Saturday, September 30, 2017

Books that Shaped Me, Part 8: The Harry Potter Series, by J. K. Rowling

We were sure to come here eventually, since I’m a longtime fantasy reader who was a child at the end of the twentieth century. I believe it is my greatest piece of fantasy-hipster cred that I first read (technically had read to me) a British copy of the correctly titled Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (which looked very grown-up with its black and white photograph of an oncoming train on the cover) some months before the re-titled book was released in the United States. A friend of the family who visited from England knew we all loved fantasy and that I was the right age for such a thing and brought it as a gift when she visited us, before it had become apparent quite how much of thing Harry Potter was going to be on either side of the Atlantic.

Harry Potter and Philosopher’s Stone is, of course, very good, and that fact did not elude me or my parents as we read it for the first time. I read it myself more than once before the second book appeared, and I continued to read each entry eagerly when they came out. I wasn’t as deep into the world of Harry Potter as it was possible to be, but neither did I only dip a toe into those waters. I never attended a midnight release, or indeed any kind of release event at a bookstore. I certainly caused wands to be fabricated for my own use, but no robes or other wizardly paraphernalia from that particular universe appeared in our house or my games. (I had a lot of time for games of imagination as a child, especially when I was still home-schooled and had lonely hours to fill with nothing but a back yard and an ever growing collection of wood and plastic weaponry.)

I devoured each of the books, the first several, at least, in a day or two when it arrived. I enjoyed them, and also, at that time, voraciously reading the new Harry Potter book was an important way of performing the kind of nerd identity that I was most comfortable in. By reading them, I made public my attachment to fantasy in a way everyone else, especially other children, could recognize and accept. (I did not think of it in that way then, but I have been to college since and become far more pretentious.) Even as a read them, there were always things I disliked, the cringe-inducing awkwardness of so many of Harry’s interactions with adults, the painful stupidity of some of his choices. The opening of book 2, I remember, was particularly off-putting for me. None of this was enough push me away from the series, and I read the first four books more times than I can easily count, relishing each one, until I had more-or-less memorized each beat, and many of the individual sentences.

Book 5, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, was where my relationship with the series began to change. I am given to understand that this is a relatively common experience. (That weight was long, wasn’t it?) I’m sure I read Order of the Phoenix more than once, but I don’t really remember it nearly as well as the first four. I’m not certain I read either of the last two books more than once. I had aged faster than the writing, and as I aged, I had read more and more other genre fiction books, which threw the weaknesses of Harry Potter into sharper relief. The added grimness of the latter entries did not really help with the problem of adolescence that broke my immersion in the world, it just made me enjoy reading the books less. They’re long books to spend a lot of the story arc sad.

I loved the Harry Potter books for a long time, and I enjoyed reading and talking about them, but I was only briefly a fan. When the little charity pamphlets about magical beast and the history of Quidditch gave a glimpse of the larger wizarding world, my imagination games featured a good deal of Harry Potter derived material for a while, but it didn’t go much farther than that. The real problem is that the way I enjoyed my books outside of reading them, the way I performed enjoyment of them for others, was to talk about them. Specifically, to analyze them, and Harry Potter doesn’t stand up to the deconstruction, as even its fans know. There are too many large holes in the logic of the world for it to keep its shine through deep analysis, and that gets added to the list of reasons I lost my deep love for the series. The biggest reason, though, was the end. I absolutely hate the rug-pull of Harry’s resurrection at the close. For me, it cheapened the sacrifice and left a sour taste.

If I was not really a diehard fan of Harry Potter as a child, I certainly am not one now. The books live in my memory, and the sheer number of times I read the first half of the series earns them a place in this blog series, but the greatest long-lasting impact of them on me and my reading was probably the reaction against them at the end, it’s certainly a big part of what created my current wariness of young-adult fiction and my tendency to pivot into things that are unequivocally ‘serious’ and ‘adult’ for my reading material. Thought, if you have some time, I do have some moderately detailed notes on how the series could be completely re-written to solve a lot of problems and improve the depth of the world building. … …Call me?

