2006: Books 20-29

20. Small Gods, Terry Pratchett

Because my life has become extremely stressful over the last few days, I have decided to throw all reading rules and responsibilities to the wind and to throw myself into some comfort reading. I put aside the two or three books I am in the middle of*, and should be reading, and bumped back into the queue the book I am supposed to be reading for my book club, the two books I borrowed from my dear friend, and the ten other books stacked up in my to-be-read pile. Instead, I walked myself over to the bookshop, pulled out my credit card, and bought myself three Terry Pratchett books that I had never read before, and proceeded to devour one in less that twenty-four hours. Furthermore, I am half-way through the next. There is a reason that one of my great joys in life (well, at least since they put the new Borders in the Logan Airport Delta terminal) is buying a Discworld novel to sit down and read on the plane. These things are eminently readable. They are page-turners. It is so comforting to fall into a book and its world and be consumed for a few hours, especially when your non-book hours are really stressful and not half as much fun as the good times in Ankh-Morpork. There is something so reassuring about well-written series books, when you get to know the world and the characters and follow them around for a while. It is why I love mysteries so much, I think. It's not the murder (though that is always interesting), it’s the friend you make in Poirot, or Homer Kelly, or Miss Marple.

Anyway, Small Gods is not exactly a Discworld novel. It takes place on the Discworld, but not in Ankh-Morpork, and beyond the appearance of DEATH (in caps, as usual), and a mention of the orangutan librarian and the Unseen University, the usual suspects are not in sight. It is a pretty good read, though. It takes place in Omnium, a fundamentalist nation ruled by a bunch of militants devotees to the god Om. Or rather, a bunch of militants who claim to be devoted to Om, but are actually pretty much interested in power and such - since when Om shows up, he finds only one true believer left. Om tries to reverse that (so he doesn't become a Small God, but can remain a powerful one), Brutha (the one true believer) tries to figure out right from wrong, and we follow this unlikely pair as they reinvent the nation, religion and all. Its hard to describe, but it's both enjoyable, and a discourse on the meaning of religion. Less madcap than some of his other books - more about something, but fun nonetheless. Ok, off to Wyrd Sisters. The binge is on!

*That would be Bleak House, Lee Miller: A Life, and Three Lives, if you must know. More to follow on these soon (I hope!).

Date/Place Completed: 03/14/06, Washington, during my lunch break.

21. Wyrd Sisters, Terry Pratchett

Told you I was almost done the second one. Man, I am on a comfort reading BINGE this week. Anyway, this is another Discworld book, obviously. This one is a spot on clever parody of Macbeth, and it touches on the nature of kingship, the importance of the theater, and why you should never, never mess with a witch. It's more madcap than some of the later books (so much so that maybe some plot points got lost among the zaniness - like, whatever happened to the Queen, anyway?), but it is clever as hell, especially if you are an aficionado of the Scottish Play. Not to mention that Granny Weatherwax (the most powerful witch of all) is maybe my hero.

Man, buying these three books was the best idea I have had in weeks. Comfort reading is about the best thing ever.

Date/Place Completed: 03/15/06, Washington, instead of eating dinner (whoops!).

22. Men at Arms, Terry Pratchett

This was by far my favorite of the three Pratchett books I read this week. I like all the various series - the witches, the DEATH books, the wizards* - but I have the biggest soft spot for the Nightwatch (i.e. the series of books about Ankh-Morpork's policemen). I just love the characters. This one was interesting because, as an earlier book, a lot of pivotal things happened - Vimes got married (then promoted), the first non-humans joined the watch - Angua (werewolf), Detrius (troll) and Cuddy (dwarf). I finally found out why Carrot is (probably) the rightful heir to the throne, and why he would never ever sit on it. As is often the way with reading a series backwards, parts of things were oddly different - why was Vimes so gruff and small-minded, compared to now? But the good thing about reading them this way (especially if you are having a terribly, terribly stressful week), is that I knew that it would all (basically) turn out ok, 'cause I knew what was going to happen. It was very calming and let me enjoy the book with no stress. Perhaps not normally the ideal reading situation, but this week it worked perfectly.

