The Apocalypse has been rescheduled: A review of “Good Omens”

It’s old news now, but Amazon is making a television show of “Good Omens,” the Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett novel on nuclear Apocalypse and what happens when the Antichrist decides he’d rather have an idyllic British country childhood instead.

Good Omens

I originally read “Good Omens” years ago when I was on the tail end of a Terry Pratchett binge-athon. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about a non-Discworld offering, as I’d read “The Nation” a year or so before and hadn’t enjoyed it nearly as much, but “Good Omens” came highly recommended and with a back cover covered in praise as opposed to a description of the plot, which I normally abhor but will admit is generally a good sign.

Spoilers ahead!

The story goes thusly: the Apocalypse is upon us, and the demons of Hell have enlisted a Satanistic order to pose as nurses in order to bring Lucifer’s spawn to the world and give him to an important American family. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view), there’s a bit of a miscommunication and the spawn of Satan ends up with an ordinary British family that lives in a small country town.

Meanwhile, Crowley, a devil, and Aziraphale, an angel, are busy keeping an eye on the child they think is the Antichrist, each trying to persuade him towards their side. The result is that the real Antichrist has an incredibly ordinary childhood. Admittedly, he is a bit more charismatic than your average 11-year old, but still. Mostly he just rides his bike around, pulling pranks with the posse of children who are attracted to him.

Meanwhile meanwhile, there’s Anathema Device (I know), a young woman trying to stop the Apocalypse. How does she know it’s coming, you ask? Well, her ancestor was a seer, condemned witch, and author of “The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter,” the only truly accurate prophetic book written in history.

At least the Apocalypse will be funny…

So as you can see there’s a lot going on, as there would be when the Apocalypse is at hand. You’d think it would be stressful for the reader, but “Good Omens” is written in that quintessential Pratchett style – a humor that is derived from the idiosyncrasies of human beings and the ways that morphs their perspectives and priorities. Take Shadewell, a witch hunter whose morality is derived directly from his medieval predecessors – except for the part where he takes advantage of both Aziraphale and Crowley by pretending there are way more witch hunters in his organization so that they’ll pay him more.

(Why are Aziraphale and Crowley paying him at all? Apparently witch hunting is one of those things that is encouraged on both sides).

There’s a lot of Pratchett in “Good Omens.” I haven’t read anything by Neil Gaiman, so I obviously can’t comment on how his style influences the book. What I can say is that it reflects a recurring theme in Pratchett’s writing: humanity as being above the morality of Heaven and Hell. In the Discworld books, Pratchett repeatedly positions the complexity of the human experience against the black-and-white morality of traditional organized religion. He challenges the idea that God’s Will is always good and pure, and instead positions our own free will as being morally superior.

As a religious person myself, this theme is one that I have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, I believe that God has given us free will, and that morality is indeed complex. Indeed, I would say that God gives us free will so that we can tackle that complexity. But on the other hand, I do believe in the ultimate judgement of God, and that He is the arbiter of good and evil and right and wrong, whereas Pratchett would suggest that it is human beings who must take on that task.

So as you can see, for being a comedic romp through the Apocalypse, “Good Omens” is deceptively complex, and a book I would highly recommend. If you’re a fan of the Discworld, you’ll enjoy the patterns it takes from those books, but even if you’re not familiar with Pratchett’s work, I think it serves as a good introduction to his style.

With the television show coming out I’m hoping that style will translate, because it’s really one of the major selling points of “Good Omens” to me. These kind of adaptations are really hit or miss, and I feel like given that the book has a definite end maybe it would do better as a movie. I do have Amazon Prime so I might give it a shot – stay tuned!

Are you planning to watch the “Good Omens” adaptation? Let me know in the comments!

Books you should read instead of the classics: An alternative To Be Read list

Recently, Lizzy of My Little Book Blog wrote about how she gave up on a To Be Read list chock full of classics and must-reads as decided by the Conglomeration of Literature Professors, which as we all know is a branch of the Illuminati.

(That was a joke. Hah.)

The post really resonated with me. I too have a TBR list in some dust-covered notebook that I’ve probably lost. It has a ton of familiar titles, all of which I have now forgotten.

