Television: Good Omens

Good Omens is fairly high on my list of favorite books; my cat Crowley bears the name of one of the main characters. (Most people assume the name is from Supernatural, but I haven’t seen that show.) How delighted was I, then, when David Tennant was cast as Crowley? Off the charts, really, and he does a spectacular job opposite Michael Sheen as Aziraphale.

I’m not sure I can adequately encapsulate the story for those unfamiliar with it, but basically Crowley is a demon and Aziraphale is an angel, and yet they’re friends. So when the end of the world is on the horizon, the two of them team up to stop it because, honestly, they rather like the world. I suppose it’s just the right blend of bad and good to make them both comfortable without being bored.

There’s a lot more to it than that, such as witches and witchfinders and prophecies and the antichrist and his pet dog (and a character named Pepper!), but it’s all more complex than I can describe, and you might as well read or watch it anyway.

I usually hesitate over adaptations of my favorite books because (a) I worry it’ll ruin my mental picture by replacing my imagination with a “sanctioned” version, and (b) often they’re just terrible. But there’s no reason to be concerned in this case. Good Omens is a faithful adaptation, and in the places where it’s been changed, all the changes work. It’s well cast and just incredibly entertaining. And at six episodes, easy to binge.

I’d say I want more, and I do… except I don’t, if that makes any sense. By which I mean, it’s like a really good meal: so wonderful, you want to keep eating, yet you know that the food will only begin to lose its flavor eventually, and you’ll only end up uncomfortably stuffed, maybe even ill. Better to eat and walk away with the memory of a nice dinner than make yourself sick and come to feel averse to something you used to enjoy. Or, in short form: quit while you’re ahead. So many shows try to press their popularity by eking out season after season, all for the money, until they’re only remembered for not being as good as when they began. Better to tell your story well and end it (Babylon 5) than keep chasing the audience until they turn on you.

Long story short, the Good Omens miniseries is fantastic, assuming you like that sort of thing. I do highly recommend it.

Books: Game of Crowns by Christopher Andersen

I seem to be on a bit of a Royals kick these days. Well, nothing like summer for reading trash and gossip, I suppose. Which is mostly what this book is—a curated collection of tidbits culled from magazines, interviews, tabloids. At least, that’s my guess.

The book begins with a hypothetical overview of what is likely to happen when Elizabeth II passes. The phone calls, the conversations, etc. I understand this as a “hook,” but it honestly put me off a bit.

From then on we re-tread old ground of Charles & Camilla (and Diana), William & Kate. The thesis of the book is to examine the succession of the British monarchy, but it mostly just points out that, no matter what anyone wants, Camilla will be de facto queen, at least for a little while. And that most people would much rather have William and Kate and skip Charles and Camilla entirely. All true, of course, but we know Elizabeth will give Charles his crown. Whether the monarchy will last under him is another question this book raises, but with Wills and Kate on the horizon, one thinks the monarchy may cling on a bit longer if people are willing to wait Charles and Camilla out.

I didn’t like Camilla before, and I like her even less after reading this book. I had more sympathy for Charles before reading this book, too. In short, this book does little to nothing for their reputations. It repeatedly underscores how they are outshone by the following generation and maintains that a number of Commonwealth countries may decide to leave and become republics when the crown devolves upon Charles and his Rottweiler. These countries, per Andersen, may not want to wait out Charles’ reign.

Kate comes off a bit better, though, in Andersen’s writing, that seems to be in spite of a grasping mother that pushed Kate under William’s nose and worked to keep her there.

It boils down to a lot of ambition on the parts of the women depicted here. Something to be said for persistence, I suppose, but it really only illustrates that good people are often trampled by those willing to do anything to get what (or who) they want.

Books: The Creation of Anne Boleyn by Susan Bordo

You know where I must begin with this: my relationship to the material being discussed. I like history, though I only came to any real interest in Anne Boleyn after picking up The Other Boleyn Girl at an airport bookstore several years ago. Like many of the people from Bordo’s website and research, a tidbit of historical fiction sent me looking for the truth, though not in any deep way. I read the Wiki and a few websites to glean what about Gregory’s novel was accurate, what was speculation, and what was pure fabrication. It was enough to satisfy my curiosity.

