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Archive for the category “Books”

Fairy Tales, Part II

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In search of the more obscure fairy tales—in other words, the stranger, more disturbing ones—I checked out of the library The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm, translated by Lore Segal and Randall Jarrell, with black-and-white drawings by Maurice Sendak (1973). Segal and Sendak chose twenty-seven tales, and most of them were new to me.  

And fantastically strange many of them are. In “Hans My Hedgehog,” a boy is born with the head and torso of the prickly woodlands creature. Sendak makes him menacing rather than adorable in the way of Beatrix Potter’s Mrs. Tiggy-Wiggle, but he’s also kind of…dashing. Rejected by his parents, Hans goes off to the forest, where he raises pigs, plays the bagpipes and rides a cockerel that’s been shod like a horse. Hans bullies a king into handing over his daughter as a bride, and when she shrinks from him he scratches her with his spines until she’s bloody.  Then she’s sent back to her father,”disgraced her life long.” Hans gets a second chance at a princess, and when she accept him for who he is, she’s rewarded big time: Hans zips out of his hedgehog skin, as if it were a costume. I was quite enjoying this story until the ending jolted me: Now a full-bodied man, Hans is “coal-black” and has to be scrubbed until he is “white,” at which point he’s deemed a “beautiful young man.”  I wondered why Segal didn’t edit this; she made changes to other tales, according to the New York Public Library notes. She could’ve simply excised the reference to coal-black. No one can be surprised that a nineteenth-century German storyteller believes white is beautiful; it’s the comparison to coal-black that rankles.

Then there’s “Many Fur,” an incest story with elements of Repunzel and Cinderella. A dying queen makes her husband promise to marry a woman as beautiful as she and with the same golden hair. (The Germans and their obsession with golden hair!) The king looks around, and there isn’t anyone who is equal to the queen—except, why, his own daughter! The king’s counsellors try to dissuade him (I was relieved to read), and the princess herself is horrified, but the king is firm. The princess has no choice but to run away to the forest. There are no dwarves to rescue her, alas. The king’s men find her, disguised in a fur coat made from the hide of every animal in the kingdom (hence the title). She ends up working in the royal kitchen, carrying wood and sweeping ashes. And this is where the story changes course. The princess is never again identified as the king’s daughter, nor he as the king who wants to do this wicked deed of marrying his own daughter. One day, there’s a ball, and the princess cleans herself up, dons one of her old dresses, and heads to the ball. Mysteriously, no one recognizes her, including the king, though he does note a strong resemblance to his “dear bride.” And mysteriously, she doesn’t identify herself. She hustles back to the kitchen and her role as an abused servant. Eventually, the king discovers who she is—his dear bride!—and they live happily ever after.

As you can tell from my retelling, the story drives me crazy. It’s completely unsatisfying, how the incest is sneakily circumvented. It turns out Sendak found the story utterly delightful, with “such lovely incest disguised & such sweet nonsense,” (See the notes that are in the collection of the New York Public Library, easily found at nypl.org.) 

I wonder what he made of “The Jupiter Tree.” I’ve never liked stew, and now suspect that my aversion is tied to some long-repressed reading of this tale. A stepmother chops a boy’s head off, then chops up his body and makes a stew with it, and serves it to the boy’s unsuspecting father (who compliments her on how good it is). Oh, and the boy’s sister is made to believe she’s responsible for his death. It’s all so awful, you keep reading, wondering, what next? How will there be a happily ever after? Incredibly, there is—the stepmother dies, and the boy is even brought back to life. Is this really a children’s story? Or am I simply too old and too soft to handle it? The writer Amanda Katz, in a piece for NPR a few years ago, recalls loving “The Juniper Tree” as a child. As an adult she finds it “horrific.”

There was a tale I particularly liked—”The Master Thief.” It celebrates cleverness  without a drop of blood. And for a change, our man doesn’t end up with a princess. This thief (who is never given a name) could be Jack the giant-killer, grown up. Even though stealing is wrong, you can’t help liking his derring-do and imagination. Also, he specializes in the kind of theft that almost sounds heroic: He only steals from the rich, and he only steals that which is challenging to procure. The local authority figure, the count, gives the MT a challenge: If he pulls off three seemingly impossible thefts, he’s free to leave with his life; if not, he’ll hang—in the count’s colorful terms, “tie the marriage knot with the rope maker’s daughter.” If I’ve piqued your interest, look for it online—or click here: https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/grimm/g86h/chapter193.html. 

