What I’ve been reading lately, part 11

[See also previous and subsequent posts in this series.]

MAKING MONEY — TERRY PRATCHETT

By this stage, if you’ve been following the “What I’ve been reading lately” series, you’ll know what I think about Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels by now. I think they’re great fun, very easy reading, and nowhere near as deep as some critics seem to think. Making Money very much falls under this description. I thoroughly enjoyed it the first time I read it, thoroughly enjoyed it when I re-read it this time, and no doubt will thoroughly enjoy it again the next time I read it. But let’s not pretend Pratchett ever had anything very deep to say, beyond “Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone was nice?

Orthodoxy — G. K. Chesterton

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This was the first Chesterton book I read, having come to it in a vague hope that it would prove to be sort of like C. S. Lewis. That was a forlorn hope: besides sharing a Christian world-view, the two authors could hardly be more different. While Lewis carefully builds inexorable arguments, Chesterton never seems to bother doing anything so mundane. Instead, he dances around his subject, making a pithy observation here, dropping in a piercing insight there, and cracking a joke as he comes back around from the other side.

This sounds like it should be frustrating or even insubstantial. Somehow, it’s not. Underneath all this foolery, Chesterton’s own understanding of his subjects is rock-solid and consistent, so the effect of his writing is not of a directionless cacophony, but of a clear picture emerging as if by magic from a malestrom. It makes me think of photogrammetry — the near-magic process whereby a 3d model of an object is synthesised from a bucket of photos taken from random angles and distances.

Lewis himself recommended Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man as the best explanation of Christianity for non-Christians that he knew, and said it was particularly influential and helpful in his own journal from atheism to Christianity. I admit I found that book a bit difficult, though: I am inclined to think that Orthodoxy is a better starting point.

HERCULE POIROT’S CHRISTMAS — AGATHA CHRISTIE

Blah blah murder blah Poirot something something Christmas blah blah blah. I can’t remember this one at all.

SURVEILLANCE (GHOST TARGETS BOOK 1) — AARON POGUE

Yet another BookBub freebie that tries to sucker you into buying sequels by being the first in a series, but without being quite good enough to pull it off. This one has some interesting ideas, and I liked its quietly dystopian take on a world where surveillance has got even more out of control than it is in the real world — but really, Poe’s Law starts to come into play here, and it gets hard to tell the difference between the satire and the satirised.

Would I read the second book in this series if it came up as a freebie? Yes, probably. Would I pay for it? Unlikely. I know this is a bit brutal. What can I tell you? It’s tough to write good books. One of the things I’ve learned from all these BookBub offers is that there’s a distinct gap between a good amateur writer and a pro. People can criticise a lack of artistry in, say, J. K. Rowling all they like, but she has the craftsmanship down cold and keeps you turning pages. Lots of authors with genuinely interesting ideas can’t do that.

JINGO — TERRY PRATCHETT

I remember having rather enjoyed this one on previous readings. This is about the fourth time I’ve read Jingo, and perhaps it suffered a bit this time from coming as part of a glut of Vimes stories. The satirical take on how two otherwise friendly nations can get drawn into ostentatious and pointless hostility is done well enough, but it’s hard to read and enjoy in the present post-Brexit atmosphere where xenophobia in the UK is reaching levels not seen in decades. Also: the Vetinari/Colon/Nobby strand of the plot feels awkwardly contrived, and lets down the relatively hard-headed approach of the rest of the book.

THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY — G. K. CHESTERTON

One of my all-time favourite books, and one that I re-read periodically for the sheer joy of its invention, the prodigality of its imagination, its wild unpredictable lunges between moods, and the otherworldliness that pervades it throughout and dominates the dreamlike conclusion.

When I was twelve years old and becoming obsessed with programming microcomputers, I had an accident riding my bike and suffered a minor concussion. I remembered who I was, where I lived and so on, but temporarily forgot almost all of what I knew about computers. I remember being overjoyed at the prospect of getting to learn all that fascinating stuff over again. I saw, as though for the first time, an advert for the then soon-to-be-released VIC-20, and got to be delighted afresh at the amazing prospect of a colour computer for less than £200.

I wish I could have a similar accident now, and forget The Man Who Was Thursday in the same way. I envy people have never read this before — they, unlike me, can now go ahead and read it for the first time: wondering at every turn not just what it going to happen next, but what the thing that just happened means, and indeed what the book is.

MAGIC, A FANTASTIC COMEDY — G. K. CHESTERTON

By turns thought-provoking and amusing — but that’s not telling you anything you didn’t know when you saw the name “Chesterton”. Not one of his greatest triumphs, though — a relatively minor work whose details have slipped away from me since I read it.

