Yet another Pratchett post

(It’s almost starting to feel like we have a little bit of an obsession, isn’t it?)

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Night Watch, first published in 2002, was written during what I think of as Pratchett’s Golden Era. I’m not alone in thinking this, either: it is widely considered his best book, and with good reason. Night Watch demonstrates Pratchett’s satirical talent at its finest: scathing wit and biting humour cut away at societal hypocrisy with the precision of a scalpel, and sometimes an axe; socio-economic injustice, cultural cowardice, capitalism and classism, and the insidious nature of humanity at its most ordinary are held up for examination in all their corrosive, stagnating glory.

Despite these grim subjects, however, Night Watch is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny: one of Pratchett’s great gifts is his ability to see the humour in the follies and failings of humanity: he shows his love for people even as he rails against our mediocrity and challenges our complacency; he revels in puns and exhilarating flights of wordplay and simultaneously reveals the selfishness and moral weakness that so often betrays and defeats us.  At the heart of the novel is a passion and righteous fury that burns like a star, blazing and brilliant–it is Pratchett’s extraordinary mind and soul, and it illuminates and transforms.

Now that I’ve written all that, it occurs to me that this, while true of Night Watch, is also rather true of certain of his other books: in Monstrous Regiment, and I Shall Wear Midnight and at moments in Thud, and even Going Postal or Johnny and the Bomb. The wonder of Pratchett is that he can write an extremely funny book, that captivates you and whisks you away to a world of caricature and absurdity and silly puns, but almost every time, there will come a moment when he transcends all of that, when he sifts through a million million grains of sand and holds up the one that contains something more–when he finds infinity and holds it, ever so lightly, in the palm of his hand, and points at it, and says, “look.”

 

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We’re Baaack!

Hello world, and look out: your favourite bookwitches are back in action!

It seems fitting, on a day when so much of the world is looking on in varying degrees of distress, despair, alarm and concern at the state of our social and political landscape, to relaunch a mission of hope, inspiration, and creativity.

This, our inaugural post (as it were), is less a mission statement than it is a heads up: 2017 is going to be a big year for the world, and we are going to be a big part of that. Our aim is to share the magic of books, the joy and wonder of literature with readers and thinkers young and old, and never has that magic been needed more than it is now.

This year, we’re upping our game and stepping out into a new adventure! Watch this space for exciting developments and announcements: big things are coming, and you can expect to see some amazing sights in the next few months!

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We miss you, Sir Terry

Eight months, almost to the day, after the world said a heartbroken farewell to Sir Terry Pratchett, and we are still quite devastated by his passing, still coming to terms with the immensity of our loss.

Never before in my life have I felt such momentous, overwhelming, heart-aching, tear-shedding grief at the death of someone I never met.  To this day, I feel as though the man who died on March 12, 2015, was not a famous writer, an influential and extraordinary author to whom we are all indebted for the magnificent writing he gave us–rather, I feel as though the man who died in March was my brother, father, grandfather: a man I knew and loved as my own family, and whose passing I still mourn, whose loss I still haven’t quite learned to cope with.

This autumn, we received the 41st, and final, novel in the Discworld series, starring one of Pratchett’s finest creations, Tiffany Aching. I haven’t yet been able to bring myself to read Shepherd’s Crown, and to be honest, even thinking about it is enough to choke me up. It feels too much like saying goodbye to Sir Terry all over again, and I can’t bring myself to do that. Reading Shepherd’s Crown is too much like accepting that he’s really gone: those words are the last he wrote.  As a child, I loved watching an adaptation of Ludwig Bemelmens’ Madeline; the closing phrase comes back to me now, gentle as it ever was, but piercing in its truth and poignancy, as I look at my unopened copy of the final Discworld novel and remember, with tears rolling down my cheeks: “That’s all there is; there isn’t any more.”

Wherever you are, Sir Terry, please know that we miss you.

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Words and music and….

Sometimes, it feels right to share a good song too….especially one with such a wonderful message.  Take a look…

http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2015/may/13/strong-girl-one-campaign-song-women-girls-sustainable-development

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Inspired by Els

I am thrilled to share this excellent article from the Guardian on Els, the 8-year-old who challenged Scholastic’s perpetuation of gender stereotypes through a petition that called on the publisher to stop marketing its books as “for boys” or “for girls.”

