Harry Potter

Try Again: On Follow-up Attempts

When J.K. Rowling published her latest novel, The Casual Vacancy, back in September, many of her devoted readers wanted to know where the magic—overt or otherwise—had gone. The expectation was understandable. She had done Middle Grades fantasy so well before. Why wouldn’t she produce the same again? We had been told she was working on something substantially different from the Potter series this time. Followers anticipated her efforts and worried, “What if it’s not as good?” Our imaginations had been taken captive by the Hogwarts story, and as generous as we might intend to be, devoted readers are not actually very generous. We tend to want the same thing again and again. In this case, we wanted the same narrative excitement, the same wild creativity. We were operating from the idea that J.K. Rowling owed it to us.

Indeed, we readers tend to think writers, in general, owe it to us. We may concede the right—nay, the duty (dangerous word)—of the creator to push herself, test new ground, blaze new artistic trails. But the reality is that, having done something well once, the writer must do the same again. We expect that he do it over and over and over. Writers must keep writing. If books aren’t forthcoming, it isn’t only disappointing; it is downright strange. Harper Lee committed the greatest authorial sin: She only wrote once—one novel, that is. There are essays and articles and whole sections of books dedicated to the question “Why?” Why did she stop after To Kill a Mockingbird? Why didn’t she give us more? The silent conclusion is that something must have gone very wrong.

Charles Dickens, on the other end of the spectrum, wrote and wrote and wrote. He wrote what he knew would sell: close to 20 novels published as serial fiction to satisfy the reading masses. And he wrote cultural articles for various periodicals because he knew that they would be read more immediately. But he also wrote about what interested him, including essays that weren’t all that well done or well received, because he cared to experiment with his craft. The reading public held expectations of him, and only sometimes did he answer those expectations with his ever-scribbling pen. There’s a reason we only read a select few of his books in high school and college. A number of them were a critical bust. (Martin Chuzzlewit, anyone?)

This nonconformity in writerly habit, whether it’s one exemplary novel in a lifetime or many books with varying reception, stymies us. Our criticism is implicit in the seeming oddity of Marilynne Robinson’s long pause between writing the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Housekeeping and the winning Gilead: “The book became a classic, and Robinson was hailed as one of the defining American writers of our time. Yet it would be more than twenty years before she wrote another novel.” We are befuddled by why E.M. Forster “stopped writing fiction at the age of 45. He lived quietly for another 46 years and continued to write essays, short biographies and literary journalism—but no more novels.” As if the essays, biographies, and other pieces—not to mention the novels he’d already done –were not work enough. And of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and his writing that has been stopped by the cruel hand of dementia: “García Márquez now lives in Mexico and has not written anything since his last novel.” It seems García Márquez has given us plenty; he’s given us enough. And I wish we could think of something more compassionate to say about him right now than that there will be no more novels.

I’m tempted to claim I don’t know much about these things since I am an essayist. But every few months, I pull out my own fiction piece and work at it, imagining, typing, crafting, deleting, writing some more. My fiction story may or may not ever see the light of day (or bookstore fluorescents or e-reader lamp). Still, the work of crafting it over the months and years has molded me. The project has tightened up my nonfiction storytelling, it has taught me that success in writing doesn’t necessarily have to do with immediate readership and it has given me a deeper understanding of and appreciation for writers who do get their fiction in front of the public. Developing narrative, structuring plot, crafting characters, creating dialogue: this is hard work. In my reckoning, Harper Lee is a blazing success. I hold her one piece of fiction prose in my hands, and I am grateful.

But back to those writers who keep at it with varied results. An astute response, this time about George Eliot and her little-known, admittedly-flawed novel Romola:

Only one masterpiece? Not a very impressive record, it seems . . . . But consistency in perfection is a lot to expect of any artist, and especially of an artist working in a medium as fluid and methodless as fiction. And does it in fact, make Eliot a lesser novelist that most of her novels are thus imperfect? My answer, as you probably expect, is no.

Experimenting with form and content, pushing ourselves outside the comfort of predictable perfection in order to create new and maybe—hopefully—better art: Is this not what we, as creative people, do?

Fortunately, some of Rowling’s reviewers get this, too: “The Casual Vacancy is no masterpiece, but it’s not bad at all: intelligent, workmanlike, and often funny. I could imagine it doing well without any association to the Rowling brand . . . ” Let’s disassociate it, then, and perhaps give Rowling a hearty congratulations, too, not only for her work at crafting another story, but also for pushing herself to branch out, with all the risks and imperfections involved in attempting something new.

Other Wizards, Many Worlds

We all know which child wizard first grabbed his Elementary Spells textbook and walked the castle hallways to Magical History 101, right?

Not necessarily. Decades before J.K. Rowling put Harry and Ron in a flying Ford Anglia on their way to Hogwarts, Diana Wynne Jones sent a young enchanter named Cat Chant crashing into the local post office on a contraption of enchanted bicycles and magicked flying furniture – after, of course, he had completed his magical education classes for the day.

When Jones passed away in March 2011, the New York Times detailed her long life, her recent death, and her proliferation of kids’ fantasy literature. I probably wasn’t alone in wondering who she was. To the library I went. Not surprisingly, the selection was meager this side of The Pond. I pulled down the tallest of the six plastic-covered hardbacks, wondering what a character named “Chrestomanci” might be like. The book title was The Lives of Christopher Chant. A good choice, as it turned out.

And in the end, that’s what these stories are: fun.

Diana Wynne Jones is a good choice overall for anyone who’s steeped themselves in the likes of J.K. Rowling or Phillip Pullman in recent decades, or, further back, Susan Cooper. Americans may, like me, draw a blank, but most bookwormish British schoolchildren know the enchanter Chrestomanci, even if they don’t yet know that Diana Wynne Jones falls plum in the middle of Britain’s rich children’s fantasy heritage.