Friday, September 22, 2017

Books that Shaped Me, Part 7: The Discworld Novels, by Terry Pratchett

This is going to be a long one, because I have several books to talk about. Let me begin by saying that, until his sad decline in Alzheimer’s, everything Terry Pratchett wrote was smart, and much of it was not just good but great. It is the finest satire I have ever read, looking through its elegant lens at our world with a deep and bountiful heart, animated by an engine of righteous fury so elegantly described in Neil Gaiman’s essay “A Slip of the Keyboard: Terry Pratchett.” Pratchett’s anger is always aimed upward at those who deserve to have it rattling their thrones, never at anyone who will be pushed down when they need a hand to lift them. There are too many excellent Discworld books to list, so I will confine myself here to four that touched me very deeply, and that shaped my reading and my thinking early, before I could encompass the whole of the great disc and its many people.

I will begin with Small Gods. It was my first Discworld book. I will also venture to suggest that it is the correct first Discworld book, if someone is looking for an entertaining read that stands alone and does not lose savor or depth without a context to sauce it. Small Gods uses no characters, save for some of the deities, that appear elsewhere in the series, since it takes place long before most of the other novels.

A great deal of the historical, social, political, and religious references and allegories in Small Gods went far over my head when I first read it, somewhere between ten and twelve years old, but the emotional pull of the story was undeniable. I cared. I cheered and groaned and was frustrated and anxious and triumphant at the times intended. Many of the jokes were excellently simple and required nothing but an enjoyment of words or absurd images to make me laugh to myself as I read them. Now, when I come back, I know what is being winked at, what pieces of history are pilfered for their best pieces, what bits of human sin are the villains I am being taught to recognize in life.

After Small Gods, I was aware of Discworld but not drawn in. As young as I was, it had been strange and difficult enough I did not immediately look for another like it. I picked up other Pratchett books occasionally and haphazardly, reading them out of order and without understanding the larger picture of the universe. Some of the books do not really work well when read out of context. Deciphering large series was much harder before internet bibliographies so helpfully broke everything down by publication date and internal chronology.

Feet of Clay was the book that got me properly pulled into Discworld. It was the one that made me get all the rest and read them properly, over and over until I understood how they fit. It is a Sam Vimes novel (my favorite subset of the Discworld), and, for me, it begins the second act of the night watch’s narrative. Feet of Clay is a pure delight, especially for a young person just beginning to like stories that are a little darker, stories with a little teeth to them. It treats with huge and weighty questions about prejudice, about freedom and slavery and leadership, about blood and class and labor, and, as all watch books do, about justice and revenge.

Sam Vimes is character I will always love, and I first met him here: so full of righteous fury, but so wary of giving in to it, so distrustful of easy answers and fast, satisfying solutions. Sam Vimes and this book taught me about the institutional injustice of capitalism and class structure a decade before I was ready to articulate a bit of it, and it was great fun at the same time, magical and cynical and full of wit and mystery and magic.

Vimes is the hero of my very favorite Pratchett: Night Watch, which I think may be his very best novel. I read it when I was fully enfranchised in the series and the world. I had read more or less everything that was out at that point. As with most Discworld, this improved Night Watch from good to nearly perfect.

Night Watch is a novel about revolution, and how it manages to revolve without ever lifting the people at the bottom any higher. We see the particular revolution of the book from the point of view of Sam Vimes tumbled back in time, who knows just how much and how little this glorious republic will achieve. I am re-reading Night Watch now, and I am filled once again with admiration and joy and sadness at Pratchett’s poignant love for people who think they can change the way the world works, and his righteous hate for the machine that crushes the poor and the good and na├»ve between its gears and the people who turn those grinding wheels.

Reading Night Watch for the first time, I was most taken with Sam Vimes, his cunning and his wit and his cynical idealism, and with the glimpse inside the mind of the future patrician, Vetinari, that was offered. Reading it again, I am struck with its astounding prescience born of deep historical realism. The whole book might be meditation on recent history in Egypt and the Middle East. It was published in 2002. It is an always-relevant look at the danger of government turned against its people and the broken dreams of so many revolutions. It is angry and sad and hopeful and beautiful and true, like all of Pratchett, underneath the brightly colored shell of humor that entices you to take a look.