Articles like this one give us hope for the future–Els’ thoughtfulness, her critical analysis of the situation, and her strength in standing up and protesting the unfair way these books were being presented, are qualities much to be admired in someone of any age, but especially in someone so young, and the thought of the world in the hands of people like Els is inspiring. However, as many parents, siblings, and caretakers reading this will be aware, these qualities are not as rare in children as one might think: rather, they are strengths that are all-too-often missed by adults, as we overlook, ignore, or significantly diminish the skills and ideas of the under-12s (and older too, for that matter–but that’s a different story).  Thus, stories like this one are exceptional not only because Els spoke up, but because someone actually listened.

Els’ protest also brings to mind, for me at least, another issue at work within the world of publishing and marketing. For the past few years, the children’s literary market has been dominated by young adult titles: from Twilight, to The Hunger Games and Divergent, not to mention John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, the books that have received the biggest share of cultural attention, headlines, movie rights and bestseller spots have been those geared to 13+, and frequently read by those 30+ as well; unfortunately,  a side-effect of this massive surge in popularity for YA lit has been a serious diminishing of attention, opportunity, and respect for books geared towards younger readers.

Having said that, in recent months we’ve started to see a shift in the tone of new releases: the steady stream of apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic dystopian novels has diminished, and while there are more books about teens with terminal illnesses than there used to be, that really hasn’t stepped up as a dominant genre. Rather, we’re starting to see a return to what might be considered “old-fashioned” children’s literature:  novels where the characters are between 9-13 years old, act largely independently of adults, must take on a great deal of responsibility, and are caught up in mysteries, peril, and fantastic adventures of assorted kinds. Parents are kidnapped, stolen paintings uncovered, mystical creatures with amazing powers encountered: the plots and premises are varied, and the depth and sophistication of characterisation and emotion (in the good ones, at least), absolutely rivals, if not to say surpasses, those of books written for more “mature” audiences. Much like their older counterparts, the protagonists of children’s literature frequently find themselves in fraught situations where the world hangs in the balance, but–and here’s a key distinction–in these novels the world is worth saving. These stories are not naive in tone, nor is there an abundance of Pollyanna-esque levels of overwhelming positivity. Tragedies happen and sorrow touches characters in ways both great and small. But there is a quality of optimism in these novels which has been largely absent from teen lit of recent years, and from adult literature for far longer, and it is this optimism that I believe that is so important in the raising of children and young adults of the current generation.

I believe that most children are, by nature, optimists–that they have the courage of their convictions, whatever they may be, and that they are willing to fight for what they believe in (and also, as every exhausted parent knows, to fight very hard for what they want); Els, with her determination and willingness to challenge herself and others, is a perfect example of this kind of steely optimism, which children’s literature, done well, encourages and strengthens.  Children are, I think often more than adults, sure that they are able to make a serious difference in the world; going by the evidence, I’m inclined to think they’re right.

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Minding Marta

Our dog has a torn dewclaw, and the vet told us to dissuade her from licking it for at least four days; to that end, we have, after smearing on the cream that he gave us, wrapped the injured place with bandages and tape. Perhaps that would be sufficient for a well behaved, docile kind of dog, but not for Marta, the canine Houdini. Not only can she have that bandage off in less that three minutes, but she can (drum roll please) ingest it so swiftly and completely that if you have, by chance, decided to take a quick five minute shower, you will find, on re-entering the room where you left her, a total absence of anything resembling said bandage, and a dog vigorously licking her now bare leg. And don’t even get me started on the (beloved by vets) collar of shame; Marta can chew through that and get back to licking and infecting said leg in the blink of an eye. Consequently, the three of us here have been taking turns monitoring Marta, 24 hours a day. She appears to be very happy, as fresh as a daisy and wanting to play, go for walks, chase sticks (and cats), and in all ways behave with doggy abandon and delight; we, on the other hand, are barely functioning.

