Yesterday it was learned that Pulitzer Prize winning author Carol Shields passed away. She was best known for the book that won her the prize, The Stone Diaries. They broadcast an old interview with her on NPR yesterday, and Shields talked about how she squeezed in an hour of writing each day between teaching and taking care of her young children and after nine months she had written The Stone Diaries. Her last book, Unless, didn’t recieve a huge amount of press, but it sold tremendously well at my bookstore and was much loved by the readers I spoke to about it. If you want to learn more about her, here is her obit in the New York Times.
On March 12, a tweet from his official Twitter account announced that Sir Terry Pratchett, a fantasy author whose books have sold more than 75 million copies in over 37 languages, had passed away. Since he was diagnosed with posterior cortical atrophy, a rare form of Alzheimer’s in 2007, fans knew that Pratchett’s days were numbered. Still, his death came as a shock to many; his demise so hard to accept that people even petitioned Death to bring him back.
I was among those signing the petition. I discovered Terry Pratchett just after I moved to Edinburgh for graduate school. I found his novels while browsing through one of the many secondhand bookstores that populate Edinburgh’s cobbled streets and narrow alleys. It was Guards! Guards! — the eighth of Pratchett’s novels that takes place in the Discworld, and the first that concerns the city’s watch — that caught my attention. In bold font, the back cover promised me that after reading the book I would never view dragons the same way again. For £1.25, I thought that was a pretty good deal, and purchased it. Two hours later, I had finished the book.
When you read Terry Pratchett’s novels, you disappear into a different world. This is the Discworld a flat earth that sits on the back of four giant elephants who in turn stand on the back of a giant turtle that swims through space. This world is populated with not only humans but witches, wizards, trolls, dwarfs, gnomes, golems, werewolves, and vampires.
There is never a dull moment in Discworld; from dragons attacking to wars brewing between continents to Death being fired from his job, plots abound. Even the founding of the local newspaper and bank generate enough excitement to merit their own books. Despite its dangers though, Discworld is mostly a hilarious place, as evidenced in lines such as, “They felt, in fact, tremendously bucked-up, which was how Lady Ramkin would almost certainly have put it and which was definitely several letters of the alphabet away from how they normally felt.”
Underneath the hilarity, the excitement, and the adventure lies the deep dark secret of Pratchett’s books — they are actually quite serious. Guards! Guards!, for example, opens on the captain of the city watch, Samuel Vimes, lying “drunker” in a street gutter. Vimes, we later learn, has a slight problem with alcohol. Issues that subsequently come up in the book besides alcoholism include racism, sexism, immigration, war, growing up, religious fundamentalism, death, faith, ethnic identity, nationalism, and what it is, fundamentally, that makes us human (or troll or dwarf).
Browse through any of Pratchett’s books, and you are more than likely to trip over a piece of insight similar to this one offered up by the dragon in Guards! Guards!: “We were supposed to be cruel, cunning, heartless and terrible,” he says. “But this much I can tell you, you ape…we never burned and tortured and ripped one another apart and called it morality.” These moments are no less potent for being buried under countless layers of humor and fantasy; if anything, they are more so. Pratchett’s books take you away from the world, yes, but only to give you a better perspective on it.
In his ability to do this, Pratchett joins a rare class of writers — those who can shed light on the world around us, and our place in it. In many ways though, he, and other fantasy writers, have not and will never be fully recognized for this. Though Pratchett has won a multitude of awards, and has even been knighted, most of his honors were fantasy or sci-fi specific. He did not receive his first mainstream literary award — the Carnegie Medal for best children’s book — until 2001, well after he was already a bestselling author with dozens of books under his belt.
Pratchett himself commented on this problem. At the awards dinner for the Carnegie Medal he said, “I’m especially pleased because [The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents] isn’t just fantasy but funny fantasy, too. It’s nice to see humour taken seriously.” Another famed fantasy writer, Neil Gaiman, Pratchett’s friend and one-time co-author noted once that there was an anger that fueled Pratchett’s writing, and commented that it was partly, “anger at pompous critics, and at those who think serious is the opposite of funny.”