I have, of course, read my share of classics. Jane Austin, the Bronte’s, Charles Dickens, several depressed Russians. My feelings on each vary widely. The only Charles Dickens I’ve ever read that I genuinely enjoyed was “A Tale of Two Cities.” Depressed Russians are great, but not for the books they’re most well-known for. “Crime and Punishment” is a great story but much too long. Leo Tolstoy has a book whose name I no longer recall but that was vastly more interesting than “War and Peace,” which is also too long. “Anna Karenina” is too long and has almost no likeable characters. “The Three Musketeers” is a fun romp, but “The Count of Monte Cristo” is too long and has too many characters. About a solid half of the book could be a separate story.

There’s a theme developing here. It’s not that I’m opposed to length in and of itself, or to multiple storylines. I think a large part of it is that language has changed and evolved and our expectations of what books should do has also evolved in ways that make these books seem less epic and more just long. Really, really long.

So instead, I would like to humbly offer a few alternatives to the classics that dominate our TBRs. Here’s a list of 10 books I think you should read:

The Travels of Ibn Battutah – edited by Tim Mackiintosh-Smith

On the road to Multan and ten miles distant from it is the river called Khusru Abad, a large river that cannot be crossed except by boat. At this point the goods of all who pass are subjected to a rigorous examination and their baggage searched. Their practice at the time of our arrival was to take a quarter of everything brought in by the merchants, and to exact a duty of seven dinars for every horse. When we set about the crossing of this river and the baggage was examined, the idea of having my baggage searched was very disagreeable to me, for though there was nothing much in it, it seemed a great deal in the eyes of the people, and I did not like having it looked into. By the grace of God Most High there arrived on the scene one of the principal officers on behalf of Qutb al-Mulk, the governor of Multan, who gave orders that I should not be subjected to examination or search.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold – Gabriel Garcia Marques

Many of those on the docks knew they were going to kill Santiago Nasar. Don Lázaro Aponte, a colonel from the academy making use of his good retirement, and town mayor for eleven years, waved to him with his fingers. “I had my own very real reasons for believing he wasn’t in any danger anymore,” he told me. Father Carmen Amador wasn’t worried either. “When I saw him safe and sound I thought it had all been a fib,” he told me. No one even wondered whether Santiago Nasar had been warned, because it seemed impossible to all that he hadn’t.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat – Oliver Sacks

You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes all our lives. Life without memory is no life at all…Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action.

A Border Passage: From Cairo to America – A Woman’s Journey – Leila Ahmed

Even in my own childhood, Zatoun, my mother’s paternal home, was a place palpably apart, imbued with some unnameably different order and way of being. The aura and aroma of those other times and other ways pervaded it still, in the rustle and shuffle of silks and the soft fall of slippers along hallways and corridors, in the talk and gestures and in the momentary tremor of terror precipitated by the boom of Grandfather’s voice, and then the quiet, suppressed, chortling laughter of the women as its boom faded and he passed into the recesses of the inner hall. The order and aroma of another time, other ways, another order.

The Truth – Terry Pratchett

Shall I try again? he said. “Listen carefully. Drugs equal chemicals, but, and please do listen to this part, sheesh, chemicals do not equal drugs. Remember all that trouble with the calcium carbonate? When you paid the man five dollars?

“Made me feel good,” muttered Mr. Tulip.

“Calcium carbonate? said Mr. Pin. “Even for you, I mean…”

Alexander at the World’s End – Tom Holt

The City of Athens, you see, has for quite some time now used Scythian slaves as policemen. Sorry, you don’t know what that word means; it means men paid by the state to keep order and punish people who break the laws (or at least, that’s the theory). We had to use foreign slaves for the job because no self-respecting Greek, let alone Athenian, would dream of doing a job that involved exercising practically unlimited power over his fellow citizens. Quite right, too. Ask yourself; what kind of man would you get volunteering for a job like that? Men who want that kind of power are by definition the last people you’d allow to have it.

Full Moon – P.G. Wodehouse

The moment Tipton set eyes on E. Jimpson Morgatroyd he knew that he had picked a lemon in the garden of medicine. What he had hoped for was a sunny practitioner who would prod him in the ribs with his stethoscope, compliment him on his health, tell him an anecdote about a couple of Irishmen named Pat and Mike, give him some ointment for the spots, and send him away in a whirl of good fellowship. E Jimpson proved to be a gloomy man with sidewhiskers, who smelled of iodoform and had obviously been looking on the black side of things since he was a slip of a boy.

