[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] Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

The_front_cover_of_the_book_Raising_Steam_by_Terry_PratchettTerry Pratchett’s most recent novel is going to be one of his last, and that’s a big problem for me. See, I’ve been reading his novels almost as long as I’ve been alive, and I don’t want that state of affairs to end. I don’t have a choice in the matter, though, because, soon enough, his Alzheimer’s will eat away one of those witty brain cells too many. After that, he will either decide that enough is enough and take his own life, as he has been threatening to do for years, or he will wither away and a die a different man from the one who has written 40 novels in this series alone. Either way, it’s stupid, and I don’t like it. I do like Raising Steam, though. Let’s talk about that.

For those of you who have never read a Terry Pratchett novel before, let me get you familiarized with the landscape. Picture a world. No, that’s already wrong. Picture a sea turtle swimming through the ocean. Got that? Good, now, remove the ocean, and replace it with space. On the back of that turtle, imagine four elephants, and, on their backs, a pizza-shaped world that has continents instead of pepperoni, a great mountain instead of the little white three-legged thing they put in the middle to keep the box from touching the cheese, and magic instead of garlic pesto sauce. Now, use a little finger spreading movement on the smartphone of your mind to zoom in to an area midway between the crust and the disappointingly undercooked middle part, and you will see the great city-state of Ankh-Morpork. That is where most of Mr. Pratchett’s stories take place, and, most importantly, the story that I’ve spent 300 words, mostly involving suicide and pizza, getting around to telling you about.

This book, at its heart, is about trains. Also, at its extremities. It’s basically all about trains. The age of the horse and cart are over, because, for the second time in known history, steam power is coming to the Disc. Owing to its volatile nature, the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, the preeminent city on the Disc, puts his top con artist in charge of making sure it doesn’t explode in everyone’s faces. This is the third book in the saga of gentleman swindler and all around smartass Moist von Lipwig, who, in his first appearance in the Discworld series in the novel Going Postal, was forced into the service of Ankh-Morpork’s Patrician, Havelock Vetinari, on the threat of a second hanging. It’s complicated, I know. As Tommy Wiseau would say in reference to any conceivable negative event, “Don’t worry about it.” Actually, he would say, “Dohn worreh uhbowt eht.” All that you really need to know to understand this book is that times they are a-changin’, and not everyone is happy about it.

Terry Pratchett has always contended that, though his Discworld novels are pure fantasy, they have always been written to mirror the world in some way. An accurate portrayal or not, Raising Steam certainly paints a picture of how Terry views the world, today. The moral of this story is built out of the previous Discworld novel, Snuff, which is basically about racism. Or, well, species-ism. However, whereas Snuff was about treating another race as inferiors, Raising Steam is about applying a set of guidelines to your own race that, if a member of said race fails to follow, makes them different enough to hate or even kill with impunity. A small group of Luddite Dwarves have decided what it means to be a Dwarf, and any Dwarf who disagrees is immediately labeled as “not Dwarf,” an enormous dishonor for Dwarves. This pressure to conform to the opinions of a small but vocal minority under threat of violence certainly speaks to issues happening in the world at large, today, but, unlike the real world, almost none of the Discworld inhabitants have trouble seeing the forest for the trees. No one blames all Dwarves for the terroristic actions of that vocal minority. If only we were so understanding.

The racial tension doesn’t really drive the story for the first two-thirds of the book. Instead, it serves as a nervous backdrop to what, at first, you assume to be the main story, namely starting a rail road. Moist von Lipwig, ever the one to be caught up in a new enterprise, exchanges his begrudging attitude toward the rail business for one of boyish enthusiasm as soon as he sees the power that trains have over people. Moist, in an ever unclear role as the representative of the city, basically takes control of the first fledgling rail company, owned by the inventor Dick Simnel and angel investor Sir Harry King, a man who both literally and figuratively clawed his way up from the muck. Moist forsakes his other responsibilities at the behest of the Patrician to complete a rail line to the seat of political power in the vaguely Transylvanian nation of Überwald, home to the heads of many races including the Low King of the Dwarves, for a vague reason that isn’t really revealed until the third act.

The story maintains a driving pace that keeps it interesting even when the narrative wears a bit thin. In spite of its rather serious subject, it never fails to be funny. Moist von Lipwig is, as always, the hero he didn’t realize that he was, and the Patrician, who plays a wonderfully large role in this book, is enigmatic and somewhat sinister while never even hinting at leaving the side of the angels. The characters are fun, the message is clear, and the humor is consistent. It harkens back to the older Discworld novels of the late 90s and early 00s. If this were the last book Terry Pratchett were to write, I would be content. Not happy. Content.

Featured Image: “The front cover of the book Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett” by Terry Pratchett – Terry Pratchett. Licensed under Fair use of copyrighted material in the context of Raising Steam via Wikipedia