Another Fine Myth, by Robert Asprin

Another Find MythThings are looking up between me and my coworker, reading-wise… after reading Touch of Frost I have a better idea of what she’ll like and I also know that I need her to explain what’s awesome about a book before I go ahead and read it. Also, she’s promised to give The Eyre Affair another go at some point in the future, which is all a girl can ask for, really.

With this book, though, we almost had a situation on our hands. My coworker was talking about this series to one of our patrons, and she mentioned that it was a send-up of fantasy series, with all the appropriate dragons and such but also a good amount of humor. At the exact same time as I was saying, “Oh, funny fantasy, I love that!”, my coworker was telling the patron, “It’s humorous; Alison wouldn’t like it.” I’m pretty sure a Look was given, and the patron was definitely laughing at us. I couldn’t find this first book in our library or my home library, and I feared I would be unable to prove my clearly advanced sense of humor, but luckily my coworker had a copy and was willing to lend it to me, possibly only to avoid getting stuck on shelf-reading duty. I will take it!

Aaaaaanyway, to get to the actual story part of the story, this turned out to be a pretty funny book! The narrator, Skeeve, is an apprentice magician whose master decides to summon up a demon for a proper introduction and then proceeds to die at the hands of an assassin. Skeeve is terrified of the demon until he finds out that “demon” is just a terrible abbreviation of “dimension traveller” (suuuure it is) and also that this demon, Aahz, would be no worry anyway as Skeeve’s master happened to take away Aahz’s power when he summoned him. As a practical joke. As you do.

Of course, Skeeve soon becomes terrified again, because, you know, dead master, assassins, potential future death, not actually a magician yet, stuck learning all the important things from a guy with no powers. But Aahz is smart and funny and not unlike a certain Bartimaeus, so he is of course able to shepherd Skeeve through all of the ridiculous things that are about to happen to him. These things include mastering disguise, travelling through dimensions, meeting a hot chick, and, you know, going up against the guy who sent the assassin, so there’s something for everyone!

The writing style and the plot of this book reminded me of a slightly less absurd Terry Pratchett novel, which is excellent except that I’d rather gotten used to the absurdity and this book seemed practically straightforward in some places. Asprin also focuses his satire more on the fantasy novel and less on, say, everything in the world, so I felt like I was missing a few things since I’ve never been a big classic fantasy reader.

It’s nothing terribly new to me (though it was probably new in 1978, when this book came out). But I still enjoyed it rather a lot, and after I finish my giant work-based TBR pile (ha… haha… ha…) I may see if my coworker will let me borrow the second book so I can keep up on the exploits of my new friend Skeeve. He seems pretty cool.

Recommendation: For those who like a good satire and a snarky demon.

Rating: 8/10

an RIP read

Weekend Shorts from the New Yorker Fiction Podcast

The New Yorker Fiction PodcastI haven’t been reading too much this week, so I’m glad to have this podcast just waiting for me on my phone when I need a quick escape into fiction. Last week I tracked down print versions for you to follow along in, but that proved to be far more difficult this week so I’m going to have to leave that up to you — but of course the audio is just waiting for you!

“I Bought a Little City”, by Donald Antrim

Oh, my goodness. As soon as I started listening to this, I was like, “I know this is only the third story I’ve listened to on this podcast, but I think it’s going to be hard to top.” And it will be.

In this awfully hilarious little satire, our intrepid narrator buys Galveston, Texas (as you do) and decides not to do anything drastic, except, you know, tear down some houses and build up not-too-imaginative new developments and have the newspaper publish diatribes against him because maybe his city people won’t want to do it themselves? It is very very weird, and Donald Antrim reads it so straight-faced that all I could do was laugh.

“You Must Know Everything”, by Isaac Babel

This was a weird story in a much different way. It’s got a pretty slow start, with a young narrator just sort of talking about his life and his day hanging out with his grandmother, but then toward the end it gets very serious, with the grandmother making the titular pronouncement and some other pronouncements that are maybe not quite what you would expect. I definitely appreciated this story more after the discussion with George Saunders (whose work I have checked out from the library right now!) about the cultural and societal implications of the story, which are actually pretty interesting.

“Somewhere Else”, by Grace Paley

More culture! It’s almost like these segues are planned, though I doubt that they are. As Nell Freudenberger, who discusses the story, says, this is a story about pictures. At first, it’s a story about a Western tour group in China in the 70s, when people weren’t really going to China, and the big event is an argument about taking photographs of Chinese citizens without their permission. Then the story shifts perspective to another picture-taking event in a completely different place with completely different people. The politics and privilege inherent in this photographic objectification (and the objectification of travel in general) are something that I’ve been thinking about lately, so listening to this story talking about the same thing from so many years ago was kind of cool!

“The Gospel According to Mark”, by Jorge Luis Borges

Aaaaaaaaaaaah. This is another story that starts off slow and then takes a turn for the exciting at the end, though on a second listen you can almost feel the buildup and where things start going very wrong. As Paul Theroux discusses, there’s a bit of a horror element to it, and it is definitely that type of horror that is my favorite, the kind you’d find in Shirley Jackson‘s work or certain darker Flannery O’Connor pieces. You should definitely track this down and give it a read or a listen and then another and then possibly another, because it will give you new things to think about every time.

