Thursday, August 16, 2007

Book Club

June 21, huh? Amazing how time flies, especially when a new Harry Potter book and movie come out...

So let's start there, shall we? Putting aside for the moment my Mrs. Robinson thing for Harry (and I do mean Harry, not Dan Radcliffe, who I think is cute and all but my goodness, he could be my son if I'd just gotten an earlier start), what makes the Potter franchise so very not a franchise and so very much a world to which I wish I had access? Well... consider Wicked, which I read this summer too, for the first and last time.

Before I go on, I should point out that I'm an avid rereader. I love to read more than just about any other recreational activity. But the only books that survive my periodic purges of my home library are the ones I want to read, and read, and read. Dune is in there, but not any Dune franchise book after the third. The Mitford series are all there. Most of the Evanovich number books (One For the Money, etc.) made it, but none of her other romantic pabulum. Wicked was great when I read it - in talking it over with them afterwards, it appeared that I enjoyed it much more than did most of the friends who had recommended it to me - but then Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out and Wicked became just another book I'd borrowed and given back, without wanting to rush out and buy it for the home shelves. I loved the style of Wicked: the fairy tale made real, with mundanities salted through the magic to make it a little bit droll and with big emotions played out on an enchanted stage. It echoed the gorgeous Technicolor of The Wizard of Oz.

But it failed to catch my heart, because no matter how you slice her, the Wicked Witch of the West really does try to kill Dorothy and her friends, and ideological necessities can't erase that fact. Let me be clear: in the real world, there is such a thing as a "lesser evil." Hard decisions can and do cost innocent lives. It's possible to be a hero and not have clean hands. And yes, I do understand that Wizard is the children's version, Wicked the adult one: that we, the nuanced, are supposed to see Elphata in shades of gray, so to speak. Sure, I can do that. But it doesn't make me want to revisit her. She stood up for something good but her means to that end were meants to encompass the willful killing of a child; why should I have to read that twice?

Deathly Hallows, now - and while we're at it, Order of the Phoenix, which I took my oldest to see and then sneaked out two days later, leaving a babysitter with the kids, to see again alone: there's no doubt about Voldemort. Not even his own supporters actually think he's good - they just substitute power for virtue, knowingly and often cynically. The whole story arc of the Harry Potter books brilliantly combines a very clear view of global good and evil with far less clear personal struggles on the part of several characters (Harry first, of course) to choose, and to continue to choose, over and over, the good. What the books do is to instruct the reader, entertainingly and with generally terrific pacing, that it's never enough to be good once. Teenagers sometimes think they know this already, but it's my opinion that most adults (perhaps all adults) could use the reminder. I know I can.

That's why all the Harry Potter books (except, inexplicably, Order of the Phoenix, which I swear was in the house two weeks ago but has vanished) are on my shelves: because I need that reminder.

Which brings me to two more books, one a former and one a current selection of my friendly real book club: The Kite Runners and A Thousand Splendid Suns. For the four people who haven't read them, they're Afghani stories: one that begins in Afghanistan and moves to the United States, the other that never makes it farther than Pakistan. Both moved me profoundly. Both impressed me horribly with the sheer brutal punishment the human body can endure, and impressed me tragically with the odds-against possibility of staying normal when everything around you is crazy-bad. Both made me feel woefully inadequate as a human being. But that's not why they're leaving my shelves; they're one-timers for me for the same reason that Prince of Tides was: because, having suffered through vicarious depravity once, I don't see why I should pollute myself again.

Anybody spot the discrepancy there? It's not as if Deathly Hallows is short on depravity. Maybe this is why I enjoy a certain degree of fantasy, and certain subgenres of science fiction: because there, the depravity is invented - even if it's based on what people have indeed done to one another over history, it's still not to be taken as "really real." No characters were harmed in the making of those stories. Whereas, in a realistic novel such as A Thousand Splendid Suns, it's hard to escape the sense that Hosseini was writing biography with (as Heinlein said) the serial numbers filed off. A doctor, perhaps he's revisiting old cases; an Afghan, perhaps he's recounting first- or second-hand accounts. I don't close my eyes... but I read fiction for entertainment, not to be harrowed up. The real world is quite harrowing enough... and while we're on the subject, Suns is a frickin' fantastic advertisement for why we need to stay in Iraq until Iraq can hold itself together on its own.

A rather clumsy segue into this appalling non-comedy:

A Roman Catholic Bishop in the Netherlands has proposed people of all faiths refer to God as Allah to foster understanding, stoking an already heated debate on religious tolerance in a country with one million Muslims.

Bishop Tiny Muskens, from the southern diocese of Breda, told Dutch television on Monday that God did not mind what he was named and that in Indonesia, where Muskens spent eight years, priests used the word “Allah” while celebrating Mass.

“Allah is a very beautiful word for God. Shouldn’t we all say that from now on we will name God Allah? … What does God care what we call him? It is our problem.”

(Actually an MSNBC story, but I prefer to credit Jeff at Protein Wisdom with winnowing it out.) Honest to God. Goes right along with the story I read sometime in July about the Episcopal (of course, she says, rolling her eyes at her adopted sect) priest in Seattle who is also a practicing Muslim, seeing no cognitive dissonance there. Again let me be very clear: Islam is not my, nor our, enemy. Muslims are not my, nor our, enemy. But when fanatical practitioners of one religion cause clergy of another to abdicate tenets of their own faith out of a sense that the fanatics might quite literally go medieval, it's hard to avoid labelling the fanatics "evil." Isn't it?

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