In that first book I brought home from the library, Jones’s Christopher Chant steps “around the corner of the night nursery wall”[i] and confidently into this very tradition. Ah, Christopher: a young boy, lonely, all but orphaned, who discovers the tear in the magical fabric of his world, carefully peels it aside, and walks through. (I’m lookin’ at you, Phillip Pullman.) I was charmed from the start. I didn’t skip a beat till I’d read to the end of the six Chrestomanci books, scouring two library systems and back-ordering the rest.

It’s rare at my age to be drawn into another world as wholly as I am by Jones’s stories. How does she do it? Believable, sympathetic characters combined with straightforward, unabashed magic. Don’t get me wrong; her books are no wild ride. Jones paces her stories moderately, meaning they move a good bit slower than Harry Potter. This works just fine for me, having developed my readerly imagination on the 1970’s likes of Cynthia Voight and Madeleine L’Engle. But Jones’s energetically resolved endings always make up for her easy pacing in a satisfyingly accelerated final rush. And all along, there is the awareness, the curiosity, the mystery, the suspense of alternate worlds to our own.

Which is the concept that works so well for Jones. And she’s got tons of worlds up her sleeve and around the corner. We catch a glimpse of them in the refractively mind-bending conclusion to Witch Week, a tale that’s almost too slowly paced. But the payoff, after making it to the end, is an exciting and thorough resolution, wherein worlds connect with worlds in one huge, kaleidoscopic “Aha!” moment:

“It was as if the world had turned into a vast curtain, hanging in folds, with every fold in it rippling in and out. The ripples ran through desks, windows, walls, and people alike. Each person was rippled through. They were tugged, and rippled again, until everyone felt they were coming to pieces. By then, the ripples were so strong and steep that everyone could see right down in to the folds. For just a moment, on the outside of each fold, was the classroom everyone knew, with the inquisitor and his huge men on the same fold as Miss Cadwallader, and Chrestmanci on another fold beside them. The inner parts of the folds were all different places.”[ii]

But Christopher Chant is the character who throws this other-worlds element into sharpest relief. At nighttime, he journeys out of his bed, around the nursery fireplace, and into The Place Between: a rocky valley that offers entrances into worlds – no, whole series of worlds! – in vaster numbers than Christopher can count.

“He set off sliding, scrambling, edging across bulging wet rock, and climbing up or down, until he found another valley and another path. There were hundreds of them. He called them the Anywheres.”[iii]

We know this other-worlds idea didn’t begin in Jones’s imagination. Two decades before the first Chrestomanci book appeared in print, a quartet of siblings walked through the back of a wardrobe into a land called Narnia. Nearly a century before that, a lesser-known fantasy character – the creation of Victorian novelist George MacDonald – entered another realm through (appropriately) a library. In MacDonald’s book Lilith, the librarian explains what it is that Lewis, Jones, Pullman, and countless others have since envisioned: “I tell you there are more worlds, and more doors to them, than you will think of in many years!”[iv]

These days, the concept of alternate worlds runs rampant on the middle grades and young adult library shelves (not to mention on prime time television). Of course, all fiction books, even the most realistic of fiction pieces, are themselves other worlds in that they are imagined renderings, recreated places. But what Jones and many of these others do differently is layer the concept, starting with the world as we know it and then working out the idea of imagined experience by giving their characters entrance from a recognizable “here” to a somehow different “there.”

Surprisingly, perhaps the most striking element of Jones’s worlds, besides the vibrantly rendered magical details they’re chock-full of, is the sheer normalcy of the characters’ experience. In Charmed Life, we read about Cat Chant’s inner dilemma, torn between brotherly loyalty and a moral obligation to tell the truth. We almost forget we’re dealing with multi-lived enchanters and magical matchsticks, because we’re caught up in recognizing how Cat feels: agonized, like a normal, conflicted eleven-year-old boy. His equivocal decisions are decisions we know; his dialogue and responses ring true. We feel empathy for Cat and, perhaps, for the part of ourselves that is so similar to him. It’s just as reading should be: entrance into a deeper Real. A deeper real, that is, and a whole lot of fun.

And in the end, that’s what these stories are: fun. The more fun, I’d say, for their being so artfully crafted. With a nonchalant tone and a steady pace, with an effective honesty toward her readers and uniquely imagined moments, with playful good humor and a hint of darkness just troubling enough to be delicious, Jones’s hand wields fantasy adventure story with skill. Even we American readers who have never read her benefit from the many worlds she conceived. As we stay up too late reading The Golden Compass or The Dark is Rising (or, in the adult lit realm, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell), as we watch and rewatch the Harry Potter films, we participate in the narrative legacy Diana Wynne Jones has left behind.

At the end of Witch Week, the young character Nan, a budding writer, makes the discovery that storytelling is “as good as witchcraft, any day.”[v] Later, a friend confides in her:

“Do you know what I think?” she whispered. “When you grow up to be an author and write books, you’ll think you’re making the books up, but they’ll all really be true, somewhere.”[vi]

A world where books come true? Well, that may be a stretch. But fortunately for those of us who are into this middle grades fantasy kind of thing, that didn’t hold Diana Wynne Jones back. Who needs other worlds? Not when the likes of Diana Wynne Jones waits on the library bookshelf, teeming with enchanters and griffins, witches and warlocks, schoolgirl authors, flying furniture, wild woodlands, and much more, besides.

