Friday, August 26, 2005

Unforgettable voices Posted by Picasa
Summer Reading, Some of the Time

I used to make fun of the whole concept of summer reading. Of course I was being paid to read year round at the time, and I suppose I still am, intermittently (and not at all well.)

It’s also hard to get behind the idea of beach reading in a place where it seldom breaks 70F, and the beach is as apt to be windy or foggy as not. Don’t get me wrong, we love our beaches, they’re never crowded and quite close by, but though I’ve read on the beach , I was fully clothed. With a thermos of hot coffee by my side.

So the fact that I actually did some summer reading this summer has almost nothing to do with summer, just with the impulse.

I started with Star Trek novels, which I have on hand for air travel. They keep me absorbed without much effort, I can read them when I tired or zoned out, so they are perfect for waiting, which is all you do, waiting in airports in order to wait on the runway in order to wait while you’re in the air, and so on, ad exhaustum boredom.

A lot of people like paperbacks of various genres for this---mysteries, thrillers, etc. but it’s not just the science fiction aspect: it’s partly that I hear the actor’s voices, and see the action to an extent. Which is partly why I stay with original series and Next Generation characters. For all I know, the DS9 and Voyager novels are better than the TV versions, but I don’t know the characters as well and I'm not as interested in them.

Anyway, since I have no flight scheduled for the next generation, and I had the impulse, I read several Star Trek novels over a few days. I enjoyed them all but one of them stays with me: a TNG novel called Gulliver’s Fugitives by Keith Sharee (Pocket Books.)

The Trek novels often features worlds and alien creatures that even CGI couldn’t realize under budget. This one has an appealing underground world with unusual creatures, but it’s the premise and the story that are the most interesting. The Enterprise encounters a world settled by humans where anything fictional is criminal, and there’s an underground society preserving the old stories. But it takes the Bradbury “Fahrenheit 451” preservation by memorizing classic texts a step farther. Individuals become the characters, they personify them. The group’s leader is Odysseus. Counselor Troi is among them, and her observations on the complications of this make for interesting reading. It’s also a gloss on the Trekkie phenomenon itself.

From there I moved on to books I had collected but were never a priority enough to have read. One was Broken Music, an autobiography by Sting (Dial Press.) It borders on being unfair that he writes this well. Isn’t being a superior songwriter, singer, musician, sex symbol and human rights advocate enough? I asked to review this book for the SF Chronicle, but was told that it would be done by the pop music department, if at all. That’s too bad. It would be worth reading even if the protagonist never became famous, although in that case it’s unlikely it would have found a publisher these days.

Then I indulged in Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made by David Halberstam (Random House.) Halberstam is a very good reporter, a great talker, but not such a great writer. If he thinks it’s worth saying once, it’s worth saying three times within a few pages or even paragraphs. But if his stories aren’t so well told, they’re worth telling.

Pro sports is a bizarre world, of course, where grown men paid two million dollars a year complain they are under-appreciated. But these sports are also more difficult and more gladiatorial than fans see or want to see. Halberstam deals with all this, and creates a bigger context of changes in the NBA, but the most fascinating stuff is specifically about Jordan. Halberstam writes that in addition to his obvious physical skills, Jordan just had energy. He slept little, hardly ever stopped moving, and confounded opponents when he got stronger as the season or the game wore on.

The unfortunate byproduct of reading this book however was that it inspired me to unpack the tapes I made of Bulls games in the glory years (I lived in Pittsburgh until 1996, where the cable system included WGN in Chicago, which broadcast Bulls games). I intended to watch them only while exercising of course, but that resolution soon faded. I’m now up to game 5 of the second round of the playoffs in 1996.

But when I wasn’t watching or reading about the Bulls, I read some novels. “The Haunted Bookshop” by Christopher Morley was first published in 1919, and would be completely forgotten if it hadn’t been for the Akadine Press and their Common Reader Editions (this one published in 1998.) This book attracted me because of its subject---a bookstore and the book business of that era—and the author, a favorite of my mother’s when she was in high school.

It turns out to be charming, gently amusing, and pretty informative about the period. There’s a bit of satire and an unexpected glimpse of conflicted feelings about the Great War shortly after it ended: a long anti-war argument by one of the characters, but a late developing plot just this side of jingoism that hinges on dastardly German terrorists.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (HarperPerennial) is a surprising little book, a fable that several blurbed reviews liken to The Little Prince, but the main character here, a young shepherd in Spain, is much more of a believable character, and his journey, while mystical and exotic, is grounded in real landscapes and history. The guiding ideas, the Personal Legend and the other capitalized qualities, are as matter-of-fact as the wind and sun. It’s a bit like Hemingway meets Casteneda. I don’t know if its charm or the hope that the author is on to something makes it compelling, or maybe it’s just hypnotic writing. I enjoyed it, and it’s the kind of book it’s easy to read any time, and any number of times.

