Childhood Heroes

Did you have a childhood hero growing up? Maybe a superhero you loved or a sports star who set the world on fire? Or maybe it was a parent or a family member who inspired you to try to be like them?

I had a lot of heroes growing up but I think most of all I loved the swashbuckling heroes from old adventure novels. As a child I used to read a lot of the children’s versions of classics like Ivanhoe, The Three Musketeers and Treasure Island; I loved them to bits and used to love imagining myself as part of the adventure, fighting alongside the musketeers, etc.

I guess more than anything I just loved reading though… I devoured anything over the years, from The Velveteen Rabbit and The Selfish Giant to Black Beauty, Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton… in particular The Fantastic Five and The Secret Seven were big favourites of mine and continued my love of adventure stories. I loved Timmy… I thought he was as brave (if not braver!) than any of the others and I’ve always wanted a dog ever since.

Around the same time I fell in love with the stories of Robin Hood and King Arthur, and a little later The Chronicles of Narnia. Part of that was because I spent several years in England when I was younger and was exposed to them at just the right age but I also think it was because the themes really resonated with me. Themes of good and evil, love and loss, sacrifice, are universal and are the perfect tools for teaching children about morality and right and wrong and I guess they resonated strongly with me at that age.

Dad and Chris (castle)Of all the heroes and characters I loved Robin Hood the most. I went through a stage for a couple of years where I pretty much devoured everything to do with Robin that I could. My parents bought me a costume and toy swords and I used to run around pretending to be Robin Hood vanquishing the evil Sheriff of Nottingham. We used to visit Sherwood Forrest and some of the castles in England, particularly Arundel which I loved, and I must have watched the old Errol Flynn The Adventures of Robin Hood film on video a hundred times.

We went to see Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves at the movies too when it came out in 1991, which was a bit of a funny story. We’d just moved back to Australia from England and my parents got the public holidays mixed up; they took me to see it on what should have been a school day. We wondered the whole time why there were no other kids around until we finally realised. My 1st year teacher seemed to find it funny at least.

So yes, I loved Robin Hood. He was my first big hero I guess and in many ways those stories and others like King Arthur and The Three Musketeers helped to teach me the skills I’d need growing up and eventually led me to Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Batman and so many other stories I love now.

As I got older I found that my heroes started to change and in particular I started to admire real people more. I’ve loved tennis for about as long as I can remember and in the early/mid 90s Andre Agassi was my favourite player. I loved the flair with which he played the game and also the good works he did off the court. Even now, while I love watching Federer and Nadal, Agassi is still special for me and always will be.

I also enjoyed cricket growing up. This was the golden era of Australian cricket and my favourite player was Mark Waugh. I even wrote a letter to him when I was younger; my handwriting was atrocious in those days but I think it was the neatest letter I’ve ever written. I don’t think I ever got a response but I did get his autograph once.

The other player I really admired was Chris Cairns. Cairns played for New Zealand during the 90s and early 2000s and I loved the way he played the game. He is one of cricket’s great underappreciated talents in my opinion.

There were other people I really admired too. Learning about politics in school in the mid/late 90s I found myself admiring Bob Carr. I also quite liked Bill Clinton and Harrison Ford and I admired Nelson Mandela immensely.

But eventually all heroes must be tested, even ones in real life. And some heroes are destined to fall.

In mythology the hero’s fall is often the heart of the story and even in real life those moments that test us might be the ones that end up defining our lives. If you think about Robert Downey Jr, for instance, he went through hell but the way he has recovered from his darkest years has informed much of his success today. Likewise if you read the stories about King Arthur, the real drama and tragedy of the story comes in how Arthur is tested and particularly the price Arthur must pay for his liaison with Morgause, which eventually leads to his battle with his son Mordred on the fields of Camlann.

Likewise Star Wars isn’t really about droids and space battles, it’s about the battle for Vader’s soul and his fall to the Dark Side, and now Kylo Ren’s fall.

