Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Folklore of Discworld by Terry Pratchett and Jacqueline Simpson

I've been on too long a break. This has been lying in my drafts, sad and unfinished for a while now. It is only fair to post it on my favourite author's sixty-fifth birthday. Do I have to say it? Discworld is awesome and even if it seems impossible, this book is just as awesome. I am a big fan of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them or Quidditch Through the Ages and I didn't think companion books could get any better. And then this came along in the mail. A little bit of Discworld was already spilling out from the middle of its delicious red cover. I couldn't wait to dive straight into it.

The Folklore of Discworld: Its Legends, Magic and Customs
with Helpful Hints from Planet Earth has just what its title promises. Discworld, for those of you who haven't read it (morons.) is a land somewhere in space - a turtle swimming idly through space carries on its back four elephants and on their heads rests the Disc; a world, which is quite like ours, but with magic. Accompanying the over thirty novels set in this world are a few other books, like the Science of Discworld and this book.

The Folklore of Discworld isn't a non-fiction, quite unlike it, actually. It tells us about the uncanny similarities between the Earth's legends and those of the Disc. About myths on the Earth that are actually real on the Disc and naturally, the other way around. You learn about the vampires, witches (and wizards, who are very different, of course) and zombies, the Luggage and the Feegles, the gods and Death. Our world and the Discworld do seem to have a lot in common and some of the reasons the author hypothesizes for this are: the constant drifting of particles of knowledge or through cosmic space, or the simple consideration that some or all of these creatures existed in all the worlds at some time or the other, and are now extinct. Read this book if you've read any books of the Discworld series, the fewer the better because a lot that is already in the books is repeated. But that doesn't really matter as it is all very interesting and alo quite informative. For instance, I never knew that a story right out of Hindu mythology played with the idea of four elephants standing at the four ends of the world, holding it up, or something to that effect.

Pratchett's writing is, as always, cheerful and witty. Good Omens told me that a collaboration isn't really a bad thing and that Pratchett could really pull it off. The Folklore of Discworld doesn't show any obvious there-are-two-authors-ey clumsiness, either. It is the kind of book that you can just open up to any page and start reading and before you know it, you're buried nose-deep inside it.

As it has the word "folklore" in it's title and everything, this book should qualify as my next read for the Once Upon a Time Challenge. And because I found this book extra nice, I have quoted an entire two pages - the story of how Ankh-Morpork, only the most horribly great city on the Disc, came to be. Read and laugh.

"Any self-respecting city has to have a legend about its foundation. Ankh-Morpork, as is right and proper for the oldest city on the Disc, has two.

The first is the official one. According to this, there were once two orphaned brothers, mere babies, who had been left on the shores of the Ankh to die. There they were found by a she-hippopotamus, who suckled them. When they grew up, they decided to build themselves a home, and so founded what must at the time have been a very small city indeed. In memory of this, the shield on the coat of arms of Ankh-Morpork has as its supports deux Hippopatames Royales Baillant, un enchaine, un couronne au cou. Which, stripped of its aristocratic herald-speak, means two royal hippos yawning, one wearing a chain and the other with a crown round its neck. The conventions of heraldry do not permit the sex of the beasts to be clearly indicated, but in view of the tale we can safely state that at least one of them is female. The legend is also commemorated by eight hippo statues on the city's Brass Bridge, facing out to sea. It is said that if danger ever threatens the city they will run away.

Some people have expressed doubts over this ancient and uplifting tradition. Why and how, they ask, would a she-hippo suckle human babies? And how could they thrive on this eccentric diet? Did they but know it, these doubters could find a tale on Earth proving that such thing are perfectly possible. It tells of twins, Romulus and Remus, who were the sons of Mars the God of War and a human princess. Their evil great-uncle, having just usurped his brother's throne, seized the boys and threw them into the Tiber, for fear they might grow up to challenge him.* But the river washed them safely to the bank, where a she-wolf fed them with her milk until a kindly shepherd found them. Later they built the city of Rome. Considering what wolves normally eat, this tale is even more wondrous than that of the hippo, but the Romans had no difficulty in believing it. And, naturally, making a statue about it.

