Monday, December 31, 2012

Books Read in 2012, Part 4

The Discworld project continues, plus a couple of bedtime stories that Lauren and I read together.  I’m about three-quarters through one of each of those as of right now, but I suppose they will just have to wait until next year’s list.


Interesting Times (Terry Pratchett)

The Agatean Emperor is on death’s doorstep – a familiar place for such people, as assassination is considered a normal career path for aspiring emperors – and the armies of the great warlords are massing around the capital.  Unfortunately for them, so is Rincewind the Wizzard (by request of the Red Army, a puppet rebel organization sponsored by one of the warlords) and so also is Cohen the Barbarian and his Silver Horde of elderly barbarian heroes (on their own initiative, as barbarian hordes tend not be good followers).  This is a long meditation on warfare, conquest, the virtues or lack thereof of revolutions in general, and Chinese history, in which the convoluted politeness of Agatean society often comes up rather lacking in the face of practical barbarian simplicity.  Pratchett also has a lot of fun with the difficulties involved in trying to speak a tonal language as a non-native.

Maskerade (Terry Pratchett)

Perdita X. (nee Agnes) Nitt has gone to Ankh-Morpork to make her fortune in the opera.  Granny Weatherwax has taken Nanny Ogg to Ankh-Morpork to see the publisher who has cheated Nanny out of thousands of dollars in royalties from her book, The Joye of Snacks.  Naturally their paths cross in an extended satire of The Phantom of the Opera that is full of the kind of in-jokes that anyone who has spent time backstage will appreciate.  This is one of the more plot-driven of the Discworld books, with less space given to the moral framework underneath than some of the earlier (and later) novels in the series, but it flies right along and makes its point about the power of stories to alter reality well enough.  Also, no matter how hard Agnes fights it, you know she’s going to be the third Lancre Witch eventually, replacing the now married and busily royal Magrat Garlick.

Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook (Terry Pratchett and Stephen Briggs)

At some point after writing Maskerade Pratchett must have decided to make Nanny Ogg’s The Joye of Snacks a real thing, but since most of the recipes in that book were meant to be libidinous at best and aggressively obscene at worst, he instead wrote what would have been the sequel, complete with editorial notes from the publisher and his assistant regarding what must be removed and why.  This is a slight but generally amusing collection, complete with a section on etiquette at the end and a couple of recipes submitted by other characters as well (Lord Vetinari’s “Bread and Water” recipe and Leonard of Quirm’s recipe for a cheese sandwich being the two that stand out most).  The recipes are genuine things one can make – especially if you have a fondness for fish or nuts, which most of them contain – but they are clearly designed for the British market and many have ingredients you either can’t get in the US (such as caster sugar) or might be able to get under some other name (such as courgettes).

Feet of Clay (Terry Pratchett)

When two seemingly harmless old men are murdered in cold blood (as opposed to being inhumed by Assassins for a reasonable payment, which is legal in Ankh-Morpork), it sets off a long police procedural of a novel featuring the newest alternative citizens to appear in the Discworld series, golems.  Add in an attempt to keep the Patrician, Lord Vetinari, on the sidelines, the coming out of one of the dwarfs in the Watch as a female (difficult to tell with dwarfs, even on close inspection), a bizarre attempt to make Cpl. Nobbs into the new king, and the continuing tribulations of Angua – the Watch’s only werewolf – as she tries to rationalize her relationship with Captain Carrot, and it all adds up to a fascinating story.  This is the book where Commander Vimes’ sense of social justice comes to the foreground in a way it hasn’t before, as he revisits his old neighborhood – a place full of the genteel poor, too proud to fall into crime and too far down the social scale to matter to anyone who could possibly help them.  The anger that fuels that gives the rest of the book more of an edge than it would otherwise have.

Hogfather (Terry Pratchett)

The Discworld story once again focuses on Death, in a plot that is similar in many ways to the old Tim Burton movie, The Nightmare Before Christmas.  A macabre figure (Death in this book, Jack Skellington in the movie) finds himself in charge of a much happier holiday and playing the main character from that holiday (the Hogfather, Santa Claus).  Comedy ensues.  While Burton’s movie was about identity and whether one could be someone else without bringing your old self along for the ride, Pratchett’s book focuses on the by-now-standard Discworld notion of the power of belief to affect reality.  The Auditors – the shapeless figures who control Reality – want the Hogfather dead.  Without the Hogfather, the Sun will not rise from its midwinter sleep – the power and truth of old myths and primal magic is one of the central ideas here.  The Auditors have hired Mr. Teatime, an Assassin about whom even other Assassins are uneasy, to do the deed, but Death, in his continuing campaign to understand and protect his harvest, steps in to serve as the Hogfather and rekindle humanity’s belief in him.  Throw in Death’s granddaughter (Susan), the thinking machine over at Unseen University (Hex), a number of oafish criminals, a Tooth Fairy franchisee, and the world’s most dangerous bathroom, and you’ve got yourself a novel.  This novel doesn’t hang together as well as most of the Discworld novels – I remember thinking that the first time I read it and wondering if it was just because I had a cold then, but it seems to be the case this time too.  But I do like the character of Death in these books – an earnest craftsman trying to understand his subjects within the limits of his capacity, and like all of Pratchett’s creations strongly moral in his way.

Jingo (Terry Pratchett)

The resurfacing of the ancient island of Leshp from beneath the sea, exactly halfway between Ankh-Morpork and Klatch, provides all the spark the Discworld needs for a pointless war and all the set-up Pratchett needs for one of his most strongly argued moral novels.  When a Klatchian prince is nearly killed on the streets of Ankh-Morpork (in a spot-on parody of the JFK assassination), Watch Commander Samuel Vimes investigates it as a crime even as mindless bloodthirsty patriotism in the persons of Lord Rust, military commander of the city, and his Klatchian counterpart, Prince Cadram push their respective populaces into war with all the echoes of the build-up to WWI.  It is this conflict between soldiers (creatures of war) and police (keepers of the peace) that drives the book.  Eventually it all ends up in Klatch as the two sides argue it out.  One of the joys of Pratchett’s work is how allusive it is, and there are references in this book to everything from old vaudeville jokes (“It was on fire when I lay down on it”) to Lawrence of Arabia.

The Last Continent (Terry Pratchett

Rincewind the Wizzard finds himself stranded in XXXX (pronounced “EcksEcksEcksEcks” though in later books I believe it gets shortened to “FourEcks”), once again on the run but this time pursued by a kangaroo who might be a deity.  A large portion of the faculty of the Unseen University of Ankh-Morpork is also stranded in XXXX, but millions of years in the past.  Somehow these two plot lines converge in a welter of chase scenes and commentary on Australian culture – which Pratchett clearly finds amusing in its ability to be sporting about even hangings and in the utter impenetrability of its slang vocabulary.  This novel really doesn’t hold together very well and while it has a number of great scenes and lines in it they don’t really add up to a coherent whole that I could see.  Eventually Rincewind finds a way to keep on running, because that is what he does, and the Last Continent – so named because it is the last one created, when all that is left of time and geography are the leftover bits – goes chugging along its merry way.

Carpe Jugulum (Terry Pratchett)

When King Verence of Lancre makes the mistake of inviting vampires from Uberwald into his kingdom for the naming ceremony of his baby daughter, it falls to the Lancre witches (Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, Agnes Nitt [and her split personality, Perdita] and Queen Magrat) to get rid of them.  But these are modern vampires – they can eat garlic, stand in the sun and swallow lemons, and they spell it “vampyre” to show their modernity.  It takes all of the ingenuity of the witches, the faith of the Omnian priest Mightily Oats, the aid of the vampyres’ servant Igor, and the fierce combat skills of the Nac mac Feegle – a blue-skinned race of 6”-tall Pictsies who make their first appearance in the series here – to get to the final confrontation scene, which is suitably dramatic and subtle at the same time.  Once again, Pratchett hits on perhaps the central moral message of the Discworld series – evil begins when you treat people like things.

The Egypt Game (Zilpha Keattey Snyder)

Lauren and I read this for her bedtime story in the fall.  April Hall is in 7th grade, dumped onto her grandmother by her absent mother, and unhappy.  But when she meets Melanie Ross her life changes.  They discover a common love for all things Egyptian, and with Melanie’s four-year-old brother Marshall, their neighbor Elizabeth, and eventually two boys from their grade – Ken and Toby – they convert a disused storage area behind the Professor’s junk shop into the land of Egypt, where their imaginations construct rituals and games out of the sight of adults.  But there is a murderer loose in the neighborhood, and before long everything will get far more complex than anyone anticipates.  This is a good story of tolerance and imagination, with a surprisingly dark undertone.  It’s an old book, written in 1967, and that breaks through occasionally, but it is entertaining and deserved its Newberry Award.

The Fifth Elephant (Terry Pratchett)

When the new Low King of the dwarfs is to be crowned in Uberwald, His Grace Sir Samuel Vimes, Duke of Ankh-Morpork and Commander of the City Watch is sent as the city’s ambassador.  But wherever a copper goes, he will find crimes or they will find him, and quickly Vimes is enmeshed in an incipient civil war in Uberwald – the Scone of Stone has been stolen, the werewolves are on the prowl, the vampires are plotting, and everywhere he turns there is an Igor trying to sew things back together.  Vimes gets deeper and more complex as a character with each passing novel, and Pratchett uses this novel to flesh out the culture and history of the Discworld’s dwarfs as well – they started out as satirical takes on Tolkien’s dwarves, and here acquire a dignity and complexity of their own.  Meanwhile Carrot and Angua face relationship issues, the City Watch is left under the Queeg-like command of Sgt. Colon, and the whole ramshackle mess totters forward as it usually does.

