Fangirling Interlude: Terry Pratchett

I came across something on Twitter that got me thinking about my favourite writers, “One writer for the rest of your life – who would it be?”

I was genuinely stumped. Not an easy question. I never categorise my favourite writers or books or films in a hierarchical manner (“This one’s my absolute favourite, and then this one is my next favourite” – things I’ve never said). There are simply writers/books/films that I love, and those that I don’t. Thus to choose one over all others is difficult.

I spent some time wondering how I’d answer the  question, with my thoughts flowing along the lines of:

“F. Scott Fitzgerald – gorgeous proses, masterful writing, but his work mostly leaves me with what I can only describe as beautiful poignancy – is that the only feeling I’d like to be with for the rest of my life? Hmmm…

J.K. Rowling? No. Harry Potter was fun, but only those books? No.

Emily Bronte – wrote one of my most beloved books, but only gothic victorian literature for all of my days?” 

and so on and so forth with several other names, until my glance fell upon my Pratchett shelf.

Terry Pratchett? Yes. Yes. YES. 

I’m not sure how I missed Pratchett at first. He is a writer that I love reading. I started reading his books on a friend’s recommendation and since then I’ve ravenously, voraciously read as much of his work as I can.

The publication of his final book, completed by his assistant Rob Wilkins due to Pratchett’s demise, was bittersweet news – Pratchett’s books are gifts of joy to his readers, but knowing that this was the final Pratchett was deeply saddening. I bought the book, and initially fantasised about saving it for my last day – then, there’d always be one more Pratchett to read. I eventually succumbed to curiosity and temptation and read it anyway.

Why Pratchett as the one writer, if forced to limit myself, that I’d be happy to read for the rest of my life? So many reasons – here are just a few of them:

His books are diverse. He’s known for writing comedic fantasy; but what is less well known about his genre is that within the frame of comedic fantasy he writes detective stories, adventure stories, romance, political thrillers, supernatural plots – anything and everything.

His books are not fluff – he said himself that some readers/reviewers had “accused” him of literature, and that is true. Often people get put off by the idea of fantasy, assuming that fantasy books are meaningless, nonsensical or not “true literature” (whatever that means). This is not true – and Pratchett is the perfect writer to prove this point. His books will always make you think, they have more depth than a cursory perusal of the plot summary would suggest.

His books, as I said before, are gifts of joy.

There’s something about reading a Pratchett that is always uplifting. You’re instilled with hope – you believe that things can be better, that people can be better, that YOU can be better, that the world can be better. His compassion, humanity and keen sense of justice shine through.

A few Pratchett gems worth highlighting:

  • Night Watch (to be fair, all the Watch books – however, its probably best not to start with Night Watch though; you need to know the characters’, their back stories and all the in-jokes to fully appreciate this one)
  • Snuff (this is a controversial choice since I know many long time Pratchett readers feel this is his weakest book. I, on the other hand, really enjoyed it.)
  • The Hogfather (this one made me cry. Love, love, love.)
  • Thud!
  • Monstrous Regiment (took a while to get into it, but then really enjoyed it)
  • Weird Sisters (the sort-of-Macbeth [although not really] of the Discworld — its good, read it!)
  • Equal Rites
  • Feet of Clay (Pratchett on top form)
  • Maskerade (Agnes Nitt!)
  • All the Tiffany Aching books.

 

 

 

Bookstore Appreciation

FOYLES, I LOVE YOU!

My first online purchase from Foyles arrived in the post today. The swiftness of the package’s arrival does credit to the U.K. postal service, and the book being so efficiently despatched to the bookstore.

foylesPreviously, Foyles was not my bookstore of choice. This was never due to anything about the store or its selection of books; it was merely because another bookstore held sway over my heart – Waterstones. I’ve only ever been to Foyles twice, once at the Charing Cross branch and once in Bristol, and it was a pleasant experience on both occasions.

But choosing between Waterstones and another bookstore was like having to choose between the great love of your life and someone nice enough but not really THE ONE.

A little background: I do not live in the U.K. But I have been fortunate enough to have travelled there often – for years, summers in London meant hours of blissful browsing at Waterstones.

It was never a conscious decision to mostly shop at Waterstones initially; it was simply that Waterstones was so centrally located – it was practically everywhere we went – King’s road, Kensington High Street, Picaddilly Circus, Oxford Street (formerly) and near Covent Garden.

