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Yet another Pratchett post

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

 photo NightWatch.jpg

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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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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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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Magic in Brown Paper

I grew up on a small island in the Salish Sea. In the summers, which were usually dry and warm, I spent much of my time swimming, scrambling over oyster beaches and rocky islets, and washing the salt off in warm, calm lakes. In the winter, I walked or biked the wet roads around the village, played out on our verandah while listening to the pattering rain on our tin roof, and delightedly built indeterminate snow beings after the occasional, deeply welcome, snowfall. The island was peopled by an eclectic assortment of farmers, loggers, fisher folk and eccentrics, with a scattering of opportunists, snobs, artists, and the strangely weird (of course, kids’ assessments of who the really weird ones are frequently differ from their parents’, but that’s another story). For the most part, I found the island and my life there beautiful and complete, except for one thing: there was no library. Not even in our school. Neither of my parents were bookish, and, although my grandmother who lived with us read, her taste tended to the devout rather than the imaginative. When I was very small, she kindly read me stories from the Sunday School papers, which were fine, and I could persuade her on occasion to read out of a very old story book of my father’s, The Foxglove Story Book; one of its stories was about a fairy, which I would beg her to read again and again. I had an aunt in England who sent me British annuals every year at Christmas, and another who gave me a Nancy Drew every birthday. That was it. That and the backs of cereal boxes, a set of thirty year old Books of Knowledge, and purloined copies of my dad’s Star Weekly magazine. Until I discovered The Open Shelf.

Set up, I assume, by the Greater Victoria Public Library on Vancouver Island, the Open Shelf was a kind of outreach library: as soon as I found out about it, I joined. I received a catalogue of book titles, with very short, cryptic descriptions of the books; I would study it for hours, luxuriously agonizing over my choices, and then I would choose titles, up to six books at a time I believe, and mail in my request. A week or so later, the parcel of books, wrapped in brown paper and tied with string, would arrive at our local post office, and I would find it waiting for me when I went to collect our mail. Those days were like Christmas Day and birthdays all in one. As soon as I got home I’d open my treasure and begin, hiding away under our stairway, or even under the kitchen table, immersing myself in all that glory.

Of course, not every book was an enchantment, but although a passionate reader, I wasn’t a particularly fastidious one (hence the cereal box reading), so I would plough on through both the good and the bad choices that I’d made. But every once in a while, the extraordinary would happen. A particular book would come my way that aligned itself to the deepest part of me; nothing felt more like real magic than that. One such book, however, entered my world through wonderful, ordinary human magic: it arrived from someone I never met, and whose name I do not know, someone who really paid attention to a young reader. One week, when I opened up my book parcel, I found a note from the librarian in charge of my account. One of the books that I had chosen was not available. However, she had taken the liberty of choosing another book for me, one that she liked very much. Because I lived by the water, and through consideration of my past book choices, she thought that I might enjoy it. Enjoy was an understatement. I breathed that book in till it felt like part of me. Fog Magic, by Julia Sauer, a 1943 Newbury Honor book, is about eleven year old Greta, who lives in a fishing village in Nova Scotia, where foggy days are considered a serious nuisance and a threat. Greta, however, is drawn to the mist, and one day she discovers why; it allows her entrance to Blue Cove, an old village which appears abandoned in sunlight, but which is magically transformed in the fog. This is the first book that I can remember that suggested that the imagined and the real are profoundly connected, that the natural world and the magical one are inextricably bound, and that they are transformed each by the other. It changed my life.

I’ve never thanked the lovely, thoughtful person who sent that book my way so many years ago; I wish I could. But whenever I talk to a child, especially about books, I try to keep in mind what was given to me when I received that note: respect, attention, consideration, and an encouraging generosity, from one reader to another.

