Monday, September 18, 2017

One Came Home by Amy Timberlake

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

This book wasn’t a Newbery medalist, but it did win an honorable mention back in 2013. I have mentioned before that we are listening (in no particularly organized manner) to various Newbery books that look interesting. I can’t remember exactly why I added this one to the list, but it probably just sounded interesting. 



This book is a historical novel, set in Wisconsin in 1871. Actually, the whole book was inspired by the author reading a history of the Passenger Pigeon, a bird that once numbered in the billions in the North America, but was exterminated by the early 1900s by a combination of hunting and habitat destruction. It was one of the first ecological disasters to come to the attention of Americans, and was one of the forces behind the movement to protect places and species

 Audubon's illustration of the Passenger Pigeon. Audubon's book is referenced in One Came Home.

Anyway, Amy Timberlake read about the pigeons, and the idea for a novel started taking shape. The book centers around one of the last big pigeon migrations and nestings. Pigeons are worked into the narrative from beginning to end, as is the question of the ethics of killing.

The book, though, isn’t primarily a story about birds. It is a mystery and psychological coming of age story. It opens in kind of the middle of the story with the funeral of young Agatha Burkhardt. The story is told by Georgie Burkhardt, the younger sister. She is, to put it mildly, an unreliable narrator, and delightfully lacking in self-awareness.

Georgie is convinced that the body that was found isn’t her sister, and that Agatha is alive. The book in fact opens with that idea:

“So it comes to this, I remember thinking on Wednesday, June 7, 1871. The date sticks in my mind because it was the day of my sister’s first funeral, and I knew it wasn’t her last - which is why I left.”

We don’t find out the rest of the back story until near the end of the book though. Georgie tells of the past through a series of flashbacks, but the actions of other characters are hidden for longer. What is clear early on, however, is that there is a love triangle of sorts. Well, more like a love quadrilateral if you count Georgie, who isn’t eager to have her sister marry and move away.

Billy McCabe, the eldest son of the Sheriff, has proposed to Agatha, and she turned him down. Not too long after, the banker, the richest man in town, Mr. Benjamin Olmstead, comes courting Agatha. He has money, and a fantastic library, and Agatha seems smitten.

Then Georgie sees Agatha kiss Billy, and squeals to Mr. Olmstead, who throws Agatha over. Soon afterward, Agatha runs away from home with some pigeon hunters, and a few weeks later, and badly decayed and scavenged body wearing Agatha’s dress is discovered several dozen miles out of town.

Georgie is both sure that Agatha is alive and worried that if Agatha really is dead, that she is responsible for the death. But she isn’t the only one. Georgie runs away herself, having attempted to rent a horse. Instead, Billy McCabe lends her a mule and insists on accompanying her on her quest to find the truth. And Billy has his own secrets and his own guilt.

By the end of the book, the two will have survived a cougar, had a run-in with counterfeiters, discovered useful information, found out just how good of a shot Georgie is, and spent most of the time fighting.

Georgie isn’t the most pleasant character. She is actually fairly obnoxious, honestly, with a perpetual chip on her shoulder. But she does kind of have reasons. She has unresolved guilt, and grief she can’t really face. And she is all of thirteen and has faced with a lot of adversity and responsibility before she can really handle it.

Billy is a great character. He is by no means a perfect person, but he is pretty steady for nineteen. He also has a lot of patience for Georgie, even when she is frustrating. He also has a kind of laconic way of communicating which seems both realistic and suited to his place in the story.

I’ll stop with that as far as plot goes. There are a number of twists, and that is part of the fun. It is quite a suspenseful book - and definitely on the young adult side of the violence line, at least for modern books. My kids were okay with decayed bodies with faces eaten by wild animals, and screaming cougars, and broken ribs, and thumbs shot off. But your kids might vary.

