Monday, April 22, 2013

An embarrassment of riches

I’ve managed to read quite a few books to date and many of them have been interesting enough to earn at least a mention in this blog. Luckily, I don’t remember half of them. One would think it makes the task of selecting what to write about somewhat easier. It doesn’t. For this week’s post I had at least three books I thought would make interesting read and I couldn't decide which one to start with. So, in the end, I didn’t choose any of them but went with something completely different instead.

The reason for my change of heart was an interview with Sir Terry Pratchett that appeared on the Guardian today. I didn't really need another post about fantasy, but the timing was too good to ignore. And let's face it, I would have written about his books sooner or later anyway. So Discworld it is.

The problem is, again, choosing just one book. There are almost forty books in the Discworld series already, most of which I’ve liked well enough to read more than once. I’ve been reading them for so long that I don’t remember when I first encountered them or which book I started with. Thinking hard the whole day, I’ve narrowed it down to Guards! Guards! and Wyrd Sisters. Either one of them could have been the first, though with all honesty, it could have been any of the books translated to my language to that date (early nineties, perhaps). After the first book, I read everything that had already been translated, which wasn't much. So, Discworld books have the honour of being the first books I've read in English. I simply couldn't wait for them to be made available in my language. They didn't make an easy reading, the unique concepts alone made them challenging, but but the books were a good incentive to learn.

Guards! Guards! and Wyrd Sisters are both good books to write about. Funny and exciting – and very different from one another – they are the first introductions to what later became the staple in the books: the City Watch of Ankh-Morpork and the eccentric but loveable witches of the rural Lancre, one of the countries of Discworld. Both have been my favourites from the beginning; I’ve never been truly taken with the wizards of the Unseen University that feature in about fourth of the books.

So what’s the appeal then? What makes a series so interesting that a young girl would start reading books in a foreign language? They’re very funny and witty, for starters. Of course, when I was younger the satire seemed sharper than it does these days, but they still make me chuckle. Discworld itself is a very interesting creation and has got better over the years. Ankh-Morpork, especially, has grown to incredible proportions, getting more bizarre yet likeable with every book.

But the absolutely best thing about the books is their characters. They’re warm-hearted, likeable, witty and clever, often all in one package. Even the villains tend to be sympathetic and often turn out to be more than meets the eye. The hapless Rincewind usually wins the day in the end, if only by accident; Granny Weatherwax is such a formidable character that you simply have to like her; and Sam Vimes, the Commander of the City Watch is, at heart, a grumpy old cop, no matter who he is married to or what his title is these days. On top of that, there are all the comical or whimsical characters, like Corporal Nobbs who most likely is a human, and the Librarian of the Unseen University who no longer is a human.

The same characters return a book after a book and they evolve too. Discworld may be a caricature of our world, but people inhabiting it are more than that. They feel very real to the reader and I, for one, return to the books after all these years simply to find out what’s going on in their lives.

For a while, now, every new Discworld novel has been touted as the last. The next one, that will be published this fall, isn’t an exception, but I really wish it won’t be the end. Because I’m not done with Discworld and it's wonderful people yet. 

There isn't a proper Discworld movie yet, but there are a couple of TV series and animations. They're all nice, but not terribly exciting. Here's an episode of the animated Wyrd Sisters:

Saturday, April 13, 2013

A magical character

This Monday, April 8th, was the International Raistlin Majere Day. I didn't celebrate, mainly because I wasn't aware such day existed and found about it too late to take part. I'm not entirely sure how I would have celebrated, but at least I could have written this blog post on that day. Though, with all honesty, I'm not sure how widely known the day is even among those who know who Raistlin Majere is; I was only able to find a couple of bloggers mentioning it with any regularity.

Raistlin Majere is, of course, a major character in Dragonlance, a shared universe consisting of games and books, most of which are written by Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis. He is a powerful wizard with a compelling and complicated character and a body ruined by strong magic. He was also the reason why I found Dragonlance books so compelling.