I don’t have an elegant transition, but I do also want to talk about one more book: Lords and Ladies, because it is a fairy story, one which I read early, and, if you have been paying any attention to my writing, you know that I spend a lot of time thinking about fairy stories. It is a witches book, the first in Pratchett’s real golden age, in my opinion. Like many witch books, it draws a lot on theater, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in this case. I missed those references my first time through, which is odd, since I had read A Midsummer Night’s Dream and seen it performed more than once before I read Lords and Ladies.

As a fairy story, Lords and Ladies is thoughtful and deep. It has the bones of terror that good fairy stories need, and it meditates on how stories can trick us. The glamor of fairies is built on stories of blood and ancient right and beauty and confounding style, and those stories trick us into acting against our own best interests, just like they do when ordinary people tell them for that reason. It reminds us, as good fairy stories should, that a loss of wonder in the world is a price we pay for nights that can be fearless, and it may well be a price worth paying.

I have no pithy conclusion here, except to say that discworld is brilliant and deep beneath its constant and irrepressible humor, and my young life was made much richer by reading it.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Books that Shaped Me, Part 6: Lord of Light, by Roger Zelazny

I don’t know exactly when I read this book first. I read a lot of books in the later years of my home-schooling and the first of my traditional schooling, and the order in which I came to the next several titles in this series is lost to the mists of time. I found Lord of Light during a program of devouring all of Roger Zelazny, who I had found first through Nine Princes in Amber. Since I liked that book, I got everything the central library had of Zelazny, as was my pattern for finding new books at that stage of life. Roger Zelazny was far from the only author whose entire section I pulled from the fantasy and science fiction shelves. I was probably too young for much of the sex, politics, literary allusions, and sarcasm when I first read it, but I loved it anyway. I still love most of Zelazny, but Lord of Light is the book of his that I return to often, the one at the center of his portion of my heart.

Lord of Light is a novel intentionally based in Indian religion and mythology, drawing heavily on the iconography of Hinduism and Buddhism. It is about colonists of distant planet who have built a society that draws heavily on the iconography of Hinduism, and a revolutionary who introduces Buddhist ideas as an intentional disruption. For both Zelazny and his characters, the basis in real-world religion provides a wealth of potent imagery to pilfer and re-purpose. It was certainly brilliantly targeted for me, as child who devoured mythology in the form of modern novel adaptations, illustrated surveys of bowdlerized snippets, and eventually full texts in translation.

Lord of light filled me with a desire to read the Vedas and the Upanishads, before I actually knew what they were. I haven’t actually managed that yet. They don’t have nicely packaged popular translations the way British mythologies tend to. I think of reading them again whenever I return to Lord of Light. I’ll actually get to it one of these days, I swear.

I adored the mythic scale of the action in this book, and the intentional reference to gods and goddesses let the conflict shake the foundations of the world without seeming overdone or out of place. The characters battle over the whole world and course of its civilization, and nothing undercuts that scale. Like Tolkien, the narrative is comfortable with its own scale, with the conflict of good and evil, or perhaps beauty and ugliness. They are human characters with foibles and petty desires and memories of something ordinary, but they are also more than that. They have ascended, intentionally, to a plane beyond. They may not deserve their lofty positions, their power of the fate of so many, but they do not give the power up. They have chosen to ascend.

That’s part of what works so well in Lord of Light. The characters know they have become archetypes. They’ve adopted those roles on purpose, to reinforce their power. But even self-aware, the power narrative still controls them. This idea is never spoken aloud, but Lord of Light is suffused with the power of narrative causality. It’s characters are driven to play to type, and to pursue the arc of stories they know will end with their destruction, because that is the way the story ends. This power of the narrative to compel even self-aware actors once they enter it is a tacit demonstration of an idea I found made explicit in Terry Pratchett, and later in more than one book about fairies. I think its implicit presence here is one of the hooks that caught me deep enough not to let go.

