Saturday, 23 March 2013

Why I Love Eric by Terry Pratchett

“‘Multiple exclamation marks,’ he went on, shaking his head ‘are a sure sign of a diseased mind.’”


Ahem. I aten’t crazy. 

Like a lot of people I first read Pratchett when I was a teenager and have stuck with him well into adulthood. So, going through a dry spell in reading where everything I picked up seemed to, well, suck, I was immediately drawn to a small paperback that’d fallen off my shelf - “Eric”, a book I haven’t read since I was 12 (I’m now 28). Coming to a beloved book after 16 years is great as you know you’ll like it and you’ve all but forgotten everything in the story.

Eric is the Disc’s first demonologist hacker who summons a demon to grant him three wishes. Except the “demon” is Rincewind, the Disc’s most inept wizzard (the second z is intentional as Rincewind can’t spell), who happens to have gotten stuck in the Dungeon Dimensions and, by chance, wound up in a teenage boy’s bedroom. The three wishes Eric asks for - To be Ruler of the World; To Meet the Most Beautiful Woman in All History; and To Live Forever, should be easy to arrange. I mean, when have wishes ever gone wrong for anybody in a story, especially one with “Faust” crossed out on the cover? 

I’m delighted to say that my impressions of the novel haven’t changed in 16 years and that I still loved reading this. It’s still fresh and funny and fast paced and so damn entertaining. It reminded me exactly why I fell in love with Pratchett’s Discworld in the first place and what propelled me through all of his books so quickly. 

Here are some quotes from the novel that I adored: 

“The gods of the Disc have never bothered much about judging the souls of the dead, and so people only go to hell if that’s where they believe, in their deepest heart, that they deserve to go. Which they won’t do if they don’t know about it. This explains why it is so important to shoot missionaries on sight.”

“Rincewind had been told that death was just like going into another room. The difference is, when you shout ‘Where’s my clean socks?’, no-one answers.”

“No enemies had ever taken Ankh-Morpork. Well technically they had, quite often; they city welcomed free-spending barbarian invaders, but somehow the puzzled raiders found, after a few days, that they didn’t own their horses any more, and within a couple of months they were just another minority group with its own graffiti and food shops.”

Great, right? 

It also makes me sad to see the decline in his writing recently. I got through a third of “Snuff” in about a month and gave up thereafter. I haven’t returned to it in nearly a year. Also, those Tiffany Aching books are pretty diabolical - I know they’re aimed at “Young Adults” but really, kids can read the “adult” Discworld books. I did, and I turned out fine. Plus the adult humour is really subtle and will go over a kid’s head. I didn’t pick up on it when I was 12 but at 28? Yeah I noticed it. Pratchett’s really clever like that and his books can be read for all ages. Those Aching books are just pandering and condescending. Kids, teenagers, are smarter than that and should just read the regular Discworld stuff rather than go for Discworld Lite. And yes, I realise the decline in writing is linked to his Alzheimer’s which I couldn’t be more saddened by, but still. Reading this early Discworld book and comparing it to his most recent one is really eye-opening. There aren’t any quotes from “Snuff” that I’d type out to read to myself over and over, unlike “Eric”. 

“Eric” is set after the events of “Sourcery” but before “Interesting Times” - both books I encourage you to seek out if you enjoyed this - but it can be read as standalone book too. It might even be the best introduction to the new reader of Pratchett. Rincewind and the amazing Luggage (a steamer trunk with dozens of tiny legs that’s sentient but silent) are the main characters, there are appearances from Death and the Librarian, and you get a tour of the Disc courtesy of the three wishes that takes Rincewind and Eric across time and space. The story is straightforward and you don’t need to have read the half dozen or so titles that preceded it - it’s a satire on the legendary Faust story. Seriously, you can just jump on board with this book and, if you like Pratchett’s style, continue on your way. And due to it’s shortness, It’s the perfect sampler. 

