[Dumb Books] The Harry Potter Series

ss-us-jacket-artWhen I was almost eleven years old, I picked up a book in Davis Kidd Booksellers, where my grandmother regularly took me to find something new to feed my insatiable appetite for stories. On the cover was a boy in glasses riding a broom almost directly into the ground while a unicorn ran away in the background. I cracked it open to read the first few, dull lines about a perfectly normal little burg in England. I’m incredibly grateful that I didn’t stop there. Midway through the chapter, I could see the magic leaking into the scene, as one character put streetlights out with the flick of a small device and another turned from a cat into a stern-looking woman. A moment later, I knew that a one year old’s parents had been murdered, and, then, that the boy was being left with his relatives. Almost at the end of the chapter, I thought the story was interesting, but nothing special. Ready to set the book back on the shelf, I read the final line of the chapter. It was this line that I would often remember for the next twenty years when life seemed to be at its worst. Speaking about Harry Potter, a newly minted orphan, sitting alone on the doorstep of people who would never really care for him, it says this:

He couldn’t know that at this very moment, people meeting in secret all over the country were holding up their glasses and saying in hushed voices: “To Harry Potter – the boy who lived!”

The boy who lived. How could I know how important that title would be to me? It fascinated me then that there would be a hero who was not famous for his strength or wisdom or bravery. I thirsted for those attributes, as I had seen them in nearly every book I had read to date. I was a boy who turned to books because I was weak and small and lonely. I wanted to be strong, wise, and brave because people who are all of those things have friends who not just hear but listen to them when they speak, and the time they spend together is intimate and cherished. The people who are none of those things are forgotten in the chaos of life, people like me.

As I grew, Harry did, too, and every year brought new challenges and lessons for both of us. Through those books, I learned real truths about the world around me. In those first few years together, I learned that every triumph comes at a cost and that the right thing to do and the easy thing to do are rarely the same. As a teenager, I found that peoples’ trust in you is only as good as your reputation and your reputation can be as easily damaged by others’ fear and envy as by your own carelessness. When I was twenty, I read the final book, and finally understood something that had eluded me through the decade between that first moment in the book store and this one.

I, like those nameless people in the first chapter of the first book, had thought the boy who lived referred to a single event, but Harry is not the boy who lived once. He is the boy who continues to live, through every hardship, loss, and cruelty that life can throw at him, and, in it all, he is not endlessly resilient. He breaks like you or I do, but he always knits himself back together with the scars showing. He wears them like badges of honor.

There is an art known at Kintsugi where they take a piece of pottery that has been broken and glue the pieces back together with lacquer containing gold dust. In breaking 0f9ae35a51c20018729f89dd9f03ae02--kintsugi-kintsukuroi-scionand being reformed, the piece is transformed from something common into something truly special. The fix does not hide the broken places. It highlights them. It says to the world that it is not nor will it ever be the same as it was, but there is no shame in its brokenness. From that first night as a baby, Harry carried a scar on his forehead, a constant reminder of the parents he would never know. Throughout the series, he collected more scars, not all of them outwardly visible. He gained and lost a godfather, as well as friends and mentors, whose losses he suffered for both good, noble reasons or, as is often the way of things, no discernible reason at all. He carried more scars on his heart than he ever did on his skin, and, through it all, he continued to live up to his title.

A year before I read the final book, I had been in the hospital for my heart, a condition that they could never adequately explain. It set off an anxiety disorder in me that would plague me for years, and, to this day, still rears its head when I am least prepared. In the decade since then, my heart has broken many more times, though a hospital stay could cure none of these, each time falling from a higher precipice of hope and shattering more completely. In these times, I think back to that first chapter I read in the book store. I think how I often I feel just as weak and small and lonely as that eleven year old boy, and I think about what Harry tried to teach me for a decade. When you are broken, gather up your pieces and glue them together with gold. Let them see that you are not nor ever will be the same as you were, but there is no shame in your brokenness. Not everyone will understand, but those that have the eye for it -perhaps with hearts laced with gold themselves- will see that you are more than a boy with a scar. They’ll know that you are the boy who lived.

[Dumb Books] The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman


There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.