And that’s the thing about heroes. Whether they are real people or fictional, we want to believe in them, but we also like to watch them struggle. It makes for a good story. We raise them on pedestals and turn them into giants but in the end, heroes are human and flawed and capable of making mistakes. Sometimes terrible mistakes. Mistakes like flying too close to the sun, or taking performance enhancing drugs, both from hubris. It’s those potential for flaws that make them interesting.

My childhood heroes were flawed too, both in reality and in fiction.

For instance, Andre Agassi revealed in his autobiography that he used crystal meth in 1997, and worse still that he failed a drug test and lied to cover it up. Chris Cairns has recently been embroiled in a match fixing controversy and while he was acquitted, his name will probably forever be associated with it now, whether he was actually guilty or not. And we all know of Bill Clinton’s dalliances and indiscretions.

Mum and ChrisEven Robin Hood doesn’t escape scrutiny. Robin is usually presented as the archetypal hero but if you think about it, he is still stealing and committing vicious felonies. In fact, recently discovered text written by a monk in a medieval history book called The Polychronicon suggests that Robin Hood “infested Sherwood and other law-abiding areas of England with continuous robberies”, which is hardly a glowing endorsement.

There were actually rumours about ten years ago that a new film about Robin Hood was going to turn the story on its head and make the Sheriff of Nottingham the focus and Robin the villain. It eventually turned into a more familiar version of the story starring Russell Crowe in 2010 but I can understand more now where that original idea came from.

The reason heroes often fall in literature is because they are meant to be human like us. And the same is true for sports stars and celebrities, our modern heroes, who the media and fandom often like to worship like gods but are capable of the same mistakes and poor judgment as the rest of us. Whether they are Robin Hood or Andre Agassi, they may seem larger than life to us, but they can fall and fail, and that subsequent struggle is the thing that makes them interesting and compelling, whether in fiction or real life.

I mean, a story about a hero who always wins isn’t particularly interesting, is it? Nor does that story feel particularly real to us, because there’s nothing we can recognise in it. A hero who is challenged and fights and falls and gets up again is far more interesting, as that’s what we can see in our own lives too.

That’s why I think a lot of people were so enamoured with Agassi as a player and a man, for instance, the fact that he reached the pinnacle of tennis, fell on hard times, and then came back again was such an incredible story. And while his revelations are sad, they don’t change his feats themselves or the player he was. He is one ‘hero’ or star who is more interesting for his fall.

Maybe all that sounds a bit silly, holding up real people next to myths and legends, but we do idolise sport stars and celebrities and the hero worship some people have for them is almost scary at times. They’re heroes to some people every bit as much as Robin Hood or King Arthur or Achilles were. Perhaps more so, as their exploits are inescapably splashed across every tv screen and phone, and children look up to them as role models, making every failure and fall all the more problematic.

I guess I’ve always been interested in all forms of heroes and I find the psychology behind our need for them particularly interesting. The main reason we need them as children in particular is not so much make believe and fantasy as one might think but rather because they give a face to the human experience and in particular our own common cultural experiences.

Joseph Campbell, who wrote The Hero With A Thousand Faces among other works, believed that the reason we create myths and heroes is so we can reflect common real world experiences in them, using those stories to draw inspiration and to help overcome challenges in our own every day lives. And that’s particularly important for children.

If you think about the common trials a child goes through on the journey to adulthood, it makes sense. When they are young they first try to find their place in the world and to assert their independence, then they move through school and have to navigate things like a social hierarchy and bullying. As they get older still they start to inherit responsibilities and begin to work, perhaps experience love for the first time, and begin to pull away from and challenge their parents. Perhaps they even have their first experience of death and loss. All of these things are different for each child but they are common themes right through childhood and it makes sense that we’d explore them through our stories and myths and draw parallels with similar journeys in sport, etc.

That is one reason why I find it odd when I hear people say they don’t like children, particularly boys, reading adventure stories and playing with action figures and pretending to be Zorro or Spider-Man or Han Solo, etc. Usually the reason is because they don’t want to expose children to violence and themes of death and destruction too early and whether that is healthy at all.

