Thursday, May 29, 2008


If you think Harry Potter books are just for kids, think again. Some of the wordplay is probably lost on young readers. I especially like "Diagon Alley" (diagonally, get it?), and "Knockturn Alley", where the dark arts are sold, is an even better example. The "Pensieve" is a great invented word for a device that allows viewing someone's memories. Plus, these spellbinding adventure stories have become a huge part of the pop culture, and you don't want to be left out. Recently I spotted a car whose back end was spattered with various Harry Potter bumper stickers, not one of which mentioned him explicitly by name. Everyone needs to know what Gryffindor, Quidditch, and Parseltongue are, right? And the movies have become so ubiquitous that I sometimes wonder if J. K. Rowling is influenced by their depiction of her characters. Is Harry looking more and more like Daniel Radcliffe in her mind? The movie based on the sixth book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, is coming out in November. Start with this book if you've already seen the movies and don't want to read the first five. This is the penultimate in J. K. Rowling's series, and it continues with some of the same themes as the previous volumes as it builds to the conclusion in the seventh book. As she says, seven is a magical number, and it also figures into the plot of Half-Blood Prince, named for the unknown former owner of Harry's Potions textbook. The Prince's handwritten margin notes help Harry out on more than one occasion and not just in his school work. Half-Blood Prince answers a few nagging questions, such as why Voldemort thinks he's immortal and why the Defense Against the Dark Arts teaching position is a revolving door. It also seems to settle the matter of Snape's allegiance, but I'm reserving judgment until I've completed the series.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

A MAP OF THE WORLD by Jane Hamilton

Jane Hamilton's A Map of the World is about Alice, a school nurse whose life is derailed by a few minutes of inattention. Lizzy, a friend's child, drowns while in Alice's care. That tragic incident somehow catapults her into being falsely accused of child molestation, so that she is incarcerated for months. In the meantime, her dairy farmer husband tries to orchestrate her defense and find a way to raise the money for her exorbitant bail. This book is a reminder that we've all made careless mistakes, but most of us were lucky enough to avoid dire results. Oddly enough, Alice's jail time is in some ways her redemption, as her circumstances draw her out of a major funk brought on by guilt and shame. It also provides a means for her to atone for Lizzy's death. One of my favorite parts of the book is the middle section, told from Alice's husband's point of view, rather than hers. He is a much more sympathetic character than Alice, who is flighty and impetuous. The book really hits its stride, though, when the long-awaited trial finally takes place. The accuser, a 6-year-old who testifies from his mother's lap, and the accused get their day in court, and this section alone makes me want to see the movie.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

TALK TALK by T. C. Boyle

In Talk Talk, T. C. Boyle juxtaposes the crime du jour, identity theft, with the common literary theme of characters in identity crises. Dana Halter is a deaf woman who is erroneously incarcerated for several days because of the crimes committed by Peck Wilson, a man living a lavish lifestyle under her name. Dana and her boyfriend embark on a cross-country pursuit of Peck, and many adventures ensue. There are tons of unlikely coincidences along the way, but you can't help but enjoy the ride. As is the case with other T. C. Boyle novels, this one has parallel stories that converge. The other story, of course, is about Peck, and he's especially in an identity crisis, having changed names more times than he can remember. Also at stake is Dana and Bridger's relationship, which is being tested by their impetuous decision to risk everything they've achieved in life for revenge. The writing is very indicative of the pace of the novel, especially the first sentence, and I love Boyle's visual effects, such as that of railroad tracks stapling the ground. I think I'm becoming a T. C. Boyle fan. Drop City was a hoot and had a more satisfying conclusion.

Thursday, May 8, 2008


I felt almost voyeuristic while reading Katrina Kittle's The Kindness of Strangers about child molestation. The book focuses on a neighboring family that has to come to terms with what has been happening right under their noses. Sarah is a widow whose best friend Courtney has apparently videotaped her husband's "parties" for the past four years, in which he has sexually abused their young son Jordan. The message is clear: the problem of child molestation is very widespread, and it could be happening in a family that you think you know. Kittle does a great job of pairing gruesome and heartbreaking subject matter with suspense and effectively conveys Sarah's disbelief. Guilt-ridden for their oblivion, Sarah and her two sons reevaluate the clues that they ignored. As a policeman tells them, though, the clues are recognizable as such only in hindsight. Each chapter describes the perspective of one character, and the use of spelling words to put big words into the heads of eleven-year-olds seemed to me alternately clever and cutesy. How likely is it that so young a boy would identify a realization as an epiphany? Plus, Jordan is so socially and emotionally maimed, with no concept of appropriate behavior, that the outcome seemed a little too tidy. What happens to his mother is entirely predictable. My favorite observation, though, made by one of Sarah's sons near the end of the book, was that if their father, Sarah's husband, were still alive they would not have been able to help Jordan to the extent that they did. Their own grief made them stronger.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

FAHRENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451 is Ray Bradbury's 55-year-old futuristic masterpiece about a time when firemen burn books instead of extinguishing fires. (451F is the temperature at which book pages burn.) His fireman protagonist, Guy Montag, has suddenly changed allegiances and become interested in preserving books rather than destroying them. The book is supposedly about censorship, but to me it seemed to be more about apathy. The book burning started after everyone had stopped reading anyway, and the liberal arts schools had mostly disappeared. Montag's professor friend Faber lists the three things that books provide: texture, leisure to absorb the information, and our response to what they teach us. The texture is the fabric of life that books describe, and the more densely woven the fabric, the better the quality of the book. Bradbury's writing style is not very fluid, but his take on the future is noteworthy at times. Not all of his predictions have come to pass, but the bug that Faber puts in Montag's ear made me think of people wearing their cell phones today. Also, the author mentions that the television is used as a babysitter, and he was spot-on about that. However, we don't have vicious mechanical hounds, at least not that I know of, nor do we all live in fireproof houses, unfortunately.