Everything Starts Somewhere, Although Many Physicists Disagree

Hogfather by Terry Pratchett

Reading Challenge: A book that’s guaranteed to bring you joy

Also, everything ends somewhere, and this is where my reading challenge, and most likely the blog, hits that point. Back in January I decided to complete this reading challenge. I also decided to try an experiment, something to keep me sane through the last months of graduate school. It was a long year with ups and downs and a whole month where I just felt like I couldn’t finish a book. But I managed to complete the challenge, just clocking in under the wire with a final completed book on December 30th.

So that’s what there is to say about the reading challenge. Now on to the book, which is one of my very favorites. Terry Pratchett (Sir Terry to you) was a great writer, and Hogfather, his take on Christmas, is one of his very best. The plot is relatively simple: an Assassin is hired to dispose of the Hogfather (Discworld’s version of Santa Claus), and Death and Death’s granddaughter try to stop him.

However, there’s so much more going on, it’s impossible to actually list it all. There’s humor, much of it contained in footnotes, and puns. There’s action and excitement, there’s an orangutan playing the organ, there’s a computer of sorts, there are wizards, there are children and some true observations about childhood, and loads of holiday spirit. There’s a lot of fairly deep stuff about the importance of stories and fantasy and how myths and legends evolve. There’s also a skeleton in a Santa Claus outfit, who somehow manages to be completely different from the one in The Nightmare Before Christmas except perhaps with a shared difficulty in delivering a convincing “ho ho ho.”


There’s also, for you fans of strong female characters, a very interesting lead in Susan Sto Helit, Death’s granddaughter. Susan is currently a governess trying to be more or less normal. She is self-possessed, educated, clever, and not a natural at this whole “normal” thing. She’s the closest thing to a grown-up in most scenes: as is noted at one point, if other characters are listening to their inner child, she is the inner babysitter. She also shares certain talents with her grandfather.


She shares some moments with her grandfather, as well. In one of my favorite scenes in all of books, Susan learns the real importance of Christmas (okay, Hogswatch):


“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”


“So we can believe the big ones?”


“They’re not the same at all!”


“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”


Listen. It’s just – it’s good. It’s really good. You should read Terry Pratchett. And you should definitely read this one.

Recommended pairing: Sherry appears to be the beverage of choice. Or a nice mug of cocoa would be appropriate.

Well, that’s been my year, thanks for playing. For the curious, I’m listing below the entire reading challenge with links to the appropriate review. It was fun, but I’m not doing it next year. Next year my goal is to read a lot of new books, because I don’t usually read a lot of new books.

  1. A book based on a fairy tale
  2. A National Book Award winner
  3. A YA bestseller
  4. A book you haven’t read since high school
  5. A book set in your home state
  6. A book translated to English
  7. A romance set in the future
  8. A book set in Europe
  9. A book that’s under 150 pages
  10. A New York Times bestseller
  11. A book that’s becoming a movie this year
  12. A book recommended by someone you just met
  13. A self-improvement book
  14. A book you can finish in a day
  15. A book written by a celebrity
  16. A political memoir
  17. A book at least 100 years older than you
  18. A book that’s more than 600 pages
  19. A book from Oprah’s Book Club
  20. A science-fiction novel
  21. A book recommended by a family member
  22. A graphic novel
  23. A book that is published in 2016
  24. A book with a protagonist who has your occupation
  25. A book that takes place during summer
  26. A book and its prequel
  27. A murder mystery
  28. A book written by a comedian
  29. A dystopian novel
  30. A book with a blue cover
  31. A book of poetry
  32. The first book you see in a bookstore
  33. A classic from the 20th century
  34. A book from the library
  35. An autobiography
  36. A book about a road trip
  37. A book about a culture you’re unfamiliar with
  38. A satirical book
  39. A book that takes place on an island
  40. A book that’s guaranteed to bring you joy – The Hogfather by Terry Pratchett



The Humble Handmaid, etc.


The Inner Voice by Renee Fleming

Reading Challenge: A book recommended by someone you just met

This was a weirdly difficult category to fulfill for me, hence its place as the second-to-last book of the year. This wasn’t even initially the book I was going to read. Meeting one of my husband’s friends from his old job a few months ago (I felt pretty safe because he told me she was a nerd), I asked her for a recommendation, and without hesitation she told me to read Dark Matter by Blake Crouch. “Great!” I said. And, when I read the description, “Great!” again. Looks like a book for me. And I put a hold on it at the library.