So this has been a particularly good time to read The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks, because if any book could make short shrift of my whinging, this is the one. Set in the Lake District, this is far from the romanticized vision that is usually associated with Wordsworth country. Certainly, the world that Rebanks describes is one of extraordinary hard work, impossibly long hours and very little financial reward. However, it is a world that clearly satisfies and enriches the lives of the people who inhabit it, and it has a great deal to teach those of us who restlessly search to find our place, and who are never quite settled where we are. Rebanks’ family have lived and worked in the Lake District for over six hundred years; he is deeply aware of, and grateful for, his connection to the land and to the people with whom he shares it, people who, like him, take their responsibilities seriously and who do so with great integrity. Initially disinterested in school, he came to formal education later than most, though when he did decide to take it on his intelligence and work ethic lead him to read history at Oxford. But right from the start he was clear that, although his degree could afford him the opportunity to work in a variety of arenas, his primary work was and is shepherding; that is what he has returned to, supplementing his livelihood with valuable work at UNESCO.

Rebanks’ story is fascinating, his writing clear, imaginative, and a pleasure to read. The Shepherd’s Life is the perfect antidote for those of us caught in a world where values are too often pliable, and where discomfort is too often mistaken for hardship, and is exactly the right book when you need a dose of perspective: such as at three in the morning, when you’re once again cleaning vomited vet tape off the kitchen floor.

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Things I do when I should be doing something else

  

It’s been one of those weekends–delightfully holiday-filled, but somehow, despite the extra time off, not particularly productive–as the lack of postings from me will attest (and yes, I do know it’s Wednesday; it was a very long long-weekend). I don’t know about you, but I find that whenever I have a whole whack of time where I can get a bunch of things done (usually things I’ve been putting off for just such an occasion)…I do anything but. It’s at such times that my tendency to reread things comes very much to the fore.

The whole concept of rereading things is a fairly contentious point amongst book people: I have a few good friends who cannot stand to reread a book and find it quite bizarre that I do so; conversely, there are people such as myself, who reread things regularly and have been known to read the same book, cover-to-cover, again and again over a period of anywhere from 9 months to 10 years. I also tend to dip into books I know very well, in a habit I refer to as “magazine reading”: whereby I enjoy a snippet of the book, but don’t actually commit to properly reading it through again; this is something I do especially frequently when I’m between books, or, as I was this weekend, trying to avoid doing other things. I do believe in the value of rereading, however, and you can expect to see a post (or perhaps “polemic” would be more appropriate) about that in the near future.
At this point, I feel I must make a confession. Despite our earlier comments about numbered lists and the way they’re reductive and limiting and frustrating (all of which is true), one of us at least still has a disturbing fondness for them, and will, by her own admittance, read even the most pathetic and ridiculous articles if they have a number in the title (eg. “10 things you didn’t know about Disney ™”). *Hint: it’s not Freda*

As a result of that, and as a pleasing cap on my seriously lax long weekend, I bring you,

Seven Books I Re-Read Instead of Doing Something Productive*

1. Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett. Because reading Pratchett is always a good idea (and so is rereading).

2. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. I find this book endlessly entertaining and extremely inspiring; all of you who wish to live tidier, fuller lives, or who wish to delight in some of the finest English satire ever written, need to read this book several times.

3.. The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King. Another extremely formative book for me, I have never ceased to enjoy reading part or all of this brilliant “novel of suspense.”

4. The Truth by Terry Pratchett. See above.

5. Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. See what I did there? It’s not just Pratchett this time!

6. The Sirens Sang of Murder by Sarah Caudwell. Who knew it was possible to make tax law entertaining? Author of some of the finest, smartest, and wittiest, mysteries to ever grace the literary scene, Caudwell gets bonus points for leaving her readers guessing even after the murder  is solved: no one, to this day, can tell you whether her detective, Historian Hilary Tamar, is a woman or a man. Read her books. They’re amazing.

7. P.G. Wodehouse, anything. It’s like sinking into a hot bubble bath, or biting into a perfectly buttered piece of toast–as Stephen Fry has said of Wodehouse’s magnificent prose, “You don’t analyse such sunlit perfection, you just bask in its warmth and splendour.

*For the record: I believe that reading is extremely productive, and that all these books are excellent. Just in case you hadn’t already gathered that.

 

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What Colour Skirt Does Your Four Year Old Wear?