The Truth (Terry Pratchett)

This was the book that started it all for me – the first Discworld novel I ever read – and I have a soft spot for it.  It is also, upon rereading, one of the better ones in the series.  William de Worde, black sheep son of Lord de Worde, somehow ends up starting Ankh-Morpork’s first newspaper, and this gets him deeply involved with a plot to overthrow the Patrician.  It’s not what he had hoped for.  But with his capable staff (Sacharissa, the daughter of his main rival; Rocky, a troll; Otto Chriek, a vampire dedicated to photography even if it means dissolving into dust whenever the flash goes off; a collection of homeless and largely insane delivery men; and a host of unflappably canny dwarfs), William will establish a free press and get to the bottom of this crime, more or less.  Pratchett spends a fair amount of time riffing on subjects as varied as Pulp Fiction, Alcoholics Anonymous, and the sorts of letters to the editor one finds all to often in newspapers, particularly in Britain.  It’s a deeply fun book, but with some fairly thoughtful things to say underneath.

The Art of the Discworld (Terry Pratchett and Paul Kidd)

I read this one slightly out of order (it references the books as the illustrations come up) but it’s just fun to take a break and see what some of the characters look like in the minds of the author and his trusted illustrator.  This is a large-format book of drawings and paintings of most of the major Discworld characters, with full commentary from Pratchett and some from Kidd as well.  Some look like I thought they would (Cpl. Nobbs, for example) and others, well, don’t.  My mental image of Samuel Vimes is a lot less Clint Eastwood-ish, for example (the illustrator who did Where Is My Cow? did a better job with Vimes, I think).  But it’s an interesting thing to see no matter what, and some of Pratchett’s commentary is enlightening as to the origins of certain characters and situations, and what he was originally trying to do with them versus what ended up happening.

Thief of Time (Terry Pratchett)

One of my favorite Discworld books, and one of the more difficult reads if the reaction of those I’ve recommended it to is any guideline, this is a story about Time – what it means, how it can be twisted, and what happens next.  The Auditors are the stand-ins for everything Pratchett despises – grey, formless, rulebound creatures who prize order above humanity and conformity above kindness.  When they convince a human to make the perfect clock, they know full well that it will stop Time and freeze the universe into a static state of perfection.  Against them are an odd array of characters – Death (along with the other Horsemen of the Apocalypse, as well as his granddaughter Susan), the History Monks (particularly the Sweeper and his apprentice), and one renegade Auditor who is slowly becoming human.  As a historian myself, I thoroughly enjoyed his take on how time and the past fit into the present.

The Last Hero: A Discworld Fable (Terry Pratchett)

Cohen the Barbarian and the Silver Horde – all half dozen or so of them – are tired.  They’re old, they’ve been heroes for longer than most people have been alive, and it’s time to die.  But heroes don’t just lie down and pass away – they go out in one last blaze of glory.  So they have decided to return fire to the gods.  With interest.  When they do, it will be the end of the entire Discworld – so Leonard of Quirm, Captain Carrot of the City Watch, and Rincewind the Wizzard are sent on a mission to stop them.  This book is lavishly illustrated and sort of choppily written as a result, but it does get in a few sharp observations about the nature of hero stories, and the drawings add a lot to the humor.

The Witch’s Guide to Cooking With Children (Keith McGowan)

This was another bedtime story that Lauren and I read, and it is – as advertised – “a modern retelling of Hansel and Gretel.”  Sol and Connie Blink are new in town, and their father and stepmother are trying to get rid of them.  Holaderry is the witch – she’s lived in town for hundreds of years, since before there was a town, and she is gleefully unrepentant about her child-eating ways.  Eventually there will be a confrontation, and there will be an ending of sorts – but one that clearly allows for the next volume in the series, because surely there is a next volume.  With very modernistic charcoal drawings for illustrations and a rather bleak perspective on life in general (Holaderry’s dog is named J. Swift, a reference I appreciated), it’s an interesting take on an old story.

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents (Terry Pratchett)

Maurice is a cat who has suddenly – and much to his bewilderment – become self-aware.  He can talk, and being a cat this means he can scheme.  He joins up with a clan of similarly newly self-aware rats and one rather sweetly dimwitted boy to re-enact The Pied Piper of Hamlin from town to town as a scam – they show up and convince the townspeople there is a plague of rats, the town hires the boy to get rid of the rats, and everyone moves onto the next town.  As the story opens, they are on their way to their last gig, but things get complicated quickly when they run into a pre-existing (and not so benign) scam there.  This is the first of Pratchett’s YA Discworld novels and does not really fit into any of the established series (though the Death of Rats – here called “the Bone Rat” – does make a cameo).  It’s an examination of who counts as a Someone who needs to be respected, and what, if any, distinction there is to be made between Story and Reality.  The writing is slightly simpler than the average Discworld book, but the ideas are just as compelling.

Night Watch (Terry Pratchett)

What would you do if you could do it over again?  If you were somehow transported to a critical moment in your life, one that shaped you from that time forward, one whose wounds were still fresh and whose blood had not dried even years later?  In what is arguably the best – and certainly the darkest – novel in the entire Discworld series, Watch Commander Samuel Vimes is sent back in time to such an event, a time of revolution in the city, a time when all hung in the balance and when good men died for little if any reason.  He knows what is going to happen.  He knows that it has to happen.  But his doubled presence (yes, his younger self is still there) and the intrusion of a psychotic killer from the opening pages of the book mean that things are not happening exactly as they did, though close enough.  When it all blows up, though, Vimes is there to see it through.  This is a powerful meditation on fate, memory, and the madness of crowds, one that gives Pratchett ample scope to etch deeply into the mind of the reader his moral argument in favor of simple human decency in the face of overwhelming evil.

The Wee Free Men (Terry Pratchett)

Where do witches come from?  The Lancre Witches are all adults – Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg are old, and Magrat Garlick and Agnes Nitt are grown-ups entering the craft.  But there must have been a time before, when they were girls, when they realized what their future held.  This is the story of Tiffany Aching, nine years old at the outset, who is going to be a witch.  She lives on the Chalk with her family and their sheep, she misses her grandmother, and she is about to learn just how effective a weapon a frying pan can be in the right hands.  When her brother Wentworth is kidnapped by the fairy queen – and in the Discworld, fairies are malevolent creatures who prey on humans and feed off their dreams – it is up to Tiffany to rescue him.  On her side are the Nac Mac Feegle, one of Pratchett’s greatest creations.  The wee free men of the title, they are six inches high, amazingly strong, and fiercely independent Celtic-style warriors who believe that this is their afterlife and all the fighting, drinking and thieving they get to do is their reward for their real lives, which they will return to when they die in this one.  This is one of Pratchett’s YA books, and unlike The Amazing Maurice this will become a series, following young Tiffany as she grows into being a witch, with all of the humanity that entails.

Monstrous Regiment (Terry Pratchett)

When Polly Perks’ brother Paul goes missing in one of Borogravia’s interminable wars, she decides to disguise herself as a man and enlist in the army to try to find him.  Little does she know she’s about to join the strangest – and, in point of fact, last – platoon in Borogravia’s military.  Borogravia is a mess.  It’s been constantly at war for generations and it’s losing.  Its Duchess hasn’t been seen for decades.  And its god is insane.  Against the combined might of the Allies – including Ankh-Morpork, which just wants Borogravia to stop burning its signal towers to the ground – what hope does it have? But hope comes in odd forms and places, and Polly and her squad are definitely odd.  A prolonged satire on warfare, gender politics and diplomacy (much of it reads like a parody of the interminable Balkan wars that ultimately led to WWI), this is one of Pratchett’s middling novels – funny, thoughtful, and deeply moral, but lacking that extra edge that would push it into his upper echelon.

A Hat Full of Sky (Terry Pratchett)

When Tiffany Aching, now eleven, goes off to the forest and away from her beloved Chalk for an apprenticeship, she is followed by a hiver – a disembodied hunger that survives by taking over the bodies of the powerful, feeding off them, and then destroying them.  The hiver cannot be kicked or head-butted, which means that the assistance of the Nac Mac Feegle will be of limited value, but it can be faced down and that is where Granny Weatherwax comes in.  Tiffany is growing into the role of a witch in the Discworld – someone who does what needs to be done and sees what really is there rather than the comforting illusions that people have, someone who helps people through the edge states of their life.  Like all of the Tiffany Aching books, this is a YA novel in form, concerned with the coming of age of the main character, but in its heart and its prose it is a Discworld book indistinguishable from the others.  As Granny Weatherwax does to Tiffany, Pratchett tests his younger audience, willing them to beat him at his game and learn the lessons that will come from that.  The more I read the Tiffany Aching books, the more they rise to the top of the Discworld pile.

Going Postal (Terry Pratchett)

Moist von Lipwig is a fraud.  A convicted fraud.  But when Lord Vetinari, Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, makes him an offer he cannot refuse, Moist finds himself charged with revitalizing the moribund Post Office.  It’s all another con, in a way, but this time with the full backing of the city and with right on his side.  In his way is the Grand Trunk – the clacks system that has been taken over by corporate raiders and is slowly being torn down for a profit.  This set-up gives Pratchett ample room to comment on modern finance and business (it is not an accident that the new head of the Grand Trunk – a swindler every bit as fraudulent as the old Moist was – dresses as a pirate), the oddity of stamp collecting, and the hermetically-sealed and fiercely is oddly just culture of hackers, and it all ends with a prolonged riff on the legend of John Henry.  This is Moist’s first appearance in the Discworld, but not his last – he provides Pratchett a way to tell stories set in Ankh-Morpork that don’t center around Samuel Vimes or Vetinari, and that is a useful role indeed.