How about you guys? Any short stories to share?

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime WalkOh, Billy Lynn, with your title that I can never remember correctly or in full. You are a strange little book, and I’m still not sure if I really like you, but I can definitely see why you keep getting nominated for awards.

This was a tough book to get into, and to start discussing when it was time for my book club meeting. On the surface, it is a straightforward tale of a group of soldiers who did some heroic things in Iraq and have therefore been recruited by the George W. Bush-era government to go on a victory tour culminating in an appearance at a Thanksgiving Dallas Cowboys game. We hang out with the nineteen-year-old Billy and our other soldier friends in the stadium and environs (the ride there, the seats, the owner’s box, the field, the concession area — there is a lot of stadium in this novel!) as they try to figure out what they’re even supposed to be doing as part of the halftime show and also try to get a movie deal made before they ship back out in two days.

It starts off slowly, but somewhere in there it starts to pick up steam and I found myself really wanting to know what was going to happen with these guys, so plot-wise it’s a pretty good read. But even more important than the actual story is the underlying satire that is almost difficult to see. Where its spiritual predecessor, Catch-22 (which I love and which it references and which, apparently, is big in the advertising push for Billy Lynn) is a flamboyantly ridiculous sendup of the military and the bureaucracy of war, Billy Lynn is a quiet but pointed jab at our pro-war, pro-soldier, pro-patriotism, pro-America society.

Billy & Co. spend a lot of time throughout the novel answering the same questions from different people — How is the war going? Is there an end in sight? Are we helping those poor souls? — and being told how wonderful and brave and patriotic they are for going out and fighting for the American way and all that, even though there’s not one soldier present that these mostly upper-class conversationalists would likely give the time of day to otherwise. At the same time, they are hearing half of several phone calls between their putative Hollywood producer and the rest of Hollywood that say that the Iraq War is not a seat-filler and maybe could it be a World War II movie instead? With Hilary Swank playing one or more of the all-male soldiers?

And then the actual halftime show, goodness. Face, meet palm.

I will say that I didn’t connect with everything in this story; there’s an extended sequence with Billy visiting home and being a little gross about it and also interacting with his intensely dysfunctional family, and a very strange bit with Billy and a cheerleader in an alcove, and the ending is a bit out of nowhere. But after some time away from the book, I think less about the weird stuff and more about how weird it is to send teenagers off to fight wars so that I can sit in this comfy chair and write about books I read. I am made uncomfortable, in a very good way.

I’m glad that Billy Lynn did not suffer the same fate as the movie within it, and I may actually go read some of the other recent Iraq War novels that are coming out now because I, for one, am World War II-ed out.

Recommendation: Not a must-read, but definitely an interesting read for anyone who experienced the USA of the last ten or so years.

Rating: 8/10

Guards! Guards!, by Terry Pratchett

Guards! Guards!I’ve vaguely known about Terry Pratchett and Discworld for years, but was never really interested in reading any of it. Then my brother’s girlfriend started showing up to family events with her nose buried in a Pratchett book, a new one for every event, and since I generally trust her opinions I figured I’d give the guy a try. So when I found myself in one of my favorite Cleveland bookstores with some time to kill, I picked the one that sounded most interesting and it came home with me.

And apparently I was lucky in my book choice! According to the bro’s girlfriend you don’t have to read the series in publication order, but you should read the individual storylines in order, and this book is the first in the “City Watch” storyline. Good work, self! If you are of another mind about how to read Discworld (I hear there are many of these minds), well, oops?

So, anyway, back to this particular book… Guards! Guards! is a weird little story that is part miniature epic fantasy novel and part commentary on epic fantasy novels. It reminds me a bit of Redshirts, except without a weird and headache-causing twist in the middle. I’m not super well versed in classic fantasy, but I knew enough about swords and magic and DRAGONS to get me through this one!

‘Cause see, there’s a Brotherhood of… Something… whose leader decides it’s totes time for change in city leadership, so he summons up a dragon to come kill a few people here and there so that the leader can bring in a ringer to be the long-lost rightful heir to the throne of said city, Ankh-Morpork, and then have lots of power or whatever. As you do. But there is also a bumbling sort of police force called the City Watch who are usually just for show, but with the addition of an officer who has actually read the book of laws they end up investigating the whole “appearance of a heretofore imaginary dragon” thing. There’s also a whole bunch of other stuff that happens, including the theft of a book from a library which leads to some fantastic quotes about libraries and bookstores and magic and whatnot, so that’s awesome.

And really, I think those quotable lines, of which there are many, are what this book is about. The plot is pretty simple and straightforward, but it is not shy about dashing off on a tangent for the sake of a joke or even a pun. I approve, and I approve also of Pratchett’s ability to use fantasy clichés to alternately advance the story (e.g. this is how things work in fantasy novels, so therefore this thing works) and to completely derail it (e.g. this is how things work in fantasy novels, too bad this is actually real life!) — sometimes using the same cliché to both ends!

I found this book “reasonably amusing” (to quote myself) and a perfect sort of brain-candy read, and I will definitely pick up another Pratchett book in the future, if I can ever figure out which one should come next!

Recommendation: For fans of British humor (i.e. Douglas Adams, Monty Python) and fantasy novels and satire and fun.

Rating: 7/10
(RIP)