Birthday PartyBut worrying about that is missing the point. Children, particularly boys, need that kind of physical outlet and they usually won’t get into it until they are ready for it. But more importantly, an interest in, say, superheroes and wanting to play good guys vs bad guys actually isn’t necessarily about wanting violence at all; it’s a child’s way of making sense of their place in the world through play, becoming a superhero to give them a feeling of power and freedom in a world where they have to conform to the wishes of their parents and teachers. Similarly using weapons or superpowers in play isn’t so much about killing things as much as it is about feeling in control and being powerful. Most psychologists think it is very healthy behaviour and suggest that parents can even use it to introduce concepts to children.

In any case I dressed up as Robin Hood and played with toy swords and action figures and I think I turned out all right.

Anyway I guess the reason I’ve been thinking about this lately is because I’ve been researching mythological archetypes for a couple of story ideas I’m playing around with and as you’d expect Campbell’s idea of the monomyth, or hero’s journey, keeps coming up again and again. I’m not sure I particularly want to draw on that archetype – if anything I’m more interested in subverting it – but it has made me look back on many of the stories I loved growing up and think about how many of them fit into that structure. Star Wars is a well known example, as is The Lion King, and King Arthur and Robin Hood do too to a degree. More recently The Matrix and the first Hunger Games are prime examples and even The Wizard of Oz draws on it too. So I guess that really does show how most stories and themes have been recycled over the years.

The other thing they all have in common is that pretty much all of the characters from those stories are flawed in some way or other, which again goes along with the hero only being as interesting as the force that tests them. Which would seem like a good entry point for subverting the whole structure if I wanted to do that. Something to think about.

So looking back after all these years, do I feel any differently about my childhood heroes now? Yes and no. I still love the stories and legends of Robin Hood and whenever a new version is announced, I’m always excited about it; if there ever was a real Robin Hood though (which seems up for debate), that Robin I’m less enamoured with. I still want a dog like Timmy and still have a soft spot for Narnia as well, although as an adult I am much more uncomfortable with Lewis’s use of Susan at the end.

Andre Agassi I still admire a lot but I was disappointed to hear of his drug use and cover up and that will probably always be a bit of a sour note for me. Mark Waugh has become an interesting commentator and I enjoy listening to him immensely. Bill Clinton I still feel much the same about.

Chris Cairns is the difficult one for me. I admired him enormously as a cricketer and the idea that he might have played a part in match fixing of any kind tarnishes that memory. Nothing has been proven but it doesn’t feel quite right either. I’d have to say I treasure the memories of him as a player but I feel let down by everything since. It will probably depend on what his side of the story is when he eventually decides to tell it.

Regardless I am thankful for all of them though. They all played a part in my childhood and in making me who I am today. The stories they told me and the lessons they imparted will stay with me for the rest of my life.

And so whatever happens, in that way my childhood heroes will live on, like all good stories and characters do, in me.

I like that idea. 🙂

Books of the 00s

It’s hard to believe it’s almost the end of another decade, isn’t it? The 00s have gone by so quickly and so much has happened in the last ten years. From tsunamis to bushfires; Afghanistan to Iraq; 9/11 to Katrina; the millennium to the GFC. I was still in high school in 1999. It feels like a lifetime ago.

As we’re coming to the end of the year I thought it’d be interesting to look back on the 00s as a whole. Particularly the fiction that has defined the decade.

For me the success of Harry Potter, The Da Vinci Code and Twilight will be the enduring memory of this decade. In an age of iPods and YouTube, to see so many people reading again – on buses and trains, in parks and on beaches – has been remarkable. The publishing industry hasn’t seen their success before and it’s already changing the way books are being published and marketed.

Overall I think it’s been a good decade for literature. As you’d expect much of the tone of the decade’s writing has been influenced by 9/11 and there’s been some excellent fiction published, particularly by new and emerging authors. The quality of international fiction has also been excellent. My only disappointment has been with the overall quality of Australian fiction and the bleak direction of mainstream SF, which is becoming dark and depressing.

One of my favourite blogs, The Millions, recently published a list of the best fiction of the 00s. It’s a good list and I thought I’d do my own to mark the end of the decade. This is a list of my favourite books of the 00s, the novels which have had the most impact on me and my writing.

