Apr 112019
 

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.

Mar 302019
 

Harry and his friends grow up and become part of a larger world’s story in the way they had not been up to this point. The shock of this damages Harry, and he’s angry and difficult to be around this book. Other characters step to the foreground, especially Hermione, my favorite of the “Golden Three.” Of the others, I love Neville, and I keep rooting for Snape, even though he makes it very hard. (But then, Harry makes it hard as well, so I can make the effort for Snape.) Ron continually gets on my nerves.

The plot here is dark and menacing and operating on a level larger than Dumbledore’s Army seems to understand or to be able to handle. I read in constant fear of discovering who would be next to die, hoping all the while that it would not be Neville. (Please not Neville. Please.) By the final scenes in the Ministry I was reading fast enough to feel my eyes ache from the strain. The words were gone and I was there. It was that good.

Still, reading the book exacted an emotional toll. I work with Dolores Umbridge, and there were days I could only read a few chapters before I had to put the book down and do something else. I’m not a fiction writer in part because I can’t imagine, understand or bear evil in the everyday. I’ve tried. And so petty meanness and casual sadism catch me unaware over and over and hit me with a kind of fresh hurt that I’ve never been able to grow numb to. So the horror of finding it here in Hogwarts was a shock over and over again and it gave me nightmares if I read too much at a time.

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 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.

Dec 162018
 

It’s been awhile since I’ve read something, liked it for the first few chapters, but then chapter by chapter liked it less and less. This book is like that.

Johannes is not a pleasant or endearing character. His brother is, but he’s very much off-stage for long stretches of the action. And story-wise, the book is essentially a series of self-contained “bits” or set pieces that are wrapped up in the end with a few long final chapters suggesting just enough character growth to justify a happy ending.

None of which is necessarily a problem. Lord knows I like plenty of deeply risible claptrap. And this book is better than that.

It’s just that it’s a book that plays to a particular taste. You’re either going to eat up the constant winks, nods, puns and, most importantly, Johannes’s Victorian Gothic posturing or you are going to find them dropping like bricks, one by one and page after page, onto your last nerve. 

Dec 152018
 

The second book in The Broken Earth trilogy shifts the narrative in ways that I found disorienting for the first half of the book.

In part this was because—as was the case in The Fifth Season—narrative point-of-view is so central to the effect the book is aiming for. Again the principal point-of-view is a disorienting second person and it’s used to put identity—who is speaking? to whom?—and my efforts to “identify with” on centerstage as questions. By the end of the book, I’d finally clued into the fact that in being constructed as challenges, these concepts were also being thematized.

I was also slow to catch on to the new narrative stakes. Narrative lines established in the first book seemed to have faded into the background here without me having a good sense of what was taking their place. With the point-of-view holding me at arms length from the characters, my uncertainty about the direction of the story initially made for shaky (pun intended) reading.

Only once I was past the mid-point had I settled back in enough to catch on to the true source of my problems: the scale of the story had changed dramatically. What I’d understood as a of coming of age fantasy—a young country woman is brought to town, educated, discovers she’s important—wasn’t. Or at least it wasn’t simply that familiar story and resemblances to it were a distraction. The stakes here were social, historical and philosophical and the narrative was reaching for and attempting to establish the cultural resonances that support strong allegory.

I’ve already read The Stone Sky as I write this, so I should probably go ahead and admit that this second book in the series remains my least favourite. But seeing how successfully the final book arrives at the deep allegorical force this book is building toward makes me admire this one for all the work it does to make that final triumph possible.

Mar 132018
 

I read this book in a rush, caught up in the world and the characters. This is great fantasy writing.

I also really like that nothing here is a revamping of Germanic or Nordic mythology and that this isn’t a world of wise, white men helping young white men discover themselves and save the world. That’s a shift from the norm and it feels right.

Narratively, this book takes all kinds of risks with point-of-view and plotting. Yet somehow, by the end it pulls everything together. It’s a feat of strength and makes the book extremely satisfying.

Feb 132017
 

Sunday wasn’t a great day, and as the afternoon wound down, I flipped over to Netflix to see if anything would catch my eye. For some reason, I clicked “play” on this movie which had never before tempted me in the slightest.

Looking back now, it’s hard to reconstruct exactly how it happened that I sat through it to the end, but I did, and as a result, I can say without reservation that Mortal Instruments is the biggest mess of a movie I’ve seen in ages. It’s gasp-inducingly bad.

And yet, there is Jonathan Rhys Meyers in black leather and rat tail braids. There is Lena Headey doing nothing but lying there asleep in scene after scene without ever getting a chance to wake up and kill her kid or fuck her brother. And there is Godfrey Gao in briefs and a dinner jacket mixing and mingling at a party. And there he is again striding smartly across an empty set in a fitted black robe with a cavernous hood that isolates and sets off his perfect profile. Also, there are vampires

These things alone should, by all rights, have made this movie wonderfully “bad” and carved it out a place in my magical gallery of guilty pleasures, regardless of what else was going on in the dreadfully silly (and terribly cast) main plot. Yet they don’t, they can’t, the rest is just too awful.

Which is tragic.