What I'm Reading: The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett

This is my third Classics Club review! Once again, this is an after-the-fact addition to my original list. Have I read anything that's actually on my list yet? Yes, but I haven't posted the reviews yet. Anyway, this one also sneaks in just within my criteria of "a classic is any book that's older than me." -M.R.

The Colour of Magic, published in 1983, is the first book in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series. This is a 41 book long fantasy satire series. I feel safe saying that there is nothing else like it in English literature. The name of the series comes from the fact that the world where everything is set is a flat disc, resting on the backs of four enormous elephants, standing on the shell of an immense turtle swimming through space.

My love of Terry Pratchett is well-documented here, I should think. His death on March 12, 2015 was the first and dare I say only celebrity death that's ever made me feel genuine pain. The world was richer when he was in it. I never met the man, but his work has been and remains very, very dear to me.

In the immediate aftermath of his death I reread Small Gods and then read Mort for the first time. After that, I had to take a break and mourn. In 2016, a little over a year after Pratchett's death, I decided I was ready to jump back in, and I read Reaper Man and it make me cry.

I've dipped in and out of the Discworld series depending on what I could find at the library or the bookstore for many years, but now I'm doing a chronological (re)read of the entire series, beginning with The Colour of Magic. I know that I read this book many years ago, but I had almost no memory of it when I picked it up again.

This book is about Rincewind the Wizard who is barely a wizard: he tends to run away from everything and gets by using a gift for languages. He also has an extremely dangerous spell lodged in his mind. Actually the book is more about Twoflower, the Discworld's first tourist. He encounters Rincewind and the two of them fall into a series of adventures that are direct parodies of various heavy-hitting sff series. The only one of those parodies that I recognized or in fact remembered at all on this re-read was of Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern series.

It's kind of useless to recap the plot for a book like this. Suffice it to say that it's fast-paced but scattered, and the journey is far more important than the destination or anything I could tell you about it. Kind of like tourism. Which is how I'll segue into saying that while The Colour of Magic is largely a fantasy genre parody, Pratchett is already engaging in the social satire that will eventually make the Discworld series truly special. At this early stage, he's satirizing tourism with the character of Twoflower, so it's not exactly anything groundbreaking, but it's still so damn astute.

I can't wait to see Pratchett's satirical muscles developing over the course of this (re)read. It's interesting to see what's present in this first book that's familiar to me from reading about half of the series already, and how much is just a twinkle in Pratchett's eye. The Luggage, a magical trunk on legs that will follow its master to the edge of the world and all points in between, is fully realized here. Rincewind eventually gets more character development in later books, but I think that in this one he's already pretty fleshed out. The Discworld's biggest city, Ankh-Morpork is similar, in that it's presented here already as a wretched hive of scum and villainy full of people just living their lives and also tons of criminals, but so much more will eventually be said about it. On the other hand, there are a lot of things that I love about the series that either aren't present at all in this book or are faint outlines of their eventual selves. The character of Death, for example, is just ghoulish here, not the complex personification of the end of life he'll eventually develop into. The Patrician is evidently not Lord Vetinari (or is he?), literature's greatest benevolent dictator (or is he?). The plot is, as I mentioned, scattered, not tight and complex. There are chapters for some reason.

Anyway, this has all been very much about me and my previous experience in the Discworld, and it's impossible for things to be otherwise. The Colour of Magic is a fine starting point for the Discworld, but things do get much better. In terms of being considered a "classic," if there were no further books in this series, this book would probably have fallen by the wayside long ago. Frankly it's not The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which stands alone as an excellent work. (Discworld overall surpasses H2G2 in my opinion, though!) However, The Colour of Magic is notable as being the starting point of something really remarkable, and that makes it worthwhile.

39. Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin

Year Published: 1953
Pages: 263
First Sentence: Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father.
Rating: 1/3 (don't bother)

Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin | Two Hectobooks

Go Tell It On the Mountain marks the first time in my life that I've ever picked up on gay subtext in a book before it was explicitly pointed out to me, which I'm going to take as a sign that I'm getting better at this sort of thing. On the other hand, the book's content completely baffled me otherwise, so I'm not sure that's actually the case.

James Baldwin's first novel is a semi-autobiographical story about a black boy named John, growing up in Harlem in the 1930s. The bulk of the book takes place in church, as well as in reminiscences from John's aunt, stepfather, and mother. His stepfather is an abusive hypocrite, his mother is trapped in a marriage with him because she didn't want her bastard son to grow up without a father. John is a very smart, sensitive boy, who has feelings about other boys and also struggles with religion and his feelings about his family. The book is mostly just a snapshot of John's life, occurring prior to his conversion experience.