Last week I was wandering the library and came across Bordo’s book and picked it up as a potentially interesting read. Her ostensible goal with this work is to hold up what people think they know about Anne Boleyn and compare it to why they think or believe these things and where in the historical record these ideas may have come from. Considering there are precious few primary sources to mine, and that many of the sources we do have are biased (*cough* Chapuys *cough*), the exercise is not a bad one. But…

Unfortunately, at least in my eyes, the attempt is ruined by Bordo’s own clear biases. She disdains works by Alison Weir, rips apart Gregory’s fiction, snipes at Mantel’s version of Boleyn, and pretty much hates on anyone who ever said a bad word about Anne. Then gushes over Anne of the Thousand Days and Natalie Dormer’s take on Boleyn in The Tudors. Yet seems unable to be clear on why creative license is okay for some but not others (unless it’s because she’s just not okay with Anne Boleyn being a villainess?).

Okay, so some historians make what seem to other history buffs to be wild claims. The real truth is, we don’t know. Bordo disagrees with, well, a lot. And that’s fine; she’s allowed to make her argument and present her data. But to take it that step further and really just attack all these other historian and writers? That’s a bit much.

And the underlying notion that historical fiction should be “more accurate” (or just nicer to Anne, I guess)… It’s f***ing fiction, for one thing. And Bordo doesn’t know for sure Anne wasn’t a total bitch, for another. She’d just rather not believe it. But what really gets me is the argument that, because people will take the historical fiction as true and accurate it should be as faithful to history as possible… That just boggles me. I like to think people know enough to know when they’re reading something that’s made up. I like to think that, just as I and many others Bordo spoke to did, people will go look up the truth if they really want to know. And I don’t think it’s novels’ or movies’ or television programs’ jobs to teach history. If (as The Other Boleyn Girl did for me) one of these media spark an interest in a historical subject, fantastic! If, on the other hand, someone walks away thinking Anne Boleyn was blonde, or had a sixth finger, or was evil incarnate… So? It’s not hurting her any. Pretty sure she doesn’t care, so why does Bordo?

It’s one thing to examine why people think the things they do. That’s an interesting psychological and sociological study—how information spreads in a society, where that information comes from, etc. Even in Boleyn’s time, Chapuys was intent on a smear campaign. But there’s no point in getting angry about it. If it were a fatal disease maybe, but what people think and believe about a long-dead queen? An academic exercise at best; not anything that will save lives or change the world.

In short, Bordo needs to ease up. If she’d come at it objectively, but she didn’t, at that tanked what otherwise was a decent read.

Books: The Bodyguard’s Story: Diana, the Crash, and the Sole Survivor by Trevor Rees-Jones (with Moira Johnston)

I was working on a night shoot when the accident happened, and my whole life was about working both on a film set and my “regular” job, so I didn’t give the news much of my attention. Though I’d loved Princess Diana—or really, the thought of her—by the time the divorce happened and everything after, I wasn’t really following news about her. Maybe this is because I didn’t have regular Internet access, and I’ve never been one for tabloids. Maybe I just didn’t want to believe the fairy tale was over.

Anyway, all this is a long way of saying I don’t even think I knew someone had survived the crash that killed Diana and Dodi. And I only stumbled across this book at the library. Every now and then I get an itch to gorge on some nonfiction, usually history, biography, or psychology. This time I found myself in the world history/culture section and walked away with a small stack that included this one.

I don’t know the whole truth, and I don’t think anyone does, but I appreciate how forthright this book is in tone. I never read all the reports on the crash or more than the summarized versions of the outcomes of the investigations, so this book provided a bit more detail. However, anyone looking for the answer to what actually happened is likely to be disappointed. Though Rees-Jones (and Johnston) paint a thorough pre-crash picture, he doesn’t remember the crash at all, only getting into the Mercedes with Henri Paul at the wheel and Diana and Dodi in back. The back half of the book is about Rees-Jones’ recovery and his being hounded by Dodi’s father, plus various legal issues. Still, I found it interesting enough to push through it all. Those wanting more about Diana might not.

All in all a solid read, if dated, as the book was written and published before all the information was in. One would need to read something more recent for later details. But I think anyone curious about what happened would benefit from getting this side of the story.

Books: No Accounting for Destiny by Kimberly Emerson

I was very fortunate to get a sneak peek at this book early on, and now you can enjoy it too!

No Accounting for Destiny is equal parts romantic comedy and mystery. Emmaline Spencer travels to London for her aunt’s retirement party only to find herself caught up in a kidnapping—with an earl! Terrorists and the CIA are both on the scene in this fast-paced romp. I absolutely recommend it for light, fun summer reading. Pick it up on Amazon here.

