Saturday, December 08, 2007
BooksFirst - November 2007
Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney
I Am America (And So Can You) written and read by Stephen Colbert
Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling
The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett
This edition of BooksFirst is late because of the loss in my family and because I didn’t really finish reading any books in November. I completed both books listed here last night, but I’m counting them towards November anyways.
Normally I eschew abridged audiobooks. If I’m going to listen to a book, I want to hear every word. For the I Am America book I made an exception because one of the conceits of the book is that Stephen Colbert didn’t actually write the book, since he hates book. Instead he claims to have dictated it and sent it to the publisher to turn into a book. It shows.
Part of the advantage of the audiobook is that you get that smarmy Colbert delivery. And at over three hours, a little Colbert goes a long way. He has guest readers as well, but it's hard to identify who is doing what bit. Each chapter is a single red meat topic that he attacks with his “modest proposal” deadpan satire. This approach works more effectively on some topics than others. The chapter on Hollywood is side-splittingly funny. The chapter on/against illegal immigration is too close to actual Republican talking points to be inherently funny. Maybe that says more about the xenophobic state of affairs than the humor potential of the topic.
I read the Harry Potter books out of order just to drive Potterheads nuts. If you remember my review of Deathly Hallows, I took a lot of grief in the comments for skipping the middle five books. My son’s favorite book in the series is the fourth, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, so I decided to tackle that one next. I intended to just breeze through it like I had the first and seventh, but it just dragged out. I found it hard to read more than a chapter or two a night. Towards the end as the action picked up, I got more engrossed and knocked off the last quarter in just a few sittings.
I’m figuring out that the books follow a formula of several hundred pages of clever detail about the events going on around Hogwarts. Some of this is integral to the plot, some is just funny episodes scattered about for window dressing. Then there is a hundred pages of real action involving the latest threat to Harry followed up with about fifty pages of wrap up that explains the clues, macguffins, and red herrings that had been sprinkled about the first part of the book.
J. K. Rowling is a genius with character names and jargon and also writes clever dialog in a variety of voices (I really wish Goblet of Fire had more scenes with those sexily voiced Beauxbatons). The plots are deceptively intricate in that all the odd filler sounding parts do tie-in in some way. I still think you could trim these books by at least a third and not lose any of the magic.
Incidentally, the version of Goblet that I read was a British trade paperback my son bought at Waterstones in London several years ago. It is nowhere near the weight of the doorstop hardback American edition. The only Britishism I kept stumbling on was the odd spelling of "pyjamas".
Speaking of both magic and audiobooks, my previous exposure to Terry Pratchett was as audiobooks. I had listened to both The Thief of Time and Small Gods and enjoyed them immensely. Earlier this year I had read Good Omens, his collaboration with Neil Gaiman, and felt that it was more Pratchett than Gaiman, but still very good. One of the problems with Pratchett is that his vast body of work is a daunting barrier to entry. Recently I stumbled onto his official site which had a good guide to the entire series and all the minor subthreads that run through the oeuvre. I went out and bought a couple recently so I could get a representative sample. I included the first Discworld book just so that I could compare the later books with the first entry.
The Color of Magic is a good introduction to Pratchett’s satirical world because it is a episodic picaresque tour of the world literally to its very edge. It also features recurring character Rincewind, the universe’s most incompetent wizard. Each of the four chapters is a stand-alone adventure that satirizes a different fantasy sub-genre. I clearly identified the references to Friz Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series, the Stormbringer series, and the Perniverse. I had to go to Wikipedia to catch that there were also digs at Lovecraft. Wikipedia also tipped off me to the fact that The Light Fantastic is the continuation of the story. I may have to go back and get that one since the ending of this volume does not end in a neat tidy manner even by Pratchett standards. The book is not nearly as funny as the more directly satiric later books, but it shows that all the elements were in place.