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Pratchett’s “The Shepherd’s Crown” and A Pair of Sensible Boots

[Spoilers the size of Granny’s Boots.  Seriously, this post will spoil you on one of the most important moments in the book and in the series.]

Reading Sir Terry Pratchett’s last book in his Discworld Series, The Shepherd’s Crown, left me feeling emotionally raw in the best kind of way. While it may have been a bit less polished compared with earlier books in the series, it contained gorgeous emotional depth. It contained so much feeling, so much love. It contained warnings. It contained hope. Sometimes we, either individually or as a society, lose our way, but we can work together for the good of the community. Terry Pratchett believed in us. He believed that good people can prevail—not perfect people and not followers of a particular creed.  But rather good people who care about others and do the things that need doing. People able to both listen and truly see the world around them.

Although I have many books left to read in the Discworld series, I wanted to read this final book, as it was in his young adult series that I love. For those who haven’t read Terry Pratchett, he used different characters in his various sub-series in Discworld. One included witches like Granny Weatherwax. In his young adult series, he follows the childhood, adolescence, and, in this book, emerging adulthood of Tiffany Aching. (Incidentally, I loved Granny Weatherwax, as well as her principles, so much that I named my car after her. My next car will likely be named after Tiffany.)

Reading this book was highly emotional since Terry Pratchett had early onset Alzheimers and passed away in March of 2015.  Before I read the book, I experienced a sense of loss and sadness. I wondered what the tone of his last novel would be like. I was right to expect an emotional response to the book, but I didn’t expect the wealth and variety of feelings I had. Pratchett seemed to love all his characters; this love never seemed so profound to me as in “The Shepherd’s Crown.” It radiated. As far as I know, Tiffany is the only character that he “raised” from childhood and focused on so extensively. In his books, he shaped her to be the representative of what he thought a good person, and a good leader, should be like.

I’ve been thinking about what it takes to make a good society and a good person lately, as this year has seemed especially filled with international tension. Terry Pratchett’s entire series dealt with this, but, in his final book, his thoughts became even more clear. This book was about communities and relationships. Throughout the books, Granny’s role as Tiffany’s mentor was essential. Granny dies in this book in a very low key way.  Her interaction with one of the main character’s in Pratchett’s series, Death, was important to the theme that Pratchett developed on what a good person, and a good life, actually is. Knowing that Death was coming for her, some of Granny’s considerate last acts were deep cleaning her home, thanking her bees, feeding her goats and chickens, and bathing herself. Death comes to take Granny’s soul.

Her visitor was no stranger, and the land she knew she was going to was a land she had helped many others to step through to over the years. For a witch stands on the very edge of everything between the light and the dark, between life and death, making choices, making decisions so that others can pretend that no decisions have even been made.  Sometimes they need to help some poor soul through the final hours, help them find the door, not to get lost in the dark (28).

Death and Granny converse. He asks her why she was content to live in “‘this tiny little country’” when she “‘could have been anything and anybody in the world?’” (29). Granny replied that she “‘never wanted the world—just a part of it, a small part that I could keep safe, that I could keep away from the storms. Not the ones in the sky, you understand: there are other kinds’” (29).

Death states:

“WE ARE ALL FLOATING IN THE WINDS OF TIME.  BUT YOUR CANDLE, MISTRESS WEATHERWAX, WILL FLICKER FOR SOME TIME BEFORE IT GOES OUT—A LITTLE REWARD FOR A LIFE WELL LIVED, FOR I CAN SEE THE BALANCE AND YOU HAVE LEFT THE WORLD MUCH BETTER THAN YOU FOUND IT. AND IF YOU ASK ME, NOBODY COULD DO ANY BETTER THAN THAT” (30).

For two pages, characters from the entire DiscWorld series become aware that Granny Weatherwax has died and mourn her loss in their unique ways. This illustrates how the effects of her life ripple outward.  However, this book is about Tiffany becoming an adult.

Shoes, generally, are a theme throughout Pratchett’s work. The book begins with a mention of Tiffany’s boots, an important symbol.

Today, for some reason, [Tiffany] had felt the need to come up to the stones. Like any sensible witch, she wore strong boots that could march through anything—good, sensible boots. But they did not stop her feeling her land, feeling what it told her. It had begun with a tickle, an itch that crept into her feet and demanded to be heard, urging her to tramp over the downs, to visit the circle. Even while she was sticking her hand up a sheep’s bottom to sort out a nasty case of colic.  Why she had to go to the stones, Tiffany did not know, but no witch ignored what could be a summons. And the circles stood as protection. Protection for her land. Protection for what could come through (4).

