Tag Archives: Terry Pratchett

2016: My Favorite Books

[Minor spoilers]

This year, although I didn’t write many blog posts, I read more books than I have in recent years (28). I used to force myself to finish all the books I started. Now, probably as a product of aging, I’ve gotten more discerning in the books I begin, as well as the ones I’m willing to continue.

Philosophy:

If I had to pick my favorite book this year, I’d pick the book that transformed my thinking the most, Spinoza’s The Ethics, originally published in 1677. (It’s available on Project Gutenberg, if you’re interested, although we read it in A Spinoza Reader: The Ethics and Other Works.) My husband suggested it, and we read it together. It was a challenging read that took me several months of study, but it was worth it. However, I can tell it’s a book that I need (and want) to return to again. It’s amazing how we can connect across time with a writer.

Fantasy and Science Fiction:

My favorites this year in terms of science fiction and fantasy were The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett, and The Jean le Flambeur series by Hannu Rajaniemi. The Shepherd’s Crown is one of the few novels that I actually reviewed on my blog. In light of his own impending death, I thought that Pratchett treated death in a thoughtful and reassuring way in the book. It also dealt with how to be a good person in a time of crisis and battle.

I loved the Escher-esque feel of The Jean le Flambeur series. It a heist story, but it’s also so much more than that. It begins with Jean in prison and tracks his story from there. The dream-like quality of these novels actually impacted my dreams recently. I loved the spaceship’s personality in the books.

Literary Fiction:

In terms of literary fiction, I loved the four Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante.  I loved the series as it traced the complicated relationship of two friends over decades. It was set in Naples, Italy, and its look at social class was fascinating. Once I started reading this series, I couldn’t put it down.

Art and Writing:

Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, as well as her podcast, Magic Lessons, helped me get back to work on my creative writing. I stumbled across the podcast by accident: someone had posted a link to the one with Neil Gaiman as a guest, one of my favorite authors. The basic format of the podcast is that Gilbert interviews a person who has written to her with a problem relating to their artistic process.  Then, she makes recommendations, gives them homework, and sends them off to work.  Meanwhile she consults with an artist who she thinks can help with their particular problem, and then calls them again after time has passed to see if they have made progress. I found it very helpful, even when the artists’ fields were quite different than mine.

Finally, I really enjoyed A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer by Pierre Mac Orlan, written in 1920. I wrote about my thoughts on his active and passive adventurers and how it relates to living and writing in this blog post.

What were your favorite books this year?  I’d love recommendations.

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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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Satire in Jingo and Cat’s Cradle

“It was so much easier to blame it on Them. It was bleakly depressing to think that They were Us. If it was Them, then nothing was anyone’s fault. If it was us, what did that make Me? After all, I’m one of Us. I must be. I’ve certainly never thought of myself as one of Them. No one ever thinks of themselves as one of Them. We’re always one of Us. It’s Them that do the bad things.”

Terry Pratchett

“Sometimes I dream that we could deal with the big crimes, that we could make a law for countries and not just for people.”

Terry Pratchett

“Always be wary of any helpful item that weighs less than its operating manual.”

Terry Pratchett

Recently, I read both Sir Terry Pratchett’s novel, Jingo, published in 1997, and Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Cat’s Cradle, published in 1963. I’d never read Vonnegut before so I was struck by the similarities and, more importantly, the differences between their works, especially the use of satire. I decided to write this piece comparing and contrasting the types of satire they used.  However, my expertise area is sociology, not english literature. Therefore, I needed to learn more about satire.  My friend, Amanda, loaned me her copy of “A Handbook of Literature” by Harmon and Holman to help me better understand satire.  Satire is “[a] work or manner that blends a censorious attitude with humor and wit for improving human institutions or humanity” (461). The point is that authors using satire write to “inspire a remodeling.” From my reading, I learned that there are two major types of satire, formal (direct) and indirect.  Indirect satire is “expressed through a narrative and the characters who are the butt are ridiculed by what they say or do.” Terry Pratchett’s novel Jingo falls into this category. Although there is a first person narrative, I believe that “Cat’s Cradle” also falls into this type. Although I’m arguing that they both employ indirect satire, I believe that the tone of Pratchett’s is more Horatian (e.g., “gentle, urbane, smiling) while “Cat’s Cradle” is more Juvenalian (e.g., “biting, bitter, angry.”) Perhaps, someone familiar with satire will tell me if I’m on the right track with these ideas or not.

