Political correctness -not to mention trolls-run amok

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October 23, 2005|By MICHAEL SHELDEN | MICHAEL SHELDEN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

THUD!

Terry Pratchett

HarperCollins / 373 pages

Police Chief Sam Vimes is doing his best to cope with a fresh outbreak of serious crime - a murder, the theft of a priceless painting, and a simmering feud between rival gangs of dwarfs and trolls. In the comic, upside-down,multispecies society of Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, Sam must wage a nearly hopeless battle to keep order in a world where absurdity is king, and where his only ally is his small, ragtag police force of humans, trolls, dwarfs, one werewolf, three golems, and a new affirmative-action hire (Lance Constable Sally von Humpeding, the first vampire cop in town).

Push political correctness and cultural diversity to their extremes and you get KoomValley Day- the anniversary of an epic battle between trolls and dwarfs that neither side can remember the origin of, but which both sides use as an excuse for nursing grievances and settling scores. With a loud thud, a troll's hammer pounds in the skull of a dwarf activist, and all hell breaks loose as the two sides line up to revive their old feud. Sam is in the middle and would use his good sense to keep the peace if anyonewould listen to him.

Instead, he is constantly having to sit through a never-ending stream of complaints from a society full of self-obsessed victims. Vampire Sally, for example, argues that she deserves to be on the police force despite her previous history of sinking her teeth into people's necks. She is a law-abiding citizen now, she insists, and threatens to file a species discrimination claim if Sam doesn't hire her. He gives in after she points out that she can be very usefulwith her excellent night vision.

But he wonders if Sally won't revert to type: "Vampires were fine right up until the point where, suddenly, they weren't." It's good he doesn't actually say these words but only thinks them. Otherwise, hewould be in trouble with the new vampire advocacy group, the Uberwald League of Temperance, whose clean-living pledge is summed up in the motto: "Not One Drop!" Of course, any similarity between mad, chaotic Discworld and our own supposedly intelligent planet is purely-and hilariously-intentional.

A PRIMITIVE HEART

David Rabe

Grove Press / 304 pages

Better known for his plays than his fiction, David Rabe demonstrates in this new collection of short stories that his talent for dialogue is just as dazzling inside a prose narrative as it is on stage. His characters tend to be angry misfits, and the danger of creating dialogue for them is that they will all sound like participants in the same rant. But Rabe knows howto give an individual edge to a particular voice, so his disaffected men and women sound like nobody else.

"I had things I wanted to tell her, things I could vouch for," an abandoned child who's now grown says of his newly discovered, but dying, mother. "They were what had happened, after she'd dumped me off in a cardboard box wrapped in newspapers. Other people might hear how their father fainted at their birth...My legacy was newspapers." The bitter narrator of this small masterpiece- "Leveling Out," the last story of the collection - is the sort of characterwho probably couldn't carry an entire play but who shines perfectly in all his brief glory as the protagonist of a short story. His search for his mother takes him from New York to California, but the real journey takes place inside his head as he tries simultaneously to reach out to his mother and to reject her, as she rejected him years ago. It's the sort of mental conflict that a good narrative can portray convincingly, and Rabe seems to relish the power to delve into the mind of a character in a way that just isn't practical in the theater.

Unfortunately, one or two of his stories have the feel of an exercise that he wrote long ago and shelved. They refer to a time when people went shopping for "the best VCR on the market" or modeled their clothing on Madonna's latest style. Perhaps Rabe the short-story writer felt that he had to advance his career as a playwright first and save up his best pieces of fiction for another day. If he has any more works like "Leveling Out" on hold, I hope he doesn't delay in sharing them.

TWO LIVES

Vikram Seth

HarperCollins / 512 pages

This is the story of a one-armed Indian dentist who falls in love with a beautiful Jewish woman in Berlin on the eve of theWorldWar II, and...

If you think that sounds like the beginning of a novel, you would be wrong as far as Vikram Seth's version of the story is concerned. Though he is an acclaimed novelist with a great ability to capture the heart of Indian life, and though his style ismore like that of a fiction writer than a biographer, he has taken a true story and refused to fictionalize it.

The one-armed dentist was his Uncle Shanti, and the pretty German girl was his Aunt Henny. The couple married after the war, when world events slowed down long enough to give them the time for love. Before that, Shanti was busy fighting for the British in Italy, and Henny was escaping - just in time - from the Third Reich. The rest of her family was not so fortunate. As she later learned, her closest relatives all perished in the death camps.

Seth lived with the couple when he was a young student in England. He was fascinated by their story -a great love affair tested by cultural divisions and the horrors of war - and has told it faithfully and fully. Using interviews and old letters and family history, he has brought to life a drama that might easily have been forgotten.

Michael Shelden has written biographies of Cyril Connolly, George Orwell and Graham Greene and is a regular contributor to The Daily Telegraph of London.

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