Money in one’s possession is the instrument of liberty; money one pursues is the symbol of servitude. That is why I hold fast to what I have, but covet no more.

—Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Les Confessions

Nostalgic Reads

My copy of Tarzan, gone.

When I moved to Montreal at the end of the nineties, I left my books (boxes and boxes of them) in a storage space. Because of some bad planning and incompetence on my part, they stayed there too long, and when I finally went back to get them they’d been given away.

Up until that moment I still had every book I’d ever owned: the first Tarzan book I’d ever read (Tarzan and the City of Gold), my second copy of Moby Dick (I’d lost the first in study hall in ninth grade and had to replace it), all the fantasy series I’d plowed through, my university textbooks, everything. Because these copies matched my visual page-memories, I could find things in them in a flash. They also had my notes and drawing. So losing them felt like losing part of myself and was devastating.

Well early last year I was on Abebooks and wound up searching the titles of a few of the books I’d remembered and had been thinking about. (It seems like me wondering about Steven Brust’s later Vlad books was maybe the starting point.) Anyway, as I searched, I realized that if I put some effort into it, I could probably reconstruct segments of that lost library. Anyone who’s seen me and the Beav in used book stores knows that setting either of us loose in the stacks with a project rather than simply to browse is asking for trouble. Browsing happens slowly shelf by shelf and takes time, but a project is going to be pursued monomaniacally and with the kind of detail only people operating outside the ordinary limits of time and hygiene can muster.

Aware of the danger—and of both the realities of my budget and the possible foolishness of the project (I mean, do I really want all these books again after all this time?)—I’ve kept things in check so far, buying in bursts to make sure I’m still interested in going further and starting with a lot of the inexpensive Bantam paperback fantasy series I’d collected and that haven’t maintained a strong following, which makes them easier to find with the exact cover I owned.

The good (or is it bad?) news is that project has been a great success. I cannot really explain why it’s so exciting to see all these books find a place on my shelves again, but it absolutely is. Looking at them sitting there for the first time in twenty years, I feel like I’ve found old friends. I remember where I was when I read them, who was nearby as I did, what was going on in my life, and how I felt. And I also think I remember the books themselves: the plots, the characters, the worlds and the relationships.

Obviously though this raises questions because memory is fallible. So are the books I have in my head—and some of them are fundamental and character-shaping documents of my childhood—are these books the same books printed on the pages I can now pull off my shelves and flip through? Or over time have these stories shifted in memory? Or, going further, have I remade them by using them as part of the process of making myself?

I truly don’t know and I’m curious to find out. So, having run across the phrase “a year of nostalgic reading” recently in a passing comment on a web page and finding it inspiring, I’m thinking about dipping into these books now and again as a break from other things. When I do and when I log them, I’m going to tag them so that I can pull them together in a series. My starting point and first tagged book is Split Infinity by Piers Anthony, which I’ve already started. This first foray into the past makes me think memory’s glass is in fact warped and rose-colored and in very interesting ways.

À suivre…

The Goblet of Fire

I found this movie pretty boring, but again, there’s so much going on in the book that there’s barely time to hit the essential points. Nuance and color isn’t going to survive even a two and a half hour adaptation.

I will say this though: there is joy in the source novel stemming from Harry’s struggles and successes in the early stages of the tournament which make its tragic conclusion—Cedrick’s death—that much more devastating. Worse, learning that the Death Eater impersonating Mad-Eye Moody has been cheating for Harry, which suggests the early joy was a cheat as well, feels like betrayal. It’s a bitter discovery to add to the already devastating finale.

In the movie however, the tournament struggles to make any sense at all, and so, to hope that subtleties of character and situation will survive is foolishness through and through. But with these subtleties gone and the tournament reduced to three action set-pieces—they’re all race-or-chases— the early joy goes out the window too. The thing is that I see that joy as the last truly pure, truly childlike happiness Harry experiences in the books, and I missed it not being there.