Both books are quite witty, using humor on multiple levels. Although they were written in different time periods, they both deal with technology and war. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is a satirical fantasy series that often addresses modern political situations.  In particular, Jingo deals with the appearance of a fantasy island with no apparent “value.” In both countries, there are factions that want war rather than peace. Pratchett uses his characters to show the ridiculous and horrifying lengths that people will go to over their in-groups. However, there are many familiar characters from the Discworld series working to promote peace.

On the other hand, the narrator of Cat’s Cradle wanted to write a history of the day that the atomic bomb was dropped. During his investigations, he learns that the main scientist who helped to invent the bomb also helped to invent Ice-Nine, which essentially turns water into ice. The disastrous implications are easy to spot. In the end, humans destroy their own environment and many commit suicide.

As a side note, the treatment of scientists in Vonnegut’s piece, reminds me of the cartoon going around that science will allow us to clone dinosaurs, but we need the humanities (and the social sciences) to tell us that maybe that’s not a good idea. Just because someone is brilliant doesn’t mean that they are an ethical actor. However, there is no reason to assume that a brilliant mind has to be inherently cold and without empathy. Also, people in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences are usually intelligent (and hopefully, trained to be thoughtful and ethical.) The cartoon actually creates a false dichotomy.  I feel like the sciences and humanities have been pitted against one another to help minimize the attention on the business people and government officials who are throwing all of us under the bus through reduced tenure, instability, fewer grants, etc.

I loved Terry Pratchett’s treatment of his inventor/engineer in Jingo. We are introduced to Leonard of Quirm (based on Leonardo Da Vinci) in the book, who constantly generates ideas.  It becomes quickly apparent that he assumes other people are ethical and doesn’t think that his inventions should actually be used by people for war, although I, as the reader, worried that they might be. In the book, Pratchett notes:

Any sensible ruler would have killed off Leonard, and Lord Vetinari was extremely sensible and often wondered why he had not done so. He’d decided that it was because, imprisoned in the priceless, inquiring amber of Leonard’s massive mind, underneath that bright investigative genius was a kind of willful innocence that might in lesser men be called stupidity. It was the seat and soul of that force which, down the millennia, had caused mankind to stick its fingers in the electric light socket of the Universe and play with the switch to see what happened – and then be very surprised when it did.

Leonard of Quirm ridicules and seems horrified by the suggestion of the less intelligent/less educated character, Nobby, who repeatedly suggests that the drill on his submarine could be used to sink the other country’s ships. In the end, Lord Vetinari uses his own wits, science, and Leonard’s inventions to protect his people and country. He and his country even to come out on top politically. He’s certainly a believer in his in-group, but he does not turn to war.

In the end, the biggest different between the books to me is that of optimism versus pessimism about the ultimate human condition. Pratchett believes that we can learn and do better. It’s not that Pratchett is a “Polly Anna” type, because he certainly understands the darker side of the human condition, but when I read his books, I feel like there’s a chance for myself (and other people) to be better and even a chance to change institutions in society for the better. I prefer Terry Pratchett’s optimism to Vonnegut’s pessimism in Cat’s Cradle. If we don’t believe that humans can change things, I suspect that the chance we will becomes slimmer. In my own writing, I’d rather leave people feeling optimistic than bleak.

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Musings on Anger, Art, and Social Justice: A Response to Neil Gaiman’s Guardian Piece on Terry Pratchett

“Damn it Bones, you’re a doctor. You know that pain and guilt can’t be taken away with the wave of a magic wand. They’re the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. [to Sybok] I don’t want my pain taken away! I need my pain!” Captain Kirk

“I rage at the imminent loss of my friend. And I think, ‘What would Terry do with this anger?’ Then I pick up my pen, and I start to write.” Neil Gaiman

My spouse has always liked the sentiment behind the above quote by Captain Kirk from Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. I’d argue that we don’t just need our pain; we need our anger, too.  Our anger is valuable and should be respected. Yet, it also needs to be tempered.