 



[i] The Lives of Christopher Chant, The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume I. HarperCollins Publishers, New York: 2001. p.271

[ii] Witch Week, The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume II. HarperCollins Publishers, New York: 2001. p. 540-1

[iii] Lives, p.271-2

[iv] Lilith. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids: 1996. p.40

[v] Witch, p.540

[vi] Witch, p.547

A Story for Our Times

When I could think at all, dredging the dregs of my brain from a deluge of tears, gasps, nausea, and hallelujahs, my eyes spinning in sensory overload, my ears pounding to Wagnerian chords, my heart throbbing with pain or celebration—when I could think at all, I say, while plunged in the floodtide of Harry Potter’s final horror and glory, all I could mentally mutter was, “How am I ever going to review this? It’s perfect!” And it very nearly is—except for a serious shift from Christian significance to pagan religion. But certainly feels perfect while it’s playing.

Last year, I wrote in a review of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader that there are several ways of critiquing a movie adaptation of a book. First, the film can be assessed simply as a movie without reference to the book. Second, it can be judged on its success in translating the plot, characters, dialogue, and description from the page to the screen. Third, it can be evaluated as an expression of the original author’s worldview. Finally, it can be such an overwhelmingly powerful experience, sweeping up emotions and senses in its tidal wave of sights and sounds, that it well-nigh defies critique of any kind.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II is just such a deafening, dazzling maelstrom and thunderstorm of power and scope. It is magnificent. It inspires terror, love, grief, and sheer seat-gripping adrenaline rushes galore. With a powerful musical score by Alexandre Desplat and brilliant cinematography by Eduardo Serra, this film (especially as I saw it, in headache-inducing IMAX 3D) washes over its viewers in wave after wave of emotion and sensation. This eighth film is more than a fitting ending for the epic series: the first seven movies each building, little by little, in scope and impact towards this thundering close.

Harry Potter is the epic of our times. Its affirmation of the intelligence of children, the necessity of parental care, the priceless value of loyalty, the depths of sacrificial friendship, the rewards of courage, and the redeeming power of love are all timely, timeless, and essential. While the individual movies in the series varied in their precise adaptations of the books and in their cinematic qualities, they translated J. K. Rowling’s underlying concepts reasonably well. And while the previous installments, especially the first two, could be critiqued for some poor filming and acting, the visual effects and dramatic pacing of number eight put it nearly beyond critique a work of cinematographic art.

There are, of course, changes from the books that may annoy textual sticklers. Some changes are for the better. [Spoiler alert!] Snape’s horrific death (sickening on screen) includes some imaginative changes: he gives Harry his tears, rather than the usual silvery-white thought-threads, to watch in the Pensieve, embodying regret, remorse, and love in his final act. He is also given a revelatory final line, the quintessence of his sorrow and fidelity, that humanizes him more than the book did.

In another surprising twist, Harry destroys and discards the Elder Wand without repairing his own holly-and-phoenix-feather wand, as if following Prospero in a recantation of all magic:

…But this rough magic
I here abjure…
…I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.
… Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own…
(lines from The Tempest by Shakespeare)

Indeed, no one is seen doing any more magic-with-wands for the rest of the film, and the adult Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ginny, and even Draco resemble well-dressed middle-class Muggles. Like the ending of one of its great predecessors, The Lord of the Rings, this series ends not with the establishment of some grand new order, but with the restoration of ordinary, affectionate domesticity.

And yet, also like Tolkien’s work, the film brought out an aspect of the ending more like Frodo’s than like Samwise Gamgee’s. Sam was able to get married, have children, plant gardens, and thrive in his happy little Shire. Frodo, however, could not live a normal life after the deep scarring of his sacrifices and failures. He finally had to take ship from the Grey Havens to the lands in the West. Similarly, there is no clean sense of triumph at Voldemort’s destruction; rather, Harry and the others wander for a time in a desolate, empty victory. Color does not return to the screen until nineteen years later. Joy is slow in coming back to hearts so wounded.

Not all of the modifications that took place between page and screen, however, added depth and value to this awe-inspiring tale. Indeed, several changes were what can only be called theological in nature, with consequences far beyond offending a few purists. They shift the significance of the film from a healthy morality of sacrifice, repentance, forgiveness, and redemption to an anemic, bloodless theory of groundless self-confidence.

All of these errors occurred in the very end of the film: in the “King’s Cross” scene and the final confrontation. The public nature of the victory was stripped away: Harry conquered Voldemort in private, just the two of them face-to-face without the crowds. This is a crying shame, for all of those who fought for Harry and for righteousness thus lost the chance to hear the declaration of Snape’s innocence, the justification of the fighting, and the reason Fred, Remus, Tonks, and so many others died. This is also a misreading of artistic trajectories: it places Harry and Voldemort firmly back in nineteenth-century roles of solitary hero and individualistic villain, rather than in the more communal, public, collaborative, crowded arts scene of the twenty-first century. It’s a pity, because Rowling wrote a story for our times. Her Harry grew up at the exact rate of his readers, aging one year in each book at the same pace as their publication. His friendships, loves, and losses were those of his fans, projected onto a grand scale. By making the final battle private, the movie made the mistake of turning Harry into just another superhuman hero from a past era, disconnected from his Millenial devotees.

Even worse: all of Dumbledore’s lines about Harry’s blood were removed, as was Harry’s explanation that his own vicarious sacrifice protected his friends from Voldemort’s curses. Harry did not give Voldemort any chance to repent, nor were the Malfoys restored, changing a justly deserved punishment into shallow revenge and removing grace, forgiveness, and restoration from the story. Pushing the revenge theme further, the movie did not show Voldemort’s last killing curse rebounding, nor was it clear what spell Harry was using (it was merely Expelliarmus, the disarming spell, in the book)—so it was not clear whether or not Harry killed Voldemort. It is of the utmost importance, in the text, that he did not. This is what sets Harry apart. This is what defeats his disguises: the fact that he will not kill. He will fight, he will disarm, he will show as much bravery as any warrior, but he will not kill. He will not even kill Voldemort. He will not even defend himself if that means someone else’s death, but will submit to death rather than stoop to killing someone else. And yet, in the film, all appearances suggest that Harry killed Lord Voldemort at last. The movie’s message, then, is clear, and clearly changed: Fight to kill, if you fight for the right.

