Mar 102019
 

After a hundred pages with the Muggles and at the Quidditch World Cup, we’re back at Hogwarts learning about the Triwizard Tournament. Although too young to compete as one of the three school champions, Harry’s name is selected by the Goblet of Fire as a fourth champion which obliges him to participate. School goes on, and the fourth year students are learning real magic now. Still, although we see them in class, their drama is no longer about being in school or being budding wizards. Instead, it’s clear that the school is a part of a larger world with its own larger dramas, and Harry, Hermione, and Ron are finding their way onto that larger stage. (The libelous tabloid reporter dramatizes their entry into this larger world by publishing stories about them. They enact it themselves by researching and practicing charms and hexes for the Tournament on their own.)

By book’s end, Harry—thanks to help from his friends but also through his own skills, resourcefulness and basic goodness—winds up standing with his schoolmate, Cedric (a Hufflepuff), at the end of the final Tournament challenge, agreeing to win together. They grab the cup simultaneously, and then, disaster.

Magically transported to a faraway graveyard, Cedric is brutally killed and Voldemort is reborn using Harry’s blood. Surrounded by Death Eaters, Harry and Voldemort duel, but Harry survives—through luck, yes, but also and perhaps most importantly through courage, resourcefulness and love—and at the last possible moment escapes to Hogwarts, bringing Cedric’s body back with him as he does.

The series has turned dark but, importantly, the darkness isn’t rot and it isn’t a darkness within the principal characters or situations. Instead it is a darkness resident in and arising from the difficulties of an adult world that the children of the school are inevitably discovering as they study, explore and grow up. This is a fantasy novel, so the darkness is incarnate, but this doesn’t change the basic structure or philosophical stance of the narrative.

At the end of this book, I’m genuinely interested in what the school will become and what role it is imagined to play in the unfolding drama. As it stands here and now, it seems very much like a bastion of admirable values and clear thinking where the best of people prepare (and help!) the young to step into their lives as good people. It’s a noble image and I wonder how it will hold up.

Mar 012019
 

Reading this biography, I realized that my knowledge of the people of the revolutionary and federal periods in American History is limited to the big names: Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, Jay, Madison and maybe a half dozen others. Webster knew many of these Bright Lights, but they flit by on the outskirts of his life, visible for a moment or two and then leaving the field to the less famous, many of whom are familiar to me only as names. I know nothing about who they are or what they did. In this, reading the book felt a lot like reading Miracle at Philadelphia (and what I imagined it’d be like to read about Irving Thalburg without knowing who Hawks or Joan Crawford were).

What’s clear despite my lack of context is that Webster was a very difficult person and could be quite unpleasant to be around. Kendall makes a good case that this was linked to mental illness—anxiety and obsessive traits— without making that argument overbearing. Instead, he gives the basic contours of Webster’s on-going difficulties and then takes them for granted as the context for his interpretation of his behavior. I can’t make any judgement of whether this approach is warranted by the evidence, but it is definitely effective.

My one concern is that it seems to me—and again I don’t know the evidence—that this consideration causes Kendall in some moments to mistake statements by Webster’s contemporaries, which seem carefully constructed to avoid provoking him, as endorsements of Webster’s view of situations. A good example is a letter from Madison cited to suggest he accepts Webster’s assertion that he was an originator of the Constitution’s ideas. My reading of the cited text is less generous than Kendall’s: Madison seems to be telling Webster who invented these ideas while attempting to avoid contradicting him overtly as far as his claim to be among them. There are other citations coming from correspondents I know less about that ring a similar tone to me. I have to trust Kendall but wonder if he’s not taking Webster’s side a bit too much.

Feb 232019
 

Sirius Black has escaped from Azkaban and word is that he’s out to get Harry. In school, there’s the usual competition around the house points and the Quidditch Cup and the kids are learning real magic now (“Expecto Patronum!”). But bubbling throughout is the other stuff: a prof keeps foretelling Harry’s death, Malfoy’s working to have one of Hagrid’s hippogriffs executed, Dementors are conjuring up Harry’s memories of his parents’ death and, worst of all, Ron, Harry and Hermione aren’t getting along.

In the final chapters, everything swirls together so quickly my eyes hurt from trying to read fasterfasterfaster. Scabbers—who I spoke about over and over with my brother, always in admiring, loving terms—is a traitor! Sirius Black, after spending ten years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, is after the rat—seeking vengeance, yes, but also to protect Harry. The new Defenses Against the Dark Arts teacher, appropriately named Lupis, is a werewolf. He’s also a friend of Sirius and of Harry’s father, and he’s also out to catch the traitorous rat. In the final scenes, Hermione and Harry step back in time, saving Sirius, saving Hagrid’s Hippogriff, and saving Harry.

These books are plotted like steam engines, but what makes them come alive are the characters who feel like flesh-and-blood creations. Snape especially remains a mystery. At this point, I can’t see him being any good at all, and yet, I’m rooting for him.

