Tag Archives: JK Rowling

The Use and Abuse of Fiction – personal opinion

Why write fiction about real events? Why make up stories about World War II, or Ireland or the Great Depression? Why not stick to imagined worlds, like JK Rowling’s delightful, magic permeated version of England?

Consider the wild popularity of the “Humans of New York” Facebook site. There are SO MANY tales to be told. Why not tell them, as is done with Holocaust survivors and military veterans (to name a few) in oral history projects? I offer The Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline as an example of a book written about events that, I believe, have been extensively documented. More about it below.

Sometimes the truth is just too painfully awful to bear.

  • Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Patillo Beals, who participated in the battle for school desegregation as a high schooler, is a non-fiction account so harrowing I couldn’t read it.
  • The truth behind Beloved by Toni Morrison is even worse than that portrayed in the book/movie, in which an enslaved woman kills her child to keep him from slavery.

Fiction represents a selection of what is (or isn’t) “meaningful” or important about an era or event. I’m convinced that “meaning” is assigned, not inherent. The meaning that an author assigns to an event may be very different from what participants experienced. If the people are available (or left records), I would rather listen to real voices than read a fictionalized account.

I think fiction represents a consensus (of sorts) on what we are going to remember, emphasize and/or construe about events.

Fiction has its conventions. Usually major characters stay alive for most of the book. I was truly shocked when Vikram Seth killed off a major character in the middle of The Golden Gate. That’s what happens in life, not in novels!

Stephen Dunn (poet and professor) says that southern New Jersey (where I live) “hasn’t been imagined yet”. Very little fiction or poetry about this region has been written. To me, that means there’s no consensus about what we will or won’t discuss about South Jersey. Fiction sets boundaries. No one has decided what South Jersey means.

Means to whom? Our local poet? We the residents? Scholars somewhere else? (Will South Jersey Studies be invented one day?) We will surely choose to keep the sun and sand. What about the past? How long will it take to digest Boardwalk Empire by Nelson Johnson? Will we study slaveholders or the underground railroad?

So how did Peter H Davies, author of The Welsh Girl, (a novel about WWII) decide what (and who) to keep and who to discard? Why did he include ONE historical figure (Rudolf Hess) in this work of fiction?

Maybe studying history is just TOO MUCH WORK, too intellectually challenging. The Orphan Train was selected as a Common Reading (for a college, with the emphasis on the Freshmen) because it was “accessible”. Translate that to mean not too long, not too complicated… (I found it didactic.) Serious study of the events and historical period was apparently not considered. (I get it, but are we underestimating student intelligence?)

I was surprised, when I checked, to find out that I split my reading almost 50/50 between fiction and non-fiction. I thought I was leaning more towards fiction.

I very much enjoy “fantasy” fiction, but I would guess it’s a small fraction of what I read, maybe 10%. I LOVE a good alternative world.

My point? Does anyone else have a problem with fictionalized accounts of real events? Do you worry that you might be misled? That an author might be biased? How should fiction be incorporated into education? If a book pops into your mind when you consider this, I’d particularly like to hear about it.

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“The Book of Dust – Volume One – La Belle Sauvage” by Philip Pullman

Product Details

This book is a (sort of) prequel to Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy.

Pullman wrote this trilogy between 1995 and 2000. JK Rowling wrote the seven Harry Potter books between 1997 and 2007. Each series was oriented towards young people and each generated a well developed alternate (fantasy) world and world view.

People (like me) who raised kids born from, say, 1975 to 1995 were likely to find themselves immersed in one or both of these literary bonanzas and their associated alternate worlds. What began, for many families, as read aloud frenzies, later evolved into pitched battles over who got to read an eagerly awaited, newly released book first. Adults have been known to stay up until all hours with The Deathly Hallows or The Amber Spyglass.

Two copies of La Belle Sauvage (released October 19) turned up at our now all-adult Thanksgiving family gathering. Serious discussion was devoted to which alternative world is more compelling, Hogwarts or Lyra’s Oxford. Pullman beat Rowling by a narrow margin. None of us could resist the idea of having a daemon.

What’s a daemon? In Pullman’s alternate world, every human has an animal “familiar” which reflects aspects of his or her personality. In classical Greek mythology, a daemon is a “natural spirit which is less than divine”. (Loosely paraphrased from Wikipedia.) In Pullman, a child’s daemon changes animal form from moment to moment – an adult’s is fixed. A person’s daemon provides loving companionship, support, insight… To be separated from one’s daemon is unbearably painful. Pullman makes this complex conceit feel natural.