Today, December 27th, I’m finally #11 in the hold line for 10 copies. It may be my first book of 2017, but it will not make the reading challenge.

Fortunately, I met someone else who was willing to make a recommendation, the soprano section leader from the choir I used to sing in (our time together had not overlapped at all, so this really was my first time meeting her). We started talking about books, and I said “Hey, do you want to recommend a book for me?” So we talked about what she’d been reading, and eventually this suggestion came out.

I really enjoyed The Inner Voice, which does triple duty as memoir, self-help, and career advice. Renee Fleming is, of course, one of the most recognizable names in opera, and this had the added nostalgia piece for me that she was just becoming really prominent in the late nineties when I was getting really into opera, so I’ve forever had a soft spot for her and her amazing singing voice. Her written voice comes through as warm, down-to-earth, self-aware and surprisingly privilege-aware. Some of her parenthetical asides had me actually laughing aloud. She covers her professional life and offers a fascinating window into the opera world, and offers some advice I’d imagine is pretty useful for young singers as well.

Now, I will note that I’m not sure this is going to be for everyone. I’m tempted to tell everyone to read it just so you can really understand what badasses professional opera singers are. But I don’t know for sure because I have a passing familiarity with this world. Three years of classical voice lessons in my teens and a choral performance history that stretches from 1990 to 2013 doesn’t mean I understand everything she’s talking about, but it does mean that I found this passage familiar and hilarious:

What does she really mean when she says she wants me to have “higher resonance”? What does anyone mean by “more support”? Someone can tell you that you need to relax, but relax where? Relax what? Oh, and now you want more energy at the same time?  When I feel energized I also feel tense. How am I supposed to reconcile those demands? (p.53-54)

If that passage resonated with you (higher or not), you would probably enjoy this book. If you can read a full page of technique advice and more or less understand it, you will probably get something out of this book. If you are a Fleming fan anyway, and you want to read about how the high notes she makes sound so effortless are actually the result of years of hard work and how she couldn’t roll her “R”s back in the day (this is still true for me), you may experience a sense of relief and a newfound appreciation for the artist herself and you will definitely enjoy the book. If all of that’s going to leave you cold, well, maybe it’s not for you.

I do think, though, that her career advice transcends her particular niche. It’s solid. Work hard, don’t give up, a solid support system is key, there will be good and bad times, appreciate the people around you, be grateful for what you have, recognize that what you do is not exactly right for everyone. Words to live by.

Sidebar: One book left! I think I can make it (it’s a Pratchett. I don’t need 4 days with a Pratchett). Then this little experiment draws to a close.

Recommended pairing: Well, whatever isn’t going to wreck your voice before the performance, obviously. If you want something nice and hearty after the show, though, may I recommend the Founder’s Breakfast Stout?


Tough Going

The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama

Reading Challenge: A political memoir

Oh, lord.

This was absolutely the hardest book to get through all year. It wasn’t bad; au contraire, it was the solidly-written manifesto of a sensible, moderate man with well-considered positions and ideas. It was hard to get through because like roughly half the country, I was devastated by the results of this election, I’m having panic attacks thinking about the future, and I am going to really, really miss the man who wrote this book.

Seriously, we got spoiled. We had eight years of this:


Also there was this:


And, you know, all the actually great things he accomplished.

Any actual review is at this point impossible. Thanks, Obama. No, actually: thank you, Obama.

Recommended pairing: Whatever it takes to get you through the next four years.

A Study in Awful

A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro

Reading Challenge: A book from the library

It’s December, and I’m so very, very ready for this reading challenge to be over. It has gotten me to read some books I wouldn’t have read otherwise, but it has also led to me lying around on my couch frantically reading books that irritate the crap out of me the last couple of weekends. I have a stressful job, okay? I don’t need to be getting pissed off by fiction on weekends when reality is already bleak enough.

I saved “A book from the library” until the very end because it was such an easy item to fill. Now I really wished I’d filled it with something better, but how could I have known? This was one of those books I’d probably have read anyway. Young adult fiction updating of Holmes and Watson, and a female Holmes, to boot. The whole “they’re part of dynasties of Conan Doyle characters” thing was a little weird, but the concept was not something I, an avid fan of the original stories, was going to pass up. I was definitely going to try to read it. The thing is, if I didn’t have the end of the year coming up and 3 books left to go after it, I would have closed the book around page 48 and moved on.