Tiffany gets outside confirmation that her feeling was correct. When Granny dies, the expectation is that Tiffany will lead the witches, although witches don’t officially have leaders. Granny leaves “all of it” to Tiffany, except her cat, who had a mind of her own. Tiffany thinks, “‘How can I possibly tread in the footsteps of Granny Weatherwax?  She is…was…unfollowable (43).

Pratchett’s thoughts on leadership are readily apparent, as Nanny Ogg, another witch in the series, says to Tiffany, “‘It’s you Tiff. Esme’s left you her cottage.  But more’n that.  You must step into the shoes of Granny Weatherwax or else’n someone less qualified with try an’ do it” (55). We have a responsibility to lead.

Although Tiffany has many doubts, Nanny expressed strongly (based on the previous books in the series) why Tiffany has earned the position by her own actions and merits. Tiffany tries to manage her own homestead in the Chalk, while trying both literally and figuratively to fill Granny’s boots and handle Granny’s Homestead. The book explores that being an individuated adult does not mean literally becoming the same as your elders.  It means finding your own path, your own loves, your own strengths, your own limits, and your own home. Tiffany wears her own boots, not Granny’s.

In the end, Pratchett’s major theme and symbol for the book, and the series, is the shepherd’s crown.  Tiffany’s ancestor, a shepherd, finds a shell. In the prologue, a sea creature developed a shell and survived. “…[T]here the creature lived on things even smaller than itself and grew until it became king” (1). It died when the water evaporated. Time passed until the day when “it was found by a shepherd minding his flock on the hills that had become known as the chalk” (2).  The shepherd was Tiffany’s ancestor, who saved the shell because it looked like a crown.  It passed down in the family until it was in Tiffany’s possession. Tiffany uses it to remind herself that she is of the chalk. Later in the book, a creature says to Tiffany:

“And I am the shepherd’s crown. Deep in my heart is the flint.  And I have many uses.  Some call me the sea urchin, others the thunderstone, but here, now, in this place, call me the shepherd’s crown.  I seek a true shepherd.  Where can a true shepherd be found?” (237).

At first, Tiffany thinks of her father. But then, she hears a voice, “‘Tiffany Aching is the first among shepherds, for she puts others before herself. . . .”(238).

The shepherd’s crown is in contrast to the usual idea of hereditary authority coming through a crown. (Other books in the series have discussed authority, power, and the crown.) However, the people that Pratchett argues do the most good in this final book for others are the people like Tiffany. They are quite powerful. However, they don’t thirst for power. But they do have power, and they use it when necessary. The witches fight for their communities and battle for them. Pratchett didn’t shy away from fighting when the community was threatened. But they also cut old men’s toenails. They do what is necessary for their flock.

Pratchett also explored differences between men and women’s experiences in the village communities. This might make some people uncomfortable, but I thought that he made a good point. A goat herder that joins them who has talents similar to the witches, including a goat familiar. Tiffany’s first big divergence as a leader was to welcome him as a witch. (This paralleled a previous Pratchett story where a woman became a wizard.) The older men in the community welcomed him and shared their invention with him. It is likely that they would not have felt as comfortable sharing the weapon with a woman, even a witch. The character was a vegetarian and looked at the world differently. In the end, he takes over Granny’s homestead. Tiffany returns to her own, and makes her own moving tiny home. She learns carpentry so that she can make her own home.  I think this is a major statement that Pratchett is making.  (It reminds me of the argument in “Shop Class as Soul Craft,” a book that a friend recommended to me years ago.  The book discussed the value and meaning of different types of work, especially that which people often devalue: making things.)

Ultimately, I think that Pratchett was arguing that we are connected intimately with our ancestors and our land.  It’s a relationship that we shouldn’t ignore. We can change, we can grow, but we should also acknowledge our roots. We build relationships over decades. We all like to feel useful. Even if we no longer live where our ancestors did, we should strive to understand and benefit our local community.  This includes people, wildlife, and the community itself.

I felt like Pratchett eased my grieving process over his death through showing the characters grieving the loss of Granny Weatherwax.  Although I didn’t know him, his creativity and values have shaped my life.

The whole forest sang now sang for Granny Weatherwax….

Where is Granny now? Tiffany wondered. Could a part of her still be…here? She jumped as something touched her on the shoulder, but it was just a leaf. Then, deep inside, she knew the answer to her question: Where is Granny Weatherwax?

