Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Alan Rodgers Experience, Amy Sterling Casil, Harry Potter, The Dark Tower, And Kwik-E Mart ...

We went to court again on the 20th, and so far it's going well. The judge asked me to take down -- so I've done that, and we'll see what happens next.

This afternoon in the mail I got a letter from Amy Sterling Casil's lawyers warning me that material I'd posted from the dependency court decision could result in my being thrown in jail for 6 months and being fined $500. The blog's offline, and presumably Casil's next step is to try and get me thrown in jail ... can't think why the truth of her life being known to the world would be disturbing to her. Sweet dreams, lady. I'll be in touch.


I was sneering at the Kwik-E Mart crowd a week or two ago -- said that if they came back at 2 in the morning there'd be no line and as dumb as getting up at 2 in the morning to visit the Kwik-E Mart was, it would beat standing in line in the hot sun behind 30 other people ...

Last night my daughter stood in line for hours to be the first to get her hands on "Deathly Hallows" -- she spent the night at a friend's house, and after she got her book I met her and picked up my copy. On my way home, at 1:10 AM, the line at the Kwik-E Mart was 25 people. Don't know what to tell you -- apparently those people standing there at noon in the sun were the smart ones.


OK, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Finished the book about 20 minutes ago and, since plenty of people will still be reading it, I'm going to be a little general in my response --

Looking at the Potter series as a whole, nothing I can say about it's going to make a lick of difference -- it's a first-rate piece of work overall, though JK Rowling's as long-winded as Stephen King these days once she gets going. (OK ... not quite that long-winded, King's books are printed in smaller text.)

Some years back I read King's "Dark Tower" series, which strikes me as a very qualified sort of success -- moments of rare brilliance, a sense of otherworldliness which started with the very first short story and which the series as a whole never quite lost despite its lengthy digressions and King's utter inability to stay away from American pop culture references. The series as a whole is a terrible mishmash and King's insertion of himself as an actual character in the story didn't work. (No objection on principle, there -- all writers are narcissists and King has better cause than most. But it didn't work.)

At one point I had a stack of the Dark Tower by my bedside, and spent a really useless afternoon with a notepad doing a "Phantom Edit" of the series. (Years back some clever guy did an edited version of "The Phantom Menace" called "The Phantom Edit" -- took out most of the egregously stupid parts of that movie. I never saw the actual edit but I liked the idea. Sort of like William Goldman's retelling of S. Morgenstern's "The Princess Bride," with just the good parts retained ...)

I got through done with my notes and figured a reasonably good editor could have cut out better than a third of the word count, maybe half, from that 7-book series, and turned it into one really great trilogy ...

I don't think that approach would have worked with Rowling -- the structure of her story required 7 books for the 7 years at Hogwarts. But the individual books could and probably should have been shorter -- not "considering the audience," but "considering the story." The longer books have always felt drawn-out to me, without enough story to cover the pages. It really feels very much like Stephen King at work in some ways -- I don't know when the last time was that JK Rowling got edited, but it was probably before she got to be richer than the Queen of England. At a certain level of commercial success publishers don't do anything to upset the talent, and King and Rowling both passed that mark gaining speed ...

Fair's fair -- they're both extraordinarily talented storytellers. I wish both of them would waste less of my time, but I still read them both, and I read "Deathly Hallows" from 1:30 to 4:30 this morning, and again for a couple hours this afternoon. My oldest daughter finished it before I did -- took a break and slept for a few minutes this morning, but then got back up and finished it and has been unconscious ever since, sleeping it off. A "Potter Bender."

And now it's over ... where does it rank?

It's no Lord of the Rings. As long as people remain human they're going to keep reading Lord of the Rings. If I had to pick 3 representative works of Western culture, something some future civilization would come along and judge us by, it would be Hamlet, Huckleberry Finn, and Lord of the Rings. (The hero of which is Sam Gamgee, by the way.)

Potter doesn't rise into that rank (and never threatened to.)

Is it as good as The Chronicles of Narnia? It might be better ... but I think the Chronicles will last longer, because they're simpler stories, which is a real virtue: you can read the entire Chronicles of Narnia, a bigger and more epic story than Harry Potter, in about the time it would take you to wade through one of the longer Potter books.

