Adventures in Reading


Fiction: Nation by Terry Pratchett

I’ve been trying to write on Terry Pratchett’s Nation for ages, so here are a handful of notes I wrote down while reading: story begins with a creation myth, looks at god superstitions, written by an atheist, some characters taught an unquestioning faith in belief, religion and/versus science.

Nation is Terry Pratchett’s most recent novel and the first in quite awhile not to occur within his fantastical Discworld series. In a bit of an alternate reality that is very similar to our own 19th Century, a tsunami strikes destroying much of the populations of this world’s equivocal South Pacific and also happens to shipwreck an English ship. The only immediate survivors are a man-child (with no soul (give me a moment on this)) MAu and a British girl going by the pseudonym Daphne.

I can think of three reasons why you would want to read this book, and the first most easily being that you love Terry Pratchett and as there is no new Discworld book this year what else are you going to read? Believe me, you won’t be disappointed!

Secondly, this is a wonderful book for young adults. Our protagonists are both at the coming-of-age period when the tsunami strikes – it’s The Lord of the Flies with much less madness and much more humor. Mau is returning home from his rite-of-passage during the disaster and his ceremony is never concluded, and thus he finds himself in limbo without his soul from childhood, but no way to enter manhood. Daphne is going to meet her father who is a member of the British Empire and one in a long queue to be the next king. Nation is interesting, thoughtful, funny, and has some brilliant speaking points: sex and gender, religion, colonization, beliefs, etc.

Three, you love atheism, hate atheism, or are interested in atheism. Pratchett, an atheist, has written a book on belief, why people believe, and perhaps even the need for some people to believe. The book concludes with a series of warnings including that the book might make you think. Unlike Pullman’s more in your face style, Pratchett is putting out the query of why do people believe and trying to present his answer.

The book concludes with Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins visiting the island. Really, what more do you need?

Conclusion: Keeper.

Other opinions: Book Addiction.

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Revisted Reviews: Zombie Lover by Piers Anthony
July 28, 2008, 12:45 pm
Filed under: book reviews, fiction | Tags: , , , , , , ,

I craved for a fantasy read and stumbled onto Piers Anthony (my first time reading him) and who could turn down a book titled Zombie Lover? Our 15-year-old, black wave hero Breanna takes the reader on a tour of Xanth (and other worlds) as she runs from a zombie king in a Snow White-kissed-awake tale gone wrong. Along the way she picks up many delightful characters and intrigue continues. I was a bit turned off as Anthony insists on explaining all of his puns to the reader and the end of the book was rather predictable (i.e. I mostly skimmed the last 40-pages or so). I was annoyed though at the never-ending smorgasbord of […] and bottoms and poorly done sexual quips. In addition, half of my love for fantasy tends to be the cover art and I was hugely disappointed that Breanna was depicted as a slightly tan white girl rather than the black girl she’s described as in the story. Additionally, Anthony’s commentary on race seemed very superficial and uninformed. Overall it was a fun “bad” read but one I definitely had political problems with.

What in the world was I doing with a book entitled Zombie Lover? Looking back at this, I have know idea what the “[…]” refers to. Was I annoyed at Anthony’s ellipsis usage? More likely I meant to look my annoyance up in the book before returning it to the library but promptly forgot. (Something that happens with a fairly high frequency.) After posting this review at a LiveJournal, I was informed by an Anthony fan that the author’s more recent books were not nearly as delightful as his earlier works. This gives me hope. I do find it interesting though how a reader’s personal politics affects interpretation of a book.

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Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

“When we forget how close the wilderness is in the night, my grandpa said, someday it will come in and get us , for we will have forgotten how real and terrible it will be.”

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is one of many high school reading selections that I missed out on and combined with my clearing shelf challenge it was a perfect selection. Fahrenheit 451 is a dystopian novel that provides an interesting twist away from books like A Brave New World, 1984, and We in that the main focus is the censorship of books. Guy Montag is a fireman and in this futuristic world firemen start fires and particularly fires pertaining to book burnings. Thanks to a girl living next door named Clarisse, Montag finds his beliefs challenged and his viewpoint altered.

The premise of the book is pretty interesting and it’s certainly worth a read. I can definitely see why it’s a popular high school read. It’s not quite as challenging as the previous dystopian novels I listed but it’s an engaging read with a direct correlation to the power that can be found in books. And of course the idea that you are reading a book about a world where all books are banished – it’s definitely intriguing.

I admit though I found myself with growing problems while reading the book and some of Bradbury’s comments in the afterward. This dystopian world of book bashing was supposedly started as the result of minority groups expressing frustration with literature. In the back of the book Bradbury goes into his own experience with criticisms that he should alter his books and plays to provide more roles for women or less racist representations of blacks. Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is a world that is launched as a result of these expressed demands.