 

 

Writing, pigs, and the new year

 

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Here we are, on the cusp of a new year. 2018. Most years, by late December, I’m wondering where the year went.This time, I’m happy enough to leave behind the gut-churning I awoke to nearly every day of our president’s first year in office. Year Two probably won’t be any different, but I’m not ready to recognize that just yet. I have champagne to drink and new year’s resolutions to joke about. I’ll begin the real work of worrying about 2018 tomorrow. (Procrastination was always one of my fortes.)

The year had bright points, it wasn’t all doom and gloom! Among my writing circle, 2017 was a banner year. Jodi Kendall’s first middle-grade novel,The Unlikely Story of a Pig in the City (HarperCollins), was published this fall, with a sequel to follow in October. It’s a wonderful read, even if you don’t love the idea of a pet pig, but especially if you do—and really, who doesn’t? Ghenet Myrthil signed with an agent after at least four fought to rep a MG manuscript that I know is going to sell at record speed. Gina Carey is deep into revisions on a fantasy novel that is going to land her an agent and a book deal this year. You heard it hear first! As for me, I’m pursuing a certificate in children’s book writing at Stony Brook Southampton. Over the course of a year, I’ll work with two mentors on a WIP—the MG novel that I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to wrap up.

Chin, chin, all!

Second-hand Books

Honestly, I have no business buying books. I’m in the middle of two recently published novels (Susan Rieger’s The Heirs and Gail Godwin’s Grief Cottage) while taking a break from Dickens’ Pickwick Papers. This is a new low: three unfinished books on the nightstand! But release me into a second-hand bookstore, and I’m going to come away with something.

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How this for a highbrow/lowbrow pairing? The Poe volume was a beautiful hardback I couldn’t resist (five bucks). Then my eyes fell on a group of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books. A Reacher story is a summer treat, like chips and guacamole. I can gulp whole paragraphs at a time with minimal chewing. (Note: I see the point in chewing tortilla chips, but you get what I mean.)

Poe, now—no gulping here. I flipped to his famous 1845 short story, “The Purloined Letter” (when was the last time you heard someone use the word “purloined”?). Early on, the prefect of the Paris police is explaining his case involving the titular letter, and this is what he says to explain how he knows the letter remains in the possession of the thief: “It is clearly inferred from the nature of the document, and of the non-appearance of certain results which would at once arise from its passing out of the robber’s possession—that is to say, from his employing it as he must design in the end to employ it.” More careful, deliberate nibbling called for her. For now, I’m going to resist the siren calling of Reacher and the subtler pleasures of Poe until I finished these other extremely worthy works.

Fictional Naming, Take 2

Going back to my last post on names. To clarify: From the reader’s point of view—or at least this reader’s point of view—names may or may not matter. But to writers—”there’s a magic to names, after all,” Neil Gaiman wrote in “All Books Have Genders” in his collection of essays, The View from the Cheap Seats.

I’m chewing on names for a 12-year-old character’s identical twin sister. I’ve started with the parents, of course. I feel for them. Young and poor, they’re expecting two babies instead of one (in a not exactly planned pregnancy). What are those names going to be? It’s hard enough agreeing on one name, for most people, or at least some people, or at least Dan and me. We liked exactly one name for our son—Davison, a family name on my side. Dan nixed my ideas—Lucas and Russell—and I loathed his top choice, Ayrton, after the race-car driver. (Ayrton—for crying out loud!) We would’ve been in a pretty pickle if we’d had twins (completely within the realm of possibility given I’m a twin, his sisters are fraternal twins, and one of them went on to give birth to a set of identical twins).

This is what I’ve come up with for my young, poor fictional parents. The mother comes up with one, somewhat fanciful, somewhat old-fashioned name; and the father, a name that belonged to his grandmother. And miraculously (I’m a kind creator) they are delighted with each other’s choice.

Oh, and very key to the baby naming: my young mother doesn’t have to defend her choice to her own mother, who died in a car accident several years earlier. (Yes, I killed her off. But she might pop up as a ghost toward the end.) Even if she’d been alive, she would’ve have been as mean as some mothers are about their offsprings’ ideas on baby names. My mother, for instance, had this to say about my sister’s choice of name for her son: “Elijah? You mean, like Elijah Blue, Cher’s son?” It may not be clear to an outsider why this comment could have such an effect—suffice to say my sister ended up naming her child Griffin.

