really surprising, and the hints at what will happen in the third story really have me interested.

These are the only Sanderson stories I’ve read, so I popped over to his Wikipedia entry to see what I should read next, which really didn’t help. He published his first novel in 2005 and since then has written, as far as I can tell, twenty-four books. That’s more than two books a year, and while a few are short novellas like this, some are massive. He wrote the three final Wheel of Time novels, for God’s sake.

There’s something wrong with this man.

I’ve seen a lot of mentions of both Mistborn and The Stormlight Archive, so I guess one of those are probably a good next step, although I’m also leaning towards his Reckoners series. They’re young adult books, but the premise sounds really interesting. And the books are shorter too, which I know is an awful way to choose what to read, but I really have to brace myself for a thousand page brick these days. If anyone has a recommendation of where to start, I’d be interested to hear it!

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The Choice Word

I’ve just started A Slip of the Keyboard, a collection of Terry Pratchett non-fiction that spans his entire career. I plan to take my time and just read an article here and there over the next few months, but there was a short article near the beginning of the book that I loved and thought I’d share. It’s one he wrote for a survey that was done in the UK to find the nation’s favourite word by The Word, London’s Festival of Literature.

I like the fortuitous onomatopoeia of words for soundless things. Gleam, glint, glitter, glisten…they all sound exactly as the light would sound if it made a noise. Glint is sharp and quick, it glints, and if an oily surface made a noise it would go glisten. And bliss sounds like a soft meringue melting on a warm plate.

But I’ll plump for:

SUSURRATION

…from the Latin susurrus, whisper or rustling, which is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a hushed noise. But it hints of plots and secrets and people turning to one another in surprise. It’s the noise, in fact, made just after the sword is withdrawn from the stone and just before the cheering starts.

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Relish: My Life in the Kitchen

Relish: My Life in the KitchenRelish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley
Format: Original Graphic Novel
Originally Published: 2013
Publisher: First Second
Length: 176 pages

I love food. I love eating. I love cooking, when I get off my ass and actually do it. I love browsing markets and discovering new and interesting ingredients. I love travel writing and documentaries but can’t stand it when the local food isn’t featured. I love cooking programs that aren’t just gimmicky game shows. I don’t understand complaints about George R.R. Martin describing meals in too much detail. I don’t understand complaints about people using Twitter or Facebook to post photos of their lunches. More lunches and less babies, I say.

If this sounds anything like you, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll really enjoy this book. Lucy Knisley details her life growing up with a caterer mother and food obsessed father in a collection of small vignettes – moving to the country with her mom and being attacked by geese (and daydreaming of revenge via dinner), finding comfort through cookie baking, travelling to Rome with her dad as a bratty pre-teen and sneaking off to McDonald’s, and trying to re-create the prefect croissant from Venice. As someone who remembers a lot through food, I can appreciate the structure of the book, even if it does come across as a bit directionless.

The art in this is very colourful and fun, and she included some illustrated recipes, which are a blast to read. I wish there were more of those recipes, actually. I cooked up some mushrooms as per her instructions, and they turned out really well, so I’ll eventually try a couple of the others. The chocolate cookies, perhaps.

I read this one night when I couldn’t sleep and found myself dying of hunger at 2:00am, which put me in a rather confusing situation. I could eat something, which would likely wake me up more and make what sleep I did get very restless, or starve and be kept up by hunger pangs. In the end I think I decided to sneak a couple angry bites of bread. I’d recommend maybe reading this on a lazy afternoon instead.

Lucy Knisley has an infectious enthusiasm for food, without inhibitions or snobbish undertones, which makes this a really enjoyable read. I’ll eventually be picking up some of her other comics.

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I Ain’t Miserable

This is a bit from A Confederacy of Dunces that made me chuckle. It’s a good example of the novel’s typical dialogue and humour.

“I refuse to ‘look up.’ Optimism nauseates me. It is perverse. Since man’s fall, his proper position in the universe has been one of misery.”

“I ain’t miserable.”

“You are.”

“No, I ain’t.”

“Yes, you are.”

“Ignatius, I ain’t miserable. If I was, I’d tell you.”

“If I had demolished private property while intoxicated and had thereby thrown my child to the wolves, I would be beating my breast and wailing. I would kneel in penance until my knees bled. By the way, what penance has the priest given you for your sin?”