When I first read Lord of Light, it made me feel worldly and knowing and mature. It did not make me any of those things, but it’s jaded, worldly characters and their references to history and literature and stories that I did not know, but that I was trusted, as a reader of the book to understand, made me feel like I belonged among the jaded immortals who had become the gods of their world through science and mysticism and raw ambition. It is very attractive, at thirteen, to imagine you belong in the company of living gods who have lived centuries in body after body, long enough that they no longer marvel at the wonder of a world and city shaped in their own divine image.

I do not really know if Lord of Light is a very good book. It is probably a good book if you like Roger Zelazny, which I understand to be one of those things, like marmite or black coffee, that provokes strong reactions on either side of the debate. I do know that it is a perfect book for me, then, when I was young, and now, when I am still relatively young, but understand more of the references. I return to it endlessly now because it is filled with comfortable nostalgia. It is a story made to work even when you already remember every word. I do not remember every word yet, but I may before I am done reading it. The story will still be right, proceeding with the orderly and satisfying pace of a ticking clock, or the bone-deep rightness of fairytale.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Books that Shaped Me, Part 5: A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin

This is going to be the last of these books where my memories of being read to are as vivid and extensive as memories of reading for myself. I got A Wizard of Earthsea early, long before I could understand or even notice all the things it was about. That is one of the wonderful things about A Wizard of Earthsea: it is a perfect adventure story for children, as well as a thoughtful and complex fantasy for adults.

I would like to stake out a position here and say that I have wanted to be a wizard for as long as I can remember wanting to be anything, pretty much for as long as I can remember anything. I still want to be a wizard. I am just finding compromises until I get there. When I wanted to be a wizard as a child, this book is the one I took my template from. I hear Wizard of Earthsea long before Harry Potter appeared, long before I found and read So You Want to be a Wizard. Ged was the wizard I admired, the one I imagined being.

Ged’s magic, the magic of Wizard of Earthsea is, in my mind, the perfect magic for a studious child. I loved words as a child, I loved poetry and puns and playing with language. Here was a story where just that, knowing the right words and saying them at the right time could change the world, and there were secret words that would let you turn into a bird or a dragon, or call fire out of nothing.  It is a book where knowledge is fantastic power, just perfect for a curious little boy.

More than that attraction, the magic of Wizard of Earthsea feels right in the bones. I like to think I recognized that even as a child. It follows rules, but they are shaped by the logic of story as much as anything, not pinned to an appendix that cannot be violated. The power of wizardry is properly fantastic, capable of shows and flights of fancy, of real change and terrible violence and subtle mischief. It can do almost anything, but wizards in the book do not, as a rule, do much of what they could by magic, because it costs and it is dangerous. I have become somewhat obsessed with the costs of magic as the most important part of fantasy worlbuilding lately, and I think the perfect rightness I felt in Le Guin’s exploration of that, especially in The Farthest Shore and Upon the Other Wind is a big part of that. Something feels right about Earthsea’s magic and the heavy price for that kind of power. This theme is, of course, also very welcoming to return to as an adult who writes. It’s quite affirming to read again about the awesome power words can have and the care one must take wielding them.

The world of Earthsea is of course wonderful for more than just magic. Le Guin’s world building is like a perfect ink painting, with each brushstroke suggesting a wealth of details that appear without ever being fully drawn. The Archipelago feels like a living place, and the trades and lives of the ordinary people are full and real, and the magic is folded tightly into the weft of them. The place makes sense, and you can feel it breathing, hear it chattering all around you as you read, even as the grand wizards carve their own path and only occasionally dip a toe into the lives of ordinary people. It is also inventive and grandly unlike so many other fantasy worlds. The Archipelago may not be a utopia, but its vision of society not oriented primarily around war, conquest, and monarchy sets it apart. It has the power and the realism of a society built from the bottom up, with more concern for the people of little villages and merchant crews than for warriors and kings.

