Happy Birthday, Harry Potter (and J. K. Rowling and me)

Whether or not you’ve read the Harry Potter books yourself (but, really, how could you have not?), you have certainly have heard of the Boy Who Lived, You-Know-Who, and Professor Dumbledore. Most Millennials have a story about how Harry has been a part of their life and to celebrate Harry’s birthday – and J. K. Rowling’s and my own – I’m going to share mine with you.

I was a little late to the Harry Potter party – though I have more than made up for it since then, both literally and figuratively. My first introduction to Harry was at a used bookshop. I was ten, about to turn eleven and somehow my cunning fifth grade mind convinced my mom to add the tattered paperback to the pile of summer reading books she was getting for me and my little brother.

The spine was broken and the cover was creased as if someone had sat on it repeatedly. The pages were dog-eared and soft from being turned and held and well-read. Even before I found this book it had been loved.

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My 19th birthday cake was a replica of the cake Hagrid gave Harry in book one.

I worked my way through that pile of books over the summer. Harry had slipped down to the bottom of the pile in our living room and it wasn’t until July 30 that I curled up on my bed at discovered shaggy haired Harry Potter in his cupboard under the stairs. I read “The Letters from No One” – the chapter where the Dursleys go on the run to shake the mysterious letters that Harry has been receiving – that night and as Harry counted down the last seconds until his eleventh birthday my mom came in to announce that it bedtime.

The next day was my eleventh birthday.

I waited all day for my letter to arrive – and lots did. They came in the mail and had “Happy Birthday Faithy-Poo!” and “Happy Eleventh Birthday, Chickadee!” written in pretty grandma cursive. But no emerald green ink addressed to Ms. F. Lewis, The Bedroom by the Stairs…

That was the last day of summer. School started the next day and there were no owls or moving staircases or feather quills and parchment.

For my thirteenth birthday I was given the full Harry Potter series. I had already read most of the strawberry jam fingerprinted copies at my local library, but nothing compared to turning those crisp pages for the first time. I experienced Harry’s journey all over again.

Celebrating with Harry, Ron, and Hermione became a sort of unofficial birthday tradition for me. For my sixteenth birthday my family and I had a twenty hour movie marathon (no breaks – breaks are for the weak), culminating at the movie theater to finally see the final instalment of the movie adaptations. For my nineteenth birthday my friends threw me a Harry Potter themed party, complete with pumpkin juice and a replica of the cake Hagrid made for Harry all those years ago. And last summer I once again celebrated my birthday with Harry Potter trivia and tabletop Quidditch.

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Christ Church College was one of the many filming locations in Oxford and inspired the Great Hall.

That party was also my send off to England, where I was spending a semester studying in Oxford – the real life world of Harry Potter.

I made it my goal – one of my many goals for my time abroad – to see as many notable Harry Potter attractions as possible. I spent a day at the Warner Brothers Wizarding World of Harry Potter just outside of London, losing track of time as I made my way through the Great Hall, Gryffindor boys’ dormitory, Dumbledore’s office, and the Hogwarts Express. I explored Oxford, home to many filming locations and Emma Watson’s hometown – she was even rumored to have been at the bonfire on Guy Fawkes Day, though I can’t personally attest to this. I had breakfast at The Elephant House in Edinburgh, where J. K. Rowling is said to have written much of the first Harry Potter book while her daughter was at school.

As much as the term “Harry Potter Generation” has become cliché, I can’t help but admit the truth in it. J. K. Rowling created a world where children made a difference and where they could grow up alongside her characters. The Harry Potter series solidified a lifelong love of reading not only in me, but in thousands around the world.

So I want wish Mr. Harry Potter a very happy birthday. I’m looking forward to celebrating another year with you.


Originally published on San Francisco Book Review.

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Narration: The Foundation of Fiction

Most people think that after their high school reading proficiency test, they’re in the clear, but the truth is that no one ever stops learning how to read. Every book is its own lesson in how to read that particular book. Readers have become accustomed to certain literary techniques and they recognize them quickly, adjusting their reading to the subtle cues the writer leaves for them.

The perspective from which a fictional story is narrated is a prime example of this—it is presented immediately and is constant throughout the piece, it sets the mood of the whole work, and it is all too often an underutilized tool of the writing craft. While there is some disagreement within the literary community as to how many different points of view are available to a writer, alternative forms of narration have received particular attention lately. Books like Caroline Kepnes’s You and Hidden Bodiesare creating waves for innovative approaches to narration.

First person narration is arguably the most widely used form of narration and in recent years the literary world has been flooded with the many egocentric “I” voices of the YA genre. There are a few theories as to why first person is so common:

  • First person narration allows the reader to relate to the character very easily as all events are conveyed through the eyes—and tinted by the emotions of—the main character.
  • The reader is able to understand the motivations and reasoning of the character without the need for lengthy sections of dialogue.
  • First person is typically very straightforward and therefore easy to read.

