Reading Log: February-March 2023

Reading Log: February-March 2023

8. A Wizard Alone by Diane Duane

Re-read, except sort of not.
You see, Diane Duane rewrote the Young Wizards novels and this is the New Millenium edition, updated from the original book which was originally published in 2002.

Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series began with So You Want to Be a Wizard in 1983 and were published over the course of twenty years. Nearly three decades later, she revised all nine books in the series to correct continuity and timeline issues and to update the technology for today’s young readers.

This volume A Wizard Alone might have the most substantial and meaningful changes. You see a main character in the novel is an autistic boy. And when Duane wrote it she had done her research and it was good for the time. But by the time she came to rewrite it, she had received a lot of feedback from autistic readers and realized that some elements were problematic.

I really wanted to see how this book had changed. Especially how the portrayal of autism had changed.

Overall, I was pleased by the changes. (Yes, FYI, I do have some personal connections with autism. My sister was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome as an adult — before the DSM-V dropped that diagnosis and rolled it into the autism spectrum diagnosis. Also, two of my children now have autism diagnoses. And they’ve read these books– so yeah how this is handled matters a lot to me.)

In the original novel I think Duane was doing the best she could with the information she had at hand to depict the internal life of an autistic person, but we know much more now than we did when the book was first published. It was especially problematic that at the end Darryl is magically cured of his autism as part of the successful resolution of his Ordeal. I vastly preferred the new ending when Darryl realizes that he has the power to edit his own genetic makeup and change that part of himself and he decides not to do so because autism is part of who he is. 

I do wish the audiobook would also be updated because that is the version that is accessible to my child who is both dyslexic and autistic.

I love the Young Wizards series–it’s one of the best juvenile fantasy series out there– and this novel in which Nita is dealing with the grief over her mother’s death is especially poignant to me. I love the character of her therapist, Millman, who turns out to have more to him than appears. I love that in this story it is really Darryl, the autistic wizard, who is really intervening for Nita rather than Nita being the one doing the intervention. Nita has become lost in her grief and it is her connection with Darryl that helps her to break out of her depression and isolation and learn how to find the joy of work again. She is still sad and missing her mom at the end, but she is no longer paralyzed by grief, no longer shutting Kit out, and no longer trying to parent her father and younger sister. Order has been restored to her family. 

Kit’s journey in this story is still a little less satisfactory to me. The way he gets lost in Darryl’s inner world still bothers me a bit. I think it tries to capture the sensory and emotional overload of autism, but it still feels a little off to me. As much as I disliked the book overall, I thought the Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime actually described the sensory overload and paralysis in a more convincing manner. 

Darryl is my favorite character in this book. His heroic strength and deep abiding joy are wonderful. He is at once a heroic knight holding the besieged castle against all odds and a clever trickster outwitting the Enemy at his own game. He is the strongest young wizard we have encountered so far and I love that Duane gives that distinction to a neurodivergent kid. He is courageous and upright and good. He makes goodness, sheer unadulterated goodness, amazingly attractive. Much more attractive than evil. (Take that, John Milton!) 

Nita’s younger sister, Dairine, doesn’t get much play in this volume, I guess the role of upstart genius is being taken over by Darryl. But I do love the incident where Nita sends her bed to Pluto. And there is a really touching reconciliation scene between Dairine and Nita that is the sort of moment that epitomizes why I love Young Wizards: the magic is great and wonderful and perhaps my favorite magical system, but the books endure because of the strength of the relationships among the characters and especially because of the very positive way they portray both the Callahan and Rodriguez families.

also two other books in the same series:

8. Wizard’s Holiday

Nita and Kit try to take a holiday, but of course, they find a wizardly challenge they need to help with when they get there. Not nearly as much time on the beach as they expected. This isn’t one of my favorite books in the series, but it definitely has some fine moments. I think on this reading the ending is less confusing–or maybe that got tidied up in the rewrite?

9. Wizards at War

This story reminds me a bit of C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra, it’s the story of a non-human species’ Choice, an Eve who has to decide whether to follow the One or to listen to the blandishments of the Lone Power. But in this case the planet has already been overshadowed and it seems like all is lost. Except that suddenly there is an individual who has the ability to change the course of history for her planet. So maybe she’s more like Mary than Eve? Still on the second tier of Young Wizards novels, but an enjoyable read.

11. The Netanyahus by Joshua Cohen (read along with Close Reads podcast)

The beginning half, which is primarily academic novel had some funny bits. It took a definite downhill turn with the self mutilation of daughter Judy. And then kept sliding down down down down.

By the end I very much disliked this book. It felt just cruel and abusive and nasty. Basically, the novel lost me as soon as the Netanyahu family entered the scene.

In general I don’t love slapstick and I don’t love comedy where people are hurt; but I figured I’d give this novel a chance and now I’m rather regretting it. And the cleverness of the writing and the bits that were funny early on just makes me like it less after getting through the sordid ending. Blech.

I don’t like it when authors treat fictional characters badly and it just pushes it to another level of bad when you mix fact and fiction — the way Cohen makes Bloom into a fictional Reuben Blum, but treats the Netanyahus as historical figures.