MOSTLY HARMLESS — DOUGLAS ADAMS

As the cover says, this is “the fifth book in the increasingly inaccurately named Hitch Hiker trilogy”. This, along with part 4 (So Long … And Thanks for All the Fish) are, I think unjustly, somewhat overlooked compared with the first three installments. That may be because parts 4 and 5 are not merely supernumerary, but also tonally very different from the original trilogy. While So Long is a gentle, elegiac book that exudes a surprising amount of quiet contentment, Mostly Harmless is savagely pessimistic, and famously ends with the destruction not only of Earth but of all possible Earths in all possible probability streams.

It’s understandable that people who were hoping for more of the knockabout wit of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe and Life, the Universe and Everything would find that unappealing. And there is no denying that other parts of the book are equally grim — for example, Arthur’s brief and unpleasant adventures on Nowwhat. But at the same time, there is a lot to love here. The frustrating earthbound life of alternate-Earth Trillian; Arthur’s contentment as the Sandwich Maker, and subsequent despair at his own complete inadequacy when catapulted into the role of father to a sulky teenaged daughter; and maybe most of all, the sheer exuberance of Ford Prefect’s reckless adventures in the offices of the New Guide.

As it turned out, this was Adams’ last complete book. (The Salmon of Doubt collects some of his unfinished musings, along with some fascinating juvenilia, but that really doesn’t count.) His very sudden, and genuinely tragic, death at the age of 49 meant that in the end his entire published oeuvre consisted of only nine short books: the five of the Hitch-Hiker trilogy, the two Dirk Gently books, the marvellous natural history travelogue Last Chance to See (co-written with Mark Carwardine) and the faux dictionary The Meaning of Liff (co-written with John Lloyd). For a talent as unique (yet widely imitated) as that of Douglas Adams, it’s a pitiful legacy. It certainly pales beside the 40+ Discworld books of Terry Pratchett, whose books are also twice as long as those of Adams. Pratchett, then, produced an order of magnitude more material than Adams; yet, I feel it’s Adams who will still be loved in a hundred years. After all, Jane Austen only wrote six novels.

WHAT ON EARTH AM I HERE FOR? — RICK WARREN

A set of 30 short chapters, to be read one a day for a month, on how Christianity provides a coherent framework for understanding the world and our lives. I read this because our church was working through it, and found it surprisingly good. It’s by megachurch pastor Rick Warren, which will be enough to turn some people off. But, while he’s no C. S. Lewis, he does have the intellectual muscle to make a good case, even if the requirement to reach a mass market means that he has a tendency to water his ideas down more than I’d like. Still: well worth a read.

PANGLOR — JEFFREY A. CARVER

Apparently a “proper” book, conventionally published in 1980 and revised in 1996, despite being a BookBub freebie. It was … OK. Lots of messing about with faster-than-light travel and strange alternative dimensions, but nothing that made me really care about any of the people involved. Plus the concepts didn’t turn out to be as interesting as the setup promised they would be. Carver is evidently a serious Sci-Fi author — his 2001 novel Eternity’s End was a finalist for a Nebula Awards — but I don’t  have any plans to seek out more of his work.

MURDER IN THE MEWS — AGATHA CHRISTIE

A collection of four short mysteries, all of them adequately interesting and entertaining. I am coming gradually to the conclusion that this novella-length-story format suits Christie best: not all of her ideas and characters are really substantial enough to carry an entire novel off with panache, while the true short-story format (ten or twelve to the book) leaves her rather gasping for breath as she tries to introduce her cast, execute the crime and deduce the solution all in a handful of pages. The upshot is, I think Murder in the Mews would be rather a good introduction to Christie for those not already familiar with her.

9 responses to “What I’ve been reading lately, part 11

  1. I agree with you about Pratchett vs Adams, and even before I saw you mention Adams I was think along those lines.

    Pratchett is often genuinely amusing, and I’ve enjoyed some of his books quite a bit. Adams on the other hand… well, maybe it is that I first read him at a particularly impressionable time, but he, I think, had a hand in shaping my world-view. It’s hard for me to imagine that being the case with Pratchett, no matter when I read him.

    I must say that I don’t look as kindly on “Mostly Harmless” as you do. Of course it has gems- Adams never wrote a bad book, and I’m not sure he could have. But there is a meanness to “Mostly Harmless” that isn’t present in any of his other books, and which stands in stark contrast to the very gentle “Fish.” I was sorry to see the Guide go out that way, and I imagine that if Adams had lived a bit longer he would have recovered from whatever bout of melancholy had him in its grip and rectified that.