This book started off kind of dark and weird in some ways. (When MY kids mention that it is dark, you know it really is.) But after the start, the mystery took hold, and the humor started showing through. By the end, we were really engrossed in the story, and really cared about the characters. I thought it was a strong book in a year in which we have listened to a lot of good ones. Anyone who says that children’s fiction is all junk this century, unlike the supposed glory days of the 1950s and 1960s probably needs to visit a library and ask for Newbery books. Sure, there is fluff, as there always has been. But the best of today’s fiction has strong, memorable characters, imaginative settings (who saw pigeons as the basis for a story?), and psychologically astute writing. 

I should also mention Tara Sands, whose voice in the audiobook edition is fantastic. She went beyond the printed words to bring the characters to life. Billy in particular was marvelous, sounding like the character should, and totally different from the others. I also appreciated the Wisconsin dialect and accent. This particular book is one of the best audiobooks I have heard this year, and Sands is the reason why.

If your kids can take the unpleasant stuff, give this a try. Otherwise, teens would likely find this one interesting.

I strongly recommend reading the author’s note at the end, which tells of the pigeon inspiration, gives some of the history, and explains what is fiction and what is fact in the book. She certainly did outstanding research, and writes about pigeons with a genuine affection.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Woods Runner by Gary Paulsen

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

We have enjoyed a number of Gary Paulsen books over the last several years, starting with the Hatchet series (we have also read The River and Brian’s Winter), then progressing to his humorous works like Masters of Disaster and the Kevin series. One thing that can be said about Paulsen is that he writes well in a variety of genres. Hatchet is a survival series that draws on Paulsen’s extensive woodland experience, while his comedies have their genesis in his childhood. We had not, however, read any of his historical fiction before this book. 



Woods Runner is set during the beginning of the American Revolutionary War, and is from the perspective of Samuel, a 13 year old boy living on the frontier. After British soldiers burn down his home and village, killing most of the inhabitants, but kidnapping his parents, Samuel sets out on a quest to find them. As the one member of his family with tracking and hunting skills, he is well suited to the task, but he is also young and inexperienced with people and cities.

After surviving a hit from a tomahawk, he rescues a young girl who barely escapes being murdered along with her family by Hessians, and is aided by an old peddler who works as a rebel spy.

This is a fairly short book, so I won’t give away more than that.

As always, Paulsen has researched well, and the details are excellent. From the functioning of a flintlock rifle to the makeshift prisons in New York City, Paulsen’s grasp of how things work and where they are located shows. (I care about stuff like this, obviously…)

This is a Young Adult book, so there is some graphic violence in it. Samuel has to locate and bury the bodies of his neighbors, who have been run through with bayonets. The Hessians shoot down Annie’s parents in cold blood as she watches, then runs for her life. Prisoners die of starvation, disease, and injuries. Paulsen describes gangrene and infected bullet wounds. He isn’t unnecessarily graphic, though. He just doesn’t flinch in describing stuff. For my kids, that was fine - they already have a nurse for a mother, so our dinner conversations can be, well, interesting. But yours may vary.

The bottom line is obvious: war is hell, and makes demons of us. There is ample evidence of British and Hessian soldiers targeting civilians for murder and pillage during the war, and the Americans weren’t much better - they just had fewer targets. I think Paulsen also raises the issue of mercenaries in general. Those who fight for hire, rather than for country, tend to be the worst sorts: those who enjoy killing enough to do it for a living, rather than out of a perceived necessity. Thus, they are more likely to be indiscriminate in their murder, easily killing older people, women, and children. To be sure, ordinary soldiers do this too, but not to the same extent or as easily. One of the traumas of Vietnam was the civilian body count. Many decent men never got over what they did in the fog of war. Paulsen is not pro-war, and it shows. But he is also an American, and he is on the side of the Rebels in this war. It is hard to blame him, honestly, particularly since I too am an American, and believe that the Revolution set a precedent for representative government that has swept most of the world. It was the first real loss for monarchy and colonialism, even if it failed to live up to the ideal of all humans created equal. But the cost was great, as Paulsen reminds us, and war is mostly senseless violence and depravity when you get down to it. Particularly striking was just how high casualty counts were in the conflict - between infections and disease, about half of the soldiers on each side died. That’s pretty horrific.

