July 2003

Joseph J. Finn

sf libertine

What to read instead of Harry Potter

As anybody reading this column probably knows, June 21st saw the publication of book five of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. I bet you think I'm going to start railing against the books in some way, claiming that they take away sales from good literature, or that Harry Potter mania has become wearisome and boring. Well, I won't deny that the mania can become a little much, but that's true for just about anything; I guess it's a lot more tolerable if the product behind the mania and the marketing is worthy of such fervor (witness American Idol, which was worth about 5 minutes).

I like the Harry Potter books - I find them charming, well-drawn stories with believable characters, none of which are perfectly good or perfectly evil (well, Voldemort has the potential to be perfectly evil, but as he's only really appeared in about thirty pages, we'll see). They're quite enjoyable books, and I'm happy to see both children and adults reading them. In a world where bookstores actually sell Sweet Valley High books, it's good to have something of quality.

That said, The Order of the Phoenix gives a great opportunity for parents, aunts, uncles and whoever else is buying the book for children (or themselves), to introduce the kids to some other great literature. And hey, if you're buying the book for yourself to carry in the briefcase to work (you know who you are), treat yourself to one of these as well. You'll be the better for it.

For Adults:

Roma Eterna, by Robert Silverberg
Robert Silverberg, one of the giants of the SF community, has for decades been writing stories set in an alternate Earth where Christianity never rose, and the Roman Empire never fell and now covers the globe. Now he's interwoven these stories in Roma Eterna, a sprawling saga of the Empire, spanning 4,000 years. It's a fabulous set of stories, including my favorite, as we see a small band of Hebrews, still smarting from the Pharaoh catching up to Moses at the Red Sea and returning them to slavery, planning a Second Exodus to the stars.

Shoeless Joe, by W.B. Kinsella
You know it as the movie "Field of Dreams," but this novel is even better (not dumping on the movie - I do think it's a fine adaptation). Lyrical and full of the truths about baseball and life that in a rush-to-work kind of world we're reluctant to admit, this is the kind of book that could have been corny as all get-out, but Kinsella makes it work beautifully, tap-dancing on a balancing beam between melodrama and sappiness.

The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, also by Kinsella
The kind of novel it's almost impossible to describe, it's basically about a man and his sons and their belief, brought on by a bolt of lightning, that the Chicago Cubs actually played the Iowa Baseball Confederacy in the 1908 World Series. Probably the most overt novel about baseball and religion, this has everything from home runs to heavenly choirs, musing on the nature of life without being preachy. And frankly, it's just a fun read.

For Teenagers:

Troublemakers by Harlan Ellison
Ellison is sometimes known as a crank, or an imp, but he is first and foremost a writer. This may sound like a silly way to start a synopsis, but sometimes the legend of Ellison overshadows that he is in many people's opinions (including my own), one of the finest writers of the second half of the twentieth century. For the first time, he has collected some of his stories for a young adult audience, ones that are more suitable in tone and language for that age group. Always challenging, this is perfect for the teenager who's become bored with everything they're reading in middle school.

The Earthsea Trilogy, by Ursula K. Le Guin
The dark and moving saga of a young wizard named Sparrowhawk, who lives in the world of Earthsea, a continent-size grouping of islands. This would be the first choice for a teenager interested in Harry Potter, as its theme is of a young boy learning wizardry and going through the pangs of adolescence. Darker than the Potter series, these three novels are true classics, and I'm continuously surprised that teachers looking for summer reading don't seem to recommend these. There is also a companion collection of stories, Tales From Earthsea.

The Narnia Chronicles, by C.S. Lewis
Readable as both on-the-surface adventure and morality stories, or as an allegory for Christianity (incidentally, you can take the opportunity to teach your child what an allegory is), these are some of the best books for young adults ever, as we see the entire history of the land of Narnia through the eyes of seven British children who stumble into the land and become entangled in its disasters and joys. You'll fine more and better-presented morals on a page here than in the entire preachy treacle that is Bennett's The Book of Virtues for Young People. Do note that the books actually start with The Magician's Nephew, not The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe; the American publisher messed with the order on the original publication.

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle The first book in what is known as The Time Quartet, this is the story of Meg Murry, her brother Charles Wallace, and their new friend Calvin. Meg and Charles's father has been missing for years, Meg gets in fights at school, and Charles, though intelligent as can be, is ostracized as weird by the rest of the town. Everything changes when the three receive a strange visit from three odd women who take them on a quest through time and space to defeat a Dark that is spreading through the universe - and to hopefully save their father. More religious than most children's novels (L'Engle has been connected for years with the library of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York), there are some very serious discussions of love and spirituality in this novel, but never in a promoting a particular religion sort of way. A wonderfully charming book that kids will read again and again.

Well, that's enough musings for one month. Join me in August, when hopefully I'll have more complaints about bad marketing of speculative fiction by bookstores, unless of course I'm beaned in the head at a White Sox game.