The piece it most puts me in mind of, and (length aside) the piece I think it most compares to, is Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising. I've reread the entire Dark Is Rising sequence in the last couple of years -- it's a beautiful piece of work, for sheer impact falling somewhere in between Narnia and Lord of the Rings ... five novels about 3 English children, and Will Stanton, the last of the Old Ones, fighting against the Rising of the Dark (and ultimately, if this isn't too much a spoiler, winning.)

(A quick word about Patricia McKillip -- I haven't read the Riddle of Stars trilogy since it was published, but I recall being hugely impressed with it at the time. I've never seen a copy in a bookstore since.)

I can't say much about what happens in the last Potter book -- too many people are still reading it. But it doesn't provide any leaps in daring on Rowling's part, nothing you couldn't see coming from the earlier works -- it's a Harry Potter book, and the tone, the risks and the rewards, resemble those of the earlier Potter books, amped up a bit for the payoff, but nothing that will shock anyone who's been paying attention. (I admit ... I was hoping for something shocking, some really epic payoff ... and your mileage may vary on whether she provided one.)

If you have a kid who likes fantasy ... you might start them off on the Chronicles of Narnia, move on to The Dark Is Rising and then Harry Potter, and finish up with The Lord of the Rings. By then the kid will be in her early teens and able to pick her own way, going forward ...

I wish I could name a work of science fiction to include in that list, but I really can't. There are bright spots that come to mind -- Citizen of the Galaxy and Have Spacesuit Will Travel, by Heinlein; Madeleine L'Engle's Wrinkle in Time, and its sequels; John Chrisopher's Tripods and Prince in Waiting trilogies; Lester Del Rey wrote a couple I liked (The Runaway Robot still stood up when I re-read it as an adult); Alan Nourse did a couple books I liked (The Universe Between) -- though I haven't read those since I was a kid and don't know if they'd hold up. Throw in Van Vogt's Slan and we're done with what I can come up with off the top of my head.

Now, I love the writers listed above (more than they may deserve; getting caught young will do that to you.) Nourse and del Rey and van Vogt are ones I remember least well; Norton I remember quite well and very fondly; Heinlein left such a stamp on the field of SF it's almost not worth commenting on him for good or bad -- the short form is overwhelmingly good until the 60s, mixed results through Time Enough for Love, overwhelmingly bad thereafter ... John Christopher and Madelein L'Engle are still on the right side of the dirt (and from the last thing of L'Engle's I read, an interview about the "Wrinkle in Time" movie, showed she was still as sharp and sensible as ever.)

So I bring these writers up because I admired them and their work, not to speak badly of them -- but none of them wrote anything (for children) that compares well with the four works I listed above. L'Engle and Christopher come close -- Christopher wrote two trilogies with real scope, but they're both really downbeat, for kid's books. L'Engle's stuff has the happier endings kids want (and probably need) ... but it's not cohesive and doesn't hold together, novel by novel, despite its continuing characters, the way the YA fantasies do.

I don't know if this is cultural coincidence or if there's something in juvenile SF that's not conducive to epics -- certainly there are plenty of SF epics aimed at adults. But it appears to be true -- I wouldn't push any SF series I can think of on a young person until she'd worked her way through those fantasies. Better use of time and attention, all around.

I won't go with some kind of grade here -- you can grade burgers (and I'm going to, in my next post, I've got some new ones) ... but it's hard to grade literature. The books are very good, and great for the kids they're aimed at. If you've got a kid considering the series, buy or check out the books for them and turn off that poisonous, addictive screen in the living room.


Got the letter from QuietVision. The books are free and clear. I'll post them over the next few weeks -- I need to proof and .pdf them. The .pdf files I created for the Quietvision editions aren't useable for this.


Sometimes these posts end up longer than I intend.


Anonymous said...

I can finally take some of my favorite books to Iraq with me!

I will be in my tent reading your book DKM by the light of a headlamp. Thanks!

Thomas said...

A quick word about Patricia McKillip -- I haven't read the Riddle of Stars trilogy since it was published, but I recall being hugely impressed with it at the time. I've never seen a copy in a bookstore since.

I read the Riddlemaster series one summer while camping with my family. The campground general store had used copies of all three books with their covers torn off and was selling them at .50 a pop. They were the first books I bought with my own money (officially).

Since then, I bought good copies of the books, as I wanted the cover art. And, in the last few years, I found that they'd been re-released in a compilation volume with a forward written by McKillip. In it, she says something to the effect that she hasn't written anything like that since, and it was a very immature work for her.

