Alohomora

Date: 16 November 2013

Books Completed: 195

Books Left: 5

Ever wonder what makes something popular? What is it about certain movies, television shows, even celebrities, that capture the public’s imagination? Why do some wonderful, quality creations get ignored (Sports Night, Mick Harte was Here, Silverado) and some pedestrian, mediocre works (Two Broke Girls, Fifty Shades of Grey, Twister) make millions of dollars? It’s all about the It Factor.

You know, the It Factor. That intangible, indescribable, incomprehensible quality that makes something just work. The thing that makes us open our hearts and minds and just accept whatever the item with the It Factor is selling.

I’ve been thinking about that a bit these past few weeks, because I’ve been reading a book that so did not have that It Factor.

Fantasy has never really been my thing. With a few notable exceptions, I can pretty much do without magic in my reading choices. I really can do without books that have the whole “other world” scenario, such as the Lord of the Rings books, the Prydain series, etc. When I do read fantasy, I tend to prefer books that bridge our world with the fantastic one—provided I can easily suspend my disbelief. And that was the problem I had with Kate Saunders’ The Whizz Pop Chocolate Shop. I just could not open up and believe in the world she created.

Two series that immediately pop to mind where two worlds blend are C.S. Lewis’ Narnia and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. I first encountered Narnia when I was in third grade and Miss Parkis read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to us during Literature. Totally fell in love with it, and eventually the series. Totally had no problem accepting that Lucy opens up a wardrobe door and finds herself in an enchanted world. The same was true when I read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which I first experienced as a thirtysomething. Totally bought into Harry discovering he is a wizard and attending a school of witchcraft and wizardry. Why, then, could I not believe that Oz and Lily live in a magical chocolate workshop with an immortal, talking rat and cat?

All three works are British. I love things British. All three have kids taking a major part in the battle of Good versus Evil. I love a good moral tale with a positive outcome. All three are the kind of fantasy I actually like. Why, then, do I enthusiastically reread Narnia and Harry Potter yet rejoice when I finally left the shop on Skittle Street?

Without doubt some of the issue is in the writing. But what is it about the writing of Mr. Lewis and Mrs. Rowling that makes me willingly believe their tales? It’s not like their writing is flawless. Mr. Lewis gives his characters anachronistic speech patterns and can get lost in his own descriptions. Mrs. Rowling tends to find an expression that she likes and uses it numerous times throughout a book. Yet I easily, happily overlook these things as I lose myself in the stories. Why couldn’t I do that in Miss Saunders’ case?

Perhaps it was in the characterization. I absolutely identified with Lucy and willingly accompanied her into Narnia. I admired Peter and Aravis and had a crush on Prince Caspian. I respected Edmund, laughed with Trumpkin, and grew disillusioned with Susan. As for the gang at Hogwarts, I identified with parts of Harry, Ron, and Hermione. I chuckled at Professor Trelawney and greatly esteemed Remus Lupin. I longed to be a member of Dumbledore’s Army. I still cry when I read about Snape’s last memory. The group in Skittle Street was another story. Oz gets kidnapped? Oh well. Lily has trouble with friends and school? Sucks for her. Caydon has an overbearing grandmother? Yawnsville. I couldn’t open up and care about any of them.

Clearly, the stories of Mr. Lewis and Mrs. Rowling have the It Factor while Miss Saunders’ does not.  Talking beasts who live in a country where it is always winter and never Christmas? Check. A bank run by goblins and guarded by dragons? Check. A talking cat who likes to have her claws painted with fingernail polish? Nope. A grownup who willingly believes the fantastic story four children tell him about their adventures in another world? Check. A magical world run by its own Minister who keeps in regular touch with the British Prime Minister? Check. A secret department of MI6 that deals with magical happenings in London? Not so much.

Mr. Lewis and Mrs. Rowling waved their magic wands, chanted “Alohomora,” and I opened up to what they were offering and believed. I bought It, lock, stock and barrel. Miss Saunders, however, must have put an Imperturbable Charm on me when I opened her book. I looked for It, couldn’t find It, and so just kept calm and moved on.

