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Who Tells Your Story Wednesday

What I've Finished Reading

Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett:

Granny had never had much time for words. They were insubstantial. Now she wished that she had found the time. Words were indeed insubstantial. They were as soft as water, but they were also as powerful as water and now they were rushing over the audience, eroding the levees of veracity, and carrying away the past.

That's us down there, she thought. Everyone knows who we really are, but the things down there are what they'll remember - three gibbering old baggages in pointy hats. All we've ever done, all we've ever been, won't exist anymore.

So Terry Pratchett just keeps getting better. Wyrd Sisters is a hilarious and affectionate parody of all things Shakespeare and a pointed meditation on the Ethics of Tudor Propaganda (and magic, and fiction as a species of magic), interrupted at intervals by Nanny Ogg singing an off-color song about the superior natural defenses of the hedgehog. It also might be Pratchett's most successfully character-driven comedy yet? I don't know; that's hard to judge. But the interplay among the three witches, and their genuine friction and friendship with each other, is a potentially inexhaustible well of enjoyment. I wish Wyrd Sisters were a sitcom, or a podcast, so that I could listen to three episodes a day for the rest of my life. Personally, I could have done with fewer jokes about how flat-chested Magrat is, but there's enough here to more than make up for it. There is also a memorable cameo by DEATH, as himself, suffering a rare bout of stage fright. It's always a pleasure to see you again, Death, even under circumstances as meta as these <3. Pratchett has all the chops he needs to pull of the Shakespeare parody: critical, lyrical, and bawdy. This is one of those books that make me fleetingly angry with myself for not reading them twenty years ago, just because I can see what a good friend they would have been to me during that time. But you know how time is. I read it now instead, and that has to be good enough.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

It's a multigenerational transatlantic family history, and I think some part of my mind kept stubbornly conflating "ambitious" with "weird" and expected it to have some kind of startling narrative gimmick, which it doesn't. It's very straightforwardly written and structured, with a ladder of short stories, one per generation, alternating between two branches of a West African family. One half-sister is married to an administrator in the British slave trade, one is sold into slavery across the Atlantic. There's the device of a necklace that keeps getting passed down by improbable means, and eventually the two strands are reunited, unknown to themselves, in the (suddenly curiously YA-influenced) present. I'm not sure whether it's a good thing or bad that I wanted more of a lot of the stories - the irrevocable loss of one character after another just when you've started to care about them is part of the point. They tend to stop just when things are getting interesting, and especially in the American thread, they hit a lot of very familiar notes. Familiarity's not necessarily a flaw, but given the structure - these are all fleeting snapshots of people we usually won't see again except in flashback - it's not exactly a strength, either. The West African thread is stronger, at least from my poorly-read US perspective.

More than anything, though, I think my expectations (for "ambitious" prose to go along with the ambitious timeline) skewed my ability to read clearly and left me with a sense of disappointment I can't entirely justify. Read it for yourself! That's my advice.

The Old Man and the Sea

"When I get back, you can tell me about the baseball."

"The Yankees cannot lose."

"But I fear the Indians of Cleveland."

"Have faith in the Yankees my son. Think of the great DiMaggio."

"I fear both the Tigers of Detroit and the Indians of Cleveland."

"Be careful or you will fear even the Reds of Cincinnati and the White Sox of Chicago."

Ok, first of all, GO TIGERS.

Secondly, there's this thing Hemingway does where he deliberately makes a pseudo-literal translation instead of trying to be idiomatic - these characters are presumably speaking Spanish, so he uses Spanish grammatical structures even though the book is being written in English, which has, at least for me and in Hemingway's books, a distancing effect. In For Whom the Bell Tolls you could argue that the POV guy is speaking and hearing Spanish as a second language and the literal structure expresses something about how the language sounds to him as an outsider, but here, where the POV is omniscient and it's two people from the same village talking to each other about baseball, it just sounds twee and irritating - to my ears, anyway.

That's my big complaint about The Old Man and the Sea. I liked it a lot better once the fish comes in -- this is a story about an old fisherman who goes out in a boat, hooks a beautiful and enormous fish he can't manage to haul up, and leads it around with him, alive under the water, hoping for the best. But, like, what's the best that man can hope for? What's that big rock for if not to roll back down the hill and give you something to do with your life? He finally manages to wear the fish out long enough to lash it to the boat, but sharks come and eat the fish and our old man is left with a huge fish skeleton and a damn mess.

