Book of the Month- May A Slip of the Keyboard by Terry Pratchett

The Discworld. Rincewind. The Unseen University. And, of course, antipasta.

Do you even read science-fiction if these words are alien to you? Terry Pratchett, the author of over 70 books, was a literary mastermind (who created the aforementioned words, or in the case of antipasta, decided that it was actually pasta that was prepared, like all antimatter, several hours after you ate it). He created the Discworld, a mega-series that contained no less than 41 novels. In 2000, he was voted the nation’s favourite author by the people of Britain. (Well, 2nd favourite author, if you include Rowling!) But Pratchett was also a remarkable campaigner for Alzheimer’s, animal rights and having a bit of sense of a sense of humour.

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In this collection of his most celebrated speeches and articles, there is hardly an instance where one isn’t littered with a witty pun or sly joke. This book surveys almost the entirety of Pratchett’s lifetime, reflecting on his time at school, the nuclear power station (who knew?) as well as his career in journalism. Given that Pratchett, as far as I know, has no official biography, this is all we have. This snapshot of various moments of his life is all the people who admired this man, who’d become a knight in his lifetime, can go by.

“Build a man a fire, and he’ll be warm for a day. Set a man on fire, and he’ll be warm for the rest of his life.” Pratchett

And why would you want to go without? By reading this, I have gained such an invaluable insight into not only his writing methods, but more memorably his stance on Alzheimer’s and assisted death in the UK. Pratchett was probably one of the most famous sufferers of the disease when he was alive, donating £1 million to their charity and creating various documentaries. Reading this has given me such a remarkable perspective on the topic of euthanasia, that it was starting to become a much more philosophical read than I had bargained for!

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I was incredibly moved, too. To be able see in the articles the progression of topics from childhood anecdotes, to his endless book signing tours- where he always wrote about how incredulous he was at his popularity- to hearing the frustration and anger in his words as he described the onset of the disease. How he could no longer type, because the letters would disappear from the keyboard. How he could no longer read his own speeches, and had to have someone else present them for him. To hear such a renowned and literally accomplished person describe their struggles is something that is painful, yet if you respect them, necessary to endure.

In a way, this is possibly better than a biography. The pointless parts, the vague relationships and holes between occupations have already been melted away, so only the quality information is left for us to experience. Of course, occasionally there was repetition of a phrase here or there, yet this was only to be expected since Pratchett had given more interviews and written more articles than anyone could possibly perceive, so to expect every piece to be completely original is borderline ludicrous.

When I was younger, I wrote Terry a letter. I even him drew a dragon, something that I was truly proud of, and was even slightly reluctant to send it away. I did it nonetheless, but I never received a reply from him. It’s not in bitterness that I mention this, but merely in recollection. Particularly towards the end of his life, Pratchett noted that he was receiving so many emails and letters that it he would never have the time to rely to  even a fraction of them, and the immense feeling of regret that filled him at the thought of this.

I suppose this book really is only relevant it to you if you like science-fiction, or at the very least Terry himself. And if you’re unfamiliar, then make it your priority to explore one his books straight away- you’ll find yourself pleasantly surprised. I guarantee it.

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March Book of the Month- I Have Lived A Thousand Years by Livia Bitton-Jackson

We think we know. Or at least that we can imagine: the terror that struck their hearts, the fear that perpetrated every dream, the weight of their sorrows.

If there is anything to illustrate just to what extent the present is ignorant of the past’s sufferings, then this is the book to do it. An autobiography, I Have Lived A Thousand Years is the shocking retelling of Bitton-Jackson’s experience of two years under Nazi rule, as a Jew. We have all heard the stories of concentration camps, seen images and even visited them. But until you have absorbed the description of someone who suffered, you will never skim the surface of understanding what life was like during the Nazi regime. Having been subject to work at Dachau and Auchwitz, there are countless, gruesome recollection of days without water and food. Where she was forced to march for miles, leaving trails of red as pieces glass drove deeper into their bare feet. It is, to say the least, a raw and uncensored account, and rightfully so. Just be warned that it can be incredibly emotional.

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In concise detail, Bitton-Jackson writes about the most influential and momentous experiences of her childhood. After growing up in a small town in Hungary, one day the streets are overwhelmed with Nazi attitudes. It spirals, scarily fast, out of control. By reflecting on the events of the past, it reminds what a great distortion of reality we actually have, how the peace we bathe in every day is no more concrete than the placated moods of the global leaders. So, the message is, don’t take it for granted.

