Dandelion Wine

This is the first of several books by author Ray Bradbury that you will see here eventually (remember, I am way too undisciplined to give any kind of time frame or promise a schedule). I have to give a shout out to my friend The Owl for introducing me to Bradbury in college. I would love to be able to say that I am one of the many who enjoyed his stories from a young age, but unfortunately that isn’t the case. I vaguely recall a TV show called The Ray Bradbury Theater back in the 80’s, but at the time it didn’t seem like something that would frost my cupcake. I don’t think I developed good taste in much of anything…literature, food, music, movies…until I was a young adult. We lost Mr. Bradbury earlier this year, and I was struck by how profoundly his passing affected me. I wish I would have “gotten the memo” about his stuff when I was a kid, but I guess it is better to be late to the party than to miss it altogether. The great thing about authors (and I suppose any artist…actors, musicians, etc.) is that we can enjoy the fruits of their talent long after they themselves have left this mortal coil.

 

As the weather becomes blustery and we break out the fleece & turn on the furnaces, I want to turn back the clock just a little bit. I am not a fan of cold weather and think the only good things about autumn & winter are football, Christmas, and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Other than those few exceptions I would prefer a perpetual state of warmth & sunshine. At any rate, Dandelion Wine is Bradbury’s ode to summer.

 

Originally written as disparate short stories, they share enough common threads to be strung together into one congruent novel. The main characters are 12 year old Douglas Spaulding (based on Bradbury himself) and his 10 year old brother Tom. The setting is Green Town, IL, loosely based on Bradbury’s recollections of his boyhood hometown of Waukegan, IL (40 miles north of Chicago). Green Town has sort of a Mayberry feel to it, with just a tinge of mysticism & fantasy thrown into the mix. We are introduced to a variety of the boys’ family, neighbors, and townsfolk, but generally see things thru the eyes of the two youngsters. The summer depicted is 1928…a simpler, more bucolic time to be sure. The small town, the prism of childhood, the assumption of a more peaceful era…all combine to make this a fun, nostalgic, & easy read. The infinitesimal elements of what I suppose might pass as sci-fi or horror are non-intrusive, but enough to keep things interesting. Bradbury’s lyrical prose makes humble traditions of summertime…sitting on the front porch swing, eating ice cream, mowing grass, and enjoying Grandma’s cooking…seem monumentally important, which of course they are to a child. The boys are occasionally confronted with heavy issues like death, illness, fear, and the loss of a best friend to relocation, and Douglas is a deep thinker who waxes philosophical about life, but even the chapters that deal with these melancholy subjects retain a light tone. The stories are realistic enough to induce wistful remembrances of a bygone era, yet fantastical enough to sweep the reader away to the land of make believe.

 

I have always had a tendency to remember my own childhood as being far more idyllic than it likely was in reality, which is probably why I really like Dandelion Wine. Bradbury leans toward the sentimental, which is just fine by me. In our modern age of violence, callousness, and immorality it is nice to atleast pretend that it wasn’t always this way. Dandelion Wine may not belong in the same conversation as the greatest works of literature, and it probably isn’t even Bradbury’s best effort, but it is immensely enjoyable and a nice way to spend a couple of afternoons.

 

 

 

 

Calico Joe

Once upon a time I was a big fan of John Grisham. As a child I had pondered a legal career, so Grisham’s legal thrillers were books I found fascinating. I loved The Firm and A Time to Kill, and The Pelican Brief wasn’t bad. But then they started making the books into movies, and somewhere along the line he became one of those assembly line authors that churn out thinly plotted books like welfare mothers produce offspring. The law of diminishing returns kicked in. I mean really…how many angles of the legal process can one scrutinize?? The ClientThe ChamberThe Runaway JuryThe PartnerThe Bretheren…zzzzzzzzzzzzzz. At some point I half expected novels called The Bailiff and The Stenographer. At any rate, I hadn’t picked up a John Grisham product for well over a decade until recently, when I decided to give Calico Joe a whirl.

 

In the ensuing years after I stopped paying attention Grisham expanded his horizons and has actually written a handful of novels that have nothing to do with the law. I stumbled across a description of this book and decided that A) it involved baseball, and B) it was Grisham, and so I thought it might be a decent read. I was right…and wrong.

 

Calico Joe is narrated by a 40-something man named Paul Tracey, the son of a retired New York Mets pitcher. As a child Paul, naturally, loved baseball. However, his father Warren, a middle-of-the-road journeyman pitcher, eventually sours his son on the game. Warren is an abusive alcoholic who is mean to his son and cheats on his wife. In the summer of 1973, when Paul is 11 years old, the baseball world is all abuzz over a young rookie outfield for the Chicago Cubs name Joe Castle. Castle puts up amazing, historic, record breaking numbers right from his very first game, hammering three home runs in his first three at-bats and getting hits in his first 16 plate appearances. Unfortunately just a few dozen games into his career Joe Castle faces Warren Tracey, who intentionally beans Castle, fracturing his skull and ending his brilliant career far too soon.