Paulsen also portrays the horror of killing. Just as in Hatchet and its sequels, Brian must kill to live, but never grows to like causing death, Samuel must kill or be killed, but he loathes it, eventually choosing to work as a doctor rather than a soldier.

A detail that was a good bit more fun, though, was the network of spies and messengers. This is truly one of the overlooked reasons that the underdogs won this war. The Brits had far superior firepower, but they lacked the ability to communicate effectively. With difficulty coordinating troops, individual units were vulnerable to surprise attacks. In addition to the adage of “don’t get ahead of your supply lines” we might add “don’t go beyond your communications network.”

As usual, I definitely recommend Paulsen for reliably well written and compelling books.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Eclipse



The kids and I traveled to see the total solar eclipse last month. I actually wrote this up right after we got back, but waited to publish it on my blog until the version I wrote for the Res Ipsa Loquitur (our County Bar Association magazine) to come out first. None of my pictures turned out, but my eldest daughter’s did.

***

Technically speaking, eclipses aren’t all that rare. A total solar eclipse (where the sun is completely blocked by the moon) occurs, on average, about every 18 months. However, each eclipse is visible only from less than 1 percent of the earth’s surface, so the chance of seeing an eclipse from any given location is much more rare. In fact, a given location will see an eclipse once in more than 100 years. That’s an average, not a hard number, so it could be more or less, depending on the rather complex mechanics of the earth, moon, and sun.

The continental United States hasn’t seen a total eclipse since 1979, when I was too young to have appreciated it. Also, it was over the northwest only, and it was mostly blocked by clouds. I follow astronomical events - we view the Perseid meteor shower most years, for example, and watched the last few lunar eclipses. We also attended the Astronomy Festival at Bryce Canyon National Park back in 2014. Thus, I put the 2017 solar eclipse on my schedule a couple of years ago, and made plans to see it. After all, the western US won’t see another total eclipse until 2045. If I am around, I’ll probably plan to see that one too. (The eastern US will get one in 2024 - plan ahead now…)

The path of totality went across the United States from northern Oregon down to South Carolina. The path itself is less than 100 miles wide, so it was important to find a spot within that narrow band so that we could see totality. I selected eastern Oregon for three main reasons: first, it was close enough for us to drive rather than fly; second, it had a high statistical likelihood of clear skies; and third, it was in the middle of nowhere, so we would (I hoped) avoid some of the crowds and traffic. Fortunately, all three proved to be true, and we had a great opportunity to see this phenomenon.

We camped in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, in the Elkhorn Mountains, just outside of the path of totality. We then drove a few miles south, to the Crane Flat staging area, which was set up by the Forest Service. Let me say that the Forest Service did a phenomenal job in preparation. They had information and swag at various locations along the main highways, and they set up the viewing areas with toilets and catering, and generally kept things running smoothly. They also were great with the kids, answering questions, and listening to their stories.

Morning dawned on Monday with brilliantly clear skies and pleasant cool temperatures. Unless you knew the eclipse was coming, there was no indication that anything was out of the ordinary. Then, around 9:15 AM, it began. Using the glasses to protect our eyes, we saw just a bit of a nibble out of the disk of the sun. The moon was moving in. Within a few more minutes, the sun looked a bit like the Death Star, then like Pac Man.

At this point, the sun still seemed bright, and the day warm. But soon, as the eclipse reached fifty percent coverage, it started to change. With half the light, it started to cool off, and the day wasn’t as bright. But, because the sun was still relatively high, rather than at the horizon, it felt much different from a sunset.