Gaiman wrote whimsically about trying out names for a character in his American Gods. “I tried calling him Lazy, but he didn’t seem to like that, and I called him Jack and he didn’t like that any better. I took to trying every name I ran into on him for size, and he looked back at me from somewhere in my head unimpressed every time. It was like trying to name Rumpelstilskin.” What did he settle on? Shadow, from an Elvis Castello song. (Jack, he’d come back to—for The Graveyard Book, possibly my favorite Gaiman work.)

Two rules on naming I take to heart.

  1. Avoid names belonging to the protagonists of famous authors—or better yet, famous protagonists of famous authors. Why court unfavorable comparisons?

2. Check the name online. If there’s anyone even remotely famous–has a Wiki bio, for     instance–move on.  I thought of this today, reading the New Yorker. I came upon the name of a corporate executive named Duke Stump. What a name. Almost as resonant as Trump.

Trump….don’t get me started.

 

 

Ron Weasley and the Sorcerer’s Stone?

My daughter Vanessa, doing research on Edith Wharton, discovered that the writer had written most of The House of Mirth before deciding to change the name of her main character. She would not be Juliet Hurst but Lily Bart.

All right—Juliet doesn’t quite have the elegance or delicacy of Lily, and Wharton makes plain her character’s flower-like beauty and fragility. And yet I’m not sure I would’ve found fault with Juliet, had Wharton stuck with it. I might’ve liked the reminder of Shakespeare’s tragic heroine.

How important is a name in a novel? (Shakespeare comes to mind again–nope, go away.)  One the one hand, you could argue that a character’s name is just one attribute, like shyness or having toothpick arms. Once we love (or loathe) a character we love (or shiver at) the name, and we can’t imagine that character having any other.

Take Harry Potter. It’s simple, unremarkable. For me, it conjures up a weather-beaten Englishman tending his primroses. It’s Harry the character who’s remarkable, who’s memorable. I’d want to read about his wizarding adventures no matter what his name. J.K. Rowling could have named Harry Ron and vice versa, and I’d be just as happy. Ron Weasley and the Sorcerer’s Stone–how’s that? Ron’s as easy to say as Harry; Weasley is quirkier than Potter, funnier There’s something about the word “weasel,” with the long “e” followed by the “sel” that ends up as”zel” when you say it aloud–it tickles my funny bone.

At the same time, all right–Potter might be the better name for Rowling’s hero. Harry, despite his talents, is without pretension and down to earth (I thought of a potter as someone potting plants, who literally has his hands in soil). Weasley might better suit the hero’s wisecracking sidekick. Rowling is awfully good at coming up interesting names that reinforce our understanding of her characters, without being obvious about it. (Usually. Notable exception: Malfoy, which roughly means “bad faith” in French. British readers are more likely to recognize this than we Americans are.)

The right name is important. All I’m saying is, the character is even more so.

On Ada Byron Lovelace

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I’ve been reading children’s picture-book biographies lately, and I’ve come across three on Ada Byron Lovelace, all published in the last two years.

Ada of the poetic name is considered the first computer programmer. A first in the tech field, who isn’t Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, who’s in fact a woman? Who lived in the 1800s, more than 150 years before the first modern computer came into being? Of course there’s a book on her, or two or three! She has an interesting heritage, too. She was the daughter of the poet Lord Byron and a wealthy English woman who was determined to instill in her daughter a love of math and science—not poetry. Once you know all this, you wonder why there aren’t half-a-dozen picture books about Ada Byron Lovelace. I wouldn’t be surprised if other books for kids were in the works, like a middle-grade biography. Why not one for the YA crowd?

Ada’s life was colorful, but it ended all too soon. The work for which she is recognized today was published in 1843, when she was 27, and she died of cancer at 36. You’d think there would be one clear path for a biographer—but no two people tell the same story the same way, as these picture books show.

Creston Books was the first out of the door with Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine, by Laurie Wallmark in November 2015. Wallmark, a computer-science teacher (according to her book bio), focuses on Ada’s interest in and devotion to numbers from an early age. This Ada is lonely and often left alone to draw and dream up inventions. The first time we see Ada as a child she’s sitting outside in the grass with her cat and her books, imagining the flight of a wooden bird she’s designed.

Next thing we know, Ada is at her desk—she looks to be in her early teens—surrounded by sketches and diagrams for a set of wings she’s invented. April Chu’s illustrations are highly detailed, jewel-toned panoramas; I admire the wooden floors, the leather books, the lushness of Ada’s upper-class home. We see Ada outside in a storm, watching the effects of the wind on her sailboat: “A storm of numbers and calculations whirred in her mind and spilled onto her pages.” (It can’t be much of a storm—her notes are untouched by the wind and rain—but never mind.)