Don’t be evil, Snape.

Feb 172019
 

Two thoughts.

Despite what I wrote earlier, I remember skimming the first two books in this series over the course of a couple evenings in a friend’s home the summer of 2000. I also saw the first two (or three?) movies. Reading this book, I remembered a couple of the scenes. But now that I’m done and starting the third book, I’m excited. The rest are all new.

That matters because, second, Rowling is a good writer! In these first two books a world has been created, a deep problem set-up (which I can figure out nothing about beyond Voldemort is bad and is coming back), and a whole host of living and likable characters have been introduced. I like Harry, Ron and Hermione. I like Dumbledore and Mrs. McGonagall, and like disliking Snape and hope he won’t be a bad as he seems. Most importantly, the children here are doing their best and their blind spots are real, their fears understandable, the courage they find believable.

So I’m looking forward now to reading fresh for real. It’s exciting.

Feb 172019
 

I read the first of these books, A Darker Shade of Magic, a few years ago on a plane going somewhere. I loved it—and was unexpectedly horrified by the cruelty of life in White London—but I was also very much in the throws of my initial struggles with reading fantasy and science fiction. (More on that soon probably.) So I read it, loved it, put it aside and left the trilogy unfinished.

Eventually, maybe the following summer, I checked the second book, A Gathering of Shadows, out from the Bibliotheque Nationale and began reading it by the river. Its scope and focus had changed, the world and the problems it faced had become orders of magnitude larger and its opening chapters were near perfectly constructed. My own problems were, however, still frustratingly similar: 120 pages in, I decided that summers were better spent reading books I didn’t have the time for in winter because of the concentration they required and put aside this book unfinished. This on its own amounted to clear evidence of foolishness, stupidity and a deep illness of the mind and soul, but (or perhaps thus) it took time to work through and get over it.

When I did finally tear up the hedge—sowed and cultivated in grad school and then carefully tended during those tense years before tenure—that kept the science fiction and fantasy novels I loved out of the wondrous garden of Literature, the final two novels in the trilogy were near the top of the list of books I set out to read.

I loved the series. The world is complex but appealing, and the magical tournament of the second book was great. There is darkness running through everything though—literal and metaphorical darkness—and the costs of surviving it are high. People lose things and people are lost. By the end, I was sorry to be done.

Here’s the important insight that sorrow left me with though: the sorrow was about the people and their relationships. The characters had been sketched out in a combination of realist description and of magical traits and action that were at root metaphorical and the portraits that emerged were not simple cut-outs. Two men enter the story in love by divided by a break-up one doesn’t understand. Both are powerful and confident (but for different reasons), both are confused by the actions of the other, both need each other and try ineptly to find their ways back across their broken hearts and very concrete social situations. And their friends and family, good people but none of whom understand (or in some cases know) what has happened between them, wind up part of a fight and making things harder. When the two earn their relationship back, it was glorious and felt real. And this relationship was very much a side plot until the last book.

The other relationships were just as rich, just as complex and, in their variety, they what make the novel work, not the magical rivers, the overlapping Londons or bleeding but badass wizards. These relationships can be amorous. They can be friendly. The one between the two male leads is fraternal: a sad and ruined older man finds himself a villain, first against his will but then freely in order to do good, but in his rough and brutal way takes care of a younger man, equally powerful but naive, helping him grow to the point where he can survive after they have saved the world. And there are so many more people and relationships in this book. This is great writing and great imagining and I loved it from first to last.

Feb 092019
 

I grew up in a house that didn’t really listen to music even though I took violin classes when I was young and my sister played flute. The stereo I bought with money from my first job was the first in the house (that worked) and I didn’t know anything about what I liked or didn’t. At university, I learned to pick out basic chords on a guitar. More importantly, I took some introductory music theory classes taught by Suzanne Summerville, a teacher I adored and who invited me to study singing with her.

For the next few years, every semester, nestled in among all the history, math and political science I was taking for my very oddly constructed BA degree were the credited private lessons with Dr. Summerville. We met twice a week for an hour and I learned to make sounds on key and to work with an accompanist. I also sang in her university chorus and at recitals where she introduced archival music from her research. She was a specialist of the then much-less-known Fanny Mendelssohn (the sister of Felix) and for end-of-term juries, I always prepared German lieder—often Schubert, sometimes Wolfe—and American piano songs.

When I think back to my undergraduate studies, it’s those lessons that come first to mind because it was Dr. Summerville who, in our long rambling conversations about art and music, laid the foundation for what became my education. That she took me under her wing despite my utter lack of knowledge and extremely limited talent was a gift of love and I still wonder why she chose me to receive it. But then, she was a generous teacher, and I imagine I am not the only student who felt as specially chosen.