Thud! (Terry Pratchett)

Samuel Vimes, Commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, has a problem.  Actually, he has several problems.  The Patrician wants him to sign a vampire into the Watch.  There is an audit of the Watch’s finances.  The deep dwarfs are stirring up trouble that can only be made worse by the upcoming anniversary of the Battle of Koom Valley, an anniversary that has all of the dwarfs and trolls of the city on edge.  An ancient, disembodied force of pure vengeance known as the Summoning Dark is stalking the city, looking for a way in among all these hatreds.  And every day, no matter what, he must report home to read to his fourteen-month-old son, Young Sam.  This novel is a return to the police procedurals of the City Watch series, but with the everpresent moral framework that makes that the best of the many series of Discworld novels.  You never do a bad thing no matter how good your reason, because it only makes it easier to do it again for bad reasons.

Where’s My Cow?  (Terry Pratchett, ill. by Melvyn Grant)

This is the picture book that Commander Vimes reads to his son in Thud!  And it is also a book about that picture book – picking up on a throwaway joke in Thud! that had Vimes ad-libbing a few lines to make the story more interesting to his son (when would a city kid be looking for a cow?) and proceeding from there.  It’s a fun little book, with some great illustrations.  Melvyn Grant draws a much more believable portrait of Vimes than the standard one drawn by Paul Kidby.

The Discworld Mappe: Being the Onlie True & Mostlie Accurate Mappe of the Fantastyk and Magical Dyscworlde (Terry Pratchett and Stephen Briggs)

This is pretty much what it says it is – a fold-out map of the Discworld, roughly two feet square, with an accompanying booklet describing some of the Discworld’s most famous explorers (defined as people who found other lands in the proper manner, as opposed to people who were just living there).  It’s interesting to see how the names and places relate to one another.

Wintersmith (Terry Pratchett)

Tiffany Aching is now 13 years old and apprenticed to Miss Treason, a witch a century her senior.  She’s not sure what to do about Roland – who is turning out to be not so bad a guy after all, in a teenaged-boy sort of way – and she’s equally unsure about what to do with her fellow apprentices and their self-appointed (and dreadfully annoying) leader Annagramma.  These problems quickly fade into the background when Tiffany unthinkingly inserts herself into the Dance of the seasons and finds the Wintersmith – the spirit of Winter – now has an interest in her.  When Miss Treason dies, Tiffany is left on her own to figure out how to deal with the Wintersmith – though anyone with Granny Weatherwax and the Nac Mac Feegles on their side can hardly be said to be alone.  Tiffany Aching emerges over her series of books as one of the most compelling characters in all the Discworld, and proof once again that we live in a golden age of YA fiction.

Total books read: Between 88 and 102, depending on how you count
Total pages read: 29,082
Pages/day: 79.5

Happy reading!

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Books Read in 2012, Part 3

My year in books continues. 

After being away from the insanity that is modern US politics for a month this summer only to return to find the Teabaggers doubling down on their batshit crazy – a process that seems to have intensified after the election, much to the surprise of nobody at all – I decided that I needed a break.  And what better place to hide from all that than the Discworld?  So: in order, from the top, with occasional digressions into other books. 


The Colour of Magic (Terry Pratchett)

This is the first Discworld book, and it is clear that Pratchett is still working out how his creation functions.  Many of the elements are there – the humor, the quirks of the world, the characters – but he hasn’t developed the moral framework underlying them that makes the series so compelling.  It takes talent to make people laugh and think at the same time and practice to get it to work.  At this point however Discworld is still pretty much slash-and-burn satire.  Rincewind is a failed wizard and a coward, and how he ends up being the guide for Twoflower, Discworld’s first tourist, he has yet to figure out.  With that set-up, though, Pratchett gives himself license to careen around the dark corners of his creation, highlighting whatever bits he finds amusing at the time.  It’s a funny book, but nowhere near what the series will become.

The Light Fantastic (Terry Pratchett)

Rincewind and Twoflower continue their adventures in what is, essentially, the second half of the last book.  There is an ominous red star in Discworld’s sky, Twoflower is still trying to be a tourist, and Rincewind still has the eighth spell of the Octavo stuck in his head like a parasite.  Often laugh-out-loud funny and there are hints of some of the moral framework that underlies the Discworld as Pratchett takes a few shots at blind fanaticism, but the plot is thin and Pratchett hasn’t quite hit his stride yet.

Equal Rites (Terry Pratchett)

Eskarina Smith (Esk, to her friends) is the eighth child of an eighth son, and as such is destined to be a wizard – indeed, a dying wizard bestows his staff upon the infant Esk for just that reason.  But Esk is a girl, and in Discworld girls are witches, not wizards.  She grows up and apprentices to Granny Weatherwax, the first-among-equals of the witches of the Ramtops, but eventually her path leads her to the Unseen University in Ankh-Morpork, where ancient ideas of gender-appropriate magic are about to be severely tested.  This is still one of Pratchett’s straight satires, though there are the beginnings of ideas underneath – the confounding of expectations, the silliness of pigeonholing people (sexism, etc.), and the importance of stories in shaping our lives.

Mort (Terry Pratchett)

Mort is the hapless son of a farmer, clearly not cut out for any task his family can find for him.  Death needs an apprentice.  When these two situations collide, Pratchett’s Discworld begins to move toward its more mature shape.  On one level this is a fish-out-of-water tale, as Mort slowly adjusts to his duties, Death’s realm, and Death’s adopted daughter.  On a deeper level, though, it is a complex meditation on destiny versus free will.  When Mort impulsively stops a death from happening, reality can’t quite take the stress caused by the disjunction.  There is satire and humor here, but there are also ideas about life, death, and how the two intertwine.

Sourcery (Terry Pratchett)

Coin is the eighth son of a wizard, which makes him a Sourcerer, capable of introducing new and more powerful magic into the world.  Rincewind is the most inept wizard on the Disworld, yet somehow he – along with Conina (a lethal fighter who wants to be a hairdresser), Nijel (a wannabe barbarian hero) and the Luggage – have to rein him in.  This is something of a return to the simpler Discworld of the earlier books, but an enjoyable read.

Wyrd Sisters (Terry Pratchett)

King Verence of Lancre is dead, and he’s not happy about it.  The scheming Duke Felmet and his harridan wife have taken over, his son is in exile with a band of players, and his kingdom is falling apart.  Unfortunately there isn’t anything he can do about it except complain.  Fortunately for him, the Lancre witches – Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick – have decided that the first rule of rules is knowing when to break them, and the one about not meddling in politics is about to be broken good and hard.  The witches are Pratchett’s embodiment of rough common sense in the face of theory, rigid rules and pomp, and they grow on you.

Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb (Jonathan Fetter-Vorm)

This is exactly what the title says it is – a basic history of the Manhattan Project, done in a graphic novel format.  It is accessible and generally accurate, but adds nothing to the story if you’re already familiar with it.  The artwork is black and white, with portents shaded in, and the dialogue is either directly quoted from historical sources or close enough to be in character.  It’s a good introduction to the subject for someone who doesn’t want to wade too deeply into it.

The Book of Bunny Suicides [and] Return of the Bunny Suicides (Andy Riley)

A breezily macabre set of cartoons on the subject of suicidal rabbits, each one a new and clever way for the rabbit to remove itself from the gene pool permanently – think Gary Larson mixed with John Callahan, with nods to Gahan Wilson.  The cartoons generally capture the moment just before things happen, and leave the rest to your imagination.  Beach reading for the Addams family.

Pyramids (Terry Pratchett)

Teppic is training to be an assassin, a legal and highly regulated profession in Ankh-Morpork, but his full name is Teppicymon XXVIII and he is about to become the ruler of Djelibeybi, a kingdom which has been hoarding time for over seven thousand years.  When he authorizes the construction of a pyramid so large that the excess time cannot be flared off, things are going to get weird.  This novel falls outside of the usual subseries of Discworld novels and gives Pratchett a chance to introduce some ideas that will loom larger as the series progresses – how belief creates reality, how the gods are just a reflection of who we are (and a rather degraded reflection at that), the general inanity of warfare, and the importance of human beings in a world defined by rigid ideologies.  And camels.  Camels are important too.

Guards!  Guards!  (Terry Pratchett)

City Watch Commander Samuel Vimes, Pratchett’s best-drawn character and (along with Granny Weatherwax) in many ways the moral center of the Discworld, makes his first appearance in a Discworld novel, starting off as a drunken failure and slowly evolving the grit and moral stature that comes to define him.  A shadowy cabal of marginally competent magicians manages to summon a dragon – a noble dragon, not the pathetic swamp dragons that people on the Discworld know and tolerate – it means upheaval and destruction for the city of Ankh-Morpork.  Only the City Watch – Vimes, fat and timid Sgt. Colon, bottom-dwelling Cpl. Nobbs, and new recruit Carrot Ironfoundersson (a dwarf well over six feet tall, possessed of the dangerous combination of moral purity, utter naivete, and a punch that can go through oak doors) – and the Lady Sybil Ramkin and her much-adored flock of swamp dragons stand in its way.  Pratchett also enlarges on the character of the Patrician (Lord Vetinari), who emerges as a distinct personality for the first time.