 

Three decades later Paul is long since estranged from his abusive father, and Joe is a mentally impaired recluse living in his small Arkansas hometown under the protective eyes of family and friends. Warren is dying of cancer, and Paul’s biggest wish is for his father to apologize to the man whose life he forever altered with just one pitch. Warren is reluctant at first but eventually agrees to meet with Joe. Joe couldn’t possibly be more gracious…he even comes to Warren’s funeral when he dies. And there you have it.

 

Is Calico Joe a bad novel?? No. Is it a good novel?? Not really. It’s an easy breezy read, which isn’t necessarily a negative thing. But comparing this book to Grisham’s earliest offerings from two decades ago is like comparing hot dogs to filet mignon. There just seems to be a missing element. Some authors, like some actors, build a good reputation to the point that just their name becomes a selling point, regardless of the fact that the product their name is appearing on is substandard. I guess there are enough consumers out there that blindly accept this mediocrity and continue to increase the bank accounts of the famous people they are enabling, but this humble Potentate of Profundity isn’t willing to participate in the sham. Come on John Grisham…you can do better.

 

 

The Old Man & The Sea

I like a good novella. It’s longer than a short story, and just a wee bit lengthier than a novelette, but much shorter than a novel. I’ve never had an issue devouring an interesting 500+ page book (for example, the Harry Potter series, which I love), but I have found that, as the years advance, I sometimes appreciate a briefer journey.

 

The diminutive length (it comes in at under 100 pages) of Hemingway’s Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece The Old Man & The Sea belies its greatness. Whether one chooses to just enjoy it as a good yarn or embraces a deeper message full of symbolism and implied significance doesn’t really matter. I first read the story as a teenager in junior high school. The allegorical imagery had to be explained to me back then, and I vaguely recall not being much into all that mumbo jumbo. But I still enjoyed the tale. Decades later I understand that stuff. I get it. And it just makes for a richer, more gratifying experience.

 

Santiago is a simple man…a very poor man, atleast by societal standards. He is a fisherman in 1950’s Cuba. As we meet him Santiago has gone 84 days without catching a single fish and has lost his young apprentice Manolin because the boy’s father thinks the old man is bad luck. However, the boy shows a sincere devotion to his mentor, looking in on him, bringing him food, and helping him gather up his supplies before and after a day on the ocean. Finally Santiago makes a bold decision. On that 85th day he ventures far out to sea…way further than anyone else, and certainly beyond the point that a single elderly fellow in a small skiff with no help really should. However, his gamble seems to pay off when he snags a mammoth marlin that he estimates to be 1500+ pounds. Unfortunately the fish won’t go down without a fight and pulls Santiago in his little boat even further out into the middle of the ocean. Then it becomes a 3 day battle of wills between the patient, determined, wise fisherman and his epic catch.

 

Most folks in Santiago’s position would give up. Either the long dry spell would stop them dead in their tracks, or the unenviable task of trying to haul in such a huge fish alone would prompt an all too common “Ehhh…it’s not worth the hassle” response. The Old Man not only won’t give up, but he approaches the task with an amazing display of composure, quiet determination, and judicious skill. He simply does what must be done. He does not surrender, believing that “Man is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”

 

We often talk of heroes. In our modern world we tend to put all kinds of people on a decidedly undeserved pedestal. We revere vacuous, morally corrupt celebrities, spoiled, overpaid athletes, and all of The Pretty People. But we overlook the folks who simply get up each morning, put in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, and keep life moving forward with the products they make, the services they provide, and the seemingly menial tasks they complete. Millions of people every single day execute mundane jobs to the best of their ability, and unlike Santiago’s favorite baseball player Joe DiMaggio, there aren’t masses of people watching and cheering them on. But they do it anyway. Maybe that’s true heroism. Perseverance is indeed a vastly underappreciated quality.

 

I suppose the sea is like life itself…deep, immense, beautiful, occasionally scary, and with a whole host of surprises…both good & bad…lurking below the surface. Like Santiago we all need to venture out a little further than usual sometimes, and it helps if we are equipped with the proper tools, have amassed a good amount of knowledge & wisdom, and have the ability to ply our trade with deft skill. Sometimes we are rewarded with an impressive catch, and other times evil with reach up and bite us like the sharks Santiago encounters on his journey homeward. Either way we must face the struggle with dignity, courage, patience, optimism, and intelligence.

 

I was never much into fishing. My Dad would take me every once in a while when I was a kid, but truth be told I preferred to be home watching TV or reading a book. I guess I just don’t have the patient temperament necessary. If I had to make a living fishing I would probably starve, and I definitely wouldn’t be able to deal with an 84 day slump or endure a three day contest against a fish seven times my size, and that’s not even taking into consideration the sharks. I don’t even like to watch the scarier parts of Jaws for God’s sake. But I think it’s pretty obvious that Hemingway meant The Old Man & The Sea to be about a lot more than fishing, and in that he succeeded. And it doesn’t hurt that it’s a splendidly entertaining story too.

