Small Gods

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett9780062237378

publication date: 1992
pages: 386
ISBN: 978-0-06-223737-8

In Small Gods, Terry Pratchett lampooned religion, God, gods, and the certainty and absurdity of men (and I mean men; basically none of the characters were female). Generally, Pratchett’s mockery was successful, and the book became more than just a send-up of humanity’s foibles.

Almost certainly, the book’s ultimate goal was to show the folly of religion. Pratchett’s plot, style, characters, and setting were all used to further that goal. Within the book, Pratchett created a fictional, long-established religion: The Church of the Great God Om. The country of Omnia was ruled by the Church and the Church dictated the laws of all Omnians. Pratchett introduced us to Brutha, a slow-witted and good-hearted Omnian monk who accidentally stumbled upon a quest on behalf of the Great God Om. Pratchett also presented Vorbis, a leader in the Church and an all-around bad guy. Finally, Pratchett introduced Om, the once-great god who remembered the days when he was powerful enough to smite enemies and sacrifice believers but who now, because of a decrease of faith in Omnia, is only a one-eyed tortoise who reluctantly relies on Brutha’s help.

Pratchett didn’t always take his plot too seriously. His writing style was satirical and clever. The pages were covered in jokes; some of which worked and some of which didn’t. Many of the jokes were at the expense of religion or the idea that human knowledge and certainty is anything less than ridiculous. For example, here was an exchange Brutha witnessed when he first met the learned philosophers from the country of Ephebe:

The [philosopher] called Xeno stepped forward, adjusting the hang of his toga.
“That’s right,” he said. “We’re philosophers. We think, therefore we am.”
“Are,” said the luckless paradox manufacturer automatically.
Xeno spun around. “I’ve just about had it up to here with you, Ibid!” he roared. He turned back to Brutha. “We are, therefore we am,” he said confidently. “That’s it.”

Although Pratchett used his plot as a tool to convey his message and showcase his cleverness, he did give the story a beginning, middle, and end, and I was usually invested in what was happening with Brutha, Vorbis, and Om. The story was too long, however, and became repetitive and dull. Also, Pratchett would sometimes write with such heavy irony or such deliberate passivity that the action was confusing and the story was unclear.

Also, the whole book left me with a vague feeling of bewilderment. Parts of it were funny or interesting, but it all seemed pointless. If Pratchett wanted to convince people of his anti-religion message, surely a heavy-handed book making fun of religious people wasn’t the best tactic? But if Pratchett instead wanted to entertain those who already believed in the stupidity of religion, than the whole book was like an echo chamber, full of self-congratulatory jokes.

With that said, the book was funny, clever, and filled with details plucked from Pratchett’s active imagination. Go ahead and give it a whirl, if you want.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

Faith Fusion
The Narratologist
SF Reviews

Early Civilizations Of Southeast Asia

Early Civilizations Of Southeast Asia by Dougald JW O’Reilly9780759102798

publication date: 2007
pages: 235
ISBN: 978-0-7591-0278-1

I picked this book up because I was interested in the Pyu people of modern-day Myanmar. In Laura Bush’s memoir, which I reviewed, she discussed how the Pyu were a nonviolent people who created a good template for living. I had never heard of the Pyu and was intrigued by her description. I searched Wikipedia but didn’t find much information. Wanting to find out more about the Pyu, I found the only book at my local library that discussed the Pyu in any detail: Early Civilizations Of Southeast Asia.

This book read like an expanded dissertation paper. It was dry and filled with quotes from other sources. The author didn’t attempt much interpretative writing or analysis. Also, the discussion was filled with words and terms that I wasn’t familiar with, which the author didn’t define and couldn’t be understood from the context. For example, these sentences, from a short discussion of the climate of the region:

At the higher elevations the increased rainfall changes the character of the forest, creating a canopy where little sunlight penetrates to ground level. Here the arboreal animals dominate the faunal spectrum.

Honestly, I kinda liked the phrase “the faunal spectrum” – it had a quirkiness; but it seemed flashy and redundant in this context.

Perhaps ironically, O’Reilly’s discussion of the Pyu did not mention any of the things mentioned by Bush: the pacifist culture that might herald a better way of life. So, either Bush – and others – was mistaken, or O’Reilly didn’t think that aspect of the Pyu was important enough to mention. Granted, O’Reilly didn’t discuss much of the culture or daily life of the Pyu people, whether nonviolent or not.

The book included some interesting tidbits. For example, Pyu people built their houses out of lychee and decorated their teeth with gold rosettes. However, the interesting parts were rarely discussed in any detail or even strung together to form a compelling picture of a people. As I was reading, I wished the whole thing was linked like an online article so I could learn more. For example, how did they use the lychee? Did they dry it? Is lychee a tree? I’d heard of it, but only as a fruit.