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This is not a list post (part II)

Our last list (or non-list) focused on books for those who enjoy lots of pictures with their text, who are frequently found to be between the ages of very very small and about 8 or 9 (however, these age descriptions are pretty loose: we both enjoy lots of pictures with our text, and are both significantly outside that age bracket). In this post, we’re going to take a crack at some of our favourite novels. We say “some,” as naturally there’s no way we could ever make a complete list of our favourites (as I doubt anyone could–how would such a list be finished during one’s lifetime?), and even the titles we’ve compiled thus far are far too numerous to fit into one post–but it’s a starting place.

As before, we shall begin at the beginning, with some of the glorious novels we enjoyed as children:

  • Here Comes Charlie Moon – Shirley Hughes. We know, we know–Shirley Hughes again. But can you really blame us? What could be better than a seaside mystery, with sweets, disguises, eccentrics, a perilous waxworks, and a hall of mirrors; never precious or cloying, this is a glorious adventure story that bears endless rereading.
  • The Little White Horse – Elizabeth Goudge. A shimmering wonder of a tale, it sparkles like moonlight on the sea, and glows as brightly as a hearth fire.
  • The Princess and the Goblin – George McDonald. Immerse yourself in the the world of courageous Irene, stalwart Curdie, and Irene’s mysterious and beautiful many times great grandmother.
  • The Secret of Platform 13 – Eva Ibbotson. Ever wonder where J.K. got the inspiration for her magical doorway? Look no further.
  • Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome. The book that launched a thousand log rafts…not to mention at least one summer of sleeping in the backyard every night. No childhood should be without it and its splendid companions.
  • Half Magic – Edward Eager. What would you do if you found a magic coin…but it only granted half wishes?
  • Pippi Longstocking – Astrid Lindgren. Naturally.
  • Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter – Astrid Lindgren. Ronia’s strength, courage and wisdom were an inspiration to both my daughters. A perfect book to read outside (if you happen to live near a forested glade or magic wood, so much the better). ~F
  • Jennifer Murdley’s Toad, by Bruce Coville. An unexpected treasure that has stayed with me to this day. ~M
  • Nicobobinus – Terry Jones. Land of dragons, pirate monks, and a boy who can do anything (just ask his friend Rosie)…Nicobobinus is a childhood treasure.
  • The Saga of Erik the Viking – Terry Jones. With little or nothing in common with the film of the same name, this book (and the one above) was a read-aloud staple in our house for years; an excellent introduction to Viking and Norse lore, it makes the mythical seem possible. ~F
  • And while we’re on the subject of melding history and magic…The House of Arden, by the inimitable E. Nesbit, does this to perfection. Elfrida and Edred Arden meet a magical Mouldiwarp, who takes them on a fantastic adventure through English history. ~F
  • The Phantom Tollbooth – Norton Juster. My sister and I went through the tollbooth countless times during our childhood, and on every journey discovered something new and magical about the fantastical world of language and mathematics. (who knew math could be hilarious?) ~M
  • The Van Gogh Cafe – Cynthia Rylant. A perfect gem of a book, I still carry a copy in my bag, for those days when I need a little gentle wisdom, or to be reminded of the beauty and wonder in the everyday. ~M

To be continued…again (and again, and again.)

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Homage to the Queen

   

I was eight when I read my first Diana Wynne Jones novel, Charmed Life; more than 15 years later, having read almost all her canon, I consider her one of the most influential and important writers of my life. She created an abundance of extraordinary, wonderful characters, whom I love to this day; she invented a host of magnificent, magical worlds that it was my dearest wish to visit; and always, she moved and inspired me with her beautiful, brilliant stories. Perhaps, however, the most lasting gift that Diana Wynne Jones has given me is that of her language. There are certain adjectives and phrases, now a treasured part of my writing style, which I first discovered in Diana Wynne Jones books, and particular words that I cannot read or write without thinking of her. Her grace, her warmth, her ability to weave together intricate strands of poetry, mythology, compelling humanity, and true magic in engaging, elegant, easy prose, that dances along the page and makes me laugh aloud with the sheer delight of it, is something that has shaped my understanding of the written word. Jones was a woman for whom the world provided a cornucopia of trials and torments—her childhood was nothing short of Dickensian—but in reading her work, what surpasses the imagination, the cleverness, the depth and richness of her storytelling, is the incredible joy that infuses every word of it. If she had given us nothing else, her invention in A Tale of Time City of the glorious, meltingly amazing 42 Century Butter Pies, widely renowned among connoisseurs of imaginary food, would surely have been enough to secure her standing as a literary legend.