00005187-400x400.jpegAll year long, I would save up to for my book shopping – and go and spend my savings at Waterstones – from books like Saffy’s Angel to Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories to Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci series to (in more recent years) numerous works by the likes of Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Ann Granger, Frank Tallis and MRC Kasasian.

I used to be so excited to see those ‘3 for 2’ stickers on my books of choice. Often, my mum would have to tell me to not buy so many books because they’d take up so much room in my travelling bags – but, honestly, who could resist ‘3 for 2′ on the Horrible History books?

In recent years, with the advent of online shopping (a real blessing for those of us with limited access to quality books locally), I realised that I wouldn’t have to necessarily wait until my next trip (who knows when?) to the U.K. to replenish my reading stock. Experiencing difficulties with Amazon, I turned to none other than favourite place.

To my dismay, Waterstones – the love of my life – does not ship to my country. Nor does it accept card payments from my country.

Oh the tragedy!

The hurt!

The tears!

And then I happened upon Foyles’ website … and was delighted to find that they DO ship and accept payments from my country.

The new-found joy!

The excitement!

Obviously, Waterstones will always hold a special place in my heart. But now I am quite smitten with Foyles too.

The Fountain (2006) – Film Review

Note: There will be *spoilers* I don’t think I’d be able to fully analyse this film without spoilers

Screen Shot 2018-04-01 at 5.58.56 PMThe Fountain is the first Darren Aronofsky film I watched, at the time when I had just begun my foray into obscure/non-mainstream films, and it is (without a doubt) a masterpiece. A masterpiece in terms of story-telling; cinematography; theme music; and its impact on the viewer.

Possibly part of the reason why its taken me so long to finally get down to writing about it is that there is so much to think about when it comes to this film. (The other part is that I always find it more difficult to write about things I love). If you thought Inception was complicated, this film will seem like an equally (or perhaps more) byzantine puzzle box. Its complexity is not a failing, and nor is it there merely as a pretentious film-making device (as some detractors may assume); the story’s intricacy is one of the strongest reasons to watch this film.

The film welcomes multiple interpretations, and there are many interesting ones out there – I would recommend reading this one and this one. Two of the dominant readings being:

A- The film is set across 3 time periods, with a cycle of reincarnation.

B- The film is set only in the present, and the ‘past’ is merely a portrayal of the story in Izzie’s novel, while the ‘future’ is Tom’s completion of her novel as per her dying wish.

All interpretations, including those not mentioned here, are plausible. For the purpose of this review, I will be focusing on interpretation A & B.

First off, the plot is non-linear (which works brilliantly here – frankly, I don’t believe the film would work quite so well with a linear narrative), but for the purpose of clarity I am going to try and summarise it as moving from A – Z temporally (see next paragraph). At the heart of the film, as Aronofsky has stated, lies a love story between Tom (portrayed by Hugh Jackman) and Izzie (Rachel Weisz). We’re introduced to these characters in the present day at a time of crisis – Izzie is suffering from a terminal illness (a cancer of some sort?), while Tom, her scientist husband, is (in ever-increasing desperation) searching for a cure. This intersects with the past and (what is presumably) the future.

Screen Shot 2018-04-01 at 7.15.39 PMThe story is set in three time periods:

  • Past or Izzie’s Novel ‘The Fountain’ (Spain, 1500s/16th Century): Spain and its Queen Isabella are under threat from the Inquisitors. Tomas, the Queen’s loyal conquistador and betrothed is tasked with finding the Mayan Tree of Life and thus securing immortality for the Queen and himself.
  • Present Day (Presumably, somewhere in the USA, in the early 21st Century?): Izzie is terminally ill, and Tom is searching for a cure; trialing experimental treatment after experimental treatment as time “waits for now man”, each moment that passes more precious than the last, and each day death drawing ever closer.
  • Future or a Metaphor for Tom’s Journey of Grief (Somewhere in the cosmos, 26th Century?): Tommy, travelling in an enclosed biosphere containing the dying Tree of Life, nears a star about to go supernova (presumably, Xibalba – this will be explained later)

Mythological and religious references abound in the film – the most obvious perhaps being that of Orpheus and Eurydice, the undertones of which are most clear in the present day (Tom/Izzie) plot. The culmination of this storyline has the same impact as the final moments of the Greek myth – the sense of desperation, inevitability and defeat when so close to success is deeply affecting. The film is Tom’s journey from the first stage of grief, denial, to the last, acceptance.