The second legend is not told quite so often by the citizens of Ankh-Morpork, but is surprisingly widespread in other towns. It is said that way back in the fogs of time there was once a great flood sent by the gods, and that a group of wise men survived by building a huge boat into which they crammed two of every type of animal then existing on the Disc. After a few weeks the combined manure was beginning to weigh the boat low in the water, so - the story runs - they tipped it over the side and called the heap Ankh-Morpork. Anybody who doubts the truth of this should go and stand on one of the bridges over the Ankh, preferably on a warm day, and breathe deep.

* Tyrants insist on doing this, despite the fact that it never works."

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Ragnarok: The End of the Gods by A.S. Byatt

I must say, this was a great start to Once Upon a Time VII. Join the challenge here.

When I saw this at the book store, I immediately bought myself a copy, even though I knew nothing about Ragnarok (the Norse Armageddon) and very little about Norse mythology in general. Why? Well, firstly, it's part of a series of books on mythology, of which I've read the first introductory book; The Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong. Secondly, well, it's written by A.S. Byatt, who has grown to be one of my favourite authors, and not without reason. Byatt is a brilliant writer, a wordsmith. Her prose is rather poetic; a combination of apt imagery and beautiful sounds, which together with the strong emotions that her stories invoke in you, leaves you enraptured.

If you're a mythology fanatic or an expert, you might find this book a little too basic, as some of the Goodreads reviews seem to suggest. But if all you want is a general glimpse into the Norse myths, without having to struggle through a reference journal, the book is perfect. It is far from scholarly, and that, somehow is the magic of it. Throughout the book, Byatt maintains these careful inconsistencies, even with the names; because, she says, myths are always changing, there is no right or wrong, no accurate version. Where you'd have footnotes and in depth analyses of the different allegories, you have a thin young girl, who has had to move to the English countryside with a war raging around them, reading and shaping her world according to a book she loves called "Asgard and the Gods". It draws parallels to our world, at every step, through the mind of that little girl, who likens her father being away bombing the enemy's planes to Odin's Wild Hunt. 

At the same time, it's just a story, of how the world was fashioned by the gods from the Giant Ymir's corpse, of the creation of Ask and Embla, the stories of Odin or Wodun, Thor and Baldur the beautiful God, who was killed by his blind brother. We also read about Loki or Loptr, the playful shape-shifting fire God and his spawn; Jormungandr, the giant sea serpent, Hel, ruler of Niflheim, where the dead go and Fenris, the monstrous wolf. We experience, finally, the eponymous end of the gods, the terrible Ragnarok. With her writing, Byatt brings the myths alive, to the point where we don't only find Loki interesting, but want to read further to find out what happened of him. It's not informative, as an academic book about myths would be, instead, it's engaging.

All of Byatt's writing is heavily influenced by mythology, I've read enough of her books to recognize its hold on her. The thin child is based, after all, on Byatt herself, as a young girl, first finding her way to these myths. In her Booker Prize winning novel, Possession, one of the main characters is a poet called Randolph Henry Ash. These lines are from the epic he writes about Ragnarok. 

And these three Ases were the sons of Bor
Who slew the Giant Ymir in his rage
And made of him the elements of earth,
Body and sweat and bones and curly hair,
Made soil and sea and hills and waving trees,
And his grey brains wandered the heavens as clouds.
These three were Odin, Father of the Gods,
Honir, his brother, also called the Bright,
The Wise and Thoughtful, and that third, the hot
Loki, the hearth-god, whose consuming fire
First warmed the world, then grown beyond the bounds
Of home and hearth-stone, flamed in boundless greed
To turn the world, and Heav'n, to sifting ash.

(Chapter 13, Possession by A.S. Byatt)

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

What makes a good holiday read?

(Here because of the title? You can skip the reviews and scroll down to read my answers!)