I found this somewhat problematic or at least naive. While indeed this is a form of censorship – though Katherine Mayo’s Mother India is indeed racist it does not mean we should burn it – it is very much a backlash from centuries of oppressing minority voices. Don’t believe me? Pick up a copy of Norton’s World Literature from the 1970s versus a more recent edition. It doesn’t mean the texts found in the earlier edition were bad, not at all, but throughout literary history there certainly has not been an equal representation of all voices.

So, I get what Bradbury is saying and I can appreciate it, but I do find it somewhat limited. It was an okay book, I can see why they assign it to high schoolers, but I’m not sure if I was really missing all that much.

And an additional review of Fahrenheit 451 from Cynical Optimism.

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Flannery O’Connor’s The Complete Stories

During my years as a literature major I have repeatedly been assigned Flannery O’Connor’s short stories A Good Man is Hard to Find and Good Country People. These two stories seem staples in the English major repertoire, and don’t get me wrong because these are phenomenal stories, but seldom does an undergraduate read anything else. I have heard rumors of people reading The Artificial Nigger, but even with this addition that is only three stories out of her numerous books of short stories (not to mention the novels O’Connor wrote). When I started reading her Complete Stories I suppose I was just as interested in the stories I had not read as much as wondering why the previously mentioned stories are so academically popular.

All of O’Connor’s stories are focused in or at least on the southern United States, and any discussion of O’Connor cannot escape commenting on the southern gothic. I had never made the comparison until I ran across the portrait the other day, but a great way of explaining the term southern gothic is comparing it with Winslow Homer’s American Gothic. It is a quintessential representation of a geographical location and the people and customs from that region. Gothic writers tend to stereotype their characters but still maintain to perplex and astound the reader at what they reveal through their writing. Being described as southern gothic also classifies O’Connor with the southern United State’s literary tradition along with Margaret Mitchum, Faulkner, and Tennessee Williams.

O’Connor’s stories largely focus on religion and brokenness (yes, a word I am making up), and often how these themes tie together. I do not specifically recall O’Connor’s personal relationship with god, but I think it is safe to say that she was a troubled Catholic. In the introduction an excerpt from a letter from O’Connor describes, “That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence.” However, I cannot recall one story out of the thirty-one that I read that favorably represents religion, but there are quite a few stories that interestingly juxtapose atheism and christianity.

As for brokenness, all of O’Connor’s stories focus on an idea of brokenness and this is reflected in a tangible manner through her characters. Chronologically early in her writing, her characters may singularly be morally, religiously, or financially broken, but the stories she wrote later in her career also have her characters physically “broken” with missing limbs, deformities, and mental illness. For example, in Good Country People Hulga-Joy (how I fondly recall the character from class discussion) has a prosthetic leg and all of the characters can be described as broken or corrupt in a fashion.

Another theme I find fascinating, but that appears less in her writings, are her many characters relationship with the academy and education versus the “uneducated.” (By uneducated I do mean to imply ignorance or stupidity (though it would apply for certain stories), but simply characters that have received formal or public education.) This creates a terrific tension of displacement similar to Jane Austen’s character Harriet in Emma, who receives enough education from Emma to find herself displaced from the social groups she is acquainted with but without the peerage to formally belong to a different social group. O’Connor’s stories are brimming over with various themes and these are only a handful of teasers.

Both A Good Man is Hard to Find and Good Country People were written in the middle of O’Connor’s career, and a definite development exists between her early stories and the later ones. One reason why I love the short story is because of the twist. A good short story must have a twist. For lack of a better word, a twist is the point in the story where you have to set the book down and spend time pondering, “What exactly happened?” Novels usually are developed so that the conclusion is a neat and tidy package. Certainly not all novels (one exception that comes to mind is Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale), but most novels seem to leave the reader satisfied that the story has been completed. Short stories, however, tend to build up a familiarity, then remove you from the structured comfort zone, and often purposefully leave you on edge. This process the author puts the reader through is the twist, and O’Connor’s Good Man and Good Country People have excellent twists that leave the reader feeling blindsided.

Some of O’Connor’s short stories certainly are weaker or less dynamic, but as a whole collection I am by no means disappointed. Her later stories gain in length, and I wonder (without knowing the dates) how much this bridges her shorter stories and novels. Then again, short stories should be read over and over again and I do not want to pass unfair criticism on stories I am less familiar with. As for why A Good Man is Hard to Find and Good Country People are consistent favorites – I don’t have an answer. They are tremendous tales but valid arguments seem to exist for the inclusion of at least half the stories in this collection.