The Patternist Series

I read these novels in the omnibus edition which arranges them according to story time. I don’t usually read books outside of publication order, so doing it here was eye opening.

The novels in the series, listed in publication order are Patternmaster(1976), Mind of My Mind (1977), Wild Seed (1980), and Clay’s Ark (1984).

Patternmaster offers a very simple plot: boy arrives at a bad place at the wrong time but escapes, runs toward safety, but is caught and must fight to survive. That’s it, that’s all. Yet the seed of each of the other novels is present.

Mind of My Mind explains the origins of “the pattern” introduced in the first novel, identifying it as the product of a centuries long breeding program by a dangerous and seemingly immortal being named Doro. The novel also introduces Doro’s counterpart, a mysterious black woman who cares for young telepaths in a community she has built and maintains in a black neighborhood in a late 20th century city.

Wild Seed tells the story of this same woman, beginning with her early life in Africa centuries before during the first years of the European slave trade. Immortal like Doro but gifted with powers very different from his—she’s a shapeshifter and healer—she finds his breeding of telepaths that he then feeds upon cruel and inhuman. The two are at odds for centuries before he relents and agrees to limits she establishes on his behavior. (Wild Seed was written one year after Butler completed the research for and published Kindred. It shows and the novel is richer for it.)

Clays’ Ark reconnects the now elaborate history of the Patternists back to the post-apocalyptic future of the first novel. This novel tells of a world torn apart by climate change and explains how an alien infection that transforms a farm community into something strange and bestial escapes into the population at large.

Of course, the order I’ve described the books is not the order I read them in. In the omnibus, I’ve read the third book first (Wild Seed), then the second (Mind of My Mind), then the fourth (Clay’s Ark) and only then, at the very end, the first novel that launched the series (Patternmaster). Which means that until I was nearly done, I was reading prequels, which made for a strange experience. The books work in story order, but I see in retrospect that moments of excitement and suspense in the first books I read were only partially visible to me because I didn’t have the ironic positioning created by knowledge of what was coming in the last book I’d read.

This didn’t ruin anything. In fact, it made the final two books a fairly disorienting set of surprises. I had no idea I was headed to a vision of the future that would remind me of, in different ways, both Fury Road and The Dragonriders of Pern. And I really liked these books. But wow, order matters.

Les Confessions

On a whim and fed up with pointy eras and spells maybe, I picked up Rousseau’s Confessions last week. I read the first of the two books which covers his childhood and youth.

Rousseau, the man on the page and voice conjuring him up from memory, is a charismatic figure, compelling, seductive and also annoying. He reads as very much alive and so I can’t keep myself from wondering if I’d have liked him if I’d know him. I can’t decide, mostly because I’m not sure he would have been available to be liked or not. He seems drawn to rough sorts of men in a way that, of all things, made me think of Jean Genet. (He’s not Genet, but their Romanticisms are of a similar kind regarding this point even if wildly different in their intensity and extent.)

I’m walking away from the book with two favorite moments. The first involved a Moor being converted to Catholicism alongside Rousseau. This Moor, after touching and kissing for days, finally attempts to have sex with him. Rousseau refuses but documents the man’s ejaculation and a priest’s insistence, when Rousseau tells him what happened, that he’s only revolted by the possibility of having sex with the man because he imagines it will hurt, which it won’t. Fascinating stuff.

The second is Rousseau’s confession that he’s been saved from becoming a degenerate by his peculiar perversion: a childhood punishment by a woman he adored had made him desire above all else to be spanked by a woman, something he could never bring himself to ask for even with the most compliant of women. And so throughout his life, he claims to be awkward and restrained around women. Although he admits that for awhile at the age of sixteen or seventeen, he would moon women on the streets and in the gardens and then run off. Again, fascinating stuff.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

The Half-Blood Prince ended in tragedy and the first full-scale battle in the war that’s been brewing since The Goblet of Fire. This book picks up with a brilliant set piece: an elaborate plan aiming to move Harry to safety at the exact moment his protections there fail and he is able finally to move secretly because of his age. The chase that ensues is frightening and exciting. The patronus that drops from the sky only a few chapters later, interrupting a wedding and sending Harry, Hermione, and Ron into hiding sets the pace (breakneck) for the double quest that will follow: find the horcuxes and find the hallows.