If Tolkien’s world was mythic, Le Guin’s prose is the same. Her language is spare enough to make each scene iconic, close enough to make us feel the chill of rain and the warmth of a welcome fire. A Wizard of Earthsea is not a mythic story, not quite, but it makes us sure that Ged deserves myths, that he is such a hero, but still human. Le Guin gives us a giant among ordinary people, but still makes him relatable. Ged has none of the Austere distance Gandalf and Aragorn enjoy. He is flawed and uncertain and close enough to touch.

A Wizard of Earthsea and its sequels are full of thoughts and questions about so many things: language, gender, religion, politics, death, property and freedom and so many more. It is possible to read them and notice none of this and still enjoy wonderful tales of adventure. They are books you can return to throughout your life, and they will grow with you, and each time they will show you something new, as much as you are ready to understand. I love them, without caveat or equivocation.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Books that Shaped me, Part 4: Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card

I must begin by saying that, yes, I am aware of the hateful things Card has said about LGBT people. I don’t want to endorse Card. I don’t want to recommend him. I have serious concerns about purchasing any of his work again. That said, I cannot fully reconcile those public views with the voice of his fiction, which has always, for me, seemed to speak thoughtfully to the importance of acceptance and care for others, and to be filled with homoeroticism overt enough I began to pick it up as a twelve year old. I am not telling you to read Card if you have reservations, but when I was a small boy, I knew nothing about his politics or his religion, and this book was and remains hugely important to me.

Ender’s Game is a very important book when you are boy who is often lonely, who is self-consciously intelligent, who often feels somehow out of step with other children, who has an older brother and suffers the little cruelties and abuses that come with it. That was me. It is also, of course, a wonderfully paced story, with thoughtfulness and sadness and adventure mixed in perfect amounts to keep a young person reading and still make them think and grow while they do.

I was homeschooled until the 7th grade, when I entered normal school by choice. I could have continued at home. That meant I was often alone. I had a few friends, but they went to school and so were busy all day. My parents didn’t work nine to five, but they still worked most of the time. I never became involved with homeschooling groups, so I was alone often, and sometimes I was lonely. I was always told I was smart. I excelled academically, homeschooling and after, and it was a long time before I questioned whether that was the same thing as being intelligent. I have an older brother, and sometimes we play-fought, and sometimes he pinned me, because he was older and bigger and stronger, and then it was no longer fun. I often felt like I was somehow older than my classmates once I went to school. There were jokes that seemed stupid or boring. I never really understood why they committed the petty cruelties of annoyance and isolation that children often enjoy. They seemed so uncomfortable in their own skins sometimes, so much less sure of who and what they were.

For me, Ender’s Game is about my own experience of childhood, and it taught me lessons that helped me navigate adolescence much more successfully than I otherwise would. It taught me that my academic success would be praised and rewarded by adults, but that they could have their own agendas beyond my well-being and happiness. I was lucky, and most of the adults in my life really did care about me for myself, but it was good to be careful sometimes. It taught me, very importantly, the danger of investing all my self-esteem and self-conception in my academic success. It’s not good for you, even if you keep doing well. It teaches young people the wrong lessons when they equate their value with their successes, and it is very easy to do, when you are young and intelligent and teachers tell you so.

Ender’s Game taught me that really important thing in school, no matter how well I performed, was to build friendships with my peers, to care for them, and for myself. I made it out of high school without too much damage, and there are many bits of luck behind that, but Ender’s game is surely one of them. It taught me to care for myself before I cared for my work, to build friendships and try to keep them, but that not everyone would like me, no matter what I did.

It is, of course, a beautifully written book. The questions are weighty but not distracting. The descriptions are crisp and evocative in my mind. The action is fast and flashy and tight and ugly as it should be. There is wonder and courage and victory and regret, but it is more importantly a story about my own experience, about loneliness and intelligence and trying to fit in. It told me about I boy I recognized, and about how important empathy could be, even if understanding wasn’t always enough to bridge the gap between people.

Ender’s Game is book whose protagonist I most identified with as a child. Ender’s life was different, but his experience of being young was more like mine than any other child I read. Ender’s Game was important, and it is still important. I am claiming it for quiet, awkward, intelligent children, for myself and for others. I will not give it up because the person who wrote it is a bigot. It is not only his. It is mine, and I am keeping it.