Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

Any quoted text in italics is the work of the author and I make no claim to it. Anything else in quotes is just me taking the piss a bit.
Okay, this is a fuckin enormous book, huge, and you know from the outset that it’s not even the half of it (literally) because the title page says “The Name of the Wind: The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day One.” The premise of the book is that the main character is retelling his story to a scribe over the course of three days. "The Name of the Wind" is Day One, the next book will be Day Two and so on.
If 1/3 of a story takes 662 pgs you know you’re in for the long haul. I like that about a book, I find it comforting rather than intimidating. I find it’s a bit jarring if you’re completely immersed in a world and then suddenly it’s gone. However, I also hate it if I start a book and feel like I’ve been thrown into a room full of strangers. It has to feel familiar and warm if I’m gunna plough on into it…there’s a filthy and all too easy to make joke in there and I’ll have none of it, you dirty bitches.

Anyway, that familiarity and warmth is in there straight away with this thing, it’s an Inn with a competent but mysterious barkeep and old men spinnin’ yarns and ripping the piss out of young men. Marvellous. I like it, it’s really well done as an introduction and I find myself liking all of the people involved for various reasons. All is well in the world. The standard of writing is kept up throughout the book and I find myself believing (if not liking) all of it. I’m not considering any of the stuff I write about after this spoilery because this is what the blurb says:

“I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings, I burned down the town of Trebon, I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from The University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods loved women and written songs that make minstrels weep.
My name is Kvothe. You may have heard of me.”
funny animated gif 

This guy sounds like a badass, no? You are correct. This kind of hyperbole is used only for the introduction, hyperbole with which he will dispense once he has you on tenterhooks, yes? NO. You are dead fucking wrong. He talks about himself like this the whole way through the book. It’s an incredible story, really well told, and I can’t stress that enough. However much you might empathise with the narrator I find it almost impossible to really genuinely like him as a person. He is a proud, arrogant, boastful shit who, for all of that, tries to act like he’s entitled to it because of all the shit life laid on him. What would be admirable is him coming out as a rational, kind, albeit slightly troubled person at the end of a shitty ordeal. To come out of a shitty ordeal as a shit is not remarkable, not even commendable. 

Also, and I feel like I have to say this,I have no inherent problem with arrogant and reckless protagonists as a rule. Two of my favourite protagonists are one or the other. Lucifer Box is SUCH an arrogant bastard, but he's a self-aware arrogant bastard and realises how he is and why he gets himself into such stupid situations. Harry Potter is a reckless idiot, but doesn't want the ridiculous fame and notoriety it brings him. Kvothe actively denies that most of his lot is the result of his own ridiculousness and actually makes up his own rumours about himself. It does not make for a likeable bloke.

Despite my dislike of the protagonist, this book absolutely deserves the awesome reputation it has. My friend Alex agrees with me. It’s a fabulously compelling story and I don’t regret spending a penny of my money on it. I recommend it enthusiastically and whole-heartedly. 

However, I have a lot of problems with it, they are as follows:

First of all there’s the fact that he’s telling his story at all. He passes himself off as an incredible warrior style tough guy who’s fought his battles and wants to retire quietly to an Inn and be left alone. But mate, if you really wanted to be left alone you’d let the rumours spin themselves further away from the truth so that there was an ever-decreasing chance you’d be found. Right? OR you’re just a falsely modest dickhead who wants to be begged and pleaded to please tell the commoners of your stupendosity. If you wanted the lies cleared up you can take an hour or two to set the record straight. But telling your whole sob story is superfluous unless you really just want to make adventure porn and have lesser mortals get off on it. 

Not that it isn’t a truly amazing story but for a guy who’s supposedly hiding his identity in a shitty inn, he’s real casual about spilling his guts to the first shaven monkey to show up with ink and parchment. Maybe it’ll be explained later, maybe it won’t, but in order to stop me hating this bloke in the face, it might have been cleared up on Day One.

As well written as it is, the parts where it’s not so good really clang as a result. The writing style is often pretentious and full of vague grabs at philosophical metaphor that rather than inspire, make me want to repeatedly smash the Kvothe's face into a pebbledash wall. Just so his agonised screams as he lies bleeding in a back alley make a more profound point than the tripe he routinely spouts as an attempted means to look deep. For example:

“Music is a proud and temperamental mistress. Give her the time and attention she deserves and she is yours. Slight her and there will come a day when you call and she will not answer.”

The notes I made while reading make my point articulately enough. I wrote:

He patronises the reader constantly, often while trying to outline the lows to which he had sunk and their inability to empathise with such suffering, as he is truly the only person to ever suffer as he has suffered. Either that or he’s explaining that they couldn’t understand cause they’ve never been this awesome.
“I doubt you really truly properly understand, I was so poor and hard done by and everybody else was privilged and had it so easy. Woe! Woe! I am so awesome YET HARD DONE BY ALSO TOO AS WELL, DO NOT FORGET!”
funny animated gif
Kvothe: Less annoying than this guy. 
These are actual examples: 

“If you’ve never been desperately poor…” 

No Kvothe, having never been desperately poor, I am not be able to empathise with your feelings at all. It’s not like I just spent 408 pages reading about how desperate your plight is and how hard money is to come by. Not at all.

