The year was 2002. I was 33, but didn't look a day over 32. Enough time had passed since my soul sucking sojourn on the prairie that I was back to my devil-may-care Northwestern self. Up until the fall of that year, I was reading up a storm. I don't know what I did for the winter months, but it apparently wasn't reading, since I read nothing (that's right NOTHING) between October and the start of December. I think this may have been the year we got our DVD player, so it's possible that I was focusing more greatly on movies. It may also have been a period where I was reading a lot of political science, which I don't always tend to finish, and I have a rule about not recording anything until I've read the whole book, so that might explain the gap. Nonetheless, looking back over the rest of the year, however, it seemed to be a big year for discovering authors who were new to me and also tending to focus on the works of a few authors rather than branching out a lot. Here are some of the more memorable ones:
1) Barbara Michaels, Houses of Stone
For as long as I can remember, Barbara Michaels has been my favorite light reading. Her books always involve a big spooky house, a plucky heroine and a plot tinged with supernatural events. When I was in college, I had a little ritual of reading one of her novels as soon as the stress of the semester was over. Barbara Michaels got me through more than a few papers in grad school, because I knew that once they were over, I'd have the reward of escaping into one of her novels. Being not quite as insipidly stupid as a romantic fiction, which I've never loved, but still light enough to be entertaining without a lot of intellectual investment, they were always the perfect reward book. Houses of Stone is one of my favorites. It features an English professor who has discovered a lost manuscript of a 19th century female poet. As she begins to obsessively research the woman, a ghost story begins to unfold. That, a big bag of fresh cherries and a nicely chilled freezy cup of diet coke make for the perfect lazy summer reading!
2) Sharan Newman, Death Comes as Epiphany
2002 was the year that I discovered the Catherine Le Vendeur mystery series. The mysteries are penned by medievalist Sharan Newman, who manages to write entertaining, but intelligent mysteries set against the backdrop of 12th century France. The heroine of Newman's novels is a young scholar, Catherine Le Vendeur, whom we meet at the Convent of the Paraclete. The series is interesting for not only the mystery and romance of the plots, but also for the realistic picture Newman paints of daily life in the 12th century. Newman is able to do this because of her vast knowledge of the period. Even though their work is vastly different, I think that one of the things that she and Barbara Michaels share is that they are both educated, articulate women and that comes through in their writing. I've read three or four novels in this series and look forward to reading more, but have to say that the first is still my favorite.
3) Neil Gaiman, Stardust
If 2001 was the year that I fell in love with Neil Gaiman, 2002 is the year I got to know him better. If I didn't say in my last post that Neverwhere was my favorite Gaiman novel, then I would like to say that Stardust is. The story has a magical MÃÂ¤rchen-like quality that reminds me of why the Grimms, Perrault and Hans Christian Anderson have always been among my favorite parts of the 19th century. Of course Gaiman is a modern writer, but whether intended or not there are some similarities between this work and those of fairy tales and German Romanticism that could make for an interesting article. Academics aside, Stardust is the enchanting tale of Tristran Thorn who sets out beyond the hamlet of Wall to the terrain of Faerie in search for the fallen star he hopes will win him the love of the cold but beautiful Victoria Forester. On the way he encountersexhilarating adventures and magical characters that interweave to create an engaging story of the sort that can be enjoyed again and again. In fact, just thinking about the story makes me want to reread it!
4) Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett, Good Omens
In the year of getting to know Neil Gaiman, I also got to know Terry Pratchett. While I have grown to appreciate each in his own right, the two of them together are hilarious. What is not to love about a doomsday novel featuring characters like Sister Mary Loquacious of the Chattering Order? The best, however, are the friendly rivals Aziraphale (full-time angel and part-time rare book dealer) and the Crowley (an angel "who did not fall so much as saunter vaguely downwards") the respective emissaries of God and the Devil. In the course of their work that they have grown to so fond of the human race and life on earth that they want to save them. I think the best description I've read of the book was in the publishing blurbs on the inside cover: "Imagine The Omen as performed by Monty Python." That just about covers the mood of the book. However you choose to imagine the book, it irreverent, funny and definitely worth the read.
