Archive for April, 2019

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (J. K. Rowling)

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (J. K. Rowling)

Harry Potter undergoes a transformation here, and I’m not sure if people talk about it. In Book Three, having become fed up with his nonmagical family, he grabs his school things and wanders into the night. He takes a bus to London and puts himself up in a public house for a week or two, at the age of thirteen. Harry is no longer a poor boy who suddenly finds himself with money; he’s a rich kid who didn’t have access to his accounts over the summer. The Dursleys are no longer the permanent reality; they’ve become a temporary inconvenience while he waits to get back to his ‘real’ life. Harry has begun to act privileged. And while I love this book a lot, it might be my favorite of the four I’ve reread this year, I don’t really have a whole bunch to say about it.

In the fourth book Hermione responds to the privilege being enacted around her by trying to unionize the house-elves. There’s some discomfort here in Rowling’s portrayal – it’s a common thread in British literature that some people are born to be servants and they’re only happy if they have a firm master who knows how to keep them in their place. We often call it colonialism, though it seems to apply to Dickens’s servants as well. There’s less of a sense of personal obligation and affection with the house-elves, but it’s just as alarming. They are almost all happier as slaves because their sense of identity comes from their service. Without a master, a house-elf sees herself as nothing, a failure. Winky is so programmed this way that of course she ends up an embarrassing drunk.

I also wanted to complain about the message of gender roles that the film teaches that isn’t supported in the book. In the book, there’s a mix of genders from both of the foreign schools, but in the film Durmstrang has boys and Beauxbatons has girls. Why? Is it so inconceivable that Fleur Delacour could be chosen as a champion when she’s competing against boys? Are Frenchmen unfilmable? Their movie industry would lead me to believe that isn’t true, nor does being French make a man effete. I also don’t think there’s anything especially masculinizing about Eastern Europe – their women are strong and beautiful, quite the equal of women from any other part of the world. Okay, so now I can’t remember any moments with Durmstrang girls in the book, but if there is sexism in the selection process we can blame it on the fact that Karkaroff is a bad guy.

Just a quick review – in Book Two the government responds ineffectually to a crisis; in Book Three two innocents are condemned to death and the main characters help them escape; and now in Book Four the highest government officials refuse to accept what is happening in front of them and begin the policy of denial that leads to so much trouble later on. It’s not often a series of children’s books represents this type of authority figure as being neither good nor evil, just stupid in a realistic, non-cartoonish way. It reminds me of the importance of choosing the right people to lead the community, as if living in the United States for the last three years hasn’t been enough of a lesson in that.

 

The Coming of the Quantum Cats (Friederik Pohl)

I was really disappointed by the lack of interstellar feline companions in this book. The title comes from Schroedinger’s cat, the thought experiment about how observation influences reality. By now, most of western culture is familiar with the idea of multiple dimensions of reality, or the multiverse: every time you make a choice, reality splits to create two parallel worlds, one where you turned right and one where you turned left. In this book Pohl explores the idea of travelling between these alternate realities. When we first meet Dominic Desota, he’s a mortgage officer in a world where North America has been taken over by Arabs. He gets arrested for taking his shirt off at a public swimming pool. There’s another world where he’s a senator, and a third where he’s a quantum physicist, and a fourth where he’s a mid-ranking soldier. Major Desota’s America has decided to invade and colonize the other realities, which makes the boundaries between thinner and thinner, so that people, objects, and weather events start slipping into the wrong reality. It’s really interesting to see the same group of characters cast in different roles, but when things get going Pohl pulls a deus ex machina out of thin air, so the plot ended up being disappointing. The bad thing about Cold War-era environmental novels is the idea that there’s always somewhere else we can go. If we screw up this planet, we can just blast off in a rocket to another. If we damage this reality, there’s always an unspoiled Eden dimension we can shift to. In the 1980s we never had to learn from our mistakes, no matter how destructive they were.

 

The City and the City (China Miéville)

Now, remember all that alternate reality stuff and imagine applying it to just one city. At some point in the past, we’re not sure how or why, the city bifurcated into two realities – Beszel is eastern European and Ul Qoma is southwest Asian, but they overlap. Some areas of the city are completely one or the other, and some are crosshatched. There are strict laws about crossing from one to the other, so people have developed a set of visual cues to establish their reality – colors and mannerisms are defined by which city you’re in. The people train themselves to see only their reality, and they ignore (unsee) the people and buildings in the other. Protagonist lives in Beszel, but an Ul Qoma commuter train goes right by his front windows, which he is partially aware of some of the time, as the commuters are only ever partially aware of him. There is a border crossing with customs agents and everything, but you can shift between cities if you start noticing what you’re not supposed to see. It’s illegal and the mysterious secret police will come, but you can do it.