Ada ends up coming down with measles, a case so serious that she’s temporarily blinded and paralyzed. She doesn’t walk without the aid of crutches for three long years. During this period, Ada’s mother keeps her mind busy with math problems. Three years of doing little else but math: That in itself seems an astonishing feat. Her mother is not the only one nurturing her talent, though. She has tutors like mathematician and scientist Mary Fairfax Somerville, who was, Wallmark writes, “living proof that girls could do math and do it well.” This is the first and last mention of the limited prospects for girls with intellectual interests. Wallmark remains focused on Ada as a singular young woman, which she was.

At seventeen and old enough to go to parties, Ada meets Charles Babbage, a famous inventor and mathematician. “Babbage didn’t’t see her as simply a young girl. He treated her like a fellow mathematician and inventor she already was.” He is, it appears, her first friend ever. Sad, but not unexpected, is it?

Baggage shows her his latest invention, “a revolutionary mechanical calculator” he calls his Difference Engine. In Chu’s rendering, it’s a rectangular mass of brass cylinders and cogs and columns, just compact enough to sit on a tabletop. Ada gives the machine a multiplication problem to figure out—12 x 15, one she can do in her head—and it comes up with the correct answer, 180. There’s no way to really understand how the thing works, though possibly someone with more of a math brain than I have might grasp the gist (I’m thinking a parent, here). I wouldn’t look to Wiki for help, not unless this means something to you: “A difference engine is an automatic mechanical calculator designed to tabulate polynomial functions.”

As it turns out, Babbage is famous for another invention, the Analytical Engine. This, we learn, “would solve harder problems by working through them, step by step. It could even make decisions all by itself, a true thinking machine.” This machine, unlike the calculator, was still in the theoretical stage.

Here’s where Ada steps up to the plate. Ada takes home thirty of Babbage’s lab books and studies his diagrams and technical descriptions. She realizes the machine needs numbers to make it work—it’s not, we gather, a thinking machine, after all. She decides to come up with an algorithm, “a set of mathematical instructions.” for the A.E. And guess what—this became the world’s first computer program.

Ada grasps that the machine is more than a calculator; she foresees the computer age. “She imagined computers would someday design powerful flying machines and majestic sailing ships. They would draw pictures and compose music. And they would play games and help with schoolwork.”

Alas, Babbage never built the A.E., so Ada never got to see her program run. But, as we learn on the last page, the influence of her work lives on. We learn that a computer language would be named after her, and one of its uses would be to guide modern flying machines. “The girl who needed crutches ended up flying after all!”

Wallmark includes end notes that give more details on Ada’s algorithm and other writing she did on scientific subjects. A quibble: Readers have no idea until they reach the timeline behind the end notes that Ada died young, or indeed that she married—hence the name “Lovelace”—and had three children during the time she worked with Babbage.

The two other books—no doubt deliberately—take step back from numbers and diagrams to show Ada as both a woman of her time and a woman ahead of her time; they also emphasize Ada’s imaginative talents as much as her mathematic skill.
Ada’s ideas: The Story of Ada Lovelace, the World’s First Computer Programmer, by author-illustrator Fiona Robinson (Abrams Books for Young Readers), published in August 2016, draws our eye with her exquisite illustrations, composed of delicate watercolor drawings that have been cut out, assembled and then photographed.

This Ada, who has creamy skin and two spots of pink on her cheeks, is a girl with spunk, a girl who studies dutifully (she’s locked in a closet if she doesn’t!) but finds her chief inspiration in the scientific and mechanical wonders of the Industrial Revolution. Ada’s mother takes Ada on factory tours, where she sees steam-powered machinery at work. This leads to her idea for a steam-powered flying horse. To her mother’s dismay—and the reader’s glee—Ada’s “…imagination could not be confined by math, because Ada was starting to find her own sort of poetic expression…through math!” I love that line, and the idea of there being poetry in math—for an elite few.

Robinson gives us fascinating details about Babbage’s Analytical Engine, placing it in the context of the Industrial Revolution. The A.E.’s design was based an existing machine, a mechanical loom named for its inventor, Joseph Marie Jacquard. A chain of hole-punched paper cards told the machine how to weave silk into a complex pattern. Babbage believed a similar system could be used to calculate complex math problems. (Not until this part of the book does the reader understand that the book’s endpaper graphics are hole-punched cards laid end to end.) “Ada,” Robinson writes, “excitedly offered to figure out the algorithm, or instructions, that would be punched into the cards.”

