The OF Blog: July 2005

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Is J.K. Rowling becoming the next Charles Dickens?

After finishing Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince last night, I was struck more and more by the reactions that readers at wotmania had regarding the final chapters. There was a mixture of surprise, alarm, sadness, and anger. Almost the whole gamut of human emotions were on display in these posts relating their interactions with the story. For those readers, Rowling's book was not just a well-told story, but something more, something more important to them than the words printed on paper and bound together.

Every so often, books appear that capture national or even international attention. Although the stories and characters may be different, although the setting and style may bear scant semblence to one another, there is just something, some je ne sais quoi, that links the story, the readers, and the time the story is written. Whether we are talking about the decadence of the Jazz Age/Weimar Era and how Thomas Mann (in The Magic Mountain), Ernest Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises), or especially F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby; Tender is the Night) or if we focus on the Victorians or the Beat writers or even 'children stories' such as Where the Red Fern Grows, some of the best authors have managed to create memorable and moving scenes that last beyond their immediate times to create immemorial images that have burned their way into our collective consciousness.

Judging by the way Harry Pottermania has struck the globe, from the books, the movies, the action figures, and other miscellaneous objects, one would be hard pressed to think of an author who has managed to have such a cultural impact on the world. However, there is one author from the past who comes to mind, one whose importance has only grown as we draw ever further away from his Victorian abode: one Charles Dickens.

When I thought about Rowling in conjunction with Dickens, I was not thinking about sales figures, the quaint turns of speech both employ to draw in the reader, or even the sometimes brilliantly insightful commentaries buried within large amounts of dross, but instead on how well each has managed to connect the reader to the events taking place in the book that he or she might be reading at the time. One Dickens story in particular reminds me so much of the current discussions involving the latest Harry Potter book: The Old Curiosity Shop. While this story is not as famous as Oliver Twist ("Please sir, I want more.") or A Christmas Carol, in its day, this serialized novel about a picturesque shop and the little girl Nell moved people. Whether it was due to the quaintness of the shop settings or the humaneness of Nell or something else, The Old Curiosity Shop was a runaway bestseller not just in Dickens's native Britain, but also in the fledgling United States. Every month at ports along the American Atlantic seaboard, there would be large crowds of people gathered around one reading scenes from the latest installment of Dickens's latest masterpiece. They would laugh at the oddness of some of the characters, or smile as Nell's sweetness came on display, but one day they received a shocking installment: Nell had become sick.

While they waited, there were debates as to whether or not Nell would survive and if things would continue along their merry way toward a happy ending. But Dickens surprised people by having Nell die. From London to Scotland to the American frontier, tens of thousands of people read her deathbed scene and her passing away and they just bawled. Imagine grown men today just breaking down and crying because a little girl died. Yet somehow, her fictional death, when placed amongst the greater backdrop of what was transpiring in a rapidly industrializing Britain, with its exploited boys and girls dying in great numbers from work injuries or from diseases such as cholera or smallpox, came to symbolize just how cruel and capricious this world could be.

It was this image that popped into my head as I read the final 100 pages of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. While I will not spoil what happens there, I can say that it appears that Rowling has taken quite bit of Dickens's purpose to heart: she has worked very hard over six books to create something that moves the spirit. It is as if she was holding up a mirror for us to gaze into, letting us see again, as if anew, just how unfair this world can be. The Harry Potter series is rapidly becoming much more than 'just' a series for children. There are moments in the past two books that invoke a much darker, more worried world behind the whismical fantasy backdrop. Perhaps we are reading a series worthy of the post 9/11 or post 3/11 or post 7/7 world, one in which children and adults can suffer, can grieve, and yet still can love and carry on.

Maybe it is time to just come to terms with the notion that J.K. Rowling has created something that is much more than the sum of its parts. And in that, she might truly become like Charles Dickens.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Sometimes, There's No Alchemistry in Dreams

I just finished reading a book that disappointed me a lot, Paulo Coelho's El Alquimista: Una fábula para seguir tus sueños (The Alchemist in English). The premise seemed interesting, a quest-type/dream tale of a shepard following a dream from the plains of Spain (minus the rhyme about the rain) to the pyramids of Egypt, because he had been promised that he would find a treasure there. According to what I had read elsewhere, Coelho's story was a combination of a Borgesian dreamscape with Blake's aphoristic/visual style, with touches of Hemingway thrown in as well.

However, the story just didn't work for me. The use of proverbs to relate truths just seemed to hinder the flow of the narrative and it neither had the power of Borges's great stories about the power of dreams nor did it pack the punch of Blake's wordplay. I was just left feeling that while individual sections read well, the story as a whole just was not strong enough to carry the story. Also, I couldn't help but feel that Coelho relied way too much on his influences and that this story at least fails to show the author possessing a strong, unique voice of his own.

While the story is adequate to even good at times and the moral tales worth considering, I just cannot recommend this story to those who like myself were hoping for something more transcedent.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

A Mysterious Flame Sparks a Mysterious Mark

Sometimes, a reader manages to be treated to two wildly different and yet equally good reads in the span of a weekend. This indeed was the case for myself, as I completed on Friday Isabel Allende's latest work, Zorro (published this past May simultaneously in English and Spanish editions), and Umberto Eco's newest work, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (the English translation was published around the first of June). These two works by two widely-acknowledged masters of prosery are very different in theme and focus, and yet there is a connection that binds them deeply together, at least within the recesses of this reviewer's heart.