I’ve never been interested in gaming so for me, Dragonlance is solely about books. Dragonlance Chronicles, a trilogy that starts with Dragons of Autumn Twilight (1984), is the first proper fantasy series that I read. I must have been twelve or so, because the second trilogy, Dragonlance Legends, had already been published, but I remember I had to wait for the Test of Twins, the last book in the Legends, to be translated to my language – an agony.

Dragons of Autumn Twilight by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

Since it was the first foray into high fantasy for me, I wasn’t encumbered with the notions of what ought to be and what had already been done in fantasy. Everything was new and exciting for me, elves, dwarves and dragons alike. Magic, especially, was a wonderful new concept and no one was better at it than Raistlin.

There are some characters that stay with you through life. Raistlin Majere is one of those for me. He is a conflicted and complicated person, one that keeps you guessing whether he is good or bad, and hoping against hope that he would end up on the right side. And just when you think he has made the right decision, he does something that yanks the rug from underneath you, pushing you off balance once again; a difficult character for a twelve-year-old to comprehend properly. Other characters in the series are more straightforward – good or bad – but not him. And that is probably the reason for his staying power, the reason why there is a day dedicated for him and not for the other characters.

It’s been closer to thirty years since I read the books, but when I watched an animated movie of the Dragons of Autumn Twilight a while back, Raistlin immediately returned to me. And I realised I had missed him. Or if not him, a character like him, someone complicated and interesting. Someone who is never what you expect him to be. Someone magical. There should be more of those around.

Here's a trailer for the animated Dragonlance movie. It's not terribly good, but then again, neither is the movie.


Sunday, April 07, 2013

Empathy and art

I had an interesting Twitter conversation with Damian Walter today. (Incidentally, Walter, @damiengwalter, is an interesting person for authors to follow.) He began by arguing that video games aren’t art, a topic of which I really didn’t have a strong opinion about so I ignored it. Then he tweeted this:

I found the idea very alien that inducing empathy was the sole purpose of art so I had to answer. The following conversation took place:

Like most Twitter conversations, this had two people arguing for their own point without really listening to the other, and with no resolution reached. Walter did ask me why I didn’t consider video games art, but I didn’t have a good answer to give. Later, I thought of a definition. Working on Walter’s idea of art as a subjective experience, I decided to argue that “art, as an experience, always adds the experience to the person experiencing it. Videogames, as an experience, don’t do that.” Not a very good definition, all things considered. Maybe I'll come up with something better later.

This is a book blog though, so I decided to take Walter’s idea of art as a creator of an empathic reaction and see how it applies to books I’ve read. The definition of empathy I found on Wikipedia continues to say that you “need to have a certain amount of empathy before being able to experience accurate sympathy or compassion.” While I’ve read many dozens of books that have made me empathise with the characters – all of them have created some emotional reaction in me – it’s not very often that a book has caused me feel more than that. One book immediately came to my mind though: The Black Brothers by Liza Tetzner (1941, originally in German).

The Black Brothers by Liza Tetzner, the illustrated edition.
Set in the mid-19th-century Milan, The Black Brothers tells a story of a poor Swiss boy, Georgio, whose parents sell him to slavery to pay his mother’s medical bills. He ends up as a chimney sweep, a job for boys small enough to crawl through the flues to clean them up. It was dangerous and often deadly work for those boys, on top of which their owners treated them very badly. Georgio’s story is full of twists and turns, often tear inducing, until he manages to escape. The ending is happy for Georgio; not so much for some of his friends.

The Black Brothers is written for pre-teens and that was the age I read it. But Tetzner obviously didn’t believe in cosseting her readers or sugar-coating her message. The impact was huge on a girl who hadn’t experienced anything more unfair than having to share ice cream with her sisters. That there would be children treated so badly was unfathomable to me. It didn’t matter that those things had happened over a century ago; I was old enough to understand that children continued to suffer the same way in other parts of the world. I followed the journey of Georgio and his Black Brothers with an aching heart, hoping that there had been something I could have done for them. And when I had finished the book, I read it again.

