January flew past in the bookconscious house. We saw Teen the Elder off to England for the second half of his gap year. Began some new things in Teen the Younger’s life learning, and investigated more options for her coming (soon!) high school years. Prepared for speaking gigs (I gave a talk on working with libraries and bookstores at NH Writers’ Project Author School, The Computer Scientist is speaking at a development conference in San Francisco). Generally succumbed to that new year, new plans, new goals kind of mindset that can be both invigorating and disruptive.
We’re all moving in interesting and exciting directions, with plans for better eating/exercising/time management/writing/studying. All of the thinking and planning that went with the collective turning over of new leaves ate into my reading time this month. And my reading was focused on one large goal related to Teen the Younger’s educational plans this season: I re-read all the Harry Potter books.
Several students at the college library where I work mentioned a course that looks into the literary origins of Harry Potter; I’ve heard several students gripe about (or plan shortcuts around) the required reading or re-reading of all seven volumes. When I mentioned this to Teen the Younger, she was quick to point out that she’s been asking me for years to re-read them, mainly so I would quit asking her what happened in which book, or what’s different in the movies. And she liked the idea of our discussing the books in the context of the influences J.K. Rowling mentions on her website or in interviews, or what we see ourselves.
Re-reading the books took me a few weeks. I was struck by a) how much I enjoyed re-reading them b) how little I’d retained in terms of the small details and plot twists and c) how long it took me to read what I’d expected to breeze right through. Granted I haven’t read them in many years. But I was surprised by how fresh the stories were even though I knew the basics of what was going to happen. And I was impressed anew with how really good and quite meaty these books are.
When Teen the Elder was seven, we’d spent a few months reading the first four Harry Potter books (all that were out at that point) aloud. We moved to New Hampshire and he was begging me to start reading them over again. He was a good reader but lacked confidence; he wanted me to sit beside him as he read even simple chapter books, so he could verify he was getting it right. I told him I had to unpack the kitchen, but he could start reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone himself.
He disappeared with the book, and came back downstairs later, absolutely delighted with himself. He was reading it! I wasn’t surprised but was pleased he felt so good about it. What did surprise me was that in about a month and a half, he read all four books himself, big thick books full of complicated twists and new words, and he never once asked for help. I knew he understoof what he read, because he told me all about his favorite bits and how badly he wished it was all real.
I decided then and there that J.K. Rowling was a genius and felt forever grateful to her for helping him see he could read anything. The boy who’d been hesitant went on to read whatever he wanted, selecting books he thought were interesting without any regard for “reading level.” Harry Potter had given him the belief that thick books were a delight, not a chore.
We learned fairly quickly that there were families who were anti-Harry. I’ve never understood that point of view. Many of the best stories from mythology to the present explore the same themes, and many people who fear Harry approve of other stories with magical elements, like the Narnia series. People who claimed that the Harry Potter would confuse kids or dupe them into believing in magic especially baffled me, since I knew that my own two were highly disappointed that it was all a story, and often wished there really was a Hogwarts and they could really go. I’ve never met a child who didn’t realize Harry Potter’s world is fictional.
But it is a very rich fictional world, and I thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in it for a few weeks. Re-reading allowed me to notice some things I don’t remember making as big an impression the first time. Like how very well Rowling writes of the pain of being an adolescent who feels like an outsider, and how searingly she captures Harry’s isolation when most of Hogwarts and the wizarding world turn against him. I really felt his pain this time.
I was also impressed anew with the complexity of the books. Rowling manages to weave several generations of tales into Harry’s story: his own, his parents’, Tom Riddle’s, and Dumbledore’s. I found myself asking Teen the Younger questions, just to make sure I was clear (she and her brother have each re-read the books many times). It’s impressive how Rowling incorporated certain magical objects’ histories into the tales as well.
