Sunday, April 27, 2008

Kenders and Hobbits: Luck and Ignorance

109 pages into Dragons of the Autumn Twilight, the first volume of the Dragonlance Chronicles by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, I muttered "Oh Pul-eeeze" with full valley girl intonation. The traveling party of heroes, a mixed batch of a half-elf, a dwarf, a half-sized "kender" and humans, including brothers with very different values, traveled on a perilous quest to who-knows-where carrying magical items they didn't understand, avoiding water because comic-relief dwarfs are afraid of boats, avoiding the roads because evil creatures never before seen on the planet were blocking them and at page 109 found themselves in the deadwoods surrounded by spectral minions. "These are the spirits of men who gave their pledge to perform some task. They failed in that pledge, and it is their doom to keep performing the same task over and over until they win their release and find true rest in death."

At page 143 I came very close to casting the book aside in complete disgust as the heroes crossed a marsh of "deathmirk" where "strange eyes watched them hungrily".

The line between homage and rip-off is a fine one. The dead in the waters of the cave of Voldemort's locket (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) struck me as a tribute to Tolkein while the deathmirk in Dragonlance just felt like a lack of imagination. Still, by page 143 I was immersed enough in the lives of the characters (and on a plane where I had no place to cast the book in disgust) that I continued to read and read through the whole of the 1,200 page trilogy a few days later. After about page 150, Weis and Hickman seem to be convinced that readers are satisfied that the masterful Lord of the Rings has been acknowledged and then lead their characters through their own well-constructed plot. By the end I really enjoyed the series. I'd recommend it after the greats (including The Blue Sword, Inkheart and Narnia), but would definitely recommend it.
Dragonlance books includes a race called "kender" who are somewhat hobbit-like, being small, frequently overlooked and enjoying a good time. Unlike hobbits, kender are thin, love to travel and are curious about everything. Tasslehof, kender of these three dragonlance chronicles, is the "luckiest" character of the series, as are Merry and Pippin in Lord of the Rings. This makes me wonder if this is a matter of perception: all characters squeeze out of tight scrapes, are the others really any less lucky because they have specialized fighting or magic skills? or if the authors are pointing out some greater truism: "good things come to those that don't know better ."

When I was halfway through the series, The Mister revealed the identity of one of the characters. This revelation was a surprise to me, and did alter, ever-so-slightly, how I looked at that character for the rest of the book. Coincidentally, a sibling-in-law has been discussing the virtues and drawbacks of plot information over on Wuthering Expectations. Scroll down to the series starting with "A Watched Plot Never Spoils" and contemplate how much knowledge changes the reading experience.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Joy Luck Club

I just reread The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. I finished the book of intertwined mother-daughter tales while napping with The Mister this afternoon. I was sobbing so hard he awakened and tried to calm me down. I had to assure him it was "only a book" and I was almost done.
I didn't cry hard the first time (or two) I read Joy Luck. I read it in 1991 for my American Ethnic Lit. class and loved it. I played Amy Tan in our group presentation and everyone was amazed at how much I knew about it (I read the book, several popular reviews, and an interview with Amy Tan before I presented on it. Apparently effort and thought was as unusual in a "gen ed" class at a big university in 1991 as it is in a small college now). By sophomore year I had abandoned taking Chinese, but still knew enough to write characters on the board and explain most of the phrases. The book in general and our presentation in particular made me feel exotic and sophisticated*.

The next year the movie came out. I saw it with my mother with some trepidation; we both loved the book. We had been also warned it was a tear-jerker. We worried about what they could have done with a sweet book of eight plot lines to make it a Hollywood tear-jerker. We saw it and we cried shamelessly for almost two hours. Mom made Dad go see it with her a week later and cried even more.

I shouldn't be surprised that the book now makes me cry. Charlotte's Web never made me cry as a child, nor Anne books, nor L'Engle books and now I can't read most of any of them without weeping. Still, I was taken aback to be blubbering enough to wake my husband this afternoon. It could have been missing my grandmothers, loving my mothers, missing unborn Ewaldina and thinking I'll never become pregnant again and missing my youth when I thought I could be an English, Chinese and Biology major simultaneously and could write the character for "joy luck"**, but I honestly felt I was crying for Jing-Mei Woo and her sisters.

So, I don't know quite what kind of a recommendation to give this book. Some of it felt far more contrived and silly than when I first read it. I've aged enough to say with confidence that a few of the stories don't interest me much. But most are good. The combination is very good. And one makes me sob.

*Someday I must delve into how knowing anything of a language makes one (me at least) feel as if I have acquired a greater part of the culture than just a few words.

**The character for "joy luck" is not obvious in the book. I need to go find it. It was actually why I was reading the book this year.
Image from Amazon where you can buy this book.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Goldfinch Convention

When it wasn't sleeting today, at least 30 finches were hanging out near our house. Every perch on the finch feeder was constantly full (and fought over), the bush and railing near the feeder full (no hanging out clothes in my usual spot), and dozens took turns pecking at the dandelion leaves along our little road. We couldn't figure out exactly what they were up to, but a whole flock of bright yellow must portend something good, along with quick end to the Mister's expensive finch food.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Symbolic Lucky Birds

About a month ago I took my Vertebrate Zoology class to Pittsburgh to the Zoo, Aquarium and National Aviary. It was a lucky trip on many genuinely lucky fronts (I have a great class, the aquarium man wanted to feed the sharks and let the students pet them, the aviary guide wanted to show-off her trained penguin for us) as well as several avoidance of misfortune fronts (a major bridge was closed but we had a map, traffic was horrible because of earlier accidents we weren't in, we were hours late returning home but nobody whined, in rained all day but it snowed a foot the next day).

The cranes at the aviary, a good luck symbol throughout Asia and now most happily nesting at the DMZ prompted thought on personal vs. widespread bird symbolism. I'll agree that bald eagles are majestic and stunning but there is nothing peaceful about a dumb cooing dove. I associate hawks with soaring rather than war. To me, cranes are more comic than lucky, but I do have my own list of lucky birds.

1) Great Blue Herons. A prominent personal symbol in my life (which may or may not have been foreseen in a spirit guide card reading) and part of my totem, herons will receive a whole post later.

2) Turkey Vultures. The first time I lived near a flock of turkey vultures at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, I found it a bit disquieting. Here we have two or three "Vulture Trees" with ten to fifty vultures perched in each. Many evenings I'll walk home with the whole bunch circling above on the thermals. Over time, they've become a symbol of home and their recent return was a much more pronounced indicator of spring than the robins or the cardinals. Lucky vultures!

3) Jayhawks. For obvious reasons. Rock chalk! Go KU!

Felix Felicis

Reading about Felix Felicis, amazing good luck potion in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, raised several questions in my mind.
1) Are cats lucky? Felix and felic mean luck, are feline and felid of similar derivation?
2) What are your good luck potions? Food? Drink? Perfume? Pens? Lipstick?
3) Is feeling lucky really the same as being lucky?
4) Why did I spend so much of my spring break reading Harry Potter?