Friday, November 16, 2012

Where's Harry Potter?

I read the first Harry Potter long before it became such a phenomenon in the publishing world--Muggle or Wizard. Otherwise, I might never have started the series.  I often steer clear of books--or especially series--that seem trendy or faddish.  I'm glad, too, because I loved every one of the books.  I'll admit that I enjoyed all but the first two on audio, listening to the wonderfully talented Jim Dale creating all those different characters' voices.  More often than I like to admit, I sat in the carport waiting for a good stopping place.

When J. K. Rowlings' first "adult" book came out, I wanted to read it too, to see where she goes after Harry and Hogwarts.  I'm glad I read the book, and I think parts of it will stay in my head awhile, but I am so eager to talk to someone else who's read it too.

The book opens with the sudden death of Barry Fairbrother, suffering from an aneurysm as he and his wife were headed into the club for dinner on their anniversary.  As a member of a divided town council in the town of Pagford, his death leaves a "casual vacancy," requiring an election to fill his seat.  Rowling follows the lives in the town affected by Barry's death, most closely, the high school students one step removed, except for Crystal Weedon, a troubled teenage girl living the in controversial projects between Pagford and the larger neighboring town Yarvil.  Although she is first introduced as a brassy troublemaker at school, readers get to know her better in the home she shares with her mother, a recovering junkie, and the little brother Crystal protects and cares for.

Rowling takes readers inside the homes of the Walls, the principal and guidance counselor at the high school, and their adopted son Fats, bent on humiliating his father and living "an authentic life." His best friend Andrew Price, an acne ravaged teen, living with an abusive father, has developed a crush on Gaia, the beautiful new girl in town.  Gaia has moved, unwillingly, to Pagford with her mother, a social worker who came to live near her boyfriend Gavin--Barry Fairbrother's best friend--who is much less attracted to her once she moves to town. The threads connecting these and dozens more characters weave a tight web.

All the lives are intertwined, and Rowling's omniscient point-of-view moves fluidly among all the characters. No one, though, seems happy, even content.  Every character in the book seems to live in fear or to be plotting escape of some kind.

I was left with several questions:

First, did the book have to be so dark?  Honestly, the happy moments and the good relationships were so few.  In the end, I saw some hopeful glimpses, indications that at least some of the parent-child relationships (for those who were still alive, at least) might begin to improve.

Second, who was the protagonist?  I suppose I could envision the book as a Greek tragedy, since it ends in the classic scene of pity and woe, but I don't know that I truly identified with any of the characters.  I didn't even like some of them. Most of them.

All I need now, is someone else who's read the books so I can have an informed discussion.


Saturday, November 10, 2012

50 Shades of Book Snobs

     When the Wall Street Journal Online ran an excerpt from Joe Queenan's new book One for the Books, the story of his life as a voracious reader, he insisted I read it. Not enough that he send me a link, he waited as I located the story and watched as I read, certain it would strike a nerve.  He knows how I am about books. I love books. If I could find some career that required or allowed me to read all the time, I'd jump at it. Queenan is just as passionate.  He is also just as opinionated about his books as I am.  In fact, I notice that most people who love books are also strongly opinionated.

    Reading is such an odd pastime, one that is best enjoyed in solitude, but one requiring some kind of outlet or sharing.  I remember a column by a former Charlotte Observer book editor lamenting that her husband read but didn't want to discuss books with her afterwards. He did not, she declared "give good book." I heard Queenan interviewed about his book on NPR, and he was spouting his opinions--book clubs, he announced, are crap. (Okay, maybe I'm paraphrasing here.) He went on to point out specific authors whose works he considered beneath him.  Yet he admitted that he read lots of horrible books, many sent to him by self-publishing (therefore unedited) authors.  "I read those quickly," he said. 

Okay, then, I wanted to ask, which is worse, wasting time reading books you know in advance are not likely to be worth your time or reading a little airplane or beach fare? 

In a similar vein, I read one of those Ask.... columns in the New York Times magazine section. The question asked: whether or not one can count audiobooks when listing books read. His answer: No.  Again, I beg to differ.

Certainly when I started my teaching career, I felt the written page was sacred. Then I encountered a student whose learning disability--reading--had profoundly affected his education.  I suggested he try to listen as he read (insisting on the unabridged edition).  Afterwards, I realized that his comprehension and retention was far higher than many of the less encumbered students who had read thoroughly but only the print text.  Since then, I have become addicted to audiobooks, spending  almost an hour a day just driving to and from work. 

Since I'm also always reading a book as well, I sometimes can't remember a year later whether I listened or actually read a book.  I think I've always been an auditory reader.  In education classes, I learned that "subvocalization"--hearing the words aloud in my head--slows reading.  Well, guess what? I hear every word on the page (in the specific voices, usually).  That's the poetic effect of good writing.  I probably don't do the same when reading more expository texts. (Thank goodness, I don't hear the voice of the Maytag repairman when I read instruction manuals or Roger in India at the manual printing factory).

I won't even go into the ridiculous notion that reading electronic books is somehow less authentic than turning actual pages. I've licked my finger to try to turn the virtual page too many times before I remembered I was reading electronically.  I'll take my story fix, my word fix, any way I can get it.  But if Mr. Queenan can be persnickety about his books choices, so can I. And that's fine, as long as we don't impose our limits on one another.  Why, I'll probably read his book soon--not just the excerpts.


Saturday, November 3, 2012

Reading Lolita--in the Car

I felt like such a hypocrite. I'd read Reading Lolita in Tehran and I'd heard Azar Nafisi speak at NCTE. I'd read the other books--the ones by Austen, Fitzgerald, and James--mentioned in the work, but I had never actually read Lolita.  I had a general, fuzzy idea of  the novel's subject matter--creep pedophilia--but I honestly had no idea about specifics as Humbert Humbert and his stepdaughter Dolores travel across the U.S., presumably even through North Carolina. Who knew?

So when searching the library's audiobook shelves, my head atilt, I came across Nabokov's novel read by Jeremy Irons, a strong selling point, I checked it out.

I had no idea how clever, how darkly humorous the book would be. The voice of the narrator Nabokov creates is almost unintentionally self-revelatory.  Humbert Humbert is alternately self-loathing, apologetic, boastful, arrogant, analytical, spontaneous.  Lolita--Lo--Dolores is seen only through his eyes, but while she at first seems confident, even aggressive, Humbert unwittingly reveals a child, a victim plotting her own escape.

Because of the subject--the sexual abuse of a child--I would not recommend this novel to just anyone. In fact, there are some friends whom I would most decidedly tell, "Do not read this book." But after reading the novel--and yes, I do consider listening as reading--I completely understand why this clever, beautifully written, haunting book has earned its place in the literary canon.