September 14, 2009

Review: Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis

Some of you may have read Connie Willis's other time-travel novel, To Say Nothing of the Dog, and may subsequently have the impression that her books are just barrels of smart and witty laughs and giggles. Please allow me to correct this impression: Doomsday Book is smart and full of time-travelling Oxfordians, but humourous it is not. Beautiful, yes. Haunting, yes. Funny? Not so much.

I mean, come on. It's about the Black Plague.

Our story begins in Oxford in 2054 -- long after the great Pandemic that will soon strike us all, but not so long that it's been forgotten. Time travel exists, but isn't particularly glamourous; it's used primarily by historians wishing to do on-site research. Kivrin Engle is one such historian, and she has taught herself Latin masses and cow milking and Middle English in preparation for a two-week research stint in 1320. Her tutor, James Dunwoody, doesn't want her to go; the drop is being supervised by the incompetent Gilchrist, who hadn't even sent an unmanned probe to the 14th century before approving Kivrin's journey.

His worrying has no effect, however. Kivrin is sent back in time, and his own hands are soon full as a mysterious viral epidemic breaks out in Oxford. In the meantime, Kivrin has landed in the correct century, at more or less the correct place, and has been taken in by the family of Sir Guillaume D'Iverie: his wife, mother, and two young daughters.

Do I need to tell you that things go wrong? Things go very wrong -- wrong like there-goes-half-of-Europe wrong. The middle ages are brutal, but not as brutal as the plague that swept through them. [Aside: did you know that people still fall ill from bubonic plague? No joke. It's no picnic, I'm sure, but it's easily taken care of with antibiotics and such now. Still, can you imagine? "Uh, boss, I can't come in to work today ... yeah, I'm a bit sick ... bubonic plague, actually ... no, I'm serious, I have the plague ... hello? hello?" End of aside.]

A great strength of Doomsday Book is Willis's research, which must have been extensive and meticulous. The passages set in the middle ages are exquisitely realized. The filth and grit and vibrancy of the "contemps" are all there, and the picture that is painted of the way people actually lived is much more vivid and real than anything I've ever encountered in a history book, or even in much historical fiction. This works especially because the facts and facets of medieval life are inextricably grounded in the lives of the characters -- and history is about people, and stories, after all.

Of course, one of the great facets of medieval life was the Black Death, which swept through Europe first in the sixth century, and then in the fourteenth and for several centuries thereafter. It doesn't give away too much to tell you that plague happens in Doomsday Book, and that it's horrible. Have you ever really thought about what it's like when plague buboes burst? You will.

That being said, Doomsday Book is tragic but not entirely hopeless. The ending is bleak but strangely satisfying. You know, triumph of the human spirit, blah de blah de blah. It's pretty great.

September 12, 2009

Review: A Hat Full of Sky, by Terry Pratchett

Over the last year or two my brother and I have both chewed our way through Terry Pratchett's Discworld series like a couple of termites through wood. But I finished reading the last one quite a few months ago -- perhaps close to a year, in fact -- and I've been hesitant to pick them up again. Sometimes it's hard to re-read a book; you're not sure how much you remember, or whether that remembrance will spoil it for you, or whether any of the jokes will be funny the second time around.

I am happy to report that Terry Pratchett is still excellent the second time through -- and, presumably, the third, fourth, and nth time as well.

A Hat Full of Sky is the second Discworld to feature Tiffany Aching, a "big wee young hag". She's a young witch of some considerable power, and she has a good relationship with the Nac Mac Feegle, tiny Pictsies (not pixies, thank you very much: these fairies are red-haired, kilt-wearing, covered with blue tattoos, and will fight anything -- including themselves -- at a drop of a hat) who  lives in the Chalk country and makes cheese. Of course, she's also been the kelda (queen) of a Nac Mac Feegle clan, which makes things rather ... interesting. In A Hat Full of Sky, Tiffany leaves the Chalk to apprentice with Miss Level, another witch.

There's trouble, of course. There always is. Tiffany is followed from the Chalk by a hiver, a semi-sentient being that feeds off the power of others -- takes them over, in fact. Tiffany must find a way to get rid of the hiver, as well as come into her own power as a witch (or a hag, to the Nac Mac Feegle). These things are not very easy, although perhaps for different reasons than you'd imagine.