As more and more of the sun was blocked, it rapidly got colder and darker. And yet, the shadows weren’t right. Dusk should have long shadows, not short ones, and the sky should turn red and yellow, not deep blue. It was a peculiar feeling.

Picture by Ella Swanson

The eclipse approached totality, with only a sliver of sun left. It was darkish, like dusk, and at 5000 feet elevation, it was getting noticeably cold. Most of the viewers put on jackets or sweatshirts. Totality started just after 10:15. The last sliver of sun seemed to disappear fast. The last wink of light at the edge created the “diamond ring” effect for just a couple seconds, then totality. Cheers erupted from the forest around us from people camping just off the road.

Diamond Ring, Picture by Ella Swanson

A total eclipse doesn’t create total darkness. Instead, the light is kind of like dusk, but oddly lurid. The reason why is that the sun’s corona provides as surprising amount of light. During the eclipse, the corona becomes visible to the naked eye. I must say, this was the most magical part of the eclipse, seeing that corona in person for the first time. In addition, a couple of solar flares could be seen. It was thrilling to realize either could have swallowed the earth many times over. The scale is just huge.

Totality, with a great view of the corona and a solar flare at the very top. Picture by Ella Swanson.

All too soon, totality was over. At our location, it lasted about a minute and a quarter. The “diamond ring” reappeared briefly, then the crescent, and the light gradually came back to full and the temperature warmed over the next half hour. It was over so fast, the event of a lifetime, but it was unforgettable. The kids and I drove a thousand miles each way to see it, and it was worth it to experience the event together.   

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Wind From the Carolinas by Robert Wilder


Source of book: Borrowed from my brother

My wife apparently had started but not finished this book at some point, but I hadn’t heard of it until my brother mentioned it during a discussion with us and some other friends of cool books we should read. He owned an old copy of it, which I borrowed. It is out of print, but appears to be available reasonably readily on Amazon and Ebay as a used book. My brother, in turn, discovered the book because of...seriously, I am not making this up...Jimmy Buffett. True story. Actually, Buffett put out a list some years ago of his favorite books, and of the ones my brother and I have read, I have to say he has good and thoughtful taste. (The other highlight is West With The Night, pilot Beryl Markham’s memoir. Definitely read that one.) 



Not only had I not heard of this book, the historical events which form the backbone of the story were likewise unknown to me. The book itself is fiction, and the action follows a fictional family over the course of about 150 or so years and multiple generations. Those events are fictional. But the context in which the story takes place is true, and the author scrupulously researched the history to ensure the book was accurate in all the important details.

In the aftermath of the American Revolutionary War, all was not well for certain people. We tend to forget them (at least here in the US) in the glow of the successful founding of our nation, but what did happen to the Tories? You know, those who were British loyalists during the war? Needless to say, they were not popular with the victors. In some cases, their real estate was confiscated. Others were subjected to harassment. And others simply did not feel comfortable in a nation that was at least in principle devoted to democracy and the equality of (white) men. In addition, there were those in the South who feared that these democratic ideals would inevitably lead to the abolition of slavery. (In reality, the British empire would abolish slavery decades before the United States would, and wouldn’t require a bloody war to do it. But nobody knew that in 1780.)

So what were the options? Well, many Tories returned to England. If they had family or property there, they generally took this choice. And remember, Tories were on average the wealthy, who had a stake in continued British rule. The average working class colonist was likely to be on the side of the revolution.

But there was another option, which many took. The British government offered those Tories who wished to resettle extensive free land in the Bahamas, should they wish to start a new life there.

Believe it or not, around 7,000 loyalists were resettled there - plus their slaves in many cases. By that time, the Bahamas were occupied by a motley assortment of people. A few of the native Tainos managed to survive smallpox and colonization. Some British administrators and soldiers and former sailors and their families lived there. And also the descendents of the pirates that had used the islands as a base 100 years prior.  It also was a haven for freed slaves - the British navy released those from illegal slaving ships there. With the huge influx of the enslaved along with the white loyalists, the population boomed - and became even more tilted toward a non-white majority.  