Third person narration is also extremely common. While fiction was once nearly exclusively narrated by some form of third person voice (whether omniscient or limited), it can now often be found in literary fiction and scattered liberally among the first person narrated novels of most other genre fiction.

Far less common is second person narration, which employs the use of second person pronouns such as “you” and “your.” From time to time these can be found shelved alongside other works of fiction, but the style is off-putting to most readers. It asks much more of the reader’s suspension of disbelief as the reader becomes the main character and is suddenly living a life very different from their own.

Some writers have pioneered a multiple perspective narration by alternating between a first person perspective of the main character and a third person perspective that follows other minor characters—often denoted by chapter breaks—but few authors have tested the waters of a first person and second person narration mash up. Perhaps first seen with Italo Calvino’s 1982 If on a winter’s night a traveler, the style lay dormant until Kepnes’s You published in June of 2015, followed by Hidden Bodies in early 2016.

“You walk into the bookstore and you keep your hand on the door to make sure it doesn’t slam. You smile, embarrassed to be a nice girl, and your nails are bare and your V-neck sweater is beige and it’s impossible to know if you are wearing a bra but I don’t think that you are. You’re so clean that you’re dirty and you murmur your first word to me—hello—when most people would just pass by, but not you, in your loose pink jeans, a pink spun from Charlotte’s Web and where did you come from?”

The first paragraph of You (above) initially gives the impression that the story is going to be told from a second person perspective, with “you” serving as the main character. However, the first clue that there is actually a first person narrator is the use of “I” and “me.” This immediately presents several obstacles to the reader’s experience of the novel:

  • Unlike traditional first or third person narrations, this is not a form the typical reader will be familiar with. This means that the reader is asked to put much more effort into making sense of the characters and where the reader falls in relation to them.
  • It also makes the reader uncomfortable. Because the first person narrator is directing his inner monologue to another character known only as “you,” the reader will subconsciously associate themselves with the woman being scrutinized so shamelessly.
  • At the same time, the reader will sympathize with the first person narrator, because that is what has been taught by other first person narrations. By filtering the story through a first person narrator, the writer is forcing the reader to understand the story in a way that reflects positively upon that narrator. The idea is that even a villain doesn’t think of themselves as evil, only misunderstood. First person just shows the reader why.

This use of a first person narrator and a second character to whom the narrator’s thoughts are directed introduces a new complication to the topic of narration. David Lodge solves this dilemma by explaining the “you” as filling the role of a narrateeon page 80 of his part instructional, part investigative writing manual The Art of Fiction: “Every novel must have a narrator, however impersonal, but not necessarily a narratee. The narratee is any evocation of, or surrogate for, the reader of the novel within the text itself.” He goes on to explain that this can be as superficial as the “Victorian novelist’s familiar apostrophe, ‘Dear Reader,’” or as involved as “the reader” in Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler. However, whether given a name or merely referred to by “you” or “reader,” the narratee is “always a rhetorical device, a means of controlling and complicating the responses of the real reader who remains outside the text” (Lodge 81). In other words, the narratee is a character, not the person reading the book.

While this style of narration shows the potential for variations of traditional narration styles available to writers, Kepnes insisted in an email interview that “the story has to require it. And most stories just plain don’t require it, they’re not built that way.”

In the case of Kepnes’s You and Hidden Bodies, the use of a narratee serves as another layer of characterization for the main character and narrator, Joe. It adds to the claustrophobic feeling that allows the reader to empathize with both the stalker (Joe) and the young woman he stalks and woos (Beck). It also allows the reader to get to know Beck through Joe’s understanding of her, which alternates from justifying his action to justifying hers at various points in the novel.

“I started out on this with the hope that you would read this book and feel as though you were eavesdropping on [Joe’s] internal monologue, which is all directed at this one woman,” Kepnes said. “Which is why it’s captivating, because he’s fixated on her.”

And while second person narration and the use of a narratee may seem to have nearly the same effect on a reader at first glance, there is no doubt that they influence the reading experience very differently.

“It would be such a different book if you were reading and feeling you, the reader, are walking in Beck’s shoes,” Kepnes said. “I love that as a side effect at certain moments, but it would be boring to go through the whole book that way.”


Originally published in San Francisco Book Review.

Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice: What it Takes to Make a Good Cookbook

If a cookbook is going to stand out in this world of Pinterest recipes and successful food blogs, it really needs to go above and beyond a list of ingredients and dry, clipped instructions on how to prepare them. Whether it is an all-around cookbook or focuses on a specific meal or ingredient, a good cookbook should have great photographs, simple (and delicious) recipes, an intuitive system of organizing those recipes.