I finally got around to reading Don DeLillo’s novel, Cosmopolis (Scribner.) I’ve been reading DeLillo since the early 1970s, when I considered his early novels like “Americana,” “End Zone” and even the all-but-forgotten “Ratner’s Star” to be my kind of summer reading. DeLillo has always been good at getting right to the Zeitgeist with the most outrageous and yet only slightly exaggerated premises. One of his characters, after all, was teaching Hitler Studies only a few minutes before such courses became common. But I also had some feeling for his protagonists, which began fading after awhile, and with this novel pretty much disappeared. The Zeitgeist detector is still intact, and there are still passages of the kind of writing that made the giant “Underworld” so mesmerizing, and the precision that was so striking in earlier novels.

Nick Sagan’s second novel, edenborn (Putnam) is just out in paperback, so I’ll append a note about it to this summer’s review. Nick, who wrote for Star Trek: The Next Generation and was a story editor for Voyager, has been an email friend for several years. (He’s also the son of Carl Sagan, and that’s his young voice greeting the cosmos on the recording aboard Voyager I.) His first novel, Idlewild, set up the science fiction world in which this and his forthcoming novel (everfree) inhabit.

Idlewild was engrossing, convincing and fun to read. It had a Matrix-like premise in that the young characters were living in a virtual reality world and returned to a real world that turned out to be just another one of the VR neighborhoods. But they aren’t prisoners of nefarious aliens; they are survivors of a plague that wiped out humanity.

In edenborn they’ve returned to that devastated real world, and some have borne (or synthesized) children. We learn more about their world and their histories, as well as our world and our history, but this novel is less concerned with story than the various and compelling voices of its characters. The result is unique. Neither familiarity with the first book nor a special taste for science fiction is necessary to find this book highly enjoyable and illuminating. The ensemble characters are well-wrought, and several of the more prominent characters with the most individual voices will simply be unforgettable.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Harry VI is here (this being the younger, movie Harry) Posted by Picasa
'>Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
By J.K. Rowling

by William S. Kowinski

You’ve heard of it, perhaps?

This, the sixth book in the series continues the admirable pattern of developing the character of Harry (as well as the other important young characters) as they grow older, while developing the overall story of how the wizarding world deals with its resurgent dark side. Moreover, Rowling has performed the sly and difficult feat of never giving Harry more than he could handle at a given age, but always enough to test his mettle. But there's plenty for those of us lost in Bushworld to learn about our evil empire.

In previous books, Harry was believable as a boy of the stated age and is generally so in this one, though some might argue he and his friends are a little behind the curve in gender relationships and Harry has otherwise achieved a remarkable maturity at 16. But all of this is well within the believable range and also within the traditional mythic framework. It took considerable skill to add just the right amount, progression and tone of the romance that was needed to make the characters credible at this age, and have it say something about the characters, yet not throw the story off balance. Pleasing all the ages that read these books now, including adults, is a feat in itself. Rowling's skills admirably keep pace with her saga.

It is somewhat unusual, and more than a little risky, for a child hero to get older book by book---it would drive niche marketers crazy. But of course, they would have put a stop to this series long ago.

If you haven’t read this one, the following discussion might say too much, and if you have, it may say too little. But there are some relevant points that can be made without too much danger either way.

In announcing the new reign of terror by the evil wizard Voldemort, this book begins with an unpremeditated but inevitable whiff of the contemporary geopolitical atmosphere, but terrorism has been part of the UK experience and consciousness for some decades now, so the metaphor is a natural one. Still, an opening chapter dramatizes the crossover of darkness from the wizarding world to the Muggle (non-magical) world, and Rowling has hinted it won’t be the last such relationship.

Within the wizarding world, there've been such Muggle-familiar acts of official and cultural denial, craven media, petty tyrants, slick politicians and maddening bureaucracy, which this time expands to the imprisoning and probable torture of an innocent for political symbolism. Harry will have none of it.

There’s a through-line of philosophy about choice in the series that becomes most significant here, though it ends up with the inevitability of destiny. It’s not too surprising that Macbeth is Rowling’s favorite Shakespeare play. Yet the book (if not Harry, yet) unashamedly promotes the power of love as the ultimate defense against the dark arts.

Along with Harry’s coming of age, there are complications in the polarized battle of good and evil. Beyond betrayal, there are flaws in the best of the wizards, and one turns out to be fatal. (“Immense brainpower doesn’t protect you from emotional mistakes,” Rowling commented on this.) Harry was especially hot tempered in the previous book, so we're prepared to discount his obstinate judgments, but it turns out he is feeling some things pretty clearly. He's developing intuition, and by the end of this adventure, his rational evaluation of people and his own actions is clear and sure.