The film draws on various spiritual philosophies, in particular of the Judeo-Christian traditions and Buddhism. The film opens with a paraphrasing of Genesis 3:24 (“Therefore, the Lord God banished Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden and placed a flaming sword to protect the tree of life“), reflecting Aronofsky’s idea that The Fountain is ultimately a film about mortality and the eternal human quest for immortality – the paradox of mortal creatures unable to accept their mortality -And yet, that mortality is the very thing that makes humans human.

The film is titled ‘The Fountain‘ but there is no literal fountain to be found in the film. Instead, the Tree of Life is the metaphoric fountain – the life-giving force. The Tree is presented from two philosophical lenses – the Judeo-Christian and the Mayan – although it is a recurring theme in various myths and religions globally.

In the film’s Judeo-Christian perspective, the Tree of Life is the seemingly unattainable but forever-sought-after fountain of youth/immortality. The Biblical Fall implies that Adam & Eve (here symbolically represented by Tom & Izzie) are doomed to roam the world as mortals, forever prevented access to the Tree of Life – another form of ‘forbidden knowledge’, one which Tom tries desperately to uncover. As Tom promises, “Death is a disease, it’s like any other. And there’s a cure. A cure – and I will find it

192px-Ktreewnames

In Jewish Kabbalah, the Tree of Life is considered a diagrammatic description of the process of Creation. It begins with Endless Light and an explosion of energy (reflected in the chiaroscuro film shots, and xibalba going supernova) and moves towards wisdom and understanding and the journey of Man back towards his spiritual origin (Tom’s journey). This is a very brief and superficial explanation – wikipedia, usefully, explains it better. The perfection of this film lies in how all aspects of it are constructed to flow well together, as seen in its use of this symbolism.

In the Mayan story of creation, as told in the film, life and death are irrevocably intertwined. First Father (echoed as Adam, the First Man) sacrifices himself to create the Tree of Life, out of which all of existence grew.  “His body became the trees’ roots. They spread and formed the earth. His soul became the branches rising up forming the sky. All the remained is first father’s head. His children hung in in the heavens creating Xibalba

This concept of death as regeneration – a part of an endless cycle of life, death and rebirth –  is also presented by Izzie recalling something she was told by her tour guide, Moses Morales regarding his own father’s demise, while researching for her book, “He said that if they dug his father’s body up, it would be gone. They planted a seed over his grave. The seed became a tree. Moses said his father became a part of that tree. He grew into the wood, into the bloom. And when a sparrow ate the tree’s fruit, his father flew with the birds. He said… death was his father’s road to awe. That’s what he called it. The road to awe.”

UnknownThis is the ironic lesson that Tomas the conquistador must learn, and through him Tom (who continues Izzie’s novel after her death). He believes that Queen Isabella and him shall live together forever, but upon his consumption of the sap of the mythic Tree of Life, he experiences regeneration – regeneration that consumes his body to entangle it forever with the Tree itself – he shall live forever, but not as he imagined.

The Tree of Life imagery continues with Tommy and the Tree in his biosphere. The Tree of Life is dying, and he is rationing its sap to live a little long, long enough to reach their destination (Xibalba). Xibalba here signifies the dying star (but is also the name of the Mayan underworld), the explosion of which spells new life according to Tommy’s reassurance to the Tree “Through that last dark cloud is a dying star. And soon enough, Xibalbia will die. And when it explodes, it will be reborn. You will bloom

But despite his efforts, the Tree dies and is only revived after Tommy’s annihilation – repeating the pattern of death and life. This is again seen in Tom fulfilling Izzie’s wish and planting the seed of a tree above her grave. To die is to pass on life force, according to the film. It is not an act of destruction but one of creation – pantheistic undertones are present.

850550b4704c7787102d4ec0d392f45b.jpgBuddhist elements are also numerous, but perhaps the most obvious is the image of Prince Gautama shaving his head. It may seem odd to focus on a character’s hair but one notices that hair is an important part of the male protagonist’s transformation. Tomas is shown with shoulder length hair, Tom’s hair is short, and Tommy has no hair. This references the story of how Prince Gautama (Buddha) cut off his hair after his enlightenment to signify a severance of the hold of the material world on his consciousness. Similarly, as we move from Tomas and his worldly motivations to Tom and his personal motivations to Tommy and his sublimation into something higher, the character’s physical transformation mirrors this.