Let me know which you’ve read. Do you have a favourite book of the 00s?

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson

The Road (2006)
Cormac McCarthy

Few novels have affected me as much as reading The Road. It’s a devastating novel, stark and confronting, and is so intense that at times it’s difficult to read. But it’s also a beautiful, poignant novel, about a father and son struggling to survive, characters that come to life even though you don’t know their names. McCarthy’s prose is restrained and hauntingly beautiful. A magnificent novel; one of the best I’ve ever read.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2005)
Stieg Larsson

Larsson’s novel is a remarkable début. It’s an unorthodox thriller that centres on the 36 year disappearance of Harriet Vanger, the grand-niece of former industrialist Henrik Vanger, but soon becomes a story about the family itself and their secrets and corruption. Larsson’s characters are unforgettable and Lisbeth is one of the most memorable female protagonists in years. Larsson died before he became known outside Sweden, leaving this and two sequels as his legacy.

American Gods (2001)
Neil Gaiman
Gaiman is one of my favourite writers and American Gods is an unusual mix of fantasy, reality, myth and Americana that somehow all works. Gaiman’s prose is vivid, bringing to life a twisted version of our world where the gods of old and new religions are preparing for war, and its subtext on the changing nature of religion and the place of technology in modern society is fascinating. It’s also darkly funny and scary.

Magic for Beginners (2005)
Kelly Link
Short fiction has continued a sad decline in the 00s but Kelly Link is a master of the form. Magic for Beginners collects nice stories which mix fantasy with everyday life, the mundane with the majestic. Her stories are unpredictable and dreamlike, none more so than The Faery Handbag, where an entire town takes refuge inside a forgotten handbag. Her prose is evocative yet simple and her stories haunt you long after you’ve finished them.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003)
Mark Haddon

Haddon’s début is an unusual novel. On the surface it’s an unorthodox mystery about Christopher, a teenager who finds the body of his neighbour’s poodle and decides to try and find the killer, but it’s really a careful examination of autism. Haddon’s depiction of Christopher is remarkable; Haddon gives us subtle insights into Christopher’s world, making him sympathetic & likeable, but without ever feeling exploitative. It’s original, funny and compelling.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007)
Michael Chabon
There’s something unsettling about Chabon’s novel. Its style is a throwback to the detective stories of Chandler and Hammett, set in a world where a community of Jewish refugees settled in Alaska after World War II and the State of Israel collapsed. Chabon uses the novel to turn the conflict with Israel and Palestine on its head, asking what it means to be Jewish in the modern world. It’s a brilliant novel; Chabon’s alternate history seems eerily plausible.

Cloud Atlas (2004)
David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas is less of a novel than a series of connected themes. It’s told across six stories that span centuries and different genres but each story is incomplete; the second half of each story is revealed in later chapters and it’s not until the end that you realise how they all come together. Each chapter is a mirror image of another and following the plot is almost like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. It’s unusual and beautifully crafted.

Life of Pi (2001)
Yann Martel

Martel’s novel is something of a surreal fable. Pi, a sixteen year old boy from India, the son of a zookeeper, becomes shipwrecked on a voyage to Canada. Finding himself stranded on a lifeboat with a 450-pound tiger, Pi has to use all of his knowledge and imagination to survive. Martel writes effortlessly and despite the unlikely premise, it’s really a clever allegory for the meaning of faith and storytelling in the modern world. An engaging and charming novel.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004)
Susanna Clarke

Clarke’s début is one of those unusual works in fantasy that is both superbly written and entirely original. Set in an alternate version of 19th century England where magic has all but left the country except for two magicians, its style feels like a pastiche of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, gothic and darkly beautiful. At its heart it’s as much a story about friendship, obsession and Englishness as magic. It’s a wonderful novel that took Clarke ten years to write.