Manga: Fruits Basket, Collector’s Edition 2 & 3

We recently started watching the anime for Fruits Basket on Crunchyroll, and that made me want to check out the manga it’s based on. Lucky for me, our library has a fairly good selection of manga. We’ve come a long way from my having to order from Japanese bookstores and then painstakingly translate to the best of my abilities… Which were not particularly strong…

After skimming the first Collector’s Edition—which is what our library has, rather than the individual volumes—and discovering that #1 ended right around where the anime we’d already seen did, I skipped that one and went on to #2, therefore getting ahead of the weekly episodes. Now I’m curious to see how much of what I’ve read will make it into the show.

Fruits Basket is about Tohru Honda (note that I’m anglicizing the names by putting first name first), an orphaned girl who bizarrely ends up living with an aloof classmate named Yuki Soma (sometimes spelled “Sohma”) who, along with other Soma family members, is cursed with a spirit of the Chinese zodiac. That is, whenever he’s embraced by a non-Soma member of the opposite gender, Yuki turns into a rat. Because he’s cursed with the spirit of the Chinese zodiac rat. ::shrug::

It’s exactly the kind of setup typical of this strain of anime, quite comedic but tempered with some heavy sentimentalism and the usual teen angst. The mix is highly satisfying. However, the story is far easier to understand via the anime; the manga is crowded with characters whose names are similar (and each one has several nicknames besides), and the art sometimes makes it difficult to tell what is actually happening. Despite these weaknesses, however, I find myself utterly addicted, reading through the omnibuses as quickly as I can get my hands on them. I’ll be so sad when I’ve read it all…

It’s been a long while since I’ve found a manga that I like this much. Hopefully I can discover another great series to sate my appetite once I’ve made my way through this one. Suggestions?

Books: The Talisman of Set by Sara Hylton

This is, it seems, the time for me to go re-read books I haven’t read in years. First Jack Douglas, now this one, which I first read when I was 14 or 15 years old. I’d found it at the library, quite by accident, but due to a love of gothic romances and Ancient Egypt, this was right up my alley.

The Talisman of Set is about a woman named Kathy who has vivid dreams about a princess in Ancient Egypt and comes to believe she is the reincarnation of that princess. The question becomes whether she can avoid making the same mistakes in this life. Which is set in the 1920s or 30s… She mentions being eight years old when Tutankhamen’s tomb was found (1922), but later in the novel it isn’t clear how old she is when she finally hies off to Egypt to work on a dig. I’ll assume it’s been at least a decade? It’s weirdly unclear.

Still, I remember loving this book. I never forgot it, and years later found a copy for sale online, which is the copy I own and re-read. I can’t say I enjoyed it as much as the first time. Maybe because I’ve grown since then, but this time I found Kathy a bit obnoxious. And though the cover promises “A Novel of Romance and Danger,” I’d say there’s not a ton of either of those things here.

The book itself was published in 1984, and I feel like we know more about Ancient Egypt now, or at least have better access to research about it. For example, Hylton’s princess has her hair brushed by a servant, but we know they wore wigs most of the time. Also, the princess’ name is Tuia, which I suppose might be a variant of Tuya? Because Tuia is not an Egyptian name. And she mentions jewelry made of stones that I’m not sure they had in Egypt at the time, though I’m no expert in that. In any case, I found some of these things distracting.

It’s not a terrible book by any means, and I devoured it in just a couple days. But I suppose it’s often disappointing to revisit something that’s held a special place in your mind and heart for so long. I’d recommend it to those who like this kind of story. I’m just not sure I’ll read it again.

Books: What Do You Hear from Walden Pond? by Jack Douglas

When I was 14 or 15, I developed an interest in Thoreau and Walden Pond, most likely due to organized attempts to save Walden from greedy builders who wanted to make it a resort or apartments or something. Around that same time I also frequented a used-book store. And it was there that I found this old hardback. That I mistakenly thought might actually have something to do with Walden Pond.

Jack Douglas was evidently a comedy writer, and it seems he put out a number of books, though this is the only one I’ve ever found at a used-book store, or any bookstore. He’s kind of like an earlier model of Dave Barry? A lot of the “jokes” here are products of the times (this book came out in 1971), meaning today’s PC crowd would not be pleased. I have somewhat tougher skin, but I still winced once or twice. And a lot of the humor requires, er, timely knowledge of persons in the Hollywood system that I’ve never heard of. I can get the gist of the jokes, but they don’t land quite as on target due to my not having been alive at the time.

Douglas writes about how he and his family had lived in a remote cabin in Canada, but he was called up by Hollywood to come out and write a movie for a comedian. Hilarity ensues. Kind of. He moves his family to California and struggles to get this movie written, and the book is really just anecdotes about story meetings and cocktail parties and trying to find a place to live. It’s not an unpleasant read (though I may be giving him more slack since I’ve also worked in “the biz”), but not what I find all that funny. And I can’t tell if it’s supposed to be? Maybe “mildly humorous” is what Douglas was going for all along? Maybe he was saving the good stuff for Jack Parr.