As for the loyalists, in many cases, they attempted to re-create their lives on the islands, attempting to grow cotton and build (or even transport by ship) large plantation houses. That this was doomed to failure was obvious in retrospect, although apparently not at the time. The soil was not suited to cotton, imported goods were exhorbitantly expensive, and no major cash crop ever succeeded. Thus, it was a combination of subsistence farming, sisal export, and fishing that most ended up turning to eventually.

Wind From the Carolinas follows the family of Ronald Cameron through this period of history. He packs up his family, slaves, and even the bricks of his mansion, and transports them to Exuma. Things do not, shall we say, go as planned. Nevertheless, the family makes a go of it, after a fashion. And, as must necessarily happen, new blood is infused from time to time which invigorates the Camerons and heralds a new phase in their existence.

Most notable of these is Juan Cadiz, a “conch” of dubious and doubtful parentage, a bit of a drifter and ne’er-do-well who seduces Ronald’s daughter Caroline. Not a great start, perhaps, but Juan ends up holding things together during hard times, eventually becoming a family legend. 

 What Great Exuma looks like when not getting shredded by a hurricane.

With the changes forced on them, the Camerons must adapt and find new sources of revenue for survival. With the slaves freed in 1834, the availability and cost of labor shifted. At various times, therefore, the Camerons took on different projects, often of dubious legality. Juan Cadiz buys a schooner and decides to become a smuggler (something he is eminently qualified to do) and bring goods to the Bahamas around the British tariffs, placed on all goods from the United States as part of the lingering feud left over from the Revolution and later the War of 1812.

Later, new generations would run the blockade during the Civil War, then smuggle arms to Cuba to aid the failed revolution. And life would go on. Some of the family would move back to Charleston and go into trade or banking. Others would stay on the island.

But it isn’t just these economic details or the adventures they bring that the book is concerned with. The human drama is central to the story. The widowed Ronald has a brief affair with the wife of the governor, who is forced by pride to accept the child as his own. After he dies in a cholera epidemic, the child is left with Ronald as the mother returns to England to seek her fortune in a new marriage. Caroline elopes with Juan. Later, their daughter Bahama, unaware of David’s true parentage, falls in love with him, and the fallout from that ends with David moving to Charleston, never to see her again. Bahama later marries the captain of her father’s ship. A later descendant will marry the daughter of a Cuban revolutionary. Their daughter will have a tragic fling with an abusive young man in Charleston that results in a child. And on it goes.

One thing that really struck me about this book was a sense of aching sadness. And not because the book is intended to be depressing. Instead, it is honest about the progression of life. Characters who begin as young grow old, then die. And they go from energetic and visionary to frail and cautious. Then the next generation takes over. Probably the most heartbreaking scene is the old Juan Cadiz, who has outlived his love Caroline by two decades, and is crippled by Parkinsons. The fire has mostly gone out, and there is little left but to wait for death. And this is, sadly, the human experience for many of us. Not that it was better to get eaten by a predator before we grew old, but still.

Another theme in this book that was interesting is the need to change and adapt. Ronald is stubborn as heck. In an exchange early in the book, Ronald says of the captain who brought him to the Bahamas, “He is a stubborn ass and I shall say so in a letter to his superiors.” The governor’s aide muses that the quality of obstinacy was not confined to the master of the ship. Ronald is devoted to the old ways, and the old culture, and thus finds the islands to be a shock. Just in one instance, the man hired to pilot the ketch they use to travel between the islands gets a bit too “familiar” with Ronald, who takes offense.

Cameron regarded the trio with a tight anger. He was far from being adjusted to such casual familiarity from those he employed. There was a deference due to the man who paid the wages. It should spring automatically from those who accepted them.