I can't say enough how much I enjoy reading these books - I'm going to make one more plea that you should give them a chance - even if you think (as I do, honestly) that fantasy novels are for the birds. These are not what you'd expect and, if you like funny, clever, touching books, you would enjoy these. And they were solace for me when I needed my brain to be elsewhere for a few hours, for which I could not be more grateful.

* Well, I would probably like the wizards if I got around to reading about them. I like what I have read about them - I love the librarian!

Date/Place Completed: 03/16/06, Washington, on the bus ride home.


In case you haven’t figured it out by now, buying used books is one of my favorite hobbies, and one of my favorite places to do this is at the semi-annual Georgetown Library book sale. The prices are right ($1 for a hard-back, $.50 for a paperback, with some minor exceptions), and the selection is great. It starts at 10 AM, and I usually get there around 9:45 and line-up with the other neighborhood book nerds, and then we rush to grab what we can as quickly as possible. It’s like supermarket sweep for the bookworm set. It makes me a wee bit uncomfortable to line-up, because there are some serious book-collector/freaks there, and I always end up questioning my own rationality, but in the end it is worth it for what is almost always a ridiculously good haul. This time $31.50 bought me:

Thirteen Modern Libraries

The Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson;

Women In Love, D.H. Lawrence;

The Prince & The Discourses, Machivelli;

The Adventures of Augie March, Saul Bellow – Maybe it will be easier to read in a smaller copy!;

The Sound and the Fury & As I Lay Dying, Faulkner;

Man’s Fate, Andre Malraux;

The Complete Poetry and Selected Poems of John Donne;

The Possessed, Dostoyevsky

The Way of All Flesh, Samuel Butler;

The Young Lions, Irwin Shaw;

The Complete Works and Letters of Charles Lamb; and

The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud.

Twelve Travel Books for Jon, who collects them

Lonely Planets for Russia, Ukraine & Belarus; Czech & Slovak Republics; Turkey (A Survival Kit); Austria; Central Europe; and Scandinavia & Baltic Europe;

Rough Guides for England and Scotland; and

Moon Handbook for Maine.

Five Children’s Books

The Dark Is Rising, Susan Cooper – hardcover, seems to be a later printing of the first edition;

The Trolley to Yesterday, John Bellairs (I am on a kick, as you will soon see);

The Lamp from the Warlock’s Tomb, ditto;

The Egypt Game, Zilpha Keatley Snyder - an old favorite; and

The Stolen Lake, Joan Aiken – Dido Twite and a Gorey Cover!

Finally, Five Others

Dress Your Family in Courderoy and Denim, David Sedaris;

Winner of the National Book Award, Jincy Willett;

Flowering Wilderness, John Galsworthy – hardcover. Bought it because I liked the Forsythe Saga. A quick glance suggests I may have been too hasty, but it was only a dollar after all;

Flashman, George MacDonald; and

Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Truman Capote – also possibly an early edition.

Phew! What a haul! And best of all, there are more sales next week! So! Much! Fun!

23.  The Curse of the Blue Figurine , John Bellairs

Continuing on in my comfort reading binge, I slipped into juvenile fiction to re-read this John Bellairs book. I loved his books when I was younger -- from the Edward Gorey covers to the creepy mysteries therein (some day I will blog about my penchant for mystery fiction – so many posts, so little time!). I always preferred the Johnny Dixon/Professor Childermass books to the Lewis/Rose Rita/Mrs. Zimmerman books, so how psyched was I to find that one of the books I grabbed last weekend just happened to be the very first Johnny Dixon book??*

