Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Hardy Horowitz

The Return of the Native
by Thomas Hardy
Recommended Ages: 12+

By now, my Harry Potter fan friends must be wondering about me. I've been recommending a lot of books lately that are not what one would expect in answer to the question, "What should I read after the Harry Potter series?" And this book by one of the imposing figures of English literature is just such a surprise answer. But I submit that it's a most appropriate book for the purpose. Why? Because, for starters, it has magic in it. Concerned parents may want to observe an "occult content advisory," in fact; for one of the main characters is suspected of being a witch, to the extent of having a hat-pin stuck into her arm by a superstitious neighbor. And later, the same neighbor makes a waxen effigy of the same lady and thrusts needles into it while performing a creepy incantation.

But that's not actually what I meant when I started to say that this book has magic in it. I had three other examples in mind. First, I drew great pleasure from hearing the award-winning audiobook narration by Alan Rickman, known to every Potterhead as the actor who played Professor Snape in the movies. And although Rickman has as distinctive a voice as any actor of the silver screen, there were times during his reading when I forgot it was he. Can it be less than magical when an actor as noticeable as Alan Rickman disappears in a role—or rather, a whole cast of characters?

My second example is Hardy's evocation of the grim, unchanging, sparsely populated Egdon Heath, which he conjures so vividly throughout the novel (and especially in its first chapter) that you may find it hard to believe, afterward, that no such place exists. Egdon, all but a speaking character in its own right, was based on a combination of several places Hardy knew of, embellished and immortalized as part of the equally fictional English county of Wessex in which several of Hardy's novels take place. Part of what makes this trick work is the interrelatedness of the settings of Hardy's books, so that even without seeing a map of this all-but-real fantasy-land, you can visualize the heath's location relative to such Wessex points-of-interest as Casterbridge, Weatherbury, Sandbourne, etc. Basically, Hardy has rearranged the whole southwest of England, renamed the places, and created an environment so convincingly real that one is shocked to be unable to find it in the atlas.

Thirdly, there is that which Prof. Dumbledore admitted to be magic beyond all that they do at Hogwarts: music. Shortly after Thomas Hardy's death in 1928, English composer Gustav Holst came out with an orchestral piece called Egdon Heath, honoring the place so vividly evoked in this book. Here is a recording of that piece, which lasts about as long as it takes Alan Rickman to read the chapter that sets the scene. It's playing on my computer's speakers as I write this. I almost think that if you listen to Holst's piece while you read Hardy's chapter describing Egdon Heath, you may look around on reaching the end of both and find yourself in a strange, dark, peaty landscape of thorn trees, furze, and lichen, the rim of the surrounding horizon broken by strange mounds and barrows.

As to what happens in this lonely, subdued, remote landscape—where some who live there feel trapped outside the flow of life, while others who have left it are drawn back to its savage beauty—well, that's where recommending this book as a supplement to Harry Potter becomes a stretch, to say the least. This book is not a supplement to anything. It is, rather, one of the great books of modern English lit, on which things like the Harry Potter series are at best a gloss. It is the sort of tragic romance in which the romantic bits of its human characters come into conflict with the immovable, unchangeable, anti-romantic character of the landscape, and the landscape wins; therein lies the tragedy. It is a story about how the permanent conditions of human nature triumph over every spark of originality. It is about something that suggests magical (or at least pagan) ideas, because it is older than history; while it may actually be in the business of crushing the magic out of people.

To put these general hints into more concrete terms: The Return of the Native is about what happens when the golden boy of Egdon Heath—the young man who was voted "most likely to succeed in the outside world"—comes back from a glittering career in Paris, disgusted with his cosmopolitan life, homesick for the beloved heath of his boyhood, and determined never to go back. Unluckily, this young man—Clym Yeobright by name—falls in love with a fascinating young lady named Eustacia Vye, whom Hardy describes in almost as much sensuous detail as the heath itself. "She had pagan eyes, full of nocturnal mysteries," he says, for example. You would think someone like that would fit right in among the barrows erected by "dyed barbarians," and feel at home amid the local customs in which Hardy observes "fragments of Teutonic rites to divinities whose names are forgotten," which "seem in some way or other to have survived mediaeval doctrine." But young Eustacia isn't cut out for the rustic, socially retired lifestyle of Egdon Heath; her fondest dream is to live in Paris, the center of the fashionable world. Imagine what happens when the lad who loves the heath, and would rather be anywhere but Paris, marries the girl who hates the heath, and would give anything to go to Paris. Perversely, part of what brings them together is the very thing that will tear their marriage apart.

Or one of the things, rather. There's also a little matter of the man who married Clym's cousin Thomasin—an innkeeper named Damon Wildeve, whom Hardy is describing when he pungently writes: "To be yearning for the difficult, to be weary of that offered; to care for the remote, to dislike the near... This is the true mark of a man of sentiment." More simply put, Wildeve only marries sweet, gentle Thomasin because he fears losing her to another man. Before and even during their courtship, however, he has dallied with the fiery Eustacia; and after losing her to another man, he desires her even more. Add to the crucible an older woman (Clym's mother and Thomasin's aunt), who disapproves of both unions and inadvertently provokes Eustacia's vehement dislike; to say nothing of the fair-figured but demonically tinted reddleman—a dealer in red dye whose trade was dying out even at the date of this story—whose name is Diggory Venn. To give measure for measure, the reddleman has loved Wildeve's bride before and during their courtship, and goes on loving her after their marriage.

