Random (but not really)

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Comfort Reads, Part the First

This has been a rough year for everyone. A lot of people either can’t read at all, or are devouring comfort reads. I obviously fall into the latter category. 40% of the books I’ve read so far this year have been re-reads.

I decided to share what I’d been reading, in case you were searching for an escape from a world that isn’t getting any better.

With four exceptions, my rereads were romance or romance-adjacent. Those exceptions ended up being books/authors I’ve re-read countless times.

4.50 from PaddingtonStart off with two of those exceptions, I re-read most of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series: The Murder at the Vicarage (1930), The Body in the Library (1942), Miss Marple: The Complete Short Stories (1985), The Moving Finger (1943), A Murder Is Announced (1950), They Do It With Mirrors (1952), A Pocket Full of Rye (1953), 4.50 from Paddington (1957), The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962), A Caribbean Mystery (1964).

I fell in love with the Miss Marple series in high school, and they were always the stories I reached for when I was sick. They also work well for sick-at-heart.

Miss Marple stories are the original cozies: no gore, no sex, the bad guy always gets their comeuppance in the end. What I had managed to forget is just how old the books are. The Murder at the Vicarage is 90 years old and set after the Great War.

Yet aside from the setting, it doesn’t feel dated—mostly because the solutions come from a little old lady who can’t easily get around. In fact, the first stories—written in 1927 and 1928 were riddles posed after dinner, to which one participant knew the result and the rest of the guests had to posit their answer to the solution.

There is no action or adventure, just an old lady with a strong sense of justice wanting to make sure wrongs are righted.

Small VicesThe other mystery I grabbed for comfort is the Small Vices, Audio Edition (1997). This is the first Robert B. Parker Spenser mystery I came across, and in a very rare occurrence, my first encounter was the audio book narrated by Burt Reynolds.

I fell in love, and read the Spenser books as I could find them at the used book store (so very much out of order. Even all these years later, I still think this is a nearly perfect book. Spenser is almost killed, and unlike every other action hero, has to spend months rehabilitating. It’s those scenes–Hawk and Spenser walking up the hill—that show you just how determined Spenser is to get better, but also how much Hawk and Susan love him, that they are willing to give up their lives for the endeavor. (Even if that is a word Hawk would never EVER use).

The other thing is that despite being a comfort read, there is a LOT of gray here. Spenser is hired to see if a murder conviction needs to be overturned, but the man who was convicted is in no way innocent, and the world probably is a better place with Alves behind bars.

But the whole story comes together so perfectly in all its complexity and is an amazing portrait of a man who does what is right—even if it isn’t seemingly what is good.

And like the Agatha Christie stories, aside from the rare mention of cell phones, this is another story that sits outside of time for me.

Feet of ClayThe only straight-up fantasy to make it as a comfort read is Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series: Guards! Guards! (1989), Men at Arms (1993), Feet of Clay (1996), Jingo (1997), The Fifth Elephant (1999). Specifically, the guard story arc. However, I’ll note I got hung up on Night Watch because it’s time travel adjacent, and I really can’t stand anything time travel related. I really need to just put it down and go onto the next story.

Like the previous two comfort reads, much of this series focuses on justice. Vimes observes everything around him, and his internal commentary upon the world remains dead-on. And Men At Arms has four paragraphs that are some of the most biting social commentary I have read anywhere. Ever.

The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.

Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of okay for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. These were the kinds of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.

But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years time, when a poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

This was the Captain Samuel Vimes ‘Boots’ theory of socio-economic unfairness.


Why is this a comfort? Because Pratchett managed to do all this with incredible humor and even gentleness.

The last of the four is Sergei Lukyanenko‘s Night Watch series translated by Andrew Bromfield, narrated by Paul Michael : The Night Watch (1998/2006/2010), Day Watch (2000/2006/2010). I listen to podcasts or audio books while exercising and cooking and cleaning, and I was having difficulty finding something to motivate me, so I feel back upon the Night Watch series.

I truly have no idea how many times I’ve read this series. This is a Russian series, set primarily in Moscow, and remains unlike anything else I’ve read. The books follow Anton Gorodetsky, Other through his time in the Moscow Night Watch, but they are so much more than that.

I’ll admit that his female characters tend to be weak. Alissa is the only female character whose mind we really see—and she’s pretty awful. Yet she’s also complicated, and in some ways redeemed at the end of her story.

But why the series is a comfort read for me is because it is a complete escape from everything I know.

Got any good comfort reads for me?

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