If you’ve read Wallmark’s book, you’re wondering—what about the lab books, what about Ada figuring that Babbage had the wrong idea about his thinking machine? Wallmark gives full credit to Ada for figuring out that the A.E. needed programming, that it was never going to compute on its own. In Robinson’s telling, Ada volunteers to come up with an algorithm as if it were already clear one would be needed, as if Babbage just hadn’t gotten around to it. In either case, Ada takes the initiative to come up with a working algorithm, and later it’s clear that she alone saw the potential of Babbage’s machine. Still, the choice of language in each case creates a subtly different view of Ada’s role.Was Ada the go-getter who out-thought Babbage at every turn? Or was she a protégé who wound up outshining her mentor? Hallmark and Robinson consult many of the same sources; it’s not as if one had more info than the other. It’s possible the historical record is murky on this point, open to interpretation. I’d guess she was both—a go-getter who didn’t have the freedom and opportunity to go out and get; and a steadfast collaborator to a fellow inventor who was simply not as brilliant as she.

I give Robinson credit for attempting to illustrate the flow of the algorithm with a series of paper swirls in different colors, each representing a calculation. I love the illustrations, but did I understand the algorithm any better? Thank goodness I don’t have a girl at home. I’d end up providing her with an anecdote she’ll be throwing back at me for decades. “Mom, remember that picture book you couldn’t explain to me?” I also like that Robinson  tells us on the final pages that Ada dies at a young age. It seems important that we know this—because chances are, she would’ve gone on to even greater accomplishments if she hadn’t gotten cancer. Spookily, she died at the same age as her famous father. Too bad she didn’t have Babbage’s genes—he ended up living another 28 years.

 

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In her Ada Lovelace, Poet of science: The First Computer Programmer, which came out last November (Paula Wiseman/Simon & Schuster), author Diane Stanley gives us a twenty-first-century girl can relate to. She’s less of a lonely brainiac than a girl who had really cool ideas and figures out how to act on them. Almost first thing, we hear how about the pair of wings that Ada makes herself because she “imagined it would be fun to fly.”

Jessie Hartland’s cheery illustrations show Ada with a smile like a capital C on its back and two spots of pink on her cheeks (oddly similar to Robinson’s pink cheeks). This Ada is an exuberant spirit. She gets a “first-class scientific education,” but there’s no talk of closets. We don’t hear about any of Ada’s struggles—the measles, the painful three-year recovery. We see the precocious girl in a factory, watching a Jacquard Loom at work and wondering if the punched-hole cards could be used for other purposes. Wowza. Did a teenage Ada really foresee the A.E., and ultimately, the computer? Since I have to assume that Stanley knows what she’s talking about, Ada must really have had have this revolutionary thought, in which case Wallmark and Robinson missed out on something quite amazing.

Stanley adds notes of humor when appropriate—as when Ada began going to parties in London, at age seventeen, and finds herself tongue-tied. “Everyone wanted to meet Ada because she was Lord Byron’s daughter. But she didn’t know what to say to them. She didn’t care about fashion, fox hunting, or court gossip.” Aha! I was wondering where these sorts of aristocrats were—the kind that everyone from Jane Austen to Nancy Mitford has satirized. And Ada’s mother, we learn, insists on Ada get married. “Ada didn’t need a profession. What she needed was a husband.” She may have been a genius, but in the nineteenth century, being brilliant didn’t exempt a girl from her traditional responsibilities.

Babbage comes across as both a man of his time and a visionary. While Robinson credits Babbage with inventing the first “computer design,” Stanley calls the A.E. “the first fully programmable all-purpose digital computer”. She also calls Babbage’s and Ada’s was “one of the most remarkable friendships in the history of science.”

Babbage, in this telling, isn’t a dreamer; he’s intent on getting his machine built. Babbage sees he can’t hope to build his machine without a lot of money—and to raise the money, he needs publicity. There’s an article about the A.E. in French—what if it were published in Britain? This is where Ada comes in. She goes about translating the article (on top of everything else, she was fluent in French!). Babbage asks her to add her own notes about what an “all-purpose computing machine” like the A.E. could do, and Babbage and Ada decide together what kind of algorithm could serve as a test of the machine’s capabilities. This is what Stanley focuses on—the algorithm as part of an effort to bring attention to the A.E. The article establishedAda’s work for the ages, though few people at the time knew about her contribution to history—she signed her “Notes by the Translator” with her initials. She believed her work wouldn’t get the attention it deserved if readers knew the writer was a woman.