Most troubling of all was an added line in the King’s Cross scene: indeed, merely an added word. In lines superimposed in the screenplay, Dumbledore tells Harry that “help will be given to those who deserve it.” Deserve it. That simple word “deserve” is worlds away from the morality and—what to call it?—philosophy of Rowling’s books.

To understand the tremendous significance of this single word, I would like to call Søren Kierkegaard to the stand. Well, since Kierkegaard is dead, and his writings are notoriously difficult to understand, I will call in a scholar to boil down the essential concept. Stephen M. Dunning, in The Crisis and the Quest: A Kierkegaardian Reading of Charles Williams (Paternoster Press, 2000), explains that Kierkegaard grouped all religions into two categories: Religion A and Religion B. Religion A is “the religion of divine immanence” (Dunning xiii) or the belief that God resides inside every human being. Religion A has a positive view of human nature and asserts that every person is essentially good, can act with divine righteousness, and can earn heaven. Kierkegaard sums this up by calling it, simply, “paganism.” I call it “the Disney gospel.” It enjoins its adherents to believe in themselves, to follow their instincts, and to claim the happiness they deserve. Religion B, on the other hand, takes a negative view of human nature, postulating the need for a divine action from outside the human individual before the person can be made good or useful at all. It claims that God is totally separate from and other than human beings, that people are naturally in a sinful state, and that only an act of grace from outside can transform people in creatures capable of goodness. This he calls just “Christianity.” I call it common sense.

With that one added line of Dumbledore’s, then, telling Harry he “deserves” help, the makers of the film shifted this epic from a Religion B morality tale about grace, forgiveness, and divine intervention to a Religion A story, an Ayn Rand tale of a self-made hero hewn from the infallible assertion that he is “special.”

Here, again, the movie makers turned their back on history and current events. Because the main problem with Religion A is that it just hasn’t worked. Two World Wars, a Cold War, countless other international conflicts, a War on Terror, two economic depressions, atrocities on every hand, American education is sliding along the dumbing-down scale into the murk of elementary feel-good mediocrity, rampant materialism and selfishness and stupidity… Religion A obviously is not a reliable description of reality. People aren’t little gods walking around doing good. They’re making hash of the planet and of themselves. So, sorry, Harry, you don’t “deserve” help—but help will be given you all the same. That’s the Deus ex machina with which every decent epic ends.

And that reminds me of another important factor in evaluating film adaptations of books. A valid question, to a textual fanatic like myself, would be: “But is it fair to compare every change to the books? After all, if there were no Harry Potter books, you wouldn’t be able to criticize the movie for changing the text. You would have to take it for its own face value.”

That is partly true. If there were no urtext, no literary primary source to which to compare the films, perhaps these flaws would go unnoticed, or would no longer be flaws. But on the other hand, there is no such thing as a work of art created in a vacuum. There are always all the other works that have preceded it and with which it is in dialogue. In this case, these include The Aeneid, The Odyssey, Beowulf, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, and, well: “…the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life” (Lev. 17:11); “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13); and “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (I Pet 3:18). Those are the true subtexts to Rowling’s books, and it’s an eternal shame that the movie tried to erase them. In the end, however, it could not. For Harry did lay down his life for his friends. And that truth is there for viewers to discover—even if they don’t “deserve” it.

Story Me This

Story. That’s why people watch the Olympics. It’s certainly not the finer points of curling technique or the joy of seeing the best athletes in the world excel at doing what so many of us try to do better every time we strap rifles to our backs, slip on our skis, and head out into the hills for a causal afternoon of recreational alpine snipering.

We watch to see the grandson of WWII veteran drape his grandfather’s military burial flag over victorious shoulders as he celebrates gold. We cheer for the figure skater who overcame all odds to return to the ice for one more try for a first medal before retirement. We marvel at the skier who achieves heights none before have. We weep with the snowboarder seeking redemption for past bravado whose chance melts like the snow that slid her into disqualification.

We celebrate dreams come true and mourn those that don’t. We need their stories. It is story that informs our humanity and gives context to ebb and flow of life.

But sometimes rather than discovering story, we are deceived by mirage. All the trappings of story are laid before us, but the closer we get, the more its substance unravels, and we are left feeling hollow.

 

Such a tale was Avatar. A grandiose, colorful candy shell – with little inside. Imaginative and yet somehow uncreative. It was pure entertainment – a predictable pleasure delivered in a predictable manner.

I did like Avatar and enjoyed the experience it offered. It was spectacle, and I was entertained. It was a visual feast as promised, but a feast of little more than cinemagraphic cotton candy. In the end, I left the theater hungry (and not from consuming too little popcorn). I left feeling like I could have been changed. I left wanting to have been changed. (I also left the theater with a bladder as tired, sad, and bloated as its closing theme song.) I wanted real story, not recycled characters and cliched plot points covered in impressive technology and slick imagery.

Telling a meaningful story involves risk. And many aren’t willing, or able, to take on such risk artistically – risk that the story exposes the heart of the teller, risk that the market won’t respond and will thereby close doors to future creative opportunities. But with little risk comes little reward. (Unless the reward hoped for is little more than heaps of cash. Entertainment can yield lots of that.)

What I wanted from Avatar was risky storytelling: a bold attempt to challenge our preconceptions about life and existence, to leave us wondering if the worldview we held complete still has room to grow. If our eyes can see things afresh. If compassion can increase and love deepen as our humanity is filled up with the good, true, and beautiful.