Orpheus Lost (2007)
Janette Turner Hospital

Orpheus Lost is a sad love story inspired by the Orpheus myth. When a series of terrorist attacks strike Boston, Leela is interrogated and told that her lover Mishka may be a terrorist, leading her to try and find the truth and rescue him from the secret prisons and torture chambers of the modern underworld. Hospital focuses on the nature of terrorism and paranoia in the post-9/11 world, but the story is as much about the redemptive power of music; her descriptions of Mishka playing the violin and oud are breathtaking.

Spin (2005)
Robert Charles Wilson

Wilson is one of my favourite SF writers and at its heart Spin is about isolation: when a mysterious event causes a shield to appear around the Earth, humanity is cut off from the universe and reacts with a mixture of fear, panic and awe. Wilson’s prose lingers in your mind and Spin also acts as an allegory for 9/11, an event that changed the world in a moment, but never loses focus of its characters. It’s a remarkable novel; for me the best SF novel of the decade.

Restless (2006)
William Boyd

Restless is a brilliant, subtle novel. On the surface it’s a thriller about Eva Delectorskaya, a half-Russian emigrant who is recruited into the British SIS after her brother’s murder, but it’s really an examination of paranoia and how a lie can take over your life. Boyd writes vividly and his story is as much about nationality and the relationship between Eva (Sally) and her daughter, as Ruth slowly begins to learn the truth about her mother for the first time.

The Corrections (2001)
Jonathan Franzen

Franzen is a master of character portraits and The Corrections is a fascinating study of a seemingly ordinary family. The novel follows the Lamberts as they gather for one last Christmas together, but soon their carefully orchestrated lives begin to unravel around them. It’s a very American novel and a sharp commentary on greed, capitalism and the nature of parenting and family. It’s also eerie how its themes foreshadowed the post-9/11 world. Magnificent.

Never Let Me Go (2005)
Kazuo Ishiguro

At its heart Never Let Me Go is about the preciousness of life. The story is told by Kathy, a carer who looks back on her early life at Hailsham, a boarding school in Britain. The children of Hailsham are special; clones created to provide donor organs for transplants. As Kathy matures into a woman, she slowly begins to accept her sad fate. Ishiguro’s prose is beautifully subtle and Never Let Me Go is a sad, haunting novel that stays with you long after you’ve finished it.

Veniss Underground (2003)
Jeff VanderMeer

Veniss Underground is an unusual hybrid of SF and fantasy. Told in three parts, the main story focuses on Shadrach, who descends into the underground levels of Veniss in search of his love Nicola, travelling through a bizarre cyborg hell. The novel echoes Orpheus and Dante but VanderMeer uses his version of hell to highlight the dangers of human reliance on technology and the pursuit of perfection. It’s an excellent novel, filled with bizarre, dreamlike imagery.

The Books That Changed My Life (part two)

I’m happy to announce I’ve just passed a small milestone. This post marks my 200th post! About time, eh? 🙂 While I know it’s not that many posts, considering I wasn’t sure if I would continue blogging that long ago reaching 200 posts is something I’m quite pleased with.

I’ve known the 200 was coming for some time and it seemed like a good time to change my blog as well. I’m now self-hosted. After several experiences on WordPress, I felt it was time for a change; I have less time for blogging and this way I can enjoy writing at my own pace. I’m looking at it as a chance to explore some new ideas, so I hope you enjoy the journey with me.

I wanted to do a special post for my 200th and decided to save the second part of my books project for the occasion. I’m quite happy with how it’s turned out so far. It’s been fun revisiting these books again.

This second part is more about the books that have shaped my philosophy. There’ll be one last part to end the series next week, a profile of the three books that have had the biggest impact on my life. Let me know if you’ve read any of them. I wonder which books have changed your life?  😉

American Pastoral by Philip Roth
American Pastoral is one of those novels that leaves you reeling. On the surface it’s about two parents whose idyllic life is destroyed when their daughter sets off a bomb to protest the Vietnam War. But beneath that Roth examines the morality of objectivism (Merry becomes a Jain, concerned about murdering germs while oblivious to the deaths she caused) and the bond between fathers and daughters. Swede’s world falls apart and Pastoral left me wondering how far we’ve really come in 40 years. Which is Roth’s point.