It was: She is here—and everywhere (54).

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Fairy Tales and Feminist Themes in Neil Gaiman’s “The Sleeper and the Spindle”

[Kingdom shattering spoilers ahead. Beware.]

The queen felt something stirring in her heart. She remembered her stepmother, then. Her stepmother liked to be adored. Learning how to be strong, to feel her own emotions and not another’s, had been hard; but once you learned the trick of it, you did not forget. And she did not wish to rule continents (Gaiman 59).

The Sleeper and the Spindle, Neil Gaiman’s refreshing, modern take on fairy tales illustrates at least two massively important feminist messages: (1) women must first discover that their own emotions belong to them, and (2) women must learn to make choices based on their own feelings, not to please their families, lovers, or society. Before I discuss my thoughts on the importance of the book, I have to state how much I loved the process of experiencing the book. The translucent dust jacket is a work of art, in and of itself, etched with black roses and golden vines, which are relevant to the plot. The sleeping woman on the cover looks slightly out of focus, perhaps as if she is behind glass.  However, if you remove the jacket, she comes into focus. In fact, this mirrors what happens in the book since the sleeping “princess” is revealed to be the power hungry witch. The illustrator, Chris Riddell’s, attention to detail is amazing, and I reread the book to specifically appreciate the art. For example, I noticed the detail that the queen, the hero of the story, has a comforter on her bed with golden skulls. However, the reason I picked the book up in the first place was that I adore Neil Gaiman’s fairy tales from Stardust to Coraline to The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Fairy tales are important and relevant for society.

Due to the fact that I write fiction, I have read many of Gaiman’s thoughts on storytelling, including his thoughts on fairy tales. This piece he wrote for the Guardian on Stardust discusses a bit of the history of fairy tales: why they are loved, why they fell out of favor with adults, and their return.  I feel that Neil Gaiman’s works have, in concert with the works of others, led to a revival and renaissance of fairy tales, as discussed in this recent interview of Gaiman by Gaby Woods. I personally loved fairy tales well before reading Stardust. As a girl, I discovered a book at my grandmother’s house that included many fairy stories. I adored The Light Princess. Every time I visited my grandmother, all through my teens and twenties, I read the story. Now, the old, tattered green book is a part of my own collection.

I love fairy tales because they help us make sense of our world, our society, and the dangers (and magnificence) inherent in being alive. Potentially, they play a role in socializing and entertaining both children and adults. This means it’s imperative to have fairy tales written for and reflecting the age that we live in. We live in an uncertain age of anomie, or a breaking down of norms and stability. We’re dealing with globalization, changes in technology, greed, thirst for power, war, changing gender roles, and unobtainable beauty standards, just to name a few. Gaiman included this G.K. Chesterton quote in Coraline, “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”  We need to understand the dangers we face, the potential solutions to those dangers, and that we have the agency to make choices to help. In this time period and in the future, how should individuals act?  How should communities act? What are our responsibilities to ourselves and to one another? Fairy tales allow us to consider these questions.

Turning specifically to Gaiman’s work, The Sleeper and the Spindle, he states in an interview, “‘You don’t need princes to save you…I don’t have a lot of patience for stories in which women are rescued by men.”  The main character, the queen, lived in one kingdom and was running her affairs of state, including getting married in a week. In the past, she had defeated her abusive stepmother. Her friends, the dwarves, traveled to the neighboring kingdom to get her a proper gift. While in the neighboring kingdom, they discover that a sleep spell is taking over and spreading. They return to their queen and inform her of the danger.  She decided to go investigate the situation herself due to her experience with sleep spells, temporarily putting off her marriage and placing her responsibilities in capable hands of her first minister. Eventually, she and the dwarves make it to the castle where the spell is emanating from, and they eventually get inside. They find a beautiful woman they believe is the bespelled princess.  However, this woman is actually a witch who had been stealing the life and dreams of the actual princess, who had become quite elderly.

Reading The Sleeper and the Spindle led me to reflect on gender roles. Often, girls are taught that their own emotions, especially of anger, are invalid. They are expected to be exactly what their caregivers need them to be. For children dealing with a narcissistic caregiver, it is an incredibly powerful moment to realize that your emotions are your own.  If you do not learn the lesson, then your entire life, your entire thread, will be co-opted and corrupted by someone else. The true danger that this fairy tale warns us of is giving away our power to make choices for our own lives.

