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.

Apr 082019
 

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.

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.

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.

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 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.