I have been away from this blog for far too long. I just got back from a very bookishly eventful one-week holiday. Over the course of the five days, I seemed to have a lot of free time, mostly because I wasn't visiting some place, but someone. I spend this time reading, among other things and here's what I read:

1. Inside the Haveli by Rama Mehta - This exotic little book gives you a lot to think about - the lives of the women of the Haveli, their customs, their willing discrimination towards themselves and others and the strong rejection of the changing ideas of the outside world. The language is very Indian, with many colloquializations (this word check tells me that's not a word; isn't it?) and a few words out of the regional language to add flavour. That being said, the style is fluid and the descriptions are vivid and apt. If you like books on India, this is a must read!

2. A Hero of our Time by Mikhail Lermontov - The version I read was a translation by Vladimir Nabokov, which makes it difficult to point out that I thought the writing was clumsy. It was very disconnected and the effort went into it showed through clearly - that is to say, it seemed like a translation, which as far as I know, translations aren't supposed to seem like. The book itself was pretty odd. Of course, it was also very funny, which made want to keep reading and it was certainly interesting, how honest the book dared to be.

3. Thank You, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse - I'm working on a post on Wodehouse and that's where this is going to be, thanks.

4. The Fall by Albert Camus - I read this book, gulped it down (to be precise) within hours at a library (free of cost... yay.) Interestingly it started with a quote right out of A Hero of our Time, which I'd read the previous day, and I didn't notice that until I finished The Fall. Now, I think, the books have a lot in common. But A Hero of our Time is an endlessly better work. The Fall is disconnected, abrupt and while I was awed by most of the things written, it's just not a good book. The premise, the framework that makes it a fiction is loose and unnecessary, Camus ought to have published it as a series, maybe, of essays. As a book, it's is just very unfinished.

5. Howards End by E. M. Forster - What can I say about this one? Howards End was my favourite of the  five books that I read and it has definitely left a long-lasting impression on me. I am probably just developing a taste for that early modern (does that make any sense?) English prose; you know, at the turn of the century, where it is not quite Victorian but not like today. There is so much going on in that book, that I am going to devote an entire post to it, soon.

On my way back, at the airport and on the plane, I read Sybil by Flora Rheta Schreiber, the controversial 'true' story, which later turned out not to be quite as true as initially claimed, of the woman who was possessed by sixteen personalities. I haven't finished it yet, so I am not going to comment on it.

Looking back at the books that I read, and other holidays and other holiday reads, I realized not all of them were ideal for reading on a vacation. So what makes a good holidays read? There are the few things that I'll take into consideration the next time I pack my book bag / my Kindle (if my sister lets me have hers, tongue-in-cheek, I hope she reads this.)

# 1 The book should be short. You don't want to drag on for 600-something pages when you're on a vacation, there will definitely be distractions and frequent interruptions just don't work go hand-in-hand with longer reads. 200-300 pages are good enough for me, but some might like fewer.

# 2 The book should not be too intense. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying you keep your brain at home, when on a holiday. But in that nice relaxing atmosphere, I don't want to be reading Stephen King (and that's saying something, because I love King.) It should make you think, sure, I don't like immature, mindless books either, but not too much. You don't want the book to invade your mind throughout the journey.

# 3 The book should be written by an author you have never read. This is just a personal thing. When I have fewer or no expectations, I've learnt, I tend to like the book more - often because I give it a fair chance. When you are at a place you've never been before, surrounded by new things, the book should be a 'new' thing as well. The 32nd Discworld novel would not have provided me with as much fun as my 2nd ever Wodehouse, not because I don't like Terry Pratchett, but he reminds me of home.

# 4 The book should be fiction. I just do not have the patience for non-fiction on a journey. You want something eventful, distracting, maybe, swift paced and continuous, with a story. A mystery, a crime thriller, light horror novel, a family drama or a love story, a humorous fantasy, even a book of short stories (though I prefer novels to short stories) all work just fine.

# 5 The book should be hardcover and normal sized. By normal sized I mean well, not too wide or long, as it takes up more space (it should fit in your purse) and hardcover, mostly because you don't want to end up with an accidentally cracked spine or bent cover-pages. If you carry an e-reader, convenience is certainly yours, but me, I just like the touch of a real book.

What do you think makes a good holiday read?