I really do enjoy the original Holmes stories, and there is something delightfully archetypal about these characters. They’re begging to be relocated, reinterpreted, set in the future or modern times or anywhere you like, as anyone you like. The brilliant but not always forthcoming Holmes and the loyal and steadfast Dr. Watson (sadly reinterpreted by earlier film adaptations as an idiot but more recently restored to his original level), you can bring them into just about any setting and give them all kinds of additional characteristics. You can bring Mycroft, if you want, maybe Dr. Watson’s eventual wife Mary, Moriarty always, Sebastian Moran if you’ve actually read the stories, and sometimes Irene Adler (although you probably won’t know what to do with her). There’s a lot you can do with these characters.

Unfortunately, the most prominent of our most recent Holmes adaptations have decided that Holmes has to be an asshole and possibly a “sociopath” (don’t even get me started on that term). This book followed that pattern, and in spite of Brittany Cavallaro’s insistence that she is an old-school Holmesian, it seems to be more strongly influenced by the famous BBC series than the original stories. For the record, although the pilot was extremely strong, I don’t really care for the BBC series. I actually prefer this Holmes, which I know puts me in a minority:


One particular thing that Elementary has over its British counterpart is that it doesn’t treat its women and people of color like jokes or stereotypes, and doesn’t go bonkers with the “oh my god we’re not gay shut up shut up we’re not gay” homophobia. Because it’s the goddamn 21st century. And its Holmes doesn’t treat the good aspects of humanity like idiocy, just as things that aren’t necessarily useful to him at the time (although they frequently turn out to be), which to my reading is actually closer to the original Holmes than the Icy Sociopath.

A Study in Charlotte gives us another Holmes the Icy Sociopath, this time in the figure of an attractive teenage girl. Said teenage girl is part of the Holmes dynasty, who meets up with our narrator, a member of the Watson dynasty. There is also a Moriarty family. They’re all destined to follow in their ancestors’ footsteps, which apparently just means the Watsons are destined to follow around the Holmeses, because none of that family seems to have decided to be doctors or join the military. Jamie, our narrator, says he wants to be a writer, but I never really believe him.

As I said earlier, Holmes and Watson are easily and readily updateable and can be put into any form you want. But when they become teenagers, certain things become disturbing. Holmes’s drug problem, for example: she’s 16 and popping oxy, and has already gotten over cocaine use and experimented with heroin, and by the way all this started when she was 12 and Watson quickly exonerates her dealers by noting how imperious and demanding and self-destructive Holmes is. So? I don’t care how imperious and demanding and self-destructive a 14 year-old girl is, it’s a grown fucking man’s job to say no, and that goes to drug dealing as well as the concept of “jailbait.” Also, my God, if we were going to have a female Holmes, did we have to have her be sexually assaulted? This isn’t even a spoiler, this is revealed on page 48, but spoiler alert, it’s used as a narrative convenience to explain why she won’t be getting physical with Watson. I hate that. I really do. There’s a great quote out there that notes that when heroes and heroines have a tragic backstory, the hero usually has an injured, brutalized or murdered woman in the background and the heroine has…been injured or brutalized. And I wish I could find it.

Oh, yeah, there’s plot, too, but every single character is horrible and manipulative (what’s wrong with Watson, Sr., exactly? Any theories? Did he have a chronic case of PlotContrivanceItis?) and substance abuse and sexual assault were used as plot devices without any hint of the complexity that goes with both of these massive public health crises, so I don’t care.

You can do whatever you want with Holmes and Watson, but I really wish Brittany Cavallaro had done something a little different with them.

Oh, but I liked that the school was called Sherringford. That’s a nice little Easter egg for Holmes fans.

Sidebar: I have three books left to go in the reading challenge. A political memoir (The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama, currently reading), A book recommended by someone you just met (The Inner Voice by Renee Fleming), and A book that’s guaranteed to bring you joy (I have known all along that I was going to read Hogfather by Terry Pratchett for this one and I can’t wait). Then this experiment is over!

Recommended pairing: Vodka. I don’t care. Something to dull the pain.

Young and Stupid in a Top Hat

How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

Reading Challenge: The first book you see in a bookstore

(Technically, this was the first book I saw in a bookstore window. Lucky me, it turned out to be on sale for $4.99.)