 

 

 

The Hobbit

I really love a good biography. And I am fond of history in its various forms. In the more than half dozen book cases at The Bachelor Palace you’ll find tomes on a variety of subjects, from statesmen like Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, LBJ, and both Presidents Roosevelt, to entertainers like Frank Sinatra, Charles Schultz, and Evel Knievel, to explorations of things like The Civil War, Titanic, olive oil, and philosophy. Then of course there is my love of sports, which explains the shelf entirely dedicated to Roberto Clemente, Jerry West, all things Pittsburgh Steelers, and a strange fascination with golf…among other things. But sometimes one just needs to escape into a whole other world, to ride the wave of a writer’s imagination and bask in the glow of the land of make believe. No one helps a reader do that quite like John Ronald Reuel Tolkien.

 

It’s probably safe to say that Tolkien is most beloved for his epic Lord of the Rings trilogy, not only because it is a fantastic story but also because it received a huge revival about a decade ago in the form of a well done, hugely popular, critically acclaimed film series. However, I’m a big believer that occasionally less is more and brevity is the soul of wit. Lord of the Rings is, if I’m being quite honest, a bit of a slog. It’s kind of like a fat guy running a 10K. He may make it to the finish line, but he’ll be exhausted, hungry, hallucinatory, begging for water, and quite possibly crawling & in need of medical attention. Conversely, The Hobbit is like a lazy summer weekend spent on the front porch sipping iced tea and enjoying the gentle breeze. I’m not completely against drama & action, I just prefer it in small doses. The Hobbit has plenty of excitement, but it has it in a perfect quantity and in an easily digestible, eminently readable package.

 

Tolkien was certainly not the first author to write about things like epic quests, hidden treasure, dragons, wizards, elves, dwarves, goblins, and trolls. However, I do believe that his works are among the best of the fantasy genre. His success has inspired generations of new writers, all of whom do their best to borrow from their guru while mixing in original elements, but it is a lofty standard very few can ever get close to reaching.

 

The Hobbit introduces us to Bilbo Baggins and his home village in Middle-Earth called The Shire. Hobbits are described as a diminutive race of beings that are related to Men, but are different. They are between two and four feet tall with hair covered feet, live on average 100-130 years, and prefer a conservative, leisurely, simple life of farming, eating, smoking, singing, and socializing. They reside in hobbit-holes, which are underground homes with round windows & doors found in hillsides and banks. The Shire is an idyllic, pastoral, fertile land whose inhabitants keep to themselves and don’t really worry about what goes on in the outside world. I think I would get along really well with hobbits, and I could definitely dig living in an awesome place like The Shire.

 

Bilbo seems to feel the same way as me, and is outwardly quite content with his uneventful little life. However, his wizard friend Gandalf the Grey apparently knows more about the adventurous spirit and valiant wisdom that lies deep within Bilbo than even Bilbo himself. Gandalf introduces Bilbo to Thoren Oakenshield & his party of dwarves who are on a quest to The Lonely Mountain to retrieve the vast treasure that was stolen from them when the evil dragon Smaug destroyed their kingdom. Somehow Bilbo gets persuaded to join this excursion. Adventure ensues. Along the way the group encounters goblins, trolls, wolves, and giant spiders. And Bilbo stumbles upon a certain magic ring that we’ll learn much more about later.

 

Tolkien not only manages to create fascinating characters, but he places them in a world that is just familiar enough to be comfortable yet imaginatively dissimilar enough to produce the escapism readers seek. His writing is unpretentious to the point that youngsters can enjoy the stories, but charmingly lyrical enough to be appreciated by adults. It is not easy to pull off the task of writing a story that appeals to readers of all ages, but somehow Tolkien does it with aplomb. One can read The Hobbit as a pre-teen then read it again three decades later in middle age, and both experiences will be enormously gratifying.

 

 

 

Stephen King’s 11/22/63

I’m not really a Stephen King kind of guy. I have nothing against one of the 20th century’s foremost authors, and greatly respect the fact that he has sold more than 300 million books & had his work adapted into more than three dozen feature films, numerous TV movies, and even plays & comic books. It’s just that I’m not a big fan of the horror/suspense genre. Until now the only King book I’d ever read was Christine (about a possessed 1958 Plymouth Fury) when I was probably 13 or 14 years old. I’ve seen bits & pieces of movies like Stand By Me, Misery, Carrie, & The Shining, and found the 1996 adaptation of Thinner creepy in a good way. I had absolutely no clue that The Shawshank Redemption (a splendid film) was based on a King novella until years after I’d first seen it.

 

This lack of any meaningful history or connection with Stephen King’s work was why I found it odd when I decided not all that long ago to place his latest novel, 11/22/63, in my Amazon shopping cart.