When I was ten years old, I read Howl’s Moving Castle; it immediately became one of my favourite books, but I didn’t realise then what a part it would play in my life. In this marvellous novel of fairytale curses and misperceptions, hats and scarecrows and demons, Jones uses a poem by John Donne as a spell; at age ten, I knew nothing of this 17th century icon, but his words enchanted me nonetheless—I set out to find the poem and read more like it. 11 years later, I am still under the spell of Donne’s language, his complexity, the incredibly layered nature of his writing, and the deep joy that shines through it. The same things, in fact, that have for so long inspired, shaped, and moved me in the magical, lyrical, powerful writing of the inimitable Diana Wynne Jones.

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This is not a list post (part I)

    

When we started this post, we had planned to write a list of 20 books that we considered the most influential in our lives; but the more we tried, the more we were troubled by our approach: for one thing, our decision to select twenty was incredibly arbitrary; for another, Freda, especially, hates “top 20” lists, because you always end up having to cut something good or important in order to make things fit. Thinking about it, we realised that this is really a problem we’ve both had for years: all too often, you end up being forced to cut something valuable in order to make things fit a certain, standardised, frame.

(Disclaimer: we’ve both worked as editors, so we also know the importance of a clean cut when necessary.)

So with that said, here is the first part of our list (unnumbered) of books that have meant something to one or both of us, and that, for one reason or another, we recommend to as many people as possible. Further lists will appear as we go.

In the beginning was…

  • Shirley Hughes. Because no childhood should be without the guiding spirits of Alfie and Annie Rose, or the marvellous adventures of the children from Trotter street.
  • Miss Rumphius – Barbara Cooney.
  • Night Cars – Teddy Jam.
  • Big Red Barn – Margaret Wise Brown.
  • Elsie Piddock Skips in Her Sleep – Eleanor Farjeon.
  • The Dragon in the Rocks – Marie Day.
  • The Mousehole Cat – Antonia Barber.
  • Catkin – Antonia Barber. Because no one understands the mythical, mystical magic of cats like Barber does.
  • Owl Moon – Jane Yolen.
  • Anything and everything by the magnificent Janet and Allan Ahlberg, but especially Burglar Bill, whose cheery “I’ll have that!” is, to this day, a watchword in our home.
  • Jillian Jiggs – Phoebe Gilman.
  • Ox-Cart Man – Donald Hall.
  • The Tomten – Astrid Lindgren. A beautiful gift to young children, and to those who once were young children.
  • Graham Oakley. In addition to his brilliant Church Mice series, which was a staple of my childhood, Oakley also penned (and illustrated) the fabulous Foxbury Force. ~M
  • Fred – Posy Simmons.
  • Jill Barklem. Every Brambly Hedge book she ever wrote.
  • Doctor de Soto – William Steig.
  • Burnie’s Hill – Erik Blegvad.
  • Working – Helen Oxenbury. Simple as can be, I can still remember the picture of a baby covered in spinach (it struck quite a chord with our family). ~M

To be continued…(of course.)

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Welcome! Why not stay for a spell?

Hello and welcome to the brand-new home of the book witches! Those of you familiar with our talks and work as booksellers on the beautiful rain-soaked coast of western Canada will be well-aware of our enthusiasm and passion for language and literature. We believe that there is a book out there for everyone–an extraordinary story that will change your life forever–and we want to help you find it. We also love to talk about the books that have changed our lives, or made us think, or just provided us with a great deal of pleasure and entertainment, and we love to explore the myriad ideas and opportunities afforded us through the medium of the written word (or illustrated page). We’re just getting started here, so watch closely over the coming days and weeks, as the magic gets underway…

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