Do you think you can see where this is going? Well, you don't. You have no idea. The accidents and incidents on which these characters' fates turn are so cruelly perverse, so devilishly coincidental, that what someone does with excellent intentions often brings about calamitous results; and when their motives are bad, the results are even worse. Half of the characters I have described above die horrible deaths, and one of them (perhaps the only altogether admirable person among them) survives with the heartbreaking conviction that he is to blame for it all.

As in his other books, Hardy garnishes the main course of his story with a whimsical flavoring of salt-of-the-earth, local-color characters, such as the old "grandfer" who always boasts about what a dashing young soldier he once was; his cowardly, superstitious fool of a son who is silly enough to believe, even at age 31, that he will never survive to manhood; grouchy old Timothy Fairway; and so on. But then even these minor, seemingly comical characters, show themselves often enough in a tragic light, from Susan Nonesuch's business with the wax image of Eustacia to her sickly son Johnny, who innocently blurts out the words that destroy Clym Yeobright's peace of mind. One especially memorable minor character is Charlie, the youthful servant of Eustacia's grandfather. His puppy love for Eustacia adds a humorous, not to say mildly sensual, note to the episode in which Eustacia engages in cross-dressing as a stratagem for meeting Clym. After Eustacia meets her grim end, Charlie's heartbreak proves to be nearly as moving as Clym's.

So, finally, you might ask yourself at the end of this book: Did the heath punish these people for trying to leave? Or were they undone by discontent combined with sentimental delusions and forbidden desires? Is the heath an uncanny place, or is it rather a microcosm of how the world irons out, or mows down, the uncanny people who stick out of its smooth conformity? Is it perhaps neither a magical place to escape to nor an unmagical place to escape from, but rather an example of the inescapable forces that seal magic out of the world? The nature depicted upon Hardy's heath would abhor a witch or wizard, or anyone with an ambition to challenge or change the world. The sense of this is, I think, what makes the tragedy in this book particularly crushing. And the fact that Clym Yeobright finally commits himself to a slow, humble, lonely course of challenging and changing what he can, lends the last page of this book the very essence of what is meant by the word bittersweet.

by Anthony Horowitz
Recommended Ages: 12+

Alex Rider, Britain's leading fourteen-year-old spy—more or less James Bond with zits—has survived a lot in only a few fast-paced months. He has been gunned down by an assassin and lived to tell. He has blown up a luxury hotel in outer space. He has even survived a feature-film adaptation that flopped at the box office. And now, in his seventh action-filled adventure, Alex has splashed down in Australian waters and become a guest of ASIS, the down-under intelligence agency that wants him to do for them what he has so often done for Britain's MI6 and, most recently, America's CIA. What better cover could a spy ask for than to be a kid? In this case, it should be even easier than that. Alex only needs to look like a dirty, dentally-challenged Afghan refugee kid to lend credibility to the cover of the grown-up spy who is supposed to do the real job. All he has to do is keep his mouth shut and act stupid. Doesn't sound like too much work, right? And the clincher, ensuring that Alex will accept the assignment, is that the grown-up spy in question is his godfather—the person who knew Alex's parents the best—and the last person to see them alive.

So, of course, Alex signs on. And, of course, the mission proves to be more of a test of Alex's survival skills than as advertised. For the people-smuggling gang Alex is supposed to help Ash infiltrate, is really only one small part of a vast network of evil—indeed, the world's most powerful criminal organization. By sheer luck, Alex finds himself at the center of a plot to kills tens of thousands of innocent people. Although he is outnumbered, outmuscled, outgunned, and outmaneuvered by a villain of insane fiendishness, Alex is the only one who can stop a tsunami of mass destruction and death. And just to make it extra hard, he has been betrayed by someone within ASIS. The bad guys saw through his cover from the word Go. All they have to do is wait for him to fall into their hands.

And fall he does, time after time. This is the one where Alex gets forced into the ring of a no-holds-barred blood sport in Bangkok, held up by commandos in a sinister toy factory in Jakarta, chased between the decks of a cargo ship, and bundled off to a high-security hospital where his organs will be harvested for transplant. Besides a few gadgets and an occasional hand from a friend, the only advantages Alex has working for him are his compact size, his lightning reflexes, his towering nerve, and brain made for rapidly designing hairsbreadth escapes out of materials that would have left MacGyver thinking, "In my next life, I'll always make sure to have a wormhole at my back."

Somehow he survives all this long enough to join a team of paratroopers in a (literally) eleventh-hour attack on the oil platform where a bomb that will change the world is nearing the end of its countdown. But could that be the end for Alex? Even if he survives the mission, he swears he's through with the cloak-and-dagger stuff. But we're not fooled. For there are already two more books in the Alex Rider series: Crocodile Tears and Scorpia Rising.

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