One thing that I like about Pratchett's writing is that, among the qualities of intelligent insight, interestingness, and humour, he always has at least two out of three going, and usually all of them. Certain books run heavily to one or two of them, and A Hat Full of Sky -- like most of the witch books, actually -- runs heavily to insight. Here's something from toward the beginning:
The trouble with Tiffany was her Third Thoughts*. They thought: She lives by herself. Who lit the fire? A bubbling pot needs stirring from time to time. Who stirred it? And someone lit the candles. Who?

*First Thoughts are the everyday thoughts. Everyone has those. Second Thoughts are the thoughts you think about the way you think. People who enjoy thinking have those. Third Thoughts are thoughts that watch the world and think all by themselves. They're rare, and often troublesome. Listening to them is part of witchcraft. (p 71)

And something from toward the end:
What she wanted to say was: 'Where I come from, Annagramma, they have the Sheepdog Trials. Shephers travel there from all over the show off their dogs. And there're silver crooks and belts with silver buckles and prizes of all kinds, Annagramma, but do you know what the big prize was? No, you wouldn't. Oh, there were judges, but they didn't count, not for the big prize. There is -- There was a little old lady who was always at the front of the crowd, leaning on the hurdles with her pipe ion her mouth with the two finest sheepdogs ever pupped sitting at her feet. Their names were Thunder and Lightning and they moved so fast they set the air on fire and their coats outshone the sun, but she never, ever put them in the Trials. She knew more about sheep than even sheep knew. And what every young shepherd wanted, really wanted, wasn't some silly cup or belt but to see her take her pipe out of her mouth as he left the arena and quietly say "That'll do" because that meant he was a real shepherd and all the other shepherds would knew it too. And if you'd told him he had to challenge her, he'd cuss at you and stap his foot and tell you he'd sooner spit the sun dark. How could he ever win? She was shepherding. It was the whole of her life. What you took away from her you'd take away from yourself. You don't understand that, do you? But it's the heart and soul and centre of it! The soul . . . and . . . centre!' (pp 329-30)

Of course, the book has its fair share of funny as well, particularly when the narration is dealing with the Nac Mac Feegle -- who are awfully feisty, stupid, and irascible, but also thoroughly inventive and loyal. And aren't tiny blue drunks always good for a laugh? I assure you, they always are. But the humour is not limited to the Pictsies; as with most Pratchett, there are numerous authorial asides that make me giggle. Consider this footnote from page 176:
*The hermit elephant of Howondaland has a very thin hide, except on its head, and young ones will often move into a small mud hut while the owners are out. It is far too shy to harm anyone, but most people quit their huts pretty soon after an elephant moves in. For one thing, it lifts the hut off the ground and carries it away on its back across the veldt, settling it down over any patch of nice grass that it finds. This makes housework very unpredictable. Nevertheless, and entire village of hermit elephants moving across the plains is one of the finest sights on the continent.

It's the last sentence that really makes that paragraph, I think. And it's the last chapter that really makes this book -- but of course, I will not spoil that for you. You will simply have to read it for yourselves.

September 10, 2009

Things I Hate About Libraries

Well, it's one thing, really. But it's a doozy.

When I was in grade nine, one of the big projects for my art class was to find a painting -- I think it had to be by one of the Group of Seven -- and reproduce it with a graph scale. I chose Northern Lights, by Tom Thompson (below) which I found in an art book from the public libraryTom_Thomson_Northern_Lights_L.

And time went by, and I eventually finished the project (pencil crayon on sketch paper, slightly skewed) and handed it in, and that was that. Except, and there's always an "except", it had taken longer than I projected time allotment to finish the darn thing, and my library book -- my big, expensive-looking library book -- was now overdue.

And it was overdue, and then very overdue, and then crazy overdue. And it wouldn't have been so bad if I had been able to get it back to the library within the first week or two of it being past time. The fine would have been reasonable, but more to the point, the shame would be somewhat mitigated by the fact of its being so barely overdue. I mean, everyone is a few days late with a library book sometimes, right?