Photographs:

This is a pet peeve of mine. I’ve seen far too many cookbooks that have great recipes, but terribly pixilated or unappetizing photos. As a visual learner (and most certainly not a natural born cook), I depend on the photographs to make sure I know the recipe is supposed to turn out.

The photographs in a cookbook serve a purpose, just like the diagrams in a physics textbook. They should help you to reach the end goal (a delicious dish) and should complement the written instructions, rather than demonstrate something that is not included in the recipe itself.

I recently ran across a dim sum cookbook (The Dim Sum Field Guide) that had black and white illustrations. It seems that these overly simplified illustrations were a stylistic choice, but they serve no benefit to the home cook, nor does it add anything to the book itself. I think it goes without saying that there should be no reason to illustrate a cookbook in this day and age, and certainly not a vague generalization that may or may not resemble the end goal.

Heaven forbid a recipe don’t have any photos at all. I’m looking at you James Beard’s All-American Eats: Recipes and Stories from Our Best-Loved Local Restaurants.

Simple (and Delicious) Recipes:

It’s pretty easy to recognize a simple recipe when flipping through a cookbook at the store. It’s a little more difficult to know if a recipe will actually taste good.

A good cookbook should have recipes that use a variety of ingredients, but no one recipe should call for too many ingredients. One of the most common complaints home cooks have about cookbooks is that they call for ingredients that aren’t readily available at the supermarket. If a cookbook does feature a lot of unique ingredients, there should be a section dedicated to where these ingredients can be bought and what can be substituted. Katie Chin’s Everyday Chinese Cookbook does a fantastic job setting aside a section at the front of the book that outlines ingredients that are commonplace in Chinese cooking, but won’t be so familiar to the average home cook. Chin also gives ideas of where to find these staples and why they are important to the recipes.

I was so excited when I got my hands on The Chocolate Lover’s Cookbook and so sorely disappointed when my family and I had to reluctantly nibble our way through mediocre dessert after mediocre dessert (I was too stubborn to give up after the first failed recipe). I spend a lot of time with my oven mitts on and I’ve never had to throw out so many sweets for a lack of eager after dinner audience – no one wants to waste precious calories on a dessert that isn’t satisfying.

Because it’s nearly impossible to tell if recipes are going to be good before you make them, the best proactive step you can take is to read reviews of the book before you fork up some cash. The great thing about cookbooks is that they don’t go out of style, so don’t be afraid to go with the tried and true cookbooks all your friends have been bragging about for years.

If you’ve already bought a cookbook with not-so-great recipes, the best thing to do is ditch it. Don’t waste your time and money hoping the recipes will get better.

System of Organizing Recipes:

This is a rather subjective quality of a good cookbook – which is likely why there are so many different approaches to organizing recipes.

There are the failsafes: breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert; hors d’oeuvres, soup/salad, main course, dessert; Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter; etc.

However, these certainly aren’t the only successful ways of organizing recipes. Some – like Dinner Made Simple – have been extremely successful at sorting recipes with common ingredients into sections. Have a handful of apples and not much else? No problem. Page 18. Butternut squash? Corn? Mozzarella? Rotisserie chicken? Pages 66, 98, 154, and 210 have you covered.

And then there are cookbooks that don’t follow any particular system and instead are broken into arbitrary chapters, which I personally find only incrementally more helpful than plain chapter numbers.

Other:

If you though these factors were subjective before, buckle up. This is where opinions just start to become white noise – this is also why publishers can churn out so many different cookbooks without cutting into the sales of any particular cookbook: everyone, ultimately, is looking for something different from a cookbook.

  • What is the format of the book? While it’s not a deal breaker, I usually prefer hardcover cookbooks. It’s way easier to keep them open to the right page, which means that I have to flip through the book with cookie dough covered cookies much less often.
  • Does the cookbook have an index? The index is going to be your best friend if you have a certain ingredient in mind or a particular recipe you’re looking for. Otherwise you might waste valuable cooking time just flipping through your book.
  • Is the text large enough to read? You want to make sure that the text is large enough to reference on the go. Was it half a cup or a whole cup of chicken stock? If you have to stop what you’re doing to squint your way through the whole recipe again, it’s really going to slow the process.
  • Do you have all the equipment you need? I don’t know about you, but I don’t have mandolin (Don’t know what this is? Neither did I), onion googles, or bench scrapers. So Sara Moulton’s Home Cooking 101, while it met all of my other criteria, wasn’t the best fit for my kitchen.
  • Are these recipes something you would actually make? There’s not a more subjective qualification than this. I’m notorious for collecting cookbooks that I’ll never use just because I saw one recipe that I might make for a holiday dinner (but really I forget long before that day comes) or the photos were especially well composed. So honestly ask yourself: Do the recipes sound delicious to you? Or just mediocre? Look at the cook time. Do you have an hour and a half to dedicate to prepping dinner? Or are you going to get all your ingredients set out, realize the monumental amount of work you have in front of you, and then order a pizza?