The Curse of the Blue Figurine tells the story of Johnny, who has just moved to Dunston, Massachusetts to live with his grandparents while his father is fighting in the Korean War. His mother had died a year before. Johnny is a timid, bookish kid, who has a hard time making friends, but becomes close to his neighbor – an older history professor, Professor Childermass. One day, in order avoid the local bully, he slips into the church. There he finds a mysterious statue, which is connected to an evil former priest, which leads to him being haunted, and enchanted, and has to be rescued. Basically, mystery ensues! This is the general gist of these books – either Johnny or the Professor (or later, Johnny’s friend Fergie) find some mysterious evil item, which has usually been cursed by a wannabe sorceror, or wizard or evil inventor, and one of them gets into trouble, and the others get them out, using magic, or the true cross or what have you. A little formulaic, perhaps, but wicked** creepy, and fun to read.

Plus, I just figured out that the books are set in Haverhill, Mass., which is right near where I grew up, and where one of my dearest friends lives today. I even worked there one summer! “Dunston” is named after Hannah Dunston who was a (real-life) colonial woman from Haverhill who was kidnapped by the local Native American tribe, but escaped, with a number of scalps in tow (very bloodthirsty tale!). I wish I’d realized it when I was younger, but then, it might just have scared the ever-living daylights out of me, to think that all that evil was so close by! Still, it was cool to realize that I knew some of the landmarks he wrote about – I almost died when he talked about their trip to New Hampshire and to Polly’s Pancake Parlor – one of Jon and my favorite restaurants in the world. So, so, so fun!

*It strikes me, all of a sudden that there may also be a third series about a kid named Anthony, who has a friend who is an elderly librarian. I will have to investigate this, and let you all know.

**Shut up. I am from Boston, and I say wicked as a modifier. Deal. Plus, it’s particularly appropriate when discussing a series set in Haverhill, Ma!

Date/Place Completed: 03/16/06, Washington, at home.

Posted by Carrie at 3:45 PM 

24.  The Spell of the Sorceror’s Skull, John Bellairs

Another Bellairs. This one involves a mysterious clock with a miniature room in it. In the room is a miniature skull, which, if you touch it INFECTS you will EVIL! Wow! What a story! And, they go to Vinalhaven, so, you know, yay Maine.* Another fast, creepy story – this one has a good priest working to save old Professor Childermass from the evil with a piece of the true cross. Lucky that they had some around, no?

I was thinking when I was reading these books that they would make a pretty awesome juvenile tv series. Nice and creepy, not too expensive with the special effects. Someone should start making tv shows of classing young adult series and show them on, like Disney or whatever. Like they used to do Wonderworks when we were younger. It would be great – free ideas, ready for adaptation, keep the young starlets in action, and reduce the amount of crap on television. Famous Hollywood executive who reads the blog (as they do), you can have that idea for free.

And soon, I promise, I am going start reading grown-up books again. Honest.

CONFIDENTIAL TO MY HAVERHILL PEEPS: Don't worry about all the evil getting you. I am an expert now, and will have your back should the need arise. If, however, you find a creepy magical object, I would suggest you leave it be. If necessary, chant Latin. E Pluribus Unim should work in a pinch.

*Although, seriously, what is with filling all the places of my life with the Evil? Can’t they put some of that in the Midwest! Stay out of my ‘hood!!

Date/Place Completed: 03/17/06, Washington, at home.

25. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, David Sedaris

I totally fell off the internet last week, so I have a number of books to blog about (I did not stop reading, as you will soon see), and will keep these brief. The first book I read was Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. I enjoyed reading these light, breezy Sedaris pieces, filled with his typical weirdness and dry humor. Unfortunately, before I read this a good friend of mine lent me a CD of Sedaris live at Carnegie Hall, and at that concert he performed a number of pieces that he are in this book. Sedaris is a funny writer, but he is so much funnier when he is performing that I found the book a little flat. His performance of “Six to Eight Black Men” left me gasping for air, so by the time I read it, I was a tiny bit underwhelmed. However, if you haven’t heard the CD and you like Sedaris (or other funny writers – and gosh, who doesn’t?), you should read this.