If I had to choose just one of these Ada books to read to a child, I might start with Stanley’s and Hartland’s. Their Ada is just so engaging. But kids drawn to Ada Lovelace may want to read all three books. They’ll see how many ways there are to tell one story.

Getting Merry with Book Buying

img_3866I’m nowhere close to Scrooge territory, but I don’t have my usual holiday verve. I’ve been dutifully shopping and wrapping presents and planning the Christmas-day lunch, all the while fighting a current of despair. That’s what a future Trump presidency can do to a person, not to mention the all-too-present suffering in Syria, Iraq, and many other parts of the world. In the last few days, I’ve amped up my efforts to get into the spirit of the season. Wrote a few more checks to nonprofits doing good work. Bought myself my very own quart of eggnog. Turned on the carols (a bit late, indeed).

My mood shifted yesterday when I my son sauntered into the kitchen at dinnertime and announced he’d gotten me and my husband Dan a gift that he thought we were really going to like. It was something that was so popular it was out of stock, and he’d had to go back to the store a second time to get it. Well. I couldn’t for the life of me think what this perfect gift could be, and I can’t wait to find out. He was so pleased with himself, this 21-year-old who, like many young men, doesn’t like to shop—I was all of a sudden ready. Ready to shower love on my family and make merry!

I have a few gifts to be buy last minute—the books. I buy them last minute, because I know I can, and because it’s like choosing the candles for a cake; the hard part is done, and all that’s left is the finishing touch. This year, I have another reason to leave book buying until the end. My neighborhood bookstore, BookCourt, is closing on Dec. 31 after 35 years and it’s going to be painful to say goodbye.

This is what’s on my list:

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad for my son, because everyone should read it. (I’m saving my copy for my husband, Dan.)

The late P.D. James’ The Mistletoe Murder, a collection of previously unpublished stories, for a friend who loves James.

Siri Hustvedt’s A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex and the Mind, for my husband, because it sounds so damn cool.

And we’ll see what will be impulse buys.

Happy holidays, all!

Great First Lines

“Running out of gas, Rabbit Angstrom thinks as he stands behind the summer-dusty windows of the Springer Motors display room watching the traffic go by on Route 111, traffic somehow thin and scared compared to what it used to be.”

First line of Rabbit is Rich, the third in Updike’s four-book saga about the life and times of everyman Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom.

After a sentence like that, how you can you not read on to find out who or what’s running out of gas? In case you’re wondering: “The fucking world is running out of gas.” It’s 1979, and the shortage is both real and metaphorical.

There are moments when I need the inspiration that comes from reading the opening lines of great novels. I tend to respond most to those that thrust me in the middle of something, so that I have no choice but to read a few more sentences, if only to orient myself in the new world—and usually, once I read a few more sentences, I want to read a few more. And then I’m hooked.

Here’s a random sampling of memorable first lines from the Alex Alger library.

“It’s a new elevator, freshly pressed to the rails, and it’s not built to fall this fast.” The Intuitionist, Colson Whitehead

Like a match struck in a darkened room: Two white girls in flannel nightgowns and red vinyl roller skates with white laces, tracing tentative circles on a cracked blue slate sidewalk at seven o’clock on an evening in July.” The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem

“Roy would not have noticed the strange boy if it weren’t for Dana Matherson, because Roy ordinarily didn’t look out the window of the school bus.” Hoot, Carl Hiaasen

“It began in the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel.” A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan

“His children were falling from the sky.” Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel

“Walking back to camp through the swamp, Sam wondered whether to tell his father what he had seen.” The Trumpet of the Swan, E.B. White

“I might as well say, right from the jump: it wasn’t my usual kind of job.” People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks

“Our mother performed in starlight.” Swamplandia!, Karen Russell

“Selden paused in surprise.” The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton

And—one of my all-time favorites:

“Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.” Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier

Agents and editors always tell aspiring writers to avoid opening with a dream. That’s got to be because if you can’t do it as well as Daphne du Maurier does, what’s the point? Of course, no rule really applies to accomplished writers. Donna Tartt begins The Goldfinch with a dream, and no one minded. Certainly not the Pulitzer Prize Board. (“When I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years.”)

Okay, Fine. It’s Worth Reading.

 

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The plot finally kicked in for me, and once it did, I tore through the last two-thirds of Cursed Child. I’m in the mood to talk details here, so if you haven’t read the script but plan to, stop here!