What else do you look for in a cookbook?


Originally published in San Francisco Book Review.

Tell Me Again: Rewriting History’s Most Popular Literary Works

This year sees the publication of Howard Johnson’s Shylock is My Name and the premier of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Stories like Homer’s Iliad, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and countless Shakespeare plays refuse to remain confined to their original form: whether it be the lines of a book or those spoken by actors. Some stories enter and exit our lives like characters walking across a stage. They say a few nice words, but they don’t linger long in our minds. Others take up residence in our hearts and are carried with us forever. What sets these stories apart, and why are readers so reluctant to let some stories remain in the past?

“The ancient stories that survived [did so] because they keep speaking to us,” said Madeline Miller, author of The Song of Achilles, which was awarded the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction. “They held up a psychological mirror, and I think we just keep seeing ourselves in it.”

It is widely agreed that these stories are retold because of some inherent truth within them that applies to readers’ lives, regardless of the passage of time, but narrowing down just what that truth is can present more of a problem. According to Beau North, author the 2015 retelling of Pride and Prejudice titled Longbourn’s Songbird, much of this can be found in the complexity of the original work and the vastness of the characters and setting. This complexity inevitably leaves certain aspects of the story undiscovered, allowing another writer the opportunity to explore it further. Austen’s works are a prime target for retellings when considering the huge network of character motivations that are largely driven by social expectations of the time. Meanwhile, stories like Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid particularly inspire retellings, Miller pointed out, as they originated as an oral tradition that were passed from generation to generation and were given new life through each retelling. Another motivation for writers is the desire to share their passion for the subject with others: both Miller and North hope that their interpretations will make the stories more accessible to modern readers and spark new interest in the original works.

The challenge for the writer is how to present a well-known story with originality, while still staying true to the initial version.

“For me it always felt like a dance,” said Miller. “I was stepping toward the myths and then I was stepping away. When I would get stuck, it was either because I was too close to Homer or I was too far from Homer.”

Oftentimes the writer will choose to tell the story from another character’s perspective, to allow for a new interpretation of the same events. Miller and North both use this tactic in one way or another: Miller retells the events leading up to, and during, Homer’s Iliad from Patroclus’ perspective, while North utilizes a variety of character perspectives to investigate motivations that were only alluded to in Pride and Prejudice.

“I’d always planned for Longbourn’s Songbird to be Pride and Prejudice told from Colonel Fitzwilliam’s point of view, but that quickly got away from me,” said North. “The more detailed I got in backstory, the more I wanted to broaden that scope to include the other characters.”

Inevitably, characters will differ from the versions found in the original texts as the writer brings their own ideas of them to light. For example, in Miller’s version of events, Achilles is portrayed much more sympathetically than Homer’s Achilles, while Agamemnon is shown in a more critical light. These character traits were the result of Miller’s interpretations of the characters beyond what was explicitly written in the Iliad. She saw many of Achilles’ flaws as having originated from his trusting nature and his youthful inexperience. On the other hand she felt that “Agamemnon got off lightly in the myths,” and people tend to be more willing to accept his poor leadership and egotism solely because he is the head of the army that is eventually victorious.

North also navigated her character through a tight channel somewhere between Austen’s and her own interpretations. While many of the characters largely retain their original qualities, she explores their motivations in more depth, such as with Elizabeth and Georgiana Darcy. However, with other characters, it proved necessary to deviate further from the original to tie together plot points and modernize certain elements of the story, which is set in the post WWII American South.

“The biggest departure from canon in my story is Charlotte Lucas’ character,” said North of Elizabeth’s prudent friend who North portrayed as a lesbian. “When you remove the necessity of an advantageous marriage from the equation, how does [Charlotte] show us that folly of ruthless practicality? How does she come to settle for Mr. Collins?”

Similarly, plot points may deviate in delivery, but, ideally, will still closely reflect the original. For Miller, the key was changing not only the perspective from which the story was told, but also shifting the form from an epic—which focuses on the heroics, death, war, and fate in Achilles’ story—to a lyric mode—which instead focuses on friendship, daily life, and love.
Both Miller and North encourage readers to return to the original texts if they enjoyed the reimagined versions, so they can also experience the characters and stories that were so vibrant they demanded to be told again. Miller even suggests listening to Homer or Virgil, rather than reading them, so as to experience the stories as the ancients would have.

“These ancient poems were meant to be shared with everyone,” said Miller. “They were stories that were retold and retold. They were meant for everyone and I wanted to honor that in the way I wrote the book so that it could be for both audiences: audiences who knew the myths and audiences who were new to the myths.”


Originally published in San Francisco Book Review.