Date/Place Completed: 03/19/06, Washington, at home.

*Lest you worry about the whole James Frey what is truth thing, I would say these are almost certainly exaggerated with and funny and well-written enough that you won’t worry about it.

26. The Lamp From the Warlock’s Tomb, John Bellairs

Last Bellairs, at least for while. The good news is that there IS a series about Anthony – his name is Anthony Monday, and he lives in Wisconsin* and his ally is a little pesky librarian name Miss Eells, and occasionally her brother Emerson, a lawyer. Also, Miss Eells is pretty awesome, and feisty, and I might also want to be her when I grow up. The bad news that the formula has worn a wee bit thin for me, and as such, I need to take a break.** The problem is that the mystery part of these mysteries is unsatisfying to a 28 year old attorney (shocking, right?). The problem is that protagonists don’t really solve the mystery – there is always some old guy who happens to have a book that knows about the evil thing and tells them the answer, and as such, the plots are kind of thin. I know, who am I to bitch about the quality of books aimed at children, but compared with The Westing Game et al., I am a little disappointed. The books are good, but my memory of them was better, so boo. Maybe a sign that I should start reading grown-up books again, hmmm?

*More good news – evil in the Midwest, not here. Bitchin’.

** Although I still am dying to re-read The Eyes of the Killer Robot, which was the scariest book I ever read when I was twelve, and possibly The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborne, which I remember as being pretty good. Just not for a while.

Date/Place Completed: 03/21/06, Washington, at home.

27.  Why Didn't They Ask Evans?*, Agatha Christie

This is quite possibly the last Agatha Christie book that I have not read. She wrote about eighty, and I've read about 79, so you can imagine my excitement. I bought it, hoping that it one of the unknown, but I don't have a list or anything, so I was pleasantly shocked to find that Why Didn't They Ask Evans? was totally new to me. So exciting! This Christie is a one-off – no Poirot or Marple (not even Tommy and Tuppence), and concerns Bobby Jones and Lady Frances Derwent’s attempts to solve the story of a mysterious body that was found on the golf links, and the adventures that then ensued. The mystery is figure-out-able – I solved the mystery halfway through, though I may have been helped by the fact that I have read all of her books and get the general gist. Christie was good, but there are only so many mystery plots out there, after all. In the end the good were rewarded, the bad were caught, true love reigned, and, ultimately, they did ask Evans.

I have one more bit of fluff reading left, and then I am this close to starting to read serious books again, like a good reader.

*Actually, my copy is titled The Boomerang Clue, but I like the alternate title better – there isn’t even an Australian in the book, let alone a boomerang.

Date/Place Completed: 03/29/06, Washington, at home; Agatha Christie Project 

28. Theater Shoes, Noel Streatfield

Another YA. I know, I know, don't judge me. But last weekend we went to two major book sales and I went a little crazy (so much so that I think it would be self indulgent, and certainly dull to list them all on this blog), so I have a ton of good stuff to read (or, you know, re-read). Anyway, this is one of the famous "shoes" books, a series of eight or so loosely connected books. They all (or at least the ones that I have read) follow a general formula. Children stumble into some area of the performing arts (ballet, theater, film), and it turns out that they have talent, and even though it will take lots of hard work and face setbacks, they will become a STAR! Equally goofy, there is always one character who gets some ridiculous big break, like, oh, starring in a major motion picture, but hates performing and wants nothing to do with it. See Movie Shoes. Yet even though the stories require a major suspension of disbelief, Streatfield manages to make her characters seem like real children - she is particularly adept at capturing how children worry about things and how adults often discount that, or assume that they are happy when they are not. And at showing how some children, who adults think are quite lovely, are absolutely miserable to other kids. And, as a former little girl who loved dramatics, I can't help but be enthralled about the notion of finding out that you just happen to be a world class actress! Fantasy city!!