Allende has made a name for herself, both within the US and in Latin America, for stories that invoke a sense of magical realism, yet while containing fully realized characters. She continues this blending of elements in her retelling of the Zorro myth from the vantage point of how Diego de la Vega became the Masked Zorro. Hard as it is to believe, this is the first full-length written novel devoted to Zorro and Allende has taken great pains to make the experience a vivid one for the reader. Now I read this book in the original Spanish so I have little idea how the translator might have rendered this into English, but Allende was very detailed and yet brief with her descriptions of the plains, mountains, and arroyos of Alta California during the Mission Era of the 1790s. The scenery either glows or is dank based on the needs of the plot, and the places just seem so alive. Her human characters, however, are a fitting match, from the couragious Toypurnia, who meets her match (and makes a match of a different sort) in Alejandro de la Vega, to the dastardly Rafael Moncada to Diego himself. Allende has breathed life into all of them, placing motivations into their actions that go far beyond mere swashbuckling and which touch upon how utterly human these legendary characters really might have been.

The plot moves quickly, but do not be disappointed if there are few scenes involving the masked man with the Z logo. This is, after all, a prequel of sorts, explaining how Diego de la Vega became Zorro and why his struggle for justice for all resounds so much with our imaginations, nearly two centuries after his legendary exploits were supposed to have begun.

Eco's The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana reveals a much more introspective Eco, one whom seems to be concentrating more on the mysterious of one's own membrances rather than on contextual wordplay which was his hallmark in tales such as The Name of the Rose and Baudolino. The story is an interesting one, as an antique book dealer, Yambo, suffers a mysterious ailment and is left suffering from partial amnesia. While he can remember quite clearly the things he has read, he has absolutely no memory of his personal life.

While I'm not going to spoil the plot of this story (and to say much more than what I'm about to would ruin all sorts of surprises for the reader), I will note that Eco displays a very keen wit here, one in which the protagonist's partial memories of the stories read, the loves forgotten or transmogrified, or the experiences buried in the tales of comic books and children's poetry are all somehow blended into an exploration of what makes one a human being. It is by far the most moving of Eco's stories that I've read and underneath the veneer of harmless retrospection, one of the most penetrating and even frightening looks into what makes us us. The closest tales I can think to what he tales are some of Borges's tales (especially the inversion of Funes, the Memorious) and Gene Wolfe's Latro in the Mist duology, not to mention a possible connection to the movie Memento (which I haven't seen, yet have heard that it covers some of the same themes as this book). But Eco doesn't copy any of these authors; if anything it's more of a coincidental convergence of ideas, as Eco's exploration of the Self goes in different directions than the authors I've read before.

Now I've said that there is a common bond between these two authors, tenuous as it might appear at first glance. What struck me most after completing both of them was just how well the authors used their abilities with the written Word to invoke reflective responses on the reader's part. Whether it be by enabling us to imagine a young Zorro in action or finding ourselves reliving vicariously our childhood memories of action-packed Saturday matinees through Yambo's struggles to make sense of himself, both Allende and Eco invoke that "mysterious flame," that je ne sais quoi, that unspeakable and yet utterly heartfelt something, that causes us to dream the dreams that we dream, to feel the fears that we feel, to love those whom we love, to be just what we are - human beings.

In short, these authors' works reflect the very best of what fiction of any sort, whether you want to call it speculative or not, can inflict upon the reader's emotions. These are stories well worth reading and re-reading, if only for the memories and the often-futile grasps for understanding that we might have as consequences of having read them.

Friday, July 01, 2005

My Half-Year Reading List

Hard to believe the first six months of 2005 have come and gone and that we are now beginning the backstretch of the year! I know many of the readers here at OF are competing in the 50 book challenge. While I'm not aiming to read 50+ books this year per se (schoolwork and worky-work are combining with my need to devote hours to exercise each week to keep me from having much free reading time), I thought I'd list the books I've completed so far this year. Of course, I might be forgetting a few by accident, but I know I've read and completed these books in 2005:

Jorge Luis Borges, El Hacedor; Ficciónes (English); Ficciónes (Spanish); El libro de arena

Eduardo Gonzalez Viana, Los sueños de America

Julio Cortázar, El autopista del sur y otros cuentos

Carlos Fuentes, Inquieta Compañia

Harriet Beecher Stowe, La cabaña del tío Tom

Umberto Eco, On Literature

Xavier Velasco, El guardián diablo

Ciro Alegria, El mundo es ancho y ajeno

Caitlin Sweet, A Telling of Stars; The Silences of Home

Calderón de la Barca, La vida es sueño

Jon Stewart, et. al, America (the book)

Angélica Gorodischer, Kalpa Imperial (Spanish)

Alison Croggon, The Naming

Yuri Andrukhovych, Perverzion

So yeah, not that many books so far this year, 18 in total, but considering that 11 are in Spanish and only 7 in English, that's not too bad, is it? And after this week, I should have almost two free months to catch up on my reading and here are the planned reads for the next few weeks/months:

To Finish Reading:

Isabel Allende, Zorro (Spanish)

Umberto Eco, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

To Start Reading Soon:

Kevin Radthorne, The Road to Kotaishi (Parts I & II)

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Ian Cameron Esslemont, Night of Knives

Isabel Allende, La Casa de los Espiritus

Later, Possibly:

George R.R. Martin, A Feast for Crows

Gene Wolfe, Starship Strains

R. Scott Bakker, The Thousandfold Thought (but that depends on a few things, such as whether or not I get an ARC copy before December 31st)

Dan Simmons, Olympos

Possible Re-reads:

Bakker's first two books

Erikson's Malazan series and the two Korbal Broach novellas

Dan Simmons, Ilium

And possibly a few dozen more books in Spanish, as I plan on focusing more on Spanish than I will on English-language books this year. Hey, gotta learn the language, written and spoken, as well as I can if I want to work the job that I'm aiming for when I finish school in the next year and a half or so, right?

So what books have you completed this past half-year and which do you think you'll finish in this second half of the year?
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