“The Sea and Little Fishes” (Terry Pratchett)

This is a short story that fits somewhere in the Discworld canon and exists in collected form in a book Kim checked out of the library in order to read a different short story, one by George R.R. Martin.  Since I won’t read Martin until he’s either finished his Song of Ice and Fire or dead, I stuck with Pratchett.  It’s a fairly simple story of Granny Weatherwax using “headology” to unsettle a busybody who values rules, power and her own ego over the human needs of the community, and as such fits in well with the larger Discworld ethos.

Wolf Brother (Michelle Paver)

When a demon-haunted bear kills his father, Torak finds himself alone in the pre-historic forest on a quest to find the Mountain of the World Spirit.  Along the way he finds Wolf – an orphaned cub whom he can communicate with – and Renn, a girl from a different clan.  He also finds that the story is more complicated than he thought.  Like all YA novels, it is primarily concerned with the coming of age of its protagonist, and Torak does a good job of this even if he is a bit dense at times.  Tabitha read this first, then we listened to most of it on the car ride home from Philadelphia this summer, so I figured I might as well finish it.

Eric (Terry Pratchett)

Rincewind is back, madly running from danger as always, but this time he is conjured away from the Dungeon Dimensions by Eric, a fourteen-year-old boy who thinks Rincewind is a demon.  Like all such boys, he wants three wishes, and those wishes get them into all sorts of trouble, as wishes do.  The new Demon King is trying to get Hell onto a more rationally bureaucratic standing; the Tsorteans and Ephebians are at war; the Tezumen want to be left alone to continue unmolested their slaughtering of anyone not them; and Rincewind and Eric end up running through all of it.  Not one of Pratchett’s best or deepest, but fun.

Moving Pictures (Terry Pratchett)

Victor is a student at the Unseen University, carefully walking the line between failing and passing in order to keep his funding coming in.  But when the Guild of Alchemists revives the ancient art of moving pictures, he and more than a few of Ankh-Morpork’s other citizens find themselves drawn to the boom town of Holy Wood, where they recreate the early days of American movie studio history, more or less.  Victor meets Ginger – the femme fatale – and Gaspode the Wonder Dog (and eventually Laddie, a rather dim but excitable collie) and together they must prevent the Dungeon Dimensions from breaking through where movies have made reality thinner.  One of Pratchett’s denser books in terms of the allusions in contains, and more of a straight adventure than most.

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda (Tom Angleberger)

This was another bedtime story book that Lauren and I read together.  Dwight is the quintessential middle school screw-up, poorly socialized, determinedly weird, and part of the Out Crowd.  But he also has Origami Yoda, a paper puppet he keeps on a finger and which – seemingly independent of Dwight himself – dispenses advice to others.  Tommy wants to investigate this phenomenon and see if Origami Yoda is real or just Dwight, and the book takes the form of a case file, with reports in the voices of several of Tommy’s friends and comments by Harvey, who thinks Origami Yoda is fake.  It’s not a bad book, and it makes its point about judging others without too much preaching and with a certain amount of ambiguity.  Plus at the end there are instructions for making your own Origami Yoda.

Reaper Man (Terry Pratchett)

One of my favorite Discworld novels because it features Death as a main character and shows Pratchett at his best in terms of putting serious ideas underneath the abundant humor, this novel starts out with Death being forcibly retired by the Auditors.  For him it works out fairly well – under the name “Bill Door” he takes a job as a farmhand and becomes more familiar with the ways of humans, whom he likes but does not really understand.  Unfortunately, with no Death in the world, things and people still come to the end of their lives but don’t really die, and their accumulated life force becomes problematic as it starts to leak back into the world.  Recently deceased but not really departed wizard Windle Poons ends up trying to figure out how to solve this puzzle.  The two storylines never quite cross but they play off each other well, and Pratchett does a wonderful job of constructing his story so that the reader understands his views on death as a natural part of life without being beaten over the head by them.  This book also contains perhaps the best line in all the Discworld books, as Death confronts his own master: “Lord, what can the harvest hope for, if not for the care of the Reaper Man?”

Witches Abroad (Terry Pratchett)

The basic set-up for this novel is fairly simple: through what can only be described as a charitable accident, Magrat Garlick (the youngest of the Lancre witches and, as Granny Weatherwax describes her, a “wet hen”) becomes a fairy godmother.  This requires her, along with Granny and Nanny Ogg, the third of the trio, and Nanny’s hellish tomcat Greebo, to go to Genua and set things to rights.  But the plot is only part of what Pratchett is doing with this novel.  Continuing the trend of Reaper Man, Pratchett is using the Discworld to explore deeper and more thoughtful ideas – in this case, the power of stories to define our lives despite our wishes or intent, and how much control over those stories the people inside them have.  This will become a running theme in the Discworld novels.  I didn’t much like the Lancre Witches novels of Discworld when I first read them, but I am finding them much more thoughtful and interesting the second time around.

Small Gods (Terry Pratchett)

One of the best of the Discworld books and a stand-alone story whose main characters do not appear in the others, this is the story of Om, a once-powerful god now reduced to inhabiting the body of a small turtle, his only true believer Brutha, a novice in the vast Omnian church that propounds things Om never heard of, and Vorbis, a high ranking Omnian church figure, the leader of the Quisition, and exactly the sort of heartless martinet who tortures people because he believes it is the right thing to do.  The story ranges fairly widely – from the Omnian monastery where it begins to the shores of Ephebe where the philosophers are, and so on – but at its heart it is a story about the nature and power of belief, the abuses that happen when belief ossifies into theology, and the importance of being humane.  Reaper Man, Witches Abroad and Small Gods is probably the best three-book sequence in the Discworld series, as all of them highlight Pratchett’s ability to put serious moral ideas into a framework that is both entertaining and often laugh-out-loud funny.

Better Off Without ‘Em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession (Chuck Thompson)

Chuck Thompson has written the book that I have spent the better part of a decade threatening to write.  In six chapters of hilariously angry prose covering religion, politics, race, education, economics, and SEC football, Thompson lays out a fascinating case that the rest of the US made a mistake fighting to keep the South during the Civil War and should rectify this mistake as quickly as possible by letting the South follow up on its incessant talk of secession.  Using both warm, humorous stories and cold hard facts – the book is stuffed with statistical evidence – Thompson argues that the South is the least educated, most religiously fanatical, most tax-payer supported, and most dysfunctional region of the current US, that its hostility to its workers and blind subservience to its corporate executives makes it an economic predator not all that different from China in terms of sucking jobs out of the US and into low-wage, union-free zones.  He’s honest enough not to deny the flaws of what he, for rhetorical simplicity, calls the North, but he notes that those flaws are far more likely to be solved than those of the South, for reasons he explains at well-documented length.  The final point he makes, and the most compelling, is not that the South is simply a disaster on its own terms – they could simply lie in their own beds and curse the rest of us if that were so – but that it is aggressively trying to impose its model on the rest of the US.  Living in Wisconsin over the past two years has given me a front-row seat on the Mississippi-fication of the North, and for that reason most of all – while almost every Southerner I have ever met has been polite and friendly individually – I find Thompson’s argument for Southern secession fascinating.  While I do not advocate for secession – an act of treason in 1861 and still an act of treason in 2012 – I do find it hard to argue with Thompson’s title.

Lords and Ladies (Terry Pratchett)

The Lancre Witches are back, and they face a dread evil: elves.  Pratchett really hates elves.  They’re not what they seem.  They play to human insecurities, convincing us they are perfect and making us weak, sapping our wills, enslaving us and divorcing us from all that is real.  The book is, in this way, a long salvo against Tolkien.  But there is more – there is always more.  Magrat Garlick must decide who she is and whether she will or will not be queen.  Granny Weatherwax must decide who she was and may be.  Nanny Ogg – well, she’s Nanny Ogg, patient, unblushing, direct, and currently being wooed by the dwarf Casanunda, the second greatest lover in the Discworld (“I try harder”).  The story is a meditation on the power of being who you are, without illusions, and the price one pays for that.

Men at Arms (Terry Pratchett)

In a curiously disjointed book that nevertheless continues his evolution as a moralist who can make you think and laugh at the same time, Pratchett returns to the Ankh-Morpork, where nastiness is afoot.  The book starts with a plot about an insane royalist plotting to return the rightful heir to the throne of Anhk-Morpork after an absence of centuries (the heir being Cpl. Carrot Ironfoundersson of the City Watch, something Carrot does his best to ignore), but somewhere around a third of the way along this thread gets lost and it becomes a book about the power of “the gonne” to change the way people think, and not for the better.  Throw in City Watch Captain Samuel Vimes’ imminent retirement/wedding, the incorporation of dwarfs, trolls and werewolves into the Watch, and a long and bitingly funny meditation on the follies of Ankh-Morpork’s most famous architect and designer, B. S. (“Bloody Stupid”) Johnson, and this is a thoughtful and strongly argued moral case for tolerance and against firearms, wrapped in a number of gleefully twisted versions of police procedural cliches, and plonked down in the most functionally dysfunctional city in literature.