I am a big fan of great opening lines. If I have not said it here before, then let me say it now: words are magic. At a basic level, they can transfer knowledge from one person to another without the two ever needing to meet. One of the people could even be dead at the time and communicate with another person living in the distant future. At a higher level, though, words can do more than just transmit information. They can make you think new thoughts, thoughts that weren’t in your head before reading the words. They can make you feel things. They can be used to put you on the right track or to fool you and draw you astray. Words hurt and heal, lift up and cast down, broaden horizons and crush your dreams. Don’t believe me? Think back to a time when you walked up to someone with hope and courage and asked them to go to coffee with you or to dinner or to bed, for that matter. Think about how it felt when they said a single word: No. One word, and everything you wanted, the potential future you had built in your head, was gone in an instant, like magic. Words are magic, the words that open a story doubly so.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost.

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.

Mother died today.

You know that feeling you get when you haven’t eaten in a while? You’re really hungry, craving just about anything, and you finally take a bite of something too sweet. It’s so good, but it also almost causes your mouth to seize up, too. It’s like your stomach is overly excited to get any sort of food, your brain is overly excited to get sugar, and your mouth can’t handle the overload of simultaneous need and fulfillment so it shuts down for a second. That’s how I feel when I read these opening lines. That first one, though. That one’s my favorite.

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife. The line both sets the scene and the mood. Wherever the hand resides and to whomever the hand belongs, it is in darkness, and it holds a weapon. With one compound sentence, Neil Gaiman delivers us into a space of dread. He didn’t say a terrified man or woman is shakingly holding on to the knife to defend him/herself, ala Wendy from The Shining. Instead, he just mentions a hand, malevolent in its simplicity. There is still hope after this one line that the knife is being held in protection rather than more sinister motives. Gaiman continues:

The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut, not immediately.

The knife had done almost everything it was brought to that house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet.

With that, any lingering hope that the knife was wielded by a hero or desperate innocent is gone. Now we, with full knowledge of the nature of our knife wielder, must sit and watch the horrors we feared play out on the page. This is the beginning of my favorite book, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.

The first time I finished the book, I closed the cover, set it on the table next to me, and cried my eyes out for about half an hour, which I admit is an odd reaction to a book containing werewolves and night-gaunts and witches. Then, I picked it back up, and read it again. I repeated this cycle a few more times within the span of a week before admitting that I had found the perfect book. It was the book that I had been searching for, even though I didn’t know I had been searching for anything. It told me a story about myself.

I believe that there is a book out there that tells you exactly what you need to hear. It’s not the same book for everyone, of course. For some people, it’s something like The Call of the Wild or To Kill a Mockingbird. For others, it’s Eat Pray Love, although I pity those people immensely. For me, it’s The Graveyard Book.

When I read it the first half dozen or so times, I simultaneously found new passages that I hadn’t noticed before and uncovered things about myself that I hadn’t known. I realized that, for twenty-four years, I had been obsessively concerned with being a grown up. Because I was doing what I perceived to be the necessary steps to achieve true adulthood and therefore happiness and wealth, every setback made me feel like a total failure. However, after the main character of The Graveyard Book, Bod, goes through the trials of his life, which are many, varied, and increasingly interesting, he doesn’t end up with any of the things I equated with adulthood. He doesn’t have money or a job or a spouse, yet here was a fictional boy who I recognized was more of a man than I was. What I thought were basic truths were not even guidelines. Being an adult, being a man, was so much more and so much less than I had believed. With a heap of words, all of those preconceptions, the potential future I had built in my head, were gone in an instant, like magic. I was free.

I mentioned in my previous article that I love to be scared, and, from my description of the first few opening lines of this book and the fact that it contains werewolves, witches, vampires, night-gaunts, etc., you might assume that this is a horror. It is, I suppose, and a perfect Halloween read, but it is also much more than that. It is the story of Nobody Owens, a living boy who grows up in a graveyard. That’s really the heart of it, growing up. It’s about adventure and believing in things and taking punishment that you’re due and doing things because they’re hard and learning and sharing and fighting and caring for others and doing what’s right for the right reasons and being more than you thought you could be and showing more bravery than you ever thought you had in you. The Graveyard Book is about my life. And yours. It told me what I needed to hear so that I could finally be an adult, so I could understand that growing up doesn’t mean getting more and more cynical until you can’t trust or take joy in anything. Rather, growing up means facing your life, its pain, its pleasure, and refusing to feel persecuted, accepting both triumph and disaster as the building blocks of a full life, which you have to walk into with your eyes and your heart wide open.