 

I knew from the outset that 11/22/63 had three things going for it. First, it is not a traditional horror story of the ilk that made Stephen King a household name. It’s more of a fantasy with a little bit of history thrown into the mix. Second, the assassination of JFK serves as a major plot point. I was not yet born when Camelot was beguiling the nation and Kennedy’s death rocked it to its core, but it is just one of those stories, like the Titanic or The Civil War, which continues to fascinate generations of people centuries after the event itself. And finally, a key element of 11/22/63 is time travel, and time travel is almost always a very cool literary device. Those three things convinced me to give the book a whirl, and after reading it I am very seriously considering going back in time myself and giving the rest of King’s novels a looksee.

 

One of the most beloved time travel adventures…from my generation anyway…is the 1980’s Back to the Future film trilogy. But the adventures of Marty McFly & Doc Brown were child’s play compared to the intricacies of this story. King takes the concept a step further by giving us rules. First of all, the main character, a 30-something Maine high school English teacher named Jake, can only go back to a particular point…specifically September 9, 1958. Secondly, whatever Jake changes when he goes back in time will be reset to its original outcome if he comes back to present day and then goes back thru the “rabbit hole” into the past again. These rules are very important to  keep in mind.

 

Jake is introduced to this time portal by Al, the elderly owner of a local diner. Al discovered this path to the past several years ago in the back of his eatery’s pantry, and has made several trips to what Jake eventually comes to refer to as the Land of Ago. No one in modern day Maine knows this because every time the traveler comes back only 2 minutes have passed in the present. At some point Al became obsessed with the idea of stopping the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, but has concluded that he will not be able to complete the mission because he is quickly dying from lung cancer. So he wants Jake to do it. Al believes that if JFK had lived and Lyndon Johnson not become President other significant events might not have occurred. The Vietnam War…and the deaths of millions of American soldiers…would not have happened. Martin Luther King Jr. would have lived. Bobby Kennedy would have lived. Basically the whole path to hell that the United States seemed to take in the 60’s would have been prevented.

 

Surprisingly Jake agrees to do this crazy thing, but he wants to kick the tires a bit first. Going back to 1958 Jake becomes George and just has to hang out for a few weeks…long enough to prevent the mass murder of almost an entire family by their drunken husband/father on Halloween night. Jake/George knows about the situation because the only survivor of the massacre is the high school janitor who wrote an essay about it in a GED class Jake teaches. This subplot takes up about the first quarter of the book and might actually be the stronger portion. At any rate, Jake/George quickly learns firsthand something that Al taught him, something that becomes an ongoing theme…the past is obdurate and does not want to be changed. He runs into roadblocks that Marty McFly could never have even dreamed of. I will not reveal the outcome of the mission, but suffice to say that, despite the past actively fighting against change, Jake/George becomes comfortable enough with the whole idea that once he comes back to modern day he does not hesitate to again go back in time to pursue Lee Harvey Oswald.

 

And that is the meat of the plot. Once Jake/George is back in the Land of Ago for the second time he must hang out for 5 years until the events of that fall of 1963 begin to unfold. This is not really a hardship, as he begins to enjoy a time when the root beer tasted better, the cars were far cooler, and life was quieter & lived at a slower pace. He moves to a small burb outside of Dallas. He makes friends. He gets a job at the local high school. He stalks Oswald’s every move to make sure that he really did act alone and that none of the plethora of conspiracy theories are true. He makes a boatload of cash by betting on sports events of which he already knows the outcome. And he falls in love with the young & beautiful Sadie, the school’s librarian.

 

It is these last two things that gets Jake/George into trouble, complicates his life, and compromises the outcome of his mission. The past is indeed obdurate and does not want to be changed.

 

Does Jake/George prevent Oswald from blowing Kennedy’s brains out?? Does this make 21st century America a better place?? Does Jake/George come back to modern day Maine and resume his life, or does he decide to stay in the Land of Ago with the love of his life?? These are questions I will not answer. You’ll have to read the book.

 

At over 800 pages I must admit that King probably could have tightened things up a bit and trimmed atleast a hundred pages or so, but it’s a small nit to pick. 11/22/63 is an engrossing read. It is thought provoking, well written, and quite possibly one of the finest time travel yarns ever told. I read somewhere that a movie has already been given the greenlight under the capable direction of Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia). But unfortunately I know how these things go. With such a big novel they’ll end up eliminating whole characters & subplots, robbing the story of its rich nuance and depth. Ah well…that’s Hollywood. At any rate, no matter how much the Left Coasters end up butchering the story on the big screen, we’ll still have the book. And that’s not a bad deal.

 

 

 

 

The Hunger Games Trilogy

The Olympics. Reality television shows like Survivor, The Bachelorette, American Idol, & The Amazing Race. Orwell’s 1984. Huxley’s Brave New World. Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Greek & Roman Mythology. 24 Hour news channels who don’t even try to hide their political ideology. American Gladiators. Movies such as Star Wars, The Truman Show, Blade Runner, and The Running Man. All of these would seem to contribute bits & pieces of inspiration to The Hunger Games Trilogy.