“Three Hail Mary’s and a Our Father.”

“Is that all?” Ignatius screamed. “Did you tell him what you did, that you halted a critical work of great brilliance?”

“I went to confession, Ignatius. I told Father everything. He says, ‘It don’t sound like your fault, honey. It sounds to me like you just took a little skid on a wet street.’ So I told him about you. I says ‘My boy says I’m the one stopping him from writing in his copybooks. He’s been writing on this story for almost five years.’ And Father says, ‘Yeah? Well, don’t sound too important to me. You tell him to get out the house and go to work.'”

“No wonder I cannot support the Church,” Ignatius bellowed. “You should have been lashed right there in the confessional.”

— John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces

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A Confederacy of Dunces

A Confederacy of DuncesA Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
Published: 1980 (written in 1963)
Narrated by: Barrett Whitener
Length: 13:32

The backstory of this novel is actually quite tragic. It’s explained in the introduction by Walker Percy, who was the man instrumental in getting this published. The novel was written in 1963, after Toole’s other novel The Neon Bible, and both failed to get picked up by publishers. This drove him deeper into his existing depression, which eventually lead to his suicide in 1969. His mother later found the carbon copy of the manuscript in his house and brought it to Walker Percy after also failing to catch the interest of publishers. With Percy’s help, it was finally published in 1980. The novel went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and is now considered a modern classic. A bittersweet end to a sad tale.

A Confederacy of Dunces follows Ignatius J. Reilly as he lives his bizarre little life in New Orleans. The plot is all over the place, which is something I usually hate in novels, but for whatever reason I still loved this. Ignatius is an absolutely ridiculous character. He’s a fat, mustachioed, thirty year old man, living with his mother after spending years in university. He’s now an educated slob and snob who looks down on most people and everything in popular culture. With no job, and a mother who babies him, he basically splits his time between writing what he believes to be scathing social commentary, masturbating in his room, and complaining about the gas and bloating his pyloric valve is giving him. After his mother is in a minor car accident, he’s forced out into the world to try to earn some money.

“[…] I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.”

Ignatius is an awful person, but it somehow manages to come off as funny rather than offensive. He hates nearly everything in the world equally, whether minorities or bowling, but in a way it’s a superficial hate, something he can drop whenever convenient to him. He can’t stand the modern world but couldn’t live without its comforts, for example, and that hypocrisy sinks into his every opinion. He’s so perfectly made out to be a pompous over-the-top asshole that the very act of him insulting something almost validates it, in a way. If you’re someone Ignatius agrees with, that’s probably a bad sign.

Despite how disgusting a man Ignatius is, there were awful flashes of familiarity when reading this. As someone who used to spend a lot of time thinking about important writing, while never actually doing any, and also as someone who has Crohn’s disease (thankfully very minor these days), having Ignatius constantly go on about his writing and dysfunctional valve was like looking through a window into a life where I had no self-awareness. If the next few years go incredibly poorly, this could be me. Wrapped up in Ignatius are little pieces of every obnoxious person you’ve ever hated.

“Employers sense in me a denial of their values. […] They fear me. I suspect that they can see that I am forced to function in a century which I loathe.”

The reviews I’ve seen on this seem to be quite divided, and I think that’s probably because it’s a particular brand of humour that makes this book great. If you take away the hilarious dialogue and the insane characters, there’s not much of a coherent plot to stand on (although it all does tie up quite nicely, I thought), so I can see this being even more subjective than your average book.

Ignatius is a character that will stick in my mind for a long time, I think. To create a character so unlikable that you actually like him is an impressive feat.

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R.I.P. Terry Pratchett

Terry-Pratchett-007

Sir Terry Pratchett, author of the Discworld series, died this week after struggling with Alzheimer’s for eight years. He was 66 years old, which seems so unfairly young, particularly for someone who still had so much passion for his work.

In the mid-90s, before I ever picked up a Discworld novel, I played something called Discworld MUD (Multi-User Dungeon), which is a massively multiplayer online text-based computer game. The sort where you literally type ‘backstab Mike’ to stab Mike in the back with something pointy. They had built the world up from his books, filling it with his hilarious descriptions and ridiculous characters, and my friend and I were in love with it all. This was in the days of dial-up, before we were on instant messaging, and even when we weren’t actively playing the game we’d often tie up the phone lines to log in and chat while doing homework. It was a pretty major part of our lives for a few years. I used to dream in green text some nights.