I have to mention the Luggage - I’d forgotten why I was so enchanted with the Rincewind stories and it’s partly RIncewind for his cowardly wit, but it’s also for the Luggage. They’ve got this great chemistry like a buddy cop story where one of the cops doesn’t speak and might be homicidal. Luggage has some amazing scenes in this as well, particularly his introduction which is so fantastic and funny so I won’t spoil it here. And Pratchett’s humour has never been more prevalent than in this story. Here are some more quotes I loved: 

“There’s a door”
“Where does it go?”
“It stays where it is, I think”

“What’re quantum mechanics?”
“I don’t know. People who repair quantums, I suppose”

And these two gems about war:

“The consensus seemed to be that if really large numbers of men were sent to storm the mountain, then enough might survive the rocks to take the citadel. This is essentially the basis of all military thinking.”

“The sergeant put on the poker face which has been handed down from NCO to NCO ever since one protoamphibian told another, lower ranking protoamphibian to muster a squad of newts and Take That Beach.”

“Eric” is just a really, really fun read. I loved it, it was just what I needed to remind me why I love reading and that a truly good book trumps nearly everything else in the world. 

Never read Pratchett? Check out “Eric”. Been a while since you read early Pratchett? Check out “Eric”.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Gunning for Sanity: A Review of Stephen King's essay "Guns"

What struck me as so astonishing about the points raised in this 25 page essay on guns by bestselling author Stephen King, was not the reasonability of his points but that they needed stating at all. He's not against the Second Amendment, he doesn't want it repealed especially as he owns 3 handguns himself - no, he wants gun control, like millions of other Americans, because he's sick of seeing more and more news stories of yet another maniac loading up on firepower and shooting random innocents because they're miserable and crazy.

King wrote a novel as a teenager about a kid who goes into a school with a gun, then rewrote it years later and published it under the pseudonym Richard Bachman as "Rage". Unfortunately, as King points out, the novel became a touchstone for some gun toting lunatics who went on to kill others in schools and he ended up withdrawing it from publication. To him it was the responsible thing to do.

After detailing the most recent atrocities of gun violence in America - specifically Sandy Hook and Aurora - he reaches the crux of the essay which is that assault weapons should be banned, clips should be limited to 10 bullets, and background checks be made more thorough. Very reasonable - and amazing that anyone would oppose this!

What is the use of an automatic assault rifle? Hunters readily admit that if you shot game with it they'd be inedible making the whole point of hunting in the first place pointless. What, you're going to defend your home with an automatic weapon?! It doesn't make any sense that such military grade weaponry should be made readily available to members of the public. And limiting clips to 10 bullets? How many do you need to take out the imaginary burglar just itching to get into your place? If you need more than 10, you probably shouldn't have a gun to start with. Thorough background checks and harsh penalties against those who lie to obtain guns - who could be against this, honestly!

That these points are still issues shows just how badly America needs this discussion on gun control, especially as the news becomes morbidly repetitive in its stories of yet another disturbed young man (it always seems to be young men) pushed too far for whatever reason and deciding to check out in the bloodiest way possible. It's good that someone as famous as Stephen King use his celebrity to bring more focus on this important issue, using his writing ability to express clearly and eloquently the matter at hand. Here's hoping reason wins.


Friday, 1 March 2013

A Hit and Miss Project: A Review of Graeme Simsion's novel The Rosie Project

Don Tillman is an Associate Professor of Genetics with (probably) Asperger’s Syndrome who has decided that, as he is nearing 40, he will solve “the wife problem” (ie. not being married) by creating a questionnaire that will ascertain, for him, the perfect wife and then marry her. That is until he meets Rosie, a grad student working part-time in a gay bar who’s looking for her biological father, and slowly Don’s “Wife Project” becomes “The Rosie Project” as he realises he’s falling in love with her. 
I say that Don probably has Aspergers because it’s never explicitly stated but as he narrates the book in the first person, the reader is immediately aware that he sees the world differently than the rest of us. It’s kind of like having Sheldon Cooper from “The Big Bang Theory” talking to you - Don is a genius with no social skills who’s unable to read facial expressions and has a highly regimented lifestyle and peculiar way of speaking. Couple that with the opening scene where he gives a talk on Aspergers and it’s highly suggested that he has it. Not knowing anyone with Aspergers, I can’t tell whether he sounds convincingly like someone with it but what little I know of the condition suggests that his personality is unlikely to change as dramatically as Don’s does throughout the book. It’s almost like his meeting Rosie reverses the condition. I mean, he’s unable to feel love - but he can? He’s unable to read facial expressions or understand social conventions - but then he can? 