The Speaking Land by Ronald and Catherine Berndt
I’ve been interested in Aboriginal mythology since I was young, particularly the stories of The Dreaming and the Rainbow Serpent. Aboriginal culture dates back over 50,000 years and The Speaking Land is the best collection I’ve read; it gives a real sense of the beliefs behind the myths, the reverence Aboriginal people have for the land and the spirit. It showed me an Australia I didn’t know, one I wish more people could see.

God Said, Ha! by Julia Sweeney
God Said, Ha! is remarkable in that it deals with big issues like cancer and death in an honest way and never feels depressing. In the mid 90s Julia Sweeney had just begun to look forward to a new life, but then her brother was diagnosed with cancer. As she started to care for him her parents moved in – and then Sweeney was diagnosed with cervical cancer. It’s a sad memoir and yet incredibly funny and insightful. It shows how laughter can get us through even the most difficult of times.

Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche
I first read Nietzsche in high school but didn’t try again until a few years ago. As a critique of society Beyond Good and Evil is still relevant but it’s Nietzsche’s development of the “will to power” I find interesting. It’s often interpreted as violent (or fascistic) but that wasn’t what Nietzsche meant; rather it’s about overcoming individual weakness, explaining the motivations of individuals and societies and their actions. It’s one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read and has influenced my writing many times.

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
I first read Kafka at about the same time as Nietzsche and I loved the absurdity of Metamorphosis. The idea of waking up one day as a giant insect makes the story so surreal but also very human. Kafka is less interested in the science of the transformation than in how Gregor tries to adjust to his new life. In the end it’s a very sad, tragic story, and yet darkly funny. Which makes its critique of society and our loss of humanity all the more poignant.

Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
Childhood’s End was one of the first SF books I read. It’s about an alien race that suddenly appears on Earth, promising to help humans reach their full potential; and yet reaching that potential means losing everything that makes us who we are. Clarke uses the story to explore the idea of utopia and what the loss of inspiration means for society. The depth of ideas in the novel is staggering and it leaves you both a little wiser and sadder for having read it.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
I didn’t like The Handmaid’s Tale the first time I read it; I was too young but I was stunned when I reread it. It’s a moral fable, a warning against the dangers of totalitarianism, and it has a feel of history to it that makes it all the more troubling. Set in an America where women are property and the Handmaids’ only role is to have children, Handmaid is eerie when you think about the role of women in some countries. Atwood’s other novel Oryx & Crake is almost as powerful.

Animal Farm by George Orwell
It’s hard to decide which is the better novel between Animal Farm and1984 but Animal Farm, with its complete disdain of power and those who abuse it, has always left more of an impact on me. As a novel critiquing social and political power it’s unparalleled, but also in the way it continues to raise concerns about the way we exploit animals and their conditions. In the end it’s a pessimistic novel but it’s ironic as well that by turning Stalin and Trotsky into animals, Orwell actually succeeds in making them more human.

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
Of all of Hemingway’s works it’s The Old Man and the Sea that I’ve always related to the most. It’s exquisitely written and such a simple idea, a battle of wills between an old man and a marlin… yet it’s so much more than that. It represents the maturity of Hemingway and his writing; how rather than have Sargasso return victorious as a young Hemingway might have written, instead he returns with no more than a skeleton. It’s a lesson about life and courage and I’ve learned more about writing from Hemingway than any writer.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
Like Childhood, The Left Hand of Darkness was one of the first SF books I read. The story revolves around Genly as he tries to convince the inhabitants of Winter to join the Ekumen, but it’s really about gender and friendship. The Gethenians are hermaphroditic and the friendship between Genly and Estraven forms the heart of the novel. Darkness was one of the first SF novels to create a world convincingly, with believable characters. It influenced much of my early writing and still does today.