To classify Pratchett — or any author — in this way is to deny his genius. Just because a book takes place in another world — one with wizards and witches and trolls and dwarfs — doesn’t mean it can’t also provide insight into our own. The fact that a book might interest children doesn’t mean it isn’t also crammed full of wisdom for adults. And just because a book makes us laugh, that doesn’t automatically mean it can’t also make us think.
I will always be grateful to Terry Pratchett for gifting me and countless others with more entertainment than anyone rightly deserves. His books enlighten, critique, amuse, and inspire. They are well-imagined, well-crafted, and, above all, exceptionally well-written. As we watch memorial after memorial crop up to Terry Pratchett — obituaries, articles, posts plastered over social media — we should remember him for all that he was. Not just one of the greatest fantasy writers of this generation, but one of its greatest writers.
 These lines though, are nothing compared to Pratchett’s footnotes, which will leave you disturbing everyone’s commute when you sporadically laugh out loud in the subway
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
Michael Crichton died Wednesday after a bout with cancer. Crichton looms large in my history of reading. While other writers introduced me to the potential of literary fiction, it was Crichton who really stoked my love of reading between the age of 12 and 15. I remember reading Sphere in the high school library during free periods as a freshman, and staying up late not wanting to put down The Andromeda Strain, Congo, and of course Jurassic Park, which was passed around my ninth grade class with the feverish excitement that one doesn’t normally associate with 14 year olds and books.The arrival of Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster movie that summer only heightened the Jurassic Park mania. This was back when CGI special effects, now so mundane, had the ability to astonish, and I can remember sitting in a theater that was buzzing with anticipation waiting for the movie to start, and I was scarcely able to believe that the book could be brought to life. The movie lived up to the hype, and it opened the door to the stream of CGI-driven blockbusters that continue to this day.But the movie was only special in that it made real what had already jumped off the pages of Crichton’s books. Crichton’s contribution might be measured in book sales and box office receipts, but there is perhaps more value in his contribution to the collective imagination of a generation of young readers.
Yesterday, I was watching the headlines as I often do, and I was shocked to see the obituary for Bebe Moore Campbell, author of Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine, 72 Hour Hold, and many other books, come across the wires. She died, at 56, from complications of brain cancer. Campbell was a well-known writer, but that is not how I came to know her. For a year, when I lived in Los Angeles, she was my landlord.I first met her as the stern Mrs. Gordon – her full name was Elizabeth Bebe Moore Campbell Gordon – when she showed my friend Derek and I a hillside apartment in Silverlake. This upscale nook of the neighborhood was beyond our means – I was working at a bookstore and Derek was helping out on indie film sets – but her price turned out to be just barely in our budget. In the end, it was worth it for the fantastic westward facing view that on the rare smog-free day provided a glimpse of the ocean and for the walk down the hill to Spaceland, a venue where we saw many of our favorite bands.Campbell’s daughter lived upstairs – it was a bilevel duplex – and this arrangement gave us a glimpse into Campbell’s life. It is odd, in these situations, how well you can come to know people without knowing them as friends, or even acquaintances. It wouldn’t be fair to get into all the details here, but we came to learn, in the odd communication beyond mailing in our monthly rent and in the overheard voices that cannot be avoided when one shares a building with someone else, of the challenges in Campbell’s life.After a year, I got engaged to Mrs. Millions and moved out. Derek stayed on through two more roommates before leaving Los Angeles. I’ve never read Campbell’s books, but the obits in the New York Times, Washington Post, and from the AP describe their importance and her place as “a best-selling novelist known for her empathetic treatment of the difficult, intertwined and occasionally surprising relationship between the races.” I’ll remember her as my landlord Mrs. Gordon, but for more, Tayari Jones remembers her as Bebe Moore Campbell, the writer.Update: Richard Prince pens a more substantial obituary of Campbell.Related: Campbell wasn’t my only literary landlord.