Nevertheless I thought the first 200 pages of the book were charming. Don is a likeable guy whose eccentric lifestyle makes a change of pace to the usual rom-com formula and the different angle it gives to the genre made me interested in it even though romantic comedies aren’t usually my thing. There were also some excellent scenes that stuck out memorably like Don and Rosie’s first date, from using aikido on the waiters to altering time and having dinner on a whiteboard (not as surreal as it sounds but nice touches anyway), and Don and Rosie’s moonlighting as cocktail waiters and Don using his remarkable memory (eidetic?) to take complex drink orders for dozens of people at a time. I read the first two-thirds of the book in a couple days, smiling a lot throughout. And then I got to the final third which took me over a week and ruined the book for me. 

The first 200 pages had been unique to the rom-com genre and felt highly original which is why I responded so well to it - it wasn’t going over the same ground countless other stories had gone over before. The final third is all about convention and it opens with a scene in New York. The story is set in Australia but because Don and Rosie are hell bent on finding Rosie’s biological father, their search takes them to two possible fathers in NY. This 50 page section felt completely contrived and could’ve been cut from the book entirely. 

This book was originally a screenplay and these scenes felt very cinematic and included so that film backers would have recognisable locations for their film to make it easier to sell, rather than serving the story. Yes, the finding Rosie’s real dad storyline is in play but if you took those two people away from NY and cut it entirely, the book would’ve been snappier. As such it feels really contrived and dull, like the scene in the movie where the two romantic leads get to do a kind of montage sequence of things. It also constantly references other romantic comedy movies the entire time too, adding to the feeling that this is a homage to the genre and included because that’s what’s expected when you do something like this. 

Then the final 70 or so pages are about Don winning Rosie back and it’s done in such a conventionally rom-com way that I totally lost interest. Worse, Don’s character didn’t seem consistent in this part either (see the criticisms in the Aspergers section above). 

I’ve used the label “romantic-comedy” throughout because that’s what the marketing says it is but it’s not. It’s romantic, sure, but it’s not funny. I didn’t laugh once and didn’t think Don’s numerous social faux pas to be particularly funny either. Worse still are the scenes which are clumsily designed to be funny and feel very forced, like when Don is learning sexual positions from a book and uses a skeleton (he’s at the university for this scene so it’s not a Dahmer moment or anything) and the Dean walks in on him. It feels like the kind of scene in a sitcom where the canned laughter goes on and on as the camera switches from Don’s face to the Dean’s and back again while the audience begins to clap and laugh at the same time. It might as well be labelled “funny scene”. And it’s not. 

Despite my criticisms, I was quite happy to give this book 3 stars - until I read the end. Now I know the ending shouldn’t have more importance over any other aspect of the story, whatever the genre, but the ending to this book is especially bad. So Rosie, at the very start when she’s introduced to Don, tells him about her dad Phil, a man who raised her alone after her mum died when Rosie was 12, who’s a person whom she doesn’t particularly get along with (largely because of a minor quibble which she’s unreasonably held against him for her entire life) - but no more so than any other person who doesn’t get along with their mum or dad for whatever reason. Except she’s convinced herself he can’t possibly be her real dad and that her real dad must be out there somewhere. This is basically the motivation for everything Don and Rosie do in this entire book and right off, I thought “I bet it turns out Phil IS her real dad after all”. Well... I won’t give it away but you can kind of guess what happens in the end. And I really, really hated that. Don all but says what I was feeling in the second-to-final sentence of the book and I immediately dropped the book down another star. 

This book definitely has some good moments and Don is a memorable and oftentimes delightful character, but the final third of the book really frustrated me. If the book had been more tightly edited with the NY sequence thrown out and had had a less predictable ending, I would be enthusiastically recommending this novel. As it is, it is a flawed debut novel that’s well written but severely lacking in crucial parts of the story reducing it from a charmingly quirky romance story to yet another rom-com with no surprises and a sloppily rushed final act. Graeme Simsion can write and he might one day write a brilliant novel but sadly “The Rosie Project” is not that book.
The Rosie Project