In the Eye of the Sun – Ahdaf Soueif

How wonderful to simply do things instead of wondering if they are worth doing or discussing whether to do them or being told not to do them or listening to somebody else describe doing them.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

 

Vogon poetry is of course the third worst in the Universe. The second worst is that of the Azgoths of Kria. During a recitation by their poet master Grunthos the Flatulent of his poem “Ode to a Small Lump of Green Putty I Found in My Armpit One Midsummer Morning,” four of his audience died of internal hemorrhaging, and the president of the Mid-Galactic Arts Nobbling Council survived by gnawing one of his own legs off. Grunthos is reported to have been “disappointed” by the poem’s reception, and was about to embark on a reading of his twelve-book epic entitled “My Favorite Bathtime Gurgles,” when his own major intestine, in a desperate attempt to save life and civilization, leaped straight up through his neck and throttled his brain.

What are your must-reads that don’t make the average TBR list? Let me know in the comments below!

An ode to Terry Pratchett on his birthday

Well, not an ode really. Just a blog post. A post to Terry Pratchett on his birthday.

For those of you who don’t know, famed British fantasy writer Terry Pratchett died two years ago, leaving behind a plethora of some of the best, funniest, most inspiring fantasy novels ever written – most significantly, the “Discworld” series.

I’ve mentioned Pratchett a few times on this blog, and that’s because he was a formative influence in developing my reading tastes and in understanding the interaction between politics and society.

My first introduction to the amazingness that is Terry Pratchett came in the form of the Discworld novel “Soul Music,” wherein Death’s (as in the Grim Reaper) granddaughter is forced to take on his duties while he contemplates the meaning of life, to the extent that he has one. As Susan Sto Helit takes up the Grim Reaper’s mantle, magical horse and skull rate included, she crosses path with a young musician who is meant to die in a stupid accident. As Susan struggles with the apparent unfairness of taking a young life in such a meaningless way, the man is saved…by music.

Then, he and his band invent Rock N’ Roll.

Via goodreads

To say that “Soul Music” is a rolickin’ good time is an understatement. This book is gold from start to finish.

“There are millions of chords. There are millions of numbers. And everyone forgets the one that is a zero. But without the zero, numbers are just arithmetic. Without the empty chord, music is just noise.”

– Terry Pratchett, Soul Music

From there, I was hooked. At time of writing, I’ve read the bulk of the Discworld novels and a few of Pratchett’s other books. The beauty of Pratchett’s writing is that it’s not just about the laugh. Discworld is a parallel to the real world, in many ways a mirror of it – its countries based on our own, its civilizations and cultures mimicking ours. And with that comes all the good and all the evil people create: racism (or speciesism, if you want to get technical), sexism, xenophobia, insulation, tyranny, money (which is a special kind of evil when amassed in too large a chunk).

[T]here…are people who will follow any dragon, worship any god, follow any iniquity. All out of a kind of humdrum, everyday badness. Not the really high, creative loathsomeness of the great sinners, but a sort of mass-produced darkness of the soul. Sin…without a trace of originality. They accept evil not because they say yes, but because they don’t say no.

Lord Vetinari in Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

Pratchett was the first person I ever heard ask: Who watches the watchmen? Who guards the guards?

These are two of the most important questions a society can ask itself. It goes to the core of what keeps societies intact: trust, in a system, in justice, in fairness. In the idea that if you work hard and stand up for what’s right, you will find those who will stand with you and you will prevail.

It’s an optimistic belief that too often fails to manifest here on Earth, but in the Discworld Pratchett’s acute sense of justice can prevail.

That’s what makes his books so great. They’re funny and deep, so you laugh as you marvel at the selfishness and deliberate stupidity of beings, human and otherwise.

So today’s the anniversary of his birth, so I wanted to take a moment to remember all the good times I’ve had on the Discworld, relive them, and say thank you, Terry Pratchett, for asking me the important questions, for making me laugh, and for inspiring me to want to write my own books.

And speaking of writing, I’ll leave you with some words of wisdom from the man himself:

In my experience, what every true artist wants, really wants, is to be paid.

