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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

If Harry Potter were written by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Carver -- you probably wouldn't want your kids to read it -- but you might like it.

Grossman, Lev (2009) The Magicians  New York:  Penguin.

Opening lines:  "Quentin did a magic trick.  Nobody noticed."

When we were in Boston this summer, my friend Laird recommended I read this book.  Since I couldn't recall Laird ever recommending a book to me before, I bought it.  Then I read it.  Ever since then, I have been trying to figure out what to make of it.

This is the story about a kid who gets to realize his dream, walk through a door into another world, go to a school of magic, and learn to be a magician.  It sounds like Narnia and Hogwards rolled into one. Except there is more to it than that.  Quentin Coldwater is as brilliant as Hermione and in some ways as courageous as Peter Pevensie, but he is also a teenager and is as filled with as much angst, insecurity, and moral ambiguity as many modern teenagers.

And when he steps through the portal in an alley and ends up in a school of magic, the air is sweeter and the world is magical, but there is also a lot of hard work and studying to be done to master magic, and friends are not easy to come by, and although the world is beset by an unnamed peril, stopping it is not as easy as it is for Harry, Hermione, and Ron.  Quentin makes some mistakes, some big ones.  He has some good teachers, but none of them have the wisdom of Gandalf or Dumbledore.  He also finds himself to be one of the best pupils.  He learns his lessons really well.  He falls in love, or at least thinks he does.  He also starts partying too much and eventually is unfaithful to his girlfriend.  He becomes disillusioned and even the chance to explore another new world brings him only to a place of greed and desperate danger.

Make no mistake, this isn't the sort of book you could teach in your school.  You couldn't keep it in your classroom library either, not even in the special shelf behind your desk  There is too much vulgar language, sex, and people treating each other really badly for that.  And in fact, most of you probably wouldn't like it yourselves (I am still not sure if I liked it, though I am glad I read it.).  But, then again, it might be the sort of book you might want to read.  Quentin faces harder, more grown-up struggles than Harry ever did, and he falls further into despair than Frodo and Sam ever did -- but when he triumphs (and it isn't a complete triumph) there is some powerfully realistic hope there.

And this might be the sort of book that you could give to a former student who over the years has become a good reader and a friend.  And even if neither of you are sure you like it, you might have a really good conversation about it.

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