But it didn't work that way. I didn't get it back within a reasonable amount of time, and the phone calls from the library kept coming, and the book lay on my bedroom floor thinking nasty thoughts at me. After a time the thought of actually bringing the book back just made me writhe. What would they think of me, Book Thief, who had it out for so many extra months? How big would my fine be? Would the librarian glare? Would they restrict my card? I was mortified that I still had this book, but I was even more mortified at the thought of returning it.

(I did eventually return in; the fine was about $14 and the librarian was very nice. And it all would have turned out all right in the end, except for the fact that forgetting to bring library books is not, shall we say, a rare occurrence for me.)

Fast-forward nine years, and my copy of War and Peace is currently overdue. I know it's overdue. It's sitting right there on my desk, waiting patiently to be returned, should I ever get my butt in gear to actually do so. I do plan on returning it, but I feel I must at least make my case for why it's overdue: I simply had no idea of the due date.

I realize that this is a bit of a cop-out. I am a grown woman. I am able to look up due dates online. I know how to look at a calendar and figure out what day it is. And yet I can't keep a date in my head -- and especially not for this particular loan, which was quite a bit longer than usual, perhaps because War and Peace is a giant chunkster of a book, or perhaps because they figured nobody else would want it in the meantime. I don't know. So the first indication I had that a deadline was near or missed was that annoying computer voice on the telephone telling me that I blew it again.

What is the deal?

When I was in university, the library would automatically email you two days before an item became due. This is a fantastic system, my friends. Even if you can't keep your loans straight, it can, and two days is more than enough warning for a return or renewal.

Is there a reason that the public library can't do this? They certainly jump on it the moment you cross the line to overdue territory. If they can phone me then, why not two days before? Why can't I attach an email address to my library card, so that I can be sent the same sort of message in text form? Is the technology not there? Are they just trying to get more fine money? Or does it not matter, because everyone else on the planet is so much more diligent about these things?

Tell me. Does anybody''s public library offer this kind of service? Librarians, have you any yeas or nays? I want to know!*

*so I can wave it in my own library's face, obviously.

September 1, 2009

Just Phuling Around

One of the problems with reading an entire series back-to-back is that you start to see all the little things that the author -- and his editor -- didn't. Like how minor characters sometimes mysteriously change the spelling or their names between books. And their genders. And their entire characterizations. Or how the main character's father mysteriously starts calling his son Wilfred instead of Willard -- his actual name -- in book five.

Dang it, Robert Asprin, were you even reading this stuff as you wrote it? Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy.

*mutter mutter*

These books are clunky. They're repetitive. They're slow, and generally take about half the book just to start getting to the action. There are some serious problems with the writing. It's full of "As you know, Bob" dialogue. The prose sucks on all sorts of levels -- and yet I can't stop reading them. The trouble is that even though these books are kind of terrible, they're also ... really kind of fun. They amuse me.

Taken in smaller doses, Robert Asprin's (and sometimes Peter J. Heck's) Phule series is good summer reading, light space opera that doesn't need to be taken too seriously. The series follows the (mis)adventures of mega-millionaire Willard Phule, more often known as Captain Jester of the Space Legion. After ordering a peace conference strafed, Phule/Jester is reassigned to command of an Omega Company: a dumping ground for losers and misfits below even the Legion's usual lax standards. Unsurprisingly, Our Plucky Hero (tm) -- and his butler -- turn the ragtag troops into something rather more disciplined and much more amusing, punning all the while.

The characters are stereotypical -- the tiny-but-feisty woman, the Italian small-time thief, the inscrutable oriental, the gentle giant -- but, if anything, that only adds to the appeal of the series. Why wrestle with complex characterization when it's already all laid out for you? Exactly. And the situations are predictable enough that you don't worry too hard about them: Phule's company gets in trouble; Phule gets them out; Phule gets in trouble; Phule's company gets him out, etc. At the same time, though, they're zany enough to keep you guessing.

Plus, there's an entire denomination that worships Elvis.

In short, this series is terribly written, excellent brain candy.