Saturday, February 28, 2009

Review: The Color of Magic

The Color of Magic, Terry Pratchett

This is my first Pratchett book which, coincidentally, is the first Discworld book Pratchett wrote (in 1983). Boy, was it fun, even though all the Pratchett experts say the next two dozen or so are much better than this one.

But I have an odd quirk: whenever I begin a series, and whether or not it can be read out of chronological order, I always start with the first one. "Start with this one," or "Start with that one," the experts say, "and then go back to Magic and pick up the details." Well raspberries to the experts: I don't have to go back for anything.

Sliding my soapbox under the desk I ask, "Does Pratchett write SF, fantasy, philosophy, or satire? The answer is, "Yes." Just plain yes. To attempt to summarize the plot, which is really a collection of four short stories, would qualify me for a room at the Padded Cell Hotel.

Pratchett describes Discworld ". . . as a flat, circular planet that rests on the backs of four elephants, which in turn are standing on the back of a giant turtle." The turtle is called Great A'Tuin.

By the way, when reading Pratchett, suspension of belief must be checked at the front cover. (Master of Understatement.)

The peoples of Discworld were genuinely curious about A'Tuin: where did it come from? Where was it going? How old was it? What was its gender? Theories abound, some of which Pratchett describes on page 2 of the Prologue:

". . . A'Turin was crawling from the Birthplace to the Time of Mating, as were all the stars in the sky which were, obviously, also carried by giant turtles. When they arrived they would briefly and passionately mate, for the first and only time, and from that fiery union new turtles would be born to carry a new pattern of worlds. This was known as the Big Bang hypothesis."

Page 2, mind you, and Pratchett's brilliance had me hooked. As did his prose, characters, and villains (Death and Fate are, uh, capitvating).

So, just before I toddle off to bed, I'm going to sample a wine from Rehigreed Province from next year's harvest. "Ghlen Livid," they call it.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

And the Winner is . . .

ME! I’m so overwhelmed to . . . uh, hold on a minute . . . [flush] . . . whew, I made it just in time. As I was saying, I’m so overwhelmed to receive this award from Mary Whitsell, storyteller extraordinaire. And I mean that.

No award, however, comes without a price. If this was an Academy Award I would have to rent a tux, and Martha would have to find the ugliest designer gown for over fifty grand—and that's not counting shoes.

This award, however, is awarded to the awardee with only one requirement: I am to write about some of my favorite things. Which reminds me of the song from The Sound of Music:

Whiskers on a grizzly bear
I keep falling out of my chair
Creamed spinach in my ears and hair
These are a few of my favorite things

You know, I’m thinking that these lyrics are not at all correct, so I’ll get on with the assignment and earn my award.

1) My stereo speakers. When I purchased a new sound system in 1977, I must have listened to dozens of speakers. I drove the salesman crazy, but I’d warned him: “I’ll know the right ones when a tympani sounds like a tympani and a bodhrán sounds like a bodhrán.” I found them finally, a little-known brand called Synergistics with a little-known price, and they still sound as good as they did thirty-plus years ago. So does my favorite piece, Tchaikovsky’s “Violin Concerto,” which I still air conduct with my air baton. I raise my right hand slowly, palm up, and the cellos come up slowly; I point at the tympani and he tymps right on cue; during the ten-minute finale, the Berlin Philharmonic and I make sublime, soaring music together. I turn and take a deep, satisfying bow to my air audience. All because, thirty-plus years ago, I took the time to find my true ear mates.

2) Some of my books. I’m not in love with all of my books, but rather with those that have a special meaning for me. One is James Michener’s The Source, a huge epic that traces the history of the Jews from earliest times through the Holocaust. It sits on my shelf, a yellowed, fat mass-market paperback made fatter by the high humidity in Vietnam. To anyone else it looks like an old beat-up book; to me, it is a reminder of the only quality and normal time I spent in that hellhole of a country.