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
Stranger had a huge impact in the 1960s, introducing “grok” to the English language. It follows Mike Smith, who is raised by Martians after a failed mission to Mars. When he returns to Earth and learns about humans, Mike begins to spread his Martian philosophy, forming his own church, causing others to begin to see him as dangerous. Stranger is a brilliant idea-driven novel and one of the few SF novels that’s genuinely literate; reading it is like getting a high of ideas and the scope of the novel is breathtaking. It’s the kind of novel I’d love to write one day.

The Once and Future King by T.H. White
I’ve always enjoyed old myths and my favourite myth is the legend of King Arthur. When I first read White’s version what struck me about it was the tone; it starts playfully but by the end it’s mirthless. Yet that’s what makes it so strong. White uses the legend as an allegory for World War II, filling it with the realities of war and an examination of communism and socialism. It’s as much about human nature as chivalry, Arthur struggling to find a philosophy that fits his (and our) world. It’s a sad, beautiful novel, one I reread regularly.

The Books That Changed My Life (part one)

I have some news. No, unfortunately I haven’t found an agent yet (although hopefully soon!); I’ve decided to start a second blog. I’ve spent the last few weeks setting it up, so feel free to have a look and let me know what you think.

It’s called Modern Classics and came about when I decided to move the book reviews from my blog; they don’t really go with the rest of my content, so the new blog collects them all in one place. I still plan to talk about books on this blog as well; I just haven’t had much to post about recently and I think separating the content will help both blogs in the end.

So to celebrate I thought I’d do a couple of posts about some of the books that have changed my life. This first part looks at the books that changed me as I grew up; the second part will be the books that have shaped my ideas about philosophy and life. I’ll post the second part in a couple of days so it won’t be too long to wait. I wonder how many you’ve read? 😉

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
I first read Anne Frank’s diary in high school and it’s stayed with me ever since. It’s one of the most haunting accounts of the Holocaust I’ve experienced and what still strikes me about it is how mature a writer Anne was; she made you feel like you were in the warehouse with her, and her family felt like your family… that’s why her loss feels so devastating to anyone who’s read it.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis
I had all of the Narnia books as a child but Wardrobe was my favourite; I must have read it at least 50 times. It was one of the first books that brought my imagination to life, of Narnia and other worlds… in many ways it was the first book that made me want to write. It made me dream and that’s something I’d love to do for someone else one day.

The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams
The Velveteen Rabbit was my favourite book as a child; one of my teachers recommended it to me and I still remember the feelings of sadness and loss that ran throughout the story… it was beautiful and unlike anything I had read, the perfect fairy tale. I still have my original copy; I plan to pass it on one day.

Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
I read Shelley’s novel as a teenager and admire it even more now. As a work of science fiction it’s virtually flawless and still one of the most unsettling novels I’ve read. Its examination of the ethics of creating life has influenced me many times in my own writing. I always found the monster rather pitiful… with the developments in genetic engineering, it’s still very important today.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Holmes series has been a favourite since high school; I enjoy the novels but it’s the stories I like best. They’re so well crafted (particularly The Adventure of the Speckled Band) and rarely feature superfluous details; I learnt a lot about structuring short fiction from Doyle. The character of London from the 1890s has always stayed with me as well; like looking through a window at another world.

The Children of Men by PD James
I’ve read a few of PD James’s books but The Children of Men is unlike anything James has written; a dystopian novel centring on mass infertility… yet it has the depth and characterisation of any of her works. The detail in James’s world is unsettling, but in Julian there’s a sense of hope as well… it’s easily one of the most thought-provoking novels I’ve read, and the kind of novel I’d love to write.

Blood Music by Greg Bear
I read Blood Music when I was fourteen and since then have read all of Bear’s novels. It’s one of those few novels that deals with science in a realistic and accessible way, using human development as a vehicle to examine the nature of consciousness and life. It was one of the first SF novels I read and had a big impact on me; the final scenes as the last humans transcend is breathtaking.

Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
Stewart’s novel was published in 1949 and is one of the most haunting novels I’ve read. It follows what happens after the fall of society, what knowledge survives as life tries to go on; it’s really a lament for humanity, a warning against excess. It’s just as relevant today as when it was first published.