[Dumb Books] Locke & Key, Vol. 1: Welcome to Lovecraft by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez

lockekeyMost days, I’m afraid. Sometimes, I worry that my heart is going to stop or explode or fibrillate when no one is around to help me. Sometimes, I worry that my parents or siblings or siblings-in-law or nephew will die horribly. Thankfully, I don’t think about that last one as much as my morbid sister does. Sometimes, I worry that I’m always going to be alone or I’m never going to reach my potential. Every day, it’s something. Most often it’s the heart one, because, several year ago, I had a bout of viral myocarditis that put me in the hospital for a few days. It left me relatively unscathed, except for a tendency to have panic attacks. Why do I mention this? Because, when you know that I almost always am experiencing some level of anxiety, it might be surprising to know that I really like being scared.

To me, it makes sense. I have been repeatedly told by doctors that my heart is just fine. In fact, it has been several years since I’ve been in this good of shape, and my health keeps getting better. My parents, though ancient, are probably healthier than your parents. The other members of my family are in good positions in life. I have a fairly stable job, for now. In spite of all of that, anxiety still sours most days. Anxiety about nothing or, at least, nothing I can change through worry and fret. That’s why I love to be scared. I’m afraid all the time, but it’s fake. My brain is giving me false readings. When I read or watch or participate in something that scares me, the way my brain approaches almost every moment finally falls in line with reality. In that moment, being scared makes sense, and, in a really twisted way, it’s such a relief. So, I seek out scary things, especially around this season, when it’s dark more than light, cold more than warm, and every shadow feels just a tad deeper than usual. Sometimes, I find movies like Saw, which are not scary. Other times, the better times, I find authors like Joe Hill.

My favorite horror novel is Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill, and, someday, I’ll talk about it here. I read Heart-Shaped Box all the way through twice before I found out that Joe is Stephen King’s son. That makes a lot of sense. Joe Hill has a similar way of setting up every scene in such a way as to make it spooky with forcing the spookiness. Joe surpasses his dad in two ways, though. 1. He doesn’t use vernacular that people would never actually say (e.g. gee golly gosh). 2. He shows you why you should be afraid, instead of telling you why you should be afraid. He does this especially well in the Locke & Key series.

The first volume of Locke & Key is called Welcome to Lovecraft, which made me eyeroll a bit when I read it. Naming the town where your horror is set after the most renowned weird fiction author of the past century is a bit played. Similarly, giving your protagonists the name Locke, the house Keyhouse, and having the main device of the story be locks and keys is also a little eyeroll inducing. Beyond that, though, the story is both adventurous and terrifying in equal measure.

Locke & Key opens at the close of another story, that of the three main characters’ father Rendell Locke, as he is brutally murdered. I won’t spoil the details of the encounter, but the brutality and evil always leaves me shocked. That evil taints each of the characters in different ways. To the oldest Locke sibling, Tyler, it leaves tremendous guilt; to the middle child, Kinsey, the need to disappear in the crowd; and the youngest, Bode, so many questions without the resources to answer them. It also leaves their mother, Nina, a husk of her former self. After the murder, the Lockes move across the country to live with their uncle in the Keyhouse, situated on an island just off the coast of Lovecraft(ugh), Massachusetts. After the move, things seem to calm down for the family, but it’s not long before the magic of the Keyhouse, the real cause of all their troubles, starts to push its way into the lives of the three Lockes as they attempt regain some sense of normality.

Each character is so well thought out. Tyler is ruled by his guilt and anger, and it becomes frustrating to watch him slam his head against obstacle after obstacle when he would be better suited to just talking to his siblings about how he feels. From the beginning, it’s obvious that Kinsey likes to stand out. So, it’s heartbreaking that, after the murder, she feels the need to become invisible and isolated. Each step she makes out of that pit of isolation is torturous for her. Bode is just a little kid who’s confused about what’s going on. He more readily sees the magic of Keyhouse, and wants to share it with his family. They are all so deep in their own sorrow that they pay his seeming nonsense no mind. Each of their stories are a tragic and realistic examination of how we manage mourning. As if that wasn’t enough, the characters inability to really communicate with each other prevents them from seeing what is so clear to an objective reader: something far worse is coming their way.