I discovered that the game was based on a series of books from a conversation with my dad. He loved summarizing books to me, and I realized part way through his explanation of the Discworld that this was something I knew – there can’t be two fictional worlds that take place on the back of four giant elephants, who in turn are standing on the back of a massive turtle, travelling through space. I picked up the first book I found in the house, which was Pyramids, and loved it. I didn’t make much of an effort to read the books my dad loved while he was still alive, something I really regret, but Terry Pratchett was one of the few we got to share.

I then started going through them in publication order from the beginning, and in the next few years I nearly caught up with the series. I haven’t read too many in the last decade and a half, only two since starting this weblog four years ago, so I’ve actually only read twenty-three of his books so far. I’m lucky in that I have about fifty books of his left to read still. He’s written so many books I actually wasn’t able to find a proper count of them online without having to do my own counting, something I refuse to do.

After his diagnosis, his passion seemed to double. He put a lot of time and money into Alzheimer’s research, trying to also raise awareness and lessen the stigma of the disease in interviews and articles, while also campaigning for the UK to make assisted suicide legal. While doing all of this, and facing his terminal illness, he kept publishing one or two books a year, even when needing to dictate the writing to his assistant after losing the ability to type it himself.

It’s a truly sad loss. During the last few days, a lot of his quotes have been shared all over social media. This one from Reaper Man stood out as perfect:

[…] they believe that no-one is finally dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away – until the clock he wound up winds down, until the wine she made has finished its ferment, until the crop they planted is harvested. The span of someone’s life, they say, is only the core of their actual existence.

May you live forever, Terry Pratchett.

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Saga, Volume 4

Saga, Volume 4 (Saga #19-24)Saga, Volume 4 by Brian K. Vaughan
Illustrated by: Fiona Staples
Published: 2014
Publisher: Image Comics
Length: 144 pages
Collects: issues #19-24

Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples know how to open a volume with a bang. You’re off running right from the first page with a close-up of an alien birth in action. They’re excellent at having little shocks in their books in an age where it’s difficult to shock anyone. I love that I just don’t know what I’m going to get when I open these pages.

The story jumps ahead a bit here. The crew is somewhat settled now, and it turns into an odd slice of life comic with the other storylines picking up steam in the background. It feels a bit like a setup arc, catching everything up and setting the groundwork for a big next volume, but the writing still holds up and makes it a great read. My only real complaint is that it started to get a little Degrassi High. Every sitcom in the 80s and 90s had to have their ‘Drugs are Bad’ episode, in which a character gets too easily roped into drugs and it turns too easily into a major problem, and this felt eerily similar to one of those. It’s probably the first complaint I’ve had in the whole series, though, so that’s a pretty good track record.

The panel layout and art is deceptively simple, but it has the effect of being very cinematic. I love the little touches of detail they add. There’s an alien cyborg race with televisions for heads, and up until this volume I think they’ve all looked the same, but here we see a commoner of this race with a black and white CRT for a head and a king with a giant LCD screen for a head. They’re great at taking these bizarre ideas and gradually giving them more flesh as the story progresses.

This was probably my least favourite of the four volumes, but I still really loved it. Saga has easily become one of my favourite comic series.

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February in Review

Books Acquired:
None.

Books Read:
Saga, Volume 4 by Brian K. Vaughan
A Brief History of the Celts by Peter Berresford Ellis
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley
Skin Deep by Brandon Sanderson

This was a decent reading month, full of mostly short but quality reads. Also I finally, finally, finished A Brief History of the Celts, which if you follow me on Goodreads you may have noticed had been marked as Currently Reading since last November. Every time I nearly dropped it, something interesting would pop up and keep me reading.

No books purchased! How’s that for self-control? I did try to go to a bookstore last week after having a few drinks at dinner, and it was closed, so I possibly dodged a bullet there. I’m trying to avoid buying books right now that I’m not planning on reading within the month. There’s also the annual giant book sale coming in a couple of months for which I’m preserving shelf space.

Movies watched:
21 Jump Street (2012) – This was better than I’d expected. Predictable and a bit forgettable, but it wasn’t bad.

The Interview (2014) – This felt like a waste. Big budget but the writing was mostly terrible. It had a few really funny moments, and was a lot better once the story got to North Korea, but it could have been so much more.