Following so close on the heels of The Heart of Matter, I couldn't help comparing John's religious experience in this book—I'm not sure exactly which flavour of Christianity this is, maybe Southern Baptist—with my own experience of Catholicism, and let me tell you, the contrast is sharp. Aside from some of the wilder mystics, Catholicism is about 95% stodgy ceremony and ritualism. The religion John and his family are practising in this book is ecstatic and free-flowing. John is waiting for a conversion experience to be "saved," whereas Catholics are baptized soon after birth.

Baldwin is tremendously good at getting into his characters' heads: each of them has a clear point of view. That's part of how I got so lost. There's no clear perspective on any of this, and I like it when books tell me what their opinions are, even if I'm not about to agree with those opinions. Thanks to skimming Baldwin's Wikipedia page, I think part of this problem comes from the fact that Baldwin himself was quite ambivalent on the topic of religion and whether it's a force for good or evil in the world, and in the lives of black Americans especially.

There are some really affecting passages in this book, especially those dealing with black men's experiences with racism in both the North and South. However, there are also copious amounts of bible stuff and religious imagery, and that got tedious, so it resulted in a lower rating.

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Her eyes told him that she thought he was a fool; but that, even had she loved him ever so desperately, it would have been beneath her to argue about his decision—a large part of her simplicity consisted in determining not to want what she could not have with ease.
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What I'm Reading: The House With a Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs

This is my second Classics Club review! This time we're looking at a children's classic. -M.R.

I've lamented before how few children's classics I actually read during my childhood, and John Bellairs' 1973 novel, The House With a Clock in Its Walls is the kind of thing I'm talking about. This book has been on my radar for a while, and has a reputation for being spooky and great. I moved it up on my list of books to read when I found out that there's a movie adaptation being released this year.

(Warning that the trailer below reveals quite a few plot points.)

So, what's the actual book about and what did I think about it?

It's 1948 and Lewis Barnavelt is ten years old. He is a bit chubby, a bit nerdy, and a bit Catholic. At the very beginning of the book, his parents have died suddenly in a car accident, and he's en route to live with his bachelor Uncle Jonathan in New Zebedee, Michigan.
... his Uncle Jonathan, whom he had never met in his life. Of course, Lewis had heard a few things about Uncle Jonathan, like that he smoked and drank and played poker. These were not such bad things in a Catholic family, but Lewis had two maiden aunts who were Baptists, and they had warned him about Jonathan. He hoped that the warnings would turn out to be unnecessary.
What Lewis's aunts haven't warned him about is that Jonathan is a wizard/warlock/magician, living in a huge house with a more or less persistent ticking noise. Jonathan also has a friend, Mrs. Zimmermann, who loves the colour purple with the fire of a thousand suns, and who's an even better magic user than Jonathan.

The book bounces between delightful scenes of domestic warmth between these three characters, Jonathan demonstrating his magic, Lewis' struggles to fit in as a chubby, nerdy kid, and then occasional forays into the plot, which concerns that ticking and the evil wizard Isaac Izard who used to own Jonathan's house.

I couldn't stop thinking of what good care these adults were taking with a small boy who's just lost everything he knows, even though the book doesn't explicitly get into that at all. Jonathan is never cold toward Lewis or resentful of his presence, and both Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmermann show Lewis a lot of affection and make him feel secure. That made me really happy, because I feel like a book like this would typically be a lot more cruel to Lewis.

Which isn't to say that everything is rosy, either. Lewis pals around with a boy named Tarby for a while. Tarby is a popular boy but gets stuck with Lewis thanks to a broken arm. He's kind of a jerk to Lewis, which Lewis does his best to ignore because he's just so happy to have a friend. It was kind of hard to read at times!

I think if I'd read this book twenty or more years ago, as an actual child, I would've absolutely loved it. I could've related to Lewis's social awkwardness (let's be real, I still sort of do!), and the spooky scary stuff would've been right up my alley. As it is, I'm an adult reader who prefers things to be more thoroughly developed. I'm not sure if anyone is writing these short novels for kids anymore, if they're all huge and epic, but I found the brevity of this refreshing. There's no magic "system" here, it's just magic, which I also appreciated.

Basically, this is a great classic for a young reader, but may not suit more mature tastes.