Immature or not, the story had a great impact on me, and my view of what exactly I loved about these stories. Reading "LOTR" the first time, and each subsequent time, I've come to terms with the fact that I'm a "lore-whore". I love the ancient back stories and undiscovered truths of the past. Perhaps that's why I find genealogical research so addicting.

In McKillip's tales, she treats lore as a puzzle -- that the lessons of the past have to be studied and analyzed in order to gain truth from them. I believe it's a philosophy that's so often misplaced in the modern world. Sure, we teach history, but do we really teach the meaning and impact of historical events, or do we instruct our students on the memorizations of years like 1066 or 1776?

Anyway, when I first read the Riddlemaster series, I finished the books, sat back, and picked up the first book to read again. I fantasized that Billy Joel's "My Life" song lyric was actually "You have no STARS on your face...", and when my wife asked me what I thought a good name was for our first son, I suggested Morgan.

He's fourteen now. He's read all the Potter books, but I started him out on his journey through fantasy literature with McKillip. It only seemed fitting.

Thomas said...

As if my last comment wasn't enough...

I wish I could name a work of science fiction to include in that list, but I really can't

Neil Gaimon's _Stardust_ comes to mind, and it looks like they've made it into a visually stunning movie.

Orson Scott Card's _Ender's Game_ is no slouch when it comes to being engaging for kids. I wouldn't suggest the numerous sequels, as Card is well known for "finding his voice" in his later works, and that voice happens to be that of a religious nut-job.

My boys (11 and 14) have both read _The Long Run_ by ...some guy, and they both enjoyed it immensely. The book contains all the elements of style that they seem to enjoy: Action, wit, style, and a certain, I dunno, cool.

I guess I'm having a hard time coming up with something engaging for kids. I was a bit of a nerd (...a bit, yea, that's it) growing up, and I tended to still enjoy the hard SF as much as anything I read. I recall Pohl, Niven, and the like being among my favorites.

Sean Fagan said...

I read the book today too.

My biggest complaint is that she's a clumsy writer. The story is pretty good, and she drew me in well enough to get tears during some pivotal scenes in this book.

Stardust is fantasy, not science fiction.

The best recent space opera I've read is the Mage Worlds Saga, by Doyle and MacDonald. Starting with The Price of the Stars. (The owner of Future Fantasy handed the first book to me with the comment, "It's Star Wars." And it is. Only the sequels get better.)

Daniel Keys Moran said...

"If you have a kid who likes fantasy ... you might start them off on the Chronicles of Narnia, move on to The Dark Is Rising and then Harry Potter, and finish up with The Lord of the Rings."

Alex read this post and said, "After that they never need to read any more fantasy ever again."

She also observed that a lot of the last book reminded her of fanfic ...

Daniel Keys Moran said...

Anonymous -- very pleased to have given you something to look forward to. Good luck to you in Iraq.

Thomas -- that lore-whore thing is common. Complex stories well told is how Dickens made his living, too.

Been interesting watching my kids get through school -- they're all better at it than I was, but it does look like there's less raw memorizaton in their curricula than I recall in mind, more opportunity for thinking and analyzing and creativity ....

Or I'm full of crap and I'd have enjoyed school as much as they do, if I'd approached it with a better attitude in the first place. Entirely possible.

I haven't read a lot of Card's recent work -- gave up reading SF for the most part a decade or so past. I don't recall the religious nut job thing in his work -- maybe it's recent.

Sometimes that's hard to parse, too. Madeleine L'Engle is a devout Christian, but she's impatient with people who can't accept the truth of evolution, nonetheless. I don't personally have an issue with anyone whose map extends beyond what science shows us ... as long as their map doesn't contradict science.

Anonymous said...

McKillip's Riddle series was released as a single trade paperback called Riddle-Master, back in '99. You can still find it at your pick of the larger bookstore chains, if you're lucky. That book was my introduction to Mckillip's work, and it hooked me pretty good. I've always had the impression that rather than being an author Patricia Mckillip is an artist, she just happens to paint or draw with words. It's like I'm looking at a gallery by John Jude Palencar, or Michael Parks. Even if i thought her stories were weak, I'd probably still read her books just for the way she uses the written word.