Screen Shot 2018-04-01 at 7.08.14 PMCinematography: This film is a visual marvel (*ahem*, in case you didn’t read it earlier, the descriptor for this film is masterpiece). If one ever doubted Aronofsky’s craft (although most would hail him as a very skillful auteur), this film would lay those doubts to rest forever. Aronofsky and Matthew Libatique have created something unique here.

The art direction of the film is marvellously chiaroscuro. As the story moves forward and the characters develop, they are shot differently: initially, Tomas is shown in shadow, as Tom he is presented in muted tones, and finally as Tommy he is illuminated in the overpowering glare of the star – possibly representing the characters movement from a darkened/unenlightened state to one of enlightenment, from denial, fear and despair to joyful acceptance, from dreaded mortality to (in the words of Izzie) “death as an act of creation”.

Screen Shot 2018-04-01 at 7.09.49 PMConversely, Izzie is presented illuminated by bright light, a halo surrounding her, representing her alignment with higher consciousness/enlightenment, but also her significance to Tomas/Tom/Tommy. For Tomas, she is his Queen and his love; for Tom his beloved wife; for Tommy a ‘golden’ memory, a guiding light. She seems ethereal and otherworldly. As Queen Isabella, she is presented obscured by a screen; as Izzie bathed in white light; and finally as a fleeting memory that fuels an imperative impulse.

Lighting isn’t limited to the characters in focus. The entire ‘past’ plot is shot in rich, dark tones; the ‘present day’ in clearer tones – more akin to actual sight; and the ‘future’ in bright shades of white and gold against the backdrop of space. This resonates with how the story and the characters move from dark places, emotionally and mentally, to brighter states.

Interestingly, the theme of ‘light’ isn’t restricted to literal lighting – it is also used in the sense of weight/being weighed down. The ‘past’ feels dense and oppressive when Tomas and his fellow soldiers wander in thick, dark forests. In stark opposition, Tommy moves weightlessly through space.

This is further enhanced by crucifix imagery haunting both Tomas and Tom. Indeed, it becomes something of a leit-motif. The film opens with an extreme close-up of an ornate crucifix, before which Tomas is praying. Soon after, we see victims of the brutal Inquisition, lying in poses resembling the cross from a distance. In the ‘present day’ storyline, we see a huge grey cross but as the camera zooms out it is revealed to be a pattern behind Tom on the doors of a lift.  The repetition of the crucifix image is a visual manifestation of Tomas/Tom’s suffering – his ‘cross to bear’. Fascinatingly, Aronofsky talked about how the structure of the film was planned and sculpted as a three dimensional crucifix as well (Aronofsky describes it as a ‘cruciform’).

Using trick photography rather than resorting to CGI (which, when done poorly is just awful – as in The Great Gatsby, 2013) is an inspired decision.Screen Shot 2018-04-01 at 7.06.38 PM

Peter Parks, a specialist in macro-photography, created the gorgeous space imagery using fluid dynamics. This works so well for the film – not only is it a visual feast, it gives an impression of effortless expanse and the melting of the physical and meta-physical. Screen Shot 2018-04-01 at 7.06.03 PM

The Soundtrack: Oh my goodness! How is it that I had not heard of Clint Mansell before this film? The soundtrack is sheer perfection. If I thought Has Zimmer was good – this music is revelatory, transportive, transformative, goose-bump-inducing, meditative, powerful, perfect ( Did I say perfect already?) … Each composition evokes something of its related theme. For instance, for the track Death is the Road to Awe, there is a sense of urgency; for The Last Man, there is a meditative poignancy that will stay with you – a strange, haunting mix of grief and beauty (as embodied by the film); for Xibalba, there is longing and resignation; for Together We Will Live Forever there is a calm, muted joy – it has something of a farewell lullaby about it (I believe it plays over the end credits). Even if you don’t watch the film, please listen to the soundtrack.

The Fountain is a film that I cannot recommend highly enough (my friends, to whom I have already mentioned it countless times, can attest to this). Well worth watching if you’re looking for something intellectually stimulating, challenging, unusual and unforgettable. The ending is sheer perfection (and very moving) – the film continually draws on and blScreen Shot 2018-04-01 at 6.01.22 PMends various mythologies and philosophies, but by the end it has succeeded in creating a epic of its own; leaving the viewer with much to consider.