Soul Music (Terry Pratchett)

Music With Rocks In comes to the Discworld in an extended homage to popular music and artists of the 20th century.  Most of Pratchett’s books are highly allusive – there’s even an Annotated Pratchett File online where readers have collected and explained the cultural references in his writings – but this one is perhaps the densest of the lot that way.  It’s either this one or Moving Pictures, anyway.  Imp y Celyn (“The Bud of the Holly”) is a musician in Llamados who comes to Ankh-Morpork and forms a band with the dwarf Glod and the troll Cliff.  He’s supposed to die in a barfight, but Death’s granddaughter (Susan) wants to save him.  She doesn’t get the chance – something else does.  From there the book unspools with echoes of Mort (Susan is filling in for Death, who is taking some time for himself, and someone who should have died has not done so and has altered reality because of it) and the history of rock and roll.  There are countless Blues Brothers references (my favorite: “We’re on a mission from Glod.”).  Pratchett says some interesting things about the courage to accept the world as it is, the courage to change it, and how thin the line between those two things really is.

Flawed Dogs (Berkely Breathed)

This was another bedtime read for me and Lauren.  Berkely Breathed, who made his name writing the “Bloom County” comic strip back in the 80s, crafts a surprisingly grim but ultimately heartwarming story around Sam, a show-quality dachshund, and Heidy, the girl he loves.  When a scheming poodle named Cassius gets in the way, Sam’s life takes a turn for the worse, but with a band of dedicated friends and a few unlooked-for benefactors, Sam eventually returns to face his tormentor and finds, well, redemption of a sort.  It’s a rather bleak story for something aimed at the younger side of the YA demographic but one with some comfort at the end, even if not all wrongs can be righted completely.  I suppose that’s a valuable lesson in itself.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Downhill All the Way

It was a sledding sort of day, here in Our Little Town. 

We worried about whether such a day would ever come again after the sad disappointment of last winter.  But there’s eight inches of icy snow on the ground now, Christmas and other family obligations are done, and Mel Allen Hill (“Oooh!  That’s gotta hurt!”) rises majestically out of the park by the river to tempt us with speedy fun.

Plus, the girls are old enough now that I don’t have to go down the hill with them anymore – they do that on their own, especially when they bring a friend with them and then meet another friend there.  This is good, as I am not really recuperated enough from my surgical adventure to go bouncing down an icy hill quite yet. 

For my part, I was more than happy to hang out at the bottom of the hill, chat with the father of the last friend mentioned, and test out my big Christmas present – a telephoto lens for my camera – while Tabitha and Lauren spent a cheerful afternoon zooming down the hill in various combinations with each other and their friends and then trudging back up to repeat the cycle.

Plus it turns out that the lens works pretty well, too.

There was much fun to be had out there on Mel Allen Hill, though eventually it got cold enough to call in the troops and head for home and cocoa.

It was a good day.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Books Read in 2012, Part 2

The continuing saga of my year in books, part the second.


Newton’s Cannon (J. Gregory Keyes)

The Enlightenment is an odd place to put a fantasy series, but that is where Keyes chose to center this one – and that’s one of the reasons I chose to read it, since it is both unusual and my area of historical interest and expertise.  In the late 1600s, Isaac Newton – who in reality did in fact devote a significant fraction of his time and energy to alchemy – discovered the Philosopher’s Stone.  Fast forward to the early 18th century and you end up with a split plot that follows on the one hand a minor French noblewoman, a magically-long-lived Louis XIV, and a sorcerer with a grudge who wants to wipe out England, and on the other hand a young Benjamin Franklin who gets himself tangled up in this mess by following and participating in the exchanges between them over the aetherschreiber, a sort of magical telegraph.  The two plots never do quite converge, but one assumes they will in future volumes, and at that point the dark hints of spiritual forces behind all this will perhaps be explained.  Keyes is a workmanlike writer – not the flaming talent his book jacket makes him out to be – but the book is enjoyable enough to make me pick up the next one.

A Calculus of Angels (J. Gregory Keyes)

In the second volume of this series, Keyes finally stops introducing things and starts telling stories.  The catastrophe that ended the first book has changed the world almost as much as Newton’s original discovery.  Ben Franklin and his boss, Newton, are now in Prague.  Adrienne, the French noblewoman, is fighting her way across what is left of France.  And an unlikely team of Cotton Mather, Blackbeard the pirate, and a Choctaw named Red Shoes is headed to Europe to investigate.  Throw in Tsar Peter the Great’s invasion of Europe, Swedish King Charles’ resistance, and a servant girl named Lenka, and things get complicated quickly.  Keyes does a good job of keeping the plot moving and making you turn the page to see what comes next, all the while hinting at ever larger issues that might be introduced in subsequent volumes. 

Empire of Unreason (J. Gregory Keyes)

The Age of Unreason continues, this time mostly in the New World.  Europe is a wasteland.  The Tsar is missing and Adrienne is still in St. Petersburg.  Franklin is in South Carolina and Red Shoes is somewhere in the midwest.  Each has to journey on their own quest here.  Adrienne heads east, across the Bering Sea to find new and unpleasant surprises in Alaska.  Franklin, faced with the arrival of the Pretender King James, finds himself at the head of a motley force of American rebels.  And Red Shoes journeys across the Indian lands to meet a dark spiritual destiny.  There’s a lot of things being juggled here, and one hopes that Keyes will bring them all to a coherent point in the end.

The Shadow of God (J. Gregory Keyes)

And so it all comes crashing down, in a series of climactic battles across North America.  All of the characters – at least all of the ones Keyes doesn’t kill off, something he is not averse to doing – converge on New Paris for the final confrontation between the malakim (who were apparently behind much of the events of the preceding volumes) and the motley remains of the human race.  There is bravery aplenty and no small amount of philosophy, and in the end the world is different, as it inevitably would be.  This series never quite gels, and sometimes the only thing keeping me going was fascination with the sheer weirdity of "Benjamin Franklin: Action Hero."

How Civilizations Die (And Why Islam Is Dying Too) (David P. Goldman)

I picked this up at the library because I enjoy the kind of big picture political science that this promised.  According to the book jacket, this was going to focus on changing demographics in the world – particularly the falling birthrates in both the West and the Islamic world – and what this means in geopolitical terms.  And when Goldman sticks to this, it’s not a bad book.  Unfortunately that discussion is just an entering wedge for his real purpose, which appears to be to advocate Christian theocracy.  His basic position is simple – falling populations are death to any society; birthrates decline when people give up hope for the future; people give up hope for the future when they cast aside religion for secularism and education (this is especially true for women, whom he clearly feels need to remain uneducated and pregnant at all times, though to give credit where due he says nothing about barefoot) since there can be no possibility of any hope for the future grounded on this world and not the next; only theocracy (or “theopolitics,” in his ungainly term) can save the world; and only Christianity (and to a lesser extent Judaism) is fit for theopolitics - a position that in hindsight goes a long way toward explaining the distinction Goldman makes between "Civilizations" and "Islam" in the title of the book.  Also, he insists several times that “failsafe” and “foolproof” mean the same thing.  Goldman – who writes what he claims is a well-regarded online column on these matters under the name of “Spengler” – cherry-picks his evidence to suit his thesis, distorts the historical record when convenient, and generally does not give the reader any reason to continue slogging through this meaningless muck once his main point has been beaten home often enough.  I kept waiting for it to get better – or, failing that, for Goldman to at least stick to the demographics (which are interesting and likely will have serious consequences in the near future) and keep the ideological axe-grinding in the background – but about halfway through I realized that neither of those was likely to happen and that my life is too short to be spent on failed books like this, and I put it aside. 

The Hobbit (JRR Tolkien)

Once again, a journey through Middle Earth’s most accessible porthole, this time as a bedtime story with Lauren.  We followed Bilbo and the Dwarves from the Shire through Rivendell, the Misty Mountains and Mirkwood, until the confrontation with Smaug and the settling of affairs that follows.  I’ve read this book well over a dozen times now, and every time it becomes more clear that this was meant for younger readers.  As with any YA book the driving force behind the plot is how the hero (Bilbo) comes of age, and only as a byproduct does Tolkien lay the foundation for the grander tale that is The Lord of the Rings.

Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance and Why They Fall (Amy Chua)

This is both a work of grand vision and extremely limited claims.  Her basic thesis is that “hyperpowers” – empires and states who dominated their worlds without serious competitors – are distinguished by tolerance.  This is a strategic quality, in her view, one that allows these hyperpowers to pull in and utilize the best that foreign populations can offer, but not a quality that involves respect or affection.  It is also a “necessary but not sufficient” quality, one that must be present for hyperpowers to rise but whose presence does not in itself guarantee a hyperpower.  Within those terms she does a decent job, showing how empires as disparate as Achaemenid Persia, Tang China, Rome, Spain and Britain all rose to power in part because of their tolerance and declined in part because of increasing intolerance.  Ultimately, though, Chua is concerned with the lessons those empires have to teach the US, another of her case studies.  Chua constantly hedges her assertions behind qualifications, which often makes you wonder how strongly she believes in her thesis, and she makes some basic historical errors – particularly regarding the US.  But within those constraints it was a thought-provoking book and one far more grounded in reality than Goldman’s.

So Help Me God: The Founding Fathers and the First Great Battle Over Church and State (Forrest Church)

In this thoroughly researched and remarkably even-handed book, Church examines the struggle that took place in the early republic over the proper boundary line between church and state.  He takes as his starting position the undeniable fact (undeniable to anyone who has actually studied the period, which is a small minority of the political voices braying on the subject these days) that the Founding Fathers sought to set up a secular government to rule over its zealously religious population, one that stayed out of religion as much as possible and that kept religion out of it as much as possible.  The problem, of course, is that different Founders, groups and interests defined “as much as possible” in very different ways.  Some – notably Federalists and particularly the New England clergy – insisted that it was not very possible at all.  Others – notably Democratic Republicans and particularly Baptists and other Dissenting sects – insisted it was entirely possible.  And in the middle of this struggle were the first five presidents – Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe – all of whom were themselves religiously indifferent at best, but each of whom took somewhat different positions on the larger issue anyway.  This is a complex book, as befits its subject, but anyone wanting a good general introduction to the issue will profitably start here.