And when you find a story like that you tell the world. You get on your Twitter, MySpace, Facebook, Google Buzz, Bebo, Tumblr, Blogger, WordPress, Orkut, Jaiku, Friendster, Ning, or whatever and tell everyone. Whether it’s a movie, band, TV show, poem, or short story.

Or in this case, a novel. I’d never waited in angst for a book to be published before now.

Having been one of the first to discover the Harry Potter series after they were all already released, I’ve never felt that nervous energy of unquenchable anticipation. My fingernails remained neatly clipped, not chewed to stumps, as I flew through books 1-7 without pause or thought to what it was like to have a year roll by between volumes.

Until a few months ago.

I began reading Auralia’s Colors, a novel by Jeffrey Overstreet, with the end of the aughts (or the two-thousands, or the double-0s or whatever we ended up calling that decade) looming.

It’s the first book, or the Red Strand, in a series called The Auralia Thread that was initially published in 2007 by WaterBrook Press.

Auralia’s Colors, by Jeffrey Overstreet

Set in another time, in another world, the people of the Expanse have a long history they trace back to a single ancestral group of children, who, led by a Mosaic patriarch, escaped a dangerous wilderness to settle a new land. Generations passed and the people scattered and separated into four houses, each with its own distinct and complicated lore. Auralia’s Colors throws us headlong into the contemporary trials of House Abascar when a young girl, orphaned at birth and of unknown ancestry, brings new, life-giving color to a drab and dying people.

Try to remember the last time you read a fantasy novel, and, if you can, all the ones before that. (Which might bring most of you to a grand total of three, and us geeks and nerds to a total of near 22 or more.) Of those, how many were about men with weapons and kingdoms to defend against irredeemable evil and save weak womenfolk from sure destruction? Black and white stories with no room for gray – or color?

Once it became clear that our protagonist, Auralia, was a little girl enamored with colors, mystery, and the seeing of things unseen, I was hooked. In all my previous fantastical readings I’d never encountered such a premise, though some might be out there. At first I was intrigued, stepping cautiously – if not a little skeptically – over the pages and wondering where this tale was taking me. But like that of all master craftsmen of language, Overstreet’s storytelling pulled me deeper and deeper into this vivid world both rich with – and yet deprived of – color, song, creation, and all that their presence brings.

I burned through the book like a dragon puffing ragweed rolled in magic paper.

Cyndere’s Midnight, by Jeffrey Overstreet

Fortunately I didn’t have to wait at all to start the second installment, the Blue Strand, Cyndere’s Midnight. It was strategically positioned in my bag so when I inserted a finished Auralia’s Colors, I could remove an untouched Cyndere’s Midnight. Really, the only way I could’ve shortened that lag time would have been to glue one book to the other.

As much as I was enchanted by Auralia and the story Overstreet wove in her pages, I was changed by Cyndere’s Midnight, a story of loss and redemption. Of finding out what makes one human, and what shreds one’s humanity. A story that could not let me be, but pushed me to become something better. One that probed my heart as I found pieces of myself – the good and the wretched – in these characters. Their journey became my journey, their hopes and sorrows mine.

Raven’s Ladder, by Jeffrey Overstreet

So, you can imagine the vacuous hole left in me when I closed its cover and had no other book in my bag to pull out. I sat on the train filled with questions, gawking bewildered at the route map like a first-time tourist because there was nowhere else to stare, searching for answers with such ferocity that if I’d been the conductor we’d have skipped every stop until the track ran out.

And so I waited, feeling for the first time that reader’s anxiety common to many but alien to me. I waited 46 days that seemed like one point two five score and four weeks.

The characters’ stories have yet to fully enfold, but this one has a happy ending.

Raven’s Ladder, the Gold Strand and third book in the series is finally available. And it is every bit as engaging, imaginative and transforming as its predecessors.  While I long to feel the resolution of this transformational, expertly-crafted story, part of me hopes the series will never end.

Because while there will always be, in our lives and in our culture, an important space and time for entertainment – for movies like Avatar – we need story. And when we’ve found it, we cling to it. We share it. We relive it over and over, and are changed by it. We let its colors saturate our lives.


You can hear Jeffrey Overstreet himself speak about the need for good stories at this year’s IAM Encounter, March 4-6 in downtown Manhattan. Overstreet will be speaking on Saturday afternoon, and single-day tickets are available.

BREAKING NEWS: You Heard It Here First

All the President’s Men is indisputably the all-time best film about journalism ever made in the history of the universe of films being made about journalism. (Take that, Citizen Kane.)

It’s not about journalism in the boring sense, but the golden snitch for every journalist: breaking the story. (And, some weird lobstery guy who, I understand, did a couple of dumb things as president.) If Hollywood is to be believed – and I’d like to think that it is – a truly great journalist will stop at nothing, will leave no scruples standing, in pursuit of that grail. If you’re trying to have integrity and hone writing skills over a long, industrious career to one day enjoy a body of good, true, and beautiful work that made the world a better place – I hope you’re not a journalist. You might as well be a one-legged man in a three-legged race and/or chin-kicking contest: it’s not looking good for you.

Journalism is for the two-legged only. I suppose if you have three or more legs you can get into the biz, but you may have some serious medical conditions you should have a professional look at.

Journalism is for those in whose veins runs fire unquenchable for unbroken story; those with nose for news that sniffs out story’s scent like foxhound smelling quarry’s stink, even when quarry has recently dated skunk in feeble, but foxy, attempt to throw trail. The journalist cannot be derailed from his or her density, excuse me, destiny.

With the publication of this piece, I, too, enter the ranks of the many great (imaginary) journalists who shook off naysayers’ shackles and found a way – found the story. It might be presumptuous to start talking Pulitzer, but I thought I’d at least mention it in case the committee has a Google alert set-up to let them know when awesomeness gets published on the Internet. It’s not every day one can say they discovered, what is sure to be, the next major global cultural phenomenon.