Because it’s the final book, I was ready to make judgments as I read and they came fast and fiercely. I don’t like Ron: he’s a brat and the fact he turns out okay is because his family is great and that sticks. I also find it very hard to like Harry: he pouts and is too quick to judge and I kept feeling like he’s a bit like a best-case-scenario jock who could easily go wrong. What saves him is that he loves his friends and tries (when he’s not pouting) to do right by them, even when it costs him dearly. Hermione is my hero and I love her through and through. Ron should count his lucky stars she even puts up with him, much less loves him.

Snape is a genuinely noble and tragic figure, damaged by the angry emotions and choices of youth, marked by them (literally and figuratively), but strong enough to see those choices through to the end, and he saves the day because of it. Dobly, the free elf, risks everything to save the boy who set him free, dying for it, but also saving the day. And then there are Neville and Luna, my two favorite of the students at Hogwarts: when Neville, in an echo of the Chamber of Secrets pulls the sword of Gryffindor from the sorting hat and destroys the final horcrux—like Snape and like Dolby, saving the day—my heart sang.

So now the series is done, and I feel like Harry in the final chapter: older and apart and looking back on a past time. (Incidentally, the bit-like-a-jock Harry didn’t go wrong, he went bourgeois-boring. Which is fine. But still, surprising.)

All said, it’s a genuinely great series of books and I’m really happy to have read it simply for the pleasure of it. But I’m also glad because I’ve discovered that most of my students have read them as well and they love them and so we now share a wealth of references and analogies that we can use to discuss and make sense of things in class. And most importantly, because my students read the books as kids, references to them don’t read as “teacher trying (and necessarily failing) to be cool.” They are simply a shared, fun and useful reference allowing better communication.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

This book is Snape’s and Dumbledore’s, and it ends like it began: with an exchange of words that do not mean what they seem to mean, but only exactly what they say. In both cases, the novel invites us to misunderstand Snape’s meaning and intentions, and to a large extent, we don’t really have any choice. The narrative, which is Harry’s, takes the apparent meaning as real, and if we refuse it, it’s from instinct and from faith in the integrity of an underdog.

In the long stretch between Snape’s two damnations, Harry stumbles along damaged and, yes, angry, although less so than in the previous book in the series. If in that book growing up meant that Harry needed to discover and to accept that things would not work out the way he wished regardless of his feelings, in this book, it requires he learn that his enemies are people rather than monsters, a simple, fundamental and difficult lesson. The device Rowlings contrives for permitting this discovery—and for motivating extended, digressive flashbacks—is the pensieve, a bowl for collecting and reviewing memories that immediately became one of my favorite magical objects of all times ever.

I’m writing this post after finishing The Deathly Hallows, and so, I can say without question that the Half-Blood Prince—the book but also the enigmatic off-stage Snapes—has won my heart. Here the dangerous, mysterious adult world that first came knocking on the door of Harry’s childhood in The Goblet of Fire and then came crashing through it in The Order of the Phoenix, takes on a life of its own, independent of the narrative we’ve been reading, and sets Harry’s story into perspective, revealing its purposes and limits. Here, Dumbledore has a story. Snape has a story. Voldemort has a story. And we discover for the first time that the actual tragedy of the series—and yes, the intersecting stories of these men, especially when viewed from the perspective of the boy caught at their crossroads, is indeed tragic—is that the men’s stories cannot be reconciled, cannot be resolved, and so they cannot permit anything like a happy ending to emerge. At most, we can hope for resolution.

This is the hole the final book must get out of without being able to get out of it without failing.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Harry and his friends grow up and become part of a larger world’s story in the way they had not been up to this point. The shock of this damages Harry, and he’s angry and difficult to be around this book. Other characters step to the foreground, especially Hermione, my favorite of the “Golden Three.” Of the others, I love Neville, and I keep rooting for Snape, even though he makes it very hard. (But then, Harry makes it hard as well, so I can make the effort for Snape.) Ron continually gets on my nerves.

The plot here is dark and menacing and operating on a level larger than Dumbledore’s Army seems to understand or to be able to handle. I read in constant fear of discovering who would be next to die, hoping all the while that it would not be Neville. (Please not Neville. Please.) By the final scenes in the Ministry I was reading fast enough to feel my eyes ache from the strain. The words were gone and I was there. It was that good.