I think even in historical fiction an author has a duty to the truth and when writing historical people has an obligation to tell their stories faithfully to the best of their ability. But here even if the details are true and the family did behave in this terrible way, and everything happened precisely as Cohen tells it, then it is extremely lacking in charity and kindness to skewer them, to air their dirty laundry. It feels like nasty gossip in a magazine you find at the grocery store checkout lane.

If Cohen had anonymized the Netanyahus as much as he did with Bloom then at least this would be a work of fiction and not slamming real people. Even then I still wouldn’t really like the story, but it would just be an unpleasant story about unpleasant people. It feels like Cohen has made me a party to his personal petty grudges and I don’t like the emotional manipulation.

11. Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather

Really excellent historical fiction. Set in the French colony of Quebec in the late 1600s, a time and place I know very little about.

The protagonist is a 12 year old girl named Cecile who was born in Paris but doesn’t remember France. Her father, Euclide Auclair, is an apothecary and physician to the Governor of Quebec, Count de Frontenac. Her mother has died a few years ago. Cecile is a thoughtful and pious (but not overly, annoyingly pious) girl who takes care of her neighbors and her widowed father, knitting socks for a boy who is lonely and neglected, feeding a poor disabled man. She loves her father’s patron, the Count and the elderly bishop Laval ( aka, the first bishop of Quebec, Saint François de Laval, who was canonized by Pope Francis in 2014.) She has many friends and acquaintances around town, including the shoemaker and other people about town loves visiting the nuns in the local convent, lighting candles in the church, celebrating Christmas and hearing wonder stories of saints. She also loves the day when the ships from France arrive after the long isolation of the winter months.

There are many vivid and loving descriptions of frontier life and of the deep faith of the early French Canadian Catholics. Cather wasn’t herself Catholic, but in this novel –and in Death Comes for the Archbishop– she portrays the faith of early Catholics in America with a depth that rings true and which I have found very inspiring.

Another one of the stories she tells is of Servant of God Jeanne Le Ber, the recluse of Montreal, who was the daughter of a wealthy merchant who withdrew from society to be a hermit, building herself a cell behind the altar of the church of the Congregation of the Sisters of Notre Dame. Our heroine, Cecile, counts among her close friends Pierre, the man who had formerly hoped to marry the recluse Jeanne and through him we learn some of the more intimate details of Jeanne’s story.

Cather’s descriptions of Quebec and the Canadian wilderness are breathtaking. She describes the smells, the sounds, the look and feel of the air. I felt like I was there. I was fascinated by the details of Cecile’s housekeeping and her father’s apothecary shop, learning about the foods they eat, the medicines they use, all the textures of daily life.

This novel isn’t heavy on plot. It’s more episodic and focused on the rhythms of life. Think Lark Rise to Candleford or the Little House novels, though this isn’t a children’s novel, despite the child protagonist. If anything it’s about the shift from the old guard of original colonists like Cecile’s father, the Count, and the old bishop, who still think of themselves as French, to Cecile, Jacques’ and Pierre’s generation who think of themselves as Canadians.

12. The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coats

A novel about a slave boy, Hiram Walker, who escapes via the underground railroad but then returns to save his foster mother and the woman he loves. Hiram is the son of the master of the plantation and has a complicated relationship with his father and his white half-brother. He also has a mystical power of being able to move through space, going from one place to another which is somehow related to delving into his deepest memories. This power is called Conducting and it’s a power that the protagonist shares with Harriet Tubman, who teaches him how to use his gift. It’s hard to say one likes a story about the brutality of slavery, but it was very well written and insightful and it had a redemptive arc.

Overall, what worked best in this book was the language and how Coates uses it to develop the protagonist’s interior journey as he grapples with his sense of self and the way institutional slavery colors all of his relationships. The language is lyrical and Hiram’s inner world is convincing. Coates makes one very interesting linguistic choice that really worked well: instead of calling himself a slave or even enslaved, the protagonist refers to himself and his fellows as the Tasked. Fascinating how replacing the familiar word makes you reconsider the premise of slavery — even if you didn’t think you needed to rethink it– and see everything in a different light.

I also appreciated that Hiram’s coming to maturity included his coming to respect and support the personhood and separate interior life of the woman he loves. It takes him some time to get there, but eventually he comes to accept that her inner self is different from his and that she needs him to love her enough to let her be free to make her own choices– that if he tries to hold her too closely, he will lose her. The relationships aren’t quite as masterfully drawn as those in Toni Morrison’s masterpiece, Beloved, but it hardly seems a fair comparison to make.

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  • I can’t believe I haven’t read this novel of Willa’s! Thanks for the review. I need to go read it now. I love Willa Cather forever! (except The Song of the Lark – horrid stuff — don’t waste your time and pretend she didn’t write that one, haha). 🙂

    • I’m glad for the affirmation about Song of the Lark. I got a little into it and got bored and never finished it. It wasn’t nearly as captivating as her other books. Now I won’t worry about missing something I’d have got if I’d stuck it out.