The heroic queen woke up from a spell that her stepmother had placed on her at a young age prior to the beginning of this story.  Although she escaped her stepmother, she was still living life the way society expected her to—running a kingdom and getting married. This despite the fact that she didn’t seem to have major inclinations to do either thing. So many people get caught up in these traps: fulfilling cultural or parental expectations instead of venturing onto the new paths for themselves. In the end, the dwarf says to the queen:

“And your wedding will be late, but it will happen soon after your return, and the people will celebrate, and there will be joy unbounded through the kingdom…”

…There are choices, she thought, when she had sat long enough. There are always choices.

She made one…

…They walked to the east, all four of them, away from the sunset and the lands they knew, and into the night (66).

It is a difficult balance to strike between the needs we have as individual people and the needs of the community.  However, for young (and not so young) women, we need to learn the lesson that our lives belong to us: not to our parents, not to our teachers, and not to our lovers. This lesson is hard when you’ve been taught your whole life that being a woman requires giving to others all the time. The concept in sociology of supermom is relevant here. A “good” woman in the United States is supposed to be a perfect giver in all the arenas she participates including work, family, volunteer organizations, etc. These norms are slowly changing as women are starting, through hard work (and possibly therapy) to see that they deserve to be be a whole person, not just one who only fulfills others needs.

The queen had to learn how to feel her own emotions first.  Once she learned that lesson, she could then go on to realize that she could make her own choices based on how she felt. In Arlie Hochschild’s book, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, she posits that when we ignore our emotional systems for our workplaces that we can be harmed.  Our emotions are valuable: they allow us to know when we are being mistreated or when something is (or isn’t) right for us. If you are divorced from your emotional system for long enough, you can start to feel numb, alienated, and at distance from yourself, as if in a deep sleep, like the fairy tales often allude to.

The queen attempts to wake up the princess like men do with a kiss, but it turns out that the witch was actually the one sleeping.  She had cast a spell and stolen the youth of the princess via her dreams and sleep.  In the end, the princess, stabs the witch with the spindle that had been stealing the princess’ life force. I think this is a powerful metaphor. An older woman was stealing the life of a young person by stealing her dreams. And we need to be cautious to avoid becoming like the witch in this tale.  We shouldn’t seek power, beauty, and youth as the main goals of our lives. Again, Gaiman warns against craving, as I discuss in this previous post on Buddhism in The Ocean at the End of the Lane. One of the major dangers of our time is the craving for unobtainable things: youth, beauty, and power.

We need to be teaching young women that they own their emotions and that they are in control of their own lives. This doesn’t mean that women have no responsibility to community, quite the contrary. I get the sense that the queen was going adventuring to help other people. But she was going to help people on her own terms, not the one’s her society had forced on her.  She also gave up the chance to become the witch, to dominate the will of her society, just because of her title. We need to trail blaze new paths.

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Craving and Alienation in Neil Gaiman’s “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains”

[There are major spoilers in this cave. Beware.]

One of the impressive aspects of Neil Gaiman’s works is how he weaves magical stories that are relevant, cautionary tales for our own time.  Recently, I read The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains: A Tale of Travel and Darkness with Pictures of All Kinds and noticed similar themes to The Ocean at the End of the Lane about the dangers of money and craving.  I discussed this theme briefly in my post from last year.

The plot of Gaiman’s story begins with the unnamed protagonist finding a guide, Calum MacInnes, to take him to a cave on Misty Isle.  People seek the cave because it contains gold, although gold is ultimately not what the protagonist wants.   Calum used the money from his previous trip in the cave as a bride-price and for his farm. The locals can find the cave, too, but they know better than to enter it. Calum states, “[b]ut they are too wise to come here, to take its gold.  They say that the cave makes you evil: that each time you visit it, each time you enter to take gold, it eats the good in your soul, so they do not enter (46). However, Calum doesn’t believe that the cave feeds on good and evil.  Rather, he feels that his experience afterwards was that “things are flat.  There is less beauty in a rainbow, less meaning in a sermon, less joy in a kiss…”(47). Calum notes that eventually nothing means anything, not even killing a man.

Gaiman drives the point home by revealing that Calum is the one whose lack of care and negligent actions lead to the death of the protagonist’s daughter.  He chose to leave her tied to a tree by her long, red hair, unable to reach her knife. She died there.  This was over the fact the Calum was stealing the cattle that the protagonist himself had stolen, and the young woman stood up to Calum.  When Calum returned in a year, he realized what he had done.  He says to the protagonist, “It was an evil thing I did, perhaps.” The protagonist, the dead girl’s father, says, “There is evil.” Calum’s love of wealth led to the death of a human being.