Rowling and co-writers (mainly Rowling?) came through with a satisfying take on the Potter crew one generation later. It doesn’t have the sprawl and heft that a Book 8 would surely have; it’s missing a few vital characters (Hagrid! and, um, Voldemort); nonetheless I found myself admiring, as always, Rowlings’ storytelling genius.

I had trouble focusing at first (you know this, if you’ve read my earlier post). There were disturbing oddities, like Ron’s becoming a goofy, hapless adult. More problematic, I had trouble warming up to the two young heroes. In theory, what could be more interesting: the offspring of Harry and Draco, best friends! And in Slytherin together! Poor Albus is lousy at spells and flying. He’s almost obligated to hate Quidditch, and he does. He sees himself as the disappointing son—the “spare,” as he calls himself, using Voldemort’s word for Cedric Diggory. (Harry’s first born, James, and the youngest, Lily, are “easy” children.) Scorpius struggles not as much because of his own dad— though Draco is chilly and removed—than because everyone at Hogwarts believes a rampant rumor that he’s the secret son of Voldemort. I should’ve been brimming with compassion for these boys, but exasperated was more like it. I wanted to tell them to stop sniveling, to stop worrying about what their dads thought of them and to get a life! Rowling et al. expect us to appreciate the irony of Albus’ predicament—he has the family and love his father yearned for, but he’s miserable being his father’s son. It’s right up Rowling’s alley, this kind of emotional messiness but—there’s no time for depth. It’ll all telling instead of showing.

SCORPIUS: I know the—Voldemort thing isn’t—true—and—you know—but sometimes, I think I can see my dad thinking: How did I produce this?

ALBUS: Still better than my dad. I’m pretty sure he spends most of his time thinking: How can I give him back? (p. 81)

Going back in time to save Cedric Diggory from a brutal death was something, anyway. It’s a decision full of self-pity—awww, the spare wants to save the original spare—but any action is welcome at this point. Albus and Scorpius’ plan begins with a time-honored tradition: Polyjuicing in order to sneak into the Ministry, in this case to steal the Time-Turner from the office of the Minister for Magic, our own Hermione Granger.

They manage it far too easily, if you ask me. They know just where it is, and there’s no doubt they’ll find it, even if they do have to fight off a few enchanted books first. And if they’re caught? They don’t even worry about getting into trouble—that’s how ho-hum that trouble could be. An angry parent? What else is new? For the original trio, sneaking into the Ministry was a life-or-death affair once the Death Eaters took over. Think of the time they stole in to steal back Regulus Black’s locket from the horrible Dolores Umbridge, and Hermione, disguised as a low-level Ministry witch, is dragged into a Muggle-denouncing proceeding to act as Umbridge’s secretary. The three of them barely escape, with Hermione only at the last second able to shake off Death Eater Yaxley.

The clash of good and evil—that’s what’s missing in the first half of the script. There’s a specter of evil. Harry has disturbing dreams and wakes up with his scar hurting and the voice of Voldemort hissing his name. Haaarry Pottttter….I’m sure this was supposed to send shivers down my spine. It seemed hokey, though. I was unmoved until Albus succeeds in his mission, and in an instant disappears from the world, having altered time in the worst possible way. Voldemort doesn’t die—Harry does. Which means Albus himself doesn’t exist.

Page 159, halfway through. This is when I thought: Rowling is baaack.

Who hasn’t wondered what would’ve happened had Voldemort lived? Rowling seized upon the most compelling what-if of all. Here’s where I finally began to respect Scorpius, who’s left alone to figure out how to restore the post-Voldemort present and bring back his best friend. It’s clear once and for all that he’s too decent to be a Death Eater—he’s horrified at the cruel, Muggle-torturing world he’s trapped in. He ably takes on the hero role and proves himself much like Harry did time and time again (oddly, he’s more Harry-like than Albus is).

Of course, he’s got an easier time of it than Harry, because he knows everything about the past he’s entered. He knows to go to Snape for help—Snape, alive and well—as well Hermione and Ron, the last existing members of Dumbledore’s Army. These were my favorite moments: When three characters we know intimately from Book 1 to 7 meet, in an alternate past, a Voldemort-ruling past, a boy they think they know but they don’t, because he’s from an alternate future. It’s so crazy and mind-warping!

The whole Delphi-Augurey development was a delightful surprise—I didn’t for a moment suspect she was anything but what she was. She’s far from being a Voldemort replacement, though. I hoped he’s make an appearance at the end, when Harry and the gang are waiting to intercept Delphi in Godric’s Hollow. Instead of Harry v. Voldemort, Round 2, we get Harry disguised as Voldemort. “Horrendous,” the script notes read. Not for me, knowing that he’s just Harry. I can see reasons for keeping Voldemort out of the action. His and Harry’s history would swamp every other dynamic in the play. The scene as is brings in Albus to fight on the side of his dad, which honestly is hard to imagine against the real Voldy.