In and Out of Character

Date: 2 November 2013

Books Completed: 189

Books Left: 11

When I was in library school I read and wrote a paper about Kate DiCamillo’s Newbery-winning A Tale of Despereaux. It became one of my all-time least favorite books, but I’m glad I read it because it gave me some insight to my own reading tastes. Despereaux is a very plot-driven book. It’s all about what’s going to happen next. There are a large number of characters, none of whom are well-developed, none of whom are particularly likeable or admirable. That’s when I realized that I am a character-based reader. There has to be at least one character that I like, or at least find interesting or intriguing, in order for me to enjoy a story. I thought I’d comment on book I found to be a fascinating character study.

I mentioned Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence in my last post. I finished reading it a few days ago, and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the book. That is to say, I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating the three major characters.

First we have the protagonist, Newland Archer. He loves how everything is just so in New York society in the mid to late 19th century. He appreciates and expects the rigid order of his class and is discomfited when something or someone steps out of line. He chooses May Welland from the eligible young ladies of his set to be his fiancée. He doesn’t regard May as particularly clever, but she is very pretty and conventional, and she adores Newland. He believes she will fill the wifely role admirably.

Then the newly engaged Archer encounters May’s cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska. Orphaned as a child, Ellen was raised by an unusual aunt, married a dubious Polish count, lived in the objectionable society of Europeans, and eventually left her philandering husband. Nothing about Ellen fulfills Archer’s dream of the perfect society wife, yet he falls deeply in love with her.

In time, Newland marries May and Ellen drifts out of their lives. When she reappears nearly two years after the wedding, Newland finally conveys to her his feelings. She reluctantly admits she reciprocates them. Eventually Newland contemplates and is determined to do the unthinkable—leave his wife for Ellen. Circumstances intervene before he has the opportunity, and he ends up living his life as May’s faithful husband.

When I finished reading the book, I wondered, am I supposed to feel sorry for Newland? I absolutely did not. I understand that in the person of Newland Miss Wharton is delivering an indictment of the hypocrisy of high society. However, Newland made his choice. He was in love with Ellen before his actual marriage and he knew it. He would not do the dishonorable thing and abandon May, so he married her. He then chooses the far more dishonorable path in his decision to become an adulterer. It is the combined actions of the women in his life who actually prevent this. He is doomed to a live without passion with a wife he does not respect, but again, he chose to marry May in the first place. I just wanted to say to him, “Pull up your big boy pants and deal with the consequences of your own decisions.”

I believe that Ellen is often viewed as the strong moral center of the story since she never commits herself to becoming Newland’s mistress, tries to talk him out of it on multiple occasions, and ultimately removes herself from the situation before irrevocable steps are taken. I don’t have a problem with this assessment of her. What I do have a problem with is the trivialization of May.

We only ever see May from Newland’s perspective. We are often told that she is unintellectual, unimaginative, and unable to change. I see her actually as a very wise and brave woman who is never given her due.

Once her engagement is announced, May assumes, since this is how things are done, that the wedding will take place several months in the future. Newland presses for a quicker wedding date. May rightly sees this as his attempt to resist temptation with another woman. Newland believes that she refers to a woman with whom he was involved before their courtship, but I think she knows the woman is Ellen. She is always very friendly to Ellen and openly supports Newland’s legal championship of her. May knows that if she is in any way critical of Ellen, she will only make Newland want Ellen more.

Later, when Ellen comes back on the scene, May is less openly welcoming of her. She likely sees that Ellen is actually a bigger threat now. She is never cruel or catty, but she takes the family line that Ellen should return to her horrible husband.  May sees that the situation with Ellen and Newland is growing more acute, so she goes on the offence, taking passive-aggressive steps to remove Ellen from the situation.  She confides to Ellen that she is pregnant, two weeks before she actually confirms a pregnancy. May knows that this is the one event that will drive Ellen away while keeping Newland with her.

May is sometimes called insipid, uninspiring, and manipulative. Yet she has perception enough to see that Newland loves another. She is inspired to do what she has to in order to preserve her marriage. She lies to Ellen. Is that manipulative or is she really trying to save the three of them? Would Newland have truly been happy with Ellen, knowing that he cut himself off from the society that he loves as well as despises? Ellen would not have cared about society, but as a truly kind person would she have been happy knowing how much she hurt May?

There are no definitive answers to these questions. But that’s what makes these characters so intriguing. And these rich characters are what made The Age of Innocence so interesting to me.