It is revealed later that money in the cave is not exactly money. The protagonist’s father was not a mortal, and his heritage allows him the ability to see the creature living the cave.  It explains to him: “I taste their pleasure and their joy.  I feed, a little, feed on what they do not need and do not value.  A taste of heart, a lick and a nibble of their fine consciences, a sliver of soul” (56). The creature provides the protagonist with a weapon and informs him of when Calum sleeps since Calum intends to ambush the protagonist when he emerges with the gold.

Calum and the protagonist fight, and they fall over a cliff onto a tree. The protagonist makes a promise to come back to help—in a year.  This parallels the year that Calum left the girl to tie through his negligence and thievery. In his narration, the protagonist states, “I take no joy in killing; no man should, and no woman.  Sometimes, death is necessary , but it is always an evil thing.  That is something I am in no doubt of, even after the events I speak of here” (38).

This tale reflected a great deal on money, property, alienation, and evil. In many societies, people are taught the ideology that money is both Real and Important, when it is really just a social construct.  It causes problems including alienation, or estrangement, from our lives, labor, and communities, similar to Calum’s experience after leaving the cave. In turn, this alienation from his community, in addition to his desire for riches led to the death of an innocent through negligence.  Money doesn’t have to be real for us to suffer from it.  In theory, our lust for money (or in the case of cows, property) destroys us, it makes us more likely to harm others.

A few other scenes illustrate these points about greed and property further.  In one scene during the men’s travels, they stay with a man and woman.  The woman is treated by her man as if she is property.  He beats her for making choices he disagrees with,  and then “he had his way with her” which agitates the protagonist, although he doesn’t interfere (20).  In another scene, the protagonist does not cheat the ferryman, though the ferryman would have charged him as a boy due to his small stature. This interaction illustrates the use of money for a transaction, rather than someone trying to maximize the money that he keeps.  If the protagonist had wanted to be wealthy, he would have allowed the ferryman’s misapprehension to continue. The issue with greed is that there is never enough to be satisfied.

At one point, Calum states: “‘Your King will want more gold, because Kings want more.  It is what they do.  Each time you come back, it will mean less. The rainbow means nothing. Killing a man means nothing’” (48).  While certainly this can be true of Kings as individual people, it can also be true of governments and corporations.  Organizations require more money.  Businesspersons desire more money.  Individual people in the United States (and other places) crave more money because they want to achieve the American Dream, or upwards social mobility.  Yet, the wealthier people become, their behaviors, on average, have been shown to become less generous.  This short PBS video documents studies by psychologists looking into the negative effects of being wealthy on behavior, as well as the effects of pretending that a person is wealthy.  (My favorite from this video is that drivers of luxury cars were less likely to follow the law and stop for pedestrians crossing.)

The more we strive for extrinsic, external rewards, the less we can experience the beauty of the world, the beauty of other people, or the fruits of rewarding labor.  Many work to gain wealth, rather than working for passion.  There are many cases of corporations choosing to maximize their profits over the wellbeing of people in their communities like the avoidable West Virginia water crisis earlier this year. In this blog post, Robert Reich discusses how corporations are blamed as entities, but individuals are still the one’s making decisions.  GM did nothing about a faulty ignition switch that led to 13 fatalities, and both executives and engineers knew about it, as discussed in this article.  Individuals and organizations can lose sight of the community as they attempt to gain wealth.

“The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains” is a meditation in the nature of good and evil as it relates to money and property.  While I don’t necessarily think that Gaiman was stating that all money or property is inherently evil, I do think that he repeatedly warns of the dangers inherent of craving property instead of focusing on the well-being of others.  The final scene in his book is the protagonist turning his back on the cave and walking a path home to his wife, to his family.

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Socialization in Children’s Literature and Graphic Novels: The Owly Series and “The Blueberry Girl”

“Grant her the wisdom to choose her right path, free from unkindness and fear.” (Gaiman, “The Blueberry Girl”)

With the unfortunate myriad of social problems impacting the world today, I often think about the topic of socialization.  According to the textbook, “You May Ask Yourself,” socialization is “the process by which individuals internalize the values, beliefs, and norms of a given society and learn to function as members of that society” (Conley 114).  One of my favorite assignments that I created for my introduction to sociology class is one on children’s books and socialization.  The students have to learn about many different psychological and sociological theories relating to the stages of socialization.  I make the argument that children often learn a great deal from the media that they are exposed to like children’s books.  It’s both educational and fun for adults to go back and look at some of their childhood favorites like “Green Eggs and Ham” and “Where the Wild Things Are” to evaluate what norms and values are being taught to children in this society.