Welcome to Lovecraft is an exciting start to Joe Hill’s masterpiece of a graphic novel. It also helps that each of Gabriel Rodriguez’ panels are dripping with emotion and suspense. If you don’t continue to read the series, the last installment of which was published in February, you can still enjoy Welcome to Lovecraft as a standalone piece. I have a feeling, though, that if you love this story a tenth as much as I do, you will be picking up the rest of the books, especially if you read them my preferred way: alone at night with only enough light to illuminate the page. If you do, there will come a moment when you’ll have to make a choice. It’s that moment when you’re sitting in the dark, absorbed by the terror of the characters. Maybe you’ll sense something shift in the corner of the dark room. You’ll start to move to turn on the lights, but that would mean admitting that you think you’re not as alone as you first thought. In that moment, you’ll have to choose. You can set down the book, admit that you’re afraid, and turn on the lights to prove that you’re really alone, or you can sit there, eyes down, praying that whatever does or does not occupy this dark space with you is content to study you as long as you are content to study your book. I recommend the latter, you know, just in case.

[Dumb Books] The Martian by Andy Weir

themartianI really, really want to go to space. I always have. There are reasons why this is not feasible for me. For starters, I’m 27 and have not even begun my astronaut training. Or my earthstronaut training either, if we’re being honest. I am what doctors refer to as “flabulous.” Maybe they don’t call it that, but that’s how I pronounce “obese.” I’m also kind of claustrophobic, and I occasionally have panic attacks. Apparently, all of these are dealbreakers in the astronaut world. Also, the dating world. Still, I want to go to space. At least, I did until I read Chris Hadfield’s book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. He explained that most of what your job consists of on a daily basis as an astronaut is homework. You are constantly doing homework. Then, if you’re extraordinarily lucky, you get to go to space and do more homework. That book also explained how incredibly cool it is to do homework in space and how, if you don’t do your space homework perfectly every time, everyone dies, which is basically what the book The Martian by Andy Weir is about.

A good book can make you wish you were a pirate or space pirate or some other form of pirate. A great book can make you wish you had gotten a degree in botany. The Martian is such a book. The second type, not the pirate one. I don’t want to give away too much of the story, but I will say that it starts off with a crisis that leaves astronaut Mark Watney stranded on Mars without a ride or a way to contact home. He quickly gathers his wits and his remaining resources in order to survive. This is done in a very NASA way. He falls back on his training, takes stock of his food, water, air, etc. and makes some quick estimations about what he can do to contact Earth. It’s all interesting in sort of an academic way, but it’s difficult to see how this book is going to go anywhere. Then, he starts to innovate, and it hits you. You’re reading Robinson Crusoe on Mars. Martian Robinson Crusoe. Probably with less racism than the original, though.

The Martian is like a thought experiment that someone had at NASA. If a person were to be stranded on Mars, how would they live using our protocol and methods and maybe a bit of ingenuity? Ugh, describing it like that makes it sound boring. It’s not boring. It’s exciting, mainly because Mars keeps trying to kill him, which he often survives only through sheer luck. That’s one of the things that I love about this book so much. Mark is a brilliant individual. He’s got a degree in botany and is a mechanical engineer, but he still acts very human. He gets too excited about things and makes mistakes. On Earth, those mistakes would mean scorching your hand a bit. On Mars, they mean blowing out your insides into the very thin atmosphere of a hostile planet. After each stupid mistake, he actually learns. Mark is a great character, not because he’s a real hero, but because he is totally not hero material. He makes me think that I could be an astronaut. You know, if it weren’t for the fat thing.