Warning: once the word is out, this thing is going to be harder to get your hands on than the new KFC Double Down Sandwich. (Which I am likely to cover in a future article.)

I’ve been compelled by voluminous stories before: The Lord of the Rings, the Space Trilogy, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Martian Chronicles, I & II Chronicles. Basically, if you put “chronicles” in the name, you stand a good chance of me liking it. And now, a new series has risen to their level, and I think many after me will agree, and some will argue it may be best of all.

This seven-volume collection “chronicles” the coming-of-age of a young wizard in modern-day England: Harry Potter. Each installment, titled Harry Potter and The Whatever-The-Main-Plot-Thing-Is-From-This-Particular-Book, moves steadily through Harry’s seven years at what is called “Hogwarts,” a school for witchcraft and wizardry somewhere in northern England that can only be accessed by a magical train, or other magical means.

The Harry Potter series is chock full of the fantastical as Harry and his friends Hermione and Ron tackle one adventure after another. Together they find themselves immersed in a long, dark battle against an evil wizard whose name most fear to speak. Having been one of the very few to have read these brand-new books, I hesitate to type the letters: VOLDEMORT.

This Voldemort – or He-Who-Should-Not-Be-Named, as all the characters save Harry and the enigmatic and lovable headmaster, Dumbledore, call him – has got a score to settle with Mr. Potter, or The-Boy-Who-Lived, as he’s called, because he is the only person ever to have survived Voldy’s killing curse.

Another word of warning here, be on the lookout for a slew of references in pop culture to this The-One-Who-Shan’t-Be-Named stuff. I have a sinking feeling it’s gonna be around for a while. As will the use of hyphens to turn a sentence into a noun. For that we have J.K. Rowling to thank.

A precocious little wife and mom with an acre lot, a white picket fence and the Union Jack flying proudly from the porch (I assume the British are as into that stuff as we are, right?), J.K., or J. – as those closest to her and I call her on account of we are the only folks out there trumpeting this would-be blockbuster – got the idea for these stirring and ever-so-readable books from what can only be described as a luminous vision of herself sitting in Buckingham Palace at high tea with Her Majesty after the masses finally get a hold of these artifacts and make her the richest woman in the U.K.. Second to the Queen, of course.

That day is a long way off, but perhaps this breaking story can be a catalyst for the recognition and honor that she (and by extension, I) deserves. But we can dream.

Having recently finished the seventh book, I am convinced that Harry Potter will hit it big with the kids first. J. has a great sense of what kids are thinking and how they perceive school and teachers. It seems as though she’s written this, not for the high-brow literature critic like me, but for those schoolboys and girls whose imaginations and dreams seem to be locked up in the proverbial closet under the stairs. (Ironically, that’s where Harry was locked up when you first meet him in book one . . . )

I do foresee a little troubled water ahead for the series if it manages to cross the pond. And I certainly hope it does. Peppered throughout the thousands of pages are words that strike fear into the hearts of many Americans. Words that some don’t think anyone should causally toss about. Words like “spell,” “witch,” “wizard,” “wand,” “witchcraft,” “wizardry,” “magic,” “England,” “flying,” and “Hermione.” A few will see these words as an outright endorsement of Satanism and/or the Occult. They’ll protest the idea that it’s okay, even good, for kids to read about fictional children in a made-up story doing fake spells and battling a non-existent evil-snakey-wizard-guy, all the while bolstering their imaginary friendships and learning valuable figmentary life lessons. They’ll say kids are too impressionable to understand the difference between real and make-believe. They’ll ask, “If they read these books, won’t they start trying to fly on broomsticks, levitate their peers, turn eggs into rocks, and other dangerous, magicky stuff?”

He-Man and Battle Cat

Reminds me of when I was a kid. I thought that if I just thrust my plastic sword higher and fiercer into the air and bellowed, with cracking voice, the “magic” words, I, too, would “have the power” and the accompanying steriody pecs and skimpy wool underwear. Well, look what happened to me. I write goofballish articles online, make up words, use too many hyphens and play the saxophone . . . which is the devil’s horn. Oh my! Maybe they’re right. Maybe we should stop this magicky Harry Potter thing before all our kids end up playing saxophone!

Well, anyway, the winds of change they are a blowin’ and they’re bringing with them witches and wizards (and not the innocent Gandalf-type we all know and love in spite of the fact that he, too, is a powerful, gray-haired, magical, Dumbledorean, spell-casting wizard).

I do forecast, however, that while this trend will come out of the gates strong, good ol’ American consumerism should win the day. Once Walmart starts selling the books and peripheral goods (and believe you me, they will), the protesters will put down their signs and fall in line with fellow consumers to snatch up hundreds of dollars in merchandise on behalf of one Santa Claus (a known imaginary figure who uses magical means to deliver gifts to kids who do good and who deserve them for the doing of the good things they did do).

Since none of you have yet read this about-to-be monumental series, I don’t want to give too much away. Suffice it to say that, more or less, above all else, when push comes to shove, in the end, these books are about love. Not a sappy, easy kind of love, but the difficult and sacrificial kind. The kind of love which reminds you that those things worth loving aren’t so easily had or kept. That kind of love which puts neighbor before self. That kind of love that lights the darkness.