I didn’t rush into changing the world after reading the book, but I’m sure it changed me. Well over twenty years have gone since I read The Black Brothers and it was the first book I thought of for a blog about empathy. As a subjective experience, then, mine had been strong. Would I define art as an empathic experience? I don’t think so. But the best books, like any good art, give you something that changes you or stays with you through decades. I defy video games to do that.

There is a Japanise anime based on The Black Brothers called Romeo's Blue Skies. However, it seems to be exactly what the book isn't, sweet and romantic, so I won't add a link to it for you. Read the book instead.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

What's in the class?

Yesterday, the BBC ran an article about changes in the British class structure; how the basic division into three classes was hopelessly outdated and five wasn’t enough either. They defined seven classes and offered a handy test, too, so that everyone can check for themselves to which class they belong.

I’m not British and their class structure baffles me somewhat. However, as I took the test myself, I realised that I seemed to have a very firm view about different classes. A lot of it comes from British TV; my notions of the British working class are based on various sit-coms and of the aristocracy on Jeeves and Wooster, among other things. But a great deal of my understanding comes from books.

I don’t think I’ve read a book that would represent the British society in its entirety, describing each class from within as they are, or as their members understand them. I’ve read historical books that describe upper and middle classes, with members of the lower classes appearing as side characters that serve to highlight the excellence of the upper classes. And I’ve read modern books where the point of view is that of the lower classes or where the class structure isn’t acknowledged at all, either because the writer doesn’t want to, or because it’s so self-evident it doesn’t require pointing out. It’s up to the reader to notice the social clues. And despite never having lived in Britain, I’m able to do so – at least to an extent; the rest of the time I’m very confused.

Perhaps, then, all British literature is about class? In which case, it wouldn’t matter which book I picked up for an article about class. Dickens would be an obvious choice, but there is another great writer of the social novel who I happen to like better: Elisabeth Gaskell, and especially her book North and South (1855).

I first found Elisabeth Gaskell in the early 2000 after seeing a BBC series based on her book Wives and Daughters and proceeded to read that and her other work. Admittedly, when I first read North and South, I read it as a romance. The wonderful love story of Margaret Hale and John Thornton simply went before everything else. It wasn’t until I saw a TV series based on the book and read it again that I paid proper attention to the social issues it addresses: women in the Victorian society, religion and the lack of it, and overcrowding of towns and the expansion of the poor. And I especially paid attention to the changing class structure.

The obvious division in North and South is between the rich and the poor, the upper classes and the working class; John Thornton and other cotton mill owners against the poor labourers. But equally important division, and one that brings to the fore the changes that were taking place in British society because of the industrialisation, is that between John and Margaret, two people seemingly of the same class. He is new money with little culture and sophistication, she has the latter, but no money. His family looks down to hers because they deem her useless, and her family, while not as vulgar as to hold themselves openly better, nonetheless find it difficult to relate to people so very different from themselves. Added to that are Margaret’s attempts to understand and help the poor labourers who she finds unwilling to accept her help, a feature that baffles her greatly.

What perhaps comes out best in the book is the pride each class has, either for their status – earned or inherited – or for being able to manage despite the restrictions of their birth status. British society may have changed so much in a hundred and fifty years that new divisions are needed, but it seems to me that that characteristic at least hasn’t changed.

The new classifications the BBC introduced aim to bring down the barriers, mix things up a bit and offer a class to belong to for those that haven’t had an obvious place for themselves. Will it catch? I have no idea. However, I’m fairly sure that an outsider such as me will have even more difficult time understanding the British class structure with the new system than before. Luckily, there are books. With them, I can stubbornly hold on to the old, to the way things have ‘always been.’

And here's the other reason for choosing North and South. A short clip, for the ladies: