Monthly Reads – February 2015. A Sir Terry Pratchett Tribute

I read one book in February.

One.

I can blame it on the Lunar New Year festive or that I have had been spending more time on writing crappy short stories. But I’m not going to do that. The fact that I managed to go through four books in January while holding down a hectic full-time job at an ad agency shows that I can and could make time to read.

So the answer is simple. I didn’t make time for my readings. And I’ve come to realized that the less I read, the more my writing suffered. When I read less, I not only lacked the tools to structure a story but also the creative spark to tell one. Or as Stephen King mentioned in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft:

[Reading]… also offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn’t, what is trite and what is fresh, what works and what just lies there dying (or dead) on the page. The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor.

Wise words.

So, moving on to that one book I read in February.

 

“Men At Arms” – Terry Pratchett

400354I first came across Terry Pratchett’s work when I was 15 or 16 years old. A math teacher had printed and posted outside his classroom a number of witty quotes and sayings that were attributed to famous people who purportedly wrote or said those witticisms. One of these were attributed to Terry Pratchett:

In the beginning there was nothing. And the Lord said ‘Let There Be Light!’ And still there was nothing, but at least now you could see it.

I remembered laughing and thought that it was pretty funny. I also remembered trying to explain the joke to a couple of friends and completely bombing it. It’s a complete mood-killer when you have to explain a joke.

After reading that Pratchett’s witticism, I read up on him and discovered that he was a well-known fantasy writer who was famous for his Discworld series. My school library had a number of Discworld novels. So I very briefly glanced through some of them and then decided that it was not for me.

I still don’t know why I thought that.

Years passed, and being an immensely popular writer, Pratchett was always in the background or the foreground of my mind, depending on the news of the day. Still, I did not pick up his books, even when I started reading my way through Neil Gaiman’s works. I mean I’ve always wanted to read Pratchett’s works but was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of his writing.

So January this year I took the the plunge and bought Men At Arms (Discworld #15). And I was blown out of the water.

From the dark alleyways of the city of Ankh-Morpork to its complicated web of law, rules and competing guilds, from the myriad of characters that flirt in and out from one scenes to another (or in some cases, one dimension to another) to the building crescendo of solving multiple murder cases in the chaotic Ankh-Morpork, Men At Arms is a fantasy novel that I have never encountered before. But instead of a story spiraling out of control from the various competing forces, Pratchett keeps everything and still manages to inject the book with his wit and humour.

Below are some examples of the wit and humour that is infused throughout the novel (minor spoiler alert).

In this paragraph, Pratchett paints a vivid picture of the relationship between the City Watch and Ankh-Morpork’s citizens and how Ankh-Morpork’s various laws influence the complicated relationships between the two groups.

Cuddy had only been a guard for a few days, but already he had absorbed on important and basic fact: it is almost impossible for anyone to be in a street without breaking the law. There are a whole quiverful of offences available to a policeman who wishes to pass the time of day with a citizen, ranging from Loitering with Intent through Obstruction to Lingering While Being the Wrong Colour/Shape/Species/Sex. It occurred briefly to him that anyone not making a dash for it when they saw Detritus knuckling along at high speed behind them was probably guilty of contravening the Being Bloody Stupid Act of 1581. But it was too late to take that into account. Someone was running, and they were chasing. They were chasing because he was running, and he was running because they were chasing.

 

And then there’s the nature of Ankh-Morpork’s citizenry encapsulated in one sentence:

If the Creator had said, “Let there be light” in Ankh-Morpork, he’d have gotten no further because of all the people saying “What colour?”

 

And finally, one of the most well-known quotes/excerpt. This have been floating around the Web for ages, so even if you haven’t read any of Pratchett’s work, you would definitely have come across this at some point. Below is the excerpt in full:

The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.

Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.

But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while a poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

This was Captain Samuel Vimes ‘Boots’ theory of socio-economic unfairness.

When I finished Men at Arms, my first thought was:

“I will never be as good as Terry Pratchett”.

Not only has Pratchett crafted a witty and humourous fantasy novel, but his wit and humour also showed the real world in a different perspective. The three excerpts above showed how Pratchett used the fantasy novel as mirror to reflect and shed some light on our own reality.

5/5 – A definite must read. I would encourage non-fantasy readers to give this book a chance. Although billed as a fantasy novel, it’s more a murder mystery novel set in a fantastical world. No prior Discworld knowledge is required.


A couple of hours ago,  Pratchett passed away after his long battle with Alzheimer. He was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2007.  While I am only recently acquainted with his work, I know that the world has lost one of its brightest writer, one who will continue to influence and entertain future generations.

