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As much as he loved visiting Hogwarts, something bugged author Lev Grossman while he worked his way through J.K. Rowling's fantasy epic.
"I found it really odd that Potter never seemed to have read C.S. Lewis growing up. No one in his world seems to have ever read any fiction at all, in fact," Grossman says. "I don't think Hogwarts library even has a fiction section."
So when he created his own realm full of young magicians — beginning with the 2009 hit The Magicians and continuing with his new sequel, The Magician King — Grossman took the opposite approach.
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His characters, a bunch of gifted math nerds from Brooklyn, are obsessed with a Narnia-esque land called Fillory, are well versed in Potter lore, and speak not in faux-Old English, but in 21st-century teenage patter: "This place is magic as balls!" hero Quentin Coldwater exclaims toward the beginning of the new novel.
"Part of the idea is writing fantasy as an American, it seemed wrong to have characters speak with this correct English diction," Grossman says. "But I also wanted to take a mythic story and not treat it like a myth. I wanted to treat it like a novel, where the characters are psychologically distinct and self-aware."
The result has been characterized in review shorthand as "Harry Potter for adults" — and the stories are certainly not G-rated, with torrid inter-magician affairs and bloody magical shootouts. But ultimately the books are just great fiction about the most literary of subjects: growing up, not fitting in, and finding purpose in life.
"It's a relatively recent trend to divide literature into genres, and some are OK for academics and some not," says Grossman, who has degrees from Harvard and Yale. "As recently as Shakespeare, it was OK to populate literature with spirits and monsters. Then we decided that literature should resemble real life."
Grossman will speak Saturday at 12:30 p.m. in the auditorium (Building 1, Second Floor, Room 1261). -- Tim Elfrink
Inspiration came in the form of exhaustion for author Adam Mansbach. One night he spent two hours cooing and reading to his 2-year-old daughter Vivien before she finally closed her eyes.
Mansbach, who has written the grown-up novels Angry Black White Boy and The End of the Jews, went to his computer and wearily hammered out a status update: "Be on the lookout for my forthcoming children's book, Go the Fuck to Sleep."
He was kidding. But all of his Facebook friends thought the idea was genius. So Mansbach wrote the thing. The little manuscript reads like Goodnight Moon as written by Lenny Bruce.
To Mansbach's surprise, publisher Akashic immediately agreed to produce the book as a colorful hardcover. Go the Fuck to Sleep — which is adorned with a warning that it should not be read to kids — hit number one on the New York Times best-seller list. "What parents have told me," Mansbach says, "is that it put into print what every parent has thought. The book is very honest. That's why it's successful."
So successful, in fact, it has spawned a league of imitators, including the forthcoming If You Give a Kid a Cookie, Will He Shut the Fuck Up? When the author of that title contacted Mansbach in hopes of a positive blurb, Mansbach became angry enough to, well, write another children's book.
"Give me a fucking break," he says now. "Stop ripping my shit off. Get your own idea."
Mansbach will speak Friday at 6 p.m. -- Gus Garcia-Roberts
It would be easier to begrudge Téa Obreht's extraordinary success at such a young age if her writing weren't so damn good. Her debut, The Tiger's Wife — published last year when she was just 24 — is the hauntingly beautiful tale of Natalia, a young Yugoslavian doctor struggling to understand her grandfather's mysterious death.
The novel is a mesmeric mix of wild imagination and Obreht's own bizarre biography. Born in Belgrade in 1985, she moved with her family to Cyprus when Yugoslavia began falling apart in 1992, then to Egypt, and finally to the United States. It isn't surprising, then, that Obreht's native country — now splintered into six nations — is the backdrop for her first novel. But what makes The Tiger's Wife truly special is how Obreht doesn't rely on the war to create mood or drive the plot; instead, she layers the story with Balkan folktales like that of "the deathless man" and the titular tiger's wife, weaving them into and out of the grandfather's life like golden threads.
The result is magical. Obreht — a devotee of Gabriel García Márquez — paints tiny towns terrified by an undead stranger or a feral beast as vividly and convincingly as cities in the ever-tightening grip of genocide. "There is always some anxiety when you're dealing with something that is heavily publicized, like a war, with collective memory," she says. "I wanted the freedom to deal with the subject matter in my own way."
Obreht will speak Sunday at noon in the auditorium (Building 1, Second Floor, Room 1261). -- Michael E. Miller