The book was well-researched and hopefully accurate. I would say I was simply not the audience. Academics looking to write a paper or thesis on this topic will perhaps cite this book, although I would not recommend it for reading, or even to gain a better understanding of these older cultures.

3/6: more good than bad

No other book reviews as such, although people have reviewed the book on Amazon and Good Reads:

Amazon
Good Reads

Fables: Legends in Exile

Fables: Legends in Exile by Bill Willingham9781563899423

publication date: 2002
pages: 119
ISBN: 978-1-56389-942-3

In Fables, creator Bill Willingham presented, in comic book form, an alternate ending for all those stories we heard as children. What if, instead of “Happily ever after,” all the characters in the fairy tales were driven out of their idyllic homelands by a villain of pure evil and forced to spend eternity living in Manhattan? Volume One of Fables, titled Legends in Exile, collected the first five issues of the comic and introduced us to Fabletown, a Manhattan enclave where all the fairy tale fables lived. These included Snow White, deputy mayor of Fabletown and competent administrator; Bigby Wolf, the big, bad wolf in human form, who now uses his powers for good as Fabletown sheriff; and Prince Charming, a triple divorcee and unscrupulous womanizer. Legends in Exile also introduced The Adversary, the mysterious evil force who chased all the fables out of their kingdoms and into the New World centuries ago. The plot of Legends in Exile followed Sheriff Bigby Wolf as he attempted to solve the murder of Rose Red, Snow White’s younger sister

This comic contained a lot of good things. I though it was especially effective when it showed the fables actually inhabiting New York City and surrounded by New Yorkers. For example, there was a scene where Prince Charming was walking his new conquest back to her apartment; as they were walking they were surrounded by very detailed background New Yorkers, including a door man with a soul patch and a woman wearing John Lennon glasses and carrying a baguette as she waited to cross the street.

Bigby Wolf’s character was also a lot of fun. His face was always drawn in partial darkness, giving him a sinister edge. And, in at least one panel, his shadow is drawn as the silhouette of a wolf, even as Bigby is in human form. In fact, most of the images throughout the volume were compelling and memorable. The faces were intricate and drawn with emotion. The panels included lots of great details. Also the color tones were really effective at showing emotions and feeling.

However, Legends in Exile definitely had some flaws. First of all, everyone was white. I noticed one black character, and he was in the background, without any place in the plot. Secondly, as is a problem with many comics, the boobs were ridiculous. Every female character, if she was seen from the front, had large, round, and floaty boobs displayed for all to see at least once in the comic. I guess not every female character: they didn’t show the elderly black forest witch’s cleavage.

Also, the dialogue was not always compelling. Facts about the characters or plot were often presented in a rote manner, and with unnecessary bluntness. For example, here is how we get introduced to the character of Rose Red, within a conversation between Bigby Wolf and Snow White:

[Bigby Wolf:] You need to prepare yourself for some bad news, Snow.
[Show White:] Don’t be so dramatic. I already know. My ex is back in town. . . .
[Wolf:] This isn’t about Prince Charming. It’s about your sister, Rose Red.
[Snow:] This may surprise you, Mister Wolf, but I’m not entirely an idiot. I actually know my sister’s name. So what’s she done this time?

Also, the plot came off the rails sometimes, although I won’t go into specifics because I don’t want to introduce any spoilers.

Overall, this was a fun comic, which would probably be a good introduction for those who are looking to read more graphic fiction. I’ve continued to read subsequent issues of Fables, if that’s any indication.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

Pop Matters
The Literary Omnivore
PFS Publishing Book Club blog

Born a Crime

Born a Crime: Stories Of a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah9780399588174

publication date: 2016
pages: 285
ISBN: 9780399588174

In this excellent memoir, Trevor Noah presented his readers with a look into growing up in South Africa, under apartheid and directly after apartheid’s dissolution. The title of the book came from the fact that Noah was mixed, with a black mother and a white father. Under the laws of South Africa during apartheid, it was illegal for people from two races to have sex, much less have a child. So Noah, because of his parentage, was literally born a crime.

Almost every aspect of Born a Crime was incredibly effective. The book obviously focused on only Noah’s life and Noah’s stories; but, within those stories, Noah explored meaningful and historically important themes, such as racism, poverty, totalitarianism, and hope. Noah’s relationship with his mother also played a major, and touching, role in the book.