One of my closest friends started dating Andy Runton, the author of the Owly graphic novel series, years ago so I began reading his series due to their relationship.  Now, I’m hooked.  Although I’m likely biased, I think Owly and his friends have a great deal to add to the socialization of children (and adults).  The art is lovely, and the characters communicate through symbols.  In fact, one of my favorite symbols in the series is now the compact florescent light bulb used to convey one of the characters having an idea.  The main characters is an owl named Owly, who slowly makes friends through the series.  The series usually explores feelings of loneliness, friendship, and building community.   In terms of sociology, I think one of the strengths of Owly is that it deals with topics like stigmatization, in-groups, and out-groups.  It shows how we have to move past our stereotypes to see how the people (or in this case animals) that belong to other groups can be our friends.   In-groups are “social group toward which a member feels respect and loyalty” while out-groups are “a social group toward which a person feels a sense of competition or opposition” (Macionis 124).  Often, in-groups may become powerful and a negative label, called stigma, may be attached to the out-group.  This may lead to stereotyping about the other group or discrimination towards the other group.

For example, in Runton’s most recent book, “Bright Lights and Starry Nights,” Owly and his friend, Wormy, get a new telescope in the mail.  Along the way, they face challenges to using the telescope, partially due to their fears of the unknown visitors in the woods that they can hear.  The unknown visitors turn out to be a friendly bat population.  They help Owly and Wormy learn to use their telescope, although Owly and especially Wormy are afraid of the other at the beginning.  I believe that this piece is all about being willing to trust others, even when we’re afraid.  In this case, the bats were an out-group, meaning they were seen as an other that was perceived as frightening and potentially threatening.   Certainly, children and adults in our culture need to be taught that strangers do not necessarily mean them harm, and individuals from another culture may help us get past group think.  Diverse view points can help with problem solving.

Another book I read recently that might at first glance appear to be a children’s story is by Neil Gaiman.  This link to Gainman’s blog explains where “The Blueberry Girl” came from.  The poem begins as a prayer for a blueberry girl.  The art by Charles Vess fits the mood of the poem perfectly.  And I can imagine that if I were to ever raise a daughter, that I would want for her exactly what is mentioned in the book.

I love the idea of the child having an adventurous life full of physical activity and travels.  Part of the prayer states, “[h]elp her to help herself, help her to stand, help her to lose and to find.”  The reason that I love these ideas is that they acknowledge that a girl and a woman’s role in this world should be more than subscribed traditional gender roles.  And the book also mentions the pitfalls that many modern girls and women find themselves facing, like “false friends at fifteen” or ““bad husbands at thirty.”

Children’s literature and graphic novels can be an important part of the development of individuals with integrity in our society.  When I picked up Maus as a freshman in college more than a decade ago, I realized the importance of graphic novels and art as an important medium to convey important societal ideas.  The important questions for us as a society become how can we socialize people to value both community and the individual simultaneously.

 

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Seeing Beyond the Mask: Sociological Imagination and Dramaturgy in Terry Pratchett’s “Maskerade”

[Spoilers]

“Teach, no,” said Granny [to her new student, Agnes], “Ain’t got the patience for teaching,  But I might let you learn” (Pratchett 358)

For several years, I’ve found Terry Pratchett’s fantasy books to be incredibly humorous, heartwarming, and sociologically insightful.  For some reason, it took me several tries to read the first book, “The Color of Magic,” but I’ve been hooked ever since.  I’ve read around twenty-two of the books in the Discworld series, of which I believe there are 39.  People often argue over how to read Pratchett’s works since he writes about different series of characters like the witches, wizards, and guards.  I’ve been reading them in order of publication, except for the young adult series about Tiffany Aching, which I read out of sequence. (His last Tiffany Aching book is one of my favorite books.  Recently, my spouse got a book called “My Ideal Bookshelf.”  If I had only one bookshelf, I’m pretty sure it’d be on there.  It’s a tough choice though because whichever Pratchett book I’m currently reading might displace the others.)  Other readers of Discworld decide to read the books in a particular series before moving onto a different series.  Here is a chart that might be helpful, although it does not include the most recent books.