I was a bit hesitant to give The Hunger Games a whirl. It is officially classified as “young adult fiction”, and given the fact that I am an educated 30-something with refined taste & somewhat high standards rather than a pre-pubescent teenager easily taken in by hunky heartthrobs, werewolves & vampires, and angsty love triangles I was understandably trepidatious. However, the premise won me over and I am glad it did.

The trilogy consists of three solidly lengthy but not drawn out novels…The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay…written by Suzanne Collins, a middle-aged woman from Connecticut who, much like Harry Potter creator JK Rowling, had achieved nothing notable in her literary career before penning what has become a sensationally popular phenomenon.

The Hunger Games is set in Panem, a dystopian version of North America in which the nations we know & love have been destroyed, although exactly how that occurred is never really explored (I smell a “prequel”). At any rate, Panem…atleast most of it…isn’t a futuristic society of technological wonder. No, it is more primitive, more…colonial. The nation is divided into 12 districts all controlled by the dictatorial folks in The Capitol and lead by malevolent President Coriolanus Snow, whose creepiness factor makes our modern day politicians look like a collection of fine citizens from Mayberry. We are told that a quarter century before there was an uprising among the districts against The Capitol that was squashed like a bug, and that as punishment for that unsuccessful mutiny The Hunger Games was created. The games are an annual televised event in which two teenagers, one male and one female, from each district are chosen at random as “tributes”. These 24 tributes are dropped into The Arena, where they are expected to fight to the death until only one is left standing as The Victor. And this is considered big time entertainment in Panem.

The poorest of the districts is 12, a coal mining region reminiscent of what we know as Appalachia. That is where we meet our young heroine Katniss Everdeen, a 16 year old girl who spends her time hunting illegally to support her fragile mother and younger sister after her father was killed in a mining accident. Her best friend & hunting buddy is Gale Hawthorne, who also lost his father in the same tragedy and takes care of his mother & younger siblings. Then there is Peeta Mellark, the local baker’s son who comes from what passes for an upper middle class background in District 12. These three form the requisite triumvirate, although to be honest the romance aspect of the story isn’t nearly as distracting as I originally feared it might be.

The Hunger Games has Katniss & Peeta being chosen as tributes and fighting in the 74th games. Catching Fire finds Panem on the cusp of another revolution, thanks to a perceived act of defiance by our two protagonists at the end of the first book. That insolence lands them back in The Arena fighting an all-star group of past victors. Mockingjay shows The Districts in full scale war against The Capitol, with Katniss as the reluctant figurehead of the rebellion.

Though the two stories bear little more that superficial resemblance to one another I cannot help but draw comparisons between this trilogy and the wildly popular Harry Potter series. Both are supposedly aimed at the younger demographic, yet neither hesitates to take the reader down a dark & violent path. Stylistically, Rowling writes on a much deeper level. Potter may be “young adult” fiction, but the multi-layered storytelling is on par with some of our most beloved classic literature. Conversely, The Hunger Games books, all written in the first person through the eyes of Katniss, never quite reaches the profound gravitas that transcends greatness and segues into sublime singularity. Whereas one gets the feeling that Rowling’s aim was to write some really good books and that the ensuing pop culture obsession that was thrust upon her was a pleasant byproduct, The Hunger Games feels like Collins had a movie deal on her mind from the very beginning and purposely hoped to manufacture a sensation to match the likes of Potter, Twilight, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. That’s not meant to be as much of a criticism as it is an astute observation.

All three books are intensely absorbing, real page turners that are hard to put down. Their shortcomings are likely directly related to the target audience. There are several spots where I felt like plot points weren’t fully explored, where important happenings were glossed over to appease the short attention spans of young readers. At times the author seems to be on the threshold of making some keen observations about society, politics, and war, but stops short and pulls back so as not to bog the action down with philosophical insight. Each book could have easily been another hundred pages and more thoroughly covered key elements of the story without becoming tedious. However, these flaws are the minor irritations of a nerdy bookworm who has no qualms about tackling an 800 page novel if the story is good enough. In all likelihood these books as they are were a smart choice by the author. At the end of the day we have a gripping premise, interesting characters, and a story that keeps the reader on the edge of our seat and wanting to see what happens next. That’s a pretty good recipe for some great books in my humble opinion.

I must admit that the only reason I even heard of the books is because the first movie is coming out soon. At first I was dismissive due to the inevitable association with Twilight…books that I’ve never read & movies that I’ve not seen and likely never will. Like I said, the whole vampire/werewolf thing just doesn’t frost my cupcake. But the political overtones and the somewhat realistic vibe…the idea that this really could happen to our world…was enough for me to take a flyer. I am looking forward to the movies because as mentioned I believe they were the intended end game all along. Whereas the Potter movies are good but cannot hold a candle to the books, I have a feeling that the Hunger Games movies will surpass the books’ achievements. The violence, action, and high body count are tailor made for the entertainment appetite of 21st Century America.

