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Although it hasn’t stopped me from adding new books to my stacks, I spent November in deep in Discworld comfort rereading mode. My go-to comfort read, literary BFF, and annual reread no matter my state of mind is Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, co-written by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. Pratchett’s Discworld series of comic fantasy books has been around so long, it’s likely you’ve at least heard of it. The first book, The Colour of Magic, was published in 1983 and the last, The Shepherd’s Crown, was published posthumously in 2015.
However, if you aren’t already familiar with it, but have read Good Omens or perhaps enjoyed the Good Omens mini series which aired earlier this year, I strongly recommend checking out the many delights that Discworld has to offer. It has all the wit, humor, silliness, and heart of Good Omens, but spans 41 novels set on a vast, flat planet that rests on the back of four colossal elephants who stand on the back of a ginormous turtle. There are a number of ways to approach the series. It can be read chronologically, thematically, or by selecting certain books that work as stand-alone stories.
No one book is my favourite, but I am especially fond of the anthropomorphic personification of Death, who also appears in Good Omens as one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. A towering skeleton with glowing blue pinpoint eyes, Death wears a black hooded robe, carries a scythe or sword, rides a magnificent pale horse named Binky, and speaks in the all caps of a deep, hollow voice that people feel rather than hear. Although he exists outside of life, Death has a fascination with humanity that occasionally distracts him from his soul-escorting duties and a serious soft spot for cats.
In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado. (Not pictured above because I let my sister borrow it.) In seeing initial reviews about the brilliant structuring of this vulnerable, spellbinding memoir of abuse, I grew wary, worrying that it might in some way be above my intellectual paygrade. And though it is framed through the analysis of popular horror tropes and footnoted with scholarly snippets regarding folk & fairytale motifs, I needn’t have worried–trauma transcends literary conventions.
I read In The Dream House compulsively; that is to say I dreaded every single word of it, but I inhaled them heedlessly and headlong, not unlike watching a scary movie through the shadowed, in-between slants of our joined fingers as we hold our trembling hands before our eyes. In the story of someone else’s hindsight we re-experience our own humiliations and hurts, our own abuse and trauma, and that too I dreaded. But I craved it, as well. Sometimes I doubt what happened to me, and I seek out these types of memoirs. I want to see my trauma appear large as life in someone else’s story. In a painful grip, or a hateful word, a whispered threat. An unwanted touch, a violation of self that transcends the physical act to such an extent that you almost feel you need to scrub your very soul of it.
I don’t want these things to have happened to someone else. Never ever, not in a million years. But when confronted with someone else’s story, I encounter mine, and I am glad that I am not alone. I don’t want to look. I can’t look away. In the Dream House is a book you dare not look away from.
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa. Is it possible to both fall in love with a book and want to pretend that you never read it? That it had never been written? That the idea never even existed in the author’s mind? That line of thought is somewhat in keeping, I suppose, with the premise of this quiet, surrealist dystopian drama: on an unnamed island, things and objects are disappearing. The characters wake up one day, and, for example, fruit has disappeared. I don’t think the fruit literally disappears, but rather the idea of fruit. When a disappearance happens and the villagers become aware of it, they just take all the fruit and dump it in the river. By the end of the day, fruit has ceased to be, even in their memory. The Memory Police ceaselessly monitor the inhabitants of the island and ensure that what has disappeared remains forgotten.
A feeling of dread is pervasive through the entirety of the novel, and yet it never seems tense–the islanders seem resigned to the disappearances in a frustratingly apathetic, good-natured, “oh well!” sort of way. There are those among them, though, who don’t forget. It is through their dismay and anxiety regarding the disappearances (what happens when, say, body parts start disappearing?) and fear of the Memory Police (who arrest non-compliant citizens in the middle of the night, and no one knows what happens to these friends and neighbors) that we experience these concerns. We can’t rely on the protagonist for this–she’s too passive for reflection or much in the way of active resistance, even as her career is brought to a close by the disappearance of books (she was a novelist), even as her own limbs begin to disappear. The Memory Police presents such an upsetting concept that I cannot contemplate it overlong. Not that of state control–which ok, that’s pretty bad, I get that– but of the absence of memory. Words like “terrifying”, or “haunting”, or “sad”, just don’t cut it. This book is upsetting. I wish I hadn’t read it. But oh my god, how glad I am that I can’t forget it.
Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession by Rachel Monroe. I’ve gotten pretty good lately at taken actual, physical, pen-and-paper notes on the books I am reading. It only took me forty something years to realize that this is a thing I can do. Better late than never, I guess. At any rate, somehow I do not have a single note on this book, but I promise you, it was fantastic. Exploring the mystery of why women love True Crime (that’s probably an oversimplification and I hate it even as I am typing it. Do we ever explore why men love anything? No, I don’t think so. I mean, I for one don’t give a fig why men love anything, so maybe this doesn’t matter. Moving on.) through the lens of four different archetypes–the detective, the victim, the defender, and the killer–and in doing so focuses on four women whose true crime obsessions have altered the course of their lives. I wish I remembered something else about it, but it was incisive and insightful and utterly engrossing, and that’s all I can tell you.
Frankisstein by Jeanette Winterson was a wildly inventive, wonderfully clever, deeply philosophical gem that I am going to be pondering for a very long time, and though it’s a few weeks too early to make any “best-of” declarations (and I’ve got loads more reading to do before December 31st) I think it is safe to say that Frankisstein is going to be near the top of that list. The parallel, temporally fluid stories of both Mary Shelley, dreaming up and penning the tale of her infamous monster, and Ry, a young transgender doctor in modern Britain, who meets and falls in love with Victor Stein, a professor and professional TED talker on the future of AI–and I’ll say no more. I think this is a book you best dive into knowing little, forming your own musings and reflections. I will add, though, this: at some point in the story, Victor softly asks of Ry “…have we met before?” And with that, I experienced the most spendidly delicious shiver, the echoes of which I can still feel when I think on it now.
Body Horror: Capitalism, Fear, Misogyny, Jokes by Anne Elizabeth Moore. It sounds a little childish to call someone a “great thinker” (I used to call my grandmother a “good cooker,” for example. When I was five. ) but these essays on the “gore of contemporary American culture and politics” in relation to the female experience are surely written by someone of capable great–no, make that brilliant–thought. She draws fascinating parallels and somehow ends up connecting concepts such as Standard Time and the time that the unwell need as opposed to the healthy; the choice not to bear children, the cultural imperative to reproduce, and the gendered imbalance of intellectual property rights, and the plight of Cambodian garment workers, a heartrending piece of writing that requires no connection to anything else at all.
I loved how Moore’s writing lends to meandering ruminations–nothing so difficult to follow as “stream of consciousness,” but there’s also nothing at all resembling a rigid structure framing these words. They’re more a disciplined ramble, perhaps with some surprising jumps that she makes in terms of logic and connections, but they are not in the least unbelievable. Moore is an excellent guide through her thoughts, disparate as they may appear at first, and you can see how to got to where she went with each topic. Body Horror was full of uncomfortable, painful ideas and truths, but was it was also powerfully edifying and felt vital and fierce.
The Bad Food Bible by Aaron Carrol is a sensible, science-based look at a handful of “bad foods,” the detrimental health effects of which, he writes, have often been greatly exaggerated by the media. He examines such demonized ingredients as salt (we’re likely consuming too little), alcohol (“healthy” people can drink way more alcohol than you probably think they can, or at least that’s what I took out of that chapter ), gluten, GMOs, and more. For the most part, Carrol’s advice is what the advice always is: enjoy these things in moderation. I was, however, surprised at his take on sugar–he’d rather his kids drink diet soda than regular soda. Which is how I feel about it too, if I had children, I mean. But I wasn’t really basing that on anything other than a preference: I don’t care for sugary, sweet drinks. And don’t artificial sweeteners cause…I don’t know…brain cancer or something?
I loved the low-key, salty, shady, passive-aggressive tone of the book, but I didn’t love how he kept throwing his wife under the bus, as a sort of “every person” who believes the baloney that the media tells us about foods. But as a passive-aggressive person myself, I wonder if she actually said or did any of those things that he wrote; maybe using her as a foil was an easier way to get his ideas across. After all, “Oh ho ho, my wife sure ate up the nonsense and wildly inaccurate things that Dr. Oz said” is perhaps more palatable to us, as readers, than “good god, look at this dribble you morons believe!” Take it with a grain of salt, I guess. Or a few grains, in moderation.
Featured image: A “Walking Library” in London, circa 1930s (VSW Soibelman Syndicate News Agency Archive)