One of the signs of growing older, I’m pretty sure, happens as you read a book with a teen protagonist and start sympathizing with the parents. Yes, your hero/heroine is growing up and learning and loving and maybe saving the world, depending on genre, but he/she/they also sounds like a royal pain in the ass to live with. This is a thought that occurred to me as I read How to Build a Girl, which is weird because I actually did not sympathize with Johanna’s parents. I really didn’t like Johanna’s parents. They fell into recognizable categories of stressed-and-practical-and-putting-the-family-first parent (here, Mom. This parent is almost always the mother) and larger-than-life-but-kind-of-pathetic-if-you-think-about-it-Big-Dreamer parent (Dad. 90% of these fictional parents are Dad. If they are Mom, Mom is usually dead or abandoned the family because of how selfish her larger-than-life-ness was). But although I couldn’t stand these particular parents, and although my memories of my adolescence are still clear and I’m still capable of teenage brattiness in my thirties, I just have a lot more trouble settling into the teenager’s world view these days.

The replacement parent, in this book, was Johanna’s older brother Krissi. Krissi, Johanna’s wise, life-embracing, gay older brother, was the only character in this book I actually liked, although it was really unclear what he was doing when he wasn’t “onscreen” with Johanna. Growing plants in his room, apparently, but after a while I couldn’t help feeling as if he maybe never went outside, because he was in his room whenever Johanna needed him.

This impression is probably because this book is from Johanna’s perspective, and it is all about Johanna. She is a teenager from a working-class family that survives off of benefits and she has all the standard equipment of a teenage protagonist: a big imagination, a startling number of misconceptions, an out-of-control libido, and a self-image problem. She’s not a skinny girl, which is refreshing (and makes the book’s cover irritating for multiple reasons: the skinny legs image, and the quote from White Feminist Icon Lena Dunham), and based on what I’ve read about Caitlin Moran, Johanna’s got a heavy dose of the autobiographical to her. Johanna has a lot of what we need in a teenage heroine: she isn’t a blank slate, or perfect, or a fully reluctant protagonist, but has ambitions and dreams and makes mistakes and wants to have sex. She learns a big and important lesson, which is that cynicism is a trap, you shouldn’t be ashamed of loving things, and people can’t tell you’re a good person on the inside if you constantly do shitty things. This is all fine. I just didn’t like her, or this book, very much.

I can’t tell you why, exactly. It could possibly be that stories about people constantly screwing up make me incredibly tense. It could be that I was desperate, desperate for her to make a single female friend (the only peers she meets are “the other girl” and her trend-following cousin, who is depicted with massive amounts of scorn). It could be that even for a teenager she seemed appallingly stupid at some points. It definitely was not because she made two wildly inaccurate references to movies I like (Leia doesn’t kiss Han before swinging out over a chasm, she kisses Luke then and Han corners her while making repairs on the ship, and Marion wasn’t in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, you’re thinking of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Obviously this isn’t worth tossing the book for, but it did make me wonder how many music references were similarly wrong and I just didn’t know).

I did approve of the top hat, though. If you’re going to be young and make huge amounts of mistakes, might as well do it in a top hat.

Listen, bottom line: it’s not a bad book. It doesn’t have a bad message, and it’s got something we NEED more of, which is a flawed and selfish heroine with ambitions. You might like it. I just didn’t.

But not because of this:


Seriously, this is iconic, and it’s distracting me. Was it wrong on purpose? If so, why? If not, who was editing this book, a mole person?

Suggested pairing: Guinness, for reasons which will become obvious if you read the book.




Thanks, Oprah

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Reading Challenge: A book from Oprah’s book club

This was a reading challenge item that stumped me for a while. I mean, have you seen Oprah’s book club list? If you’re going to be in her book club you’d better be a fan of family dramas/melodramas, or, creepily enough, kids’ books by Bill Cosby. There were a few on the list I’d read before, but most of the ones I hadn’t looked like a slog. Or I would have had to wait 9 months for at the library.

But then it occurred to me that I can do Dickens. Some people might find Dickens more challenging than Anita Shreve or Chris Bohjalian, but not everyone was raised in a family of anglophiles, watching Masterpiece Theater if we watched TV at all. Dickens is long-winded as only a Victorian novelist can be long-winded (it turns out he was not actually paid by the word, which is an urban legend that makes a lot of sense viewed from this century), but he speaks a language I was raised with. I’ve read a decent amount of Dickens, but it turns out I’ve actually never read Great Expectations. Also, bonus, it was available for free and I could read it on my phone.

I don’t think there’s anything I could possibly say about this book that hasn’t been said a million times before. It’s iconic. High school students by the millions have been assigned it. Pip and Magwitch may not be household names, but I think we can all agree Miss Havisham is floating in the cultural ether. That may also be why, at least in recent years, she’s been portrayed by a big-name actress while leads Pip and Estella are roles given to young unknowns or lesser-knowns. Miss Havisham, creepy, creepy Miss Havisham, you are famous.