I’ve only recently discovered that there is a graphic novel of The Fountain (Darren Aronofsky & Kent Williams) – I cannot wait to get my hands on it! The artwork is said to be exquisite. How can one doubt that after seeing the film?

 

Post Script: This film makes me want to take up Film Studies. I would happily write a dissertation on it.

This is a woefully brief review – there’s so much more to the film as well, but I think this is the best I can do in trying to explain why I think its wonderful.

Further Reading – The Fountain Explained

The Prisoner of Heaven (2011) – Book Review (Short)

**Here be Spoilers – proceed with caution**

In my previous review (The Angel’s Game) I mentioned that I intended to read the third instalment to the Zafon series. Well, I did. And I honestly say this with a heavy heart (because there was SO MUCH potential for the books post-The Shadow of the Wind), but the series just seems to get worse and weaker by the book.

The Prisoner of Heaven was supposed to fill in gaps in the David Martin plot and we were supposed to learn new things plot and character-wise. Needless to say, this is not the result. Instead this book felt more like a “filler” than anything else – Something for readers to chew over until Zafon completes the fourth (and final?) book in the series (set to be released this September).

  1. Nothing particularly revelatory was revealed about David Martin.
  2. Unnecessary sub-plot about an antagonist from Fermin’s past.
  3. Pays obvious homage to Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo; as The Angel’s Game did to Great Expectations.
  4. The whole Isabella+David Martin= doomed love thing failed to affect me in any meaningful way – I just felt bad for poor Sempere, in love with and married to someone who clearly did not feel the same way and seems to have only married him because Martin was unavailable and she wanted to get out of her parents’ home!
  5. Fermin’s “been watching over Daniel his whole life” revelation was so so useless – completely detracts from the relationship that had developed thus far between these two characters.
  6. Why did Fermin’s assertion to Daniel that “David Martin is not your father” feel like it was the opposite? Please DO NOT go down that route Mr Zafon! A needless development which will make me dislike Martin and Isabella even more.
  7. Fermin’s interactions with Martin in prison were not at all meaningful and lacked any depth.

With this series, it has continually become ever more clear that Zafon cannot write female characters well. One might notice it less so with the first book, because there are so many other strong elements there, but in this third book it is so obvious. Zafon’s problem is the ‘male-gaze’ – he cannot write female characters without making his readers very aware that this is a man writing a female character – not just a writer writing a character – descriptions of female characters border on objectification, focusing mostly on unnecessarily sexualised descriptions, and female characters are shown to be secondary to the plot and incidental, and minimal.

How is it that writers like (and as diverse from each other in their writing style and genres as) Neil Gaiman, F Scott Fitzgerald, Terry Pratchett, Boris Akunin, Marcus Sedgwick and even Charles Dickens have all been able to write female characters well, while Carlos Ruiz Zafon refuses to?

  1. Beatrice = objectified in all descriptions (There’s more to women than their bodies – maybe somebody ought to put that in a memo to Zafon?)
  2.  Isabella = Fridged Woman trope — again! How often will Zafon re-hash this plot element in a single book series? Do women only exist for the enhancement of male characters? Must all women die for the personal journeys of the men in their lives? And why is Zafon so fixated on this stereotype in fiction? There is much for a psychoanalyst to ponder here.

The fictional body count is at three – one female character per book MUST DIE for the male character/s to be motivated towards some goal, fuelled by grief.

  • The Shadow of the Wind: Penelope
  • The Angel’s Game: Cristina
  • The Prisoner of Heaven: Isabella
  • Prediction for the forthcoming Labyrinth of Spirits (unless Zafon decides to break the mould): Beatrice (or Isabella’s doppelgänger niece introduced in the book under review here – for the symmetry that Zafon is so fond of).

Retrospectively, the sexist writing in The Shadow of the Wind is pretty obvious too. And it is not limited to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series – it continues in Zafon’s other works such as The Prince of Mist and The Watcher in the Shadow.

I’m now caught between disappointment with this series (and hence a desire to not read the upcoming book) and a need to know how things end and not really wanting to ‘break away’ from the series when it is as yet incomplete. I’ll see how I feel about the fourth book by September.