Still, reading the book exacted an emotional toll. I work with Dolores Umbridge, and there were days I could only read a few chapters before I had to put the book down and do something else. I’m not a fiction writer in part because I can’t imagine, understand or bear evil in the everyday. I’ve tried. And so petty meanness and casual sadism catch me unaware over and over and hit me with a kind of fresh hurt that I’ve never been able to grow numb to. So the horror of finding it here in Hogwarts was a shock over and over again and it gave me nightmares if I read too much at a time.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

After a hundred pages with the Muggles and at the Quidditch World Cup, we’re back at Hogwarts learning about the Triwizard Tournament. Although too young to compete as one of the three school champions, Harry’s name is selected by the Goblet of Fire as a fourth champion which obliges him to participate. School goes on, and the fourth year students are learning real magic now. Still, although we see them in class, their drama is no longer about being in school or being budding wizards. Instead, it’s clear that the school is a part of a larger world with its own larger dramas, and Harry, Hermione, and Ron are finding their way onto that larger stage. (The libelous tabloid reporter dramatizes their entry into this larger world by publishing stories about them. They enact it themselves by researching and practicing charms and hexes for the Tournament on their own.)

By book’s end, Harry—thanks to help from his friends but also through his own skills, resourcefulness and basic goodness—winds up standing with his schoolmate, Cedric (a Hufflepuff), at the end of the final Tournament challenge, agreeing to win together. They grab the cup simultaneously, and then, disaster.

Magically transported to a faraway graveyard, Cedric is brutally killed and Voldemort is reborn using Harry’s blood. Surrounded by Death Eaters, Harry and Voldemort duel, but Harry survives—through luck, yes, but also and perhaps most importantly through courage, resourcefulness and love—and at the last possible moment escapes to Hogwarts, bringing Cedric’s body back with him as he does.

The series has turned dark but, importantly, the darkness isn’t rot and it isn’t a darkness within the principal characters or situations. Instead it is a darkness resident in and arising from the difficulties of an adult world that the children of the school are inevitably discovering as they study, explore and grow up. This is a fantasy novel, so the darkness is incarnate, but this doesn’t change the basic structure or philosophical stance of the narrative.

At the end of this book, I’m genuinely interested in what the school will become and what role it is imagined to play in the unfolding drama. As it stands here and now, it seems very much like a bastion of admirable values and clear thinking where the best of people prepare (and help!) the young to step into their lives as good people. It’s a noble image and I wonder how it will hold up.

The Forgotten Founding Father

Reading this biography, I realized that my knowledge of the people of the revolutionary and federal periods in American History is limited to the big names: Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, Jay, Madison and maybe a half dozen others. Webster knew many of these Bright Lights, but they flit by on the outskirts of his life, visible for a moment or two and then leaving the field to the less famous, many of whom are familiar to me only as names. I know nothing about who they are or what they did. In this, reading the book felt a lot like reading Miracle at Philadelphia (and what I imagined it’d be like to read about Irving Thalburg without knowing who Hawks or Joan Crawford were).

What’s clear despite my lack of context is that Webster was a very difficult person and could be quite unpleasant to be around. Kendall makes a good case that this was linked to mental illness—anxiety and obsessive traits— without making that argument overbearing. Instead, he gives the basic contours of Webster’s on-going difficulties and then takes them for granted as the context for his interpretation of his behavior. I can’t make any judgement of whether this approach is warranted by the evidence, but it is definitely effective.

My one concern is that it seems to me—and again I don’t know the evidence—that this consideration causes Kendall in some moments to mistake statements by Webster’s contemporaries, which seem carefully constructed to avoid provoking him, as endorsements of Webster’s view of situations. A good example is a letter from Madison cited to suggest he accepts Webster’s assertion that he was an originator of the Constitution’s ideas. My reading of the cited text is less generous than Kendall’s: Madison seems to be telling Webster who invented these ideas while attempting to avoid contradicting him overtly as far as his claim to be among them. There are other citations coming from correspondents I know less about that ring a similar tone to me. I have to trust Kendall but wonder if he’s not taking Webster’s side a bit too much.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Sirius Black has escaped from Azkaban and word is that he’s out to get Harry. In school, there’s the usual competition around the house points and the Quidditch Cup and the kids are learning real magic now (“Expecto Patronum!”). But bubbling throughout is the other stuff: a prof keeps foretelling Harry’s death, Malfoy’s working to have one of Hagrid’s hippogriffs executed, Dementors are conjuring up Harry’s memories of his parents’ death and, worst of all, Ron, Harry and Hermione aren’t getting along.