The kind of love that inspires Hollywood to crank out flicks that make oodles of dough, cashing in our collective soft spot for pre-teen/teenage fantasy book-turned-movie sacrificial-loved-themed stories. If I were a betting man, I would rush over to Vegas and put money down on the odds that these books will become feature films. I’m sure the action will be good, although the line probably won’t. Any sportsbook that would put up a money line on the Harry Potter series – and had literate staff – is gonna open the line around -500 that the movies will get made. Not a favorable risk if you’re betting sports. But if there ever was a sure bet in literature turned motion-pic, this is it. My advice: plunk down your retirement savings (or what’s left of it) on Harry Potter goes Hollywood (that sounds oddly like a sequel to the sequels) at -500 and pray that I’m not wrong about how sure of thing a movie deal for Harry is. (Gambling, and any discussion of it, is for entertainment purposes only. Unless you’re a wise guy. Then I take 15% commission for the tip.)

Whether or not this quaint little series ever rakes in billions at the box office, finds itself on the New York Times bestseller for weeks and weeks on end, drags bleary-eyed mums and dads out to the only bookstore left in a 100-square-mile radius at midnight to get their soon-to-be-saxophone-playing, magic-deprived kid the next book, or, um, rakes in billions at the box office, remains to be seen. For now, if you can burrow to the dustiest back shelves of your local mall’s B. Dalton or Waldenbooks, you might find one or two of the Harry Potters.

Oh, and don’t count on getting any help from the pubescent cashier. I recently was trying to hunt down Book Two and asked the pimple-faced youngster stocking shelves if he’d ever heard of Harry Potter and be able to direct me to its location in that fine establishment. He just stood there and gawked at me like I’d just sprouted a second head. Kids these days. Maybe he would have picked a few manners (in addition to transformation spell or two) if he had read any one of the H.P. tomes.

So. Now you can tell all your friends, you heard it here first.

I guess, what makes me sad about writing this piece, is that it may mark the end of my tenure as contributing editor at The Curator. Once it’s out that I was the one who discovered what will be the greatest literary phenomenon of all time (save the Bible I suppose) I think I might find myself overwhelmed with interviews, talk-show appearances, and maybe even tell-all book deals about my miraculous journey from wayward web-writer to Woodward-and-Bernsteiner.

I’ll save my thank yous for my Pulitzer acceptance speech, with this one exception: The Curator. Read it. Bookmark it. Tweet it. It’s as verisimilar as a small online magazine imprint of the International Arts Movement can be in our age of anti-verisimilitude.

A Fight, a Flight,
and a New Fan Contrite

Who is your archnemesis – the one who stands opposed to everything you believe is good in the world? The antithesis to your thesis? The north to your south? The counter to your argument? The “One-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” to your “Boy-Who-Lived“?

Two months ago, I could have told you who mine was. It might have taken a few moments to sort through my mental list of candidates for such a designation I inadvertently keep. (If there’s anything I learned from not having been in the Boy Scouts, it’s that one must be prepared with hyperbolic and uncorroboratable opinions at any moment. That is what they mean by “be prepared,” right?)

Anyway, it was a little difficult to shuffle through the crowd of names jostling to be my chief antagonist – especially with names like Kenny G and Shia LaBeouf on the list.

But one name stood head and shoulders above them all. In fact, I remember the moment when He-Who-Will-Be-Named-In-A-Few-Moments first summitted my mountain of Moriartys. I was forced, by a poster plastered onto Manhattan’s Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle in its most unavoidable sight line, into confrontation about which my sister (a fan of He-Who-Will-Be-Named-In-Even-Fewer-Moments) still has nightmares.

“I hate, hate, hate, hate him! He’s my ARCHNEMESIS!!” I screamed, much to the dismay of wealthy tourists stuffing their Gucci bags with Coach clutches and declaring that they came to this “mall” to avoid all the New York “weirdos.” (A statement that I took not as an insult, but rather as a sincere honor, considering the source.)

The-Movie-Star-Who-Will-Be-Named-Shortly was top bill and, literally, poster boy for a new film about to hit the overpriced movie houses of my fair city, besmirching them with that impish grin and perfectly coiffed hair. Seeing this movie quickly became last on my “mop list” – a list of things that I will never, ever do before I die.

So, imagine my utter despair one fateful day when I found He-Will-Be-Named-Soon-Enough-Just-Keep-Your-Trousers-On’s face occupying one of the crucial “films you will be forced to watch on this uncomfortable 13-hour flight to Tokyo” slots. I almost got off the plane. Really. But I quickly realized that this “quote-unquote” film would be on every flight, since it was about to be released to DVD and wasn’t boring holes into people’s souls at the theater any longer.

After watching every flick on the flight roster, I was faced with the inevitable. The high noon, or maybe midnight (I’d completely lost track of time and space at that point during the endless flight), collision between me and him: The-Guy-Who-Doesn’t-Have-A-Name-Yet-But-Will-Right-Now.

Zachary David Alexander “Zac” Efron.

I stared at the in-flight movie guide, clenching my fist around the poorly designed remote control that never fits back into the holder, often causing an accidental change of channel or crank of volume. I returned my seat and tray table to their upright and locked positions and spoke:

Oh, Zac Efron. Zac, Zac, Zac, Zac, Zac. Here we are. Just me and you… and the other 200 other people on this plane. I daresay you never thought we’d meet. Nor did I. You with your millions of dollars and screaming tweenybopper fans, your filmography and successful career. Me with my crappy airplane remote, my puffy, dehydrated eyes and my inflated and unsupported opinion of my views on art and culture. It’s time to end this once and for all, ojos a película.

I pressed Play. 17 Again began.

For nearly two hours I sat, upright and locked, eyes fixed on the manchild I had despised for at least several months based solely on the “facts” that he was young and popular, and that the tweenyboppers liked him, assuming that anyone they would like could surely be nothing more than eye candy who can barely use the English language, let alone act. Just another talentless, studio-backed tool. The type worthy of derision from those with such high-minded taste as mine. (That should be funny for those familiar with my work.)