I have to grudgingly admit that whatever I might find lacking in the script, I can see it as the basis for a riveting theatrical production. I’d love to see how a set designer would create the Forbidden Forest; the Dementors; the fight against Delphi. With the play a sold-out success in London, it’s sure to come to New York. It could travel the globe eventually.

It’ll probably be turned into a movie. Don’t you think? We may well see it on the screen before we see it on the stage.

I hope Robert Patterson is free to play Cedric.

A few random thoughts and quibbles.

Who’d have thunk it:

Draco—wiser than Harry when he urges Harry to see that Albus needs him and Scorpius. A lonely child, like Tom Riddle and Draco himelf, lives in a dark place

Moms are a big deal in the books, but not here. Fierce, self-confident Ginny has virtually no role. She could be whited out and no one would miss her.

Funny:

When Albus is Polyjuiced into Ron at the Ministry and tries to distract Hermione by suggesting they have another baby—“Or if not another baby, a holiday. I want a baby or a holiday and I’m going to insist on it. Shall we talk about it later, honey?”

Moaning Myrtle, as always. Flirty Myrtle acts as if Harry and Draco visited her bathroom only yesterday. “Hello, Harry. Hello, Draco. Have you been bad boys again?”

Biggest beef:

Where’s Hagrid? We see him in two flashbacks but never in the present. No wonder Albus is such a sad sack–no Hagrid to cheer him up. Could he have retired?

Huh?

Cursed child–Harry, Albus, Scorpius? Every child who has issues with Dad/Dad figure? The unknown kid in the cover image?

What on earth is that cover image? A nest with owl wings?

 

Curses, Child!

Here we are, a week after I was supposed to have bought the Cursed Child and devoured it in one euphoric sitting. By now I should been well into the Joan Mitchell biog. I picked up from the library, even with time allowed to re-read favorite parts of CS.

Somehow, once I’d decided to postpone buying the book, I forgot to buy it all together. I forgot to write it down. It’s been true for quite some time now: If I don’t write a thing down, it doesn’t exist. I can’t say when I would’ve remembered had I not passed the wonderful Books of Wonder on 18th Street and seen Cursed Child in the window.

This was Wednesday. Lunchtime. I sat in the kitchen with some leftover pasta carbonara and open the book. For a few pages, it read more or less the way I thought it would, picking up the last chapter of Deathly Hallows. It was strange to see paragraphs winnowed into one-line bits of dialogue. Right, this was a script—a “Special Rehearsal Edition Script,” as the cover trumpets. (I could imagine the marketing meeting about the cover design. “Is there any other kind of script?” someone asked. “No.” The presenter, standing with a huge full-screen mockup. “It just sounds good. I mean, come on—it’s the eighth Harry Potter book! If that isn’t special, I don’t know what is.”)

But it wasn’t Deathly Hallows, in play form. Not for long. Page 10: Ron greets his niece Lily Potter with a…trick. Huh?

“RON: Are you aware of the Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes-certified nose-stealing breath?

ROSE: Mum! Dad’s doing that lame thing again.”

Lame is right. Why is Ron doing lame jokes? He was never funny, like George and Fred—not intentionally, anyway. Is this the hand of Jack Thorne, the playwright?

Anyway. We’re still in Hallows territory. Albus get on the Hogwarts Express, with Rose, Ron and Hermione’s daughter. They’re looking for somewhere to sit. Remember Harry’s first trip? Rose does. She reminds Albus that his dad and her parents met on that first train. To my dismay, Rose reveals herself to be a terrible snob from the get-go—she wants to find just the right people to sit with, the ones deserving of being friends with the children of Harry, Ron and Hermione. But Albus ends up wanting to sit with—

All right. I’m not going to give anything away. Just in case you find the first part more riveting than I did. I found I was perfectly capable of putting the book down after lunch, and not looking at it again until I was in bed. At which point I read only a few pages before my eyes grew heavy. I put the book down and fell asleep. No all-nighter for me!

Michiko—how could you steer me so wrong?

I’m sorely missing Rowling’s voice. And her world building. And character development. I wonder why she didn’t just write this as a novel?

Well. I need to finish it before I say anything more. I’m on page 94—about a third of the way through. I’m going to try to get a chunk read this weekend.

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