Can a man be sentimental and, if he is, will he admit it? In my case, yes and yes. There are books that wring me out emotionally, like the recent The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, and the all-time Charlie-wringer, Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Madam Bovary, Sophie’s Choice, Anna Karenina—three tragic women, all three unforgettable, and all residents of the special bookshelf closest to my reading chair.

3) The dogs. This one, thank goodness for you, doesn’t require my usual verbosity. In fact, it is quite simple. I love our two little dogs, and they love me back. Housebound like I am, Casa la Dumpa would be a mighty lonely place without their companionship. Irish is the court jester but Molly, who will soon turn twelve, is the caregiver: she knows when the pack leader isn’t feeling well and cuddles against me like a warm, soft bag of fur. Until chow time, that is.

4) You folks. I don’t want to be maudlin, mushy, or mawkish, but I will be because I love alliteration. It is all well and good to have caring canine companions [shivers with alliterative glee], but I need people too. People who can tell me stories that make me laugh and make me cry, people who tell me about their lives and their cultures and their children and their opinions and their books and their hobbies and their pets and their ex-husbands and where Mary is moving next. Between emails, blogs and LibraryThing, I talk to people all over the world, instantly, which bloggles my mind. We share our humanity, and that is a wonderful thing. Without you, dear friends, and the Innertube to connect us, this would truly be a prison.

5) Martha. What can I say about the woman who has shared her life with me for thirty-five years? Who promised, “Through sickness and health, until death do us part,” and has kept it? Who, after all these years, still makes me laugh? Who is still a Minnesota farm girl at heart and slams the front door like a barn door so the flies can’t get out? Who has a dozen gardening projects in some stage of completion, but none completed? Who tells me, “No, you cannot buy that,” and “Be careful or you’ll break it,” and “Not until you wash your hands,”? Whom I can’t begin to imagine what life would be like without her?

Nothing, other than she is all of my favorite things.

[Thank you, Mary, for the award, and I apologize for not having leg-warmers on my list.]

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Charlie Graham Bell

This is an essay from my unpublished book, Soul Songs.

Charlie Graham Bell

“Good morning, this is Cell Phones R We. My name is Synthia and I’ll be your sales advisor. Whether or not I have it, I’ll sell it. How may I help you today?”

Ten seconds flat and I’m on bubblehead overload.

“I need a new cell phone.”

“Great! I can help you with that. Will this be a new line of service?”

“No, it’s a replacement phone. I dropped my old one in the toilet and it drowned. That’s what I get for talking on the phone while I’m taking a leak at the same time. That will teach me to multi-task. It’s a funny thing, though. A couple days later I was sitting on the john and I could swear I heard it ringing. Well, kind of a sloshing gurgling ringing, actually. For a minute there I thought SpongeBob SquarePants was trying to call me from the sewer.”


“That was a joke, Synthia.”

“Oh. I thought you were serious. People tell me all the time that dead people call them. Isn’t that weird?”

“Yeah. Those people need to cut back on their meds. I still need a new phone.”

“Oh, like, we have ooodles of really neat phones. What features do you want?”

“I want a phone where you talk into the mouthpiece, then you listen through the earpiece, then you talk through the mouthpiece, and so on. You know, one that works like a telephone.”

“Yes, all of our phones have voice communication. What other features are you just dying for? We have, like, ooodles of them.”

“I don’t want any other features. I want a phone where you talk into the mouthpiece, then you listen through the earpiece, then you talk through the mouthpiece, and so on.”

“You’re kidding.”

“I never kid unless I’m telling a bathroom joke.”

“Surely you must want 6-way calling, call waiting, interactive games, call forwarding, music downloads, a camera for those special moments, sports scores, Rush Limbaugh, movies—”

“—Yes, I’m sure that Lord of the Rings looks absolutely stunning on a one-inch screen in sixteen colors and a crappy earpiece.”

“Oh, it does! It’s really, like, awesome! May I sign you up for movies, then?”

“Uh, no.”

“Do you have stocks?”

“Yes, I have one in the basement—on occasion my wife gets unruly.”