While investigating these weighty themes, Noah used a winning, confessional style. He also was very funny. Here was a story he told about how his mother would have to chase him in order to discipline him:

When I was little she always caught me, but as I got older I got faster, and when speed failed her she’d use her wits. If I was about to get away she’d yell, “Stop! Thief!” She’d do this to her own child. In South Africa, nobody gets involved in other people’s business – unless it’s mob justice, and then everybody wants in. So she’d yell “Thief!” knowing it would bring the whole neighborhood out against me, and then I’d have strangers trying to grab me and tackle me, and I’d have to duck and dive and dodge them as well, all the while screaming, “I’m not a thief! I’m her son!”

Noah also offered excellent details, about his life and about living in South Africa. These details made his stories lively and potently reminded the reader of the constant horrors of apartheid. In this passage, Noah created rich descriptions about the particulars of growing up poor:

We got by with next to nothing, but we always had church and we always had books and we always had food. Mind you, it wasn’t necessarily good food. Meat was a luxury. When things were going well we’d have chicken. My mom was an expert at cracking open a chicken bone and getting out every last bit of marrow inside. We didn’t eat chickens. We obliterated them. Our family was an archeologist’s nightmare. We left no bones behind. When we were done with a chicken there was nothing left but the head.

Born a Crime did have some flaws. It was repetitive at times. Also, Noah prefaced each chapter with a few pages describing an aspect of living under apartheid. Sometimes, these prefaces were effective, as in this passage from the first page:

[During apartheid, the government divided two dominant tribal groups:] the Zulu and the Xhosa. The Zulu man is known as a the warrior. He is proud. He puts his head down and fights. . . . The Xhosa, on the other hand, pride themselves on being the thinkers. . . . The Zulu went to war with the white man. The Xhosa played chess with the white man.

Often, however, these prefaces seemed muddled and unnecessary.

Notwithstanding these minor flaws, this book superbly depicted the small facts of Noah’s life, while pondering the major themes that effected everyone raised in South Africa.

5/6: seek this book out

other reviews:

USA Today
Wanderer News
New York Times

The Grace of Kings

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu9781481451864

publication date: 2015
pages: 618
ISBN: 978-1-4814-2427-1

In this attempt at an epic fantasy novel, author Ken Liu presented a sprawling fictional universe, chockful of dozens of new proper nouns that I had to memorize and become interested in. The Grace of Kings focused on the island kingdom of Dara and the jockeying for power among Dara’s ambitious citizens. The novel began with a parade, celebrating the new emperor of Dara, Emperor Mapidéré, whose brutal conquest of Dara left many in his kingdom with rebellious and power-hungry thoughts. Liu then spent the next 550 pages detailing the political and military maneuverings of all those interested in the throne.

The Grace of Kings was just the first in a series of books, called the “Dandelion Dynasty,” which described the rulers of Dara. I, for one, will not be reading the rest of the series.

My main problem with the book was that it was tiresome. It’s tiresome to learn an entire geographic region, and its relevant history, and its contemporary elite. And this particular universe that Liu created wasn’t even very original; it was like reading the “A Song Of Ice and Fire” series, or the excellent “Graceling” series, but with different proper nouns. All of the political and military intrigue was tedious. This was all perfectly represented in a single sentence, from about a third through the book:

With the help of Faҫa’s King Shilué, King Jizu, the grandson of the last King of Rima before the Unification, had reclaimed the throne in the ancient capital of Na Thion.

It was so hard for me to care about any of that. I had no context. I only just learned about Rima 100 pages before, much less all that other stuff. An effective way to get me to care about a fictional world and plot is to create compelling characters. Unfortunately, Liu’s characters had a very rocky start. His characters began as very rote: the trickster, the heartless emperor, the feckless child king etc.

However, although the characters began as uninspired tropes of the fantasy genre, Liu used that to his advantage and, by the end of the book, the characters were very rewarding. Liu created space for all the characters to grow and change with their circumstances, which meant the wife and mother you met at the beginning of the book was very different from the wife and mother at the end.

Also, specific and particular plot points within the book could be fun and interesting. There was an assassination attempt with a kite, and an origin story involving a silk scroll with a prophecy found inside the belly of a fish, and an ascendant king traveling the ocean by riding on the back of a whale. So although I didn’t care much about the overarching plot, with someone always fighting with someone else for some small bit of land, each individual scene usually contained some engaging action.

This book was certainly not terrible. It was much better than another fantasy book I reviewed, The Name Of the Wind. And it seemed like the author was trying to do something interesting, was trying to take the common tropes of fantasy and use them for a purpose, instead of just populating his book with them. If you’re new to fantasy, this is one of the better books in that genre to read. If you love fantasy, might as well give this a shot because it does adhere so well to the genre. If you’re just a casual reader of fantasy, I don’t know that I would recommend this book over any other.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

npr
Elitist Book Reviews
Tor.com

Native Guard

Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey514ukx2mkzl-_sx331_bo1204203200_

publication date: 2006
pages: 49
ISBN: 978-0-618-60463-0

In this 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Trethewey presented powerfully structured poems, which contained immediate imagery and explored personal and potent themes. For those who like poetry, this is a wonderful and effective collection.