Ever since I read the Dark is Rising series, I've felt the Susan Cooper hardly received enough recognition. I haven't read the whole thing since childhood, but still remember how excited I got going to the library with my folks to pick up the next book. Fighting the urge to turn the page and finish the book, not wanting the story to end. She is easily my favorite author from that time.

Sci-Fi for young readers is a tough subject. All I can think is that the Hitchhikers Guide, might be, possibly, suitable for a younger audience.

My list would be much like yours, but I'd replace Potter with anything by Mckillip. From Lewis to Cooper to Mckillip, to Tolkien. I don't imagine that any child that enjoys reading is going to skip out on Harry Potter, but that definitely wouldn't be on the must read list.

Thanks too, for making your work available.

Anonymous said...

I'll second the Dark Is Rising recommendations; I really liked it both as an adolescent and an adult. It really doesn't get enough recognition.

But you left out one of the major works of epic fantasy from your must-read list: the first three books of the EarthSea series. Those books stand on the same level as Tolkien, and are only somewhat tarnished by the author's having gone insane later on with Tehanu and sequels.

Daniel Keys Moran said...

I've got notes for a post about Ursula LeGuin, the greatest SF writer ever. Beats me how I missed mentioning the Earthsea Trilogy in that post ... maybe in the order of:

Chronicles of Narnia
Dark is Rising
Wizard of Earthsea
Harry Potter
Lord of the Rings

I'm going to go take a look for Riddle of Stars while I'm out today -- the Barnes and Noble at Westwood and Pico just reopened, and they're pretty complete for a B&M. I remember it being about as good as the Dark Is Rising series -- but that's a 30 year old opinion.

jj sutherland said...

The Riddle Master series and the Wizard of Earthsea are both ones that hooked me...And my mother brilliantly gave me The Dark is Rising on the eve of my 11th birthday. I also might toss in Lloyd Alexander's Prydain series, which I haven't read for decades, but remember loving.

As for science fiction for kids, I've been wracking my brains, and the only one I could come up with is the Lensmen series, not in the same league as the others, but I did love it. And I'd add Van Vogt's "The Wizard of Linn" which I liked better than Slan for some reason. (I just read the new sequel to Slan and was disheartened to say the least).

As for Rowling, I read it over the weekend. (I actually got my employer to pay me to read it, which I consider one of my better scams.) One thing I did like is that some characters die just because, wrong place, wrong time, no heroic stands or last words. War is like that, people die for no reason.

I'll post the script of my review, no real spoilers, but it is a far better radio piece than written (having been written for the radio) Here's the link to the audio:

And here's the script:

Intro: millions of people got their books delivered Saturday morning...many thousands more stood in line Friday night, dressed as witches and warlocks...a few elves and death eaters thrown in... waiting for midnight, for a moment many of them had been waiting ten years for.

bring up AMBI 1 - Counting AMBI

One of those in line was NPR's JJ Sutherland.

While the wait at the bookstore until midnight was exciting, the next few hours weren't. More than 14-hundred people were ahead of me in line at the Barnes and Noble in Bethesda, Maryland. It took a quite a while before I got to the front.

AMBI 2 - Purchase ambi...bring up at 19.83 please, then dip

I quickly stuffed the orange colored text into my bag, broke for the door and hailed a cab.

CUT 1 Beginning [Duration:0'15"]
"it is now 2:34 in the morning, I just made it home. 739 pages...and so it begins. Chapter 1, the Dark Lord Ascending. XFADE TO ROWLING READING HOLD THEN DIP The two men appeared out of nowhere..........

J.K. Rowling read the opening passages of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows in London from a throne perched on the steps inside the the Natural History Museum a few hours earlier. The tome starts off briskly, meetings of Voldemort's henchmen, betrayals, daring escapes.

cut 2 [Duration:0'15"]
"alright, it's 3:12 AM, Saturday and the deaths start pretty 72. I won't tell you who died, but this is beginning to be a very violent book."

The school boy hijinks are gone. There are no practical jokes or quidditch matches. Harry Potter and his friends are in the middle of a war.

But while Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows begins with a quickly wanders into what seems like a wizard road trip around the english countryside. After too pages, Harry himself wonders if his friends, quote, "had only agreed to come on what now felt like a pointless and rambling journey because they thought he had some secret plan." I was wondering the same thingabout Rowling herself. Until...

cut [Duration:0'03"]
"3 pm Saturday, the Return to Hogwarts, excellent."