Anyway, I continued to sing casually after I left Alaska but stopped studying and no longer performed. Once I got to Montreal and moved into apartments with thin walls I mostly stopped singing completely. Instead I began to listen to vocal music—classical, yes, but also increasingly, and then obsessively, jazz. But recently classical singing has again become something I listen to often.

This renewed interest has roots reaching back years ago to when I was introduced to my first opera by a friend who offered tickets to see La Bohème at the Met Live in HD series downtown. I went and was astonished. Everything I loved about cinema and theatre were here fused with beautiful singing. I thought of opera as old-fashioned, maybe a joke and didn’t realize it could be so beautiful. I was overwhelmed and—to my surprise—reduced to exultant tears. Since then I’ve watched a half dozen of the Met projections, but no one else I know is more than hypothetically interested. So it’s been easy to skip buying tickets in favor of doing things that family and friends like and we can do together.

But I’m interested in opera! I enjoy it! So it annoys me that I don’t know anything and haven’t made an effort to see more. So finally, during winter holidays this year, I did a bit of research and decided that over the course of the year I was going to make a not-haphazard tour of a bit of the opera repertoire using the Met’s Apple TV app. My thought is to have something like a regular Sunday-afternoon opera. That’s my thought anyway.

Levine’s book is an introductory reference and one of the books I’ve ordered to help me figure out what to watch. It’s light and I read through all the framing materials in the early part of a morning. But the lists of works and brief contextual information is useful for where I am. I’ll have it at hand for the next few months I think.

Feb 042019
 

The world doesn’t need me to say anything about the Harry Potter books. In fact, when I mentioned to my brother that I was going to read them along with my twelve-year old niece who is right obsessed with them, he suggested I was probably the only person on the planet who hadn’t yet. When I told him I hadn’t seen the movies after the first two, I’m not sure he knew what to say and just told me the third was his favorite.

All of which is to say that I’m reading these books more-or-less fresh and without much to influence the experience other than ambient cultural knowledge. So what do I think?

This first book is definitely for children, which makes it a quick read, but the characters are well done and the tone genuinely happy. I laughed aloud more than once. So it’s good, and I’m definitely looking forward to the next.

Jan 312019
 

An extraordinary collection. Leach’s voice is allegorical and ironic, knowing yet naive, more poetry than prose, and cagey.

Near the middle point in an essay called “God” we learn that the people’s words—not the animals’—are like stones, hard to swallow and heavy and they say “God” and “God” and ”God” and it is too much to bear. God’s words are outdoors. They are the bat, the frog, the animals, the woman walking among them in the night.

Leach speaks his language, ornamenting it with a glorious, exuberant English, and in full-throated peals, hymns praise for a world.

But that is not all. Pandemonium is here too and a night sky and so very very many of the fireflakes that tug at a mind or a soul, fueling caprices. And this great bear we see is made of stars. And the beast feeding on jellyfish clinging to the sand is a star. And you? “You be the moon.”

Do you want to be? Because you can be, if you want to be. Here in these essays.

Be the moon.

Jan 302019
 

When I watched Glenn Close win her Golden Globe in January, I learned that the film The Wife was adapted from a novel of the same name. Googling, I learned it was by Meg Wolitzer, the author of The Interestings and the editor of last year’s excellent Best American Short Stories. (The “excellent” isn’t a given in the short story series–or at least, what counts often doesn’t match my taste. Wolitzer’s matched mine closely.) 

I ordered the novel and, reading it, realized that I like what Wolitzer does: careful, serious development of characters within relationships defined by history, and all of this handled without affectation or self-importance. She writes novels, and I’m going to read more of them.

Jan 132019
 

One of the books in this series showed up in a “best of” list on Ars Technica and it looked interesting enough that I ordered the first in the series. It showed up recently but I’ve been busy and it sat on my desk untouched.

Then today, after a long six days of work with another starting up again tomorrow, I saw it and decided to give it a whirl. Ten pages in, I’d already laughed out loud hard enough to get choked and have to get some water.

The set-up is simple: Murderbot is shy and doesn’t like being around people because they get awkward and that makes him awkward and sorting through the layers just isn’t worth it because ultimately he doesn’t much care about their problems. He’s downloaded hundreds of hours of shows and he’d just like to watch them in peace. Unfortunately he’s got to go through the motions and do his job, otherwise someone’s going to figure out he’s hacked his governor module and is a free agent.

So these humans he’s with on this mission? They wind up in trouble on a faraway planet and they aren’t terrible and he kinda likes them. So he helps them survive the murderous plots of a rival survey group, and they in turn wind up helping him.

The whole thing was light funny and more-or-less perfect for a quick read on a lazy Sunday by the fire. On a more serious note, the few glimpses we have of the the mysterious larger context dominated by the Company and the rest of the economic and political powers gives plenty of hints that this is a story happening in the world that Google and Facebook built: a capitalistic panopticon become simply “the way things are.”