Un Lun Dun (China Mieville)

Zanna and Deeba are pre-teen girls somewhere in London, and they’ve noticed some pretty odd things lately.  Eventually, those odd things are going to land them in UnLondon, a parallel sort of city where the old, the forgotten, and the mildly obsolete things from the city end up.  UnLondon is under attack from the Smog, and Zanna is the Shwazzy – the Chosen One – destined to save the city.  But when things go wrong the story gets much more interesting, and Mieville turns this YA novel into a meditation on destiny versus free will – on taking matters into your own hands when the prophecies fail – that fascinates down to the last page.  Mieville is a writer of astonishing gifts, and even as he namechecks Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and the idea behind it, he creates an original story out of that same general setup.  It’s not as complex a book as his adult novels but it has all of the trademark ingenuity and Otherness of Mieville’s writing, making it a book well worth reading.

The Magicians (Lev Grossman)

Quentin Coldwater is a Grade-A mope.  He lives in Brooklyn, disdains his life and everything in it as only a teenaged boy can, serves as a jealous third wheel to his friends James and Julia, and is headed off for an interview for Princeton when the book opens.  Things go wrong quickly, and he finds himself at Brakebills – an American school for magicians located in upstate New York.  Imagine Hogwarts, but with all of the drinking and sex that comes with college.  Here Quentin becomes a magician – a real, honest-to-God user of spells and arcane power – and learns that magic comes only at a price.  He and his friends will pay that price in the second half of the book, which shifts its model away from Hogwarts and toward Narnia.  This is a grown-up and surprisingly bitter take on the one of the oldest tropes in fantasy literature – the idea that there is a magical world out there for us to enter and live in – and Grossman focuses relentlessly on “the horror of really getting what [you] really thought [you] wanted” and the dangers of giving young men and women unlimited power.  It is probably not coincidence that Brakebills is located only a few miles from West Point.

A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L’Engle)

This was a classic that Lauren and I read together at bedtime.  Meg Murray’s father is missing.  When her 5-year-old brother Charles Wallace befriends three old ladies – Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which and Mrs. Whatsit – adventure ensues.  With their new friend Calvin they tesser across the universe to the planet Camazotz, where IT has enthralled the population, and the confrontation follows from there.  When someone asked Kim and me what it was about, many years ago, our responses were immediate: “It’s a love story,” she said; “It’s a space adventure,” I replied.  And it’s both.  On re-reading, I was surprised at the explicitly religious content as well.  But Lauren enjoyed the story, and perhaps we will move on to the other books in L’Engle’s series.

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History
(John M. Barry)

The influenza epidemic of 1918 is one of the most inexplicably forgotten tragedies in all of human history.  It occurred in a well-documented historical era and killed more people than WWI, which was going on at the same time – anywhere from two to ten times more people worldwide, which translates to possibly 100 million dead at the upper end.  And yet nobody knows anything about it today.  John Barry wants to change that, and in this rambling, discursive, purple-tinted, occasionally forcibly folksy and often repetitive book, he manages somehow to paint a compelling picture of this catastrophe.  He focuses on the medical researchers and their efforts to combat this plague – after a long history of American medicine up to that point, as well as digressions into several other subjects – and you learn all about their many foibles, but he also does a good job of communicating the pace and horror of the epidemic at large.  He spends a great deal of time discussing Philadelphia, one of the hardest hit cities on earth, and much of what he says confirms the stories my grandfather told me when I was younger – he was six when the epidemic hit and remembered only a few things about it, but they were all there in this book.  A sobering book in this modern era of increasingly virulent disease and decreasing willingness of our political system to care for the less fortunate who will inevitably suffer most, it manages to transcend its many flaws and be worth reading.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide series (Douglas Adams)

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
Life, the Universe and Everything
So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish
Mostly Harmless

In June, after Wisconsinites decided that what they really wanted in a governor was someone who had lied to Congress, openly threatened their fellow citizens with violence, gutted public education and libraries, slashed the university system, done multiple end runs around the state constitution, whored himself out to the highest out-of-state billionaire bidders, subverted the rule of law, repeatedly called for and signed pieces of legislation that are so far out of line that every federal judge who has examined them has rejected his arguments in scathing language rarely seen in judicial opinions, and – by his own numbers – turned a relatively thriving state into the worst economic climate in the entire United States (ranking 51st, behind even Washington DC, at the time I wrote this), I felt I needed some light reading.  So I decided to re-read the entire Hitchhiker’s Guide series. 

I’m not going to go through each book – if you’ve read them before then you know, and if you haven’t, you should remedy that RIGHT NOW.  Adams was a gifted writer with a talent for laugh-out-loud comedy and turns of phrase that made you think as well as laugh (one of my favorites, from the first book, is a description of spacecraft that hung in the sky “in much the same manner that bricks don’t”).  So instead I will tell you a story. 

This series was one of the ways I knew that Jack and I would hit it off in college – we ended up being roommates for three years officially, including the year after I graduated, and one more year unofficially.  Like many fans of the series, we could quote it verbatim and would do so without provocation or warning, much to the consternation of our friends.  One night we got into a long disagreement, with each of us insisting that the other had misquoted a line.  Of course we could not let that stand, so each of us got out our copies of the book in question and turned to the relevant page – and discovered that we were both right.  Jack had gone to high school in England, since his father’s job had transferred the family there, and therefore he had the British versions of the books.  I had the American versions.  Apparently Adams made some significant changes when adapting them. 

The Salmon of Doubt (Douglas Adams)

Douglas Adams died suddenly in 2001, at the age of 49, leaving behind a pile of half-finished fragments and ephemera, much of which was extracted from his various computers and compiled into this book.  It is an eclectic collection, ranging from snippets of thoughts to a short story to several chapters of a new novel.  Most of them are typical of his work – linguistically clever and thought-provoking, slightly absurd, and generally deeper than they first appear.  It’s a slight book nonetheless, and serves mostly as a monument to what might have been.

Do You Speak American?  (Robert MacNeil and William Cran)

One of my side interests has long been the study of American dialects, and this book is a breezy walk through some of that.  A companion to a 2003 PBS series, the book is episodic, disjointed and often rather shallow, but nevertheless it does a nice job of illuminating a number of interesting developments in the way Americans speak at the dawn of the 21st century.

The Professor and the Madman
(Simon Winchester)

Another of the short books I was trying to read in order not to leave anything unfinished before our trip to Europe, this was a fascinating book about the Oxford English Dictionary and two of the men who made it happen – Professor James Murray, its first effective editor, and Dr. William C. Minor, one of his most prolific volunteer contributors and the madman, locked away in Broadmoor for a murder he committed while under paranoid delusions.  The core of this story is rather slight – Murray guided the OED for much of its early history, Minor had the time, resources and focus to send in thousands of the paper slips Murray sought for illuminating quotations for words he was defining, and eventually they became friends in a stiffly formal Victorian sort of way.  Winchester therefore goes on long tangents – how Minor may have lost his mind during the American Civil War, Murray’s biography, a history of English dictionaries, and so on.  These are well written and entertaining to read, and as long as you don’t mind the necessarily short shrift given to the relationship between the two title figures, you’ll enjoy this.

The Pirates! In an Adventure With Scientists [and] The Pirates! In an Adventure with Ahab  (Gideon Defoe)

The Pirate Captain is a cheerfully clueless commander of a boat full of pirates with no names, just descriptions – “the pirate with the red scarf,” “the pirate with the accordion,” “the sassy pirate,” – except for Jennifer, who joins late.  In their first Adventure, they team up with Charles Darwin to thwart an evil cleric, and in their second they struggle to find the White Whale in order to pay off a debt to Cutlass Liz.  The writing is light, determinedly ridiculous and generally entertaining, and you can see why someone thought it would be a good idea to build an animated movie around these characters.

Xenophobe’s Guide to the Swedes (Peter Berlin)

A quick, breezy and good-naturedly sarcastic look at Swedish culture and people that plays on all the stereotypes of reserved, efficient, environmentally conscious and aggressively fair-minded Swedish people and provides a handy and occasionally useful description for interested foreigners.  “Linguists, social anthropologists and pornographers agree that body language makes up 80% of communication between most humans.  For all their foreign language skills, Swedes don’t have any body language, which means that 80% of any communication is lost on them.”  It was a fun book, and an odd one to find in a Swedish home.

Don Quixote, Part I (Miguel de Cervantes; Tobias Smollet, tr.; Carole Slade, ed.)

I started reading this book because of a conversation I had with a friend about tilting at windmills.  It is supposed to be one of the great comic novels of all time and I suppose it is, but I found it inexpressibly sad.  Don Quixote is a minor Spanish gentleman whose mind is addled by books of chivalry and knights, so when he hits a crisis in his life he decides to abandon his previous existence and head off into Spain as a knight-errant, protecting the weak and championing justice as he finds it.  He renames his ancient nag “Rocinante” and acquires a servant – Sancho Panza – to help him, and he sets out on the highway as a knight.  Along the way he meets essentially three kinds of people – those who mistreat him, those whom he (usually inadvertently) mistreats, and those who seek to help him, often at considerable expense and trouble to themselves.  There is a great deal of overlap between these groups – it is surprising how many good-hearted people he meets.  On the one hand, there are a lot of things in this book that are quite funny.  On the other hand, it is essentially the story of a deluded old man and the people who are trying to bring him back to his senses or at least keep him from harming himself or others, and Don Quixote himself never does snap back to rationality.  Eventually he is returned to his own home in a cage.  Cervantes himself wrote the story in two widely separated increments, and since both weigh in at well over 400 pages of 6-point type in this edition, I decided that Part I was plenty for now.