So, like I said, I couldn’t possibly add anything to the cultural narrative around this book. But I can tell you why I liked it. Dickens was a guy who generally wrote his heroes, and especially his heroines, to be pure and selfless and obedient and uncomplicated. This is a huge pity because he did such a great job writing people who are flawed. The most interesting characters, the ones we remember, are the Miss Havishams, the Bill Sykeses, the Lady Dedlocks, the Sidney Cartons, and of course, with Christmas coming up, I have to mention Ebeneezer Scrooge.


I love the Muppet Christmas Carol more than words can say.

Anywho, this is a roundabout way of saying that I liked Great Expectations for its darkness. Pip is such a pompous little twit – that this is mainly the fault of the adults around him is clear, but it’s a reason, not an excuse – and he learns some hard lessons and falls a very, very long way before he comes out at the end. Estella, the beautiful and cold, also learns her lessons, but throughout the book has significantly more insight than Pip into why she is the way she is. She also doesn’t suffer the standard fate of complicated Dickens women and actually survives the book, so that’s a plus. And there are some delightful secondary characters: Wemmick and his Aged, for example, haven’t quite hit the mainstream, but I enjoyed them a lot and admired Wemmick’s skillful if drastic self-care routine. As far as the plot goes, sure, it relies heavily on coincidence (the convict is Estella’s father! The housekeeper is her mother! Miss Havisham has the same lawyer as the convict! NOT TO MENTION ORLICK…), but, you know, Dickens. It was a different time. Every era has its narrative conventions.

Now I think of it, I would happily welcome the return of the stupid coincidence if it meant we could do away with the gritty reboot.

After finishing the book I’m naturally curious to see one of the numerous adaptations (I saw the 1999 BBC adaptation back when it first aired, but as much as I’ve always enjoyed Justine Waddell she is all I remember about that version). I also felt, hey, this WOULD be an interesting story to adapt for contemporary times, but then I watched a preview for that 1998 version and changed my mind. The idea’s good, but the insistence on casting Ethan Hawke in things, not so much. Also 1990s Gwyneth Paltrow was beautiful but had this noodle-like quality that I can never get over. There are at least two more recent versions, though, and one or both of them may be worth a watch.

So we’ll see if I decide to venture into the film versions of this story, but now I’m just glad I read the original. Thanks, Oprah.

Recommended pairing: Oskar Blues Old Chub has a nice Dickensian sound to it, doesn’t it? Plus, Scottish Ale, very good for cold weather.

Classic Creeps

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

Reading Challenge: A classic from the 20th Century

This was one of the books I was surprised to realize I’ve never read. I read a lot of Agatha Christie when I was younger, mostly Poirots, and this one is such a classic. In fact, And Then There Were None has inspired so many books, movies and episodes of TV shows, I figured maybe reading it would be kind of predictable. “Oh, yeah, and then they find another body, ho hum, SEEN it.” I was wrong.

This book is creepy as fuck.

The plot is familiar at this point: strangers invited to an island, confronted with their past crimes, slowly killed off one by one, and the killer is among them. I did not guess who it was, although I wasn’t surprised when I found out.

I think what makes this book work so well (and be still so creepy) is that it avoids a lot of the cliches you see in horror. The characters react to their situation in a logical way (freaked out but trying to keep their heads) rather than panicking and shouting at each other the second someone dies. The setting is isolated but the house is well-lit and comfortable. Later, yes, all of this starts to deteriorate, but it happens over time instead of INSTANT TERROR YES WE’RE GOING TO KEEP UP THIS HUGE LEVEL OF TERROR THE WHOLE TIME.

Fun fact: while I was reading this home alone, someone knocked on the back door of the apartment. The back door, by the way, doesn’t open: it’s painted over, locked, there’s a bar over it and the cat’s litter box is right in front of it. NO ONE HAS EVER KNOCKED ON THE BACK DOOR. I was so scared I didn’t move. There was another knock. I grabbed my keys, walked out the front, and found out that it had been the lady who cleans the halls, offering to clean the apartment, too, if I wanted, and handing me her business card. I think she could tell she’d freaked me out, too, because she apologized about ten times.

Now granted my baseline mental state right now is totally frazzled (ditto about half the country right now) due to certain monumentally horrific election results, but I’m pretty sure I can chalk my overreaction up to this book about 85%. It’s creepy. It’s a quick read. It definitely is a mystery classic.

Recommended pairing: The brandy, as long as it was an unopened bottle and you know nobody poisoned it.