Hmm, it seems to me that there is still a bit of this idea going around in our discussions. That laborers should just be grateful for whatever they get, and show more respect, even as inequality has risen dramatically. Those at the top are not content to be rich, they want an acknowledgement of their superiority too. And thus it has always been.

But Ronald’s stubbornness will be his undoing. Caroline will eventually defy him and run away with Juan. Ronald recognized her personality early, but he is unable to adapt to it. “Caroline has a will of her own. It is a facet of character I would prefer to see in a man.”

And that too is a problem, because his son Robert Bruce lacks that independence and never really pleases his father because of that. It is not until Ronald’s death that he is able to break free, return to Charleston, and pursue the life that he wanted all along.

This unwillingness to bend to reality, even to nature itself, is why Ronald is eventually broken, literally, by the forces he will not bend for.

Roughly the first half of the book is devoted to Ronald and the events surrounding him. The entire rest of the story is crammed into the second half, which is in some ways too bad, because it feels like each successive generation gets less room to tell their story. It would have been nice to have gotten to know Brian or Walter, for example, as well we do Ronald and Juan, or Bahama, Marta, and Maria as well as we do Caroline. But, the book isn’t exactly short either, and not everyone writes a series like Galsworthy. Because of the way the book was written, there are often large gaps in time. An incident will play out, then we skip ahead 20 years, people have died, people have been born, and we have to adjust to a new reality.

Ronald’s fight against change happens on a few different fronts. He doesn’t live to see the end of slavery, but he does run up against the changing mores regarding power (see the employment quote above) and gender. His daughter’s rebellion is just one of the instances. In fact, part of the blame for his affair lies with his inability to see women as fully equivalent to men. In an interesting exchange, his mistress is frank with him about sexual desire.

“Your are a little outside my experience.” He made the confession with a trace of embarrassment. “In a matter where you should incline to a blushing confusion or a modest reticence, you are as blunt as a man.”

“You have led a sheltered life, Ronald.” She made the statement with a tender derision. “Save for certain, desirable, physical differences, a man and a woman are much alike. It is hypocrisy not to admit it. We slake our thirst at the same fount.”

And then she switches to a question about Juan and Caroline. Because she, unlike Ronald, understands their passion for each other.

This whole exchange seems somewhat familiar to me as well. I was raised very much in a culture that believed women to “trade sex for love.” Meaning that they didn’t really desire sex for its own sake. Of course, this was baloney, so the real meaning was that women couldn’t really admit a sex drive, but were expected to focus on finding an economically favorable match. (Really about what Ronald focused on for his children too. An economically and socially favorable match.) When faced with a woman who dispenses with the hypocrisy and says what she wants, he doesn’t cope well. He ends up having a child with her, despite his not really being in love, and later, when he might have married her after her husband’s death, his discomfort with her bluntness keeps him from taking a step that seems as if it would have been positive for both of them, to say nothing of their child.

Sadly, this failure - and Ronald’s failure to acknowledge the truth of David’s parentage until long after he should have - end up creating further problems down the road, and separating the family. That becomes the story of the family, in my opinion. Those who adapt succeed, and those who refuse to bend are broken.

There is so much more in this book, but this review has already gone on too long. Wilder writes well, and the book doesn’t seem particularly dated. (It was written in the 1960s.) It has a story that is unique and interesting, but also timeless themes. The world changes, culture changes, what once was taken for granted ends up being useless in a new situation. Life, love, and family have never been as simple as some would have you believe, and they too have and will continue to evolve to meet changing circumstances. You can never go back to growing cotton with slaves while the women in long dresses twirl at debutante balls. The age of sail is gone and isn’t coming back any time soon. Political alliances and rivalries shift. Neither doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result nor trying to hammer society, culture, and economics back into the mold of the past will be effective. We must all change, adapt, and make our way in the world we have, or we too will be broken by forces to great for us.

Definitely an interesting book, and one that is worth seeking out.