All that being said, this isn’t a sci-fi book like the Pohl was. This is a Raymond Chandler-style noir murder mystery. The critics invite Kafka comparisons, but I think that’s out of place. Orwell is a little nearer the mark, but this isn’t a representation of where we could be going, and I guess you could make arguments about immigration and open borders, but it doesn’t seem closely related to our world at all. Miéville does follow the dialectic structure – Thesis/Beszel, Antithesis/Ul Qoma, Synthesis/Breach – but the government isn’t the primary antagonist like it is in 1984. It’s much more of an old-school mystery than it is anything else, so as ever, just ignore the quotes from critics that are chosen to convince you to buy the book. Besides, comparing any author to our cultural monoliths does him a disservice. If you spend your time thinking about how similar (or not) he is to Kafka, you don’t notice how great he is in himself. This is a fantastic, compelling book in its own right, a fascinating mashup of two of my favorite genres, so let’s celebrate that.

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Somewhere in Time (Richard Matheson)

I read somewhere that Matheson considers this one of his two best books – this is the one where love transcends time, and What Dreams May Come is the one where love transcends death. If that’s true, I can’t say I’m very interested in reading the rest of his work. Somewhere in Time is a time-traveling romance, where a man reads J. B. Priestley and realizes that time travel is a function of the mind (not a machine), and all you really have to do is hypnotize yourself. If you really believe it’s 1896, it will be. Our subject is a screenwriter in his mid-30s. He’s dying from a brain tumor, so he wanders away from his family and lands in a hotel on the coast of southern California. There, he sees a photograph of an actress from the previous century and he becomes completely obsessed. He goes through all the historical research and theories of relativity and time, and then he goes backward seventy-five years to see her.

She’s an actress who’s just okay, and has had two experiences with fortune-tellers who predict the love of her life. Suddenly a man shows up who fits their descriptions, and he’s odd but ardent. She’s guarded by her manager and her mother, but she still finds a way to meet up with this guy. Because we read the research, we know what’s going to happen. The actress is going to disappear from the stage for about nine months, then she’s going to be amazing. She’s technically flawless before, but it’s only after meeting her time-traveling man that she can really put some emotion into her roles.

Neither had ever loved anyone before, even though they’re certainly at an age to have done. The whole love story feeds into this misconception that there is only one love of a person’s life. I think it’s ridiculous – in a group of eight billion people, you think only one of them will love you? Rubbish! Love is everywhere, if we’re willing to look for it. These two people try to cram a lifetime of loving into a span of three days, and it’s a dismal failure. Not that they don’t love each other, but that waiting your whole life for one intense weekend and then never having another is a frightful waste. They have sex three times in one night, and it’s great, but why would she never try it again with anyone else? She has a long life ahead of her. He doesn’t, but in 1971 people with brain tumors are capable of casual sex.

What I’m saying is that the attitude toward love and sex is about as realistically believable as the idea that you can think yourself into a past you’ve never experienced.

This book is not as long as it feels. After a while, it seemed like the obstacles preventing the lovers’ union are simply there to stretch the story out as long as possible. It may have been more enjoyable as a short story. There’s a film that wasn’t well received, but it might be interesting to watch. Any excuse to stare at Christopher Reeve, right? Besides, the original title of the book was Bid Time Return, but it’s now printed under the film title, so maybe the movie is better? I don’t know. But the talent seems good, and the music is apparently popular, so it’ll be worth the experiment.

 

Men Under Water (Ralph Lombreglia)

It’s a risky business, giving young writers awards. You never know how the rest of their career is going to play out. This guy, for example, wrote two short story collections twenty-five years ago and has apparently spent the rest of his life teaching and doing media consulting. The stories are decent – all about men in pain acting out in one form or another, so it’s sort of like The Man of Feeling, reclaiming the primacy of (heterosexual white American) men’s emotional lives and the art they produce. I get the feeling in another month or two I will have completely forgotten this book. There’s one about transforming one’s house into a museum of love that caught my attention, museums and libraries being so closely related, but it’s another example of an unhappy man making everything about him, reducing a woman’s existence to a series of objects that he has a sentimental attachment to, and imprisoning himself in a literal basement.

 

What Remains (Garrett Leigh)

I seldom go for gay romances written by women, but this one was good. I wouldn’t recommend it to people who are squeamish about reading explicit gay sex scenes, because there are a ton of them, but if that’s no obstacle, this is a good story. Jodi is a web designer in London who gets hit by a car. There’s a coma, and some amnesia – he forgets about coming out of the closet and his five-year relationship with Rupert, a handsome Irish firefighter.  Personally, I’ve been having amnesia fantasies since I was a teenager, so the book touched on some ideas that I’ve thought out myself. I’d love to start over without all of the social conditioning. This is probably uncomfortably close to suicidal ideation, but it doesn’t feel the same. I don’t want to stop being; I want a shortcut to getting past the mental corset that hampers my ability to express myself freely in daily life. They fall in love again and there’s a happy ending, but it’s not super-sappy and the male characters are not unnaturally expressive or clearsighted as to the nuances of their emotional lives. They deal with things realistically, in a manner that is consistent with my experience of gay men of their ages.