Much Ado About Nothing (1993) – I hadn’t watched this since high school, and it was so much better than I remembered. Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh were particularly fantastic in it, and Branagh’s soliloquies were performed hilariously.

A Long Way Down (2014) – I love this book, and I thought the casting choices were great, but the screenplay really lost a lot. It felt too rushed, so everyone came off flippant about suicide, and that really screwed with the tone of the movie. I didn’t hate it, but it was a shame.

The Untouchables (1987) – I hadn’t seen this before and thought I should. I don’t think some of the scenes stood the test of time, unless they were ridiculous for ’87 as well, and Sean Connery’s accent was hilarious (I still love him), but overall it was a fun movie.

TV watched:
No television series finished.

Games played:
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel (2014) (PC) – My friend and I finished everything in the game without going back to play it in a harder mode. I had a lot more fun than I thought I would, and wasn’t sick of it at all by the end, which I assumed I would be. We’ll likely go back and play some DLC later in the year.

Insurgency (2014) (PC) – After we were done with Borderlands, we were looking for another cooperative game to play and thought we’d give this another try. So far it’s been a blast. It’s a slow, tactical shooter – no mini maps or killstreaks or anything, just sneaking through some buildings and trying not to die.

Rayman Legends (2013) (PS4) – Apparently I don’t play solo games anymore. My girlfriend and I have been playing though Rayman Legends cooperatively, and it’s been great. We’ve finished the main game and are now going through bonus content. It’s a really well-designed platformer.

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Eugene Onegin

Eugene OneginEugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin
Published: 1825–1832 (serialized), 1833 (single volume)
Translated by: James E. Falen (from Russian, 1990)
Narrated by: Stephen Fry
Length: 04:21

I can’t remember where I found the link, but I came across Fry Reads Onegin a while back and knew I had to download it. Stephen Fry narrates the 1990 translation of Eugene Onegin, and it’s available to download for free. I didn’t know anything about the poem, but I will listen to anything narrated by Fry, so I decided to give it a try.

I read after listening to this that it’s the origin of the Onegin stanza (aBaBccDDeFFeGG), which did jostle some distant memory from English Lit class fifteen years ago, but otherwise I was completely unfamiliar with it. It’s a Russian classic, published serially over a period of seven years, and apparently Pushkin is thought of by many as the greatest poet to come out the country. His rhyming scheme was innovative, you don’t name stanza forms after just anybody, and his story-telling and characterization went on to inspire generations of Russian writers.

Partial Spoilers
Eugene Onegin is a dandy, a Russian equivalent to someone you might find in an Oscar Wilde play. He is jaded, a bit lost, and has grown tired of concerts and partying. After inheriting his uncle’s estate and moving to the country, he meets and befriends the young poet Vladimir Lensky. Onegin eventually meets Lensky’s fiancée’s younger sister Tatyana, who falls completely for him, but he rather ruthlessly turns her down. This, and a spiteful evening of flirting with Lensky’s fiancée, leads to a tragic string of events.

In the poem, the poet Vladimir Lensky challenges Onegin to a duel after he finds him dancing and flirting with his fiancée, and it ends with Onegin killing him. Reading Pushkin’s Wikipedia entry, it seems he suffered the same fate. Pushkin heard rumours that his wife was cheating on him and challenged the man to a duel. He was shot through the spleen and died two days later. Maybe not that uncommon for the time, but it feels like a very odd coincidence looking back.
/Partial Spoilers

My head begins to hurt when I consider what it must take to translate a poem, keeping the line by line content the same, while adhering to a set rhyming scheme. I’m sure liberties had to be taken, and I’ll always wonder how it reads in Russian, but I was shocked at how natural the writing felt. I was ready for it to be somewhat rough and stilted, but it’s really well done. I may be wrong, but I imagine translation is a fairly thankless job, so I hope James E. Falen got due credit. There have been dozens of English translation of this, including one by Vladimir Nabokov, but Falen’s is said to be the most faithful while still sticking to the rhyming scheme.

This was really enjoyable, and Stephen Fry’s narration was great. I did have a few false starts on this, though. I haven’t listened to a novel in verse as an audiobook before, and while the language wasn’t all that complicated, I kept finding myself just following the rhythm and forgetting to listen to what was actually being said. It took a bit more concentration to begin with, but once I finally got into it, it was a fun listen.

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