All that said, I have two principal take-aways from the movie:

  1. Robert Pattinson is a Hufflepuff. This explains everything.
  2. The scene in book in which Harry deciphers the second clue by bringing the golden egg to the pool in the prefects’ bathroom seemed to me when I read it to be very much—and very awkwardly—about Harry’s nakedness. Watching the movie, I now know that I am not the only one to have understood this to be the case, and for the record, I’m relieved to know that I am not the only one. Because who wants to be a perv?

The Prisoner of Azkaban

Columbus’s first two films offer a realist portrait of a magical school. Cuarón’s film offers a magical portrait, both gothic and expressionistic, and that makes all the difference.

The cost of the elevation in style is paid in plot, which is here reduced to something like a sketch that’s so vague I wonder what someone who didn’t have the original novel in their head would make of the thing. But ultimately, the source novels are so densely plotted cuts were inevitable. At least here they are made in the service of something other than distribution constraints.

However beautiful this film, it marks the point in the series where my experience of the novels and their adaptations diverge. The choices this movie makes don’t coincide with my narrative interests. So I wound up slightly annoyed with what was and wasn’t shown and deeply annoyed with how this affects our sense of the characters and their relationships. (Lupin is better than this!)

This annoyance is a problem I’m certain is only going to get worse as I work through the remaining films.

Harry Potter: Stone & Secrets

So after finishing the books, I decided to watch the Harry Potter movies. They’re fine but not interesting enough for me to log one by one. If I tried, I’d just run out of things to say.

As far as the first two movies go, they do a great job of showing the stories and characters in live action, and the choices they make address limitations of space and the absence of discursive narration. They are also very much movies for children and are satisfied with capturing the most basic sense of the excitement of going to school to learn magic. (School would be awesome if we were learning magic!) All of this is fine, but I’ll never need to see either of them again.

One thing has been settled though: as I was reading the series I kept wondering how many of the movies I’d seen, and now I know I had only ever seen the first. All the images I had in my head of the others came from the trailers.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

The Half-Blood Prince ended in tragedy and the first full-scale battle in the war that’s been brewing since The Goblet of Fire. This book picks up with a brilliant set piece: an elaborate plan aiming to move Harry to safety at the exact moment his protections there fail and he is able finally to move secretly because of his age. The chase that ensues is frightening and exciting. The patronus that drops from the sky only a few chapters later, interrupting a wedding and sending Harry, Hermione, and Ron into hiding sets the pace (breakneck) for the double quest that will follow: find the horcuxes and find the hallows.

Because it’s the final book, I was ready to make judgments as I read and they came fast and fiercely. I don’t like Ron: he’s a brat and the fact he turns out okay is because his family is great and that sticks. I also find it very hard to like Harry: he pouts and is too quick to judge and I kept feeling like he’s a bit like a best-case-scenario jock who could easily go wrong. What saves him is that he loves his friends and tries (when he’s not pouting) to do right by them, even when it costs him dearly. Hermione is my hero and I love her through and through. Ron should count his lucky stars she even puts up with him, much less loves him.

Snape is a genuinely noble and tragic figure, damaged by the angry emotions and choices of youth, marked by them (literally and figuratively), but strong enough to see those choices through to the end, and he saves the day because of it. Dobly, the free elf, risks everything to save the boy who set him free, dying for it, but also saving the day. And then there are Neville and Luna, my two favorite of the students at Hogwarts: when Neville, in an echo of the Chamber of Secrets pulls the sword of Gryffindor from the sorting hat and destroys the final horcrux—like Snape and like Dolby, saving the day—my heart sang.

So now the series is done, and I feel like Harry in the final chapter: older and apart and looking back on a past time. (Incidentally, the bit-like-a-jock Harry didn’t go wrong, he went bourgeois-boring. Which is fine. But still, surprising.)

