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.