  2. Well, I can’t disagree with you that there is a meanness in Mostly Harmless, and that is certainly feel very different from So Long as well as from the core trilogy. But it’s only present in certain parts of the book — not least the casual way Fenchurch is disposed of. And of course the gut-stomping ending.

    But I’m not sure I agree that this negativity was a phase Adams would have pulled out of given time. It seems to have been a growing thread through his later work — consider the very judgemental treatment of the lawyer and his wife in Long, Dark Teatime and the isolationist misanthropy of Wonko the Sane in So Long. This is only speculation, but I can’t help noticing that this negativity grew as Adams fell increasingly under the spell of Richard Dawkins, who seems to be one of the unhappiest people on the planet — he’s always furious about something. So I fear that Adams’s books might well have continued to grow darker had he survived.

  3. I agree with Tagore about Mostly Harmless. I really like the Dirk Gently books as they were quite inventive and not as patchy as I found the later books in the HH trilogy. I thought they transferred well to TV too a while back (with Stephen Mangan) but unfortunately there was only ever one series.

    Did you know there’s a sixth book in the trilogy? “And Another Thing”. Interesting, like a band member’s solo album, but not great.

    Good comparison with Jane Austen.

  4. I read And Another Thing because I felt I ought to. I hated it: only got through it by willpower. Happily, I have since forgotten everything that happens in it. I mean it: literally every single thing.

  5. I don’t know if I ever really forgave D.A. for the vanishing of Fenchurch. Crueler than anything that George R. R. Martin’s written to date.

    I recently read ‘The Color of Magic’ which I had started a long time ago, but never finished. I haven’t read much Pratchett thus far (Feet of Clay and Good Omens), but I feel inclined to partake of some more after finishing TCoM.

    Looking forward to your take on ‘The Eyre Affair.’ Have been slowly reading the sequel (‘Lost in a Good Book’) and am enjoying it quite a bit.

  6. Yes- it is more than anything the vanishing of Fenchurch, offstage, without a bit of rhyme or reason, that bothered me about MH, but I also think there is a fundamental shift in tone from the earlier books (though I’d say that that shift at least peeps out in the third book, my second-least favorite in the series.)

    I think you might have hit on something with Dawkins, but I find it a bit difficult to articulate.

    Well- we’ve talked some religion, and I don’t mean to rehash that, but… as you know I am essentially an atheist (the essentially is not something I’ll go into here.) But I am, despite both being congenitally a bit angry, and an atheist, not an angry atheist in the sense that Dawkins or Hitchens could be said to be. You might actually describe me as a relatively cheerful nihilist.

    I’ll admit to envying the religious sometimes. Religion, it seems to me, must be such a source of meaning and comfort that I often think I’d be better off being religious even if it all turned out to be nonsense. Well, it is too late to mend that. Instead, I am left to find meaning and comfort on my own, in what appears to me a capricious and uncaring universe. And (this is the relatively cheerful part,) I am sometimes able to.

    Adams’s universe is much more in line with my view of the world than with yours (despite, maybe even because of God’s final message to his creation,) so I perhaps feel his degree of cheerfulness more keenly than you do. For me it is a more consequential matter.

    This, I imagine, explains the difference in how we see the Wonko the Sane scene vs MH. To me (and to Arthur and Fenchurch,) Wonko isn’t delivering much in the way of news, or even information.

    Yes, it is a capricious and uncaring world, devoid of any meaning we cannot devise ourselves, and yes, people are irredeemably imperfect. But we get to walk off hand-in-hand. For a darkling plain it sure has nice ocean sunsets to walk off into. And perhaps that is enough- it had kind of better be.

    God’s final message to Marvin is, if not enormously heartening, the apology Marvin needs to find a bit of meaning and comfort. So Long as a whole is Adams’s final apology to his creation, and I wish he had left it there. Instead, MH is the equivalent of teasing Marvin with the original message, but changing it, just as his diodes pain him for the last time, to read “Just kidding- we’re not sorry at all.”

  7. Kurt: Pratchett is not Adams, but he can be quite entertaining. I think it took him a few books to hit his stride with Discworld. And the books remain uneven throughout- hardly a surprise given how many there are. But if you like the first one you will probably like the later ones more.

  8. Kurt: I finished The Eyre Affair a few days ago. I rather enjoyed aspects of it, especially the casual depiction of a society where people are crazy about literature rather than pop music or sport. But the actual plot didn’t hold my attention as strongly as I’d have liked. Too much felt arbitrary.

    Still, I imagine I’ll read the sequel.

  9. Tagore:

    Adams’s universe is much more in line with my view of the world than with yours […] so I perhaps feel his degree of cheerfulness more keenly than you do.

    That actually makes perfect sense.

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