5) Hermann Hesse, Demian
What pithy statement do you write about a Nobel prize winner? Hermann Hesse rocks? His novel about Emil Sinclair and his dark friend (some say alter-ego) Max Demian is one that changes each time I read it. For me, that has always been the mark of a good poem or piece of fiction. It grows with the individual. Demian is up there with Hesse's great novels Steppenwolf, Siddhartha (my personal favorite) and Narzissus and Goldmund (the first Hesse novel I ever read). Actually, I take that back, the first Hesse novel I ever read was Peter Camenzind. I don't think it's as well known in the English speaking world has Hesse's bigger novels, but I've always been fond of it. As a young person, its themes of going out into the world to seek one's fortune and coming full circle to find that contentment has more to do with the inner workings of the self than with georgraphical location were a revelation. Having always enjoyed Existentialists like Sartre and Camus, Hesse's interest in existential themes appeals to me. If I were making a list of must read Nobel prize winners, Hesse would definitely be on it.
6) Gerd Brantenberg, Egalia's Daughters
Aside from the fact that the Arcola area Amish not only don't use but actually eschew buttons, Gerd Brantenberg was one of my most fun discoveries during my aforementioned soul sucking period on the prairie. Originally written in Norwegian, Egalia's Daughters is a satire of the sexes, set in a world where beard bow wearing menwom are housebound and seeking liberation in the masculinist movement. This, of course, upsets the wom, who want to hold onto their social and economic power and can only do this by keeping the menwom down. Published in the 70's, the book is a bit dated, but still very funny (especially the part where a young boy in an early rite of manhood goes shopping for his first peho) in its depiction of how arbitrary some of our social mores really are.
7) Neil Gaiman, American Gods
I think I've said enough about Neil Gaiman. If you haven't read this, you should! A good part of the action is set at House on the Rock, for Pete's sake! If you don't know what House on the Rock is, read this. I think the part about HoTR explains the mood. What better place to set a novel? The only thing kitschier would be a murder mystery set in the aisles of Wall Drug. While I admit this is not my absolute favorite Gaiman novel, it's definitely worth the read.
8) Alison Lurie, Women and Ghosts
Before receiving a copy of Women and Ghosts as a Christmas gift, I had never read anything of Lurie's. If I am honest, I have not read anything of hers since, even though I would like to. Women and Ghosts is a collection of short stories. In addition to being a Pulitzer prize winner, Lurie is a literature and writing professor at Cornell university and has done a lot of work with editing children's literature. In trying to refresh my memory on Lurie, I read a Publishers Weekly review of Women and Ghosts that calls the collection "disappointing" and "wraithlike entertainment from an author who usually delivers far more substantive work". While I can agree that the collection was light, I found it far from disappointing. Perhaps if I knew more of her work, I might think differently, but I doubt it. It was satisfying entertainment and there is nothing wrong with that. I like deep, difficult books as much as the next guy (probably moreso), but there are times when it's enough as a reader to just to be drawn into a good story. That's what ghost stories are supposed to do, isn't it?
9) Neil Gaiman, Coraline
If I were going to write a children's story, Coraline would be it. To be fair, I must admit that I never actually read this book. I listened to Neil Gaiman read it on cd. It is the perfect kind of story to heard read aloud. It is just the sort of thing I loved as a girl. It's spooky without being terrifying, there are alternate, twisted worlds, and the story is engrossing. What more can one ask?
10) Charlaine Harris, Dead Until Dark
This is the first book in a series of vampire mysteries set in small town Louisiana. If the Publishers Weekly reviewer thought Lurie was light spook-fluff, I shuddered to think what he would have to say about Charlaine Harris. What Publishers Weekly did have to say was, "Fans of Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake looking for a lighter version of the vampire huntress should cotton to Sookie Stackhouse." And they almost got it right. Harris' Southern vampire series is good, light fun without the perverted triumverate orgies of the train wreck that has become Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake series. Don't get me wrong, the Anita Blake books were never high on literary value or even what could technically be referred to as good, but the early ones had a kind of guilty pleasure entertainment value. Anita Blake's whole "I may have to wear an outfit comprised of stillettos, some leather butt floss and a studded bra and sleep with forty vampires at once to feed the ardeur, but I am a good, moral girl and not a tramp" routine has always been a bit tedious, but now the books have crossed the line to just plain awful. Thankfully, there is still Charlaine Harris (although I heard somewhere that Sookie Stackhouse may be tarting it up ÃÂ la Anita Blake in the near future. Hopefully electric blue izod shirts and black Reebocks are not in her future. I warn you right now, Charlaine Harris, that I am putting the book down immediately never to pick it up again if Bill the Vampire shows up in a frilly, lace shirt and leather pants).
Thus ends 2002, although I should point out that Jasper Pforde's The Eyre Affair and Paolo Coehlo's Veronika Decides to Die deserve honorable mention, even though they din't make the top 10.