I just finished “Maskerade,” which is about an opera house that is experiencing a series of strange ghost sightings and murders. (Yes, you may say hello to a parody of “ The Phantom of the Opera”.)  Pratchett’s witches series always deals with important ideas about community, helping others, and where the boundaries of good and evil lie.  With my interest in musicals growing up, I particularly enjoyed the references to both classic opera and modern day musicals in this particular book.  Furthermore, the witches books often deal with Shakespearian ideas, as well as folklore.

Terry Pratchett’s rules for his witches actually remind me, to a certain extent, of the sociological imagination.  “The Sociological Imagination” is a book, as well as a concept, by the sociologist C. Wright Mills, who was critical of other sociologists in his time.  He thought that sociologists (and sociology students) should be able to see how our individual, personal troubles connect with the larger social forces around us.  This is often stated as we need to note how the historical and biographical connect to one another.  This video briefly explains the sociological imagination (as well as mentioning part of the sociological perspective.) In “Maskerade,” many of the people in the opera house cannot see the truth and allow rumor and gossip to sway their thinking.  The witches are different because they have a talent for seeing how things really are in society, instead of how they appear to be.  This theme is developed considerably in this book.  Agnes is an excellent singer, as well as being overweight.  She has left the path of being a witch to become a singer, although she is told she will not get a lead role due to discrimination relating to her size.  However, she is able to see what is really happening in the opera house, when no one else can.  She, and the other witches, consistently give sociological analysis of their society.  The book deals with cultural values relating to how people playing certain parts should be a certain weight and be beautiful (or ugly).

This reminds me of the well-known Shakespearian monologue from “As you like it,” that begins with the line,  “All the world’s a stage.”   I’ve discussed Goffman’s  dramaturgical analysis on this blog before, and the idea that we are always acting on a stage is a core idea of this concept.  We are always playing roles in various settings.  Pratchett does a great job of illustrating how people may try to take on new roles like Agnes, who changes her very name to Perdita X because “it was a mysterious name, hinting of darkness and intrigue” (11).  Although the people in Lancre, her home, didn’t accept it, the name was perfect for the opera setting.  Agnes tries to become Perdita in the opera house, although she still has her “sociological imagination” turned on, observing what was happening around her.   These themes are explored with many characters, and the book covers topics like getting the correct costume for the part you are playing, among many other aspects of dramaturgical analysis.

If you enjoy humor, word play, sociological and political analysis, and character development, then I highly recommend this book, as well as Pratchett’s entire series.  I plan to read “Feet of Clay” next.

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Review of “Mortality” by Hitchens and Brief Thoughts on Violence and Gender

“To the dumb question ‘why me’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?” (Hitchens 6).

This post may be a bit different than the others because this short book evoked many emotions including sadness, fear, and joy, as well as the fact that I’m dealing with my turmoil over the deaths of the children and teachers at Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut right now.

Part 1: Book Review of “Mortality”

This book review is of Christopher Hitchens book, “Mortality,” written after he was diagnosed with cancer.  Although I was well aware of who Hitchens was considering the fact that he was a controversial public figure, I have never personally read any of his materials until now.  I decided to start at the end of his life and work backwards.  This short book of only just over a hundred pages only took me part of an afternoon to read at my favorite coffee shop, and it brought me to tears.  It is rare that I cry when reading, especially in public.  In some ways, the book is raw look at the experiences of having terminal cancer, but it was told by a writer with a brilliant mind and expansive knowledge.  At one point, he discussed how he did not fit some of the stages of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief.  I loved this quote by Hitchens:

In one way, I suppose, I have been ‘in denial’ for some time, knowingly burning the candle at both ends and finding that it often gives a lovely light.  But for precisely that reason, I can’t see myself smiting my brow with shock or hear myself whining about how it’s all so unfair: I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction and have no succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me (5).

He goes on to discuss his feelings of loss at not seeing important family and societal events, but he also recognizes this as a form of self pity, using the quote that I placed at the top of this post.

Additionally, Hitchens spends time discussing the norms surrounding being a cancer patient and interacting with other people.  One of my favorite parts of the book is when he explores the norm surrounding the phrase, “How are you?” (40).  In the US, as he mentions we often ask the question without expecting a deep, or even true, answer.  I think about how many times I’ve been having a terrible day and someone asks me this at the grocery store. At some point, I decided that the rote response (or lie), wouldn’t work for me anymore.  Often, I say “I’m okay,” which still may be overly enthusiastic compared to my actual feelings.  I’ve actually seen this “script” discussed as both a positive and negative for society.  Hitchens discusses his own responses to this question, depending on who is asking.