The Harry Potter Series

I envy author JK Rowling. She has stated more than once that the idea for Harry Potter just came to her as she was riding a train back in 1990. Five years later she was a clinically depressed single mother living on welfare when the first book was published. Less than a decade after that she was a billionaire. If that isn’t a rags to riches story I don’t know what is. Someone somewhere once said something to the effect that “everyone has a book inside of them”, and I have long believed that to be true for myself. I’ve always felt like there was a great idea right on the cusp of forming in my brain but it never quite has. I so want to someday have that Rowling moment, to just be driving along in my truck or traipsing through WalMart and have that awesome character or story come busting through into my consciousness. I am not even concerned with becoming wealthy or famous…I just think it would be very cool to create something that scores of people enjoy and that would last beyond my lifetime.

 

That definition of success certainly fits the accomplishment of Rowling and her boy wizard. The Potter series encompasses 7 novels which have been made into 8 films, with both the books & movies setting multiple records within their respective industries and making billions of dollars. My focus here is obviously the books, and I don’t think I’d be stepping out on too much of a limb to assume that children and adults will still be reading and be thoroughly enthralled by them a century from now, just as modern readers still enjoy the works of authors like Dickens, Twain, Tolkien, Bradbury and many others whose greatest achievements came long long ago. I wouldn’t go so far as to classify Potter as classic literature, but it probably comes as close as anything that has been published in the last few decades.

 

For the benefit of those unfamiliar and as a refresher for those whose mind may be more feeble than they care to admit, Harry Potter is, at the outset, an 11 year old boy living with his abusive aunt & uncle because his parents died when he was a baby. We find out that Harry isn’t your normal, average, run-of-the-mill pre-teen…he is a wizard. And he isn’t even your normal, average, run-of-the-mill wizard…he is The Boy Who Lived. Harry’s parents didn’t just die, they were murdered by Lord Voldemort, the most evil wizard in all of wizardry, sort of a cross between Darth Vader, Adolph Hitler, and Biff Tannen from Back to the Future. Harry is whisked away to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry, where he spends the next seven years coming of age, having various adventures, and battling Voldemort, who eventually resurfaces after lying dormant for about a dozen years.

 

In the course of 7 books we meet a whole host of interesting characters from Rowling’s fertile imagination, but only a few are what can be called featured players. Of course there is Harry, who evolves from a sheepish young boy into a courageous, valiant hero & leader. Then there are his two best pals, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley. Hermione is an intelligent, precocious, ultra driven, somewhat annoying muggle child, meaning neither of her parents are wizards. Ron is the classic sidekick…loyal & brave, yet somewhat clumsy & unaccomplished…the very essence of mediocrity. This triumvirate forms the centerpiece of the action for all of the books. Their mentor is Hogwarts’ headmaster, Professor Albus Dumbledore, a wise & gentle soul akin to Star Wars’ Yoda or Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. There is also Rubeus Hagrid, a half giant that serves as the groundskeeper for Hogwarts (a little like Schneider from One Day at a Time) and becomes a trusted confidante to our young heroes-in-training, and Professor Severus Snape, the triumvirate’s nemesis reminiscent of teacher Dick Vernon in The Breakfast Club or Dean of Students Mr. Rooney in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, only a lot more bitter and pissed off for reasons we learn about in the last few volumes.

 

Rowling, much like her fantasy predecessors JRR Tolkien & CS Lewis (Chronicles of Narnia), masterfully creates a whole other world filled with unique characters and memorable images, but she doesn’t stop there. Harry Potter isn’t all style and no substance. Just like the famed works of Tolkien & Lewis, there is a lot of meat on the bones here, much much more than just fancy window dressing. Sure Harry Potter might be cloaked in a world of magic, potions, and spells that makes it palatable to adolescents, but underneath it all is an epic plot and a level of quality writing that easily surpasses most of what is considered modern “popular fiction”. Don’t be fooled…these books may be marketed as children’s literature, but once one gets past the first two books the tone becomes progressively darker and more mature.

 

I did not begin reading Harry Potter until I believe after the fourth book was published. First of all I thought it was for kids and that as a nearly 30 year old man I wouldn’t be the slightest bit interested. Secondly, I had some serious concerns relating to God & faith vs. the occult.

 

Let’s face it, the literary device that is the whole framework for the series is sorcery and other pagan imagery, which The Bible is very clear in warning against. Deuteronomy 18:10-12 says “there shall not be found among you anyone…who practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead, for all who do these things are an abomination to the Lord.” Sorcery is one of the works of the flesh that we are warned against in the 5th chapter of Galatians. Lots of space in the Scriptures is dedicated to differentiating between darkness & light and telling us that we are to be the light in the world. 1 Thessalonians 5:5 says “You are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness.” 1 John 1:5 tells us that “God is light and in Him is no darkness at all.” Romans 13:12 advises to “cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light.” The Gospel of John says in the 3rd chapter that “Light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.”