One of the points that Arlie Hochschild makes in her book, The Managed Heart: The Commercialization of Feeling, is that societies have rules for feeling. In certain situations, we’re expected to feel a particular way and, at times, our feelings actually violate those rules. In the case of the workplace, the expectation is that we ignore (and express) certain emotions for our wages. This is called emotional labor.

Hochschild studied flight attendants, who were expected to express emotions like happiness, even when they were being treated poorly. They were supposed to ignore their real feelings of anger or sadness. Hochschild posits that this can lead to negative outcomes for people like alienation, or estrangement. (The last time I researched this topic, researchers had found support both for and against various harms relating to emotional labor.)

Often, people fear anger because they view it as inherently destructive. We’re told to repress or not display it, especially if we’re women in the United States. Women who fail to follow the norm are often seen as deviant and are often subjected to name calling or worse.

People often misunderstand and blame the emotion itself instead of the action a person takes. Our society teaches men, as a part of masculinity, for example, that they should act out violently when they experience anger. There is a great video from 2001 called Tough Guise that looks at how the media has played a role in intensifying violent masculinity in the United States. (There is a sequel that I haven’t seen yet called Tough Guise 2.)

This blog post was inspired by Neil Gaiman’s article in The Guardian yesterday called “Neil Gaiman: Terry Pratchett isn’t jolly.  He’s angry.’” According to Gaiman, Terry Pratchett is well aware of his anger. And he chooses to channel it into something constructive.

Anger just is.  When we’re angry, we have choices about how to act (or not act.) When we experience certain emotions, we can turn to our tool box of skills to decide how to proceed.  Perhaps, in some moments, the right response is to sit with our anger and not act. But when it comes to social justice, I believe the correct response is to learn more about inequality, to teach others about inequality, and to protest inequality, by whatever skills we possess. A fantastic fiction writer like Terry Pratchett uses his anger and writing skills to expose the problems of his society through fantasy. A social activist like Martin Luther King, Jr. used his anger for speech writing and leading protest to gain equality. His “Letter from Birmingham Jail” calls out the people and institutions he found infuriating and disappointing.

Yet, sometimes, our anger can be misleading. Often, privileged individuals feel a sense of anger or indignation when they learn about the point of view of disadvantaged individuals, or when the disadvantaged are fighting for their rights. It’s really important as an actor who cares about equality to ask ourselves, is my anger justified?  Am I angry because of injustice?  Or am I angry because my own privilege is being challenged? Am I angry because I think that someone from the disadvantaged category doesn’t like me, instead of actively listening to the other person?

Of course, this position assumes that equality is an worthy goal as a cultural value. Anger on the behalf of the less powerful can be a great motivator to raise awareness and advocate for equality. The reason why I love Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is that he actually takes time to explore stratification. I’ve been slowly savoring the series, and I’m about half way through it. His art helps me to reflect on identity and inequality. Both his Guards series and his Witches series cover these important topics.

One of my favorite Discworld characters is Granny Weatherwax, who is angry about injustice. (I even named my car after the character years ago.) She states: “And sin, young man is when we treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.” Although I read this book years ago, I’m still using this quote when chatting with people about materialism and inequality. This is the power of literature. This is the power of the author, in this case Terry Pratchett. Although I have no personal connection to Terry Pratchett, I will miss his insightful commentary and his great wit. (I wrote a blog post on “Maskerade” and identity back in 2013, if you want to read it.)

One of the reasons that I value art of all kinds so much is that it allows us to engage our emotions, even the ones seen as less “valuable” by society. It allows us to experience the world through many different lenses. We need writers like Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, and so many others to help us feel the emotions that our society might tell us to keep locked away. We need researchers, journalists, and social activists like Naomi Klein, Sarah Jaffe, and Jackson Katz using their anger to push for structural social change.

Yet, the efforts public figures are not enough. We need individuals to challenge their family, friends, students, and others when injustice is occurring.

How will you best use your anger?

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