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England (Ian Mortimer)

If you’ve ever wanted to know what it was like to live in 14th-century England, this is your book.  Mortimer approaches history from the ground up and with a lively sense of humanity and place, and thus you get chapters detailing what you would eat, where you would live, how you would tell time or weigh things, what the landscape would be, what the cities would look like, and a wealth of other deeply human-scale things that bring that turbulent century of war and plague to life.  As a social history, this is a model of how historians ought to write – informative, scholarly, and entertaining all at once.

The Hammer (KJ Parker)

When you read a KJ Parker book, you know what you’re getting – a book that is very well written, with a complex plot, three-dimensional characters who straddle the line between good and evil, and an unremittingly grim and bleak outcome.  You know it’s not going to end well.  That’s not the question.  The pleasure is finding out precisely how it will all fall apart.  Gignomai is the youngest son of a long-exiled noble family, stuck on a mesa with his dysfunctional family.  The common folk of the colony live in the town below, and his father forbids any interaction between the family and them.   The savages – the aboriginal people of the colony, whose views of the colonists and Gignomai’s family are deeply idiosyncratic – lurk outside of it all.  Eventually Gig will defy his father and set in motion a long-simmering train of catastrophe, as you know he will from the outset.  It ends on an oddly bittersweet note, though.  Perhaps Parker is mellowing.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Books Read in 2012, Part 1

I read.  All the time.  It’s what I do.

I’m one of those people who will read the sugar packets on the restaurant table if I don’t have a book with me.  I read magazines.  I read web sites.  I occasionally read tea leaves, but all they ever tell me is “you need another cup of tea because this one is finished.”

But mostly I read books.

And since I started this blog I have kept track of the things I’ve read.  It’s interesting to go back and look at where I’ve been all year, in a literary sense. 

This was the year I read my first e-books, an experience I have no particular interest in replicating.  I find e-readers clumsy, hard to use, and generally an impediment to the reading process.  On the plus side, they’re easy to hand back to their owners.

This was the year I finally picked up Don Quixote, after decades of intending to do so.  Let’s just say that humor doesn’t really translate well across time and culture and leave it at that.

And this was the year I decided to read all of the Discworld novels again, in order, because they are well written, and because they make me laugh and think at the same time – a difficult combination, and one I appreciate more and more as I get older.  Also, because the current condition of the United States as it tumbles purposefully toward its far-right-wing self-immolation is so freakishly appalling that it is nice to find a refuge in a world that makes some kind of sense. 

You can do worse than spend some time in the Discworld.

So here is the first installment of this year’s reading.  Enjoy.


Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) [and] Three Men on the Bummel (Jerome K. Jerome)

Continuing where I left off in 2011 with the rolling cadences of 19th century humor, these two books (here collected in a single volume) describe the adventures of three English gentlemen on a rowboat trip down the Thames and a bicycling/walking “bummel” or wandering trip through the Black Forest in Germany.  Jerome writes as both a sharp observer and a mystified innocent, and there are some very funny bits in here.  He is especially good when contrasting the high expectations of his travelers with the realities of the road as they existed over a century ago.  The scholarly introduction and end notes provided by this edition are useless, however.

And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life (Charles J. Shields)

Kurt Vonnegut was not a guy you’d really want to hang out with, according to this new and exhaustively documented biography.  Short-tempered, self-centered, and generally eager to keep people at arm’s length, he nevertheless never seemed to lack for company.  This book charts his life from his childhood in Indianapolis through his WWII service, his years as a struggling writer, and finally his success and decline.  Shields paints an unflattering but sympathetic portrait of his subject, not glossing over his flaws but balancing them with virtues and suffering.  If there is a villain at all in this telling it is Jill Krementz, Vonnegut’s second wife, who comes across as a control freak and a harridan who made Vonnegut’s last years far less than they should have been.  Shields packs a phenomenal amount of information into this – I did not realize that John Irving had been a student of Vonnegut’s at Iowa, nor that Vonnegut had been Geraldo Rivera’s father in law – but it does not really make for cheerful reading.

The Dirty Parts of the Bible (Sam Torode)

Tobias lives with his hellfire-and-damnation Baptist preacher father and his mother in tiny little Remus, Michigan, in the midst of the Great Depression.  Skeptical of all that, as teenagers are, he dreams of a wider world and wonders what his place in it will be, particularly as concerns the mysterious charms of women.  When he is sent on a mission to his uncle’s farm in Texas, his misadventures include a miserable night in a whorehouse, an education jumping trains with a hobo named Craw, and – ultimately – a cursed girl named Sarah.  This surprisingly gentle and touching story is told with brio and love, and manages to be funny, sad, hopeful and wise all in turns and all at once.

The Name of the Wind (Patrick Rothfuss)

Kote is an innkeeper in a tiny little village miles from anything important.  But when the Chronicler convinces him to tell his life story, it turns out he was once known as Kvothe – a man about whom legends are told.  How does a hero get to be that way?  What is the human story behind it?  It is a tale of hardship and horror, of friendship and love, of looking back in wonder and sadness over a life both outsized and deeply personal.  This is a darkly lyrical book and one of my all-time favorites. 

The Wise Man’s Fear (Patrick Rothfuss)

Sometimes a writer is so good at fleshing out his characters and making you care about them that it becomes hard to read about the sufferings and missteps they go through, and Rothfuss is that kind of writer.  Kvothe continues telling his story to the Chronicler here – his time at the University, his service to the Maer, his music, his heartbreakingly oblique dance of love with Denna, his time with the Adem – even as that story seems to be converging on his present life as the innkeeper.  You feel for Kvothe even as you know that so many of his problems are self-inflicted and that he has survived them long enough to tell this tale.  But there is an air of resignation, of hard times and choices lived and paid for, of debts coming due and stories tying together to a conclusion, an air that makes this a book not easily put down or forgotten.

Farthing (Jo Walton)

On the surface, this is a murder mystery – one of those locked-room mysteries that the British seem to specialize in.  Sir James Thirkie has been murdered at a gathering of the Farthing Set – so named after the estate where this happens – and it is up to Inspector Carmichael and Sergeant Royster of Scotland Yard to figure out which of the guests did him in.  Underneath, though, this is an astonishingly bleak political novel.  The Britain of 1949 where this novel is set is not the one we know, and Sir James was the man who negotiated an end to World War II in 1941, leaving the Continent in Nazi hands and Hitler free to focus on the Soviet Union.  The central question of the novel, really, is whether Fascism can be contained at a border, or whether it will creep slowly through and establish itself even in a nation that prides itself so much on its liberties as Britain.  Reading this novel in the post-9/11 US is a troubling exercise, but a worthwhile one.

Ha’penny (Jo Walton)

Where Farthing wrapped its politics around a murder mystery, Ha’penny wraps its around a thriller.  It’s not long after the events of Farthing.  Mark Normanby of the Farthing Set is now Prime Minister and rapidly moving the UK into its own Fascist state to match the victorious Nazi regime on the Continent.  Viola Lark is the sister of Daphne Normanby (a minor character in Farthing) and a stage actress cast to play a cross-gendered version of Hamlet.  When one of the other actresses in the play dies in a suspicious explosion, Inspector Carmichael and Sergeant Royster begin to investigate.  Ultimately the book revolves around Viola ensnared in a plot to assassinate Hitler and Normanby when they attend her play and Carmichael doggedly pursuing the links between the first explosion and the one upcoming.  Walton puts her characters through genuine ordeals – moral and physical – before all is concluded, and the book tells a fascinating, if disturbingly relevant, story.

Half a Crown (Jo Walton)

It’s a dozen years later, and Watch Commander Carmichael has to keep an eye on his adopted “niece” Elvira while he struggles to subvert the Fascist government of Mark Normanby’s England.  A peace conference between the three major powers of the world – England, Nazi Germany, and Japan – is scheduled in London and Elvira is to be presented to the Queen as a debutante.  These two plots twirl and twine around each other in surprising ways until the very last chapter, when perhaps things have been resolved.  Walton certainly suggests so – she flatly declares in the preface that this is her last book in a series she calls “Still Life With Fascists.”  Thought-provoking and interesting but not as intense or gripping as the first two, particularly with the rather tacked on ending.

The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning (Hallgrimur Helgason)

Tomislav Boksic – “Toxic” to his associates in the Croatian mafia in New York City – is a professional hitman and a good one.  But when one of his targets turns out to be an FBI agent, he is forced to flee the country, and when things go wrong at the airport he ends up on a plane to Iceland posing as a televangelist.  From there it gets weird.  Toxic is an engaging character for a man who can’t remember quite how many people he’s killed, and he narrates a fairly unvarnished and occasionally laugh-out-loud history of his life, from serving as a soldier in the brutal wars that broke up Yugoslavia in the 1990s to detailing his murders as a hitman and his conquests as a lover (he rates the attractiveness of women by how many days it would take him to go after her if she were the only female member of his platoon.  Thus some women are, for example, “Day 4 types.”).  In Iceland he finds a strange sort of love, an even stranger form of repentance and peace, and an end that the author leaves rather vague.  An odd book, but an interesting one.