***

I couldn’t find a way to work it into the body of the review, but there is an interesting exchange between Ronald and his son Robert Bruce early on when Ronald allows Robert to try some wine. Alcohol runs through the book as well, with a decided contrast between the taste Ronald has for imported spirits and the local rum the family ends up producing. But this bit from Ronald is fun more for the history than anything.

“I remarked before that the Scots are a stubborn lot, but they hold no candle to the Englishman. Take this wine, for example. It is called ‘sack.’ In truth, it is a French word, sec. But the Englishman will not tolerate the foreign pronunciation. He twists it to suit himself as he does with sherry, which comes from a district in Spain called Jerez. Now there is a word which sits uneasily on an Englishman’s tongue. He calls it ‘sherry’ and the Spaniards be damned.”

Both a fun bit of history and a commentary on the arrogant xenophobia the citizens of empire tend to reflexively exhibit.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett

Source of book: Audiobook borrowed from my brother.

Earlier this year, we listened to the very first Discworld book, The Colour of Magic, which my sons in particular loved, and had read themselves before we listened to it. We got our start on Terry Pratchett with his early novel, The Carpet People, which is not part of the Discworld universe, although it could be. From there, we listened to Dodger, about Victorian England, before finally making our acquaintance with Discworld through the first three Tiffany Aching books. (The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, and Wintersmith.) Somewhere in there, we also listened to some short stories collected as Dragons at Crumbling Castle. (I am in denial about the abridged edition of Guards! Guards!



Anyway, The Light Fantastic is the second Discworld book written, and the direct sequel to The Colour of Magic. In fact, one might well consider it to be part of the same story, as the first book ends with a literal cliffhanger.

Incompetent wizard Rincewind has just joined tourist from hell Two Flower and his sapient chest The Luggage in tumbling off the edge of the disk toward oblivion. This is a cosmic problem, however, because inside Rincewind’s head is one of the eight great magic spells from the Octavo. This magic book takes the liberty of rewriting reality in order to save Rincewind - and thus itself.

Meanwhile, a red star has appeared in the sky, headed apparently right for the Discworld. The world’s greatest wizards decide that the eight spells from the Octavo need to be said in order to save the world from certain destruction. Thus, they need to find Rincewind. The Octavo does not particularly want Rincewind to be found, at least until the proper time. As Rincewind eventually learns from the spell squatting in his mind, he was chosen because he has an incredible ability to sense danger and run away, thus preserving himself.

Rincewind and Two Flower (and the Luggage, of course) end up in a magic forest with a gingerbread house, catch a ride on a flying rock piloted by a druid, and end up disrupting a virgin sacrifice at a Stonehenge analogue. They are saved by Cohen the Barbarian, one of Pratchett’s best creations.

Cohen is meant to be a parody of Conan, naturally, much like Hrun in The Colour of Magic. However, while Hrun is a straight up barbarian, Cohen is, well, old. He has forgotten whether he is 90 or 95, has no teeth, has constant aches in the back and other ailments of age. His long white beard comes down to his loincloth.

But he is no weakling. He didn’t live to be his age while saving maidens in distress, looting temples, and starting fights by being weak. No sir, he can still best just about anyone - particularly those who underestimate him. Well, as long as his back doesn’t lock up…

So anyway, Cohen rescues this virgin sacrifice, Bethan, who falls in love with him, because he is irresistible to nubile maidens. (This is why he has dozens of children.) Bethan, though, is special, because she can give amazing massages, allowing Cohen’s back to cooperate with him.

In any case, Cohen is quite funny, a very Pratchett sort of character.

Rincewind’s troubles aren’t over, however. Two Flower manages to get poisoned, and Rincewind has to follow him to Death’s domain and bring him back. This is complicated by Death’s adopted daughter, Ysabell, who has been lonely for company and would rather keep Rincewind with her. And also by Two Flower, who has occupied himself by teaching the Four Horsemen how to play bridge. (For those not up on their apocalyptic studies, they would be Death, War, Famine, and Pestilence. Although in our modern world, Pestilence has retired, replaced by Pollution - at least that’s Pratchett’s take in Good Omens, which he wrote with Neil Gaiman.)

