Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Literary, Pop, & Award-Winning Authors: Terry Pratchett, Nick Hornby, and David Ferry

The house is on the verge of squalor, there is one day left to clean, and I prefer the company of drug-popping, suicidal, oversexed characters in novels to that of my family and friends on Thanksgiving.

It's temporary.   If family and friends are reading this, I'll like you again after Christmas. 

Thanksgiving reading 2012.
On holidays I escape into women's blockbusters. Last year it was Valley of the Dolls, the year before that Edna Ferber's Giant: great company while you're basting a turkey. 

My blockbuster this year will probably be
Marilyn French's The Women's Room.  

This week I've been lost in entertaining, stylishly-written books by male novelists, Terry Pratchett and Nick Hornby, and a translation of an obscure epic by the poet David Ferry.  Terry Pratchett's The Truth is a satire of journalism and its opponents. Nick Hornby's A Long Way Down is a superb comedy. I admire David Ferry's translation of Virgil's incredibly boring didactic epic, the Georgics, though I admit I'd rather be reading Bewilderment, his National Book Award-winning poems.

None of these needs a plug by bloggers.  Nonetheless...

NICK HORNBY'S A LONG WAY DOWN.   Hornby is one of my favorite writers.  I love his four books of witty book columns for The Believer: The Polysyallabic Spree, Housekeeping vs. the Dirt, Shakespeare Wrote for Money, and More Baths Less Talking.  

I am also a fan of his novels.

His last two novels, A Long Way Down and Juliet Naked, have more depth than his early comedies, or so I remembered.  I decided to reread A Long Way Down today instead of cleaning.  I plan to download Juliet Naked on my e-reader later (that will take care of tomorrow).

In A Long Way Down, four suicidal characters meet on New Year's Eve on the roof of Toppers' House, a famous suicide spot. They divert each other from jumping and form a "gang"--a kind of support group--to keep one another alive till Valentine's Day.

This witty, stark novel about depression is divided into short first-person chapters from their four points-of-view:  Martin, a talk show host who went to prison for having sex with a 15-year-old girl, was divorced by his wife, and lost his job; Maureen, the mother of a disabled child who cannot speak or act; Jess, a teenager whose older sister disappeared; and JJ, an American who has broken up with his band and his girlfriend.

Hornby has a gift for being interesting. That is not as common as you might think. Hornby pares out tedium:  he writes simply and colloquially, his books are comical and spare, and it is easy to imagine these chapters being performed on the stage.

Here is an excerpt from one of JJ's chapters:

OK, you don't know me, so you'll have to take my word for it that I'm not stupid.  I read the fuck out of every book I can get my hands on.  I like Faulkner and Dickens and Vonnegut and Brendan Behan and Dylan Thomas.  Earlier this week--Christmas Day, to be precise--I'd finished Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, which is a totally awesome novel.  I was actually going to jump with a copy, not only because it would have been kinda cool, and would've added a little mystique to my death, but  because it would have been a good way of getting more people to read it.
TERRY PRATCHETT'S THE TRUTH.   Terry Pratchett's Discworld books are comic fantasies, set on a flat, circular planet that is in some ways parallel to our own.  The city of Ankh-Pork is inhabited by wizards, The Watch, patricians, journalists, women soldiers dressed as men, pub owners, engravers, sex toy shop owners, landladies, dwarves, vampires, werewolves, and sundry other beings. 

In The Truth, William de Worde, writer of a newsletter about Ank-Pork, starts a newspaper after a group of dwarves invent a printing press.  Before he knows it, he is investigating improbable accusations that Lord Vetinari, the Patrician, attempted the murder of his assistant and embezzlement of a massive load of gold. William, along with his reporter, Sacharissa Cripslock, and vampire photographer, Otto, are so inquisitive that they seriously piss off two killers.

This novel is very funny, and as William and Sacharissa evade the attempts to squelch their newspaper, they learn to mix human interest elements, like talking dogs and funny vegetables, with serious journalism.  What is the truth?  It is at least good for a day. 

Good writing.

DAVID FERRY'S THE GEORGICS OF VIRGILDavid Ferry just won The National Book Award for his book of poetry, Bewilderment. I have a copy of his translation of The Georgics, and since I have coincidentally been reading it in Latin, and have no intention of reading beyond the first of four books, I decided to read Ferry's translation.

The Georgics is a didactic poem about how to farm, sort of.  Some consider it more an epic about man...but I'm not here to do a college student's homework.

The language is gorgeous, but the poem is repetitive.  If you want to learn how to plant olive trees, how Ceres taught  mortals to turn the earth with iron, and how you should plant flax in autumn, this is your poem.

Beautiful language, but very dull content. 

Here is a literal prose translation (mine), followed by Ferry's lovely poetry.

Then the rivers first felt the hollow boats; then the sailor numbered and named the stars, Pleiades, Hyades, and clear Arctos, the Great Bear, daughter of Lycaon.  Then they (man) learned how to catch wild animals with snares, to trick birds with bird-lime, and to surround the great forest with their dogs.  

Spellbinding stuff!

Now look at Ferry's:
Then rivers began to sense that hollow canoes
Were floating upon their waters; sailors began
To count the stars in the sky and give them names:
Pleiades, Hyade, Arctos, starry child
Of Lycaon.  And then they learned to snare
Wild beast in traps and fool song birds with lime

Lovely, metrical, and someone had to do it, but thank God not I!  C. Day Lewis's translation is also very good.

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