As a personal experience, I wrote a flash fiction that was heavily influenced by Pratchett’s style after reading Men at Arms. Of course, Pratchett’s wit, humour and writing is way of out my league, one that I can only hope to emulate but never achieve. Below is the link to the flash fiction I wrote (it’s bloody horrible and apologies for the watermark).

Friday Flash Fiction – 13th Feb 2015 – Zareth

Wherever you are, Sir Terry Pratchett (probably having a chat with Death), thanks for all your novels, and for all your unparalleled wit and humour.

1654

April 28, 1948 – March 15, 2015

Sir Terry Pratchett’s last tweet.

Rhianna Pratchett’s tweet on her father’s passing.

 

 

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Monthly Reads – January 2015

I’ve been reading quite a fair bit this past month and it’s definitely an improvement from last year. So far my average is about a book a week, up from last year’s count of a book every fortnight. However, it’s too early to know if I’ll be able to keep up the pace since we’re only one month and a bit into 2015.

Contrary to what people like to think, I’m actually a pretty slow reader for an English major*. So for me to average one book a week is quite a good record as sometimes I can spend a month reading a book. Good things are best enjoyed in small doses (i.e. another way of saying that I take my own sweet time finishing a mid-size novel – usually about 250 pages).

If you take a look at my reading history (hover above the button “Readings”), you can see that 2011 and 2013 were my worst years. In my defense, I excluded a number of books from the 2011 list. Those books were novels and texts for my English Literature courses and because I’m a humble braggart, they are considered as ‘work’. The reading lists in my blog consist only of personal readings – books that I read for pleasure and don’t have to analyze the hell out of them through the lenses of different literary theories.

For 2013, I have no idea what the hell I was doing. I think I was watching a lot of movies and TV shows. And hey, movies and TV shows are still books, but in moving pictures.

2010 remains my best year so far… in terms of count. In terms of diversity, not so much. I was mainly reading graphic novels by Neil Gaiman and Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra. For non-fiction, I went through a phrase of devouring all of Gladwell’s pop-science books (I haven’t read his most recent “David and Goliath” though).  Yay for count, nay for diversity.

So when 2014 came to a close, I was determined not just to read more, but also to read widely. What does this means? It means reading classics that you thought an English Lit major like me would’ve read (but haven’t). It means reading stuff that I have always wanted to read but ‘never had the time’. It also means reading books that I avoided purely because I thought that they were either boring or below my reading station (yeah I’m a fucking snob). I’ve never really like thrillers or suspense because I thought they were just cheap thrills for the hoi polloi. I’ve also avoided the sword and sorcery sub-genre because I perceived them as ‘bad’ fantasy. Yeah, yeah, that’s just me judging the books by their genre.

I may even take a stab at Singapore literature canon. I’m not implying anything here, just that I very, very rarely read Singaporean fiction (aside from True Singapore Ghost Stories).

Another reading habit that I need to adopt is reading more non-fiction. So for 2015, for every three or two fiction books, I will read one non-fiction. They can be any ranging from self-help to history, as long as they’re, you know, non-fiction.

So anyway, my reviews for January 2015 reads:

 

“The Circle” – Dave Eggers

the-circle

I first came across “The Circle” on a website back in 2013 or 2014. I can’t remember what website it was, but basically it had a sneak peek of The Circle. The sneak peek condensed a number of chapters into one short story length and it was captivating enough that I was highly intrigued by the premise. So when I saw the book in a store – no questions asked.

The premise is simple enough: a female protagonist is employed by the most powerful and influential company in the world called The Circle. It is a technology company that handles all Internet and social media activity. Life’s basically a technological utopia covered in unicorn’s rainbow shit. But beneath the rainbow, there’s no pot of gold but rather a pot of leprechaun’s shite.

It’s basically part 1984 and part Brave New World – but now with social media and the sharing economy added in! While the novel started off strongly, it slowly devolved into “an ending flat and inane beyond belief!” That line was taken from Cloud Atlas, by the way.

Okay, it wasn’t that bad, but the ending wasn’t that strong and I found that the characters were not very well rounded and towards the end the protagonist was just incredibly infuriating. I mean, gawd….

I feel that what Eggers tried to achieved here in this polemic, Orwell and Huxley did it better and with a much lighter touch in 1984 and Brave New World respectively. Eggers managed to capture the overall omnipresent Big Brother feel beneath the techno-utopia vision, but he did not successfully instill a deeper sense of despair and hopelessness.

3/5 – Google! Bad! Facebook! Bad! You didn’t hear this from me.