After that, it is off to Ankh-Morpork to try to save the world. And finally find out the answer to the crucial question of the sex of the great turtle on which the world rides.

If anything, The Light Fantastic is even better than The Colour of Magic. Pratchett seems to be finding a properly sardonic voice, and some of the familiar features of the Discworld universe come into view.

Pratchett continues to satirize modern society through the fantastic. In his sights in this novel are apocalyptic nuts of various stripes. As the world appears doomed to end, some head for the hills. Although not to escape, but “because the view will be better.” Others decide to go on a witch, I mean wizard hunt, seeking to kill off the wizards to appease the gods. (That the wizards are, on average, barely more competent than Rincewind doesn’t help matters.) Others are burning books.  Some others are taking advantage of the end of the world to make a profit. And the Druids are sacrificing a virgin. At least until Cohen shows up.

Two Flower continues to impress as the ideal form of the Ugly Tourist, driving Rincewind nuts by referring to things as “quaint” and “picturesque” and other head patting terms. And he has this rosy outlook that makes him believe that nothing will harm him because he is “not involved.”

There are far too many great quotes in this book to include here. I’ll pick a few, however.

About the age of the universe: the Discworld isn’t actually ancient, it just looks that way, because of “fake fossil bones put there by a Creator with nothing better to do than upset archeologists and give them silly ideas”
About Trymon, the wizard who seeks to master the spells and the universe:

Besides, there was something disquieting about young Trymon.  He didn’t smoke, only drank boiled water, and Galder had a nasty suspicion that he was clever.  He didn’t smile often enough, and he liked figures and the sort of organisation charts that show lots of squares with arrows pointing to other squares.  In short, he was the sort of man who could use the word ‘personnel’ and mean it.

From an exchange in the forest between Rincewind and Two Flower:

Do you think there’s anything to eat in this forest?’
‘Yes,’ said the wizard bitterly, ‘us’.
That is, after all, the conundrum of nature…

And on the Druids, who are all too often romanticised:

Of course, like druids everywhere they believed in the essential unity of all life, the healing power of plants, the natural rhythm of the seasons and the burning alive of anyone who didn’t approach all this in the right frame of mind...

On a related note:

You’ve got to face it, all this stuff about golden boughs and the cycles of nature and stuff just boils down to sex and violence, usually at the same time.’

One of my favorite quotes is a purely Pratchett conception of the universe:

The universe, they said, depended for its operation on the balance of four forces which they identified as charm, persuasion, uncertainty and bloody-mindedness.

As a theory, it may be on to something.

There were also a series of quotes about gender stereotypes that caused my second daughter to snort when she heard them. One of the minor characters is a female warrior (whose hard to pronounce name eludes me) who is employed by some of the wizards to find Rincewind.

She was too big to be a thief, too honest to be an assassin, too intelligent to be a wife, and too proud to enter the only other female profession generally available...any woman setting out to make a living by the sword isn’t about to go around looking like something off the cover of the more advanced kind of lingerie catalogue for the specialised buyer.

It isn’t easy being a woman warrior, though.

Not for the first time she reflected that there were many drawbacks to being a swordswoman, not least of which was that men didn’t take you seriously until you’d actually killed them, by which time it didn’t really matter anyway.

But the best one, and the one my daughter reacted to the most was this one:

Unseen University had never admitted women, muttering something about problems with the plumbing, but the real reason  was an unspoken dread that if women were allowed to mess around with magic they would probably be embarrassingly good at it …

I’m inclined to think that this is the real reason behind pretty much every attempt to keep women in their place and out of leadership.

We thoroughly enjoyed this particular book, and continue to find Pratchett to be delightful. I wish I had discovered his books when I was a child or teen, but at least I get to experience them with the kids.