And the magic — wow. Everything from the nuts and bolts of magic at Hogwarts — charms, spells, potions, transfiguration, history of magic, divination, care of magical creatures,the dorms and dungeons and towers and owl post and ghosts and magical food — to the way the wizarding world works, the places and traditions, the gardening and housework, the transportation and career choices, even the jokes and sports, are so very, very richly detailed. How much fun it must have been to invent it all, and how complicated to keep it all straight during the writing.
Another thing I noticed this time, perhaps because I read the books with an eye towards discussing them in a greater depth, are the historical and political overtones. The anti-muggle agenda of the Death Eaters has obvious parallels in Nazism, but I also thought of more recent history: apartheid, racism in America and Europe, the rise and fall of various totalitarian governments. Spying, propaganda, state control of the press, and underground resistance all factor into the stories.
These issues were already on my mind as I read, because my Harry Potter reading fell between other books that dealt with racism and power. First, the Hooksett Library Book Club discussed The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest J. Gaines in January, a novel I’d never read. It’s a painful book, so I’m not sure I can say I enjoyed it. I think it does a good job of replicating autobiography’s idiosyncracies — Miss Jane’s narrative rambles a bit, it isn’t perfectly chronological and it emphasizes seemingly small incidents that seem historically unimportant to the reader. I sometimes felt lost in the tangle of names and relationships.
But I found it very interesting to consider that the civil rights movement, which we all learn about as a historical progression towards equality, was itself somewhat tangled, had its fits and starts over many decades, and wasn’t always welcomed by those who were its intended beneficiaries. Some of Miss Jane Pittman’s friends just want to live their lives in peace and don’t welcome what they see as hot-headed young people agitating for things like integrated water fountains.
The book is a reminder that it’s easy to fall into the trap of categorizing people as part of broad groups that were one side or the other of historical events, but in reality, life is far more nuanced and messy. A good thing to keep in mind today as we read about political points of view of various demographic groups, or people whose countries at war. Humans aren’t easily pigeonholed.
After Harry Potter, I turned to a book I’d checked out weeks ago at work: Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay. Ms. Kay is a well-known and prolific poet and fiction writer in England. Unfortunately, until I saw this memoir on the shelf, I’d never read her work. I suspect it’s because she came to prominence after I left college, so I missed learning about her work there, and she’s not as well known here in the U.S. (neither the college library nor my public library have any of her poetry books). I always feel a broad sense of loss when I come across an author I’ve never heard of; how many more are out there, unknown to me but important and beautiful? How will I find them?
Kay’s personal history lends itself to great story-telling and I really enjoyed Red Dust Road. She is the adopted daughter of progressive parents (political activists, Polaris protesters, anti-apartheid marchers who write Christmas cards to political prisoners) in Glasgow, Scotland. Her family is strong and loving and her mother depicts her birth parents — a Highland mother and Nigerian father who met as students — as brave victims of the society of their times.
When she’s grown and becoming a mother herself, Kay begins to investigate her origins, and Red Dust Road is about that physical and emotional journey. I found it fascinating and enlightening. I’d never heard of the British Movement, a fascist group that gained a fair bit of popular sympathy while stirring up racist sentiments in the UK. I never knew how widespread racism was (and by some accounts, still is) in the UK, where officially at least, it was never as blatant as in the Jim Crow South. I didn’t know much about Nigeria’s geography, and Kay brings it alive, as she does a small Scottish village and the town of Milton Keynes in England.
Besides being informative, I found Red Dust Road beautiful. Kay’s voice is honest and warm and friendly, funny and open-hearted and kind. Her tenderness towards the two very imperfect people who brought her into the world is amazing; both her birth parents have been unable to share her existence with her half-siblings, her mother faces Alzheimers and family problems, her father can’t reconcile his young self with the born-again figure he has become and sees her as a reminder of his past sins. She faces all of this with spirit and patience.