I don't remember reading this in school, and it's just as well. Teen!me would have been outraged and scornful at the ending, which would have seemed like sheer petty malice on the author's part, letting that poor guy WHO I DIDN'T EVEN CARE ABOUT IN THE FIRST PLACE, GOD, go to all that trouble only to have his beautiful adversary chomped to bloody bits on its way to market, just so SOME ASSHOLE NAMED HEMINGWAY could teach me a dumb lesson about how it was all for nothing JUST LIKE LIFE, AMIRITE? I would probably have written a parody instead of doing my assignment properly and been really sarcastic in the "plot summary" section of the exam. Part of me still feels the parody itch - Hemingway is brilliant in exactly the ways that make him easy to mock. But this time it was all right - actually, I was relieved that he got home safely, and the ruin of the fish seemed almost inevitable, if terribly sad. He shouldn't have gone so far out! But he did and now he's home, and tomorrow he'll try again. It helps that I don't think you can really go wrong with the sea (or rather, you can't not go wrong with the sea, which is the sea's great gift to art). It reminded me a little of Apollo 13, which has a similar, painfully satisfying arc of ambition, survival, loss and return.

As Anthony Burgess points out, people made fun of Hemingway for fishing all day long, but here his experience pays off: the ocean, the sun, the huge fish are all very real.

What I'm Reading Now

The True Actor by Jacinto Lucas Pires. Out-of-work actor Americo Abril receives an offer to star in a self-referential art film, and almost as soon as he accepts, a self-referential art film swells up around him and swallows his real (?) life. I spent the first four chapters prickling with impatience at Americo Abril's dull detachment from everyone and everything (and his adultery and low-level alienation from his wife, always a hard sell to start with) but the stranger things get for Americo, the more willing I am to keep reading. I still wish I could like him a little more, though it's not the kind of book where liking the guy is the point. There's probably a little bit of translation syndrome at work here; you get the impression that a lot of these sentences were funnier or livelier in Portuguese.

I'm not supposed to like Henry Mulhaney in The Groves of Academe, either, but somehow it matters in The True Actor and doesn't matter in the least, or is an active good, in Groves. Mulhaney is a beautifully unattractive literature professor who turns a perfectly ordinary non-renewal of his contract into a moral crusade with just a few simple lies. That the brisk ink caricature of a tiny "progressive" college is so instantly familiar to me is all the funnier given that this book came out in 1952 and I didn't start college until the 1990s. An existential question emerges: Is it even possible to write a novel about academia without resorting to caricature? Is academia just a natural caricaturizing process? Anyway, things are off to a promising start here.

What I Plan to Read Next

Witches Abroad or Night Watch -- which one should it be, Pratchett fans? Next up in 99 Novels is Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor. Next on my own shelves: well, that depends on which shelf we're on.


( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 14th, 2016 07:02 pm (UTC)
Hahaha oh my God, your imagined cranky teenaged reaction to The Old Man and the Sea was pretty much EXACTLY my actual cranky teenage reaction when I read the book (although I didn't read it for school so I didn't have the opportunity to commit to paper my bitterly sarcastic parody about this old guy WHO I DON'T EVEN LIKE and his dumb fish, like, why couldn't he drag the fish on board once it was half-eaten? Wouldn't it be small enough then? And then he could at least eat the remains of the damn thing for dinner!
Sep. 14th, 2016 09:19 pm (UTC)
Obviously we should go back in time and start a cranky Hemingway parody club! STUPID FISH BOAT GUY, HEMINGWAY YOU SUCK >:(
Sep. 14th, 2016 07:32 pm (UTC)
I vote for Witches Abroad next! It's not the greatest Pratchett (it's a fairy tale parody, and suffers greatly from the fact that, in the 30 years since it was published, fairy tale parodies have become tired cliches), but Night Watch is one of the few Discworld books that's best not read out of order, because it does rely heavily on your previous knowledge of the characters and setting. Though, you have read all the other Watch books, right? So maybe you could go ahead and read Night Watch anyway.

I gave serious consideration to Homegoing in a bookstore a few weeks ago, but in the end I decided my to-read list was too long and the blurb was just not quite attention-capturing enough, and put it back. You make it sound very good though! Maybe I'll give it another chance.