On Writing by Stephen King
On Writing is Stephen King’s memoir and guide to the craft. King covers everything about the process; from brainstorming and developing ideas, to plotting and characterisation, to finding an agent and accepting rejection. For writers it’s a priceless resource; I’ve learnt more about writing (and editing) from this one book than from any other I’ve read.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy
The Road is one of the most difficult novels I have read but it’s also one of the most important novels of the last 30 years. McCarthy’s prose is so stark, so beautiful, it touches your heart; the characterisations so poignant that they come to life even though you don’t know their names. I challenge anyone to read The Road and be the same; it’s devastating… one of the few works of fiction that makes you look at the world in a different way.

Rowling Outs Dumbledore

I’ve just been looking at the news at the SMH website and this story caught my eye. Apparently JK Rowling has been on an “Open Book Tour” of the United States (first I’ve heard of it; does she come to Aus for these as well?) and during one of her appearances at Carnegie Hall, she was asked by a fan if Dumbledore finds “true love”. According to SMH, Rowling’s response was “Dumbledore is gay”.

So the criticism began; right-wing groups criticising Rowling for making homosexuality seem “normal” to young readers; some gay groups criticising her for not making Dumbledore’s sexuality more obvious. Even John Cloud writing in Time seemed a bit perplexed: “Shouldn’t I be happy to learn he’s gay? Yes, except: Why couldn’t he tell us himself?

Now I’m perplexed. Some religious people being upset I can understand; I can see how they might find the HP series uncomfortable with its magic and sorcery, and this just adds to it. But I don’t understand this idea that Dumbledore’s sexuality should have been more obvious. The reason I like the books is that Rowling uses them as an allegory for many issues – war, racism, bigotry, hatred, tolerance – but doesn’t hit us over the head with them. She’s more subtle than that; she makes her characters human and works it into the story. Much as I love Narnia, Rowling is not Lewis with Aslan/Christ; her plot doesn’t just stop to interject a belief. Instead she works it up over time, and I think that way has reached many more people.

It’s not really anything new anyway. Dumbledore’s sexuality is one of the worst kept secrets in the HP mythos. Dumbledore has always been something of a mystery and he rarely seems to have any important relationships with women, except with his mother and sister. And his relationship with Grindelwald seemed like more than a friendship, given the impact it had on Dumbledore’s life. To say that there’s never been any indication of this in the books is just wrong.

I think the way Rowling chose to use it is clever as well. She used it to show Dumbledore’s weakness. “Dumbledore fell in love with Grindelwald, and that that added to his horror when Grindelwald showed himself to be what he was… he met someone as brilliant as he was, and rather like Bellatrix he was very drawn to this brilliant person, and horribly, terribly let down by him.” John Cloud took it to mean that because Dumbledore (allegedly) never had another affair, that he saw his homosexuality as shameful and inappropriate. “As far as we know, Dumbledore had not a single fully realized romance in 115 years of life. That’s pathetic, and a little creepy. It’s also a throwback to an era of pop culture when the only gay characters were those who committed suicide or were murdered (as Dumbledore was).” I disagree. I think Rowling meant it to show the trappings of power. Dumbledore was blinded to Grindelwald’s evil by love, and was attracted to power himself. He felt responsible (that feeling is palpable in Deathly Hallows) and didn’t trust himself to feel for another person; that makes his story more tragic.

I think it’s a very courageous thing Rowling has done. She knew she’d get flack, but she’s confirmed rumours that most fans expected were true anyway. And it also highlights the themes in her books and makes it a lot harder to dismiss them as juvenile fiction; as the series moved forward, the themes became darker, and this just adds another layer. This isn’t C-3PO and R2-D2 or Tolkien’s undercurrent of homoeroticism in The Lord of the Rings; Dumbledore is a full, rich character, and I think that’s a step forward for gay characters and literature.

It’s funny, though, that such a big deal is being made over one character. But that just shows how much Harry Potter has become part of the culture and how beloved the characters are. Now I just wonder what she’ll write next? Could she even write it with her own name? Perhaps she might need a pseudonym; otherwise how can anything stand on it’s own? It’ll be interesting to see. 🙂