 

“Snowing in Bali: The Incredible Inside Account of Bali’s Hidden Drug World” – Kathryn Bonella

snowing_in_bali

This is one of those books that are beneath my reading station. It’s one of those books that I won’t read it or buy it or even think about it. The moment I read the title, I would automatically move on.  It’s also one of those books that you see prominently displayed on book racks at airport bookstores, especially in places like Singapore.

There’s a reason why I seldom read books like this. It’s because I think they’re mostly sensationalized bullshit. Sure, there might be a grain, or a nugget or even a palm-sized truth in them. But surrounding them are mostly window-dressing. Just look that the title.

But to be honest, I was intrigued when my sister passed me this book. And since I’ve made the decision to read more non-fiction, I decided to give this a go.

Sensationalism sells. But it’s sex that gives it the spice, and this book started off with a bang, by getting a former drug dealer to describe a blow-by-blow account of a sex orgy.

Sex and drugs aside, the story is relatively well-told and structured and charts the rise and fall of several drug dealers in Bali and their fast paced high-living life. But what I thought was the book’s glaring weakness was the lack of character development. Since Bonella calls them the drug kingpins of Bali and vividly details their sexual and drug escapades, you would expect the characters to be more descriptive, more vibrant, and more ‘out there’. This is not the case; after a while the story gets repetitive and you can’t differentiate one drug dealer from another. But perhaps that this might be Bonella’s method of protecting certain ex-drug dealers who are not in Indonesian jails yet. All in all, a decent read if you’re killing time in the airport.

2.5/5 – At least it gives you an idea of where to buy drugs in Bali, at your own risk, of course.

 

“Stardust” – Neil Gaiman

stardust

I saw the film Stardust when it first came out in 2007 and thought that it was quite unexpected from the usual fairy-tale movies (i.e. Not bad. It was nice to see Robert De Niro play a pirate captain with a twist) . At that time I had no idea who Neil Gaiman was/is and so did not know that it was based on his novel of the same name. It was only until I started devouring his Sandman series and his other novels did I then learn that he wrote Stardust. Dust me surprised (sigh, bad pun).

Stardust demonstrates Neil Gaiman’s ability for darkly humourous moments and for revealing fairytales in a slightly different spectrum of light. I find that it’s quite similar to another of Gaiman’s novel, Neverwhere, but while the latter is much more dark, Stardust is much lighter. It trots along at a lively pace and the action never really lets up and you keep turning page after page to find what happen next. While the characters are interesting to keep you emotionally invested, they tend to be one-dimensional. But then this is to be expected when you’re reading an adult fairytale. Or maybe I’m just biased towards Neil Gaiman.

3.5/5 – Great, fun read for a lazy weekend and gives adults (like me) an excuse to read subversive fairytales.

 

“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream” – Hunter S. Thompson

fear-and-loathing

Oh boy, where do I start with this? How about we start with the man himself?

Hunter Thompson aka Raoul Duke aka Doctor of Journalism is famous for employing and popularizing Gonzo Journalism**. Gonzo is basically subjective reporting (as opposed to objective reporting) and is a highly personal blend of both fiction and fact. The focus is not just on the story, but also on the journalist reporting on the story.

Prior to Fear and Loathing, I’ve only read one of Thompson’s work sometime back in 2009 or 2010: The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved. This article is where Thompson first employs gonzo which would later be heavily featured in all of his works. So while I had a small exposure to Thompson’s style, nothing prepared me for Fear and Loathing, which is Thompson’s most famous work, and for good reasons.

The book opens up with one of the most well known opening lines:

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive…

From there on, Thompson takes you on a harrowing ride that constantly teeters and skids around on the edge of insanity and drug-induced psychosis.

Throughout the journey, Thompson paints psychedelic sceneries that leave vivid impressions in your mind. An example is the way he uses deceptively simple words to hammer home the point, such as the word “heavy”. Thompson uses this word several times throughout the book to describe a situation that is so foreboding and ominous that you can actually feel it pressing against you. Complementing Thompson’s writing is Ralph Steadman’s absolutely breathtaking illustrations. You know how Roald Dahl’s stories and Quentin Blake’s illustrations suit each other perfectly? It’s the same here from Thompson and Steadman.

This book is one hell of a heavy trip.

4/5 – A seminal work (but don’t take my word for it since I haven’t read the rest of Thompson’s writings). Thompson makes quite a number of references to the 1960’s counter-culture era and that may be confusing for people who don’t know much about that era. But don’t let this stop you from reading Fear and Loathing.