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By reading this book, you will perpetrate, as much as any of us can, the reality of the concentration camps. The way that everyday could be the last- the fact that there were teams of Jews forced to drag their friends’ bodies out of the gas chambers, to pick out their gold teeth, unpeel whatever could possibly be of value from their bodies. The pointless violence. The train journeys, with the final destination intangible. The days so long, I could feel Bitton-Jackson’s despair penetrating through the pages. The bodies staggering as plumes of blood dotted their shirts, after the prisoners clamoured around the trains’ window to collect soup from the Red Cross during one of the stationary periods of the train journey. Except, of course, it wasn’t the Red Cross. It was the Nazis, using Red Cross vans, and even bowls of soup, as a lure to get the Jews to come to the window so that they be shot more easily.

It was a horrific read.

In a way, Anne Frank’s diary is the perfect prequel to this. Of course, they lived on different sides of the continent, but both were young teenage girls, and whilst Frank recalls the conditions of her concealment, Bitton-Jackson tells of her experience of what followed. In my opinion, I Have Lived A Thousand Years should be considered as classic a war read as Frank’s Diary, because it is one the few books to tell the story of a survivor, and reads well too. I would recommend this to anyone interested in history, current affairs or simply a gripping, emotional read. In many ways, it’s much more engrossing than a novel, and what better way to honour the deaths of so many millions, than by understanding the conditions of their deaths?

Magnificent Desolation by Buzz Aldrin

Moonwalker. Innovator. Alcoholic.

A brutally honest autobiography of Aldrin’s life, reflecting on not only the stellar parts of his career, but the parts which have shrouded him in despair and embarrassment.

Many Americans view Buzz Aldrin as a national icon; a hero. Part of Apollo 11, the space mission which cemented him in history as the second man to ever walk on the Moon, Aldrin certainly is extraordinary. But there are other sections of his life that define him, too. Like when he was a fighter pilot in the Korean war, an author of novels or when he spent most his days slumped beneath bedsheets, due to the overwhelming depression he suffered. Most people aren’t aware of this side, and Magnificent Desolation explains what precisely Aldrin went through following his Moon Landing; it turns out that the physical side effects were the least of his worries, and that he was psychologically underprepared for the fame that would ensue.

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This book, despite being co-written by Ken Abraham, was definitely written by Aldrin. The words had bitter edges on certain topics (like when discussing his failures in his post-astronaut military career, or when discussing conspiracy theorists) and at other times would appear as if he was desperately trying to seem complementary, as if through the publication of this book he was wary of any outstanding offences he could cause.

Also, occasionally Aldrin would start to build up an event as if it had massive significance in the grand scheme of his life, and as a reader I would wonder what this event would foreshadow. More often than not it turned out to be completely irrelevant and not tie into anything else in the book:

“One overly zealous reporter planted himself in front of our car, refused to budge while snapping photos of me through the windshield. In exasperation, I raised my hand and gave him the finger. As soon as I saw the flash go off, I knew that I had made a gigantic mistake. When we got back to the hotel, my first call was to the attache at the embassy to see if he could quash the picture. He must have successful, because the photo never showed up”

It’s just utterly frustrating. If it turned out that the image had been leaked and had started to give Aldrin an awful reputation which affected his speaking career, then it would have been understandable. But nothing came of it- so why waste a paragraph mentioning  an irrelevant event that is not tied onto anything else in the book? This happened so many times throughout and frankly I found myself exasperated.

What I did enjoy though was when Aldrin started to discuss how in his later career he continued to develop ideas for space exploration. His words sounded so resolute and hopeful for the future- how by 2030 we should have people living on Mars, and his grand plans for a Mars Shuttle System. Above all I found that part fascinating, because it offered me an insight into the future of space. He spoke a lot about space tourism too; it seems like a plausible concept and he discusses it at length because he had devoted plenty of time to ensuring that it became as intrinsic to the American economy as ordinary tourism. We’re not quite there yet, but time can only tell!

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I would recommend this autobiography to those  who have an interest in space history and astronauts, as it does not only offer a valuable insight to Aldrin’s life, but also into the future of space in our society. It is not a necessarily a relaxing read as most of the information is presented quite factually and straightforwardly, but nevertheless I’m glad I gave it go!

Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik

We are all avid readers. We have all discussed, at one point or another, that topical debate. What is your preference: the rising E-book or classic paper tome? Why is it that we are so obsessed, so comforted by the thin pages, when faced with the bold technological alternative? Everyday we are surrounded by this material, whether it is in our note paper, train tickets, toilet paper or bank notes. So it is not a surprise, perhaps, that we are unwilling to let it drift away from society. After all, it is what we have grown up with, yet fundamentally this marvellous invention, one which has been utilised by generations, is largely a subject of ignorance.

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For example, why are ancient pages honoured with a musk of yellow, and why are long-forgotten  receipts faded?

Thankfully, I have found a novel which can satisfy these inquisitive questions, one which dutifully gives us an insight into 10 common materials. It thrusts them into the limelight for a chapter, primarily focusing on their composition, how they were created, and their role in society today. Does that sound technical. A bit too educational for your liking? It shouldn’t. Because along the way we learn about why razors blunt, that concrete never drys out (at least it doesn’t set in the way we perceive it to) and how it is conceivable that the lightest solid in the world is 99.8% air. Miodownik has ambitiously turned a subject which could be lined with boredom into one which is delightful and captivating.
Today, we are constantly, ironically, being pestered by mindfulness fanatics to live in the moment and to appreciate everything around us. That can be difficult when there is tumultuous rain, and you have just missed your train to an important meeting, but no said it was easy. But, it would be easier if we understood what we were appreciating. These materials make up our lives, and the manipulation of these materials could arguably be what isolates the human race from all other species. Yet do you know how plastic is made? Did the fascinating nature, the mere possibility, of surgical implants ever grip you? I profess now; none of these questions applied to me until I read this book. Each chapter is brimming with mind-blowing, quirky information, interspersed among rich anecdotes and charming writing that manages to make even the most mundane materials a source of thrill.

This book has reignited my dwindling faith in non-fiction writing, and I think that one is ever trying to understand society better (because these things are so fundamental to it), appreciate life more (start with the small things) or is simply curious, then this is a brilliant place to start. It was a concise too, which meant that although the information at times was detailed and scientific, it wasn’t winding on for eons, leaving me bored half a chapter away. A surprising yet gratifying holiday read!

Stiff by March Roach

This is not an ordinary novel. How many books do you see everyday that can tell you everything from how someone tried to weigh a soul, to how a person invented a tongue-pulling machine to check if someone was truly dead? From morbid to marvellous (these examples are more on the marvellous end of the spectrum) never before has a subject like death that has been dealt with such sincerity in today’s society, been written about such good humour and hilarity, as well as being interspersed with thought-provoking facts.

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I am not one, as you may have ascertained by now, to commonly read non-fiction, yet this was fantastic. Why There was a perfect pace to the novel, with Roach never lingering on a topic too long to ensue boredom, yet no stone in the history of cadavers had been left unturned. There was such in a variety in topics covered, and none of them, although occasionally gruesome and gross, were so worn down with such an endless amount of facts that I felt bored. Unusually, reading this novel left me feeling oddly at peace, and reassured. I say unusually because despite then fact that I love reading, I never thought that reading a novel about cadavers would make me feel at ease. However I don’t think I owe this to the subject matter, but to Roach’s remarkable narrative on the novel. I guess that many people uncomfortable talking, or reading about death, and when they do, there is normally such a heavy sadness surrounding a death that there isn’t much room for questions. But Roach takes the merry approach, and shows us that, despite popular belief, life on Earth is far from over just because you are dead, and so with unmatched cheerfulness.

I absolutely loved this novel; it was clear that there was a painstakingly large amount of research that has gone into it, and in doing so every page holds a new fact about the subject. Also, and I cannot stress this enough, there is so much hilarity in this book, that I cannot help but smile. It is worth mentioning that I picked up this novel completely by accident. I was in fact looking for a book called Gulp, but the librarian was having issues locating the book, and offered me Stiff as an alternative. This wasn’t really the novel I had in mind for myself, but I duly took up the librarian’s offer. And I am glad! I never would have ever considered Stiff as an novel I would enjoy, as it is very different from what I normally read, but I loved it! I read this book as well to complete the ‘Read a non-fiction book’ box for my reading challenge!