I think he starts more than one sentence like this. I don’t know who he thinks he’s telling the story to. Earth to Kvothe, human beings are gifted with empathy and are able to understand and imagine the feelings of others. That’s kind of why story telling even works as an art form, numb-nuts.

“If all of this sounds difficult, believe me, you don’t know the half of it.”

 No, because you didn’t describe in detail just how difficult it was to learn when you were 12 nor how unusual it was for a 12 year old to be able to do it and how amazed everybody was when you totally pwned that one guy with your UNUSUAL TALENT at a DIFFICULT SKILL. I know how difficult it is, Kvothe, you just want to remind me of your awesome so you can make your ego-rection just that little bit harder. Y’dick.

Other examples are:

“If you aren’t a musician, I don’t expect you’d understand”

“If you’ve never been deep underground…I doubt…etc etc”

Seriously, these are just examples I wrote down when I’d picked up on it, they are ALL THROUGH the book. He's special, ugaiz.
I concede that there are a few attempts (albeit absurd ones) at modesty. For example, he bets his last money on himself in a fight, but then goes on and on about how worried he is about losing. Yeah, worried enough to bet his last money. Truly, he must have been pooping his pantaloons. He’s either full of himself (yes) or just abundantly stupid (maybe).

As if his awesomeocity and amazing talent and intelligence aren’t enough, he actually invents skills just so he can say he has them and be more stupendously wonderful.

"My well tuned eavesdroppers ear…”

WTF is Eavesdroppers Ear? More importantly, is there a cure? I suppose if you make something up you are automatically the best in the world at it. Well played, Kvothe, you arrogant titbox.He also uses “an old stage trick” to stop himself from blushing. THAT DOESN’T EXIST AND HAS NEVER EXISTED BECAUSE BLUSHING IS A PERFECTLY ACCEPTABLE THING TO DO.
funny animated gif

Not only is his arrogance and often ill-advised self assurance annoying, almost everybody who is useful to him thinks it’s charming, or refreshing is so stunned by his balls-out self assuredness that they buy him a drink or tell him a secret or allow him the popping rights to their first-born’s precious hymen. It’s never explained why they like that he’s full of himself. The only thing I can think of is that the author is labouring under the delusion that it’s perfectly all right to be a complete dick if you can get away with it. I have a theory about this, but I’ll get into it later.

He goes on and on about how tenuously he’s holding on to his place at The University, but I swear to Bob that this is a paraphrase of one of his pity-parties:

“how could I ever hope to stay in the university…I decided to skip advanced sympathy…”

funny animated gif

Seriously mate, I am not student of the year but if I had an unsteady place in the only university in the world, a place for which I’d vowed to work tirelessly and enthusiastically, I would not be skipping class to chase a bit of skirt in a tavern. You can see each and every point at which he goes wrong (and yell at the book for it) and yet he acts like it’s the most unexpected thing in the world when he gets pulled up on his wankery.

He tries to sound profound and sweeping and just comes off (again) as a patronising dick. He says things like “such is human nature” and applies it to seemingly random events that happen to be committed by humans. It carries no actual meaning and only served to annoy me, making no profound statement at all in the process.

He says this at one point:
“‘Son of a Bitch!’ I said, too stunned for proper profanity” 

What does that even mean, “proper profanity”?

“I’m most terribly sorry gents, I’m plum tuckered out. I’m not sure I could manage so much as a half a fuck today.”

It’s not like you’re performing the mental equivalent bench-pressing a Mini by using “proper profanity’. If ‘fuck’ is the first thing to come to mind, say it. If it’s ‘son of a bitch’ then that’s just as well. Don’t act like there’s a whole realm of profanity to which your poor stunned brain could not hope to reach. A naughty word is a naughty word. Portray how stunned you were in a way that makes sense, eejit. This isn’t really a comment on the book in general, or an insight into the character as such, I just thought it was a really weird thing to say.

Those are my only real problems. They are, as you can see, with the protagonist rather than the writing. There is one teeny tiny clue as to why the protagonist is such an arrogant self-assured titbox. And it is on the acknowledgements page at the front of the book:

“And lastly, to Mr. Bohage, my high school history teacher. In 1989 I told him I’d mention him in my first novel. I keep my promises.”