Note: The book has been adapted into a film of the same name. It’s directed by Terry Gilliam of Monty Python fame and stars Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro. I haven’t seen it but I heard it’s a pretty good movie. However I would recommend to read the book first because I heard that the movie lifted quite a lot of dialogue from the book.

 

* It also means I read slightly faster than the average reader.

** Wikipedia’s entry for Gonzo Journalism.


The buildup towards the end is awesome. It starts around 5:35 but I recommend that you listen to the whole song.

American Gods and How I Nearly Starved Myself to Death

This is NOT a book review. It is a description, or rather a story, of my journey through Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.


_________________________________

It all started out rather innocently. As most things are wont to do.

It started on Wednesday evening. I had a Philosophy essay due the next day and I had not started on it. A 2,000 words essay debating about cultural relativism.

But I felt lazy. I didn’t feel like doing my essay at all. I didn’t feel like plowing through the text on cultural relativism, didn’t feel like picking apart the author’s debate. In fact, I didn’t feel like doing anything at all.

I felt tired, sick of essays. I just finished a 2,700 words essay on the philosophy and history of Surrealism, examining artworks by the painter Max Ernst, dissecting his paintings and arguing and analysing the claims of Surrealism through his paintings.

I had enough of arguments and critical analysis.

I laid on my bed, staring at the ceiling, wiling the time away. As I turned to lay on my side, my eyes fell upon the books neatly stacked on the bedside table.

One particular book caught my eye.

I picked up the thick, black book and stared at the cover. I got it from Borders in Singapore. It was on sale, “Buy 2 get 1 free!”. So I bought two Malcolm Gladwell books and one Neil Gaiman book. I got a Malcolm Gladwell book free.

I finished off both Malcolm Gladwell’s books the moment I returned to Sydney. 2 short, non-fiction, pop-science books within a month. Easy.

But somehow, Neil Gaiman’s book intimated me. It was thick book. Which means it was a long story. I haven’t read a long, meandering story in more than a year and that was Ken Follet’s The Pillars of the Earth. But I made a promise to myself, a promise to read more this year. So I picked up the book and started reading.

I didn’t read much on Wednesday night. Just a few pages to get past the introduction, to get to know the characters and to get a feel of the story and where it might lead to wherever the author wanted to take me.

Just a few pages to finish the first chapter.

I woke up on Thursday morning and found the book resting on my chest. It was around 11am when I woke up. I missed my Art History tutorial. The longer I stayed in bed, the less I felt like going to school.

“Fuck it,” I thought, “I’m staying home.”

I went to get a can of coke before going back to bed. After adjusting myself comfortably, I took up the book and started reading.

I read and read.

I skipped breakfast and lunch. The only fuel that drove me on was three small cans of coke. The caffeine and sugar gave me the energy to push on.I toyed with the idea of going out to get dinner but decided to hunker down in my bed and continue reading, following the journey and the tale of the protagonist.

It was around 11pm when a friend called me down for a cigarette break. So I changed into something more acceptable and joined her for a smoke.

Since I was out of my room, I decided to head to a nearby kebab shop to get some dinner. After the smoke break, I headed back up to my room, wolfed down dinner and went back to reading American Gods.

I read till the early hours of morning when I fell asleep.

I woke up in the early afternoon, sometime after 12. I had no classes on Friday. My philosophy essay remained ignored. I got myself a drink of cold water (there was no more coke) before going back to bed and continuing reading.

It was worse on Friday. Hunger didn’t registered at all. If it did, I ignored it. I ignored my hunger the same way I ignore my essay. When the dull pain reverberated from my empty stomach up to the back of my throat, I ignored it and swallowed down the pangs of hunger.

I did try to find food, but I didn’t do any grocery shopping for more than a week and the only things left in my fridge were some overripe kiwi fruits, a tub of chocolate chip ice cream and three bottles of water.

When hunger got too great, I went to the lounge where the snack machine was and got some chips and chocolate.

Lunch, dinner and supper were just chips and chocolate. Lunch: a packet of M&Ms and ice cream, Dinner: a packet of chips and Snickers, Supper: a packet of pretzels and M&Ms.

Not the healthiest meals, but it was enough to tide me over for the day. At least I drank four cups of water. Half my daily intake.

And I plowed on.  Plowed through the story, the story of gods, of road-trips, of myths and legends, of beliefs, of America and of Shadow.

I read till the early hours of the morning before I falling asleep.

I woke up, tired and exhausted, my back cramped from the awkward position I slept in. It was 10 in the morning.

It is Saturday now.

I got a drink of cold water. Just to kick-start my day.

I continued reading.

And reading.

Then I was finished.

Just like that.

I finished the book.