Yet even apart from his famous scar, Harry, too, is flawed. He is intellectually lazy and his righteousness borders on self-righteousness and vengeance. But that’s about right for a mythic hero, especially at a pentultimate stage. Though he doesn’t actually do much in this book (he witnesses a lot, which is worse), he’s just about to go into action in the last act of this story, which is to be concluded in book seven.

At our house, we read this aloud to each other, alternating chapters, as we have all the books. The murder most foul fell to me, and I did not react well. It surely has something to do with the fact that I am closer to the age of the mentors than the young heroes. But I more or less knew it was coming, if only because---as Rowling herself has said---in this genre, the hero usually must go on alone, or at least with his contemporaries.

There was plenty of misdirection to maintain suspense, so it was a satisfying story, as usual. In a recent interview (which I’ll describe below) Rowling mentions Dorothy L. Sayer, the mystery writer, and Jane Austen. She’s learned well from both, as well as from other discernable influences, be they direct or not: Tolkien, Dickens, E. Nesbit (in the first books in this series especially) and the Beatles. (As I recall, George was her favorite, though Harry seems more like John, and of course in the movies, looks like him.)

Part of what made these books fun to read aloud was the wit in the dialogue and the names. The villains have villainous sounding names: Mal-foy is malicious, the house of Slytherin is sly and slithering snake-like, and just try and say Severus Snape with a happy smile. The evil nemesis is Voldemort, a name with death in it, and depending on the language, it could meant the vault (tomb) or face or mask or denial of death.

But the really interesting choice was to make the names of the heroes so ordinary. What could be more anonymous than Harry Potter. Ron Weasley, maybe. And the name of the magical school---Hogwarts---is a kind of juvenile joke. Even the greatest wizard and Hogwart’s headmaster is Dumbledore: literally an old name for bumblebee, though both “dumb” and “humble” are in it.

There is a definite working class hero aspect to all this (the Beatles again) and the wizard students are unostentaciously multicultural. But there is also a strong theme of class consciousness and racial purity as part of the villainy, and the appropriate and very realistic hypocrisy that goes along with it.

This one was a little harder to read aloud, though, because of the emotional content. Yet that might be better insulation than reading it silently, because the last third of the book has more horror to it, the deeper you sink into it. The lake in the cave scene was as horrifying as any I know, though I’m not given to the horror genre. Rowling usually manages to end on a high note, and as the last chapter started I found myself wondering how she was going to do it this time. She found a way.

If you’ve had your head in a bucket for the last few weeks, you might have missed the launching of this book, and all the sales records it broke in the UK and US. (A fact I came upon in passing—the Braille edition was ready the same day as the worldwide publication date, so nobody was left out.)

As part of the launch in Rowling’s home country of Scotland, she was interviewed by various children and teens who’d won contests on the merits of their Potter knowledge, and by the editors of two of the leading Potter websites (all the previous references to Rowling’s comments come from these interviews, which can be accessed from Rowling’s own site.)

Rowling, who seems to be a witty, smart and good person (in an earlier interview she said she told her accountant, I read in the paper I’m richer than the Queen. You must be embezzling quite a lot) and appears to be having some well-deserved fun exploring the Harry world of the web. Though she posts comments only on her own site, she has been known to show up disguised in a chat room---where she says she was “treated with utter contempt” as a newbie who didn’t know anything---and she’s entered at least one contest. She likes all the theorizing, though she discourages unfruitful speculation and is bothered by things like the girls who are too fascinated with the evil boy Malfoy.

So what can we expect in book seven? No more Quidditch, but more backstory on Dumbledore (the “gleam of triumph” in his eye at the end of book 4 will turn out to be “enormously significant,” as apparently will much more from that book), and on Harry’s parents and how they were killed. Dolores Umbridge, the simpering villain of book five and exactly the kind of character Dickens would have created if he wrote now, and with the same name---will be back as well.

As for when, despite the rumors of writing block and other distractions, Rowling described writing the first six books almost continuously. She is taking some nurturing time for her new infant as well as some breathing space, and expects to work on book seven in earnest starting the first of next year. And yes, this will be the last in this series. Though she did say she might do a kind of encyclopedia of her magical world, since she spent so much time working out the details of it, and hasn’t used it all. She actually did profiles of all forty students in Harry’s class, for instance, before she started the first book.

She knows basically what’s going to happen in book seven, and has known for a long time. Somebody almost guessed, she said some years ago, but nobody got it exactly right. She’s set an enormous set of tasks for Harry, and her task will be not to let its seriousness sink the charm that made this series so popular. But her subject, she says, is evil. That’s also been part of the fascination and the power of the series.

And despite the schedule she’s set for herself, she’s written some of the seventh book already, including the final chapter. And the last word.

Which is: scar.