The Nature of a Hero

Image of Batman and Robin shadows on a sign. Image used under Creative Commons.

Just before our daughter joined us a couple of months ago, I finished Part I of the novel that began brewing in my head during a train ride about two years ago. It began as an interesting idea about a dystopian future scenario, and blossomed from there for a year or so, percolating slowly in the back of my head before it became a workable idea. Then came the mind-map. Then the plot outline. And, finally, I finished the rough draft of Part I this Fall. If all goes according to plan, now that I’ve let it sit for a while and I have an idea of what adjustments I need to make to the overall plot, I’ll pick the manuscript up again next week.

I was procrastinating picking it up again, though, I have to be honest, because the weight of the project feels overwhelming at times. Sometimes, when a project begins to feel that way, you have to shelve it temporarily until you can re-discover what made you passionate about it originally. I have managed to re-discover that, fortunately, a couple of times over the last week or so.

Its no secret that I tend to be a sucker for police procedural dramas. Probably because I’m convinced that I could never write in that genre, and so I respect those who do that much more. Karen and I watch The Closer together, and were just finishing the second disc of season 6 late last week. In one episode, Brenda is forced to give a suspected murderer immunity for his confession in order to catch another murderer. During the confession, the first suspect admits to a brutal double homicide, but Brenda and her team have to release him because of the immunity agreement. At the end of the episode, Brenda finds a loophole in the immunity agreement clause about police protection for the suspect. She and her team drive him to his home, a notorious neighborhood for gangs. The other gang members know that the suspect has broken their rules by the murders he committed. Brenda and her team leave the suspect alone with the gang members, who are obviously about to administer their own form of justice.

This sparked conversation with Karen and myself. Initially, I commented that I didn’t think I had a problem with it, because the suspect was unrepentant of committing the worst of crimes (one of his victims had been a little boy), and thus justice was being carried out, despite the system.


Over the weekend, Karen was watching an episode of CSI (who knows which sub-series…this isn’t one I watch with her). She expressed that she was troubled by one of the characters, because that character had an opportunity to save a criminal from falling to his demise in an episode, but let the criminal fall instead. She expressed that this was done with a similar motivation as Brenda had in leaving her suspect behind in the episode of the Closer. Justice, in its most succinct and complete form, was done. The law, however, was not upheld. This bothered her.

I remember the Batman being confronted with the chance to let the Joker fall to his death in the Dark Knight. Despite knowing that the Joker was the most terrifying and calloused of homicidal maniacs, Batman tried to keep him from falling.

Of the three examples, Batman seems more the legitimate hero to me, because he acted under the assumption that any life, even that of the Joker, is worth saving. This presupposes that no human being is beyond redemption…that we all deserve one more chance. As noted elsewhere by my fellow-blogger Katherine, Batman frequently acts under this presupposition, at the expense of himself and his own reputation (hence his decision at the end of the Dark Knight, in which he tells Gordon that he can be whatever Gotham needs him to be). This is acting counter to heroes who are functioning more as anti-heroes, such as Moore’s The Watchmen. Early in that graphic novel, Rorschach imagines a scenario in which the depraved public beneath his watchful gaze will look to him and cry for help, to which he decides, “…and I’ll whisper, ‘no.'” Rorschach has taken on the role of administering justice himself.

It seems that being a hero involves giving grace, acting beyond what normal individuals can do to preserve all life, trusting that the system will judge, and not taking it upon oneself to administer justice. That is the difference between a hero and an antihero, a self-sacrificial, mysterious savior and a vigilante.

The reason that this connects with my novel is that the nature of a hero is what I’m attempting to explore. Its a complicated question, but one that I’m passionate about, and, with these discussion points having been brought to my attention over the last few days, I’m ready to launch back into the manuscript now.

Being excited is a good thing.

Photo Attribution: Brett Jordan

A Review of “The Night Circus”

The Night CircusThe Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

“The Night Circus” began as a book club nomination, and is yet another example of why I love my book club, as this was likely not a book that I would have picked up to read on my own. Discovering that the author lives in an area with which I am familiar adds a degree of connectedness to the book, and the first 100 pages drew me into this quirky and unusual story so completely that I imagine one could hear the vacuum as I left reality. I remember sitting on the sofa with my wife, who was also beginning a new book, and reading nearly the first quarter of this novel in one sitting.