I work in a bookstore, and often, when someone comes in looking for a book for a child I find myself asking two questions: boy or girl? what age? These enquiries are disquieting of course, since I consider myself a feminist as well as someone who doesn’t believe that age defines interests or abilities. And, since the customer often refers to the child  by gender and age  I can justify my behaviour by suggesting that it is the customer who defines my approach.

But that’s just lazy on my part. And consciously self deluding. Because on days when I am a book lover before I am a book seller those are not the questions that I ask.

“What is your child like? What books have you read together, or have they read on their own, that they’ve truly loved? Does your child love reading, or like it, or are you trying to engage someone reluctant to pick up a book? What is your child curious about, what do they talk about, and who do they appear to admire?”

Personal, possibly presumptuous questions, but they need to be asked with care and genuine interest, because the right book at the right time can change your world. And the right book isn’t based on age or gender, or what everyone else is reading; it is particular, special, right for this person at this time. Often, the customer provides information of a sort; “he’s eleven, and he likes playing on the computer. Oh and he’s good in school and he plays soccer.” Or “She’s twelve and really social. A good student.” I hear that a lot. Apparently, there are an unending amount of kids who are good students(whatever that means) who are social, who play soccer, who like spending tons of time on the computer—clones with different coloured eyes and hair but identical interests, thoughts, abilities. However, the kids who frequent the book store aren’t nearly as easy to classify. Maybe that’s the problem. We don’t know what other classifications to use but the ones that have been handed to us, by schools by magazines, by whatever or whomever decides the cultural norms. Of course, we may not want to share the special or idiosyncratic or confusing aspects of our children with a stranger, a bookstore clerk(note here: books are important, so it’s worthwhile getting to know your librarians, and your booksellers, so that you can find the ones who resonate with you…..and avoid the ones who really don’t). Or perhaps we don’t know what to say, because we don’t know our children that well, and that makes us uncomfortable. That last possibility isn’t as troubling as it appears though, since most of us couldn’t tell anyone what we’re like either. Still, in searching out the right book for any individual there are clues, of a sort, to help the seeker find the book that will open the world at a different page, though it’s good to remember that they are seldom as banal as age and gender.

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The quicksilver landscape of childhood

Recently, I read Jane Gardam’s The Hollow Land; it’s unclassifiable, ageless, and I loved it. It is listed in the front of her book as a children’s story, and it won the 1983 Whitbread Children’s Book Prize, but if ever there was a book that illustrated how blurred the line between adult and children’s literature is, this is it. Probably because of the success of Gardam’s Old Filth trilogy, Europa editions has republished the book, and it now sits comfortably in the adult side of the bookstore aisle, making it accessible to adult readers; unfortunately, that may mean that kids may not know of it, and consequently that they might miss the chance to experience its wonder while they are able to have childhood’s particular understanding of it.

Whatever age you come to it, though, this is one of those books that changes the way you see the everyday world.

The premise of the story is deceptively simple. Two young boys, city bred Harry Bateman and country bred Bell Teasdale, meet when the Batemans rent a vacation home, Light Trees, in the Cumbrian countryside; through a series of linked stories and shifting perspectives we witness how their lives, as well as the lives of their families and those of the locals, connect and become intertwined. The boys understand intrinsically that their lives are deeply informed by the natural world; Bell has known and accepted that all his life, while Harry, just discovering it, embraces it for the first time, and for always.

The boys’ lives are filled with stories, the kind of stories that you hear as a child (especially if you manage to be quiet and unobtrusive, at least for awhile); the gossip, the lore, of your family, and your neighbours, of the things that are taking place, or have taken place, in your piece of the world. These are the stories told about, and sometimes by, people who would be considered eccentric if they lived somewhere else, but who inhabit your everyday world or who visit it briefly, and who are, therefore, just themselves. Bell and Harry’s world is peopled with such characters: the inscrutable Egg Witch, the gloriously garrulous chimney sweep, Kendall, and, of course, the famous Londoner interloper, The Household Word. Reading of the boys’ adventures, such as the perilous but beautiful Icicle Ride and Harry’s curious, liberating visit to the Egg Witch, feels like opening a cut paper picture book wherein the simple is transformed into the magical, and childhood, that half remembered place that we carry with us, is alive again, in all its mysterious complexity.