But her tenderness towards her actual parents, the bold, strong, loving people who raised her, is deeply moving. This book deserves wide reading as social history, as memoir, as poetic tribute to the real meaning of family, as gorgeous witness to love’s power to heal and writing’s power to transform. I can’t wait to track down some of her poetry and catch up on this amazing writer’s work.
Bookconscious regulars know I am in my second year of the Europa Challenge. In 2012 I plan to read one book from Europa Editions every month. I started the year with Margherita Dolce Vita by Stefano Benni, a novel first published in Italy. This book includes many of my favorite things: social commentary, sharp wit, a strong-but-quirky heroine, and elements of magical realism.
Margherita of the title is a teenager, overweight, creative and acutely observant, especially when it comes to the foibles of her family. She has a younger brother who reminds me of Jason in Foxtrot (a math genius, mad about video games), an older brother who prides himself on being a soccer hooligan, a father who tinkers with old bikes, cars, and other junk in a shed in the yard; a grandfather who claims to enjoy telepathic communication with the younger brother and dances with a ghost several nights a week; a mother who lives for her soap opera and is an avid green stamp collector and frugal cook who can recycle anything into her meatloaf; and a smelly, funny looking mutt named Sleepy.
When the book opens Margherita observes a mystery: where the open skies once allowed her a view of constellations of her own design, all is dark. Something is blocking her view. It turns out to be a black cube — the high tech futuristic home of her new neighbors. As the family gets to know the neighbors strange things happen: her older brother cleans up his act, switches soccer allegiances, and fawns over the beautiful daughter; her dad’s junk disappears and he goes into what Margherita suspects is nefarious business with the new neighbor; Mamma gets beauty treatments and gives up her beloved green stamps; Grandpa is an accident and moves to a care home; and Margherita discovers the new family has an unstable son they’d rather keep hidden.
To add to her troubles, the Dust Girl, a war ghost who lives in the meadow behind Margherita’s home, seems agitated; Margherita falls for the mysterious son and finds the secret behind all the changes in her family’s life. With her younger brother’s help, she tries to investigate the “business” and find out why a farmer has died, an immigrant friend is in danger, and the gypsies have disappeared. The book’s climactic ending is anything but tidy. In fact I sat in stunned silence for several minutes, contemplating what had just happened. Benni tells a wicked funny story, but in a chilling way.
I’m realizing as I look over this that I read about Patrollers in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (vigilante groups terrorizing newly freed slaves during Reconstruction), Snatchers in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (vigilantes rounding up “mudbloods” to turn in to Voldemort’s puppets at the Ministry of Magic), British Movement thugs in Red Dirt Road (thugs sympathetic to British Movement fascism who terrorized people of color in the UK), and Rage of God (an anti-immigrant anti-Roma vigilante group and DB International (a government contractor that sows fear of terrorism in order to drive demand for its work) in Margherita Dolce Vita. Perhaps it’s time for some more uplifting reading?
Around the bookconscious household, Teen the Elder is reading up on places to go in England and beyond during the spring term and after his gap year ends. Teen the Younger has spent a lot of time reading books with film connections and seeing the films — we saw Hugo together (we both read The Invention of Hugo Cabret in December) and she also saw Tintin, which caused her to pull out our entire collection of the books and re-read them. She’s also reading Kathryn Stockett‘s The Help after enjoying the movie.
The Computer Scientist just finished 11/22/63 by Stephen King. He says he enjoyed the excellent character development and fascinating story that made him stop and think: “While the JFK event is the central point, there is so much more to the story than that…classic SK.”
Up next? I am trying to decide which Europa book to read in February. My theory of the interconnectedness of reading — the way I seem to read books with something in common — is holding up as I started another book confronting racism and nationalism last night, Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron. So far it’s very good, tempting me to set aside my to-do list and curl up with the cat to read this afternoon. I have my ever-present to-read piles beside the bed, and I’ve requested Stewart O’Nan‘s latest book, The Odds, at the library. Feel free to leave me reading suggestions in the comments. I’m always collecting ideas!
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