This particular book is about three children, whose pilot-father is declared missing, and whose mother is dead (classic YA trope). First they go to live with their paternal grandfather, a vicar, but then he dies, and they are sent to live with their maternal grandmother, who they have never met, and who they are surprised to find out is a world class actress. In fact, they are part of an acting dynasty. So, the grandmother sends them to Madame Fiola's dancing school (a recurring player in the books), and off they go!! The theater stuff was a little repetitive from other books, but what was great about this one was that, because it was set during the Second World War, it provides a snapshot of what it was like to live in London during that time. It's especially about how deprived of everyone was - how you couldn’t get material, or food, or what have you even if you had the money. I knew about this intellectually, of course, but reading about it in this context, in a book that wasn't meant to teach a lesson about history, made it seem more real and understandable. Interestingly, I later read a book set in America during this time period - interesting contrast, which I will talk about when I get to that post...

I should also point out that Jon uses these books as a shorthand for my YA obsession and how it can be a wee bit goofy. Just because, one time, I brought home a book called Movie Shoes! He thinks that Movie Shoes is the funniest/stupidest name of a book ever. Which admittedly, it is, but to Streatfield's credit, in England (where all the books are set), they didn't all have the stupid Shoes titles - just a few did (and where it made sense, like Ballet Shoes or maybe Dancing Shoes), and the others had normal names. But the American publisher thought that we couldn't follow that the books were by the same author and (very) loosely linked if they didn't have similar names, which leads to Movie Shoes, or even worse (Circus Shoes? New Shoes? Family Shoes???).

Date/Place Completed: 03/26/06, Washington.

Categories: Fiction; Young Adult; Comfort Read

29. Love Medicine, Louise Erdrich

I read this because it is the very first book picked for my brand spanking new book club which is having its inaugural meeting Thursday night, and will certainly be the subject of a blog post in the future. I probably wouldn't have read it on my own (even if Erdrich is a fellow alumnae - Go Big Green!), but I am glad that I did. Since exposing yourself to new ideas is one of the purposes of a book club, so far, at least, I am finding my club to be a major success...

Love Medicine is a novel set in and around an Ojibwe reservation in South Dakota. It consists of a number of vignettes and stories about various members of two families on the reservation, the Kashpaws and the Nanapush/Lamartines, whose lives are interwoven in various ways. It is remarkably well written, particularly considering that this was Erdrich's first novel. She writes a number of different characters, with very distinct voices, each sounding distinct and authentic. And the writing is beautiful - she catches both the beauty and the ugliness of the reservation and the town, she mixes (what I imagine to be) traditional, native stories with modern stories, she jumps back and forth through different time periods. There is a lot going on in this book and Erdrich carries it off. She deserved her National Book Award.

I particularly appreciate what she did with the various stories, and how the novel intertwines two different modes of story telling - the traditional Western narratives of the novel with the intertwined multi-voiced traditions of native storytelling. I think the book does a clever job of playing with the question of what is a novel - at first glance it doesn't necessarily hang together as a novel, but the more I think about it, it does - thematically and narratively. On one hand, the story has no beginning and no end - there are so many characters telling so many stories that you can imagine a whole other book about containing more. However, the book begins with June purposely walking out into the snow and her death and ends with her son driving her lover/his father to Canada so that he can escape prison. And since escape is a theme throughout the story - many of the characters are trying to escape their circumstances, whether that be being born into a low class family (Marie Lamartine marrying Nector Kashpaw) or dealing with the after-effects of Vietnam (Henry Lamartine driving his car into the river), it seems to me like the book does tell a complete story - just not in a Western, linear way.

Man, there is a lot to this book to talk about and chew on. Makes it good fodder for a book group, as well as for my lazy YA-riddled brain. I will read more Erdrich, for sure, and I look forward to talking about it on Thursday.

Date/Place Completed: 03/27/06, Washington.

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017