[Dumb Books] Saga, Volume 1 by Brian K Vaughan & Fiona Staples

Saga, Volume 1

A few weeks ago, I read a really funny tweet written by this girl who lives in my city. Now, I read a lot of tweets during the day, and most of the people I follow are very funny. What this girl wrote caught me off guard, though. I started reading more of her tweets during class, laughing at every one, which bothered the students I was attempting to ignore, and I spent the next several hours working on a funny reply to that first one I had read. Please, note that this effort was expended to make first contact with a girl who I did not know and was not in any way talking to me on Twitter. She was talking to my friend, but, much as I do at parties, I attempted to worm my way into the conversation by being funny. Funny is sort of my go-to in most situations. Every situation, really. Anyway, it worked. For a second, at least. I was part of the joke for a few tweets. Then, she was on to something else, and I had to wrack my brain to figure out what else I could do to catch her attention. Since then, I’ve probably popped up on her radar a few times with a joke or comment or something, but I haven’t made real contact, yet. Maybe, one day, I’ll actually meet her. Maybe not. The thing is, I barely know anything about her, other than she is one of the funniest people I have ever encountered. She could be a horrible person who drowns kittens for fun. Like Hitler for kittens. Kitler. But, from what I’ve seen her write, I think she’s amazing. Why am I mentioning this? A few reasons, but mostly because I want you to pity me before I mention that I read comics.

Telling people you read comics is a bit like farting in the line for communion. No one knows how to react. So, most often, they pretend they heard nothing. If they do react at all, the reaction normally happens in three stages. The first reaction is commonly incredulity. “You read… comics? Like Spider-Man?” Yeah. Well, no, I don’t read Spider-Man. I do read other comics, though. Comics like the one I’m writing about today, Saga. The second most common reaction usually follows quickly after the first. It’s the sound people make when they see a really ugly dog. It’s an “aww” with a slight head tilt and a scrunching of the eyebrows into a worried look, like they just saw a toddler with brittle bone disease attempting to descend a spiral staircase. The third reaction is palpable pity, especially noticeable, if you attempt to explain why you read comics. It’s like they found out that the reckless, brittle-boned toddler has leukemia. In light of that, I wanted to set you up to feel pity right away and skip the other two reactions. Someday, I may write an article about why I read comics, but, today, I just want you to know why I love Saga.

Saga is a story about a little girl that two armies fear. Not fear in the way I still have nightmares about the troll from Earnest Scared Stupid, but feared in the way the US government fears people like Edward Snowden. They aren’t so much afraid of the baby girl herself, unless some of them have pedophobia or something, but rather what she represents. To them, she represents the worst possible fate for their people: peace. See, the armies come from a planet called Landfall and its moon called Wreath. They have been fighting for so long that what was once a war has now become a blood feud. The feud powers the governments of both the people of Landfall and Wreath. Since they look a little different from one another, it’s easy to keep the bloodshed going with propaganda calling the people to kill “those animals from the (planet|moon; circle one).” Thankfully, unlike they do in this story, we don’t have the problem of being goaded into hating people for insignificant differences like the way we look.

The girl’s mother and father are from Landfall and Wreath, respectively, and were once soldiers in the never ending war. At the time of the story, they have long deserted their armies to be together and live outside of the conflict. It’s not that easy, however. The governments of Landfall and Wreath, wanting to go to war without all the messy bloodshed on their front lawns, have outsourced the battle to every corner of the galaxy. With the governments of both sides trying to kill them and their daughter and the war being waged on nearly every planet in the galaxy, the only choice the new family has to survive is to keep running.

What I love about this story isn’t that it’s set in space; though, I do love good space opera. It’s not that it involves both sci-fi technology and magic, which is cool. It’s that, at the heart of it, it’s about people that just don’t want to fight, anymore. They have realized wars of ideals are stupid and pointless. The only people that ever suffer from conflict are the peons and the bystanders, and the only people who ever gain anything are the ones already on top. They don’t care about stopping the war. They’re not revolutionaries. They’re just tired parents. They’re running from two governments who see their little girl as proof that the people of Landfall and Wreath aren’t really so different. The governments know that, if other people find out about her, they would come to the same conclusion. Then, the perpetual motion machine of war might be brought to a halt by the mere existence of a little girl whose parents decided fighting wasn’t for them. That emotion is even mirrored in the people that the government sends to kill them, from the robot prince who is about to become a father himself to the freelancer who can’t escape responsibility no matter what he tries.

This isn’t the first volume of a story where love conquers all. That’s certainly not the moral. It’s the story of a two people who saw that they had something in common with each other, and decided that taking a risk to be together is better than the relative safety of being apart. Maybe they’re right. Maybe I should have the courage to just ask out that girl. Maybe.