Which speaks to the aspect of “The Night Circus” that I think is its strongest, and that is the originality of the concept. This is the most original idea for a story that I have read in over a year, and that alone made the book difficult to put down, at least initially. Morgenstern introduces us to a magician and illusionist whose stage name is Prospero the Enchanter. Prospero, while in his dressing room in the theatre, is introduced one night to a daughter he didn’t know he had, and who has been left with him. The interesting thing that the reader learns about Prospero is that his illusions are not tricks of mirrors and distraction, but actual magic. We soon discover that there are many in the world who can manipulate various forms of magic, and that Prospero’s daughter is particularly gifted. So gifted, in fact, that an agreement is made between Prospero and a man we initially believe is his colleague or long-time friend (no spoilers from me here) for a competition, pitting their students against each other in a duel of magical skill that lasts until one of them no longer stands. Prospero’s daughter and her competitor, Marco, are unwittingly and irrevocably bound to this competition, unable to withdraw, having no choice but to complete the contest until only one of them survives.

Which is complicated by the fact that they fall very much in love with each other.

The circus, which appears without warning, is the venue for this competition. The circus only operates at night, opening at dusk and closing at dawn. It leaves as suddenly as it appeared, traveling around the world, and dazzling curious audiences with feats that could only be magical…and which, of course, are exactly that.

The issue with the plot is that it is its own worst enemy at times. It was around 100 pages from the end when it began to feel like a “love conquers all” story, which made me nearly not want to pick the book up again. And, in the end, it was a struggle to finish the book. Part of this is because explorations of magical illusions, tarot cards, and enchanting spells really aren’t my cup of tea. That said, the plot really did slow down in the end, although, to Morgenstern’s credit, it managed to conclude in a way that I found I hadn’t seen coming.

Morgenstern writes with the annoying habit of substituting commas for periods, creating run-on sentences that walk a thin line between being the signature style of a writer and a perpetual grammatical error. I’m not sure I decided on which it is, but it drove me to distraction throughout the novel, forcing me to stop and re-read sentences that sounded like a mash-up in my head. Which is a shame, because Morgenstern has a true descriptive genius in her narrative, invoking scenes in such sensory detail that I can still close my eyes and know what it would be like to walk through this circus. She quite deftly uses a technique of inserting the reader into the circus through short explorations of different tents at the beginning of each section of the book, walking the reader through what you see as you explore the circus, and combines these scenes with some foreshadowing that, on at least one occasion, was quite clever. Her dialogue, also, flows easily and has flashes of brilliance that caused me to stop and take note of the sorts of lines that you really have to digest before you can more forward.

Her characters are very well developed, and the reader has no issue knowing them at the end of the ebook’s 384 pages. Particularly, I found myself mourning their deaths, almost moreso than applauding their successes.

Perhaps a more substantive critique of the novel than stories about love and dark magic not suiting my particular palette, is that a theme never really develops by the end. Unless “love conquers all” is what Morgenstern was going for, she missed. Or she never intended a theme to be present. This, however, seems unlikely, as several potential themes manifest throughout the novel, but are never fleshed out into any complete thoughts. The closest I could get is that love empowers us to choose our own destiny over that which is written for us, but even that is shaky.

The novel would have been more satisfying had I been able to walk away with some sort of meta-message, but here it disappoints. If you’re interested in reading a debut novel that has achieved some popularity in popular circles, then “The Night Circus” might be a book you would enjoy. In fact, if you follow popular new releases, then you likely have it on your list already. If not, though, I’m hesitant to recommend it. I am, however, interested to see how Morgenstern’s career develops from here.

View all my reviews


Now that our Christmas tree and lights are up and twinkling their soft white glow into our apartment, combining with the fireplace to form the perfect atmosphere in which to engage Holiday festivities, I watched the Charlie Brown Christmas special Sunday night. I cannot properly be focused on the Holiday until I’ve watched it. It orients me, focuses me on the true Holiday and away from the consumer rush.