 

I understand that there are many Christians who choose to stay away from or even actively campaign against things like Halloween, Harry Potter, Santa Claus, and a host of other pop culture & entertainment influences, and I appreciate their viewpoint. Some feel that such things, while harmless on the surface, serve as a sort of gateway into dabbling in much more serious & sinister activities that pull people away from God and into the abyss of darkness & sin. I am sure that isn’t an unheard of circumstance. However, as usual, I tend to look at things a bit differently. It has always been my opinion that if something as simple as a movie or rock n’ roll music or buying the occasional lottery ticket can so easily sway a person and drag them into a life of debauchery then maybe their faith wasn’t very strong to begin with. Discernment grows as one’s relationship with Christ deepens, and personally I don’t see these books as a threat. I may be wrong, I may be right, or I may be crazy.

 

Actually I see a lot of Christian undertones in Harry Potter. I see themes like good vs. evil, sacrifice, friendship, love, life & death, and standing up to fight for what is right. To the extent that the books deal with darkness & light, darkness is ultimately defeated. Good triumphs over evil. I still struggle with the debate, just as most Christians battle a variety of issues. It’s just that in the grand scheme of life I think there are bigger nits to pick and at the end of the day I don’t feel that my enjoyment of an extremely well written series of books threatens my faith. Your mileage may vary, and that’s okay.

 

I would be remiss if I didn’t atleast mention the films that have been made based on the books. Honestly I think I have only seen half of them. As is usually the case, the books are far superior to the movies. Most of the books are 500-900 pages long, so when the movies were made lots of things got left out. There are entire characters & subplots that are interesting parts of the books but never appear in the movies. That doesn’t mean they are bad movies, it just means that one shouldn’t skip the immensely pleasurable experience of reading the books.

 

Most Harry Potter fans would probably agree that these stories will be enjoyed for many generations to come. I suppose at some point that would qualify it as classic literature. But for now let us avoid labels and just enjoy a fun reading experience.

 

 

 

 

The Great Gatsby

Here’s the cool thing about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: published in 1925, it so accurately reflects modern America that it could have been written in the 1980’s or after the turn of the 21st Century and, with the exception of a distinct lack of foul language and overt sexuality, no one would know the difference.

 

At its heart Gatsby is a love rhombus entailing multiple affairs amongst people that, to be honest, aren’t very likeable.

 

The titular character is a mysterious noveau riche New York businessman who throws great summer parties at his mansion in the pretentious suburbs, which is about the most anyone seems to know about him. We learn a little bit more as things proceed, but his vague ties to organized crime and how that may have played a part in his amassed wealth aren’t really explored all that deeply. It says a lot about the shallowness of Jazz Age “society” types that legions of people keep showing up to Gatsby’s house every weekend for his soirees even though they don’t know a damn thing about their host. These are folks who just want to see and be seen. Kind of like your typical Hollywood stars of today.

 

Gatsby has an agenda that we don’t find out about until midway thru the story, and things pick up speed from there and become vaguely reminiscent of a dime story crime novel mixed with morally ambiguous modern romance sans the blatant eroticism. We learn that Gatsby used to be in love with Daisy back in Chicago. Not coincidentally Daisy is now living just on the other side of the lake from Gatsby, who is apparently a stalker. Unfortunately Daisy is married to Tom. However, Tom is already in the midst of an affair himself with Myrtle, the wife of George, a local auto mechanic. I guess even in the 1920’s marriage vows meant nothing. Eventually Gatsby makes his presence known to Daisy and she falls for him…again…instantly.

 

The entire tale is told thru the eyes of Nick Carraway, who is Daisy’s cousin and befriends Gatsby. Nick is really the only character with any redeeming qualities, the one I’d be least likely to want to slap upside the head. He seems to get Gatsby and genuinely like the man, whatever his shortcomings may be. Nick is apparently dating Daisy’s tennis pro pal Jordan Baker, but their relationship is barely touched upon.

 

Once all the cards are out on the table things get bloody. Daisy accidentally runs over & kills Myrtle while driving Gatsby’s little yellow sports car. Since little yellow sports cars aren’t that difficult to track down a distraught George comes to Gatsby’s house and shoots him dead in his swimming pool before turning the gun on himself. All the sudden we have an episode of Law & Order or CSI. Daisy & Tom seemingly escape any consequences, and Nick is left to plan a funeral for Gatsby that hardly anyone shows up for.

 

And that’s pretty much it. I am not sure The Great Gatsby deserves to be thought of as one of the two or three best American novels of all time. However, it is an interesting commentary on the attitudes and lifestyles of the superficial, soulless, and egotistical affluent class and how, at the end of the day, their money, power, and fame cannot buy them the love & affection we all truly seek. F. Scott Fitzgerald is a talented wordsmith who writes a novel that is a fairly easy and entertaining read, and I am sure that in 1925 his story was edgy & groundbreaking. Unfortunately in 21st century America its characters are far too reminiscent of the types of empty-headed, out-of-touch, famous-for-no-reason people we see nearly every day on “reality” television and in the pages of rags like The National Enquirer or People, which would seem to reinforce the old maxim “the more things change the more they stay the same”.