La Belle Sauvage is a fantasy/adventure story written for young adults. There is nothing condescending about it. The protagonists (a boy of 11 and a girl of 14) living in a place rather like Victorian Oxford, are drawn into adult conflicts that mix politics, religion, science and philosophy. They end up guarding a baby in the midst of a natural disaster. It’s the battle between good and evil, narrated with flair and energy. I couldn’t put it down.

Like the Harry Potter series, Pullman’s books have been labeled a “bad influence” on young minds. “Anti-religious” is one of the claims.

Read La Belle Sauvage! If you haven’t read the Dark Materials trilogy, go for it. I’m planning to order some of Pullman’s other books, and will report on them soon.

Reading with a cold – Janet Evanovich and JK Rowling

For the past week, I have been too sick (the common cold, but it felt like the plague) for even halfway serious reading. I was so sick I resorted rereading. I pulled Harry Potter off the shelf, and raced through the second book, Chamber of Secrets. I’m not sure why that one called out to me, but it hit the spot and kept me happily entertained.

I have lots of good memories related to JK Rowling’s blockbuster Harry Potter series. The first book came out in 1997, when my sons were 7 and 13 years old. I honestly don’t remember our reactions to the first book, nor do I remember if I read it out loud to my younger son. The series continued, and we got hooked. By the fourth book, we were ordering our family copy in advance and then arguing over who got to read it first.

I always found the movies relatively peripheral, at least in terms of plot. I’m beyond astonished that the wonderfully well cast ensemble of child actors held together so well through eight movies!

By the time I read the seventh and final book, I was completely engrossed. To me the conclusion was not only vivid and compelling, but also highly visual. I finished the book late at night, turned out the light and watched the action in my imagination…

The seven hard cover volumes of Harry Potter will always have space on my shelf.

I won’t say quite the same for Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels, which now number 22. I only own a few. The rest came from the library or books on tape. But I have a soft spot for Evanovich, who also wrote some holiday novels and the “between the numbers” books. (I’ve reviewed at least four Evanovich offerings in this blog.) I root for Evanovich because she’s a Jersey girl and writes about the poor, benighted city of Trenton. She’s so damn funny, and the characters she has created feel like friends – I want to keep in touch with them. In a critical mood, I can tell you what’s wrong with the Stephanie Plum novels (formulaic, possibly racist, etc.) but I can’t resist them.

Tricky Twenty-two was extra fun for me because the main plot (there are always several) is set at a local university and peopled with academic eccentrics. A lot crazier than MY crowd of academic eccentrics… Loads of fun.

I hope I don’t get another cold before the next Stephanie Plum novel comes out in November of 2016 (according to Amazon).

I wonder if these two writers have ever met?! Probably not. They are both inventive, and might have lots of fun swapping plot ideas. May they both write on and on!

“Divergent” by Veronica Roth – further reflections

I took a look at the Amazon entry for this book, and what do I see at the bottom of the description?

Supports the Common Core State Standards”

Can somebody tell me what this means? Divergent is part of an American education? Why? Is it “literature”? Is it being taught in high schools? It is reasonably grammatical. Is that what it takes to “support the Common Core Standards”?

So why am I surprised? I know that The Giver, also decidedly dystopian, is taught in middle schools.

On the one hand, I’m all for books that youngsters will actually (and enthusiastically) read. I was delighted by the Harry Potter series. But that was FANTASY. It got “darker” as the story line progressed, but was ultimately a story in which good (including hard work, loyalty, intelligence) triumphed. When the last book came out, a friend posted on Facebook “Thank you, JK Rowling, for helping me raise my children”. I know what he meant. I think many families found that Harry, Ron and Hermione became “part of the family”. We cared about them.

The Harry Potter series does not bear the “Common Core Standards” imprimatur, at least not on the Amazon website.

So I guess this means I don’t think every book that gets kids reading is equally worthwhile. What about the Twilight series? Vampire romances… It’s not marked “Common Core Standards”. I think I read one volume and was not impressed. If my child brought it home from high school, I would be on the phone complaining.

So what do I have against Divergent, besides personally finding it depressing? Does it glorify risk taking? If so, is it any different from all the high risk action on TV and in the movies? Here’s an issue – it emphasizes corruption in people in positions of authority, a problem I acknowledge. Would it “push” a person towards conspiracy theory, the fear that ALL authority is hopelessly corrupt? Is it asocial or antisocial?

Enough… I like literature with some element of transcendence. I like to see people learn, resolve, grow, accomplish, and often this takes place in the face of daunting challenges. I suppose I should read the whole trilogy to see if Divergent supplies this. But I’m not sure I want to invest the time.

Does Divergent belong in the high schools? I’d love to hear your opinion! And what’s the BEST (contemporary) book currently being taught?