I did tear up when he wrote about all his beloved animals, though. Because I feel the same way about all the pets I’ve had in my life.

I read this book when I was 14 or 15 and have had it ever since. Now, while unpacking after moving and desperate for something to read, I picked it up again. It’s been good poolside fare, and I’d honestly read other of his books… if I ever found any… Guess it’s time for a visit to the used-book store.

More Writers, Fewer Readers

What to Do?

I’m currently reading iGen by Jean Twenge, which discusses all the ways the iGeneration ( b. ~1995-2012) is different from previous generations. There’s a ton to unpack, and I’m not even very far along in this book, but as a writer I wanted to focus on the data that shows this generation doesn’t read. At least not for fun.

Are we surprised? Not really. Attention spans are getting increasingly short, cut into tiny slices of memes and video clips and text messages. As per the anecdotal evidence Twenge cites, most members of the iGeneration find reading boring because it requires them to sit still, be quiet, and pay attention. The result are slumping SAT scores in reading comprehension, which Twenge says we shouldn’t ascribe as either “good” or “bad” but… I can’t help thinking it’s bad. We want critical thinkers and problem solvers, but the up-and-coming generation can’t be bothered to work their brains that hard. (Twenge suggests ebooks that include videos and are written in very short chapters/info bursts, but really? We have to dumb things down for these kids?)

Okay, okay, so I’m an old fogey. That’s beside the point. In a world where (for good or ill) getting published is easier than ever, we have more content out there than ever, too. And we have fewer and fewer readers interested in buying or consuming that content.

Hmm.

“What about all those YA novels that sell so well?” you ask. Well, turns out it’s a lot of adults reading those novels and not that many, er, young adults.

“But older people still read!” Yeeeesss. But we need new readers to sustain publishing. And not just new content, since there is clearly plenty of that.

“So just write stuff they want to read.” Yeah, except they don’t want to read anything longer than a listicle.* Hell, short stories try their patience.

*Here’s an interesting tangent: iGen’ers don’t party as much, aren’t as into drinking or sex. So all these “old” people writing books for them… Books that look like something out of the 80’s, with parties and sex and alcohol… These books don’t reflect the current teen experience. Write a book entirely in text messages and memes and you’d be closer to the mark. And they’d be way more likely to read it. Especially since it probably wouldn’t take as long as reading it in prose form.

Bottom line/takeaways: the youngest generation isn’t reading books beyond those assigned to them at school (and sometimes not even that much). They have short attention spans and aren’t interested in an activity that takes time, patience, and concentration. We have more books and writers than ever and fewer readers. [Yes, I know those who do read often read avidly and voraciously, but again, we need new readers in order to sustain writers and publishing.] Already magazines and newspapers are desperate, and publishing is next in line; only people writing pithy (and short) articles online will be safe. And because trends move more quickly than ever, even then one is only likely to be a brief success.

Where am I going with this? Well, to be honest, I haven’t been writing much lately anyway. I’d already seen success (as I personally define it) as unattainable for me. So this data only reaffirms that I made the right choice by walking away. The situation is only likely to worsen.

Then again, once enough writers quit the field, those left might still find an audience, eh? Good luck out there!

Book: Poirot Loses a Client

I started reading Hercule Poirot novels when I was about 13 or 14 years old. Started with Murder on the Orient Express (because I understood it was considered a classic) and devoured as many as our library had. Somehow in all this, however, I never read this one.

If you don’t know Poirot, a quick introduction: he’s a Belgian detective with large moustaches and a fastidious nature. He’s Agatha Christie’s dandy version of Sherlock Holmes, really. In a number of the novels about him—including this one—he has a kind of Watson in the form of Captain Hastings, who accompanies Poirot on his investigations and narrates the story.

This particular tale is of an older woman (70, I think?) named Emily Arundell who writes to Poirot after believing one of her family members has tried to murder her for her money. Alas, the letter arrives too late for Poirot to save her from liver failure, but he launches an investigation all the same. (And was it a natural death after all?)

I enjoyed this book as much as I enjoy any Hercule Poirot novel. It has the usual collection of suspects and, per the typical cozy mystery of this sort, ends with them all in a drawing room as Poirot spins out the whodunit and how. These books are fine poolside reading, quick and not terribly demanding on, as Poirot would say, “the little grey cells.”