That's when I realized what was missing in the first 500 or so pages, Hogwart's Castle itself. The school is more than just a is a character in its own right.. And Hogwarts finally brings the book fully alive.

Soon, the questions that have been puzzling us begin to be answered.

cut [Duration:0'04"]
3:36 Saturday...AHA! So that's what Snape's been up to

Plus the secret plans of Voldemort, Dumbledore, and why Harry is the boy who lived are all revealed. Many of them in an incredibly clunky chapter of exposition when things are fully explained in scene whose religious metaphor is slammed into your head a mallet.

But subtlety has never been J.K. Rowling's strong suit. Incredibly deatiled invention and a child's exploration of morality, are. And the final battle through Hogwarts Castle is one that does not disappoint. It seems as if every character in the series is there, blasting away with deadly spells and swords. PAUSE And everything is tied up in a neat bow.

cut [Duration:0'05"]
4:06 PM, Saturday. What a remarkably satisfying ending.

Which is perhaps all you can ask for an adventure that began ten years ago on Privet Drive, in Little Whinging.

JJ Sutherland, NPR News.

Daniel Keys Moran said...

JJ -- I read the Chronicles of Prydain again recently (kids -- I've reread most of juvenile favorites as a result) -- Alexander's work doesn't stand up to the others listed. It's clunkier and less epic than you remember (or at least, than I remembered.) Worth a read, certainly, but I wouldn't prioritize it above any of the stuff we've been discussing.

Also, my list -- that's a read-in-this-order list, not a what-I-think-is-best list.

Chronicles of Narnia
Dark is Rising
Wizard of Earthsea
Harry Potter
Lord of the Rings

The Wizard of Earthsea trilogy is better than anything on that list except LoTR. I do think it'd be easier to read than Potter, just because of length.

Anonymous said...

Some YA fantasy I've read and loved recently is a book called Sabriel, by Garth Nix, and the two sequels. They brought back some of that magic feeling I got from Susan Cooper, and have earned a spot on the list of books to feed to my daughter, now 11.

On the subject of Susan Cooper, I was amazed to see a trailer for the movie version of The Dark is Rising when I went to see Order of the Phoenix. I'm always nervous about my favorite books turning into movies, but I'm sure I'll see both it and The Golden Compass.

Daniel Keys Moran said...

The Dark Is Rising movie sounds like an abomination. Will Stanton an American?

Neil said...

Have you any thoughts on His Dark Materials? Pullman created a very real world and used it to raise some very interesting religious and philisophical questions. Not on par with the Lord of the Rings or even Potter but very, very good.

I hope they don't ruin the movies.

Bob Manley said...

My father started me off with The Hobbit, then set the hook with Heinlein's The Star Beast. With those two as my first novels, ending up a fan of science fiction and fantasy was inevitable.

Another author who appealed to me as a kid was Edgar Rice Burroughs. Tarzan, Barsoom, and my favorite: Pellucidar. All great series.

Andre Norton wrote some good science fiction that's accessible to kids. Daybreak, 2250 AD and Star Guard are two that I particularly remember.

Hal Clement's Needle, Slan, and Wild Talent were some of the science fiction classics I was lucky to find on Dad's bookshelves. Unfortunately, a storm named Katrina found those shelves, but many of the Old Masters have come back into print in the last 10 years or so.

Daniel Keys Moran said...

Neil, I've never even heard of "His Dark Material." Going to B&N tonight. I'll see if it's there.

JJ -- I didn't catch that bit about it being the eve of your 11th birhday the first time I read this. Very cool Mom you had.

I've been rereading the stuff I used to read when I was plotting the Continuing Time -- trying to get refreshed on the material that inspired the CT. In the last few years I've made it through Heinlein, Tolkien, Mary Stewart, Hunter Thompson, Tom Robbins, McDonald and MacDonald, L'Engle, Cooper, LeGuin, Zelazny, a little Poul Anderson (the Flandry/Polesotechnic stuff) ... the usual suspects. I'd like to re-read Andre Norton and Alan Nourse and Patricia McKillip, just to touch base.

J.B. said...

Oh my lord, I just read this post now for some reason, and now I'm obsessed with going to my parents' house and trying like crazy to find my copy of 'The Runaway Robot.' I *loved* that book; the slim trade with the bendy-legged 'bot running on the front. Classic juvenile Sci-Fi.