Throughout the book, he discusses his feelings about the people rejoicing, often for “religious” reasons, in his painful death. (Hitchens was a loud voice for a particular type of atheism.   I thought that this section of the book was truly powerful.  I personally despise it when people discuss how it’s God’s will that something negative or positive happens and how victims of a particular situation brought it on themselves with some kind of “immoral” act.)

The most powerful section of Hitchens, “Mortality,” for me was the one on the erosion of his ability to continue to use his powerful, well-known voice.  Of course, it is heartbreaking for anyone to lose their voice, but for a man who made a great difference, for good or ill in the world based on speaking, it seems even more tragic.  This was the section that brought me to tears.  He discusses how voice is tied to identity and gives some excellent advice for authors that I’ve taken to heart, relating to finding your voice.

As far as recommending this book, I found it to be a powerful look at illness, cancer, life, death, religion, identity, and many other topics.  As I have lost loved ones to cancer and have seen the physically and emotionally wracking effects first hand, I actually found his words to to be very refreshingly realistic and hopefully helpful for interacting with persons with terminal cancer in the future.  Some readers may prefer to remain blissfully ignorant of the many changes a person’s body and mind may go through during cancer and might find this book to be too “accurate” or detailed.  For me, though, I generally  prefer to know the unvarnished truth.  His advice on identity, finding your voice and writing were helpful to me as a writer, and I might write a post exclusively on that another time. I respect Christopher Hitchens, even when I don’t agree with his positions, because he was willing to cut right to the heart of the matter.  I look forward to reading “Hitch-22” sometime in January.  I was pondering this book still when the tragic shooting happened in Connecticut, and it led to some of the following thoughts.

 

Part 2: Mortality of Children in Tragedy

Obviously, dying is dying in one regard. It comes for all of us eventually, and in that way maybe it is “fair.”  But we emotionally experience it quite differently depending on all kinds of factors, depending on our culture and norms, religion (or lack thereof), philosophy, the age of the person(s) dying, our relationship to the person dying, the type of death, how directly it impacts our daily lives and many other factors.  This week, I felt a great deal of sadness at both thinking of Christopher Hitchens slow, painful death, and the sudden and untimely death of children and staff at Sandy Hook school in Connecticut. Like many people, I find myself thinking about the implications of all of this.  As a sociology instructor, while I think it is important to talk about gun control and the ease at which people can get assault rifles, I tend to reflect more on other cultural factors.

As Jackson Katz said in his documentary, “Tough Guise” in 2001, we need to be thinking about violent masculinity.  (If you haven’t had a chance to see this documentary, it is very relevant, though older.)  Masculinity, and femininity for that matter, are not the same from culture to culture, as has been shown through anthropological studies like Margaret Mead’s work.  (There are critiques of some of this research, too.)  Even what is considered ideally feminine or masculine within the history of the US has changed.  “Tough Guise” focuses on “violent” masculinity and how images in the media may play a role in shaping the identities of men in our culture.  Although my students and I usually laugh at points in the video, like when it is shown how ridiculously “ripped” even the action figures that boys play with have become over a few decades, there are many extremely serious points.  Katz points out that school shooters are men.  He addresses why he thinks this is happening.  This week he has written a blog post for Huffingtonpost.  Near the end of the video, Katz points out that all of us have a role to play in changing the norms surrounding this, including women.  For other sociologists, there is a post on sociological cinema with a clip of Katz’s documentary this week.  (I highly recommend sociological cinema for finding good clips to demonstrate concepts for class. I use it all the time during the semester in both my online and seated classes.)

I realize that I may personally play a role in this violent masculinity.  While I ethically disagree with violence as a solution to problems, I put my money into all kinds of violent portrayals of masculinity, as witnessed by this blog.  I’d like to live in a society where men do not have to be seen as violent or aggressive to be good men.  Personally, I think that there needs to be more blurring of the lines when it comes to gender.  We need to move away from rigid, dichotomous definitions of what it means to be a woman or man. As adults, we need to reduce our own behaviors bullying others so that children and teens will be more tolerant and even accepting of a wide range of people.  Children learn from role modeling, and adults often subtly (and not so subtly) act in ways that are disparaging towards others.  While I feel that the individual is important, and we should learn to think for ourselves, I feel that the strong streak of individualism in the US may be our undoing.  We need to form stronger bonds with others in our communities, reaching out past the normal lines that divide us.

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