 

 

 

 

The Sherlock Holmes Canon

sherlock_holmes_silhouette2I promised that The Bookshelf was going to get some attention, and there’s probably no better place to start than with my favorite book series of all time, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes canon. I first became enamored with Sherlock Holmes back in junior high school when, for some reason, our English textbook contained the story The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle. I instantly fell in love with the cleverness of both the writing and the character. Not too long afterward I picked up a two volume paperback edition of the complete works and spent the next few weeks devouring each and every story.


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote 56 short stories and 4 novels featuring the world’s most renowned amateur detective and his trusty sidekick Dr. Watson from 1887-1927. Nearly all the stories were first published in England’s The Strand magazine, the 19th century equivalent of The New Yorker or Reader’s Digest. Doyle himself was a less-than-successful Scottish doctor who turned to writing to pay the bills. I assume Dr. John Watson was loosely based on Doyle himself. The main h1man though…Sherlock Holmes…was inspired by a professor of Doyle’s at the University of Edinburgh, Joseph Bell. Bell’s methods of deductive reasoning left a deep enough impression on Doyle that when he began writing stories Sherlock Holmes was created. Readers of The Strand fell in love with Sherlock Holmes immediately. In fact, the folks in merry old England had such an abiding affection for Holmes that when Doyle (who apparently didn’t love the character as much as his readers) tried to kill him off after just 2 novels and 24 short stories there was much consternation…so much that Doyle felt compelled to bring Holmes back to life, which would spur 2 more novels and 32 additional stories. Doyle seemed to have that yearning that so many artists – writers, actors, singers – have…to be taken seriously. Hopefully before his death in 1930 he came to realize that no other writings by him could have possibly come close to being the gift to the world that Sherlock Holmes was and continues to be a century later.


I will make the assumption that almost everyone from the youngest child to the greyest seasoned citizen has atleast heard of Sherlock Holmes and probably thinks they have a vague idea of what he’s all about…the deerstalker hat, the cape, the pipe, the phrase “Elementary my dear Watson!!”, the home address of 221B Baker Street. Holmes consistently appears in the top 5 of any lists dealing with beloved fictional characters, and at one time (I do not know if it is still the case) he held the Guinness world record for the most portrayed character in film. The character has been used in countless movies, plays and pastiches (in other words, imitations by other authors) that portray Holmes in a wide variety of ages and put him in all manner of fascinating situations…trying to track down real h2life serial killer Jack the Ripper, fighting Nazis in World War II, going up against Dracula. I don’t necessarily dismiss all non-canonical varieties of Holmes, but I do tend to tread lightly. Part of the magic of Holmes is the setting…foggy, gaslit, Victorian England. When one takes the character out of that setting it can either be an interesting fish-out-of-water scenario or a complete disaster. I am a traditionalist, so I like my fictional characters to stay in the era and locale of their origin, and I tend to prefer any new reincarnations be based on or atleast show respect to the author’s intent.  Putting a centuries old character in a modern day situation with guns blazing, car chases, and meaningless explosions does not impress me at all. For example, I sincerely believe that the powers-that-be responsible for the atrocity that was 1996’s Romeo & Juliet starring Leo DiCaprio and Claire Danes should never be allowed to work in Hollywood again. At any rate, I recommend reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes canon first (obviously), and then being very selective in what other Holmes incarnations one digests. There was a PBS series in the 1980’s and early 90’s that was very good and pretty faithful to the canon. 41 of the 60 Holmes stories were produced, and the remaining 19 probably would have been done if not for the untimely death of its star Jeremy Brett (certainly among the best portrayers of Sherlock Holmes). I’ve always heard mixed reviews leaning toward positive about the 1940’s films starring Basil Rathbone, but to be honest my intent to see them has never come to fruition. The fact that only 1 of the 14 films, The Hound of the Baskervilles, is canonical is a concern, and it is well known that they portray Watson as a bumbling stooge which was not how Doyle wrote the character. I suppose one day I will cave and will attempt to be open minded, but I have a strong inclination that I’m not really missing anything.


The influence of Sherlock Holmes over the past 100+ years is truly amazing. Most mystery and detective type stories owe much to Holmes, and shows like CSIh3 wouldn’t exist without him. Sherlock Holmes was forensics before forensics was cool. Hundreds of societies (all based on the original Baker Street Irregulars, founded in 1934) regularly gather to discuss and celebrate Holmes. I cannot think of any literary figure with that kind of influence and following…not even Shakespeare. The stories themselves are interesting enough to keep the attention of adults, but uncomplicated enough that teenagers and maybe even overachieving and precocious pre-teens can read them. They are eminently readable, and one can go back to them over and over and they never seem to get old.  As a matter of fact, picking up a book of Sherlock Holmes stories is like reuniting with an old friend. I would strongly encourage anyone who has never read them to give them a whirl. You are unlikely to regret your choice.