All children are explorers, both accepting of and intent on learning the secrets and truths of the landscape, natural and human, that they inhabit, often wondering at what they discover, catching a glimpse of some truth that they can’t name or explain. What is remarkable about The Hollow Land is that it offers us the opportunity to remember that, and it reminds us all that we are still on that journey.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

TS Eliot

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Cards on the table

     cardturner A few weeks ago, I picked up my copy of The Cardturner, by Louis Sachar, for the first time in over a year. I jumped into the middle and started reading, skimming through in the assurance that I remembered the plot well enough to simply dabble with rereading. Within ten pages, I was in tears, and I’d remembered why I first fell in love with this novel, when I reviewed it after its release: below is the review I wrote–every word is still true.

Bridge. Louis Sachar, award-winning author of the spectacular young adult novel Holes, had decided to write an entire novel about bridge. I couldn’t believe it. With all the wonderful, fascinating, creative ideas to write about, with all his genius and potential…he chose bridge. I’m a huge fan of Louis Sachar, but when I heard this, even I doubted his ability to make a book about a teenage boy who turns cards for his legally blind great-uncle exciting (an opinion which, according to Sachar’s introduction, was shared by his publisher, editor, wife, and agent). As a result, my attitude when I picked up The Cardturner, was, let us say, sceptical. Then I started the book. Not only was The Cardturner witty, engaging, clever, and wise beyond my wildest expectations, it was actually making me enjoy a card game I thought you had to be born knowing how to play. In fact, I found myself in the highly unusual position of having to force myself to put the book down in favour of things like food and sleep…I couldn’t stop reading (I love when this happens).

The novel is set in the present day, and indeed the characters and the tone are both extremely contemporary (Sachar has even managed to subtly capture the financial anxieties of the last few years). Narrator and protagonist Alton Richards is philosophical, funny, and quick, and his story, while timeless (boy goes to work for curmudgeonly relative; boy meets girl; boy learns family secrets and—well, I can’t tell you any more or I’ll spoil the story), is utterly modern. However, a compelling subplot threaded throughout also recreates a time when bridge was played in all the best houses (especially that big white one in Washington, DC), when “I Like Ike” was a national catchphrase, and when a woman was most definitely the property of her husband–however he might treat her.

Add to that a superb supporting cast of modern-day characters including Alton’s great-uncle Lester Trapp’s extremely unusual niece Toni (also known as his protégée and ex-cardturner), Alton’s financially-anxious parents, his ever-cool best friend Cliff (yes, the one who Alton’s girlfriend Katie dumped him for), and his younger sister Leslie (who shows more cool-headed intelligence than anyone who isn’t 11 would believe), and you have the recipe for an absolutely stellar novel.

Plot and characters alike are powerful, complex, and touched in turns by tragedy and joy, sorrow and laughter; issues of sexism, domestic violence, politics, romance, religion, and even the meaning of life are deftly interwoven in this unique coming-of-age story, as Alton struggles to discover his own identity and beliefs—inspired by everything from his remarkable yet caustic uncle, to Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, to the complex, fascinating game that is unfolding before Alton as he is drawn further into the world of bridge.

Indeed, as you read The Cardturner you too may find yourself drawn into a world of excitement and intelligence: Sachar, himself a devotee of bridge from a very early age, infuses the story with his passion for the game as he offers instruction on everything from the basic rules of bridge to sophisticated and intriguing ploys to aid you at the championship level. These instructions, preceded by the image of a whale (inspired by another dense epic, Moby Dick, which similarly goes into detail that, while important, isn’t strictly relevant to the main story) so, as Alton says “if that makes you zone out, you can skip ahead to the summary box,” where the play is described as briefly as possible and you can get back to the plot. However, Sachar’s intelligent, accurate, and cleverly colloquial description of the plays will have you diving deep into the details of bridge, relishing the excitement inherent in the explanation.

Louis Sachar is well-known as a smart and funny writer. But until you read this book, you cannot fully grasp just how truly and completely wise and talented he really is: he doesn’t shy away from complex ideas or profound discussion, but weaves these threads in with a magnificent deftness of touch and such an engaging tone that the most reluctant reader cannot help but be inspired. The next time you’re looking for something new to read, take a chance on The Cardturner you won’t regret it, and it might just change your life; it’s certainly changed mine.

Four years later, I still stand by my last line.

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