In the final chapters, everything swirls together so quickly my eyes hurt from trying to read fasterfasterfaster. Scabbers—who I spoke about over and over with my brother, always in admiring, loving terms—is a traitor! Sirius Black, after spending ten years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, is after the rat—seeking vengeance, yes, but also to protect Harry. The new Defenses Against the Dark Arts teacher, appropriately named Lupis, is a werewolf. He’s also a friend of Sirius and of Harry’s father, and he’s also out to catch the traitorous rat. In the final scenes, Hermione and Harry step back in time, saving Sirius, saving Hagrid’s Hippogriff, and saving Harry.

These books are plotted like steam engines, but what makes them come alive are the characters who feel like flesh-and-blood creations. Snape especially remains a mystery. At this point, I can’t see him being any good at all, and yet, I’m rooting for him.

Don’t be evil, Snape.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Two thoughts.

Despite what I wrote earlier, I remember skimming the first two books in this series over the course of a couple evenings in a friend’s home the summer of 2000. I also saw the first two (or three?) movies. Reading this book, I remembered a couple of the scenes. But now that I’m done and starting the third book, I’m excited. The rest are all new.

That matters because, second, Rowling is a good writer! In these first two books a world has been created, a deep problem set-up (which I can figure out nothing about beyond Voldemort is bad and is coming back), and a whole host of living and likable characters have been introduced. I like Harry, Ron and Hermione. I like Dumbledore and Mrs. McGonagall, and like disliking Snape and hope he won’t be a bad as he seems. Most importantly, the children here are doing their best and their blind spots are real, their fears understandable, the courage they find believable.

So I’m looking forward now to reading fresh for real. It’s exciting.

The Shades of Magic Trilogy

I read the first of these books, A Darker Shade of Magic, a few years ago on a plane going somewhere. I loved it—and was unexpectedly horrified by the cruelty of life in White London—but I was also very much in the throws of my initial struggles with reading fantasy and science fiction. (More on that soon probably.) So I read it, loved it, put it aside and left the trilogy unfinished.

Eventually, maybe the following summer, I checked the second book, A Gathering of Shadows, out from the Bibliotheque Nationale and began reading it by the river. Its scope and focus had changed, the world and the problems it faced had become orders of magnitude larger and its opening chapters were near perfectly constructed. My own problems were, however, still frustratingly similar: 120 pages in, I decided that summers were better spent reading books I didn’t have the time for in winter because of the concentration they required and put aside this book unfinished. This on its own amounted to clear evidence of foolishness, stupidity and a deep illness of the mind and soul, but (or perhaps thus) it took time to work through and get over it.

When I did finally tear up the hedge—sowed and cultivated in grad school and then carefully tended during those tense years before tenure—that kept the science fiction and fantasy novels I loved out of the wondrous garden of Literature, the final two novels in the trilogy were near the top of the list of books I set out to read.

I loved the series. The world is complex but appealing, and the magical tournament of the second book was great. There is darkness running through everything though—literal and metaphorical darkness—and the costs of surviving it are high. People lose things and people are lost. By the end, I was sorry to be done.

Here’s the important insight that sorrow left me with though: the sorrow was about the people and their relationships. The characters had been sketched out in a combination of realist description and of magical traits and action that were at root metaphorical and the portraits that emerged were not simple cut-outs. Two men enter the story in love by divided by a break-up one doesn’t understand. Both are powerful and confident (but for different reasons), both are confused by the actions of the other, both need each other and try ineptly to find their ways back across their broken hearts and very concrete social situations. And their friends and family, good people but none of whom understand (or in some cases know) what has happened between them, wind up part of a fight and making things harder. When the two earn their relationship back, it was glorious and felt real. And this relationship was very much a side plot until the last book.

The other relationships were just as rich, just as complex and, in their variety, they what make the novel work, not the magical rivers, the overlapping Londons or bleeding but badass wizards. These relationships can be amorous. They can be friendly. The one between the two male leads is fraternal: a sad and ruined older man finds himself a villain, first against his will but then freely in order to do good, but in his rough and brutal way takes care of a younger man, equally powerful but naive, helping him grow to the point where he can survive after they have saved the world. And there are so many more people and relationships in this book. This is great writing and great imagining and I loved it from first to last.