Firstly, it’s a really sweet thing to do, and Patrick Rothfuss is clearly an awesome guy to have remembered nearly 20 years later. I’m not mocking the fact that he thanked his teacher at all. However, the way it’s phrased makes him sound like John McClane or some shit. I’m sure he’d love to be saying: “Twenty years ago I promised if I ever saw that man again, vengeance would be mine. I keep my promises.” It’s just so…needlessly intense. I imagine in the author’s ideal world it would be followed with:

“He taught me a whole lot more than history –Michael Bay Explosion- I am Rothfuss, bad ass novel writer –gun pose- you may have heard of me.“

Via Tumblr

I don’t want to mock the book unduly. The book is awesome. Really I only dislike the protagonist’s enormous arrogance. The examples I’ve got here account for a really tiny proportion of the book. The world is built really skilfully and with obvious and enormous care. I believe all of it, even if I hate the guy whose eyes I’m seeing it through. It’s tremendously exciting and I can’t wait to get to the next day, it ends on something of a cliff-hanger. I laughed and cried and felt desperately sorry for our daring young titbox. I feel his losses like they were my own and I love his friends and hate his enemies. I want him to do well and I’m glad he got out of bad messes and into some slightly less messy ones.

The imagery is dense and believable, and described so neatly that I want to reach out and touch the world Kvothe is moving about in. I loved the legend of The Chandrian, around which a lot of the story focuses. The religion was awesome as was myth he created around it. I loved the idea of arcanists and the true "name" of something being more akin to the soul rather than the label we tend to think of names as being. It's fascinating and I can't wait to find out more. My problems are not at all with Patrick Rothfuss as an author, so much as his protagonist as an unlikable titbox.

It’s a stunning book and well worth the £7.99.

I give it 4 heads out of 5. It would be 5 but the size of Kvothe’s made it difficult to fit my last one here.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Man Who Ate Bluebottles and Other Great British Eccentrics by Catherine Caufield

The Man Who Ate Bluebottles and Other Great British Eccentrics does exactly what it says on the tin. Here is the blurb:

Until he ate a bluebottle, William Buckland had always maintained that the taste of mole was the most repulsive thing he knew. But that was before he ate the embalmed heart of Louis XIV...
Lord Monboddo believed that babies are born with tails and was a careful observer at the births of his own children-but in each case the midwife outwitted him and managed to destroy the evidence.
This delightful survey of British loopiness through the ages is a celebration of true originals, whose strength of character stands out more than ever in our age of mass-market conformity. As John Stuart Mill warned as long ago as the 1850s: "That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of our time."

It's a compendium of about 300 mad British Men and Women who've gone down in history for being more than just a little bit odd. Some of them are laugh out loud funny and others are very touching. There are the odd few that are just plain heartbreaking.

The cover reviews are as follows:

"An entertaining and fascinating book about some of our best eccentrics. I enjoyed it immensely." Sir Patrick Moore

It is definitely those two things. I would also add "touching" to that list. Quite often these people, as annoying and inconvenient as their habits undoubtedly were, had people willing to indulge and to help them. Mind you, quite a lot of them were very rich and could afford to pay people to indulge them, but, my cynicism aside, quite a lot of instances in the book will renew your faith in people just a tiny bit.

"Mad dogs and Englishmen, laid out for public gaze." Fortean Times
There are Englishwomen too, Fortean Times. And non-English types. It is British eccentrics, we had a whole Empire to claim stories from for quite a long time. I do not like this review. It is elitist and exclusive. I shan't have it.

"A compelling read that praises our individual idiosyncrasies." Big Issue
Praise is right. As funny and charming as the author's commentary consistently is, she seems to gloss over the fact that quite a large proportion of these people were very obviously seriously mentally ill. As good as the stories are that are made by these mental illnesses might be, it seems a little exploitative to trivialise the enormous problems of these individuals to the level of "Oh, aren't they odd? Charming, really." It's something that troubled me more and more as I read account after account of behaviour for which somebody would seek treatment in our time passed off as a quirk that was causing nobody any real harm. I'm not saying that the mentally ill should be hidden away and sedated, but more than if they have an illness they should be treated for it, rather than exhibited in a sort of patronising freak show.

Even in the blurb the idea that "mass market conformity" is the reason for the lack of eccentrics is just absurd. Yes I agree that anything very strange is quite likely to be mocked and unpopular, and that's awful, but I think that's always been the case.. I absolutely agree that it's people like William Buckland who make the world a far nicer place to be in. He's clearly a man who really is just a little bit odd. There's a difference between eccentricity and signs of mental illness, is what I'm saying.

Don't think that I don't want to hear about mentally ill eccentrics, nor that the behaviour of the mentally ill is to be hidden away and taboo because of their illness, but the idea that the lack of seriously mentally ill people to write more books about is a negative impact of mass market conformity is absurd. If I have to choose between living in a society with a great many interesting people, many of whom are desperately unhappy OR living in a society where the mentally ill are better cared for and suitably medicated, with slightly fewer truly eccentric people as a result, I know which one I feel better about.

It just could have been addressed a little better, or at all.

It gets 3 Mell Heads, because it's a good read but left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.