Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Expertise with agricultural implements

Mort (Discworld, #4, Death, #1) I really wanted to like Terry Pratchett's Discworld fantasy series, which many friends have raved about. A brief survey identified Mort as "the best", and since it's only the fourth in the series, I didn't think it would be difficult to get to grips with the peculiarities of Pratchett's imaginary world.

When we first meet the eponymous character, he's "tall, red-haired and freckled with the sort of body that seems to be only marginally under its owner's control; it appeared to have been built out of knees." Nonetheless, the lad is taken on as an apprentice by Death. It's a sort coming-of-age story for Mort, but the book's star character is really Death.

The premise was interesting: what happens if someone interferes with fate in a world where the moment and method of one's death is fixed. And up to about half way through, I was enjoying it, but it just sort of tailed off and became tedious. Apart from Death, in the second half of the book I couldn't bring myself to care about the characters, Mort included.

Pratchett's humour and descriptions kept me reading tho': "the sort of smile that lies on sandbanks waiting for incautious swimmers", the flooding of the river "brought to the region prosperity, security and chronic arthritis", "porridge, which led a private life of its own in the depths of its saucepan and ate spoons", "shoulders hunched like vulture's wings", and Death's consideration of his own particular skill, "a certain amount of expertise with agricultural implements."

But it wasn't enough to raise my curiosity for exploring Discworld further.

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Water, shelter, clothes and olive oil: the primitive necessities of life

The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 Lionel Shriver's The Mandibles: a family, 2029-2047 mostly takes place in the near future of 2029, when the collapse of the US economy leads to the collapse of society. Set primarily in the suburbs of New York, it relates how four generations of one family, many of whom think of "the primitive necessities of life as fresh water, shelter, clothing, and extra-virgin olive oil", deal with sudden and utter destitution.

This was the premise that interested me, but it took at least a third of the book to get to it. Before that, there was lot of rather tedious dialogue, which was unfortunately necessary to explain the economics behind the plot. With such a large family and so many characters, it was occasionally confusing working out who was speaking.

Perhaps the most important characters are Nollie, the expat author who returns to live with her niece Florence, and Florence's son Willing. I liked the feisty septuagenarian Nollie, but preferred the teenage Willing, who quietly observed what was happening, and sensibly prepared for the future. I also felt a certain affinity with Florence, her frugality and humanity.

In addition to the theme of societal breakdown, Shriver had plenty to say about how the expectation of a tidy inheritance can skew familial relationships and lead to stupid actions. There's plenty of dark humour too, nothing laugh-out-loud, but when "real poverty is about doing what you have to do as opposed to what you want", you probably need to have a sense of humour to cope.

Overall, although I appreciated The Mandibles, I think that Lionel Shriver probably found a lot more enjoyment in the writing of it than I found in its reading.