All said, it’s a genuinely great series of books and I’m really happy to have read it simply for the pleasure of it. But I’m also glad because I’ve discovered that most of my students have read them as well and they love them and so we now share a wealth of references and analogies that we can use to discuss and make sense of things in class. And most importantly, because my students read the books as kids, references to them don’t read as “teacher trying (and necessarily failing) to be cool.” They are simply a shared, fun and useful reference allowing better communication.

Grace à dieux

Ozon is a filmmaker I’ve followed consistently if not carefully for twenty years. So I was surprised to see him making a film about the sexual abuses of catholic priests. There’s so much opportunity for audiences to confuse homosexuality and pedophilia that I was surprised to see him wandering into the morass. And yet, he’s made his film, and I’ve seen it, and despite myself, I think it’s quite extraordinary.

Why does it work? Because he’s brought to bear every single aspect of his previous filmmaking in order to make it work. This is a film made by a melodramatist, who uses his sensitivity to form and to the moral implications of form to construct a non-melodramatic account of a group of victims’ discovery of the possibility of and their decision to pursue political-legal action. It is a film made by a sexually playful and campy gay man, who shows the temptation and the fall of a priest who could have loomed as a queer monster but who instead appears in his final scenes to be a disturbed man, an ill man who has a same-sex (rather than heterosex) object of desire. It is a film made by an actors’ director who is working with artists cast exactly into the correct roles.

The film is long. It is troubling. It is even difficult. But most of all, it is moving.

Crazy Rich Asians

A pure romantic comedy and gloriously, wonderfully done. Pure pleasure and without guilt.

Michelle Yeoh is, as per convention, rock solid and compelling. And Henry Golding is like ice cream. Double-scoop please.

Which means that Ms. Rachel Cho can get out of my way, or she can get cut. (And no, you do not want to test me Miss Ms. … )

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

This book is Snape’s and Dumbledore’s, and it ends like it began: with an exchange of words that do not mean what they seem to mean, but only exactly what they say. In both cases, the novel invites us to misunderstand Snape’s meaning and intentions, and to a large extent, we don’t really have any choice. The narrative, which is Harry’s, takes the apparent meaning as real, and if we refuse it, it’s from instinct and from faith in the integrity of an underdog.

In the long stretch between Snape’s two damnations, Harry stumbles along damaged and, yes, angry, although less so than in the previous book in the series. If in that book growing up meant that Harry needed to discover and to accept that things would not work out the way he wished regardless of his feelings, in this book, it requires he learn that his enemies are people rather than monsters, a simple, fundamental and difficult lesson. The device Rowlings contrives for permitting this discovery—and for motivating extended, digressive flashbacks—is the pensieve, a bowl for collecting and reviewing memories that immediately became one of my favorite magical objects of all times ever.

I’m writing this post after finishing The Deathly Hallows, and so, I can say without question that the Half-Blood Prince—the book but also the enigmatic off-stage Snapes—has won my heart. Here the dangerous, mysterious adult world that first came knocking on the door of Harry’s childhood in The Goblet of Fire and then came crashing through it in The Order of the Phoenix, takes on a life of its own, independent of the narrative we’ve been reading, and sets Harry’s story into perspective, revealing its purposes and limits. Here, Dumbledore has a story. Snape has a story. Voldemort has a story. And we discover for the first time that the actual tragedy of the series—and yes, the intersecting stories of these men, especially when viewed from the perspective of the boy caught at their crossroads, is indeed tragic—is that the men’s stories cannot be reconciled, cannot be resolved, and so they cannot permit anything like a happy ending to emerge. At most, we can hope for resolution.

This is the hole the final book must get out of without being able to get out of it without failing.

Aquaman

Unexpectedly, incredibly, this film has jumped to the top rungs of my informal list of favorite superhero movies. Visually and narratively, there’s no predicting what comes next. It’s insane. Also everyone is swimming all the time. And Aquaman talks to the fish. Patrick Wilson is present.

In short, this film is hitting a lot of buttons I didn’t realize I had but that, now that they’re activated and flashing green, I cannot deny.

I’ll be watching this one again.