The first thing I noticed about the poems was how suited they were for being read out loud. Trethewey’s use of rhythm and the sounds of the consonants and vowels in her words was impressive. Here was an example, which I would encourage you to read out loud:

                             She is leaving behind
the dirt roads of Mississippi, the film
of red dust around her ankles, the thin
whistle of wind through the floorboards
of the shotgun house, the very idea of home.

In these poems, Trethewey examined issues of race, loss, identity, motherhood, home, and memory, all in a cohesive and energetic way. Here she explored loss and mourning, in a poem titled “After Your Death”:

First, I emptied the closets of your clothes,
threw out the bowl of fruit, bruised
from your touch, left empty the jars

you bought for preserves.

Here was another example, focusing on race and history, written from the perspective of a former slave who has joined the Union Army in the Civil War:

                                                     I now use ink
to keep record, a closed book, not the lure
of memory – flawed, changeful – that dulls the lash
for the master, sharpens it for the slave.

Additionally, Trethewey used the strictures of poetry, such as meter, rhyme, and repetition, in a careful, studied way. Her use of repetition was always especially effective. The rules that Trethewey adhered to allowed her to craft compelling and unpredictable poems. Here was an example of this from the poem titled “Incident”:

We tell the story every year –
how we peered from the windows, shades drawn –
though nothing really happened,
the charred grass now green again.

We peered from the windows, shades drawn,
at the cross trussed like a Christmas tree,
the charred grass still green. Then
we darkened our rooms, lit the hurricane lamps.

Generally, all the poems were engaging, but there were a few slow or dull ones in the second half of the book. If you enjoy poetry, I would absolutely recommend this.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews of Native Guard:

Bookslut
Savvy Verse and Wit blog
Nothing More Wonderful blog

The Princess Bride

The Princess Bride by William Goldman9780156035217

publication date: 1973
pages: 353
ISBN: 978-0-15-603521-7

William Goldman’s classic story, adapted to a movie by the same name in 1987, was generally tedious, often annoying, and sometimes even insulting.

The book took the classic genre of adventure story and attempted to modernize it by creating quirky and easily mock-able characters, then framed it all with much discussion from an irritating narrator called – William Goldman.

The concept of the book is that William Goldman’s father read him the story “The Princess Bride,” by a fictional S. Morgenstern, when he was a kid, and Goldman wanted to present the story to his son. However, it turned out Goldman’s father had only read the good parts to Goldman so he decided to transcribe Morgenstern’s story into an abridged book that included only the “good parts” and notes by Goldman. Here was a long example of the style of the Goldman narrator:

When I said at the start that I’d never read this book, that’s true. My father read it to me, and I just quick skimmed along, crossing out whole sections when I did the abridging, leaving everything just as it was in the original Morgenstern.

This chapter is totally intact. My intrusion here is because of the way Morgenstern uses parentheses . . . Either Morgenstern meant them seriously or he didn’t. Or maybe he meant some of them seriously and some others he didn’t. But he never said which were the spurious ones . . . All I can suggest to you is, if the parentheses bug you, don’t read them.

What Goldman was referring to was tiresome asides in the narrative of “The Princess Bride” made by Morgenstern. Like this as an example:

The Countess was considerably younger than her husband. All of her clothes came from Paris (This was after Paris) and she had superb taste. (This was after taste too, but only just. And since it was such a new thing, and since the Countess was the only lady in all Florin to possess it, is it any wonder she was the leading hostess of the land?)

I usually found all these asides and meta posturing to be unfunny and dreary. Also, the characters in the book, including Goldman himself, were generally just mouthpieces for Goldman’s style of humor, which did not work for me.

Although the writing and characters were unimpressive, sometimes the action was compelling, especially any scenes involving Westley the farm boy. Additionally, there were a few parts that I thought were funny, including these lines:

He was seventy-five minutes away from his first female murder, and he wondered if he could get his fingers to her throat before even the start of a scream. He had been practicing on giant sausages all the afternoon and had the movements down pretty pat, but then, giant sausages weren’t necks and all the wishing in the world wouldn’t make them so.

Although the book was a quick read, with a few funny parts and some effective action scenes, I would say you can just skip it.

2/6: many problems

other reviews of this classic:

The Daily Beast
SF Site
Fantasy Book Review