As the high school yearbook-styled credit pages turned, one word emerged from my mind, a phoenix from the ashes of that small part of me that hasn’t yet been consumed by post-post-postmodern cynicism: delightful.

The film was delightful. Zac Efron was delightful. Truly, truly I tell you, I would have shed tears if there had been any water left in my body as we soared high, and dry, above the Pacific Ocean, or the Yukon, or wherever we were.

Of course, 17 Again is, on the surface, a tired retread of the same old “I don’t like my current life. Can I go back to H.S. and relive my ‘glory days,’ then learn my life lessons and come back and fix my current life?” story. But that didn’t matter. It was a charming movie, entertaining and heartwarming. I watched it twice on the flight, and have since seen it here on the ground, while hydrated, and still loved it.

Without the mesmerizing Zac Efron, it would’ve stunk. Not that Matthew Perry is the next thin Marlon Brando, but Efron upstages him with a surprisingly complex portrayal of the 17-year-old version of a 40ish man pretending he’s the 17-year-old version of himself. No small task, especially when that 40ish version played by Matthew Perry, an actor with a hyper-stylized delivery and a known quantity to Gen-Xers like me.

Zac nails it. He saves the day. He won me over.

Zac Efron’s onscreen for 90% of 17 Again, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. His performance is funny. It’s serious. It’s genuine. It’s as timeless as a performance can be in our age of immemorability.

Congratulations Kenny G: you’re back on top.

Same Old Story


Photo: Moriza

The third or fourth time he spoke to me, my husband laughed aloud at the mild exasperation that must have shown in my eyes. “You really want to read that book you’ve read a hundred times, don’t you?” I had Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban open across my lap, and his conversation, albeit welcome, was interrupting the flow of the story. He laughed again, knowing the answer before I gave it to him, and he let me go back to my reading.

All my life I have been a re-reader. My worn old Little House on the Prairie series sits directly below my equally battered Chronicles of Narnia on one of the living-room shelves. I remember reading Dodie Smith’s 101 Dalmatians again and again, consecutively; from there I progressed to Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls and then Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, and those books were the primary objects of my sixth-grade study hall periods. Nowadays, other material has formed similar rotations: Jane Austen’s novels and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, the works of J.K. Rowling, Orson Scott Card, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and others.

In case it isn’t obvious, I’m not just talking about the occasional re-perusal. I’m talking about five cover-to-cover trips through Rowling’s 759-page Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows within fourteen months of its publication, two trips through Card’s Speaker for the Dead in one month, Pride and Prejudice at least once a year. And whole reads are only half the fun; I’ve spent weeks going over the same few chapters of Austen’s Emma, dwelt in various sections of Elizabeth Goudge’s Little White Horse, and even for the superordinate class to which belong Harry Potter, Pride and Prejudice, That Hideous Strength, etc., partial re-reads are more common than cover-to-cover.

It’s a very idiosyncratic thing, this compulsion to revisit a story so often in close succession. It isn’t systematic, it’s the impelling of magnetic force – a desire, almost a need, to imprint the very words into my mind, absorbing their content into heart and being. And it seems inconsistent. I love and admire both Austen and Dickens, but Jane gets many more re-reads than Charles. It might be comprehensible to most that Spyri’s Heidi would still draw me back occasionally after all these years, but then, so does everybody’s favorite book to hate: Pollyanna, by Eleanor H. Porter.

And it’s hard to isolate a cause. Part of it comes from being a writer myself; getting saturated with an author’s flow of thought and word is crucial in training myself to write well and in shaping my own style. Another part comes from the fact that many stories, especially suspenseful ones or ones utilizing older or different forms of English, are much better the second time around. Almost all good stories improve with multiple readings, anyway.

Yet another part draws from the power of certain stories to speak to me at certain times. Despite (or perhaps because of) J.K. Rowling’s admitted struggles with doubt, her stories spoke into my struggle with agnosticism and belief, and separated light from darkness, good from evil in my mind. As clichéd as it might sound, they helped me find courage to trust in the power of self-sacrificial love over death.

Austen’s Emma – and Emma’s Mr. Knightley – give me real delight through reinforcing my appreciation of being loved and chosen by a man of character. My husband is not unlike Mr. Knightley. I never fully understood why Emma loved Mr. Knightley instead of Frank Churchill until I met my husband, and at the end of the book, her joy is mine.

My favorite stories will show me compassion without leading me to despair, foster belief through imagination, and even when I disagree with an idea, give me something real to think about.

A good book is a transformational experience. A bad book may be too, which is why it is important both to read good material and to be a good reader. Reading can satisfy the soul with truth. But truths, especially important ones, are easy to forget, so I rarely resist the urge to re-read.

I do look for new material, now and again. A trip to a library or bookstore carries a sense of perilous adventure – I never know exactly where an unread book will take me. When luck hits, I will probably travel through the new book at least twice before looking elsewhere. A book like that almost always becomes part of the rotation.

But whatever the thrills or disappointments of a new book, the regulars continually reach out from the grand old shelves, ready to bring me back to the known that never seems to grow too familiar. I hear their rustlings now, even with a bookmark in Dante and one each in two non-fiction works. Austen’s Persuasion wants a turn, and even Pride and Prejudice thinks itself about due. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet wants to remind me of its alchemical backstory to Perelandra and That Hideous Strength. Dickens’ Christmas Carol keeps hinting about the time of year, and Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy vies with Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix for attention.

One at a time, I have to say; but they’ll probably all get their chance. I don’t see re-reading as obsession or time-wasting. It’s restful, therapeutic, exhortative, inspiring, encouraging, anything but a loss. And I’ve learned that I’m not alone: re-reading appears to be at least somewhat commonplace among the writing sort. Lewis and Rowling have both admitted to it. If it helps me write half as well as either of them, someday, re-reading will have been one of my greatest investments.