I hear that there is a replica of Charlie Brown’s tree that is most popular this year. I considered buying it…but that would be consumer…

I found something poetic in our Christmas lights this year. Actually, I discovered it last year, but didn’t end up posting about it.

I’ve always preferred top floor apartments for the privacy that they afford (and I always second-guess this decision each weekend when I bring groceries up four flights of stairs…but that’s a different issue). The advantage to the top floor is also that you can look out over the rest of the buildings and parking lots and see things. Right now, if I look out of our sun room windows, I see candles illuminating other windows, balcony rails aglow with white lights similar to our own, and Christmas trees shining back at me from windows all around, as our own tree is glowing behind unpulled blinds, there for the viewing of whomever looks up or in.

Normally, I always close our blinds at night. Most people do, I think. The fact that so many apartments here have chosen to not do so in order for their trees to be seen speaks to something. Its sort of like we’re giving that little gift to those around us at the expense of our privacy. “I’ve made this beautiful to look at…won’t you enjoy it with me?” There was effort involved in these decorations. There is something given up in leaving blinds open. It may be small…perhaps on both counts…but its symbolic. Symbolic of some of the substance of Christmas: giving up something that costs us simply so others can benefit.

Its small, like this post, but I think its significant. We’re only a little over a week away, after all, and I’ve watched Charlie Brown, which means I can now become properly sentimental.

Blessed Advent to you all.

Butterfly Effects

I have an issue with cigarettes.

The first time I tried one was in college, and I paid the price in a serious way (did I mention I’m asthmatic?) That was when I was younger and more…well, stupid. Now, I become really upset when I see people flicking their cigarettes out of their moving vehicles. I feel agitated when I half to walk through the cloud of smoke to get from one building to the next. It makes me upset. You may have the right to poison yourself, but you don’t have the right to give me a second-hand risk of lung cancer.

But I digress…

What I’m really thinking about here is how our actions have an effect on those around us. In theological terms, this is the concept that I am my brother’s keeper. In a less vernacular way of speaking, and to quote the bumper sticker that a psychologist I used to work with had on his SUV, “Your actions effect those around you. Be conscious.”

What I’ve increasingly found to be true is that things that I really didn’t imagine would have an impact on anyone other than myself, actually do. I discovered this to be dramatically true when I married Karen…suddenly I discovered that things that were innocent enough for me could have a very negative impact on her. All through our circles of influence, I see over and over how little things that we do in complete innocence ripple outward to touch our friends and loved ones.

A more recent example: When Karen and I were expecting, some friends gave us a particularly nice gift at a baby shower. That gift has since developed an issue, one that is covered under the manufacturer’s warranty. However, the manufacturer requires an original receipt for any warranty claim. This receipt existed in the form of an email, which our friends would have been happy to forward to us. Except that, last week, their hard drive crashed, and they didn’t have back-ups. They lost a great deal of data, as I understand it (a side note from someone who has experienced a catastrophic hard-drive crash myself: back up as though it were your religion). Also, they used their email as a POP account, so the message was deleted from the email server, and existed only locally on their now-toasted hard drive.

Thus, their perfectly innocent decisions to not back up regularly and to not use, for example, an IMAP account for their email, had an unexpected impact on us.

(Disclaimer: that was not intended as a guilt thing for my friends, whom I know will be reading this)

This sort of flies in the face of the Western concept of the freedom-loving, self-made, “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” ideology, in that it emphasizes that our actions do not, and cannot, exist in a vacuum. Whatever the decision, whatever the intention or lack of intention, others around will be effected, sometimes positively, sometimes negatively.

I’m not walking around trembling and over analyzing, though, as to how my choice to do laundry tonight might somehow have a butterfly effect on someone across the globe. I’m just saying that this has made me aware that I need to act more responsibly, and to consider how someone else’s day will turn out because, in part, of my choice to, for example, not stop by Starbucks during my morning commute.

Considering others is, after all, something we should all do a bit more of. It may have profoundly positive effect on all of us.

Photo Attribution: Cali4beach