“Great! Then you’ll surely want the stock ticker feature.”

“Uh, no.”

[Large sigh]

“Text messaging. You’ve gotta have text messaging. How in the world can you communicate without text messaging?”

“Let me guess: by calling someone on the telephone?”

“That doesn’t work in school or church or courtrooms where you have to be real quiet.”

“Heaven forbid that you’d have to sit there and pay attention.”

“I know, like it’s a real bummer. You’re supposed to sit there and listen, like I could care.”

I do have one question, Synthia. Do you have a phone that sends out secret messages and secret handshakes to my meth dealer?”

“You’re kidding.”

“I never kid unless I’m making drug dealer jokes . . .”

[This story is true, although I jazzed the dialog up a bit. I did get a new phone, shipped overnight for $12 (which I wasn't told about), and I've never been able to hear shit on it. Typical cheap Chinese crap.]

Friday, February 06, 2009

Masters of Understatement

Do YOU happen to know a knucklehead, a numbnut, or a dumb-as-a-doorknob indvidual who has the really irritating habit of stating the obvious? If so, tell us your story.

Okay, since you insist, I'll go first. After sitting on the freeway for forty-five minutes without moving one inch and with the engine turned off, I turned to Martha and said with all seriosity, "Gee, there must be an accident up ahead." Yes, friends, I am occasionally numbnutted.

But Martha isn't blameless either. Every time she turns on a lamp with a burned out lightbulb she mumbles, "Huh, the lightbulb must have burned out." And then she walks away.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Reviews: Hitler's Germany, Mao's China

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

Aware that I am a master gasbag, how do I summarize this incredible book in a paragraph or two? Quite simply, I cannot; all I can do for right now is scribble a few impressions.

There are a lot of books that have made me sad, and a handful of them have made me cry: Uncle Tom's Cabin is one of them, and The Book Thief is another. Despite foreshadowing by the book's narrator, Death, I was a wreck by book's end.

Death as narrator. Who better to tell a story that takes place inside Hitler's Germany? Death tells us, shortly after the Allies have bombed a place named Köln where five hundred were killed:

Five hundred souls.
I carried them in my fingers, like suitcases. Or I'd throw them over my shoulder. It was only the children I carried in my arms
You see, not every German citizen was a card-carrying Nazi, or a hater of Jews, or any of the other monsters of the Third Reich. Liesel Meminger, the book thief, was not. Neither were her foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, nor Max Vandenburg, the Jew the Hubermanns' hid in their basement, nor Rudy Steiner, Liesel's best friend whom she staunchly refused to kiss. These, and many other people like them, are the grist for Zusak's, and Death's, elegant, poetically-written mill.

5 stars for this beautiful book.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, by Dai Sijie

This is a short book that focuses on two teenage boys who are sent by Mao Zedong for re-education during his Cultural Revolution to a remote mountain called Phoenix of the Sky. "Cultural" Revolution, my left big toe. Any book, Western or otherwise, that did not preach the Party line was burned by the Red Guard, shades of Bradbury's Farenheit 451.

This book isn't all about books, but books do play a large role when the boys find a cache of Western books (translated into Chinese) hidden by a third boy, a book-lover himself. (Not bad: I used "book five times in one sentence.)

The tomes, all famous classics, are suitably devoured by the boys and Luo, one of the two and the only character in this story who has a given name, decides to read his favorite author, Balzac, to his girlfriend, the Little Seamstress. She, too, is enthralled by learning of faraway places and people she had never dreamed of.

Ultimately, these volumes have a life changing affect on all three—the un-named narrator; Luo; and the Little Seamstress. The climax of the story comes at the very end of the book with no denouement, which gave me plenty of time to ruminate once I closed the back cover.

There is a lot to like about this book: the characters, life in provincial China, life itself, and for me, the amazing array of flora that grew on the mountain. I agree there was humor, but I never found anything remotely hilarious as the Los Angeles Times claims on the book's cover.

Nevertheless, it deserves 4½ stars.