The Candymakers (Wendy Mass)

This was a bedtime book that Lauren and I read together.  Logan Sweet is the son of the Candymaker, the owner of the LIFE IS SWEET candy factory.  He’s also competing in the annual candy contest.  Three other 12-year-olds – Daisy, Miles and Philip – come to the factory to make their candy, and the four will eventually take their creations to the central contest to join other contestants.  Except that it isn’t that simple.  Each kid has a past, and the first four parts of the novel are essentially the same story told from each of their points of view – Rashomon meets Willie Wonka.  As with all stories like this, every layer changes how you see the whole, and when the four eventually have to work together – as you know they must – the story changes even further.  A sweet and remarkably textured coming-of-age YA novel, with interesting characters who make you want to know them better.

Embassytown (China Mieville)

China Mieville is almost singlehandedly keeping the Novel Of Ideas alive, and he’s doing it in the SF/F genre.  This is a complex, densely written meditation on the nature and power of language, set on a planet at the very limits of human-explored space.  Humans – “Terre” – live in a small settlement called Embassytown, among a larger city of resident life forms called Hosts.  The Ariekene speak a language – Language – unlike any other in the universe, one that requires two simultaneous utterances that have sentience behind them, and one that only a few altered and highly trained humans can speak in such a way as to be understood by the Ariekene.  The Ariekene are truly alien – most authors have alien characters who are little more than humans in funny bodies, but Mieville knows how to write Other in a way that is almost incomprehensibly different.  Into this situation comes Avice Benner Cho – a living simile in Language (and it's probably not an accident that her initials are "ABC") - and her husband Scile, who wants the Ariekene to learn how to lie.  For in Language, everything is a truth claim; words do not signify but are.  Mieville spends most of this difficult but rewarding novel exploring that gap and what happens to alien minds when it is bridged.

The Campus Trilogy (David Lodge) 

This is actually a collected edition of three books that Lodge published over several years, all centered on the lives of an international set of English professors. 

In the first book, Changing Places, it is 1969.  Philip Swallow – a middlingly competent faculty member at the backwater university in Rummidge (a stand-in for Birmingham) is going to the US on a faculty exchange with Euphoria State University (clearly in San Francisco).  In return, Rummidge gets Morris Zapp, a rising lit-crit superstar.  Swallow is a quintessential Englishman – retiring, unfailingly polite, quietly desperate – while Zapp is abrasive, cerebral, self-centered and ambitious and fits every stereotype of the querulous academic.  Their wives, children, students and careers get hopelessly muddled together over the course of this often quite funny book, as campus and sexual tensions run high and comedy reaches low. 

Ten years later, in Small World, Swallow (still much the same) and Zapp (mellowed into maturity and, surprisingly, sympathy) meet again at a conference at Rummidge, along with Persse McGarrigle and a mysterious attendee named Angelica.  The book is mostly about Persse’s international pursuit of Angelica, which takes any number of twists and turns through the world of academic conferences and where he continually runs into Zapp, Swallow, and a few others.  There’s a subplot involving a UNESCO chair for literary criticism that takes up a fair amount of room and adds very little, and the ending is a rushed tying up of loose ends that takes away from the book as a whole, but it’s still funny and worth reading.

Seven years later, in 1986, Lodge returns to Rummidge, this time to set up an ongoing business/university outreach program that throws Vic Wilcox (hard-charging corporate executive) together with Robyn Penrose (feminist, deconstructionist, literary theory professor).  Sparks naturally ensue.  Nice Work is a more geographically focused book than the others, leaving Rummidge only occasionally, and it is a much more serious book than the first two with its focus on the effects of the severe cuts to British higher education made in the 1980s.  Philip Swallow appears as a minor character, and Morris Zapp is relegated to a one-chapter plot device.  Lodge writes well and entertainingly despite his weakness for rushed endings that tie things up neatly in a bow.

How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III (Ron Rosenbaum)

This could have been an interesting book about one of the more pressing – and, in our terrorism-obsessed security climate these days, forgotten – international problems of our day, the possibility of outright nuclear war in a multi-polar world where nuclear weapons are being developed by a wide array of unstable and aggressive nations.  It could have been, but it wasn’t – Rosenbaum is quite possibly the worst writer I’ve ever read to whom I did not have to assign a final grade.  Anecdotes and quotes are repeated verbatim, occasionally within paragraphs of each other.  Vast quantities of poorly constructed sentence fragments impede whatever message he tries to impart.  And he never quite figures out if he wants to write about how easily nuclear war could happen even now, how close we came during the Cold War, how much Iran and Israel really, really want to annihilate each other these days, or how he thinks this problem may – or, in the last analysis, may not – be amenable to solution.  This is a book that demonstrates the absolute need for editors at every level, and one that utterly fails to deliver on a promising idea.

Directive 51 (John Barnes)

When technological civilization dies of what is, essentially, meme poisoning, what happens to the government of the United States?  This is the big question involved in this post-apocalyptic political thriller, set in 2024 (probably – Barnes gives conflicting dates sometimes, but most of them point to that date).  “Daybreak” is the codename for an inchoate, self-reinforcing Internet meme that encourages the disaffected and the technologically savvy to create nano-bots and biotes designed to destroy plastics, rubber, circuitry and other fundamental building blocks of technological society.  The story follows any number of characters on both sides of the Daybreak divide, many of whom do not survive to the end.  It’s the story of a political system under stress, and a new world that may or may not rise out of it.

Daybreak Zero (John Barnes)

The fact that civilization has largely come to an end doesn’t mean that politics has also.  A year after Daybreak and some months after Directive 51 closes, the main players are still in action.  In Olympia, WA, the Provisional National Government claims to rule the old United States, while in Athens, GA, the Temporary National Government does as well.  Caught between them is the organization at Pueblo, CO, trying to understand and counter Daybreak and play a neutral third party in the effort to restore Constitutional government.  Throw in the increasingly devastating tribal raids coming out of the Lost Quarter (the northeast quarter of the old US, all the way out to Indiana) and the increasingly truculent fortified Castles dotting the landscape, and it is an intriguer’s dreamland.  This book clearly ends in the middle of a longer story, so the next Daybreak book can’t be too far behind.

Memoirs of a Spy: Adventures Along the Eastern Fronts (Nicholas Snowden)

Miklos Soltasz – or Nicolas Soltys, take your pick – began his career in espionage serving the Austro-Hungarian Empire during WWI, and ended it serving the new Czechoslovakian Republic that emerged out of the wreckage of that empire following the war.  In a relatively deadpan tone and with a newly Anglicized name, Snowden describes how he came into the service, his exploits on the Eastern Front and inside Russia, and his conflicts with the Hungarians after the war.  Frankly, it’s astonishing to me how the man could hear himself think over the din of his huge clanking brass balls.  He infiltrated a besieged fortress through Russian lines twice before it fell, returning safely to his own side each time.  He allowed himself to be captured by the Russians and transported to Rostov-on-Don, where he escaped, set up his own spy network, and watched the Russian Revolution first hand.  He spied throughout Hungary during its Socialist and Fascist regimes immediately following WWI, was ultimately captured, and came within a single government report of being executed.  This memoir, written in 1933 and thus innocent of the knowledge of WWII, deserves to be better known.

Therapy (David Lodge)

I didn’t hold much hope for this book when I got it – I saw it at a library sale, recognized the author as the same guy who wrote Changing Places, and figured for fifty cents I’d give it a shot.  But it turned out to be a marvelously heartfelt, comic and melancholy story about one man’s midlife crisis and how ends and beginnings get tangled together.  Laurence “Tubby” Passmore is the scriptwriter for one of the hottest comedies on British television.  Affluent beyond his needs, beset by a mysterious ache he refers to as “Internal Derangement of the Knee,” idly coursing through any number of different therapies, and slowly developing an odd fascination for Kierkegaard, he suddenly finds his life turned upside down.  Lodge tells most of the story as Passmore’s journal entries, though the middle section is a collection of set-pieces told by other characters about Passmore’s crisis and much of the final section is a long reminiscence of young love.  Melancholy, hopeful, funny, comic in the theatrical sense, thoughtful and surprisingly touching at times, this is an unexpectedly rich and compelling story.

Sacre Bleu (Christopher Moore)

This is a novel about the color blue.  And about the French Impressionists of the late 19th century, many of whom are major characters.  And about the price one pays for art.  And, ultimately, about love and what it can and cannot do.  It’s an odd book for Moore, with a strongly magical realist feel to it, but still full of his usual laugh-out-loud writing (someday I will have to work the phrase “better than a bear on a bicycle eating a nun!” into a conversation).  One of his best, though – up there with Lamb and Fool.

The Poems of Brian Andreas (Brian Andreas)

These are actually seven short books, none of which are enough to count on their own – with one or two poems per page and about forty words per poem, they fly right by – but together I figure they are enough to fit.  I’ve enjoyed Andreas’ work since I stumbled across it by accident in a joyfully cheesy little shop in Galena IL in the mid-1990s, partly because he accompanies his poems with exuberant illustrations and partly because his poems don’t really take themselves all that seriously.  They’re more like snippets of thoughts, prose portraits of moments in time, and I like that.  He’s got a wry and humanistic take on things that suits me.  For example:

I try to use
unconditional love
in small amounts,
she said, so people
really appreciate it.

The rest of the time
I just try not to yell.
And one of my favorites:

When I told him
I had a major in
English, he said
too bad for you
this is AMERICA
then & he started
me out at the
The books are: Mostly True; Still Mostly TrueGoing Somewhere Soon; Strange Dreams; Hearing Voices; Trusting Soul; and Traveling Light.