 

The Nine Wrong Answers (John Dickson Carr)

The classic mystery of the 1960s. It’s such a perfect exemplar of its genre that nothing stands out too prominently, except for the gimmick expressed in the title. Every so often, there’s a footnote where the author discusses one of the genre conventions as a potential right answer, but as the title indicates, they’re all wrong. It’s a way of pointing out how well he’s meeting audience expectations while subverting them at the same time. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s not super memorable either.

 

The Library at Mount Char (Scott Hawkins)

This book is engaging and well written, but terrible. A godlike figure kidnaps twelve kids and forces them to study in a mystic library, which is divided into catalogs. The protagonist studies languages, but other kids learn about animals, or war, or healing, or death. Their study involves a lot of practical application as well as book learning, so the girl learning about death dies and Father brings her back, over and over and over again. This is just one example of the way that something that sounds pleasant, like a magical library, turns into the locus of trauma and abuse. There is so much needless suffering, and the library is the source of it. For me, libraries were a refuge from the horrible things in my life – Hawkins makes the library the opposite. There is no safe place, and the library is the source of the terror. Knowledge is power, and you can’t trust anyone to use power altruistically. Carolyn does eventually learn that joy is better than pain, but it takes her a long time to figure that out. Most of the characters in the book die at least once, but my favorite does come back at the end, so there’s a little tiny bit of hope. But it’s not like in Catch-22, where the ending makes you realize there was always hope and the last four or five pages make the whole book of suffering worth it. There’s so little joy that it doesn’t compensate for the difficulty of the rest of the book. Maybe if a reader isn’t full of traumas like me, they won’t find it as triggering as I did. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks telling people to stay away from this book. It is too upsetting for me.

 

A Wish Upon the Stars (TJ Klune)

The finale to the series about Sam of Wilds and his friends. The only thing that can compensate me for the loss of more books is the fact that I can reread these four again. Happy endings all around, marriage, recovery of lost unicorn horns, defeating the evil one, reclaiming the land for love, secrets revealed, relationships repaired, gay sex. It’s great. The author includes an endnote about how he started writing these books when he was in a dark place and needed some laughs, and these characters and their ‘overt immaturity’ really helped him a lot. They’ve helped add to my life’s store of happiness, too. It does make me question whether his other books will be as delightful as this series was. I’ll have to try one sometime and find out.

 

The Riddle-Master of Hed (Patricia A. McKillip)

Heir of Sea and Fire (Patricia A. McKillip)

Harpist in the Wind (Patricia A. McKillip)

Truth be told, I read this trilogy in a single volume, which has been published under more than one title. The one I borrowed is Riddle-Master: The Complete Trilogy, but I’ve also seen it as Riddle of Stars.

Morgon is a lot like Ged, the wizard of Earthsea in Ursula le Guin’s books. He’s just learning how to do magic, so he goes on a quest that spans the length of his known world to find an authority who will reveal to him who he is and what his life’s calling is. He thinks that he’s meant to rule over a peaceful island of farmers, but his life moves in a different direction. All the journeying is really typical of your Tolkien-based fantasy novels (McKillip admits the influence in her introduction), and Morgon even has to face the fact that the end of his journey is quite different to what he had imagined it would be.

But that’s only the first book. Part of Morgon’s journey was to complete a task that a local king had decreed would be rewarded with his daughter’s hand in marriage – Morgon had met her previously, having gone to college with her brother, so he was really okay with marrying Raederle if she would agree to it. The second book is about Raederle’s journey to find Morgon after he goes off to Erlenstar Mountain and never comes back. The series is full of women who are powerful rulers, fierce warriors, and even determined little sisters. While Raederle doesn’t set off with self-discovery in mind, it’s a strong element of her story as well.

In the third book, they’re finally together, but we see things mostly from Morgon’s perspective again. The conflict between multiple antagonists is finally coming to a head, with a giant war that spreads to all the lands. It’s sad, but McKillip does a good job of focusing on individual characters instead of faceless masses of humanity. The end is a new era, which we hope will be better.

I really like the way that McKillip doesn’t shy away from portraying abstractions, magic that can be perceived with the mind only and has no equivalent in our world. She takes up the challenge and does it well. I also appreciate her female characters for their strength, and the examples of nontoxic masculinity she provides as well. Some of the men are toxic, but not all, and Morgon’s journey has a lot to do with learning how to express his emotions. I like the fact that in the end, Raederle is still free to do as she likes, and that she and Morgon can love each other without living together. For the 1970s, the idea that a woman needs to grow in ways that don’t involve a man is sort of radically feminist. And true.