It was nearly 1 in the afternoon when I finished.

But I finished it.

I did it.

I felt slightly sad, slightly at loss, I felt the feeling you get when you say goodbye to a good friend before going on a long trip. I invested a lot of my time, nearly half my week, to the story. I immersed myself so deeply into the story that when I finished it, I was left confused, unsure as to which reality I belong to. It was as if I woke up from a long, long dream, a state between wakefulness and sleepiness.

I felt a sense of loss, but yet I felt a sense of completion. I walked through the story with Shadow, shared his many tribulations, his many trials, his many sufferings and his minor triumphs. I felt alive through the story of gods, of Shadow and of myths and legends.

I felt nourished, spiritually, mentally and in someway, creatively.

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt that way. It’s been a long time since I devoted so much time to a great novel. It was great to capture that feeling again.

It was a good, long read.



Okay, the whole gist of the story is that American Gods is a fucking, awesome, mind-blowing, orgasmic novel and that I spend half my week on it.

Obviously with all my previous ranting, I have slightly lost my mind. That’s because I haven’t seen sunlight for the past three days and have been cooped up in my room the whole time. Doing that can make you go slightly crazy. Doing that and reading can make you crazier.

But it was a great feeling. It’s been a long time since I stayed in bed and just read and read. A long, long time.

Okay, I’m starving and I could eat my hand now.

I need a hot, long shower.

And a hot, proper meal.

Then it’s back to the philosophy essay.

Reading Challenge 2010

Signed up for a reading challenge called: “What’s In A Name?

The rules of the reading challenge are (taken from the blog):

So here’s how it works: Between January 1 and December 31, 2010, read one book in each of the following categories:

  1. A book with a food in the title: Clockwork Orange, Grapes of Wrath, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
  2. A book with a body of water in the title: A River Runs through It, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, The Lake House
  3. A book with a title (queen, president) in the title: The Murder of King Tut, The Count of Monte Cristo, Lady Susan
  4. A book with a plant in the title: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Wind in the Willows, The Name of the Rose
  5. A book with a place name (city, country) in the title: Out of Africa; London; Between, Georgia
  6. A book with a music term in the title: Song of Solomon, Ragtime, The Piano Teacher

I haven’t been reading much the past year. I think I read a grand total of 3 books (add 3 to the number) in 2009. They were “The Life of Pi” by Yann Martel, “Playing for Pizza” and “Skipping Christmas” by John Grisham. I’m sure I read a few more books but these are the books that I can currently remember.

That being said, my reading have gone tremendously downhill. I used to be a voracious reader and would usually read a book every week or so. Somehow, as I got older, especially when I entered army, I think my attention span went downhill and my reading reduced to one book every 3 to 4 months.

So as an effort to start reading more, I decided to sign up for the challenged mentioned above. Although there’s a small incentive, the only thing driving me is to read different books in all 6 categories.

I’ve decided that out of the 6 categories, 3 shall be chosen from Singaporean writers. I don’t know which category but food is a definite first choice as a Singaporean writer will most likely write about food.

The choice is not arbitrary. As a Singaporean, I have read very little and know very little about Singaporean literature. The only writer that I can claim to read is Philip Jeyaretnam. Even then, I have only read one novel of his: “First Loves”. The other “Singaporean” writer I can claim to read is Neil Humphreys. I did read some Singaporean writers’ short stories and poems but they were scattered everywhere in anthologies. And not once have I read any Catherine Lim novel.

Starting this year, I aim to read more local literature.

So any Singaporean reader reading my blog, recommend any Singaporean writer to me.

I am not going to restrict myself to reading 6 books for this reading challenge. I aim to read more books, probably another 6 more or so, about the rate of 1 – 2 books a month. I know it is going to be difficult but if I can do it during my younger days, I’m sure I can still do it now.

I’m starting with this novel called “Indecision” by Benjamin Kunkel:

The title of the novel is very ironic.

Once I’m done with the novel, I’ll write out a review. That way, I’m accountable to my goals (fuck, I feel like I’m in school).

University readings don’t count.

A big thanks to Lovelyloey’s blog for introducing me to “What’s in a Name?” challenge. Her link is under “New Ink Inc” at the right.

And check out this new blog: Zack @ UB. It’s a new blog pertaining to media and communications. Something I wanted to do at Sydney U, but er, my grades were not too “top-notch”. Anyway, at least I got to do English Lit. So it’s still a win-win situation.

No song for this entry.

Night.

EDIT: I remembered one more book I read for 2009. It was loaned to me by Rajan and it’s “Slumdog Millionaire” or aka “Q&A” by Vikas Swarup.