-Glod the dwarf in Soul Music by Terry Pratchett

Ain’t that the truth?

If you write fiction, you’re probably self-inserting

If you’ve ever had the (mis)fortune of delving into the murky waters of fanfiction, you’ve likely come across a Mary Sue character: a young and beautiful women who is as close to perfect as possible and universally adored.

(Fun Fact: According to TV Tropes, the “Mary Sue” character first became a Thing in a Star Trek parody fanfic.)

The thing about Mary Sue (and her brother, Gary Stu) is that she is almost always an author self-insert. We wish we were perfect (and in a smolderingly romantic relationship with our favorite show/book’s main character), so we create this version of ourselves: beautiful, strong, kind, honest, talented – just all around amazing.

Your self insertion is like your better twin. Which one is “better” is something I’ll let you decide.

Which is fine. If you’ve ever written any kind of fiction at all, you’ve probably done the Mary Sue thing. Writing is, at it’s heart, an exercise in self-reflection, an attempt to understand oneself and one’s place in the world through the power of imagination. This, I believe, is a basic human instinct. When you dressed up as your mother in your long-gone (I assume, since you’re on the internet) preschool days, putting yourself in her shoes (literally), it was a kind of self-reflection. By pretending to be your mother, you entertain the idea that you will one day become your mother, a notion you will undoubtedly recoil from a mere 10 years later. But I digress. The point is, the urge to write a self-insert character is present in every writer.

It’s worth noting that not every self-insert character is automatically a Mary Sue. You might find yourself going in the opposite direction, highlighting and exaggerating the flaws you see in yourself as a form of self-flagellation, or perhaps as an attempt to reconcile yourself to those flaws. Perhaps you tend to insert yourself as a side character, someone in the background who’s main role lies in observation – kinda like you are in real life (which is not a bad thing, btw. More people should observe).

Or maybe you’re the narrator. Technically, all writers are the narrator of everything they write. Here, I mean this more literally. Your narrator is of  the all-seeing, all-knowing variety who does not merely recount the facts of the story but influences it’s path. Lemony Snicket, for example, laments the sad story of the Baudelaire siblings even as he commits to telling the reader every last harrowing detail. A form of grappling with control, or lack thereof, in Daniel Handler’s own life? I have no idea, but if I had to guess, that would be it.

Geez, what a downer.

Tom Holt’s “Alexander at the World’s End” has this kind of narrator.  Euxenus son of Eutychides is telling the story of his life in the court of Alexander the Great, after having lived a long life. He is now dying in a small outpost at the end of world and is telling this story to some unnamed young man, who stands in place of the reader. By reflecting on his life, Euxenus considers the myriad coincidences and random events that guided his life and led him to this, his final resting place, thousands of miles from his homeland. And perhaps, in a way, Holt is also considering the twists and turns his own life has taken. Or not. I don’t know, but speculating is fun.

How does one get their own talk show? Asking for a friend.

(Also, I highly, highly recommend “Alexander at the World’s End.” It is one of my favorite books of all time.)

One of my favorite authors in the world, Terry Pratchett, does this too, I think. If you look at some of his main characters – Sam Vimes, William de Worde, Moist Von Lipwig – they’re all provocateurs. They’re different people, of course, in different times and with different priorities, roles, and concerns, but they all have the same characteristic in common: they don’t accept the status quo, and it is ultimately that characteristic which drives their stories. Did Pratchett see himself this way? His books are very political in nature, especially for the fantasy genre, and draw deliberate parallels between Discworld and our world. If the pen is mightier than the sword, I would say that Pratchett wielded his pen in much the same way Vimes wields his badge or de Worde wields his printing press.

I want to end on this note: if you want to read a hilarious parody of a Mary Sue character, read George Macdonald Fraser’s “The Pyrates.” I read it a hundred years ago but I still remember it, and let me tell you, the only book I have ever laughed so hard at is “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Captain Ben Avery is literally the most perfect human man to every exist in the universe: women fall over themselves trying to get his attention, while he remains utterly indifferent. It’s not just Avery – every character is an exaggerated stereotype, all of which serves to take the story in the weirdest and wildest directions. (It also makes the plot a little hard to follow, but let’s face it, this isn’t the kind of thing you read for the plot). If you like insanity, you’ll like this.