Friday, June 8, 2012

Ray Bradbury and Dustfinger

Current Reads: Inkheart by Cornelia Funke
                        The View from the Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockmeier
                        Mountain of Black Glass by Tad Williams

Current Writing Projects: Thesis material, currently a story titled "A Young Man with Grassy Arms"

Ray Bradbury passed away this week. This is probably the second or third time I can remember an author whose works I love to read passing away (the last was Brian Jacques, and if I remember correctly Madeleine L'Engle was in there somewhere as well). What makes this even more sad, scary or possibly frightening is the fact that in my large stack of thesis reading material this summer there sit four books of his short stories for me to read, study and subsume. I don't believe in coincidences, especially where authors are concerned. I sat on my couch for a good fifteen minutes trying to tell myself that this most definitely was not in any of the Bradbury stories I had read.

But it should have been.

Fahrenheit 451 and Something Wicked This Way Comes are two of my favorite novels. 451 even surprised me by being one of those books I enjoyed despite having to read it for school. While I love reading, often my school requirements just don't make my mental cut for what I want to keep around. This novel did. Maybe it was the subject of keeping books alive in a society that does not want them but needs them. Maybe it was Montag's choice of Ecclesiastes for his book. Whatever it was, this book stuck with me.

Concurrent with this pair of Bradbury revelations (his death and my involvement in one of his stories by dent of reading so much of him this summer), I am reading Inkheart by Cornelia Funke. This book is one of those YA books I have been told for years to read, but never got around to until now. From the first chapter, I was pulled in. Not only is it well-written, but I am blown away by Funke's skills at characterization and her translator's skills getting that characterization across (the original text was German). (I also enjoy the epigraphs Funke includes at the start of each chapter; there's even a curse for book thieves from a monastery in Spain.) While the whole cast of characters is brilliantly written, the one that stands out to me from his first appearance on the page is Dustfinger. Great name, right? Even in a literary realist story, that name rocks. It has weight all on its own. And from the first, we recognize that Dustfinger has weight himself. Here is how Dustfinger is described in his first appearance:
"...the stranger was little more than a shadow. Only his face gleamed white ... The rain was falling on him, but he ignored it.... the stranger's stillness had infected [Meggie]. Suddenly, he turned his head, and Meggie felt as if he were looking straight into her eyes.... But the figure outside the house was no dream.... the man emerged from the darkness of the yard, his long coat so wet with rain that it clung to his legs.... Dustfinger smiled at her. It was a strange smile. Meggie couldn't decide whether it was mocking, supercilious or just awkward." (Inkheart 2-6)

It's that smile that gets me. In the next few paragraphs, Funke gives a little more physical description for Dustfinger, but that smile creates a complex character by itself, even if it is presented as the impression of a child. That smile shows up again repeatedly in the book, as do some of Dustfinger's other complexities -- his guilt, his talents, his preferences for darkness and fire. One thing I am learning by reading this book is how wonderfully complex a few little words can make a character. I hope my characterizations are half as good as those in Inkheart.

(Another reason I enjoy reading about Dustfinger is that Paul Bettany plays him in the film version, and while I have yet to see it, hearing Paul Bettany's voice reading these lines in my head has helped me get a better grasp of the character, especially his inflections. I want to start picking actors whose voices I can use for my own characters.)