I too did not have to read The Old Man and the Sea in school! Other Hemingway, sure, but that one I escaped. I think I would probably have had the same reaction as your teenage self.
Sep. 14th, 2016 09:28 pm (UTC)
Homegoing is worth a try! Honestly, even the fact that it does a better job as a morally complex and human story about African participation in the slave trade than it does as an American multigenerational epic makes it worth reading (this again from my narrow US lit perspective, but it's a book a lot of Americans are reading, so maybe that's relevant?) And it is very, very readable. For good or ill, it goes by fast. Obvious warnings apply for everything you've come to expect from the transatlantic slave trade, of course.

I missed out on Jingo, which the library doesn't have, but I think I've read all the other Watch books besides that one. I have to say, I'm kind of curious about what Pratchett does with a fairy-tale parody, tired cliche or not.

Edited at 2016-09-14 09:29 pm (UTC)
Sep. 19th, 2016 09:34 pm (UTC)
I missed out on Jingo, which the library doesn't have

Oh, too bad! Jingo is one of my favorites. And it's been years since I read it, so I don't know if it holds up well, but it does seem likely to be very relevant to modern times – it's about a pointless, greedy war between Ankh-Morpork and a Middle Eastern-esque country.
Sep. 19th, 2016 09:38 pm (UTC)
I'll have to find a copy and see if it holds up! (it might be worth reading even if it doesn't).
Sep. 19th, 2016 09:42 pm (UTC)
Do you do ebooks? I could lend you my copy.
Sep. 19th, 2016 09:43 pm (UTC)
I don't, but thank you for offering!
Sep. 14th, 2016 08:16 pm (UTC)
Yay, I'm so glad you enjoyed Wyrd Sisters! I do love the witches very much. I think I'd recommend going on to Witches Abroad while you've still got so many Pratchett gaps - although on the other hand reading Night Watch with the rest of the Guards canon fresh in your head is a good idea, I think. But I think you should just go through the witches, till you catch up a bit - Night Watch builds not only on Guards, but various other books, like Thief of Time too.

I am very amused at your non-existent teen reaction to Hemingway. I didn't read any Hemingway at school but teen me was pretty much equally resentful of John Steinbeck. (Who can care about stupid books where everybody is miserable forever?? I wanted to read fantasy where people had swords and magic and adventures and not just scorpions and rubbish lives.) We have probably all been there, whatever book it was the unwise adults forced on us.
Sep. 14th, 2016 09:43 pm (UTC)
They are the best. <3 I love them each in a different way (and Nanny Ogg reminds me a lot of one of my own grandmothers, in both good and bad ways. My grandmother died almost twenty years ago, so there's a very thin wire of bittersweetness here, too).

I didn't read any Hemingway at school but teen me was pretty much equally resentful of John Steinbeck.

I HOPE you didn't have to read THE PEARL. I do remember that one and it made me blisteringly angry. I feel like there was a general problem when we were in school of picking books because they were short and used simple language without considering that THE CRUEL INDIFFERENCE OF THE UNIVERSE TO HUMAN ENDEAVOR AND SUFFERING might rub a lot of teenagers the wrong way.

(I did like some EVERYTHING IS TERRIBLE stories at that age - "All Summer in a Day" and "Where are You Going, Where Have You Been" made strong impressions on me. I liked Wuthering Heights and I didn't even hate Ethan Frome. But I could not be having with The Pearl in any way. The false naivete + SCORPIONS FALL EVERYONE DIES YOUR LIFE IS GARBAGE was a combo I couldn't appreciate).
Sep. 15th, 2016 12:00 pm (UTC)

And, yes, it was The Pearl! I can't remember enough about it in detail, except that I despised and detested it and its scorpion. Our teacher made us do some fun activities off it. I seem to remember us doing a chat show... pretending it was a chat show about a film of it?

I think everything is terrible things I liked were WWI and WWII books, especially if they were real, but stupid authors just trying to impress everyone with how depressing they can be, I mean, whyyy? :lol: (I have never, as a result, been able to bring myself to read any other Steinbeck, which no doubt is a shame, but I also can't bring myself to care at this point in my life. He shouldn't have written The Pearl should he?)
Sep. 15th, 2016 12:44 am (UTC)
I need to read more Pratchett *grins*
Sep. 15th, 2016 09:25 am (UTC)
I need to as well :)
Sep. 15th, 2016 02:13 pm (UTC)
I recommend it 100%!
Sep. 15th, 2016 02:57 pm (UTC)
Witches Abroad! I may be misguided idiot, but it's one of my faves. There's one footnote joke I've very fond of even if it wouldn't win a genius joke award.
( 15 comments — Leave a comment )


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